Friday, June 26, 2015

Inside Out Review

I love Pixar's movies as much as anyone else. Even though I liked Brave, their last three movies were subpar. We may possibly have that opinion because we'd been spoiled by their previous amazing titles such as WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 and have come to expect similar quality films. Pixar's latest movie, Inside Out (2015), has brought a renaissance in the quality of movie that we've come to expect from their whimsical and emotional stories and characters.
Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is a happy, hockey-loving 11-year-old Midwestern girl, but her world turns upside-down when she and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move to San Francisco. Riley's Emotions -- led by Joy (Amy Poehler) -- live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley's mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. However, the stress of the move brings Sadness (Phyllis Smith) to the forefront. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently swept into the far reaches of Riley's mind, the only emotions left in Headquarters are Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy and Sadness get help from Riley's old imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind) as they try to get back to Headquarters. Without the full range of emotion, Riley begins to suffer even more emotional pain which begins to have detrimental effects on her personality.
Pixar is notorious for their innovative stories and creative settings. Inside Out was no different. There are effectively two stories going on; the one with Riley and her parents, and the one about the emotions inside Riley's head. Both are interesting and affect on the other. The setting is highly creative and frankly a bit complicated. It's an indication of superior storytelling to present a unique and complex world with specific rules in a short amount of time and in such a way that even the very young audience members can understand it. Here's a trailer which does a remarkable job if showing how part of this imaginative world works in just two minutes:

As a psychology major, Inside Out fascinated me. While the world within Riley's head is full of brilliant colors and whimsical characters and places, it stays pretty accurate to how the brain functions, albeit in a metaphorical way. Psychologiests and other experts were consulted so the writers could make the way Riley's mind works scientifically accurate. For example, it is believed that short-term memories made during the day are converted into long-term memories during sleep. As Riley goes to sleep, the Emotions send the short term memories they've created that day down to long-term memory. A major theme in the story is that being happy is good, but no one can be happy all the time. It also explores the idea that experiencing a full range of emotions, including being angry, scared, or sad, is not only normal but healthy. Inside Out doesn't become preachy by any means, but it does thematically address aspects of emotional and psychological health that are frequently overlooked.
The character of Riley is going through a lot of changes. She is uprooted from her familiar home and moved to a place very different from what she is used to. Riley is experiencing all the anxieties and problems of being the new kid at school. She is growing up and maturing beyond some things she valued at younger stages of her life. And to top it all off, she has the pressure of trying to remain happy in order to show support for her parents when she is clearly unhappy. These are things anyone can relate to, and like many other Pixar movies Inside Out amps up the emotions and really get to you. It's very likely that you'll cry during this movie, though possibly not as much or as quickly as you did seeing Up.
Pixar as always boasted stellar animation, and Inside Out raises their already high bar. The Emotions have a subtly bubbly texture to their skin. Originally the bubbly texture was just supposed to be on Joy, but due to the difficulty of animating this unique design it was scrapped all together. But when Pixar's Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, saw it he loved it and insisted that all the characters have it. This caused the technical staff a painfully larger amount of animation work and impacted the budget, but the result is amazing and gives the characters a warm, fuzzy look. There's even some neat things done with lighting, not the least of which includes Joy glowing whenever she gets excited, which makes light dance around objects and other characters around her.
Inside Out is inventive, magnificently animated, emotionally moving, and is a return to the high quality of movies we expect from Pixar.  The cast couldn't be more perfect, especially Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith; they vocally embody Joy and Sadness with inspiring perfection. The many themes the movie tackles combined with emotional intensity and commentary on mental health makes Inside Out seem like a therapy session where everyone ends up crying and hugging each other. This is the kind of movie we want to encourage Pixar and other studios to keep making. I highly encourage you to see this in theaters, and get a copy of when it hits home video.

Osmosis Jones features characters inside of a body to help it function on a biological level, whereas Inside Out featured characters inside of a mind to help if function on a psychological level. Can you think of other movies featuring characters making a body function like these examples? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jurassic World Review

I maintain to this day that Jurassic Park is one of my all time favorite movies. It is still the best dinosaur movie out there. I was ten when I saw it in theaters back in the day and it was so scary to me then that I had to see it twice before I actually saw the whole thing; I kept covering up my eyes. I was elated to hear about the new Jurassic World (2015) along with countless other enthusiastic fan boys. While it didn't quite live up to the greatness of that first Jurassic Park, it perfectly catered to my nostalgia for that beloved movie.
Twenty-two years after the original Jurassic Park failed, Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond and run by the park's operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). After ten years of operation and visitor rates declining, in order to fulfill a corporate mandate, a new attraction is created to re-spark visitors' interest; the vicious and intelligent Indominus Rex. When the massive creature escapes, it sets off a chain reaction that causes the other dinosaurs to run amok. Now, it's up to a former military man and the park's Velociraptor expert and trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to use his special skills to save Claire's nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Grey Mitchell (Ty Simpkins), as well as the rest of the tourists from an all-out prehistoric assault.
Contrary to popular belief, Steven Spielberg, the director of the first two Jurassic Park films, did not direct Jurassic World, but acted as executive producer just as he had for the third film. Director Colin Trevorrow either took a lot of advice from Spielberg or he managed to replicate Spielberg's style, from the way the camera moves to the gradual rolling out of the big effects. There were many parts of the movie that felt a lot like Jurassic Park which will placate the many fans' nostalgia for the original film. There are dozens of references to the original Jurassic Park movie both subtle and overt. Make sure you watch for them because it made me so happy to see them.
There's a decent cast in Jurassic World. None of the characters are particularly deep, nor do they do anything entirely unexpected. Claire is this corporate, unfeeling ice queen that only seems to see the sales numbers and is completely, intellectually removed from the animals featured in the park she runs. She even refers to the dinosaurs as "assets", as if they were products, not life forms. Owen is also not deep, but is a whole lot of fun. Chris Pratt usually plays comical, goofy characters. While Owen has a couple of humorous lines, he basically serves as this manly tough guy, not unlike Indiana Jones. Owen and Claire bounce off each other really well and have great chemistry. They and other characters aren't very deep, but the whole cast is likable and are at least somewhat relatable.
Jurassic Park had this highly interesting theme of control; we try to control our environment, control is an illusion, life finds a way, etc. I thought Jurassic World would play on that theme, especially since the word "control" is used at least a dozen times in the first twenty minutes of the movie. It does play on that theme a little bit, however Jurassic World was more about consumerism and corporate excess, for which the Indominus Rex was the thematic embodiment. We as consumers are surrounded by wonder and yet we want more, and we want it bigger, faster, louder, and better. In Jurassic World the Indominus Rex is a genetic hybrid animal which was designed based on a series of corporate focus groups. That twisted mutation of nature says something about our greed as consumers and about the desire for profit we see within corporate excess. The Indominus Rex represents that desire left unchecked and it demands to be satisfied. This theme is further illustrated by all the brand names and corporate logos seen throughout the park. Claire represents the corporate excess, her nephews represent consumers who want bigger and better, and Owen represents the ideal harmony between balance the two. This was best illustrated in a scene where Owen and Claire are inspecting the Indominus Rex's containment habitat. Claire explains "Corporate felt that genetic modification would up the 'wow' factor." Owen ingenuously replies, "They're dinosaurs. 'Wow' enough." There also a subtler theme of "those who do not stop evil are supporting and encouraging it," which I also appreciated.
Jurassic World ended up being a great action adventure movie. There were plenty of scares, tension, and surprises. The action and fight scenes were phenomenally well choreographed. The camera moved steadily through high energy scenes without resorting to that irritating and sloppy "shaky cam" gimmick and still captured all the movement in such a way that you could always very clearly tell what was happening. There were surprisingly few jump scares. A lot of the surprises took the form of growing dread. For example, there's a scene where Grey and Zach are in the back of an armored truck with its back doors open and a velociraptor in pursuit at top speed. It's not a question of a surprise attack, it's not a question of will it attack, the raptor is going to attack within a few seconds and they can do nothing but watch it get closer and closer. There is lots of tension and it makes for an exciting movie. It's still PG-13, most of the implied gore takes place off screen, but this still might be a bit too intense for younger audiences no matter how much they want to see a dinosaur movie. You might end up taking your kid to see it more than once just so they can see the whole thing as was the case for me twenty-two years ago.
There were certainly aspects of Jurassic World I didn't appreciate so much, but I think the only thing that truly bothered me was the use of John William's original Jurassic Park theme song at the wrong time. When we first hear this song it is accompanied by Jurassic Park's main characters (and the audience) seeing a heard of dinosaurs for the first time. Nothing quite like this scene had ever been done in film before, The magnificence of the scene as captured by Spielberg's camera work, coupled with the brilliant technical achievement of special effects, was only perfected by the dramatic swelling music provided by the iconic movie composer. This same song was used as we and Zach and Grey simply see the park for the first time. Sure, the park looks good, but the majestic, dramatic music almost seems cheapened by the fact that we're just looking at the entry of a theme park, rather than a never-before-seen cinematic achievement.
Jurassic World offers one-dimensional characters with nonsensical motivation, a decent cast, retrograde gender politics, some silly pseudo-science, and a whole lot of fun. It combined enough nostalgia, technical wizardry, and over-the-top thrilling moments to make fans of the original feel like kids again. Let us just take a moment to reflect on the fact that Chris Pratt rides a motorcycle to lead a pack of velociraptors to take down genetic monster which is terrorizing tourists. That preposterous situation alone is so ridiculously awesome that you can't help but enjoy it. As a fan of Jurassic Park, I loved Jurassic World. It did some lousy things here and there, but it also did lots of the sort of thing I wanted to see from a Jurassic Park movie. The 3D effects were even good. I highly recommend seeing this on the big screen, and it's very much worth getting a copy when it hits blu-ray.

What is the best non-Jurassic Park dinosaur movie out there? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Spy Review

I love having my expectations crushed from time to time. Judging by the previews for Spy (2015), it looked like yet another movie featuring a bumbling idiot character thrust into life-or-death action movie style stunts and miraculously making it out on the other side unscathed while scaring up some cheap and immature gags along the way. What I got instead was a surprisingly well written spy movie with likeable character only a little outside her element who delivers many hysterical scenes as she attempts to save the world.
Despite having solid field training, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is an unassuming, desk bound CIA analyst, and the unsung hero behind the Agency's most dangerous missions by working hand-in-hand with the dashing Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Using high-tech equipment and a hidden earpiece, Susan is the guardian angel who helps Bradley avoid danger. However when Bradley unexpectedly falls off the grid at the hands of Bulgarian arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Susan wrangles her way into her first undercover assignment to help capture Boyanov and avenge Bradley.
This is the first movie I've seen Melissa McCarthy in. My initial impression is that she's a remarkably good actress. She does comedy very well and bounces off other comical actors to create some hilarious scenes. She doesn't rely exclusively on dialogue written by someone else,  exaggerated expressions, nor over-the-top behavior to try to convince us she's funny. She actually is funny. Her delivery can be subtle yet still be hysterical. But she really shines when she goes into a rowdy, bull in a china shop mode where she's trying to act more confidant and assertive than the character of Cooper actually is. Sometimes this works and she intimidates the bad guys. Other times they see right through it and she has to quickly recover from her ruse, which is also funny. McCarthy's delivery is just hilarious and nearly everything she does is a stitch!
I was so worried that this was going to be a fish-out-of-water type of comedy where someone is put outside their element and bumbles around comically through their given task. Cooper is by no means stupid or naive; she's got training and knowledge on what to do as a CIA field agent, but since she doesn't quite fit the preconceived notion of what an agent is, she is kept in the analytics department where she also excels. When she is hesitantly made an undercover agent by her superiors, she is both excited and nervous. But unlike the amazing James Bond-like sleek spy gear they give her functional, but unflattering gear such a rape whistle that shoots a paralyzing dart, antidote pills in a bottle labeled "stool softener," and poison covered hemorrhoid wipes. She's given several secret identities which include a frumpy mother of five and a crazy cat lady tourist. Cooper is competent, but her lack of hands-on experience makes for some funny scenes; there's a couple of times she becomes nauseated after violently and successfully taking out bad guy and throws up.
Spy is a comedy action movie and there is a generous helping of each in the movie. The story is riddled with a variety of rapid fire jokes and gags, disrupted with rapid fire gun play. There's a fight scene between her and a knife-wielding assassin and Cooper is reduced to fighting with a frying pan. It's a very comical  fight scene but is also very intense. It's a beautifully constructed scene which had me giggling and sitting on the edge of my seat. I can't think of many movies that generate that kind of a divergent response.
While the humor was fantastic and intelligently written, it gets crude. Lewdness and vulgarity abound in some comedies mistaking foul language for humor. Unfortunately that is the case here, even if those sorts of jokes are much more intelligently incorporated into the script rather than being a bunch of easy grabs for cheap laughs. Thanks to some of the crudeness, resulting language, and some graphic violence Spy is rated R. I think some of it could have been toned down, that really is my only complaint about the movie. It's still a solid film and had me in stitches numerous times.
Spy was way better than I anticipated. It was a simple spy story with a fast, fun tempo and a nice message. The cast was phenomenal, the comedic timing and delivery was fantastic, and the dialogue was something akin to a James Bond film if it were written by Monty Python. The movie delivers some great action and a laugh a minute during its two hour running time. You'll get a lot of comedy bang for your buck. I generally don't enjoy comedies so much because they are saturated with cheap, stupid humor, but Spy was intelligently written and has a lot of witty humor. The vulgarity was off-putting, but overall Spy is a good movie that I can recommend seeing. It's worth the cost of a theater ticket, and if you are particularly fond of McCarthy or the genre, it's worth getting a copy of once it hits home video.

Comedies are so frequently juvenile and crude in a vain attempt to tell a dumb joke. What are some of the more intelligent comedies you've seen and enjoyed? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Incubus Review

I recently heard about a constructed language called "Esperanto." While researching this topic online, I found out that there was a movie written entirely in this language made back in the 1960's called Incubus (1966). Furthermore, this movie starred William Shatner a year before his donned his iconic role as Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek series. This simply sounded too good to pass up. As it turned out, parts of it actually are not bad. It's got some pretty creepy visuals in spite of its low budget.
As an injured soldier, Marc (William Shatner) has recently settled in the mysterious seaside community called Nomen Tuum, seeking out the healing springs there. But evil lurks in the idyllic countryside. Kia (Allyson Ames) is a succubus, luring to their final perdition men who already have sinful habits and libertine inclinations. She tires of this, it's too easy, and these souls are destined to Hell anyway. She wants to match wits and charm with someone who is good. So, against the advice of her sister Amael (Eloise Hardt), Kia seeks out Marc, a man who has already faced death with courage. After a night together, Kia finds that not only is Marc's goodness still intact, but that love has corrupted her as an agent of darkness. In anger, Kia and Amael conjure a demonic incubus (Milos Milos) to deal with Marc. Kia still cares for Marc, but she may not be able to break her bond with the dark side.
This sounds really dark. And, indeed, it is considerably dark for its day. This wasn't a campy run-of-the-mill B horror flick with ridiculous monsters which was so prevalent in the day. It's riddled with dark themes and religious imagery. However, it is still in the heydays of The Hays Code. This was a squeaky clean set of moral guidelines to which movie and TV studios had to adhere. It was thanks to The Hays Code that married couples in television shows back in the day were so frequently depicted as sleeping in separate twin beds. The only sexual anything insinuated is when Kia suggests doing a normative activity "naked" though no nudity or sexual activity is otherwise shown or hinted at. There's plenty of talk of demons and such, but it dances around terms they couldn't actually say at the time. "The Dark One" was said rather than "Satan" or an equivalent name. I believe they said "Hell" once, but that was about the worst of it. Any implied killing is handled with the incubus closing in on the camera before a fade to black. It's considered a horror movie, but it's less scary as it is atmospherically creepy. It may adhere to squeaky clean The Hays Code, but it remains thematically dark.
Esperanto is a constructed language. It was created by Dr. L. L. Zamenhof in 1887 as a planned auxiliary universal language to foster understanding among the world's people, and was designed specifically to be easy to learn as a second language. Esperanto is popular, especially on the internet, though it has not as yet achieved its goal. But it is the youngest living language in the world, merely a "baby" in linguistic terms. A test audience of Esperanto enthusiasts watch the movie and apparently laughed their heads off at the actors' poor pronunciation of the language. To me, the language sounds kind of like German with a little Italian. It sounded to me as if the whole cast was trying to sound Italian. Shatner was different; he grew up in Montreal, Canada and probably because of this, he keeps saying certain words with French pronunciations. The international language of Esperanto was used because of perceived greater international sales. Unfortunately, not enough people speak Esperanto to garner adequate interest in the movie. Americans don't like having to read subtitles, even though Incubus was an American film, filmed in California, and featured a predominantly American cast. The film's producers were unable to find any distribution for the film except in France, where it premiered in November, 1966.
Incubus was written and directed by Leslie Stevens, creator of the classic TV series, The Outer Limits. After the show was canceled, Stevens wrote a horror script to make use of the talents of The Outer Limits team he had brought together, intending to market it to art houses. Wanting a device to make the film unique, Stevens chose Esperanto as the film's language. The script was translated into Esperanto and the actors rehearsed for ten days to learn their lines phonetically, but evidently no one was present on the set to correct their pronunciation during shooting. The cinematography work is pretty impressive. There are some shots that make beautiful use of light, and there are a good number of scenes that utilize some low budget effects with outstanding results. For example, in one scene when Kia and Amael converse with "The Dark One" it is depicted as a huge backlit bat creature. We only see a moving silhouette being projected toward the camera through a cloud of mist. It's a cheap effect, but the result is remarkably eerie!
Incubus is an old horror movie starring William Shatner.  This movie is unique because it is filmed in a made-up language. If that's not enough, this film is not for you. It's got an above average crew and a decent cast, Shatner's acting notwithstanding. The camera work is excellent in some parts, and a little awkward in other parts. It's pretty dark, but that shouldn't be too big an issue since it still adheres to The Hays Code. The movie was lost for a number of years and was released on home video in 2001. The novelty of a movie in Esperanto is enough of a reason to see it if you can. It's not a great movie, but it is highly interesting. I recommend seeing it if you enjoy obscure movies, but I don't quite think it's worth the price to own.

Esperanto is an fascinating subject and I recommend learning more about it on Wikipedia:

You can watch Incubus online for free on YouTube:
I doubt it's posted legally, so it may not be there for long. That's how I found it.

What are some other obscure, lost to the ages movie titles that are worth looking up? Comment below and let me know!