Monday, July 20, 2015

Bite-Size Reviews: Ant-Man, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and More

It's summer, which means that all of the big-budget flicks are dropping at once.

But unfortunately, I don't have a big budget, which means I've only seen one live-action movie in theaters since arriving back in the States.  I have, however, explored more stories than those that can be found in the movie theater.

Before I go on, let's start with the first of the lineup:


Four and a half stars.

One sentence: In an origin story reminiscent of Marvel's Phase One, Ant-Man embraces the superhero tropes - but plays on them too, creating a very fun and surprisingly good blockbuster.

Yes, Ant-Man is something of a standard comic book movie.  It's about a man searching within himself to become a superhero, it deals with his daughter as his motivation, and the world is in danger (again.)

But where Ant-Man really shines is in twisting these tropes, even if just slightly.  Much of the movie works as a satire on the superhero genre.  Paul Rudd wreaks havoc as the Ant-Man, only to have the camera pull out and show us just how small-scale the conflict is, to great comedic effect. (Speaking of comedy, this is possibly the funniest movie Marvel has made.  The humor is amazing.)  Paul Rudd himself plays a quirkier, more down-to-earth superhero who has no delusions of grandeur.  His wants are remarkably simple.

And simple is a good way to describe this movie.  It is not complex, it is not bright and flashy.  It approaches the subject with simplicity and more than a little wit, creating a movie that is not exactly amazing, but ends up being a whole lot of fun.


Four stars.

One sentence: Though the animation style is jarring at first, it proves suitable for a movie that, though plagued with inconsistent narrative, also feels alive with Celtic magic.

The Secret of Kells is an utterly unique animated movie, made with a particular style of 2D animation that I've never seen before.  Indeed, the style was at first a drawback, and one of the reasons I had never watched it before. 

Thea actual story drew from Irish legends and a bit of history to create their world, making it rich and full of magic.  The bright parts were full of wonder; the darkness, legitimately scary.  It is one of those stories that tells more with the eyes than it does the ears; the dialogue does not carry the movie, but instead the art and the soundtrack bear it onward. This became something of a problem; the narrative is inconsistent and lacks a clear focus and clear story beats, which makes it drag in places.  

Even so, the imagination present in the film was enthralling, and in several places it was made manifest most by the absolutely stunning - and even haunting - soundtrack.  In the end, for all its flaws, it left me with a feeling that I had just watched something really and truly beautiful.


Five stars.

(The following review is my initial reaction to this show.  I intend to write a much longer post later on.)

One sentence: Avatar: The Last Airbender succeeds in telling a story that feels timeless and ancient, a marriage of Eastern mythology to Western storytelling—and does so in three flawlessly constructed seasons that build up to a truly epic finale.

Reading that sentence might give you the wrong impression, however.  It is well and truly intense.  And it is chock full of emotion and great storytelling.

But it is also light.  It is, in fact, a TV show "for kids," in the most Pixarian sense of the phrase.  It is hilarious, at times flippant, and sometimes has little hints of the melodrama of Disney Channel.

That is, however, part of the genius of this TV show: an easily accessible and humorous animation that is not only clever and inventive, but meaningful and subtle.  It draws from Eastern mythology, among other sources, to maintain a timelessness, but also transcends it to become something that is not Eastern, but not Western either.  And perhaps the greatest achievement of this show is in its restraint: the scope is large, but not too large to lose sight of the main plot.

From the very first episode, the very last episode is in mind.  It does not meander, in the strictest sense of the word; even where it wanders, it often involves elements of the story that will come up later.  It is one story made up of over sixty individual episodes, an achievement I have not seen topped anywhere.  And that makes it something truly special.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Review: Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out 

Inside Out follows the struggles of a little girl named Riley and the voices inside her head: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, and Joy. 

Rating: five stars.

In a nutshell: Inside Out is perhaps the most adult of all of Pixar's family movies, tackling hard questions about moving on and growing up; yet it emerges with a theme that is both true and startlingly resonant, making it one of the most relevant and emotionally touching movies Pixar has ever made.  

In full:

I had unrealistically high expectations for this movie.  Besides my unwavering faith in Pixar, Inside Out was the brainchild of my favorite director, Pete Docter, who was also the director of Monsters, Inc. and Up.  And when the reviews came out, critic after critic praised it as being inventive and clever and emotional.  

So when opening weekend came, I came expecting a tear-jerker and a well-crafted story.  I got exactly what I expected, but not the way I expected it.

Inside Out was both bigger and smaller than what I had envisioned.  The scope of the world inside Riley's head was stunning, both visually and conceptually.  The characters literally glowed.  Yet through the whole film, it never lost its smaller focus: on Riley's internal struggle, and how that played out in her head.

Part of what made Inside Out so complex is that it really had two main characters that were the same main character: Riley and Riley's Joy.  And as Joy gets lost and has to find her way back to "Head"quarters, real-world Riley begins to lose herself as well.

It works so well because it can be seen on multiple levels. On a purely superficial level, it's a standard "I'm lost and I have to make my way back home but learn something along the way" type story.  It's simple, it's colorful, and it has enough jokes along the way to keep people entertained.  (Side note: Inside Out is one of Pixar's funniest movies, especially for older people.  There are so many clever jokes.)

But there are several deeper levels below that; it's a story of how you lose your Joy, what Sadness really means, and what happens when you begin to lose yourself and the core of what makes you who you are.  It is almost endlessly complex in that way, because the movie is filled with unobtrusive revelations, ready to be seen the moment you look for them.

In many ways, it is also not a typical Pixar film.  Although they have never shied away from darker story-lines, Inside Out is perhaps their darkest movie.  The "real world" is painted in monotone shades, and Riley deals with moving away from her only home, losing her friends, and other things.  That only serves to make the ending brighter and more resonant, however, creating something that is both bittersweet and beautiful.

That is not to say that it is without flaw.  Because of the vastness of Docter's vision of the mind, I expected to see more of it, but I didn't.  Much of the middle felt a little rushed, like it was missing just one story beat, one small breather, five minutes of footage to even out the racing plot.

But even this turned into a strength: the last third of Inside Out felt more like a thriller than an animated movie, not because it was full of action, but because I became so invested in the characters that I had to see what happened next.  The emotional suspense drew me along tightly; if Inside Out had been a book, I would have been blazing through the pages.

Then it came to the end, and all of the frenzied emotional tension screeched to a halt in the face of one defining moment, the very core of the story.  What I found there made Inside Out the first movie to make me cry.

And in order to discuss this properly, I'm going to use spoilers.  Go further at your own expense; I'll mark below when the spoilers end.


At the climax of the movie, Joy realizes that Sadness is a necessary part of Riley, that Riley can't be happy all of the time.  As a result of Riley's move to San Francisco, she began to lose who she was.  Each "island" of her personality fell apart with Anger and Fear and Disgust at the helm, until she became numb to her emotional destruction.  She became in danger of not being able to feel at all.

Only when Sadness became a necessary part of her was she able to feel again.  When she was able to look back on her joyful memories with both sadness and joy, she began to heal.

And this climaxed when she came back to her parents after nearly running away, and she began to cry.  She couldn't be joyful all of the time.  And it hurt so much for her to be away from the place she called home.

But that moment of sadness also became a moment of joy, because her family rallied around her.  It becomes one of the longest frames of the film: the three of them kneeling on the kitchen floor, hugging one another.  A new core memory was made at that moment, and we are not told what it is or what it is made of; it simply shines both yellow and blue - Joy and Sadness - and we instinctively understand.  Life is not compartmentalized.  Sometimes to have Joy, you must have Sadness. Sometimes they are mixed.

And as a missionary kid - as someone who has recently moved from their home in Africa - I felt this keenly.  I felt that my sorrow was okay, necessary, and healing.  Sometimes sadness comes before joy.

And that was the one thing that made me cry.  Because I miss joy.  I miss home.  To feel that way is necessary, and bittersweet, and beautiful.


That evening, I left the movie theater silently.  I laid on my uncle's couch that night, staring at the ceiling, processing what I had just seen.  It stuck with me, sneaking into my thoughts when I wasn't expecting it, like all good stories do.

The truth does that to you.  And I think that is what Inside Out does best: it tells the truth, simply and beautifully.  It doesn't downplay sadness, but it also doesn't downplay joy.

I had minor quibbles with the movie; I had several things that didn't quite satisfy me.  In the face of the titanic heart of the story, however, it all melts away.

All of my critiques will down to long-term memory, to languish there and fade.  But the great core memory of Inside Out is what sticks with me: that beautiful, bittersweet frame at the end, the picture that sums up the whole thing.

And it made me cry.