Tuesday, June 21, 2016

CHOPPY WATERS: a review of "Finding Dory"

A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Story by Andrew Stanton
Screenplay Written by Andrew Stanton & Victoria Strouse
Directed by Andrew Stanton Co-Directed by Angus MacLane
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

I am thinking that I just now have to resign myself that Pixar as I knew and loved it is gone.

Dear readers, if you have been regulars followers of this blogsite, then you have been able to chart the evolution of my reviews of films released under the Pixar banner over the previous six years. Through that charting, you will be able to regard the decline in my favorable feelings towards these films as well as my overall distaste at the obvious pandering to commercialism these exceptionally talented filmmakers and animators have taken at the expense of the artistic quality. These creative individuals created the gold standard for American animated feature films for so long that it just still disheartens me that they have seemingly tossed it all aside for the easy money via subpar sequels and prequels making an outstanding feature like "Inside Out" (2015) the rarity when a film like that was once the norm for them.

The prospect of "Finding Dory" certainly did not hold any sense of appeal for me. Partially because it is arriving 13 years after the wonderful, groundbreaking original "Finding Nemo" (2003), but mostly because this film is ushering n a new wave of more Pixar sequels that we'll be seeing over the next few years including the likes of the unrequested "Cars 3" and, let's face it, the wholly unnecessary "Toy Story 4." For me, "Finding Dory" sits somewhere in the middle. It doesn't approach the ingenuity and depth of "Toy Story 2" (1999) but it is also not an unimaginative time waster like "Monsters University" (2013). While it certainly won't upend or match the heights met with "Finding Nemo," this new film is mildly diverting, finding its compelling groove in fits and starts and anchored terrifically by a wonderfully rich and empathetic performance by Ellen DeGeneres as our forgetful heroine.

Opening one year after the events of the first film, the perpetually amnesiac Pacific regal blue tank Dory (again voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is subjected to a series of flashbacks, fragmented memories and dreams concerning her life long before her meeting with worry-wort Clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence). Her memories now fully triggered inspire her to search for her long lost parents Charlie (voiced by Eugene Levy) and Jenny (voiced by Diane Keaton), whom she has not seen since her childhood.

Dory's odyssey, during which she is often aided and/or pursued by Marlin and Nemo, takes her in and out of the ocean and often inside of the Marine Life Institute where she is tentatively befriended by Hank (voiced by Ed O'Neil), a cantankerous, seven tentacled octopus who is fearful of ocean life and only wishes to be taken from the Institute to a permanent aquarium in Cleveland.

With old friends like Crush the sea turtle (voiced by Andrew Stanton) and new companions like Bailey the beluga whale (voiced by Ty Burrell), Fluke and Rudder, two territorial sea lions (voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West, respectively) as well as a reunion with her childhood friend, Destiny (voiced by Kaitlin Olson), a near-sighted whale shark, Dory's search for her parents results in a true coming of age adventure where she realizes that what may seem to be her greatest detriment may actually serve as her ultimate virtue.

As with the original film, Andrew Stanton's "Finding Dory" is a dazzling, magnificent feast for the eyes and Pixar's trademark visual presentation is second to none and even improves upon the wondrous sights and details of the first film. For all of the varieties of fish and aquatic life sea animals upon display throughout the film, what really made my eyes pop this time around was all of the details the filmmakers and animators placed within the details of water itself. The water as seen within the ocean, fish tanks, glass cups, to even mop buckets all possessed clear and distinct qualities that differentiated one setting from another and again, I was marveled by the texture and the obvious razor sharp attention to detail that only enhanced this cinematic wonderland.

But even so, with Pixar, this level of attention and artistry is to be expected by this point and anything less than that would essentially be unforgivable by audiences and critics. Even so, I truly wish this same detail was given to the overall storytelling, and therefore, purpose to the entire enterprise. Essentially, "Finding Dory" is not much more than a footnote to an infinitely better film. In fact, I will ask of you to take the same "test" as I have given to people concerning the "Toy Story" and "Monsters Inc." series. Ten years from now, which installment do you honestly think that you would still be watching? For me, in this case, it will always be "Finding Nemo" as that film carried a simple, clean and emotionally harrowing yet honest storyline about parental anxieties that just happened to star a collective of sea creatures. It was a world that I hadn't seen before and furthermore, it was a complete, full experience that demanded subsequent repeat viewings that only continued to enrich the experience.

"Finding Dory" on the other hand doesn't offer very much that felt to be of a new variety. That is not to suggest that it was a work of laziness or something more mercenary. I think that Stanton's heart was in the right place. But that being said, the film felt to be somewhat padded in many sections within the Marine Life Institute and especially, the climax. Additionally, jokes that were hysterical the first time around are repeated ad nauseum this time around and I do have to say that a certain credibility was more than lost.

Now, please know that I do understand that I am reviewing an animated feature starring talking fish but I do have to say that within "Finding Nemo," the characters did indeed all tend to behave as...well...fish. It was, for lack of a better word, believable...or at least, I was able to buy the fantasy being presented to me and just lose myself within the story. With "Finding Dory," I was often distracted by how many times our characters found themselves outside of water...and not just once, but several times throughout the film. And returning to that climax, which is, believe it or not, a highway chase with a seven tentacled creature at the wheel, I found myself not buying the fantasy and just finding the proceedings to be more than a little silly ad not remotely compelling or exciting.

What was exciting, compelling and heart tugging for me was Dory herself. As further conceived by Stanton and beautifully voiced by DeGeneres, "Finding  Dory" gave our heroine a greater depth and pathos that fully informed the character, making s see her in an entirely new light while also deepening our love and concern for her well being. The film's opening moments are among the very best and most heartbreaking as we witness Dory as a child immediately forgetting safety instructions her parents have given to her, thus increasing their fear for her overall security and even greater, increasing Dory's sense of helplessness, feeling as a disappointment or failure to her loving parents, to even a lack of self confidence. Once separated from her parents, and for much of the remainder of the film, there existed a certain existential terror at the heart of the otherwise cheerful Dory that made you wish to wrap your own arms around her just to protect her.

With "Finding Dory," her short term memory loss is not utilized as a punchline. In fact, Dory made me think of anyone, especially a child who is armed with a learning disability, ADD or ADHD or someone who  even exists somewhere on the autism spectrum, and I wonder about the difficulties in their navigation of the world. In this case, Dory is indeed that child and what we gather from her adventures is indeed how she does indeed navigate the world, at first making apologies for her difficulties and soon, embracing them as abilities. Dory is an wonderfully uncompromising character in this regard as the film never attempts to alter her personality and in fact, criticizes those who do chastise her for her forgetfulness. Dory is a character who ultimately learns to live with her issues through her perseverance, which gives her strength even when all feels to be forever lost. And to t hat end, Dory may have emerged as one of Pixar's most endearing characters and  would hope that young viewers would latch onto her in an even greater fashion than ever before because she richly deserves any attention and love she may happen to receive.

All in all, "Finding Dory" was fair. Nothing wonderful, nothing terrible. Yet, what makes me feel so sad about this revelation is everything that I have shared wit you in the past. Pixar can do better than this because they have done better than this...over and over and over again.  And besides, after a 13 year wait, don't you think that Dory deserved the very best that Pixar had to offer?

I certainly do...and we deserved it as well.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

MATCHMAKER, MATCHMAKER, MEH...: a review of "Maggie's Plan"

Based upon a story by Karen Rinaldi
Written For The Screen and Directed by Rebecca Miller
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

Oh dear readers, if you really had any idea as to how closely that I almost wrote the word "meh" for this latest review and left it at that.

Very recently, I began to actually wonder about the status of the romantic comedy. Now, this is not because I had been necessarily missing the genre but with the plethora of sequels, reboots, re-imaginings, comic books movies and toy film franchises having overtaken our theater screens, it is a bit of a surprise to see how other tried and true genres have fallen by the wayside. I have been extremely critical of the romantic comedy genre over the duration of Savage Cinema as it became a genre where people and environments approximating our real world behaved and operated in ways not even one single person would ever behave and all in completely contrived situations and entirely devoid of any notions resembling the romantic.

Granted, filmmakers along the likes of Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko and especially Nicole Holofcener, with films like "Knocked Up" (2007), "The Kids Are All Right" (2010) and the truly special "Enough Said" (2013) respectively, are all examples of how the emotional, sexual and romantic honesty has returned to the genre, therefore delivering much needed new life into romantic comedies, depicting life how it is lived and most importantly felt. That said, the frequency of romantic comedies, even those weaker ones, usually those Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, and/or Kate Hudson driven escapades, with all manner of ridiculous wacky plot lines have faded considerably but still, it is a strange sight to not see those kinds of movies being released often.

And now, we arrive with Writer/Director Rebecca Miller's "Maggie's Plan," a new, independent romantic comedy that certainly attracted me from the trailers I saw through its cast and a certain quality that suggested that the film would be of a witty, literate quality. But there was one troubling element and a major one at that...Ms. Greta Gerwig.

For whatever reasons, I have not been able to drink the kool aid regarding Greta Gerwig, an actress that I have never found to be charming or beguiling. Frankly, I have found her to be maddeningly insufferable, plastic and filled with the very self-congratulatory quirkiness that smack horribly of the worst hipster qualities that I abhor.

Don't get me wrong, this is nothing personal as I do not know her and I do not wish for my feelings to be taken as such. This is solely due to how she has presented herself on screen, most notably within the so-so "Greenberg," (2010), the odious "Frances Ha" (2013) and the even worse "Mistress America" (2015), all three films she has made with Noah Baumbach,

Just the sight of Gerwig now makes me want to disregard the film as a whole...almost, because, this time, with "Maggie's Plan" not being directed by Baumbach, I wondered if perhaps I should give Gerwig just one more chance. Maybe under another director's vision, she would be able to present a different side of her creative personality, one that would hopefully carry the very appeal that has eluded me for all of this time. Unfortunately, "Maggie's Plan" did nothing to alleviate my distaste. Not through any of that aforementioned self-congratulatory quirkiness. No. Just a template that is wholly bland, dry and lifeless.

"Maggie's Plan" stars Greta Gerwig as the titular Maggie,a young, independent yet romantically unlucky New Yorker who decides to become a single Mother and inseminate herself with the sperm of Guy (Travis Fimmel), a former college acquaintance and now, a pickle entrepreneur soon to strike a deal with Whole Foods.

Ever the neurotic and control obsessed, Maggie's life plan takes a surprising turn when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), an author and self-described "ficto-critical anthropologist" stuck in a turbulent marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a time consumed Columbia University professor. Maggie and John strike up a friendship. She begins to read his manuscript. He falls in love with Maggie and the two begin an affair which concludes with the dissolution of John and Georgette's marriage and a new marital union between John and Maggie further culminated with the birth of their daughter.

A few years later, Maggie finds her life with John stuck in a rut and wondering if she has indeed fallen out of love with him. Thus, she hatches a plot to reunite John...and Georgette!!

With the setting, the story and the actors, it would seem that Rebecca Miller's "Maggie's Plan" is setting itself up to function as a sort of classic Woody Allen feature with a collective of  highly educated yet emotionally stunted, overactive or immature New Yorkers, all bantering with quick quips and smart one-liners all on their way to finding some semblance of true love. Sadly, Miller just does not possess Allen's peerless gift with characters, dialogue, and even psychology to make her material fly.

To that end, "Maggie 's Plan" also possesses the classic Allen theme of free will vs. fate or the conceit having a figure attempting to exhibit some level of control over an uncontrollable and unforgiving universe. This is precisely Maggie's plan, or series of plans as she houses a vision of the person she wishes to be fueled by her passionate desires but over and again, finds her best laid plans thwarted by the a variety of circumstances, she surprisingly never saw coming but the audience can see a mile away.

Certainly, this element of the film lends itself to functioning as slapstick, which at its best, could provide wild laughter combined with urgent emotions to fuel its beating heart. But, Miller has serious problems with pacing throughout "Maggie's Plan," as scenes just shuffle and drag along, never really heading anywhere, definitely not building upwards with any sense of momentum and all with a tinge of that ironic distance which does not serve a film of this nature any good whatsoever. There is always a flight of fantasy with the romantic comedy genre that is designed to attempt to give our hearts a lift. Yet, "Maggie's Plan" often feels like the hipster version of a romantic comedy, too concerned with its own image of cool and unwilling to just let go of its own trappings.

As for Greta Gerwig, well, I have to say that she annoyed me the least during this film but I am not won over by any means. In fact, I have to give her a little credit for being perhaps the mos grounded that I have seen her yet. Furthermore, she has one scene early in the film as Maggie describes her upbringing to John during their courtship that is quite lovely in its honesty and tenderness and suggested just what a film "Maggie's Plan" ultimately could have become if it just didn't wallow in its own torpid inertia.

Additionally, and especially in 2016, it was indeed a bit disheartening to have yet another film set in urban New York city that is so insufferably lily white as if no ethnicities beyond Caucasians exist--i.e. the "Friends" dimension, so to speak.

But wait..in a supporting role, there is indeed Maya Rudolph whose character is married to Bill Hader and are parents to two little ones. Now, I do have to say that often during romantic comedies, I tend to find myself wondering and becoming more interested in the leading characters' best friends and sidekicks, often finding them more of an interest and even attractiveness. That quality certainly occurred during "Maggie's Plan," as I grew so tired of viewing these three blandly self-absorbed leading characters stuck in a tired threesome where there was this much more interesting dynamic just to the left of them, an interracial married couple with children in New York City. Following Rudolph, Hader and their kids would have been an infinitely more interesting plan to undertake, in my opinion.

Well, at least "Maggie's Plan" did seem to function in a real world with tangible characters caught in a tangible romantic quandary. I liked Ethan Hawke as his performance felt to be the most emotionally honest--although it, and the film, only served to remind me of the greatness of his collaborations with Richard Linklater on all three of their "Before..." films (1995/2004/2013). Julianne Moore also seemed to be having fun trying on a harsh Danish accent...cute. The film had it's heart in the right place, its intentions were fine and it definitely wasn't stupid.

But the sometimes, and like Maggie discovers over and again, the best laid plans...well, you know.

Monday, June 6, 2016

ANIMAL FARM: a review of "The Lobster"

Screenplay Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
**** (four stars)

Dear readers, at this time I want for you to take a journey back into your movie memories and think back to any time in your lives when you have exited a film feeling completely transformed or feeling as if your senses have been so profoundly altered that the world looks different than when you first went into the movie theater. The images that you have witnessed have riveted themselves to your brain. You can instantly recall not only the images but the feelings you had when you saw them for the first time. It is the type of movie that ceases to function as solely a movie--even a great one. It s when a movie becomes and experience, where the artistic vision of the filmmaker is so triumphantly complete and uncompromising that you realize that you have entered a bold new world.

At this time, I wish to turn your attention to "The Lobster," Director Yorgos Lanthimos' debut English language feature film as it is the shining example of precisely the type of film...or much better yet, the experience, that I have just described. As of this writing, "The Lobster" is the best film that I have seen in 2016 and I woud be hard pressed to think that I will see another film this year that equals its towering level of artistry and audacity. To delve even further, I also feel that "The Lobster" is one of the very best films that I have seen within these last ten years. 

Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster" is a film of such a rare class and breed, that it firmly sits alongside some other features that superbly rattled my cages and shook me to my core over the recent years, like Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008). Frankly, and please do forgive the slight vulgarity, but this film kicked my ass--precisely the only words that I was even able to utter to myself once I was finally able to leave the theater and begin my drive back home. In fact, my mind returned me to t hose moments way back in high school when I exited Chicago's Music Box Theater after viewing Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (1985) for the very first time. Yes, "The Lobster" is that kind of a movie.

Granted, "The Lobster" is not a film designed for the masses and nor should it be. This is a polarizing feature that is designed to be discussed and debated over passionately in either amazement, disgust, confusion or any combined emotions and judgement. And therefore, this level of discourse that is bound to occur once you see the film for yourselves, is exactly what should be expected when confronted with an undeniable work of art or at least, a filmmaker's statement of his/her artistic intent and exploration. Yet remember, one is unable to join the conversation unless one views this unique film and as if you have not been able to gather already, I am passionately urging you to head out and see "The Lobster" as soon as possible.

In the interest of keeping the full experience of "The Lobster" as pure and as untainted as possible, I will keep the plot description to as much as you would gather from the film's trailer. Set in a near future dystopian society, "The Lobster" stars Colin Farrell (in one of his finest and most committed performances to date) as David, a newly unmarried man who leaves his home in The City to check into The Hotel, an establishment where single people are given 45 days to find a lifetime romantic partner yet if they fail to do so within the allotted time, they will be transformed into the animal of their choosing, and in David's case, he decides upon a lobster.

Now, if you are scratching your heads with that description, believe me, I was doing so just as well when I first happened to see the trailers. Being transformed into animals? Was this metaphorical or literal? To know for certain you do need to see the film as I do not wish to spoil but the result of this experience was one that was chillingly disturbing as well as existentially frightening.

What I do feel comfortable sharing with you is that "The Lobster" essentially functions as a pitch black satire/grim science fiction oddity that explores the nature of relationships in the 21st century, much like Spike Jonze's outstanding "Her" (2013)--most specifically, loneliness and the societal constructs about single vs. married people and how those constructs pit one against the other while also creating demands and ideals in both situations so impossible that people would not only be unable to live up to them, any sense of individuality or human empathy are doomed to be crushed by the Kafkaesque Hotel staff and management as well as the band of renegade "Loners" hiding in the woods and finally, the Orwellian nature of The City itself.

In Latinos' dark vision, "The Lobster" presents a world where bisexuality is no longer a viable sexual choice, masturbation is illegal and relationships are formulated solely through some sort of matched physical ailment such as a limp, a lisp, a spontaneously bleeding nose or imperfect vision and through nothing relating to the content of one' character or humanity. For the staff of The Hotel, singledom for males represents a life doomed to die alone after choking upon a meal and for women, the single life represents an existence where she is doomed to be raped unless she is perfectly matched with a man.

Life with The Loners is no less harrowing as no signs of human attraction between each other are allowed whatsoever unless one risks severe punishment. And the two factions are indeed pitted against each other in wholly barbaric fashions also designed to wrestle any sense of humanity out of the equation, therefore making all of us nothing more than animals all engaged in a soul extinguishing pseudo-romantic survival of the fittest and all leading to a shattering climax in which even the adage of "love is blind" is brutally challenged.

Lanthimos also creates a palpable existential urgency as he provides for us the concept of meeting your maker and knowing precisely the date when your last day will occur. What would you do in those circumstances? Fight, flight or accept?

And with all of those themes, "The Lobster" is being promoted as a...comedy.

As I have been going about my business and crowing about this film to friends about my fair city, I have been asked if the film was indeed "funny." Well...that is if you consider something like Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) a comedy. There are mighty Kubrick-ian undertones within Lathinos' aesthetic and presentation. The meticulously constructed and framed visual perspectives, the repetitive classical music that grows more sinister when heard on the soundtrack, the cold, almost detached atmospherics, the uncompromising to nearly impenetrable vision.

And yet, it is somehow playful. I did laugh in places. But, this film is not "funny" like your mainstream comedy by any means. "The Lobster" is nightmare comedy, filled with starkly grim, gallows humor that functions as existential quicksand. The clipped, deadpan vocal delivery of the dialogue which makes everyone sound robotic is not some sort of indie film construct of that self-congratulatory quirkiness that I often rally against. It is entirely purposeful as the characters that exist within this universe all live within a specific space and time where the honesty and fragility of their emotion as and personalities do not comply with society's new rules and to elicit otherwise would be life altering. I guess, think of it like this: "The Lobster" is sort of like Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel merged with Kubrick's Overlook Hotel from "The Shining" (1980) where one's final destination, should they not find a life partner, is a room straight out of Kevin Smith's "Tusk" (2014)--and save for one short sequence, all without any graphic on-screen violence.

Even with everything that occurs within a film this macabre, Lanthimos also finds comparable room to display some magic, especially every single time that we are witness to an animal. The sight makes you double take for a moment or two and once leaving the theater, animals certainly do carry a certain extra level of presence, where you wonder if there is another layer to their already full personalities that allow us to make these connections with each other.

Yorgos Lanthimos's "The Lobster" is a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that I am urging you to step outside of your comfort zones to witness upon the big screen. All of the sequels and reboots aren't going anywhere but it is films like these that are really at risk of falling into obscurity. No, it is not meant to be a box office smash but I also believe that it should not be relegated in the corners of the quirky cult film either. To me, Lanthimos has created a work of unquestionable greatness that demands your attention and regard. You may love it as I did or you may loathe it powerfully, and that is purely fine as this is exactly the type of film that wants for you to not view it passively and then forget, but to engage with it, tussle with it, allow it to seep into your minds and emotions to force a reaction and therefore, a response.

"The Lobster" is fearless cinema and again, it is far and away the finest, boldest, bravest, most powerful film that I have seen yet in 2016.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Summer is now upon us and with that, the Summer Movie Season will only heat up. With that, I do have to admit to you that as I look at the listings for new releases, I am discovering  how underwhelmed I happen to be as so many, too many are of the sequel/remake/reboot variety. Including two, that do have my curiosity as well as my heavy skepticism...
1. After scoring with what just may be the finest film they have realized in last year's "Inside Out," the wizards of Pixar are now beginning their next phase, an unfortunate stream of sequels opening with the inaugural "Finding Dory," the sequel to one of their finest efforts, "Finding Nemo" (2003). I have to admit to you that for quite some time, I really had not planned upon seeing this film at all. But after reading interviews with Co-Writer/Director Andrew Stanton, I am willing to give this film a chance with the hopes that it will lean more heavily towards the likes of "Toy Story 2" (1999) and not "Cars 2" (2011). 
2. Even more perplexing to me is the arrival of Director Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day: Resurgence," a full 20 years after the original film--but in this age of reboots and sequels, I suppose that it was only inevitable. That said, early trailers have impressed me and maybe this will be as fun of a ride after all. Here's hoping!
3. For something original, I am just itching to get to my Sundance theater this coming weekend and see Director Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster" starring Colin Farrell and Rachael Weisz. Already the recipient of rave reviews, I am seriously looking forward to experiencing something different, something wholly unique and special.

Beyond those three features, we'll just have to see. But, as always, wish me luck and I'll see you when the house lights go down!