Saturday, June 20, 2015

Inside Out (2015) Review

 We all know Pixar.  Since 1995, the CGI giant has bestowed us with feature films filled with wonder, awe and morality.  Every release was a treat, catering to kids while speaking to adults.  Or so it was, until a small creature known as Cars 2 followed an 11 home-run streak with a foul ball.  Add another pair of blunders (Brave and Monsters University) and the concern for Pixar's stellar track record appeared to be in question.  Fortunately, the studio's latest, Inside Out, doesn't just break the seeming streak of mediocrity, it earns a decisive nomination for the best, most emotional Pixar movie to date.

The story is literally one of varying moods and perspectives; Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is a young girl with five emotions controlling and representing her mind.  These include the vibrant Joy (Amy Poehler), hysterical Anger (Lewis Black), sassy Disgust (Mindy Kaling), frantic Fear (Bill Hader) and moody Sadness (Phyllis Smith).  Joy reigns bright as Riley's dominant emotion until her parents announce they're moving to San Francisco (from Minnesota).  The shift in environment brings numerous challenges, many of them internal, thus resulting in a quest riddled with, well, emotion.
Part of Inside Out's initial appeal is witnessing its creativity on display for the first time.  Yet like any good tale, it holds up stupendously for multiple viewings.  Pixar's tried-and-true attention to detail comes back in style here, with several mental terms being incorporated in a way that will leave older audiences grinning with glee.  What they do to explain dreams, for instance, is a prime example of the film's witful imagination.  From a technical standpoint, Inside Out isn't nearly as eye-popping as other Pixar projects, yet much of the setting depends entirely on the zealous and fictitious.  Inside Out is still a heavily visual movie, thanks in large part to the emphasis on different color palettes, determined by whatever (or whoever) is the dominant emotion.

Carrying more weight than visuals is the film's poignancy.  Pixar are no stranger to making us feel for their characters through their empathetic struggles; Inside Out replicates this in spades.  The choice to emphasize inner turmoil is rarely done in cinema, primarily due to inherent limitations (almost all book adaptations suffer this).  However, Pixar have worked around said dilemma with such finesse that viewers can only be drawn in to this fresh yet familiar world.  Truth is, Pixar are the perfect company to produce a project such as this, since childrens' imaginations run so wild.  Yet this does eventually hit a decline for us all, and Inside Out begs us to take another look at the inevitable struggle. 
What writer/director Pete Docter and company have graced us with is a potent, stylistic return to form for their respective studio.  Inside Out takes an introspective look into the mind of many by depicting one person's ultimate plight.  The results from beginning to end are instantly memorable and sure to inspire many subsequent viewings.  Do yourself a favor and see it, but make sure you have a supply of tissues ready.

Grade: A

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World (2015) Review

 Most movie franchises tire out by the time a third installment rolls over, and that's being generous.  The stretches between each Jurassic Park installment have been as endurable as the wait for a new theme park attraction, subsequently breaking halfway through the projected 180-minute wait.  Except where the rides in question tend to feel short-lived in their bliss-ridden cheese, the Jurassic Park sequels were like prolonged shows without stimulation.  My fellow Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure fans will know, going from Jurassic Park to its sequels is like going from Back to the Future to The Simpsons. 

Now, in the 14 years since Jurassic Park 3, production and crediting issues served as the breadcrumbs leading to the awkwardly titled Jurassic World.  We can almost immediately sense a lack of concern in the script, with the premise of how another park got opened being utterly skimmed over.  Amidst business jargon, we learn that public demands are nearly insatiable, resulting in the creation of one Indominus Rex, a genetic mutiny waiting to happen.  This new dino baddie may sound similar to Jurassic Park 3's Spinosaurus in premise, which it might as well be.  Indominus is actually kept obscured for its first few scenes, making for a welcome attempt at build-up that never actually pays off.  Jurassic World tries to be brisk on the pacing and is reluctant to put its main characters in harm's way.  Neither struggle nor terror are properly realized, leading to a lack of investment and, ultimately, moments of drag from the attempt to zip through scenes. 
Save Chris Pratt, who slices up a valiant effort, no one on-screen is alleviating any of the aforementioned issues.  Pratt may be the main man on the posters, yet it's a pair of boys who serve as our characters of note; that is, if the runtime has any say.  This particular facet is odd since, for the first half, these two are little more than a plot device.  What's more is that a couple sporadic reveals about their past and what they can accomplish feels as natural as a bucket of expired aspartame.  Stiff dialogue doesn't help either, becoming even more of an issue with the adult actors; apparently 14 years wasn't enough to rectify said issue.  As a result, where the kids look and speak with boredom, Pratt and company feel juvenile and trivialized.  Even with a degree of bonding between him and the Velociraptors (a shred more plausible than you'd expect), their interactions are hardly more palpable than the human-on-human ones.  If anything, a brief, shoehorned phone conversation between Bryce Dallas Howard and her sister is the film's emotional peak.

What about the action and spectacle then?  It's sufficient to a point, one that likely won't take long to pass.  Jurassic Park 3's over-reliance on CGI, both up-close and afar, leaks and spreads throughout Jurassic World.  If animatronics were used, they're far from convincing.  Playing up Hollywood's CGI overload, Jurassic World has a highly saturated, strangely contrasted look to its color palette; everything is vibrant, washed out and like to play a part in how well this installment will age (poorly).  Many shots are borrowed to the point of stealing from previous films, including runaway shots from Jurassic Park 3.  It gets to the point where throwbacks become a crutch for the movie to sit on, as if each one will pardon the tired shortcomings.  Another surprising issue is the misuse of music, which would have you believe landscapes should draw more awe than dinosaurs.  Remember some of the high points from the trailers and how the music swelled?  Don't expect the movie to replicate that.
Jurassic World becomes harder to defend the more you think about it.  If you recall the fair first-time entertainment of Thor: The Dark World and the subsequent cringes upon re-watching, you'll find more than a bit of deja vu here.  Moments of fun aren't absent, they're just overwhelmed by a plethora of troublesome aspects which should've been addressed during the prolonged production.  Instead, the entire piece feels like a lazy effort scrapped together in a rush.  Try to keep your expectations modest.

Grade: D

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland (2015) Review

Brad Bird apparently believes the future, be it good or bad, belongs to those who make it so, hence Tomorrowland.  Coming off the acclaim from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (his first feature-length live action film), Bird's latest is yet another Disney-ride-inspired release, begging us to reconsider certain things, namely our attitude in the face of expectation.  If it sounds like we have a potential preacher on our hands, it's because we do.

After a wonderfully visual opening, Tomorrowland diverts its attention to Casey (Britt Robertson), an unusually intuitive talker whose ambition is trumped only by her constant questions.  Through a healthy dose of shenanigans, she comes into contact with bitter-to-the-end Frank (George Clooney), being a reluctant semi-leader of sorts when his ideas aren't too pessimistic.  The two lead a familiar ironic-yet-complementary combination to reach Tomorrowland, uncover its secrets and even have a chance to change the world.
Live-action movies based on Disney attractions don't have the most consistent reputation, and Tomorrowland feels like an encapsulation of this.  For starters, one must wonder who the intended audience is.  The tone is rather down for young kids, but the writing and execution are too streamlined for adults.  Personal prevalence (be positive) is the main theme here, which may explain the contrasting abundance of bickering found throughout.  Viewers will typically have Frank to thank for that.  As for the strange blip of light that is Casey, she waveringly walks a line between amusement and overload, which is occasionally poked at by the film's own characters.  Fans of Darcy (Kat Dennings) from the Thor movies will be all over Casey; everyone else may be less enthusiastic.  Strangely, it's Raffey Cassidy as Athena who turns in the most impressive performance, even in the face of veterans such as George Clooney and Hugh Laurie. 
All the characters are technically functional and do their job with a moment or two to shine, but when they don't, Tomorrowland feels flimsy.  The aforementioned predicament of target audience is most apparent when considering character interactions are what comprise most of the runtime.  Spectacle is pushed right out the gate, followed by conversations and occasional action scenes.  Everything walks a line similar to Casey, swaying through mood, emotion and actual investment.  Furthermore, Tomorrowland's culmination is as easy to predict as it is to roll one's eyes at.  Is the ultimate message a good one?  Absolutely.  Is it preached like a royal decree?  You betchya.  Whether these means are justified rests entirely on the viewer, so if you're feeling scrutinous, be wary.

Grade: C

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Kamelot: Haven (2015) Review

Kamelot have exhibited a minor case of stylistic discord for the past decade.  Even before the leave of vocalist extraordinaire Roy Khan, the group were clearly going through unenthused motions between Ghost Opera and Poetry for the Poisoned.  Then Swedish powerhouse Tommy Keravik ( Seventh Wonder) jumped onboard, finding a modest degree of comfort on 2012's Silverthorn.  His outing could be argued as both better and worse than what one might expect; he fit the formula well enough without bringing the true majesty of either Seventh Wonder Khan-era Kamelot out.  Now eyes rest on Haven for what direction the band are bound for.

Things are immediately and consistently pleasing, with the first half establishing the various shades Haven employs.  "Fallen Star" and "Veil of Elysium" both showcase a melodic-on-melancholic angle that will be familiar to longtime fans.  However, what makes these (and all other) moments on Haven feel fresh in their familiarity is the fact Kamelot haven't sounded this comfortable and lively for a long time.  Silverthorn didn't necessarily lack high points, but it had an overall compressed feeling, like it had a restraining order.  Haven isn't so hindered, which primarily shows thanks to the production, this time realizing and enhancing Kamelot's long-lost vigor.  No one will claim Haven as the next Black Halo (or even Epica), but this is easily the catchiest Kamelot have been in over a decade.

Take the intoxicating "Insomnia," for instance; first impressions are modest, but it quickly turns into a repeat button's newfound lover.  This is also one of the album's heavier moments, alongside the frantic "Revolution" and crescendoing "Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)."  A similar structure adorns "Under Grey Skies," one of two included ballads, which is key to its benefit.  Another factor is the expected inclusion of female vocals (this time Charlotte Wessels of Delain) and a subtle contribution from Troy Donockley (Nightwish).  Silverthorn's "Song for Jolee," by comparison, was a troublesome drag comparable to waiting in line at an amusement park. 

Less emphasized, however, is the air of progression Silverthorn neared suggesting for the future.  "Citizen Zero" rings similar to "Prodigal Son" with its dark atmosphere and stiffly played chorus.  It reminds us of Silverthorn's burdening shortcomings, all while pointing to Poetry for the Poisoned's grievances.  Some listener's may appreciate it after multiple listens, yet both exemplify a lack of instant gratification that Kamelot are routinely known for.  There's potential in running with a more challenging sound and structure, but at this point it'd be at the expense of numerous fans.

This brings us to the predicament Haven sees Kamelot in as a whole: a lack of evolution.  Improvements to the production (highs have room to shine again) and a subsequent sense of freedom are welcome, but these are mere spices sprinkled atop an undercooked steak.  Silverthorn wasn't a "fun" album in the way Khan-era Kamelot was, but there was always a lingering sense of newfound ambition.  Haven, conversely, favors tradition, which leads to many enjoyable moments, yet they typically flatten out when viewed objectively.

The biggest pressing concern for Kamelot has become how much staying power they'll have if they continue their current path.  Silverthorn saw them tiptoe into a different-yet-familiar body of water; Haven demonstrates that they've regained comfort, now they just need to find the current and glide with it in grace. 

Grade: B

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Review

 The Avengers is a tough act to follow.  After 2012's epic ensemble busted blocks like an 8-year-old boy on a sugar rush, Marvel's track record went somewhat haywire.  Efforts such as Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were essentially blips on an otherwise crystal-sharp radar, primarily thanks to Captain America: The Winter Solder and last year's little surprise, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Subsequently, audiences are approaching the next Avengers installment, Age of Ultron, with hype rushing aplenty.  Can the grandeur and memorability of Marvel's collective greatest be recaptured--even surpassed, or has a wall suddenly protruded before the rushing current?

Age of Ultron goes utterly gung-ho from the get-go.  Action is the first card of choice, showcasing each player we've come to know and love.  Forgo, however, is a single attempt to cover loose ends between the last Marvel installments and this--you'll wonder where to start.  Comic book fans may be less confused, but all others are like to be as lost as Thor in his cinematic debut.  From there, the story struggles to trickle its way to a cohesive introduction, making it immediately clear where the priorities (didn't) rest.  Essentially, Tony Stark creates an advanced AI (Ultron) intending to protect the world and prevent a grim vision from seeing fruition.  Sounds simple, but since this is Hollywood, things go bad…fast.  James Spader is the man behind Marvel's latest baddie, and what's surprising is the level of sarcasm instilled in his character.  The more you listen to him, the more you see him as a spitting shadow of Tony Stark.  In fact, he acts more like the Tony we've come to enjoy than Tony himself, who has far fewer low-blow remarks than before. 
The time to push Ultron out is so short, you may suspect Whedon and company of being in over their heads.  There's an overwhelming sense of urgency, extending to the film's own poppy structure; the blink-once-and-you-miss-it notion definitely applies.  Want further proof?  The previous Avengers now feels like an elderly tortoise while Age of Ultron zips by like a cheetah. 

All of this may sound par for the course, but Age of Ultron plays out in such a way that you feel a need to pay attention.  Then, when you comprehend what's going on, you often find it's sillily joke-riddled.  It may sound counterintuitive, but Age of Ultron demands attentiveness while begging we don't think too critically all the while.  For instance, two characters show a sporadic connection, and while the play-up is fun and cute, the moment one throws thought into the mix (considering previous Marvel projects), the entire scenario just doesn't mesh.  What's more is we get a formal introduction of sorts to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but saying they're introduced is like saying Hawkeye was fully fleshed out in the first Avengers.  But don't worry, he gets the majority of individual character development here.
 With the apparent mess going on, one may get the impression Age of Ultron isn't an enjoyable experience.  This isn't the case--not entirely.  Schizophrenic though it may be, Age of Ultron must be experienced on the big screen, as the frequent action and comic relief are easy to embrace with a lively, pumped up audience.  When action truly heads into overdrive, it delivers; the Hulkbuster scene is particularly memorable and arguably the best sequence.  Curiously, our heroes are constantly trying to get civilians out of harm's way, which may or may not be a big jab to the careless, wanton destruction in DC's Man of Steel.  If anything is more overblown than the action, it's the ever-present comedy.   The entire cast spits one-liners amidst action scenes like a middle schooler after one too many Mountain Dews.  Recurring jokes are another motif throughout Age of Ultron, with the only successful ones being those that involve Thor's hammer (and trust me, they work).  There are plenty of laughs to have, just be ready for an equal amount of eye-rolling.
When all is said and done, Avengers: Age of Ultron ends up being a bigger, busier piece than its predecessor.  The movie is both better and worse because of it, with the determining factor being your state of mind.  If you're ready to be completely forgiving and are with the right audience, the entire thing will be a laughing, cheer-ridden blast.  However, if you're hoping the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would take constructive steps to build the most fleshed out and complete experience possible, you'll likely be underwhelmed.  Either way, it's a compromise, and how much this will impact future MCU installments only time will tell.

Grade: B