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Inside Out

photo Pixar movies have always been about unique points of view. Whether it’s toys (Toy Story and its sequels), monsters who live under the bed (Monsters, Inc.), a lost clownfish (Finding Nemo), an ant (A Bug’s Life), a solitary robot in the future (WALL-E), or so many others, the animation studio’s unique gift is to present stories from unusual point of views in such endearing, charming, funny and touching ways that we end up relating and caring about these characters as if they are a part of us, or even as if they are us. The artists at Pixar’s real talent is understanding the universality of human compassion and emotion, and it doesn’t matter what form or setting of the story, as long as it speaks to the heart.

Which is why only Pixar could have made Inside Out. It is such a thoroughly imaginative and high-concept, yet accessible and heart-warming film, it truly belongs in the Pixar catalog, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s one of my favorites from the studio. While it truly is the smartest and has the best concept of all Pixar’s movies, it has the weakest story, so, if you like high concept and are satisfied to spend an hour and a half being dazzled with ideas and truly magnificent follow-through of high-concept, philosophical jokes that you wonder how kids will ever get, Inside Out is a real wonder to behold. But I was left wishing there could have been a better plot from start to finish to bolster the superb foundation.

Speaking of foundation, let me explain. Inside Out is about our emotions. Sounds esoteric, doesn’t it? Well, the movie is quite esoteric, quite deep on a lot of levels, and really brilliant in a lot of ways. The main characters in the movie are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, all voiced brilliantly, particularly Amy Poehler (Joy), Bill Hader (Fear) and especially Phyllis Smith (Sadness), who steals the movie—intentionally or not? These characters/emotions all live inside an 11-year old girl named Riley, who is happily living in Minnesota, until she moves with her parents to San Francisco. Life in the new place is hard for Riley, and it’s a tough adjustment for her emotions as well, trying to find a balance because it’s their job to keep Riley happy.

When things go south, Joy and Sadness end up away from “headquarters” and get lost and have to get back to salvage Riley’s core memories—and emotional stability. There are some very clever things that happen along the way, but I got bored with the nuances of the actual logistics of the journey. Fortunately, there were enough really brilliant sequences to make it all worthwhile. This is a really smart movie.

But at the heart of everything here—and in life—is the push-pull relationship between Joy and Sadness. It’s a magnificently wise observation by the filmmakers—and so well executed— here to set up these characters the way they do and have it play out the way they do and have it end up the way they do. All of us feel a daily battle between these emotions in some way and one of them wins in every moment, in some combination, in one way or another. And [SPOILER ALERT] the way Sadness is embraced in the end as a critical and crucial part of our human experience—I can’t imagine a better message for kids and adults alike. What other studio could deliver a moment like this.

There is so much in Inside Out that is clever and insightful and so much that I’m sure I missed that I would catch upon a second viewing, I’m sure. I laughed out loud several times and yes, I did get a big lump in my throat—curse you, Pixar—and Inside Out is amazingly well done, beautiful to look at and well worth your time. It certainly isn’t my favorite Pixar movie, but there is so much there to recommend it, to all ages, to all points of view.

Tomorrowland

photo I am the first to acknowledge that film is a visual medium. I am in the minority opinion on this, but the first thing I care about in a film is not the story, it’s the look. If I want to sink into a really involving, complex story, with layered characters, I can pick up a book. A movie is for taking me somewhere, getting me emotionally involved, riveting me, wowing me somehow with acting or cinematography or any of the other many tools at its disposal, like music, costumes, editing or special effects—and if a great story comes into play, for me, that’s icing on the cake.

However, all that being said, there is such a thing as cheapening the ideal.

I will always applaud a filmmaker who attempts greatness and fails, like Cloud Atlas. The Wachowski siblings made that film from the heart and even though it was a disaster, it was an honest attempt at visionary filmmaking. What I cannot applaud, however, is when a filmmaker puts out a film that has every potential to be a visionary concept film but ends up playing like a hollow corporate publicity reel instead.
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Mad Max: Fury Road

photo Summer Movie Season is usually a double-edged sword. I never know whether to be excited about the slickly-produced (read: expensive) escapist fare meant to entertain us or begrudge the assembly-line brainless noise designed to extract the largest sums from our wallets in the shortest amounts of time. Half of it is insulting to our intelligence (ok, more than half), but the studios actually save their biggest bottom-line salvos for the summer, which means that sometimes we, the audience, get the biggest bang for our buck and, once in a while, summer will deliver an experience or two in the movie theatre unlike anything or anywhere else—and that’s what keeps us coming back. Thanks a lot, Jaws.

Of course, last night, during the previews for the feature presentation of Mad Max: Fury Road, the first big summer movie of the year that I am seeing (I skipped Avengers: Age of Ultron—see first paragraph’s “brainless noise” assumption), I was disappointingly reminded of what summer movies have become these days. Two previews in particular were examples of the dumbing-and-numbing-down of the current action movie genre: Ant-Man and San Andreas. Well, whaddya know…a superhero movie and a disaster movie. How original. At the end of the San Andreas trailer, the audience I was in was actually laughing. Not a good reaction for a disaster movie about a giant earthquake that destroys Los Angeles. Maybe it hits too close to home. Or maybe—we’ve just had enough.

Which is why Mad Max: Fury Road is just the post-apocalyptic nightmare action movie to kick Hollywood and audiences out of their superhero/disaster movie coma and remind us that summer can be about spectacle, action, escapism, fantasy, special effects, fun AND creativity and originality. It’s been a long time since we could say that.

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Ex Machina

photo It certainly is nothing new in Hollywood movies, especially science fiction, to anticipate and/or fictionalize a future world without humans. The question of how we get there and what that future would look like—and, more specifically, what the human replacement beings would look like—has filled many a movie, since movies began to capture our imagination.

The latest movie about artificial intelligence, or AI, from writer-director Alex Garland, is called Ex Machina, and it treads much of the same philosophical ground as we’ve seen before, but in a more specific, concise, personal and haunting way.

The premise starts out like a classic horror movie set-up: a computer programmer at the world’s largest internet search engine wins a contest to spend a week with the company’s CEO, a genius recluse who lives alone in a mountain estate in the middle of nowhere, where he does mysterious research. After the programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is dropped off by helicopter in the middle of a field, with instructions to “follow the river,” you get the feeling something is odd, but then he comes across this gorgeous house and finally meets CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who explains the need for the security is due to the ultra-sensitive research he’s been doing for the past few years. Nathan explains that he has brought Caleb there because he is on the verge of something monumental and he believes Caleb is the perfect person to bring in to test the viability of his project. The project? A fully interactive AI named Ava, who is able to react, respond and even emote. Nathan claims this is the most advanced AI ever created and could change the world and he needs Caleb to help test his hypothesis.

So, there’s the premise: two men, one possibly crazy, possibly a genius, the other possibly a genius, possibly very gullible, are alone a million miles from nowhere with possibly a sentient robot, possibly friendly, possibly not. Nope, nothing could go wrong there.

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Movies To Look Forward To in 2015

photo Despite the fact that 2015 has started out so forgettably, there is much still to come that could make this year quite memorable. Here are the movies I’m most looking forward to and why—in no particular order (release date in parentheses):

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (August 14): I don’t know why, but I’ve always rooted for director Guy Ritchie to have a hit movie. This one could be fun. At the very least, we’ll get to see if Henry Cavill can act without the cape. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. trailer

CHILD 44 (April 17): The bad: an untested director (Daniel Espinosa) and an April release date. The good: Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace. I’ll give this Stalin-era Soviet Union thriller a chance, just to see these two work together. Child 44 Trailer

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (November 25): After the amazingly brilliant Take Shelter, I said whenever and wherever director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon reunited, I would be there.

SISTERS (December 18): Amy Poehler and Tina Fey movies have so far been a miserable failure (except for Mean Girls, which, really, doesn’t count), so I don’t have high hopes, but a December 18 release date looks promising…albeit a bit confusing.

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Harrison Ford

photo Harrison Ford’s recent plane crash reminded me of what a giant presence in my cinematic life experience this star has been. He is so much more than three of the most iconic characters in movie history (yes, one actor has played Han Solo, Indiana Jones and the true Jack Ryan)—he is arguably the ultimate movie star of my generation, and the slight panic I felt at losing him (which was eerily similar to the heartache I felt when we lost Robin Williams last year) has made me want to go back and look at his catalog and appreciate again all that he has given us over the years—-and will continue to give us for many years to come, I hope (including this December’s highly-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the planned Indiana Jones 5 and Blade Runner sequel).
First of all, let’s run down the titles of Ford’s movies, and I guarantee you’ll be astonished—you may have forgotten how prolific he actually is. He is so much more than Han Solo.

American Graffiti (1973)
The Conversation (1974)
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Heroes (1977)
Force 10 from Navarone (1978)
Apocalypse Now (1978)
Hanover Street (1979)
The Frisco Kid (1979)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1979)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
Blade Runner (1981)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1982)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1983)
Witness (1984)
The Mosquito Coast (1985)
Frantic (1986)
Working Girl (1988)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1988)
Presumed Innocent (1989)
Regarding Henry (1990)
Patriot Games (1991)
The Fugitive (1993)
Clear and Present Danger (1993)
Sabrina (1995)
The Devil’s Own (1995)
Air Force One (1997)
Six Days Seven Nights (1997)
Random Hearts (1998)
What Lies Beneath (1999)
K-19: The Widowmaker (2000)
Hollywood Homicide (2002)
Firewall (2004)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2006)
Crossing Over (2008)
Extraordinary Measures (2009)
Morning Glory (2010)
Cowboys & Aliens (2010)
42 (2013)
Paranoia (2013)
Ender’s Game (2013)
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)
The Expendables 3 (2013)

To choose my favorite Harrison Ford movie would be like trying to choose my favorite song: it depends on my mood. Off the top of my head, the basic cable Hall of Famers Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games and Air Force One always feed my need for the popcorn action flick—Ford is at his tough-but-vulnerable best, getting the suit dirty only when he has to, kicking butt to protect family and country. Then, of course, when I want the action (and my hero) not as clean-cut, but much cooler (and snarkier), the sure and obvious bets are Raiders of Lost Ark and any of the original Star Wars movies, which are not just in the basic cable Hall of Fame, but in the All-Time Cinema Hall of Fame. And as for the characters of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, I mean, come on. There was a time—long before anyone heard of James Cameron—that, between Star Wars and the Raiders movies, Harrison Ford starred in five of the top 10 grossing movies of all time. Now THAT’S a movie star.
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My Top 10 of 2014

1. Birdman
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
4. Wild
5. Locke
6. Nightcrawler
7. Boyhood
8. The Skeleton Twins
9. Selma
10. Foxcatcher

MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Pixar Movies:

1. WALL-E (2008)
2. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
3. Finding Nemo (2003)
4. Toy Story 2 (1999)
5. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Rental Pick:

Freaky Friday (1976)

Favorite Trailer of the Moment:

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: