Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dino-mite: “The Good Dinosaur” Isn't Pixar's Best Work but It's Still Emotionally Engaging

The the biggest flaw of Pixar's “The Good Dinosaur” is its release date: it arrived in theaters less than five months after “Inside Out” which is arguably one of Pixar's most accomplished and original films. And because “Inside Out” is so great, people's expectations for the next great Pixar film is unbelievably high. Having said that “The Good Dinosaur” is tremendously entertaining and emotionally charged film with stunning animation, funny characters, and a simple but involving story. It's certainly more of a traditional tale, but it's a fun adventure that is certainly to please anyone who enjoys a good family film in the vein of “Homeward Bound,” “The Land Before Time,” or the all-time classic “The Lion King.”

“The Good Dinosaur” begins with the interesting premise of Earth not being hit by the meteor that caused the dinosaurs to become extinct, which lets humans and dinosaurs evolve to share the planet. While nothing truly original is done with this concept it just allows humans and dinosaurs to co-exist. We're introduced to the shy, and always-afraid Arlo and his family. In true Disney form Arlo is “different” from the rest of his family and longs to feel wanted and needed and “make his mark” on the family farm. And since this is a film released by Disney, it's not long before Alro finds himself with less family members than when he was born and off on his own after a storm washes him away from his home. Lost and afraid he must make the journey back home.

To be perfectly honest: is the film perfect? Not by any means. This doesn't quote capture the magic of most of the other top tier Pixar films and story-wise it pretty much hits all the standard beats. But it's completely engaging and I found myself identifying so strongly with Arlo and his journey to reunite with his family that I got more way choked up than was probably necessary. The motion arrives as Arlo's “enemy” a small, dog-like human boy quickly becomes his best friend. The two bond over similar loses in their lives and become dependent on each other for survival in the wild. There's not clear cut villain here, it's mostly Mother Nature that seems to be the biggest threat though other dinosaur species make Arlo's journey more difficult including some nasty flying dinosaurs and a few raptors that are depicted as hick trailer trash. It's the t-rexes who actually turn out to be quite friendly.

“The Good Dinosaur” had suffered from production problems (the film was originally slated for release last year in 2014 but got pushed back) and you can tell. The story is a bit inconsistent, characters come and go and the film is rather episodic (like most road trip movies tend to be) so you can't help but feel that the film suffers from perhaps too many cooks in the kitchen. If this was a film released by any other studio it would certainly make no difference. You'd never really assume this was a Pixar film if you didn't know that going in; however, it's still quite fun and enjoyable for what is is. Why does ever Pixar film have to be so original and high-concept anyways?

Anyone who is a fan of good animated films will certainly find something to enjoy about “The Good Dinosaur.” It may not be Pixar's best but it's far from their worst. It's a pretty standard story but it has richly defined main characters features an emotionally engaging story about loss and the importance of home. And like any other Pixar movie, bring some tissues.  GRADE: B+

Feature Trailer for The Good Dinosaur on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

End Game: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” Improves Upon Its Predecessor

Fans of popular film series these days tend to get the shaft. The last book is always adapted into two films so that the studio can milk as much money out of the consumer as possibly. And we’re not talking Lord of the Rings sized books here: Mockingjay is 400 pages. It’s not War and Peace. Therefore, it becomes difficult to judge the Mockingjay films – both parts – without acknowledging that they are essential one unnecessarily long film that is cut in half. Luckily, Part 2 fares much better than Part 1. Unfortunately skipping Part 1 is also detrimental to getting the most enjoyment out of Part 2. So is “Mockingjay – Part 2” any good or what? The answer is yes, as long as you don’t compare it to series high-point “Catching Fire.”

The obviously highlight of the entire Hunger Games film series are the hunger games themselves. The immoral concept that children and teens are forced to battle each other to the death in a purposely controlled and dangerous environment for the entertainment of a disgustingly corrupt and malicious government and its richest people makes for fascinating discussion-worthy cinematic entertainment. Unfortunately, the hunger games went out the window at the end of the second film as the rebellion started in full swing. You get the sense that the rebellion is what author Suzanne Collins was getting at all along – this is a series that is about so much more than children being forced to kill each other. It’s also thankfully about much more than a girl having to choose between two guys, though it’s about that too. The hunger games themselves is what I personally find so fascinating about this series; the rebellion is the next logical step, yet far from the story’s most interesting ideas.

Part 2 picks up literally right where the last film left off with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) locked up and completely brainwashed. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, looking somewhat bored as if she could play the role in her sleep by now) and her fellow rebellious members of District 13 are ready to finally make their move to the capital to dethrone the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). We finally get to see two of my favorite characters get the screen time they deserve including Johanna (Jena Malone) freshly rescued from the Capital and Finnick (Sam Claflin) who gets married before setting out for battle. Effie and Haymitch around too but seem underutilized.

This film feels much like a war film with a small group of soldiers making their way across the booby-trapped rubble of the Capital. These scenes, reminiscent of the traps set by the hunger games’ sadistic gamemakers, are the definitely highlight of the film and feature some pretty successful sequences including an Aliens-like venture into the dark, pipe-riddled sewers of the Capital. Director Francis Lawrence doesn’t deviate much from the style he inherited yet made his own when he took the reins on the second film. And the film’s screenplay is thankfully less talky and way more action heavy than Part 1.

Most importantly, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2" is a fitting ending to this well-loved series. None of the other young adult novel-turned-film series have even come close to capturing the deserved success of this generally fantastic set of populist films. The film has it’s dark and grim moments and there are some shocking turn of events for those who haven’t already devoured the books but the film ends as positively as could come from such a gloomy story. Overall, Part 2 is a success though without any actual hunger games the champion remains “Catching Fire” as the defining film in a film series that has rightfully captured the hearts and minds of so many.  GRADE: B+
Trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 on TrailerAddict.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Paperman: “Spotlight” Features a Top-Notch Acting Ensemble and Engrossing True Life Story

It's not surprising that films directed by actors usually feature truly great performances. “Spotlight” is no exception. Tom McCarthy, who previously directed indie films like “Win Win” and “The Visitor,” hits it big with “Spotlight.” It tells the true story about a team of writers at the Boston Globe who uncovered the massive child molestation scandal that rocked the Catholic church. McCarthy has appears on screen in films ranging from Hollywood fluff like “2012” and comedies like “Meet the Parents.” He's arguably stronger behind the camera as he directs his actors who give fantastic performances.

“Spotlight” is one of those “true story” films that sort of works like a documentary (though isn't at all shot like one) in that it sort of drops you in front of characters and slowly unravel a story that becomes more and more fascinating as time progresses. We're introduced to various newspaper reporters at the Boston Globe who make up the investigative Spotlight team. There's Michael Keaton's Robby, Rachel McAdams' Sacha, Mark Ruffalo's Mike, and Brian d'Arcy James' Matt. The new boss at the paper is Marty (Liev Schreiber) who wants the Spotlight team to investigate some reports of local priests who have been accused to molesting local children in the past. Some reports had been published years earlier but nothing really came of it. But the team is about to uncover the disturbing truth and blow the lid off one of the biggest cover ups of our time.

McCarthy lets the story and his actors do most of the hard work. He isn't interested in fancy camerawork or fancy editing. Not to say there aren't some great shots here. As the Spotlight team is out and about interviewing witnesses and victims there are many shots of large churches looming in the background. These beautiful buildings are actually hiding the ugly truth. The victims' testimonials are discussed in many disturbing details; many of them now fully grown up, as it turns out these crimes have been committed for decades and decades. It's not news to us as viewers (the film takes places back in 2001) but we're fascinated to discover the details as much as the characters are determined to uncover the fully truth even if they don't really know how deep this whole thing goes. 

“Spotlight” is certainly destined for awards success. There is always room for the true life social justice drama. Films like Erin Brockovich, All the President's Men, Silkwood, and The Insider etc are all films that told similar stories. “Spotlight” is a really-well made docudrama that features great performances and an extremely strong screenplay (written by McCarthy and Josh Singer). The acting ensemble is great and the story becomes more and more engrossing as it progresses. Watching the ins and outs of newspaper journalism (which is going the way of the dinosaur) is really interesting to see. The film also tells an important story without ever being preachy, exploitative, or treacly; it deserves all the accolades that are sure to come its way.  GRADE: B+  

Trailer for Spotlight on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spy Games: Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is an Excellent Historical Thriller

If any filmmaker could make me like a movie about the Cold War, Steven Spielberg is the one who could do it. And he did. “Bridge of Spies” is a perfectly fine Cold War thriller. It's a film that is competently made and rather entertaining and thankfully leaves out the stuffiness that was so present in “Lincoln” and “War Horse.” Even if Spielberg hasn't made a film that's taken place in modern day since 2005's “War of the Worlds” I'm at least thankful that he's still a master of Hollywood filmmaking. All of his modern Spielbergian touches are there from beams of light in smokey rooms, family dynamics, to impeccably timed moments of cinematic suspense. The only thing here that stands out as something radically different is Thomas Newman's terrific score. At least we know we'll be comforted knowing another composer could easily fill John Williams shoes. “Bridge of Spies” feels like what the dramatic period pieces “War Horse” and “Lincoln” should have been but weren't: flat-out entertaining.

I don't know a lot about the Cold War, and not that I want to point the finger of blame, but I never remember getting much beyond World War II in any of my school history classes. The fifties and sixties were a somewhat fascinating and terrifying time in the United States. There was political upheaval eventually but mostly there was a level of fear in the country at the time. Fear of an unseen enemy: communism. People feared Russia and their political ideology. Unfortunately, not much has really changed today. There's still a high level of fear that permeates our society, though the enemy has changed significantly. Spielberg has crafted a glorious recreation of the time period right down to kids being shown how to prepare for a nuclear attack.

In “Bridge of Spies” Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel who is arrested in Brookyn, New York on suspicions that he's a Russian spy. Tom Hanks is James Donovan, a lawyer who's asked to represent Abel in a trial. Donovan and Abel have a fascination relationship in that both men respect each other even if they are both “enemies.” Later, after a US spy plane pilot (played by Austin Stowell) is shot down over enemy territory, Donovan is tasked with making a deal to make a prisoner exchange. “Bridge of Spies” is like two stories in one. The first half largely focuses on Donovan and dealing with representing someone seen as a traitor and enemy of his country. The second half of the film focuses on Donovan as he's forced to go into enemy territory to help facilitate the prisoner exchange, which brims with suspense.

Spielberg has easily crafted one of his finest films since 2005's “Munich.” The film has that prestige factor with big stars and its finely crafted period setting, but there's an entertaining air about it and a sense of humor and humanity that surprisingly pervades the film. Credit writers Joel and Ethan Coen for their top notch screenplay contributions to Matt Charman's script, which, like many films made today, is based on a true story. It's also one of those “serious” Spielberg films that isn't pervasively violent for shock value. This is a film you could show in a high school history class without parental objections; and best of all, it's actually entertaining.

“Bridge of Spies” was a film I wasn't quite looking forward to. I long for the “fun” Spielberg adventures that seem to be a rarity nowadays. It's no surprise that as Steven Spielberg ages and matures his films reflect that. Luckily, his latest effort is a showcase of everything that makes him such a great storyteller and filmmaker. The film has great performances, rich characters, striking cinematography, top notch production design, and a beautiful score. It's not your average stuffy period piece, it's way more than that; and it's almost disturbingly relevant even in the year 2015.  GRADE: A-  
Trailer for Bridge of Spies on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Legally Bond: “Spectre” is a Worthy Follow Up to 'Skyfall'

If you had asked me nine years ago what I thought of the James Bond series I would have first rolled my eyes in disgust and then immediately confessed to never actually seeing any of them. Then “Casino Royale” came out, and while I didn't absolutely love it, I definitely didn't hate it. It felt like a Bond movie anyone could like and it was a perfect introduction for those like me who felt indifferent to the entire franchise. When “Quantum of Solace” came out I could finally say I hated a Bond movie that I had actually witnessed in its entirety. And then in 2012, everything changed and “Skyfall” officially made me a fan. It changed the game arguably even more so than “Casino Royale” and instantly became one of the most beloved—critically and commercially—films in the series. “Spectre” continues that success in a way that is almost polarizing. It feels like the version of “Skyfall” that was made for fans of the series, which immediately isolates many people who loved watching the Daniel Craig films evolve the way they have. To put it simply, “Spectre” is a great, if flawed, modern Bond film; not as good as “Skyfall” but certainly one of the better made films in the series.

Does anyone really care about the plot of a James Bond movie? I can't even attempt to describe the plot here and not because it's confusing in a “Quantum of Solace” type of a way, but because it's almost pointless in describing whether a James Bond film is good or not. This latest entry, also directed by master filmmaker Sam Mendes is sort of the more “fun” version of "Skyfall." It has way more of the cliched Bond moments and has certain elements to specifically cater to the fans. But that's fine in my book because since I've spent that last few years catching up on the Bond films they're all fresh in my mind and it's always fun getting the references. It turns out the main baddie here played by Christophe Waltz was the true mastermind behind the other baddies in the previous three films. No reason to spoil who this character really is, though fans will not be too surprised. The Bond girl, is well played by Lea Seydoux and finally gadget man Q played by Ben Whishaw has a more important role. Guardian of the Galaxy's Dave Bautista is also great as a Jaws-like silent baddie called Mr. Hinx.

What makes Spectre, and for the record Skyfall, such great successful James Bond films, is how well polished they really are. Gone is the campy silliness that flowed through the Bond films of the 70s and 80s. When you watch a Roger Moore James Bond film you expect, and want, that silliness. Daniel Craig is all business. It's an almost entirely different portrayal – you either like it or you don't. It definitely works as a modern interpretation. And this more suave, and realistic, version pairs well with the fantastic production value and cinematic elements, like more realistic action, characters, and photography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins who has a goldeneye behind the camera was a godsend in the last film; here we get Interstellar's Hoyte Van Hoytema's camerawork with almost equally fantastic results. There's no more corny music; composer Thomas Newman grounds the film in a modern score that most likely won't sound dated twenty years from now. Cinematically speaking everything is just as good as “Skyfall;” including a standout opening sequence (featuring a great long take and thrilling helicopter fight).

“Spectre's” own worst enemy is that it's the first Bond film after “Skyfall” which immediately makes it subpar in most people's minds. Sure some of the script issues are apparent and some may decry that the film's third act isn't very strong. Go watch a Roger Moore entry and tell me that “Spectre” is a worse film. Even Moore's best movie “The Spy Who Loved Me” has boring parts and is unbelievably silly. Seriously go ahead, I dare you. I'll wait.  GRADE: A-  

Trailer for Spectre on TrailerAddict.