2016 Check-In

2016 in film has been an interesting year to say the least.

This summer is all but cursed, with disappointing sequels and lackluster starts to would-be franchises opening nearly every weekend. The term “box office poison” was used to describe Hollywood stars of the 1930s, but one could almost apply it to the bizarro movie season we’ve had lately.

In between the weeds, however, several sequels and original stories are making an impact among audiences and critics alike. Some of my favorites from 2016, in order of release, are:

  • The Witch – An early American horror film with arthouse sensibilities. This wasn’t for all audiences (I recall a fella in my crowd declaring “This some bullshit!” as the house lights came back on), but The Witch is just the right pace for the set who prefers slow-cooking scares over a torrent of “jump” scares.
  • Zootopia – For a film buff, the best kind of movie-going experience is getting to revisit a classic and uncover layer upon layer with each additional viewing. Zootopia is one such film, and after four viewings (in less than one year, mind you) I always find something new in this remarkably mature, complicated take on inequality and prejudice in the animal kingdom (which isn’t too different from ours). I’m still amazed, but greatly pleased, that this dialogue-driven, morally challenging animated flick has been such a hit with audiences.
  • Finding Dory – I’m too in the “honeymoon phase” to say whether this sequel surpasses its classic predecessor, but Finding Dory offers a substantially different and more emotionally resonant story than Nemo did over ten years ago. Similar to Zootopia, this movie about talking sea life is an often upsetting look at how we treat nature and each other.

I’m also just now realizing that my three favorite films of 2016 all feature talking animals.

What are your favorite movies of 2016 (so far)? Reply below in the comments!

 

Advertisements

Weekly Round-Up: June 12-18, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Finding Nemo (2003) – First time watching with Cine-Explore, a terrific commentary-esque feature with visual pop-ups including concept art and storyboards. The filmmaker’s insights on the parallels between father Marlin and son Nemo’s journeys were particularly compelling. REQUIRED.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – This story of an aging actress and her dedicated assistant started off an an engaging foot, but I grew tired of these unlikable characters and scenes of wraparound dialogue that didn’t progress the story in a meaningful way. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) – I love a good Joan Crawford vs. the world flick as much as the next guy, but this quasi-noir was a tough Doll to swallow. Joan Crawford goes from complacent, impoverished housewife to confident, sizzling seductress seemingly overnight… really? NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Female Trouble (1974) – Wacky John Waters tale of a disturbed young lady who balances being a mother with a rise to stardom as a violent supermodel. Not sure if I like this as much as Pink Flamingos, but still an outrageously fun time. Special shout-out to the theme song, sung by Divine herself! RECOMMENDED.
  • Mommie Dearest (1981) – One of my absolute favorite, could-watch-this-everyday kind of movies, and finally got to see it on the big screen. Terrific audience, shrieking with laughter at all the right times and even reciting entire scenes of poetic dialogue back at the screen. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Finding Dory (2016) – This immensely worthy sequel is more painful, devastating, and emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. An absolute knockout. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

 

Finding Dory (2016)

I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family. At least, I think it does….where are they?…

Dory’s introduction in the 2003 classic Finding Nemo can be taken, at first, as a purely comic device. Dory, the bubbly and determined Regal Blue Tang, is a fish without a past who knocks into Marlin the clownfish, and helps find his missing son Nemo. She enters the picture solo, and at its conclusion, has become a member of the family, living alongside them in an idyllic reef.

The highly-anticipated sequel Finding Dory pivots the tone and story into a wildly, and admirably, different direction. The beauty and wonder of the ocean is diminished, replacing vivid colors with duller, paler greens and blues. The loving piano theme of the original is foiled by a pained, longing solo violin cue. Finding Dory takes us on a much darker journey, into more devastating emotional pitfalls, for all the more satisfying a climax.

We flash back to Dory’s childhood, and are introduced to her kind parents Charlie and Jenny. She finds herself separated from her family, and pleads for help from passerby fish. Some try to help, but none really follow through. A montage of this pattern through the years transpires, as Dory grows from child to adolescent to the adult version we know. This brief scene is a powerful and horrible reminder of how we often treat those less fortunate.

She’s still trying to find her parents when she crashes into Marlin – coming full circle to the events of Finding Nemo. Flash forward a year later, she’s a well-known member of the reef community – even “helping” Mr. Ray as an assistant teacher. During a lesson on migration and instinct, she has a flashback to her parents, and feels an urgent calling; Dory insists that Marlin and Nemo help her, and so the trio journeys out to find them.

Dory finds herself in quarantine, and meets the septopus (octopus missing a leg) Hank – arguably the breakout star of the film. Hank is grumpy, slinky, and isolationist – like any good octopus should be. He agrees to help Dory find her parents, if she gives him her quarantine tag, his “ticket” to a life in a glass tank away from the real ocean. It’s a visual treat to see him transport Dory in various modes (a coffee pot, sippee cup, among others), all while camouflaging himself to his surroundings, constricting himself into a ball, and even wheeling around a stroller.

finding-dory-hank_1050_591_81_s_c1

Of course mayhem ensues, including: Dory and Hank ending up in a toddler-friendly “touch” pool (recalling the daycare scenes of Toy Story 3), Marlin and Nemo befriending occasionally aggressive sea lions, and whale shark Destiny and beluga whale Bailey assist Dory’s search via echolocation. The zany cast of characters and outrageous situations make Dory an occasionally non-stop laugh-out-loud delight.

When it’s not, though, Finding Dory is a trying emotional journey on the level of BraveThe Good Dinosaur, and maybe even Inside Out. (For the record, it took less than five minutes for me to tear up in this one…) Its more muted, darker tone is an immediate cue that this journey is a heavier one than in Nemo. But going to those darker places and putting the characters in such dire situations, only make the happy endings that much sweeter. Finding Dory is a rich, complex story of the fish without a past carving out her own future.

 

Weekly Round-Up: January 03-09, 2016

Happy New Year! Now that we’re post-holidays, we get back to “ordinary time” and a more regular cadence of movie-watching. 🙂

Last week, I saw:

  • In Cold Blood (1967) – Genuinely creepy, though occasionally slow crime drama. This was especially fun to watch as I’d just finished the In Cold Blood novel days earlier. RECOMMENDED.
  • Inside Out (2015) – First time watching this with audio commentary by Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen. Really enjoyable, with lots of tidbits and occasional meanderings (like calling up Bill Hader and Michael Giacchino mid-way). REQUIRED.
  • Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) – Love her or hate her (I fall into the camp of the former), Madonna is a true tour de force of entertainment and this documentary is a terrific look into her insane lifestyle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Music of the Heart (1940) – My first film viewing from the Rita Hayworth set I was gifted over the holidays, this is a charming musical comedy (with unexpected racism) about a talented singer on the verge of deportation, who finds refuge among the immigrants of the Lower East Side. RECOMMENDED.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – One of my favorite contemporary films. Genuinely moving and tremendously uplifting romantic comedy-drama. REQUIRED.
  • The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) – I hadn’t gotten around to finishing this (despite several attempts) until this viewing – glad I had, as this musical comedy is a menagerie of satirical characters, particularly an evangelical “consumer rights advocate” and the indecisive Texas governor. I’m surprised this hasn’t become a cult classic a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, as this film similarly blends raunchy comedy with sweet, earnest characters. RECOMMENDED.

Also, honorable mentions for Mad Max (the original) and Capote, both of which I started but couldn’t finish.

What did you see last week?

Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”

Weekly Round-Up: November 29 – December 05, 2015

This past week took things to a prehistoric level, with no fewer than three viewings of dinosaur movies:

  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – A gorgeously animated, delicately told prehistoric western about a young dinosaur and his pet human finding their way home. (I liked it so much I watched it twice last week!) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • All That Heaven Allows (1955) – Strong melodrama about the romance between a widow and a younger man, and their struggle against societal pressures. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991) – A young male prostitute goes on an international search for his mother. I must be missing something, because I don’t understand why people like this movie. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Pather Panchali (1955) – The story of a struggling family living in rural India. Beautifully shot and genuinely moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shame (2011) – A sex addict reaches his breaking point when his sister comes to stay with him. Tremendously directed for how seriously it takes takes its subject matter. Certainly not for everybody, but HIGHLY RECOMMENDED if you’re okay with emotionally draining sex scenes!
  • Jurassic World (2015) – Mindless CGI sequel/remake of Jurassic Park. The scenes of Jurassic World as an operating theme park are the film’s strong suit. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – Thoughtful, emotional story of a retired composer and the people close to him. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about My Own Private Idaho or Jurassic World? Let me know in the comments!

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Any Pixar fan could tell you how much The Good Dinosaur has changed in its development. The film teased at the Disney D23 Expo 2013 played up the unique agricultural roles that different species of dinosaurs would play in this alternate-universe of prehistory; the movie presented at the D23 Expo 2015 was an “emotional” road movie about a dinosaur and his boy.

The movie we got, though, is a tremendously inspired prehistoric western. In an opening sequence (almost) straight out of John Ford, we are safe at the home of an Apatosaurus family. Momma and Poppa proudly behold the hatching of their three kids: Buck, Libby, and little Arlo, who is too small even for his egg. The clan operates its own farm, and each family member owns a specialized skill to “make their mark.”

Ever the late bloomer, Arlo struggles to find his place among his more naturally talented brother and sister. In one of the warmest father-son relationships in Pixar canon, Poppa takes Arlo aside to help him make his mark – by catching a pest who’s been eating their crop. In the process, however, tragedy strikes and Arlo finds himself separated from his family and lost.

He reluctantly finds a companion in the human boy he names Spot; Spot is the fearless defender and catalyst Arlo needs to move on through a hopeless situation.

The pair journey through a series of familiar western images, transplanted to a prehistoric setting: a spiritual Shaman in the form of a Styracosaurus; outlaw bandits represented as Pterodactyls; even a family of tough Tyrannosaurus Rex ranchers. These western narrative elements complement the western themes of the individual, separated from the home, journeying through the frontier onto his horizon. The western genre is further defined through its musical score, featuring uptempo fiddles, acoustic guitars, and (when the mood strikes) sweeping orchestras.

The Good Dinosaur has one very anti-western (and even anti-Pixar) element: so many Pixar films feature strong, cocky male heroes – Woody, Lightning McQueen, Sulley, to name a few. Arlo is the antithesis of this legacy; he is a frightened, vulnerable boy forced to battle the dangerous world around him. He is not the silent, sturdy western hero to instill order; Arlo is struggling to just survive and return home.

But The Good Dinosaur is more than a clever, somewhat inverted, western for families; in what is undoubtedly Pixar’s most emotional year on record, this film is rich with moving storytelling and heartbreaking scenes. The tragic elements anchor the entire film, heightening the sense of desperation and struggle to endure; the devastating “sticks” scene is just one of many sure-to-be iconic moments of The Good Dinosaur. This complex love story will certainly “make its mark” within the already-stellar Pixar canon.

The Best Films of 2015 (So Far)

We’ve just reached the halfway point of 2015 – six months in, six months to go. I admittedly haven’t seen a ton of movies from this year (and am notably the only person on the planet who still needs to see Jurassic World), but I will definitely catch up as these films enter the home video market.

Another concession is that many of the year’s best films tend to be released over the holiday season, to optimize their chances of awards-season glory. The rankings here could vary as studios often save the best for last.

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the three best films of 2015 (so far):

  1. Inside Out. This Disney-Pixar masterpiece gets inside your head (literally) and stays in your heart. It is a dazzling visual and storytelling experience, allowing us to behold the origin of emotions, growing in complexity with the major milestones of humanity. In its parallel storylines, between the human girl Riley adjusting to life in a new town & school and the Emotions struggling to keep her afloat, we are given a spectacularly compelling and wonderfully moving perspective on what makes all of us tick. Read my full review here.
  2. Entourage. Just like the TV series before it, Entourage plays on the ultimate young Hollywood fantasy of fame, excess, and success. And just like the series, it is very “love-it-or-hate-it;” the film has received mixed to negative reviews, despite very positive word-of-mouth among audiences. Entourage not only exceeds expectations (and cleans up some messes from the series finale years earlier), but pushes the characters forward into thrilling situations further blurring the lines between fantasy and reality (you’ll get it when you see it). If you have not watched the TV series, I would not recommend this movie, but if you have – you will not be disappointed.
  3. Cinderella. In an era of revisionist/alternative fairy tales, from Once Upon a Time to Maleficent and even the film adaptation of Into the Woods, comes Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella – a faithful, earnest, straight retelling of the classic story. And it is absolutely wonderful. Even as the story is told, and we know every step of the way, we are treated to gorgeous visuals (the dress transformation scene is jaw-dropping), terrific performances from Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother and Lily James as Ella, and a soaring musical score by Patrick Doyle.

What are your favorites from this year? What are you looking forward to in the second half of 2015?