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Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (Release Date: 11-25-2015)

        As I perhaps too often reiterate on this site, movies are BY FAR the artistic medium that appeals to the most senses. Books engage one's reading ability and imagination, while music plays with one's ears and instinctive emotional reactions, fine arts doing much of the same, but with eyeballs. Motion pictures do a little bit of everything, which is not to say that they are a superior art form, and might just mean the very opposite. Where other endeavors are allowed to focus or specialize, movies are required to keep all their plates spinning at once, and occasionally in a fashion where each singular element only casually interacts with another. The Good Dinosaur, the latest from the storytelling savants at Pixar Studios, brings this notion to my attention like no American picture since Life of Pi has presented. They both ask the same, simple question; how accomplished do you have to be in one aspect to render the rest superfluous?

        Taking place in an alternate universe wherein that fateful asteroid never pummeled earth, and dinosaurs continue to roam the planes, our story follows Arlo (voiced in his youth by Jack McGraw, then by Raymond Ochoa in adolescence), the runt in a litter of three Apatosauruses whose apatite for adventure matches his meek stature. Gently doted upon by his loving father (Jeffrey Wright), Arlo spends his childhood trying to 'make his mark,' a family tradition accomplished early in life by both of his siblings. Tasked with ridding their land of a crop-devouring menace, Arlo manages to capture the thief, but is shaken by fear when the burglar turns out to be a young, feral human. His eventual pursuit of the wordless homosapien takes Arlo far away from home, and the two ban together in an effort to bring Arlo back to his family.

        It's easy to argue that every story has already been told, and the best that we can hope for is a unique twist on the familiar, but Pixar as a company would seemingly disagree. Besides literally revolutionizing the way that animated films are created with their very first effort (Toy Story, which celebrated its 20th birthday just last Sunday), the Disney subsidiary relays their narratives in a breathtakingly unique fashion, continuously discovering little pockets wherein subversion can exist. Compared to the gutsy moves made by many in their library of classics, The Good Dinosaur is both immediately and remarkably tame, which is saying something for an American kid's flick that opens with a short that celebrates Hinduism, and even includes a psychedelic trip for our two prehistoric protagonists. Their rebel spirit certainly isn't dead, but for almost all of The Good Dinosaur, it's relegated to the sidelines, waiting eagerly to be subbed in.

        What takes the place of Pixar's 'edge' is a dispiritingly bland tale of a timid animal who must fight back against both beasts and nature in order to both find his way to safety, and realize his full potential. In other words, the majority of the film plays like a warmed-over The Lion King... or Finding Nemo... or The Jungle Book... or A Bug's Life... should I keep going? Announced back in 2009, The Good Dinosaur represents only the second time that a Pixar offering made that fateful march through Hollywood's famed 'Production Hell' on its way to the silver screen. Original director Bob Peterson, co-helmer of the studio's best film to date (Up), walked away from the project in the summer of 2013, mere months before the flick's originally stated release date, resulting in reportedly massive re-writes that took place deep into 2014, and resulted in a complete overhaul of the original voice cast. All this to say, the movie was destined to be a half-baked offering, and perhaps would have never seen the light of day if it weren't for the ace up its sleeve.

        The Good Dinosaur is the most photorealistic animated feature film ever created, full-stop. The wide vistas and rolling hills that accompany Arlo's every move are clearly the movie's main character, and chief reason for existence. Most Beautiful Animated Film of All Time is a much harder prize to hand out, as it concerns preferences between eras, styles, and a spectrum of impressionism. What we're talking about here is something completely different; animated water has never looked so wet, and CGI mountains have never been quite as rough or loomed so large. It strikes the eyes as a step forward in technology much the way Avatar amazed the pupils back in 2009, but if you want to sneak a peak at all that majesty, you'll have to sit through a tale so brazenly undercooked that you can still see the pink in the middle. The Good Dinosaur is sort of like Arlo himself, a glorious, towering beast of a thing desperate to find a journey worth justifying its existence. It should have kept looking.

Grade: B- 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

HypeCast: Mockingjay Part 2, Brooklyn, and Spotlight

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. In today's episode, we officially turn our weapons to the Capitol, and talk about the final installment in the Hunger Games saga, Mockingjay Part 2. First, however, we discuss a pair of Oscar hopefuls that are only now trickling their way out of New York and Los Angeles. First up is Brooklyn, a period piece about a young Irish immigrant whose attempts to find love in the Big Apple failed to move the needle for Tyler. Collin had a much better time checking out Spotlight, the investigative journalism drama from the director of The Cobbler. Both films have a real shot at Best Picture nominations, but you know what doesn't? That's right, the sloppy, kinda-boring, largely disheartening Mockingjay Part 2. It's all right kids, you can just save your money for Star Wars... oh wait, you already did. The episode comes to include Collin throwing massive shade on the career of one Brian d'Arcy James (who really does look like Will Forte), and Tyler incredulously wondering about Michael Keeton's improbable career resurgence. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
30:14-40:30---The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
40:31-1:07:51---The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
1:07:52-1:17:09---The Hunger Games series

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Release Date: 11-20-2015)

        For all of the devoted fandom and pop culture conversation The Hunger Games has inspired, the critical reading of Suzanne Collins' three (or four?) part epic is still woefully lacking. The book trilogy that inspired the films is firmly situated within the Young Adult fantasy literature boom that's dominated both publishing houses and film studios for the last decade plus, even sporting a love triangle that seemingly comes custom at this point. Yes, the adventures and exploits of Katniss Everdeen are undoubtably designed to titillate teenaged females the world over, but that glaring veneer has led to a misreading of the narrative's larger scope. Considered as a whole, the story explores and ruminates upon propaganda, grief, the distribution of information, symbolism, and the gray area between ethics and agenda... and consistently puts a whole hoard of butts in seats. Comparing the intellectual ambition of this mass entertainment to Tony Stark zipping around the city, or the Indominous Rex getting over-eager with a hamster ball, is laughably asinine. I'm not saying The Hunger Games is War and Peace, but it's operating on a whole different plane than everything else that's making big money in the modern box office. Now that it's all over, I hope this is what we remember about the perils in Panem; that they engaged the minds of their audience where other blockbusters proved entirely unwilling... and that, in the end, the whole enterprise decided that if it really couldn't defeat the likes of Marvel or the impending Jurassic franchise, it might as well join them.

        For those uninitiated to the Hunger Games juggernaut, I highly recommend checking out the premiere installment, and am only slightly less bullish on its immediate predecessor. Each of those films was adapted from a novel of the same name, but because money won't print itself, the climactic book has been separated into two feature films, the first having been released right around this same time last year. Part 2 picks up right where Part 1 left off, with the rebels for which Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) serves as a reluctant patron saint just about ready to finally make their move. Gentle-hearted Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is still tormented by the mental trauma he experienced in the previous installment, though the mass-media-stoking itinerary of rebel leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) requires him to accompany Ms. Everdeen on their climactic mission. With a small crew in tow, including prospective lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and his ever-fading moral compass, Katniss trudges through innumerable death traps and battle fields on her way to the heart of the capitol with exactly one goal in mind: assassinate tyrannical dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

        This is the uprising we as an audience have been waiting for, the one which the series has been setting up for 7+ hours now, and yet, much like the film's heroine, it's impossible to not feel let down by its arrival. The heady aspects I've praised this franchise for time and time again are only present through allusion, the other three films having already burned through all of the story's intellectual properties and intrigue. Many have derided Part 1 for stalling in the face of the saga's inevitable conclusion, but all that padding allowed the film to explore some knotty notions with both patience and care. Part 2, by comparison, is only slightly more action-packed, yet has nothing left to argue in its slower passages, filling the lulls with the exact romantic non-sense these films had so wisely skirted up to this point. For as unfair as I believe the Twilight comparisons to be on the whole, at least Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson forged a believable connection; Lawrence has no real chemistry with either of the men who court her, and all three actors appear just as disengaged with the sappier elements as those seated in the auditorium.

        The main culprit for these diminishing returns is undoubtably the source material, which, having leaned heavily on its impending climax for years, is wholly unable to fulfill its promise. It's long been clear that Collins is a more advanced thinker than she is a storyteller, but taken as a whole, the two parts of Mockingjay represent an unforeseeably massive step back on every narrative level. The structure is almost repulsive, whipping us through a series of emotional shifts that nearly all seem mistimed, and robbing our protagonists of any real agency at the moment where they would need it most. Swapping out Francis Lawrence for a more talented director wouldn't have solved the film's myriad of problems, but the flick could benefit from someone with a firmer grasp on helming action sequences. With one single exception, the violence here feels non-threatening, and often fails to engage altogether. Not only is this a war movie wherein we miss almost the entire war, but the moments we do see never elicit either the dread or excitement that are needed to hold our interest. Many will decry the movie's final scene as the low point in the entire chronicle, but I had already cashed in my chips and left the table by that point, and could do little more than chuckle under my breath.

        Yes, this is a scathing review, but it's not written from a place of hatred so much as disappointment. The world that Collins and these filmmakers had established up to this point was strikingly ambitious, and challenged the minds of its audience at nearly every turn. Watching it conclude as an underwhelming brain-dead action romp is disheartening to say the least. To my mind, this franchise will have exactly two lasting legacies: The thoughtfulness and moral rigor that it carried with it through three installments, and the sad truth that each film was lesser than the one that came before it.

Grade: D+

Thursday, November 19, 2015

HypeCast: Room, End of the Tour, and The Signal

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. In today's episode, the guys turn into a couple of indie kids, and discuss a slew of critically acclaimed flicks that did less than stellar business at the box office. First, Tyler throws out about 157 spoiler alerts for The Signal, a movie that, if you're like Collin, you've never heard of before. After a brief shout-out to Netflix's terrific new show Master of None, we're off to discuss a pair of Sundance Film Festival darlings, Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl (which Tyler saw on last week's enthused recommendation) and End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt's outstanding David Foster Wallace-centric talk opera. Finally, Collin complains about likely Best Picture nominee Room, a heartwarming story of abduction, sexual abuse, and intentional reality distortion. Given the content, the podcast starts out with unceremoniously peppy music, but we'll give Tyler a pass, as it's his birthday. The immense difference between the shows Power and Powers is also elaborated upon. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-13:24---The Signal
13:25-25:13---Master of None
25:14-36:09---Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl
36:10-41:32---Random discussion of Star Wars: The Force Awakens' box office potential
41:33-56:16---End of the Tour

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Room (Limited Release Date: 10-16-2015)

        For five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the world is contained within Room, and Room is the world. Sure, TV will show you things like trees, dogs, and smiling people going about their varied lives, but everything on the screen is just artifice; two dimensional images designed to entertain and divert from the churn of day-to-day life that takes place in the 100 square-foot universe. The cosmos' only other consistent inhabitant is Ma (Brie Larson), a warm and patient 20-something who is occasionally visited by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), a perhaps-real humanoid who supplies the boy and his mother with food, clothes, and other accessories through pure and unexplainable magic. We as audience members are quick to pick up on the grisly reality of Jack and Ma’s situation, but in Lenny Abrahamson's new film Room, we see the world through Jack’s eyes, and his eyes are about to be opened.

        Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name (Donoghue also provides the screenplay here), Room presents some of the darkest, cruelest aspects of man through the eyes of a youth who is far too naive to process them fully, thereby keeping all of that misery just out of arm’s reach. Where a wiser protagonist might wallow in the nightmarish reality of Ma's evening hours, Jack considers them with ignorance and curiosity. He looks on his impossibly limited existence with the same childlike wonder through which every kid views the entire planet, a notion that is accentuated by Danny Cohen's ever-communicative cinematography. The film follows in the footsteps of recent hits The Martian and Bridge of Spies in terms of its dedication to walking right up to the pit of despair without ever being swallowed whole, but this decision is less about aligning itself with positive thinking than it is a different set of priorities altogether.

        Never stepping into thriller territory for more than a few fleeting moments at a time, Room is, at its heart, a familial drama focused on the unique bond between mother and child, and the galvanizing force of parenthood. Larson is a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination at this year's Academy Awards, and while her performance is decidedly less showy than the stuff that tends to win golden statues, the connection she forms with Tremblay is sincere and believable from first frame to last. The 9-year-old Tremblay is her match, his every movement and syllable proving so natural that you almost forget you're watching an actor, and not just a child trying almost everything for the first time. Most all the film's best moments involve Jack discovering untold realities previously understood to be lore, and the way Tremblay handles these scenes is astonishing.

        All of the stuff in between, however, is less than riveting. Abrahamson favors raw acting and minimal directorial flourish, and while his meat-and-potatoes approach has and will continue to work for some, it doesn't exactly glue your eyes to the screen. Nor does the movie's narrative drama, which, as previously mentioned, is intentionally forced to the background in favor of character work, but the film's undying affection for mundanity wares on the viewer over a long two-hour runtime. Perhaps most damningly, the ideas contained within Donoghue's script, while immediately dazzling and troubling in equal measure, are unmissable and unmoving, prompting one to ponder and then re-ponder, and finally grow weary of pondering the very same thing over and over again. There's no doubt in my mind that this is the exact film that Abrahamson wanted to make, and its level of intentionality and accomplishment are to be admired, but I for one found my mind drifting off long before the end credits rolled. The movie will surely strike a chord with parents that someone on the other side of that situation could never fully understand, but at this exact point in time in my perhaps under-developed life story, Room just comes off as a bit flat.

Grade: C+

Friday, November 13, 2015

HypeCast: Spectre, Killing Them Softly, and Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. In today's episode, we discuss three different movies that we managed to see through three different outlets: Netflix, Redbox, and the good old theater. First up is Killing Them Softly, a movie about which Collin's statements are consistently incorrect, from the film's year of release, to the title of the book it was based upon. You can decide who's right about the quality of the film at large. Next up is Sundance favorite Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, an occasionally too-precious coming-of-age story to whom Collin offers occasionally too-precious praise. Finally, in the show's grand finally, Tyler attempts to muster up even a modicum of genuine excitement for the latest action-packed James Bond adventure, Spectre. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hype Starts Here's Fall 2015 Playlist

        Hello, and welcome to Hype Starts Here's Fall 2015 Playlist, a 33-pack of tracks eager to serenade you on rainy walks with falling leaves abounding. Because I am apparently stuck in the year 2005, the songs here have assembled as a double-disc, each made to fit on an old-fashioned blank CD (see: shy of 80 minutes). Brief descriptions of each tune can be found below, while the Spotify playlist is just a click away. Enjoy:

Disc 1:
1. Sound and Color---Alabama Shakes***
        A lovely, autumnal hymn that brings out the soft side of vocalist Brittany Howard's stereotypically power-house bellow, this one's been on repeat for me ever since its masterful use in the season finally of Mr. Robot... because I'm sure that matters to you.

2. Haunted Heart---Little Hurricane
        A gritty, fleet-of-foot little ditty that gains muscle from a killer guitar riff, all distorted and echoing over the song's cavernous sonics.

3. The Fall---Rhye
        Yeah, kind of cute to pick a song with the season in the title, but The Fall bares its name for a reason, its mellow sway perfectly capturing the November's down-tempo identity.

4. Retrograde---James Blake***
        A mysterious epic with a rare tryptic structure that encapsulates both the hope and fear that make Blake's music so singular and indelible. 

5. I Got Money---Raekwon feat. ASAP Rocky
        22 years after the world first met him on 36 Chambers, the Chef still has no problems throwing it down. S1 and Jerry Wonda's luscious beat doesn't exactly hurt either.

6. Depreston---Courtney Barnett***
        On an album full of songs that ride the line between parody and earnestness, Depreston stands out for it's storytelling, emotional complexity, and warm, breezy sound.

7. Getaway---Dr. John
        Who says a 70-year-old can't still come out guns blazing? A highlight from his 2012 release, Locked Down, the New Orleans native delivers a moody ass kicking, all spunk and fire.

8. Armchairs---Andrew Bird
        The oldest song on this playlist, this languid ballad remains one of the highlights of Andrew Bird's career, slowly sauntering it's way into emotional enormity.

9. Jonathan---Fiona Apple***
        No one is better at marrying admiration with spite through their songwriting than Fiona Apple, and here she's at it again, singing of a (presumably) doomed romance atop misty atmospherics.
10. Oblivion---Grimes
        Speaking of atmospherics, Oblivion stands as one of the most uniquely haunting pieces of songwriting you're likely to ever hear, its words and electronic pulse constantly caught between fear and fascination.

11. Two Coffins---Against Me!***
        The lone track on Transgender Dysphoria Blues that decides to turn the volume down is gorgeous and lovelorn, a sublimely teary-eyed 2:20.

12. Annie---Neon Indian
        Awash in a sea of undulating synthesizers and funkiness, Alan Palomo's pleas for affection from the titular Annie come off more as playful and bright than desperate and lonely.

13. Silent Song---Daniel Rossen
        One half of the two-headed eerie songwriting machine that is Grizzly Bear, this stand-out mishmash of acoustic and slide guitars comes from Rossen's painfully overlooked 2012 EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile.

14. The Won't See Me---The Field
        The Field always boast of a contemplative sound, but the music of Axel Willner is rarely as foreboding as on this gloomily powerful, 9-minute monster.

15. Point of No Return---Surfer Blood***
        One of the best impressions of The Smiths that you could ask for, John Paul Pitts' open, inviting intonation plays party guest in one of this playlists most contented tracks.

16. And That's All I Know---Kevin Drew
        The closer to Drew's last LP, Darlings, might make you wait for it, but by the time the Broken Social Scene luminary's voice lifts, and the track bursts into kaleidoscopic colors, you won't mind.

17. Somewhere Tonight---Beach House
        Though they rarely use the form, Beach House is often at their strongest while playing a waltz, and Somewhere Tonight is no exception, all wine and roses underpinned by an organ whose sharp notes tell a different story.

Disc 2:
1. Byegone---Volcano Choir***
        We know Bon Iver's Justin Vernon primarily for his aching falsetto, but something magical happens when he drops that voice several octaves, and really lets it rip.

2. Wake Up Your Saints---The National
        Horns have become a mainstay of The National's arsenal, but using them to paint a tune with blustery, haphazard joy is wholly unique to this cut from the extended edition of their 2010 masterpiece High Violet.

3. No Rest for the Wicked---Lykke Li
        Heartbreak is rarely more cinematic than it was on Li's latest disc, I Never Learn, and No Rest captures the bombastic and saturated feelings of lost love to a tee.

4. Low Key---Tweedy***
        Never has a song been more aptly titled than this one, a cozy, honey-dipped morsel about understanding the vital differences in how people express themselves.

5. Gabby---The Internet feat. Janelle Monae
        I still struggle to believe that anything this sensual and laid-back could have ever derived from the Odd Future camp, but Syd tha Kyd is the real deal, as is the jazzy, R&B band that stands behind her.

6. Weight of Love---The Black Keys
        A textbook example of how to build a song out of near nothingness and turn it into a tsunami, Weight of Love escapes the blue-tinted haze of its opening passages, and comes down like a thunder storm.

7. Do You---Spoon***
        "Someone get popsicles/Someone do something about this heat" almost couldn't be more ill-fitting if it tried; this is a track set as the blazing sun has finally decided to set, with a brilliant orange lighting up the sky.

8. Baby Blue---Action Bronson feat Chance the Rapper
        Baby Blue only gets better as it goes along, Bronson's silly sing-rap guiding us to Chance's zippy, funny, and honest verse, all played out by trumpets that almost massage the ears.

9. London Thunder---Foals
        Foals can do 'big' about as well as any band working today, which is what makes London Thunder so special; it gets there without hardly raising its voice, shedding new light on the band's world-conquering aesthetic.

10. An Ocean Between the Waves---The War on Drugs***
        Another big, bustling rock tune, The War on Drugs embrace their inner Tom Petty (or is it outer at this point?), slowly revving up the MPH until all that's left is a welcome onslaught of guitar solos.

11. Towers---Bon Iver
        So different from the aforementioned Justin Vernon song that you'd be forgiven for believing it to be a different vocalist all together, Towers is rife with feeling, and resplendent in sound.

12. Someone Great---LCD Soundsystem
        Some say it's about death, and others about love, but one thing's for certain; Someone Great is an incredibly poignant encapsulation of loss, sporting an intricate backdrop that keeps listeners' hands right next to the repeat button.

13. I Don't Want Love---The Antlers***
        A bitter kiss-off presented in glittering gloriousness by The Antlers, this is an anti-romance anthem for the ages.

14. Neptune Estate---King Krule
        Neptune Estate is like nothing else on this planet, a loopy, spacious offering that flaunts an unthinkably unique structure just below Archie Marshall's singularly gravely croon.

15. Taro---Alt-J
        The first Alt-J disc was full of moments that swapped out steady tension for cathartic release, but none more so than Taro, stings and lungs howling together as the song bursts wide open.

16. Goldtone---Kurt Vile***
        Clocking in at 10:26, Goldtone is almost more of an experience than a proper song, undulating from one movement to the next, shimmering with staggering beauty all the while.

 ***Pictured Artist

Thursday, November 5, 2015

HypeCast: Steve Jobs, the IMDb Top 250, and More

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. In today's episode, Collin talks a lot. No, really, more than usual. While real life has temporarily pulled Tyler away from the multiplexes, Elwyn has been 'working' overtime, and discusses a myriad of films he's seen recently. The list includes Pixar's heart-string-tugging Inside Out, Hayao Miyazaki's charming Castle in the Sky, Germany's gut-wrenching Goodnight Mommy, and the Coen Brothers' forgotten gem The Man Who Wasn't There. Somehow still speaking, Collin goes on to waffle back and forth about just how much affection he has for Danny Boyle's latest Oscar aspirant Steve Jobs. Having waited patiently for his turn to speak, Tyler finally takes the reigns at the end of the show, and selects six films from IMDb's user-rated Top 250 Movies of All Time that are either vastly over-rated, or egregiously under-rated. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!