Inside Out

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Pete Docter and Ronald Del Carmen. Voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, and Kyle MacLachlan.

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I’ll say it right now before I begin this review: Inside Out is one of Pixar’s top three films.

Before Inside Out begins, Pixar reminds audiences why they are one of greatest creators of family entertainment. With the short film Lava, a cute and funny volcano romance, they take the unoriginal idea of a romance between two inanimate objects and turn it into a sequence of witty wordplay and gorgeous 3D animation. There’s not much to the short beyond that, but the story is cute enough to entertain small children, and the presentation is clever enough entertain adults.

Like Lava, Inside Out contains a vibrant colorful world that is enthralling for any age to behold, and while the story can similarly be followed by any age viewer, there are many nuances which will make the film richer and funnier as it awakens memories of growing up in older viewers.

Growing up is very much at the center of Inside Out. The ten minute prologue both establishes the theme of growing up and serves as a mesmerizing introduction to the world of the film. The prologue showcases sweet and funny incidents from Riley’s life as a baby as she grows into an eleven year old girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Initially, as a giggling smiling baby, she has one emotion insider her head: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). However, Joy is soon joined by the other emotion common to infants: Sadness (voiced Phyllis Smith). As Riley becomes a toddler then a child, three other emotions join Joy and Sadness inside her head: Anger, Fear, and Disgust (voiced by Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling respectively).

The five emotions are responsible for guiding Riley through each day and storing her memories as brightly colored balls — a different color for whichever emotion dominates the memory. Yellow = Joy, blue = Sadness, red = Anger, green = Disgust, and purple = Fear. According to Joy, a perfect day consists of an entire wall of glowing yellow globes which are then shipped off to long term memory as Riley falls asleep. Watching the humorous interactions which create those globes (Disgust: “It’s broccoli! He’s trying to poison us!”) and the intricate workings of Riley’s mind makes for Pixar’s most breathtaking and spellbinding prologue since WALL-E.

After the prologue, the story focuses on a particularly difficult transition of growing up: moving from Minnesota to San Francisco and the mild tension it creates in the otherwise great relationship between Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). The major upheaval is naturally stressful for the eleven year old Riley, and the five emotions in her head all cope with it according to their functions, which makes it harder for Joy to maintain her perfect days. Adding to Joy’s troubles, Sadness has taken on a new ability, and any memory globe she touches turns blue, appalling Joy that Riley’s memories are now tainted with sorrow.

Initially it seems like Sadness needs to learn not to tamper with the memories and allow Joy to control the headquarters of Riley’s mind as she has always done. “Stay in this circle, the circle of Sadness,” Joy tells her fellow emotion, and that almost seems believable, especially when Sadness touches a memory that leads to an embarrassing incident of Riley crying over the loss of her old home as she introduces herself on the first day at her new school. However, all the emotions have a legitimate place, and Joy’s desire to be the predominant presence in Riley’s mind soon becomes frustrating. After all there are times to celebrate, to mourn, to be afraid, and to be upset.

All the emotions have a useful purpose; Fear stops Riley from being reckless, Disgust stops her from making a fool of herself, Anger gives her determination, Joy keeps her happy, and given Joy’s predominance for awhile it is not clear how Sadness helps Riley. It is clear that all the emotions need to work together to help Riley transition through this difficult phase of her life, and there are hints throughout the film as to how that should be achieved. The answer is far simpler and more ingenious than one would imagine, and director/writer Pete Docter saves the revelation for the perfect moment.

The ancient Greeks believed in four humors, which would be in equal balance if a person were healthy. An excess or deficiency of any one was considered unhealthy. Pete Docter has repackaged that idea as five emotions inside every person’s mind. Any of those five can be absent or over abundantly present, resulting in an ill humor. A major strength of Inside Out is the way it presents a gradual understanding of that balance; Riley’s emotions mature as she does. A humorous episode in which we see the far more mature emotions inside Riley’s parents’ minds furthers that development.

Almost all children see the world very much in terms of black and white, which is one reason it is very rare to see a children’s movie with a morally compromised hero or a conflicted villain who occasionally struggles to do what is right. (With a climax that involves the protagonist apologizing for a serious transgression and a villain having a tragic past, Pixar’s last non-sequel, Brave, is something of an exception to that pattern.) Similarly, explaining to a child how something could be simultaneously happy and sad might not be particularly easy. Inside Out offers an explanation which occurs as a natural result of Riley growing up.

Inside Out‘s climax also shares a similarity with Brave in that the climax of both films is spurred by an overwhelming sense of regret and contrition. The beautiful heart touching scene that follows as a result of that feeling may be my favorite depiction of repentance, forgiveness, family bonding, and maturing in any family film.

In addition to its other strengths, Inside Out provides some very funny explanations for the workings of our brains. When any one emotion gets out of control, the film convincingly portrays how the most illogical destructive decisions seem logical. The pain and awkwardness that many children feel as they approach adolescence is explained by over indulging in one emotion or denying another, both of which are unhealthy.

The film’s coup de maître is showing children (and adults who may need reminding) that all our emotions are intertwined, and that unpleasant experiences are just as important as pleasant ones. Inside Out is not afraid to explore the pain and regrettable decisions which stem from out of control emotions, but it also relishes happy moments with beauty and joy, happy moments which would never exist if it were not for the whole messy and wonderful spectrum that constitutes human nature.

 

Content Advisory: Nothing really, mild family discord, a depiction of a nightmare involving a mean clown, and a humorously bleeped swear word; only the most sensitive kids would be upset.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Review Roundup

Belle and Sebastian – a delightful story of a boy and a dog living in the French Alps during WWII

The Lesson – an interesting but uneven drama of a moral, hard working teacher pushed to her breaking point

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The Producers

Year of Release: 1968     Directed by Mel Brooks.     Starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, and Lee Meredith.

“Leo, how much of something can you sell?”

“Max, the most you can sell of anything is 100%.”

“And how much of Springtime for Hitler have we sold?”

“25,000%.”

That exchange is a perfect example of the hilarious and brilliant absurdity of Mel Brooks’ original Oscar winning screenplay for his 1968 film The Producers, an outrageous farce about the extreme lengths to which greed can take people.

The opening scene gives a perfect example of those extremes, as it simultaneously introduces and contrasts the characters of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). When the nervous bumbling accountant Leo arrives to file Broadway producer Max’s taxes, he walks in on Max pursuing his chief source of income: sordid sex games with octogenarian widows, from whom he collects checks made out to “cash,” always the title of his latest play. Following that awkward encounter, Max is un-phased, and Leo is so uncomfortable as to be barely functioning. Taking advantage of Leo’s insecurity in a scene that involves references to ancient Roman history, breaking the fourth wall, and Max insisting he is a victim to be pitied, Max easily half bullies and half begs Leo to do some “creative accounting” to hide the $2,000 Max embezzled from his most recent flop, after all the IRS does not care about a little bit of money like $2,000, especially when the show was a flop.

If that is not thoroughly outrageous, the next incident possibly tops it, setting the plot in motion for the entire film. When Leo says, “Under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit,” Max is instantly sold on the idea. Assuming that the producer was a dishonest man, all he would have to do is raise one million dollars for a one night flop that costs only fifty thousand, and then he could keep the rest. The only catch is that the play would have to be guaranteed to close on its opening night. If it ran for more than one night, the backers would expect to be repaid, which would be impossible, because the play would have been oversold, thus exposing the massive fraud.

If it’s not already clear, assuming that the ex-king of Broadway Max Bialystock is a dishonest man is akin to assuming that Hitler slightly disliked the Jewish people. And Hitler will feature prominently in the worst play ever, a love letter to the dictator which will offend everyone and “close by page four,” which Max convinces Leo to co-produce with him.

In addition to lampooning Nazism, the jokes in The Producers ridicule prostitution, homosexuality, transvestitism, drug abuse, and of course, massive fraud. Obviously, the subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste, and it is not hard to understand why the film receive a morally offensive rating from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1968. However, declaring The Producers offensive misses the point of the unflattering mockery of everything and everyone in the film. The jokes take for granted that the behavior of all the characters is deeply unethical, and then it exaggerates that behavior to expose how stupid, shallow, and destructive such sinful behavior is. That is one of the best types of comedy.

The production of Max and Leo’s play, Springtime for Hitler, is abysmal. As absurd and horrifying as Max and Leo’s schemes are, nothing could prepare one for the atrocity of the production. Following in the footsteps of the rest of the film, the ten minute set piece is over-the-top absurd as it caricatures the foolishness of Max and Leo’s schemes, Nazism, sexism, and the audience’s reactions, which run the gamut from revulsion to bemusement to adoration.

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder make the perfect comic duo as the dishonest, greedy, washed-up Broadway producer and the nervous accountant with a literal security blanket. As the irate Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, who insists Hitler had a “song in his heart,” Kenneth Mars is so off-the-wall that during production Wilder wondered if Mars was actually crazy. Mel Brooks keeps the jokes coming at a very brisk pace, and as he cuts between the vulgar jokes and horrified reactions —usually from Leo but occasionally from the audience — he reminds the viewer how preposterous this entire film is.

The Producers is only ninety minutes long, and I easily spend eighty of them laughing.

 

Content Advisory: Much sexual humor, including references to prostitution, homosexuality, and transvestitism; Nazi related humor; drug themed humor; and very revealing costumes.         Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A

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Batman Begins

Can you believe it has been ten years since Nolan made Batman Begins?

Anyway, Ken Morefield graciously published my review debating how well the film has held up at 1More Film Blog.

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Interstellar

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Mackenzie Foy.

Since I never published anything here, I figured there was no time like the present to share my thoughts on Interstellar, a bold and beautiful piece of filmmaking that regrettably stumbles a bit towards the end.

For anyone who does not know the premise of Interstellar, it is as follows. When the future of the earth is severely threatened with dust storms and famine, former NASA scientist and now corn famer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is chosen to lead a team of astronauts into space to search for a new planet on which mankind can survive. Staunchly opposed to this mission is Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy who grows up into Jessica Chastain), who fears she will never see her father again. Whether he succeeds, whether he returns home, and whether he sees his daughter again all take second place to the dazzling special effects and complex world building, until Nolan decides to shift gears in the final hour.

(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph; skip to the following one if you don’t want the ending hinted at.)

In response to the more disappointing aspects of Interstellar, I came up with a snarky dismissal which is unfair to the film’s ambition, scope, and stunning visuals, but it does convey my biggest problem with Interstellar. So here goes: apparently, it takes three hours and a black hole to accomplish what you can accomplish in five minutes with weeping angels and a TARDIS. Also, the main theme of the movie can be summarized more succinctly and just as thoughtfully by a famous Beatles’ song.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I really did like Interstellar. A lot, actually. It is undoubtedly Nolan’s most ambitious film to date, and to watch him reach for the stars is breathtaking. The first hour and 45 minutes were just short of sublime, and I was thoroughly captivated by the stunning imagery, Cooper’s quest, and the dynamics between him, his daughter, the head of NASA (Michael Caine), and his fellow astronauts (led by Anne Hathaway). The relationships don’t rise that far beyond those of the standard Hollywood blockbuster. The eventual outcome of the mission is kind of obvious, and there is a big twist that I found easy to predict, but none of that bothered me. I was completely sold on the film.

Then shortly before the two hour mark, it started to go off the rails. When Hathaway made a big, important speech, Nolan tried to leave behind the puzzle making and science fiction, and tackle emotional and spiritual themes which transcend all else. It didn’t work. The scenes are too forced, the dialogue is too on the nose, and the scenarios aren’t original enough to rise above generic conventions the way Nolan wanted to.

By no means is the last hour bad filmmaking, but it falls back on tired formulas after the first two hours had pushed forward boldly and beautifully. Still, I would pretty highly recommend Interstellar; its triumphs more than make up for its flaws. If the film failed to reach Saturn, it at least made it to Jupiter.

 

Content Advisory: Violence and peril, brief strong language.                       MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: B

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