Saturday, August 6, 2016

Film Review: Finding Dory

Directed by: Andrew Stanton, Angus Maclane
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Alber Brooks, Ed O'Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba
Rating: PG
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Runtime: 1 hr. 37 min.

Finding Dory is a very solid, but not spectacular, addition to the Pixar canon. Featuring a fantastic vocal performance by Ellen DeGeneres and the company’s trademark animation it’s hard not to love another swim through the deep with the gang. A promising second act, however, gives way to a bemusing ending which some viewers might find heartwarming, but others might feel was a bit too easy for Pixar.

To further explain I will have to go into detail regarding some of the plot, so if you want to avoid spoilers skip to the final paragraph for the verdict.

Finding Dory is - as one might guess - about Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who in the first act has memory jolts, which slowly lead to her to realization that some time ago she wandered away from her parents and into the deep. After a bit of “think, think, think”, Dory remembers her parents are from California; more specifically a Seaworld-esque theme park, where the gang eventually finds themselves. There’s a lot of hijinx as Dory gets separated from Marlin (Alber Brooks) and Nemo, and works with a human-fearing octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), who -in exchange for a ticket out of the aquarium- decides to help Dory find her parents. Later, she also meets her childhood friend, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark with poor eyesight (whom she ironically learned to speak whale with) and, Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga unable to utilize his sonar capabilities. Eventually the whole crew learns how to overcome their disabilities and work together to escape the park in one of the most “blockbuster” finales Pixar has animated yet. The side plot with Marlin and Nemo is handled well-enough, though it’s never fully engaging, since we know they will eventually find their way through the increasingly obtuse obstacles to find their absent-minded friend for the third act. It’s in this final act where the main through plot begins to unravel.

Before we get to those events, let me provide some background. The most intriguing aspect of Dory’s character -at least for me- has been her ability to live life fleeting from one memory glimpse to the next, but still maintain a powerful bond with people she meets. She lives in the moment, and doesn’t take a second for granted because she knows she might not remember it later. This dichotomy of a character who wants to have deep, meaningful relationships, but struggles to maintain a memory of these individuals despite trying her best is the essence of Dory’s charm and why so many felt attached when she finally remembered Nemo’s name at the end of Finding Nemo. “Dory did it!” we all cheered with our hearts racing as she quickly swam to meet Nemo. Dory was the crux of Finding Nemo’s heart, but sadly Finding Dory fails to do well by its protagonist.

The major flaw rears it’s head as Dory searches for her parents alone in tall seaweed, slowly forgetting her memory of exactly what she was up to. This is a fantastic parallel with the events of it’s predecessor that had me on the edge of my seat. Slowly she finds shells, which she has by now remembered were used in her childhood as breadcrumbs by her parents so she would always find her way home. She slowly follows them piecing together her many memories, which eventually leads her to an empty shell her parents were using as a home, while they awaited her return. Many viewers at this point are probably hoping that she would then turn to find her parents and live happily ever after with them. I, however, was hoping Pixar would take the higher road and have her come to the conclusion that she already had a family in Marlin and Nemo, and that being able to find where her parents had been waiting allows her to find ways to keep her memory strong, and therefore be able to have less fleeting relationships with those she considers family. Pixar, however, disappoints and Dory turns around to see two figures holding shells slowly swim out of the hazy waters.

Pixar as storytellers have largely been built on tales wherein the protagonists are searching for something, but find something else that’s greater. For example, in Toy Story, Woody wants to keep Andy to himself, but in the end learns all he needed was a best friend in Buzz. In Up, Carl is searching for the place Ellie and he had always wanted to go, but instead finds a new meaning in life in being a father figure to Russell; a kid who’s more like himself than he originally conceived. It’s along these themes that Finding Dory could have been most powerful. Instead of giving Dory what she was searching for, she could have realized that she already had the family she was looking for, but now had the confidence and skills to engage within that structure. Dory had found the key to her memory she was looking for and could now use it to make endless ones with Marlin and Nemo.

I might be being a bit hard on Finding Dory, since it really is a very solid film with plenty of great laughs and fine performances that swimmers of all ages can enjoy. 3.5/5

- The Catalyst

Friday, June 3, 2016

Film Review: Marvel's Captain America: Civil War

Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Martin Freeman, Marissa Tomei
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action/Adventure
Runtime: 2 hr. 27 min.

Captain America: Civil War is one of Marvel's finest to date. Although the film does focus on -yet another- team up, the plot fluidly picks up after the events of Winter Soldier, focusing largely on Captain America and Bucky. Age of Ultron plot threads fit in as well, which could easily have been overcomplicating matters, but instead drives the central plot forward. As you may have heard, or at least garnered from the title and poster, events in the film eventually lead to our heroes -particularly Cap and Iron Man- having different opinions when it comes to signing a contract, which places the Avengers as a government-controlled regime, rather than a private source for good. After his many perilous decisions over the last few films Tony Stark decides control is necessary to make sure the team doesn't go AWOL, but Cap, of course, is against such control and believes the team should continue to work free from political agendas. The setup may seem like boring politics, but it's also deeply ingrained in the characters' behaviors up to this point, and the recruitments for Team Iron Man and Team Captain America do not seem out of place or forced.

Some new recruits for this film, Black Panther and Spiderman (thanks to Sony's new deal with Marvel), are shining examples of how, even in such an already packed narrative, Marvel continues to define its characters without submitting them to caricatures, subpersonas, or plot devices. Sure, Spiderman plays a major part of Civil War in the comics, and his previous solo films have made a lot of money, so throwing him in seems like no-brainer fanservice. Again, however, the way in which both him and Black Panther are introduced feels organic to the storyline, and both are given enough screen time and character growth to be meaningful and memorable. As a side note, Tom Holland is easily the best Peter Parker we have had yet.

If the film has any problems it's the final act. The second act consists largely of the build up and finally outbreak of the "Civil War" feud; I won't go into details, but it's up there with the New York battle in terms of pure joy and visceral action. Afterward, the final act consists largely of falling action, which services the Captain America plot thread well enough, but seems out of place and not nearly as exciting as the act two progression. Still it's a solid enough finale, and the final fight -while not nearly as grandiose in scale- is definitely filled with white-knuckle intensity.

Captain America: Civil War admittedly has a few narrative setbacks, particularly when focusing on tertiary plot threads, but overall it stands as one of the premiere entries in Marvel's canon, and one that reignites a franchise heading into its third act. 4/5

- The Catalyst

Film Review: The Jungle Book

Directed by: John Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito
Rating: PG
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Runtime: 1 hr. 46 min.

Lush with gorgeous, breathtakingly realistic animation, The Jungle Book is certainly a sight to behold. Sadly, I was unable to fully appreciate its scenery until about the final third of the film, since my theater was accidentally showing us the 3D version of the film in 2D. Either way, what I was able to witness in that final sequence was certainly worth revisiting.

The voice cast is stupendous with a particular nod to Idris Alba as the ominous Shere Khan. The story was a bit lacking and follows the original film almost exactly, so there's not too much in the way of surprises for those who have seen Disney's original animated classic (though, again, that final act sequence certainly delivers).

On top of this, Mowgli never really comes off as a character in his own; always being talked at and about rather than really having a voice of his own. Even his final act proclamation is half-hearted in earnestness. This is partly the responsibility of the screenwriters, and also an issue with casting a child role. Neel Sethi seems to give it his all, but never believably exists in the same reality as the animals; always staring and speaking in the direction of a character rather than directly at it. Acting in a totally CG film is no easy feat and it's commendable that Sethi is as convincing as he is, but it seems with a little more direction Mowgli could have been more powerful in certain scenes.

Overall, John Favreau has delivered a solid entry in Disney's live-action canon with The Jungle Book, and one that provides hope for future Disney adaptations. 3.5/5

- The Catalyst

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Film Review: Zootopia

Directed by: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Shakira
Rating: PG
Genre: Action/Adventure, Animation
Runtime: 1 hr. 48 min.

Zootopia could easily have utilized it's bipedal protagonists to tell a fun and fluffy tale to keep the youngsters entertained for a few hours, but luckily those involved don't underestimate their audience. So many animated films -otherwise regarded as "family films" or "films for kids"- cater to the funny bone, but sadly never push a worthy message or show true emotional baggage in the starring characters.

From the start of Zootopia's first act it's clear the audience is in store for something more as a young bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) gets bullied by a fox; not just verbally, but physically. This subversion sticks with the audience throughout the whirlwind storyline, which touches on plenty of societal issues including race, sexuality, and more. The film is never afraid to show the truth in interactions, and really make both adults and children feel engaged in what is happening. One such scene under a bridge shows such true and honest character growth that I don't believe I've personally ever seen in an animated film (targeted at kids). Among this emotional torrent there are still plenty of fun and laughs, but they don't feel superfluous and help to drive the action.

Overall, Zootopia is a fast and funny film made not for kids, not for adults, but for people, animals and human alike. 4.5/5

- The Catalyst

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Film Review: The Peanuts Movie

Directed by: Steve Martino
Starring: Noah Schnapp, Mariel Sheets
Rating: G
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Runtime: 1 hr. 28 min.

A heartfelt feature starring Charlie Brown and gang, The Peanuts Movie doesn't stray far from its source material, offering old-fashioned sweetness and humor not often seen in modern animated films. The animation is gorgeous and modernizes the classic cartoon's 2D style nicely. The story is fairly basic, focusing on Charlie Brown trying to prove himself to the new girl in town. In classic Peanuts form, antics ensue at various locales including a talent show, dance party, and a final dash through a carnival.

Snoopy helps his pal through it all, but is also the cause of surprising tonal shifts throughout the narrative as we continually revisit his Red Baron side plot. It's funny, action-packed, and some of the themes match up with what Charlie is struggling through, but the dog fights detract from the emotional build up and simplicity of Charlie's story. Had Snoopy and Woodstock simply acted as foils to Charlie's emotional journey the film could have remained more on point, and felt less like a fan service to Snoopy fans. As a result, the majority of the Peanuts cast is forced into the background, and many of them never get their shining moment in the script. Charlie's story, however, hits a home run.

Overall, The Peanuts Movie is a welcome return to Schultz's classic, and what it lacks in originality and focus, it makes up for with a genuine grin. 3/5

- The Catalyst

Monday, May 30, 2016

Film Review: The Walk

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon
Rating: PG
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Biography
Runtime: 2 hr. 3 min.

Robert Zemeckis' The Walk is a transformative experience. The plot follows wirewalker Philippe Petit as he finds his calling in wirewalking, which eventually leads to a gripping wirewalk between the Twin Towers. The film falls victim to some routine biopic cliches, but tensions do rise during the real-life coup. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a fantastic portrayal of Philippe Petit; offering narration throughout the film that's both insightful and often humorous. This recounting is particularly powerful during the film's climactic and breathtaking wirewalk. The team behind this recreation should be commended on their awe-inspiring efforts. The camera sweeps around Petit as he moves back and forth along the wire, establishing a moment that is simply emotionally moving and impossible to describe; not one for the faint of heart.

Overall, The Walk could have used a few more cuts so we could get to the wirewalk a little earlier, but the wirewalk itself is so poignant and technically proficient that the build-up is worth it in the end. Easily one of the most overlooked films of 2015, and definitely one worth experiencing. 3.5/5

- The Catalyst