Thursday, June 25, 2015

Inside Out: Sweet Emotions, and Sad Ones, Too

Five emotions wrestle with one another, and more, in "Inside Out"
At one point in Inside Out, the two main characters walk under a lettered archway that reads, "Imagination Land." It's a fitting marker, given that this movie is the latest (and nearly the greatest) offering from Pixar, that cinematic factory of innovation and ingenuity that has been delighting audiences for two decades with its inimitable blend of vibrant animation and smart storytelling. Also fitting is that the protagonists are named Sadness and Joy, as these are the two primary emotional responses that Inside Out deftly, generously evokes. You will undoubtedly experience pangs of sadness in watching this poignant portrayal of a child in crisis, struggling valiantly to process her swirling feelings of confusion, alienation, and loss. As for joy? That comes from everything else.

The ostensible hero of Inside Out is Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a plucky, relatively normal 11-year-old whom we first meet moving with her parents from the ice-covered lakes of Minnesota to the bustling cityscape of San Francisco. Yet while Riley is the film's chief human character, she is not its focal point. Rather, Inside Out takes us inside Riley's brain to explore the workings of her emotions, which we discover are literal beings themselves, with their own bodies, minds, and temperaments. They include Fear (Bill Hader), a jumpy lavender fellow with a bowtie and a prominent proboscis; Disgust (Mindy Kaling), a greenish girl with wavy hair and perpetually rolling eyes; and Anger (Lewis Black, naturally), a squat and fiery hothead who regularly bursts into flame and whose color you can probably guess. Rounding out this fantastic five are, of course, Sadness and Joy; Sadness (The Office's Phyllis Smith, perfectly cast) is a rotund blue figure who wears oversized spectacles and shuffles her feet morosely, while Joy (Amy Poehler, ibid) is the yellow-skinned, cobalt-haired pixie who serves as the group's perky, quietly flawed leader. These five personifications of feeling—exposed nerve endings made real—operate in concert (and occasionally in conflict), huddling over a gadget-laden control panel and helping to shape Riley's experiences, her emotional reactions, and, really, her entire life.

Friday, June 19, 2015

To Greatness and Beyond: In Anticipation of Inside Out, Ranking Every Pixar Movie

Buzz Lightyear and Woody got Pixar started back in 1995 with "Toy Story"
Pixar is the only movie studio that has achieved brand recognition. You never hear people say that they're excited about the new Fox Searchlight release or that they're lukewarm on the latest Warner Bros. picture. But Pixar, through a 20-year, 14-film run of (mostly) extraordinary and original work, has cultivated its reputation to the point that it's become the industry benchmark for animated fare. Read reviews of animated releases from other companies, and you'll invariably find comparisons to the gold standard, whether laudatory ("Looks just as good as any Pixar movie!") or—more commonly—derogatory ("It isn't bad, but it's no Pixar.").

This did not happen by accident. The studio sports a stellar success rate, both commercially and (more importantly, at least in this context) artistically. It is also a model of storytelling consistency, which should not be confused with sameness. The typical Pixar movie exhibits two key characteristics: breathtaking animation and inspired imagination. The rest of the world is gradually catching up on the first front—DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an especially gorgeous example—but John Lasseter and his brilliant minions remain comfortably in the lead on the second. There is something magical about the studio's best works, an ability to transport you to worlds of limitless invention and possibility. But as innovative as these movies can be, they also often carry a profound emotional resonance, grounding their fantastical stories in recognizable human feelings. The old line on Pixar movies is that they're enjoyable for both kids and adults, but what they really do is temporarily transform curmudgeonly adults into joyous kids.

The studio's latest release, Inside Out, arrives in theaters today. Advance buzz is deafening (it currently sports ratings of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and 93 on Metacritic), and I'm as excited to see it as any movie this summer. (UPDATE: The Manifesto's review of Inside Out is now available here.) In anticipation, I wanted to provide my rankings of the studio's existing features. The usual cautionary note about the arbitrary nature of list-making applies—ask me again next week, and this list might look slightly different—but it's still instructive to weed through the catalog and separate the good from the bad (or, in this case, the good from the great).

And so, here is the Manifesto's ranked list of every Pixar movie released thus far:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jurassic World: Fleeing from the Past, All Over Again

Chris Pratt attempts to tame velociraptors in "Jurassic World"
A giant looms over the tourists of Jurassic World, a towering figure that casts a long, dark shadow. But it is not a dinosaur. It is, rather, the specter of Steven Spielberg and the lingering greatness of the original Jurassic Park. One score and two years ago, our forefather of blockbuster filmmaking brought forth into multiplexes a new species of movie, a thrilling adventure of CGI-assisted wonder. But as striking and terrifying as certain moments of Jurassic Park were—the sight of water rippling from a faraway impact, the reveal that a reassuring hand is attached to a severed arm, that iconic warning that "objects in mirror are closer than they appear"—what made it truly special was its intimacy. Spielberg makes movies about fantastical creatures and aliens with an inimitably human touch, and in Jurassic Park, he made us care about the people he was terrorizing, from Sam Neill's wary paleontologist to Richard Attenborough's hubristic businessman to (most memorably) Jeff Goldblum's cynical mathematician. It is not hyperbole to suggest that every effects-laden studio production released since 1993 has measured itself, at least in part, against the staggering triumph of Jurassic Park.

Jurassic World, the fourth and not-at-all-bad installment in the dino franchise, never entirely evades the yawning shadow cast by its primogenitor. But this is less a failure of imagination than a consequence of evolution. The world has changed. We now demand increasingly bigger amazements from our summer blockbusters, to the point where it's difficult to cram emotional texture or narrative depth into a product already bulging with action and spectacle. Or, as one character puts it: "No one's impressed by a dinosaur anymore." I beg to differ, and as evidence, I need look no further than Jurassic World. This movie, which was directed by Colin Trevorrow from a screenplay he wrote with three others, may lack certain filmmaking fundamentals—plotting, character development, halfway-decent dialogue—but it is damn impressive.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Love & Mercy: Picking Up Vibrations, Good and Bad Alike

John Cusack stars as one half of Brian Wilson in "Love & Mercy"
Being a musical genius must be hard. You hear harmonies no one else can hear, you struggle to communicate your vision to your band mates and studio bosses, and if you're fortunate enough to be able to actually produce revolutionary music, your innovative advances often go unnoticed until they're discovered by later generations. But making a movie about such a genius—conveying those enigmatic bursts of internal, auditory inspiration through the visible, visual medium of cinema—is similarly perilous. Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad's strange and sensitive biopic of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, does not entirely conquer this challenge. Despite its whirring sound design and persistent effort, it never quite communicates the creative synapses firing within its protagonist's big, drug-addled brain. But Love & Mercy is nevertheless a compelling portrait of artistic triumph and toil. It is also, more surprisingly, a touching romantic drama. It's odd that a film about such an idiosyncratic man is at its best when it is at its most conventional.

That doesn't stop Pohlad, working from a screenplay by Oren Moverman (director of The Messenger) and Michael Alan Lerner, from laboring strenuously to circumvent the customs of the genre. His most obvious and daring maneuver is to structure Love & Mercy as two separate mini-movies. In one, set in the mid-'60s, Wilson (Paul Dano) drifts from his brothers and colleagues while obsessing over the production of the Beach Boys' seminal album, Pet Sounds. In the other, set some 20 years later, a mentally ill, overmedicated Wilson (now played by John Cusack, delivering his best performance in more than a decade) romances a Cadillac saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, radiant), and wilts under the yoke of his domineering psychotherapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, bewigged and ferocious). Love & Mercy toggles back and forth between the two eras without any particular rhythm or formula. (Think The Godfather Part II, only, er, not quite as good.) It's an engrossing approach that nonetheless fails to reap any real dividends; it's fair to wonder how the film would have played in linear fashion, given that neither subplot clearly informs the other. Of course, that lack of causality between the two stories is arguably the point, which is why, in the abstract, Love & Mercy's jagged chronology makes sense. This is a fractured movie about a broken man.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Tomorrowland: Glimpsing a Bright Future Through Clouded Eyes

Britt Robertson and George Clooney blast off in "Tomorrowland"
With its imaginary worlds and bighearted humanism, Tomorrowland is practically engineered for viewers like me, those who crave original stories about plucky heroes and who don't mind a dollop of sap mixed in with the sensation of wide-eyed discovery. It's a sweet, irresistibly charming movie that's also dangerously flimsy; tug too firmly at its threadbare construction, and it threatens to collapse into a puddle of moralism and solipsism. But while Tomorrowland, the second live-action feature from Brad Bird (following the rousing success of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol), may be thinly sketched and frustratingly lacking in follow-through—no apologist can excuse its cratering final act—it remains for the most part a fun and fanciful story of lively adventure. It also deftly uses its childlike enthusiasm as a shield to camouflage its deficiencies. Tomorrowland has plenty of problems, but it's tough to stay mad at a movie that's so disarmingly cheerful.

Tomorrowland opens with some ungainly breaking of the fourth wall—Frank Walker (George Clooney) wants to warn the audience about the perils of the future, but he's constantly interrupted by an offscreen character he's squabbling with—before flashing back to 1964, when the young Frank (Thomas Robinson) tries to impress innovators at the World's Fair with his homemade jetpack. Its inability to actually fly draws the derision of David (Hugh Laurie), but Frank's indefatigable spirit catches the eye of David's ostensible daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy, exceedingly natural). She slips Frank a mysterious T-shaped pin and, after he boards a ride for a little attraction called "It's a Small World"—at this point, viewers my age will undoubtedly experience flashbacks to the Disney vacations of their own youth—he suddenly finds himself in a distant land in the clouds, a place of blue skies and friendly robots. This, in case you couldn't tell, is Tomorrowland, and Frank appears destined to find happiness in this environment of blissful wonder.