INSIDE OUT**** Wildly Inventive


imgres

We’ve come to expect nothing less than brilliance from Pixar (“Toy Story” etc); and its new production, “Inside Out” delivers in spades.

Written (mostly) and directed by Peter Docter (“Up”, “Monsters Inc” and as writer, “Wall.E” and “Toy Story 2”) this is a hugely inventive movie. It manages to offer a simple enough idea: “sadness is OK” via a journey through the complex issues of identity, personality, memory and angst, all wrapped up in a charming, funny, thoroughly engaging action adventure.

The movie presents a world from inside the heads of its key character, an eleven-year old girl, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Were introduced to her as a tiny newborn with two characters banging around in her head: joy and sadness. Joy (Amy Poelhr) is a chirpy Tinker Bell-like creature that trails happiness in her wake; sadness (Phyllis Smith from “the Office”) is, naturally, blue and is a worried, bespectacled, shoulder-slumped, librarian type soul. At a tiny Star Trek-type console, they shape little Riley’s moods and memories.

Things change as Riley begins to grow up. Her life evolves from the simple toddler’s world to the more complex one of the young pre-teen, with its growing conflicts and worries. In story terms, her world shifts (symbolically) from the bright carefree open skies of Minnesota to the darker, more threatening, more claustrophobic world of inner city living (San Francisco). Dad, once the center of her life, becomes more distant because of his needs to travel. And so, to Joy and Sadness and the mental worlds they created of Family, Honesty, Friendship, Hockey and Goofball Fun comes Anger (a towering Lewis Black who you may remember from “John Stewart”), Fear (“Bill Hader from “Trainwreck) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling)

The happy toddler, saddened by her loss of the old neighborhood, grows into a lonely, moody, angry little girl. At the outside level, that’s because she’s overwhelmed by all the changes in her life. But really it’s because Joy and Sadness have been zapped through a suction tube, into the dark world of long term memory. Riley’s moods are now in the hands only of Anger, Fear and Disgust. She snaps at her parents, storms out of her hockey matches and needs to escape back to the innocence of Minnesota. Those core elements of her personality (Family, Honesty etc) begin to crumble.

imgres-1

Joy and Sadness must combine forces along with a half remembered imaginary friend and engage on an epic journey through the Stygian swamp of long-term memory, via the subconscious, past creatures such as The Forgetters, who dump memories they deem unimportant (they’re very active in my head) and across the dehumanizing plains of abstract thought. The only way back to master control is by hitching a ride on the Train of Thought (which of course powers down once Riley is asleep) through Imagination Land…

Pixar Post - Inside Out Spanish Trailer 03

And on and on.

And this is a child’s movie? The kids there ‘got it’ all, and had a ball (even as the adults in the cinema next door were grappling with the more intellectually challenging worlds of “Ant-Man” and “Jurassic World”)

Hmm.

Once again, Pixar: 1; the rest of Summer Blockbusters: 0

 

ANT-MAN** Small Guy Meets Big Laffs


AntmanArt_article_story_large

It appears that superheroes now come in two basic molds: the dark, brooding, angst-ridden mold (Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine) and the wise-ass funny guy mold (Iron Man, Peter Quill – “Guardians of the Galaxy” – and now, the latest addition, Scott Lang, aka, Ant-Man)
“Ant-Man” is a great comedy routine in search of a story.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a burglar with a heart of gold and a daughter he longs to be worthy of. When we meet him, he’s now leaving prison, intent on going straight. Clearly, that’s never going to happen. And for reasons that defy logic, he’s recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a highly principled scientist who’s invented a suit which can shrink its wearer to the size (and relative power) of an ant. He’s also, handily developed a means of communicating with and controlling ants. Hank wants Lang to break into a highly guarded facility to steal a similar shrink-to-fit suit developed by one of Dr. Pym’s assistants, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”). Cross has fewer scruples than Dr Pym and has sold the technology to a league of bad guys (all of whom look like bankers. I can only assume this was coincidental).

As an arch nemesis, Corey Stoll is dull and unconvincing. In terms of real bad guys (think Ultron), two men the size of ants wrecking a child’s play room somehow lacks the drama of the usual full scale destruction of cities we’re accustomed to.

And as the mastermind of the invention, Michael Douglas seems to have wandered in from another movie, emoting boorishly about a dead wife. For some reason, Dr. Pym has sought to lie about the reason for her death to his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, still “Lost”). This is a sub plot that seems to have been sliced into the story to add some sort of emotional centre to the movie.

It doesn’t

Hope’s role (she mainly has to react to everything that’s going on around her) is part of the new trend in ‘love interest babes’. Whereas once these eye candy objects of romance simply screamed and looked vulnerable and fragile (Kristin Dunst as Spiderman’s girl), now, since this cliché probably isn’t doing well with focus groups, the new love interest type is the powerful boss bitch type (Bryce Dallas Howard of “Jurassic World”) who finally melts into the arms of the superhero.

And yet, almost despite itself, “Ant-Man” is quite fun. Paul Rudd is a charming, self-effacing, thoroughly unlikely superhero. Between his smartass repartee and the flamboyant storytelling of his excitable Latino friend Luis (Michael Peña of “Fury” and “American Hustle”), much of this movie is laugh out loud, funny. There are some very clever lines and superb visual gags. It’s as though the director (Peyton Reid who was shoe-horned into the role when the original director was fired) really wanted to shoot a comedy but had to pay lip service to a few superhero tropes.

More than this, some of the special effects (in particular, one sequence when Ant-Man shrinks to a sub atomic scale and enters a quantum universe) are imaginative and beautifully executed (much more interesting than the much lauded accuracy of the “Interstellar” black hole sequences)

And so, once again, with it $58M opening week-end, the Marvel hit machine seems to have turned an ant into its latest franchise giant.

 

 

LOVE AND MERCY****. Good Vibrations


LOVE-MERCY-6

THERE’S A FINE and often unclear line that divides the ephemera of pop music and pop culture – with its single-minded drive for popularity and profit – from the timelessness of art. Equally fine is the line that divides what pop culture would label as madness (autism? eccentricity? uniqueness? individuality?) and artistic genius.
“Love and Mercy” is an engaging, wonderfully well acted exploration of the boundaries of this line.

Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson, whose life is the subject of the movie, is one of those grand masters, whose music, breaking free from the straitjacket of the pop music status quo, crossed the line. The movie offers us the clear divide between the Beach Boys (“we just need to follow the formula and get another hit”) and Brain Wilson (blow up the formula. Experiment or die).

We enter into the story just as the fame of the Beach Boys is surging. But Brian wants out of touring and performing and simply wants to retreat to the safe sanctuary of the studio to experiment with sounds and lyrics, with results that perplex and anger his fellow band members

Like the issue of pop v art, the movie is constructed in two interlocked halves.

love-and-mercy-oren-moverman-on-making-a-cinematic-brian-williams-biopic

Paul Dano (“Twelve Years a Slave”, “Prisoners”) is the young Brain Wilson: a shy, soft-spoken musical visionary. He was an introspective, battered kid, emotionally and physically abused by a stern, controlling, unappreciative father (Bill Camp; “Birdman”, “Lincoln”). This is the father who listens to Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and deems it crap.

As an adult, past his peak, past the adulation of Beach Boy fame (an equally compelling John Cusak), he’s equally abused by another father figure -a controlling menacing charlatan, Dr. Eugene Landy (a deliciously, hissably, villainously evil, and always watchable Paul Giamatti in a bad wig).

In biographical terms we might just as well be watching a bio of Michael Jackson with is own abusive father and dubious medical advice.

Director Pohlad and lead writer Oren Moverman (“The Messenger” and the Dylan bio-pic, “I’m not There”) makes it clear that Brian (pardon the pun) is listening to a different beat from that of his brothers. After the disingenuous success of the Beach Boys’ surfer sounds (brilliant harmonies, crooning about a world they never lived), the band just wants more of same (fame and fortune and bubble gum lyrics). But Brian, demonized, by the abuse, which becomes a debilitating aural cacophony, has to use his music not as a pathway to profit, but as an escape route from his head. Like any artist, he has to find a pattern in chaos, a meaning in the madness.

Pohlad brings us into the studio. This is Brain’s world: one cut off from the outside; one where he is absolutely in control and speaking a language – code really – only his studio musicians can understand. Like building blocks of sound, we follow the flow as Wilson’s rich, nuanced music takes shape. The result is a collection (“Pet Sounds”) that was an unique, intimate, musically complex departure from the status quo of simple-minded pop. It’s where, like his reference point, The Beatles, pop became art.

The critics loved it; the adoring public didn’t.

The result, despite the redemption of “Good Vibrations” (always and forever on every Boomer’s play list): three years in bed. For three years, unable to turn the noises in his head into music, Wilson retreated to his bed – a recurring visual motif in the film (the place of sleep, sex and safety)

01-love-and-mercy.w529.h352.2x

The older, drug-controlled Wilson that we meet in a Cadillac sales room many years later, unnervingly focused on trying to buy a car, is too ga-ga even for the liberating release of music. Here love, more than music (and maybe director Pohlad is suggesting that love and art have interchangeable values) becomes the escape route. It’s a route mapped by the woman who would become his liberator and the centre of his life. Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”, “Pitch Perfect 2”) is Melinda Ledbetter, his (present) wife. Hers is a more subtle, low-keyed performance which refuses to be upstaged by the hysteria of Cusak’s mind-blown Wilson. She is the uber frau: sexy, caring, brassy and protective.

And like the session musicians in his early years who ‘got’ it, who understood and appreciated the complex musicianship banging around in his head, Melinda intuits how to appreciate and channel the talent, even as she loves the man, hidden somewhere below the fog of drugs.

Love, art, drugs, escapism and madness.

Perhaps art in the end is no more, or no less than a kind of good vibrations’ Star Trek translation device. An app that enables a few gifted souls a means of making the esoteric (the world of private demons and longings) public; and as Kant might suggest, a viewing portal for us mere mortals, into the illuminating intimacy of another mind.

The movie ends, as the credits roll, charmingly on a video of the real Brian Wilson, now a septuagenarian, still performing, happily his latest masterpiece, “Love and Mercy”. It’s lyrics seem entirely apt: “I just wasn’t made for these times”