Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: "Inside Out"

Director(s): Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen
Runtime: 94 minutes

Pixar has a long history of finding unique ways to hit our emotions. This is, after all, the studio that got us to care about plastic toys, fish, and robots. Yet the studio has never confronted the very nature of emotion until now. With Inside Out, directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have turned Pixar's power to the trickiest of concepts to visualize: human memory, emotion, and imagination. These three parts of thought have such a conceptual limitless to them that pinning them down with concrete imagery can be daunting. One risks creating a world that feels too slipshod to work as a setting for sincere drama. Thankfully, after a few years of divisive offerings, Pixar has made a remarkable turn around with its latest. Docter, Del Carmen, and the whole Pixar think tank have creating a vibrant, resonant, and emotionally mature tribute to the vastness of human feeling. 

As portrayed here, each human mind is dominated by five key players: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black). The emotions are in charge of handling responses as well as the formulation and storing of memories, which take the form of colored orbs. 

We first meet these five inside the head of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl whose parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have just relocated from Minnesota to San Francisco. Without giving away too many details, things go awry when the emotions try to adjust with the move to California, and Riley's emotions are thrown into chaos. In the upheaval, spritely leader Joy and downer Sadness are knocked out of central command and stranded in Long Term Memory. 

Following in classic Pixar fashion, Inside Out is built around a quest to find something/one important after being separated by larger forces. Joy and Sadness' journey back to HQ is mirrored in Riley's own desire to go back to Minnesota, the source of all of her best memories. The internal journey, however, proves to be far more imposing than the external one. Riley's brain is filled with an array of brilliantly designed locales that allow Docter and Del Carmen to have a great deal of visual fun along the way. Some ideas are more literal (a train of thought is just that), while others rely more on invention (dreams are created on sound stages like movies).

Yet with so much room for dazzlement, Inside Out never strays from its main story for the sake of spectacle. Poehler and Smith are smartly cast in their respective emotions, and the focus on such polar opposites creates an unconventionally winning buddy adventure. Poehler brings that Leslie Knope optimism to Joy, creating a well-intentioned, yet occasionally narrow-sighted go getter. Smith, a regular on The Office, brings an authenticity to Sadness, without dragging down the film's overall mood. 

In fact, at the end of the day, Sadness might actually be the true hero of Inside Out. Sadness, as an emotion, is so often discouraged that it's often viewed as a negative. No one wants to feel sad, of course, but it's an emotion that fares better when it's faced head on, rather than repressed. The magic of Inside Out is that it refuses to turn Sadness into a Debbie Downer-esque punchline. She's valid, and in some cases, the one best equipped to handle what's going on. 

At 94 minutes, Inside Out feels extra brisk, so it's a testament to those involved that the deeper moments hit as hard as they do. More than any of Pixar's previous films, Inside Out is the sort of kids' movie that will resonate far deeper with older audiences. The kids can come for the zippy adventure, colorful vistas, and slapstick comedy, while everyone else can come to laugh through the tears. To label Inside Out as a "kids' movie" feels condescending, given that it's all so rich with ideas and emotional honesty. This one really is for all ages. 

Grade: A-

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Runtime: 105 minutes

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl might be THE most Sundance-y/indie/capital-Q "quirky" movie to hit theaters in the past half decade, or even decade. This is not a compliment. It is 105 minutes of the most grating stereotypes of quirky only without the self awareness one would find in a Saturday Night Live skit. The best possible outcome for American independent cinema would be that Earl is the final nail in the coffin for the Quirky Teen Dramedy genre, and not the inspiration for dozens more likeminded films. 

Among the biggest issues plaguing Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's debut feature is that the titular Me is, quite simply, one of the worst protagonists in recent memory. Pittsburgh teenager Greg (Thomas Mann) is an awkward film geek with only one real friend. He also has low self-esteem and constantly rejects compliments about everything from his intelligence to his looks. So even though there's a Dying Girl involved, this is very much Greg's story, and that's a terrible, terrible thing. Greg's self-loathing has little basis, and his repeated mentions of his supposed deficiencies eventually sound less like an esteem problem and more like a ploy for unearned praise. 

Of course, this means that the only thing that can help Greg change is a QUIRKY girl with some ISSUES. Of course, unlike similar films, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl's issue isn't that she's flighty or avoids serious issues. Instead, she has leukemia. Because, as The Fault in Our Stars showed us last year, nothing gets people going like kids going through first love with a nice side of chemo. In fairness, of all the cliched aspects of Me and Earl, the Dying Girl is actually the most genuine part of the film. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) isn't a brave smiling angel. Instead, she's a no nonsense kid who can cut through bullshit when she sees it. She's also got that wise-beyond-her-years vibe that could have been grating but thanks to Cooke feels totally natural. In essence, she's a more emotionally open version of Daria.

And yet even though Rachel is going through...what was it, oh yeah, LEUKEMIA, she gets sidelined in favor of the insufferable Greg and his BFF Earl (RJ Cyler). Except, y'know, since this whole thing is one big QUIRKY (TM) affair Greg won't refer to Earl as his friend. He's his "co-worker." Now, I know that Homer Simpson is not supposed to be a model citizen, but Me and Earl would have been improved significantly had Mr. Simpson sped by in his car and thrown out a drive-by "NEEEEEEEERRRRRDDD!!!" at Greg, and maybe Earl as well.

Earl's problems are a horse (and person) of a different color. Because we're apparently still in the late 90s, Earl is the Black Best Friend. He lives only a short walk from Greg, but in a "rougher" part of town (can you decode the language?). Earl's purpose is basically to stand there and be a emotional sounding board but he's different because, like, he's not white and that's super nifty, but he doesn't need a personality or agency. Hell, South Park's Token Black character has more dimensions. 

But perhaps none of the above would be so troubling (also: infuriating, groan-inducing, etc...) if the script weren't so rotten to the core. Jesse Andrews' adaptation of his own novel is stilted at best. At worst, it's unforgivably manipulative and so forcibly twee that Wes Anderson looks butch by comparison (the film would have benefitted immensely from his touch). As far as heavily contrived dramatic moments go, Me and Earl builds to one that gives the whole of Men, Women, and Children a run for its money. This is also not a good thing.

Gomez-Rejon, an accomplished TV director, at least does his best to inject some energy into Andrews' self-satisfied tale. But the energetic camera work only exacerbates the problems with the script and in Mann's central performance. Greg's self-loathing/thinly-veiled narcissism smother the comedy, and bring hollowness to the drama. Only Cooke is on the right wavelength for her material, but she's often more of an emotional and thematic catalyst than a real character. Rachel deserves to be more than a device to push Greg outside of his comfort zone. But that would require conviction and a willingness to break away from stifling conventions, which Me and Earl and the Poorly Served Dying Girl has precious no time for. Cliches and tropes don't have to be burdens if they're properly managed (and tweaked). Unfortunately, Andrews' story is so in love with sob story expectations that there's never room for Me and Earl to do anything but drown in its own cloying artifice.

Grade: F

Review: "Hungry Hearts"

Director: Saverio Costanzo
Runtime: 113 minutes

Parenthood can be a scary thing, but hopefully not as scary as the woes that befall the central young couple in Saverio Costanzo's Hungry Hearts. It also likely won't descend to such stupid depths. Substitute the supernatural elements of Rosemary's Baby for paranoid veganism, and you get the drama at the center of Costanzo's latest film. It's certainly not a bad set up, and the Italian director (adapting Marco Franzoso's novel) gets some solid mileage purely based on the atmosphere. But after a compelling first half, Hungry Hearts degenerates into a series of increasingly idiotic actions and reactions by characters who barely have a single note to play over and over for two hours.

Young couple Jude and Mina (Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher) first meet after getting locked together in a foul-smelling bathroom in Chinatown. They struggle, in vain, to call for help, amused and disgusted by the absurdity of their predicament. Jump forward to the next scene, and they're living together. And then another scene comes by and they're married. And then Mina's pregnant. Costanzo keeps the pace going nicely as he covers these relationship milestones, using them as building blocks before the heft of the narrative arrives. 

Where things change is after Mina gives birth, and insists on keeping the new (and never named) baby boy "pure." That means not going outside, or eating processed foods, or anything derived from animals. While Jude is a vegetarian, Mina is a hardcore vegan, and her intense devotion to her son's diet starts having adverse effects. 

Unfortunately, from this point on, Costanzo's camera work evolves far more than his characters. Jude and Mina's anti-meet-cute unfolds over a single cramped shot. Other early scenes involve long, eye-level close ups. Most of these are reserved for Mina/Rohrwacher, whose face has a constant look of deeply-buried fear. And then, when things really start going down hill, the shots become wider, and Costanzo and cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti break out the fish-eye lens. Some of the later shots feel like rejected material from a David Lynch movie, and not necessarily in a good way.  

Where Hungry Hearts really goes awry is in the behavior of its characters as Mina's paranoia increases. Jude is happy to standby and trust his wife, but even when he starts undermining her orders, he remains a weak-willed pushover. This isn't automatically a bad thing from a writing angle, but given that Jude has absolutely no other characteristics, it leaves his actions looking like those of an idiot. Though he eventually does take some sensible actions, he gives Mina far too many breaks regarding her behavior. Eventually, he sneaks the child out of the house in order to feed him meat, rather than put his foot down and insist to Mina that her parenting method is stunting their son's growth. When Jude's mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell) confronts her son during one of these feeding trips, she practically speaks for the audience, asking what the hell Jude is doing.

While Jude is nothing but a concerned pushover, Mina is only allowed to be unhinged and resolute in her paranoia. She insists that she knows what's best, even when her husband gives her evidence to the contrary. Yet even a pushover like Jude shouldn't have trouble standing up to the waif-like Mina. Her determination is disturbing, but not exactly intimidating. If she ever tried to do anything truly crazy, all Jude would have to do is cough on her and she'd probably be knocked off of her feet. Rohrwacher, for what it's worth, does what she can with the more expressive of the lead roles, but she fares better when she only has to act with her face, and not Costanzo's dialogue. I mean this as no slight against the actors themselves, but how Driver and Rohrwacher won the acting prizes at the 2014 Venice FIlm Festival is baffling. 

To his credit, Costanzo manages to sustain the atmosphere from the first half all the way through to the end, but there simply isn't enough beyond that to make Hungry Hearts work. Jude's one dimensional personality only becomes a bigger problem when he tries to separate Mina and the baby, yet still gives her an unreasonable amount of access to visit the child. And Mina's freakish determination to keep her son pure is so clearly nuts in ambition that there's never room to question who's right and who's wrong. Jude and Anne are right, and Mina clearly just needs help. Lots of it. There's no room for nuance or doubt to lend this tale of marital strife a sense of balance or mystery. It's a one note enterprise under the impression that if it keeps playing louder and louder, it'll eventually turn into a melody. 

Grade: C