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Black Mass

Based on the now-famous story of Boston gangster Whitey Bolger, the plot to “Black Mass” is familiar enough to make you wonder what the hell was going on in the FBI in the ‘70s. (It’s very similar to “American Hustle,” another true story. It’s not all that different from “The Departed.”) Joel Edgerton plays John Connolly, a blustery FBI informant who grew up in the same neighborhood, and feels like the two have a bond from childhood that Bulger never seems to feel. He gives Bulger a free pass in South Boston, in exchange for iinfo on the Mafia in North Boston. Bulger uses his de facto imunity to become far more powerful and dangerous than the Mafia he’s supposed to be informing on. It’s a startling case of shortsightedness combined with hubris. Connolly saw in his alliance with Bulger a golden opportunity to advance his career in the FBI; somehow he didn’t realize that Bulger would see the same opportunity for his own career as a gangster, drug dealer, and murderer.

On paper, it sounds thrilling. The raw materials are there for a great gangster flick. On the screen, though, it comes up short. Director Scott Cooper falls into one of the most basic mistakes directors make when adapting a true story – he doesn’t adapt it enough. The movie’s biggest problem is that it lacks structure. One damn thing just happens after the next. There needs to be tension and buildup, climax, release, and resolution. “Black Mass” has none of these. It’s really surprising, considering this is a movie about a dangerous sociopath in a violent subculture, how few scenes felt tense or exciting. In my book, there was one really good scene, and even it was ripped off from “Goodfellas.” (Now there’s a movie with a structure.)

Depp’s performance as Bulger is the best I’ve seen him in a serious role since “Donnie Brasco.” He is calculating and vicious, both a family man and capable of murdering whole families.. It’s a solid performance, though it’s hindered by the blue-eyed contacts he’s wearing. They look weird. The pupils never dilate. The guy’s eyes look the same in bright daylight and in a smoky barroom. It’s a neat effect if you’re playing a vampire, but, as far as I know, Whitey Bulger wasn’t a vampire. It’s a little thing, but I found it really distracting.

Cooper has invested heavily in plenty of other places. He’s worked hard to recreate a believably seedy South Boston in the ‘80s; the mise-en-scene here compares favorable to movies like “The Departed” and “Gone Baby Gone.” The cast seems almost excessively talented. It’s a very male-heavy film; there are exactly three women with any screen time at all, and only one of them I’d ever seen before. A better performance fron Bulger’s wife – as well as a better script that gives her more to do – would’ve made this a better movie.


As it is, “Black Mass” is about as good as a gangster movie can be without any exciting scenes in it. It’s not a new gangster classic, as some are calling it. I don’t think it’s even the best gangster flick this year (That would be underrated, underseen “Five Star.”)

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Visit

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I’ve avoided M. Night Shyamalan’s movies for the last couple of years — since the disaster that was “Lady in the Water,” though really that was the last straw.  But I watched the Shyamalan produced “Wayward Pines” miniseries this spring, because I know Blake Crouch (he’s a Durango resident) and it’s based on books he wrote. He even wrote a few episodes. And you know what, it was pretty good.  Shyamalan didn’t ruin it. So, with some fear and trepidation, I decided to give M. Night’s latest movie, “The Visit,” a chance. I’m glad I did.

Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge play siblings going to visit their grandparents for the first time. I’ve never seen either of them before; DeJonge is reminiscent of Abigail Breslin.  One or both of them are on the screen for 99% of the movie. They have great chemistry together; they feel like kids who have been each other’s best friend for most of their lives. Their performances (and the script) toe the line between cute and cloying; there are plenty of bits (especially Oxenbould’s rapping) that it’s kind of amazing aren’t annoying.

I think their performances are helped by the tone of the movie, which was a true surprise. Shyamalan’s films, for better or worse, always have felt tightly controlled, but this one doesn’t.  It’s goofy, loose and shambling.  As a director, he seems game to follow his two main characters wherever they lead. This is supposed to be a horror flick, and the elements of horror are there, but it’s much funnier, and even goofier, than horror is generally allowed to be.  And that makes it a better movie.

“The Visit” is shot found-footage style, but thankfully Shyamalan doesn’t feel the need to stick very close to that particular gimmick.  DeJonge is supposed to be recording their trip for a school project, and she clearly knows more about film than a lot of film school students.  But Shyamalan cuts between different cameras, jump cuts, and generally ignores the premise whenever it doesn’t suit him. A few years ago I would have been annoyed by these short cuts, but I’m so done with found footage flicks – this gimmick was completely played out five years ago — that I was actually relieved to see him cheat every now and then. We don’t need any more found footage flicks, but if we have to endure them, let them be more like “The Visit.”

Something is up with the grandparents (Deanna Duggan and Peter McRobbie, in fairly nondescript performances) but of course, it’s not clear until the third act reveal just what it is. Grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and sundowns pretty hard. They’re not allowed out of their room after 9:30, because she’s unpredictable. Grandfather is incontinent and suffers from mild dementia; he keeps getting dressed for a costume party that happened 50 years ago. It doesn’t seem like either of should really be in a home, but it is a good thing that neighbors come by regularly to check on them. “The Visit” gets a lot of mileage of the general problems that come with aging, and how weird and creepy that can be to kids — as well as the oddness of sending your kids off to spend a week with grandparents they barely know.  This is where “The Visit” is the best; when it’s just mining that uncertainty, as the kids try to figure out what passes for normal in their grandparents’ house.

There’s also a subplot about family reconciliation – the kids’ mother left home in a bad way, to marry a man her parents didn’t approve of, who then left her when the kids were in grade school.  DeJonge is hoping she can use her camera to fix the relationship between her mom and grandparents, a relationship she barely understands.  This doesn’t really go anywhere, but it opens up some opportunities for the kids to deal with their emotions about their dad leave, and those scenes feel much more charged and interesting.

But I guess making a horror flick about Alzheimer’s and dementia would be anticlimactic, not to mention insulting to those who suffer from these ailments. So there’s a third act reveal, and a series of scary/gross scenes that end in a last-minute rescue, just the way they’re supposed to. All of this is handled well enough to be entertaining, though I definitely found the middle act more interesting than the climax.

Some of the people in the movie theater with me seemed disappointed that “The Visit” wasn’t scarier, and I can understand that.  There are a handful of jump scares scattered throughout, but even as it amps up, it’s more into gross-out horror than real scares.  And good horror is all about tone — ominous, tense, unnerving — and “The Visit” is none of those things.  It’s goofy. I liked it, but if you’re looking for the next “Insidious,” this isn’t it.  (It’s more like the next “Evil Dead.”  In fact, it’s more like “Evil Dead” than that terrible remake of “Evil Dead” from a few years ago.)

This movie and the one I reviewed a few weeks ago, “The Visit,” make me feel optimistic about Hollywood. They’re not great movies — neither are terribly ambitious or important — but they both are well-made. I enjoyed them, and felt like I had seen something unique by the time the credits rolled – they have personality. They both veer away from the formula of typical Hollywood wide release flicks, but they both played here in Durango – meaning they are wide release flicks. I love to see movies like these get made – small, interesting flicks that show the fingerprints of their maker but don’t feel “auteur.”  This is good cinema.

It’s also fun to see M. Night Shyamalan make a good movie again.  I’m going to go ahead and give the credit to Blake Crouch. Sometimes working with the right collaborator will break you out of a slump, and maybe that’s what happened.  It’s as good a theory as any other, don’t you think?


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Mr. Holmes

This is a guest post from Courtland Hopkins, who I am trying to convince to become a regular writer at  

Sherlock Holmes has to be one of literature’s most beloved institutions. The obsessive, cocaine-using detective and his doctor sidekick have appeared throughout the 20th century in every form of media from silent films, talkies to radio and television. Some of these titles include the classic Basil Rathbone films in the 40’s to the excellent BBC series “Sherlock” starring Benedict Cumberbatch,  as well as Guy Ritchie’s series starring Robert Downey Jr.  There’s also a whole series of “non-canonical” novels written by authors who could not get enough of Sherlock. The film in question is based on one of these stories, A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullim.  

The most intriguing thing about “Mr. Holmes” is its premise that Sherlock Holmes was real and reality was somewhat different than the Sherlock Holmes we know from the stories. His life was embellished by Doctor Watson, who chronicled his adventures for the world to read. It is 1949 and Holmes (played by a sublime Sir Ian McKellan) is now 93 years old with a failing memory. He is cared for at his country home by a widow Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her precocious son Roger (Milo Parker). The film finds Sherlock trying to cope with his age and trying to prevent the total failure of his memory.

The film’s pace is deliberate and slowly crafts an excellent story revolving around the relationship between Holmes and this young boy, as well as the remorse revolving his final case. The outcome of Sherlock’s last case was one that caused him to retire to the countryside. The film takes several unexpected turns and goes to locales which surprised me. This film is well done with solid performances that complement the telling of a compelling and entertaining tale.  

The part that impressed me was the fact that it weaved themes of fandom as well as regret revolving a character that we tend to think is immune from these troubles. The fact that Sherlock Holmes is not immortal is a compelling premise. I loved the fresh angle on Sherlock Holmes; he is made of flesh and bones underneath that deerstalker cap.

There is something exciting about a beloved character facing mortality. We tend to give characters we love immortal lives. They are bigger than us and they can never die. But this does the character a disservice because they miss a fundamental truth of the life of humankind, the fact that we all are doomed to die and when characters we love face their end a truth is born, they are like us and face aging and death. The best stories are when you don’t know when a character you love may die; the excitement of the tale is in its peril and doubt. “Mr. Holmes” does this beautifully. See it when you can.  



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“Calvary” opens with the threat of a violent act. In the confessional, a man tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) that he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy. That priest is dead, but the damage he caused in this man’s life hasn’t ceased. And so he is going to kill Father James, in a week’s time, not because he is a bad priest, but because he is a good one. He is as innocent as the man was as a little boy when he was abused.

But I don’t think this is really a movie about whether or not the guy does the deed. It’s a thriller set up, but it’s not a thriller. It’s not about who the mystery man in the confessional is — Father James knows who he is right away, because he recognizes his voice. It’s a small town, and he’s a good priest. And it’s not about whether Father James finds a way out of it. Ways out abound; the film is a little bit about whether he decides to stay and let it happen and why, but there was never much question in my mind that he would. So I don’t think it’s really spoiling it to tell you: he dies at the end.

And once that’s out of the way, we can focus on what’s really remarkable and memorable about this film. I always feel weird about calling a movie — at the end of the day, a piece of entertainment — “spiritual,” but I can’t avoid it. This is perhaps the most spiritual film I’ve seen since “Of Gods and Men,” which was also about priests choosing to live out their faith by letting death come to them.

I really like Father James. I want to be like him. He might be my favorite movie character since Margie Gunderson in “Fargo,” and for similar reasons. He brooks no nonsense. He sees right through people’s lies and obfuscations, and not just the lies they tell him, but the stories they tell themselves, as well. And he does it without judgment or arrogance. He does it with care and compassion, inviting people to be honest, with him and with themselves, and to be better people. And he genuinely believes they can be better people, and invites them to believe that, too. Without the least hint of sentimentality or saccharine, he really is making the world a better place.

Another thing I love about this character – he is not afraid of people’s pain and anger, when it is honestly expressed. Father James seems to understand that a lot of people have very good reasons to be angry at the Church, and even at God. When they express that anger – by attacking or attempting to provoke him – he listens, and by listening validates that their pain is real. He doesn’t defend or argue. My tendency, as a minister, is to correct people’s theology. It is very seldom helpful. I would like to be more like Father James.

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A Most Violent Year

Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.

Kay: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

“I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” Abel Morales says near the end of “A Most Violent Year.” Is it fair, then to still call it a gangster movie? Because even though there’s nary a mafioso in the film (there are one or two just offscreen,) everything about this film — from the cinematography to the storyline — makes it the best gangster film released this year.

To begin with, Isaac’s performance is reminiscent of Al Pacino in “Godfather Part II.” It is mannered, carefully controlled, and scary. He is intentional with his words and rarely raises his voice, or needs to. When he does finally explode, the scene is a mirror image of the Michael and Kay scene in “Godfather Part II” where Michael finally explodes (the abortion scene.) Except in that scene, Kay is taking away the kids because Michael has become a gangster, and in this one, Chastain is making a different set of choices, because Abel won’t become a gangster.

He’s a legitimate businessman (which, of course, is what they all say.) He is aggressive in growing his business, he’s not afraid to take risks, but he stays within the bounds of the law — at least, as much as any of his competitors do. There is a definite sense of moral/legal grey areas in Abel and the way he conducts his business, but he draws a sharp line when it comes to violence. Even when his trucks are being robbed, and his salesmen ambushed by thugs, and his family threatened.

I think it might be easy to miss, but Abel’s struggles to not respond violently, to not become a gangster, aren’t grounded in morality. As the movie unfolds, it’s clear he has made a number of immoral choices in the running of his business (and he willingly makes a deal with the devil at the very end.) He doesn’t want to become a gangster because it’s bad for business. It’s the easy way to solve his problems, but the way that will cost him most in the end. He is the consummate capitalist, and violence is bad for business.

There has always been, in the best gangster movies, a tacit indictment of capitalism itself, a sense that what men like Michael Corleone do isn’t really any different from what men like Gordon Gekko do. Maybe that’s why “A Most Violent Year” feels like a gangster movie. For Abel, the line between being a businessman and a gangster is hard and fast. But to us watching (and, perhaps, even to his wife,) it might as well be imaginary.


Random Notes

–This is director JC Chandor’s third film, and all three are drastically different, and all three are good movies “(the other two are “Margin Call” and “All is Lost”) It’ll be interesting to see what he does next.

–I don’t understand the deal at the heart of this movie, and it almost spoiled it for me. Why would you make a down payment on a property 30 days before you sign the loan agreement with the bank? Is this normal in the business world? It seems foolish.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Gift


During the first act of “The Gift,” I thought it was a version of “Cape Fear,” a film about an unwelcome visitor from the past who won’t go away. (The concept can be either thrilling or funny; see “What About Bob?”) Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall have just moved back to his childhood neighborhood near Los Angeles, into one of those houses that has more windows than walls (I was reminded of the great scene in “The Bling Ring” where we watch an entire robbery through the windows from a nearby hillside.) Bateman runs into an old classmate (Joel Edgerton) who clearly thinks they were better friends than he remembers. He’s kind of weird, and he shows up at odd times. He doesn’t seem to have any other friends, and he’s not exactly in the same social strata they are. After a few awkward visits, Bateman tells him bluntly that they don’t want to be friends, and he needs to leave them alone.

You can see where this is going… except it doesn’t go there. This isn’t a version of “Cape Fear,” it’s a riff on that idea, a riff that turns the roles upside down in a thrilling way. Emily Blunt is at the center, because she alone doesn’t know what actually happened between these two in high school. As she tries to figure it out — and to figure out what kind of person she’s married to – the film just gets more and more interesting.

Jason Bateman is playing the same character he always plays, except not for laughs this time. It’s as if someone binge-watched “Arrested Development” and thought, “you know, if Michael Bluth wasn’t so funny, he’d be pretty scary.” Joel Edgerton, on the other hand, is playing very much against type. I first saw him a few years ago in “Animal Kingdom” (link that) and thought, “this guy’s a pretty good actor, but he’s always going to be typecast as a bruiser.” That help up through “Zero Dark Thirty, and “The Great Gatsby.” I was surprised to discover that he played Pharaoh in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — I did not recognize him. And now, he plays the very opposite of a bruiser. He also wrote and directed this film, and did a better job than most actors can do in those roles, so he’s very intentionally climbing out of the box Hollywood put him in. That’s admirable. I’d like to see Jason Bateman do that. I wonder if he’s capable.

I didn’t love the ending of “The Gift.” As I said earlier, Blunt has been the center of the film, and a sort of stand-in for the viewer. But then, rather suddenly, she becomes the way that one of them is able to attack the other. At that point, she has stopped being a character and become just a plot mechanism. That’s disappointing, since it was a smart, scary, over performing flick up until that point.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

In “Misson:Impossible – Rogue Nation,” Ethan Hunt is on the run again, as the IMF (that’s Impossible Mission Force, not International Money Fund) is being shut down by CIA director Alec Baldwin, who is convinced that the shadow organization Hunt is chasing is nothing but shadows.  Seems like this guy can never catch a break or just carry out a normal mission. (This might be the only way Mission:Impossible differs from the Bond movies: nobody’s ever trying to shut down the British Secret Service.) He’s always got to save the day and prove that he was necessary in the first place. It’s hard work, being an IMF agent these days.  But it also looks like a lot of fun.

Tom Cruise hand-picked Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar more than twenty years ago for writing “The Usual Suspects) to write and direct “Rogue Nation,” showing that Cruise still has more than a big paycheck invested in this series. Say what you want about Cruise (and a lot of different things can be said,) he really pours himself into the M:I movies, and it shows.  A lot of ink has been spilled about the stunts he did himself — he’s become this decade’s Jackie Chan, which makes you wonder what has become of Jackie Chan — and those are impressive and and a real sense of thrill to the movie, but I’m at least equally impressed by the choices he’s made as producer.  McQuarrie delivers an exciting, fun script that is coherent but not overly complicated, and directs it with panache. Cruise was also involved in the casting of two virtual unknowns into big roles, and both of those choices pay off marvelously.

We’ve also got a solid bad guy, played by raspy-voiced Sean Harris, who reminded me more than a little of Mads Mikkelsen in “Casino Royale.” And Rebecca Ferguson is fantastic as the femme fatale, sometimes working with Hunt, sometimes against him, always mysterious and intriguing. She comes awfully close to stealing the movie from its star. Simon Pegg returns to provide comic relief, and Jeremy Renner to suck the fun out of every scene he’s in.  (Not a fan.)  There’s even a scene or two with Ving Rhames.

“Rogue Nation” is everything I want a “Mission:Impossible” movie to be.  Really, it’s everything I want a summer action flick to be.  It’s exciting and stylish, it’s occasionally funny, and it’s great-looking.  That last one seems to be more and more unusual, though just a few years ago it was a staple of top-notch action flicks. “Rogue Nation” makes great use of exotic locations, like an opera house in Vienna and a villa in Morocco, that just add to the fun. I’ll happily say a lot of good things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one knock against it is that it’s never figured out how to make a great-looking movie like this one. What can I say, I’m a sucker for action heroes in evening clothes shooting things at each other inside and around thousand year old buildings.



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“Ant-Man” comes in as a fairly minor entry into the Marvel Universe canon. Some of that is by design, I think, and some of that is a result of its quality. Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” this film takes place in a different corner of the universe from Captain America and Iron Man– a more obscure, less important corner. At one point, the hero even says, “You know what we should do? Call the Avengers!” and the mastermind says, “They’re probably busy with something important. Like dropping a city from the sky.” The stakes are a lot lower here.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, the second iteration of Ant-Man. The first is Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, but he gave up the suit and antics a long time ago, and buried the technology so that it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Lang is an ex-con trying to go straight so that he can be a good dad for his daughter, but he can’t get a job. Even Baskin-Robbins fires him when his managers finds out he’s a thief. Prospects are limited, until Douglas recruits him (in a ridiculously convoluted way that’s just better if you don’t think about it much) to be the new Ant-Man, and battle the bad guy, who has the same technology, plus lasers, and calls himself Yellow jacket.

The bad guy fails the essential bad guy test – he doesn’t think he’s right or good; he’s just angry and dealing with some serious daddy issues in a seriously unhealthy way. Corey Stoll does his best to chew any scenery he happens to come across, but you can only work with what you’re given, and Darren Cross will go down as one of the more generic, forgettable and occasionally ridiculous villains in the Marvel Universe — right alongside Aldrich Killian or Justin Hammer (Iron Man, apparently has the least interesting rivals.)

Michael Peña plays Lang’s former cellmate and current sidekick. Peña is a funny guy – he’s one of my favorite actors to watch, because he can be funny, and he can be serious, and he can seamlessly switch between the two in the blink of an eye – but “Ant-Man” overuses him, to the point where instead of laughing and a Latino funny man, I felt like I was laughing at a caricature of Latino funnymen. It doesn’t help that (aside from a cameo from the Falcon, and a cop with maybe three lines) the only people of color in “Ant-Man” appear in comic relief.

There are a ton of problems with “Ant-Man,” but really, none of them keep it from being a funny, if slightly dumb, mostly enjoyable movie experience. It’s not going to hold up to intense scrutiny or critique, and it’s no the surprisingly good out-of-left-field entry that “Guardians of the Galaxy was.” But it’s not the worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, either. I’d slot it right between “The Incredible Hulk” and “Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier” — which is to say, right in the middle of the pack. For a movie with modest ambitions, that’s not half bad.

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Blue Ruin

As “Blue Ruin” opens, the protagonist is in the bathtub.  Except it isn’t his bathtub.  He has snuck into someone else’s house, eaten their crackers, and is taking a bath when they pull into the driveway, and he has to make a quick exit out the window, and “borrow” some clothes from a neighbor’s clothesline. We wonder what kind of man this is, and what kind of movie this is.

But we soon find out he hasn’t always lived this way.  Macon Blair plays Dwight, whose parents were killed in a gruesome double murder, which led, understandably, to his downward spiral. Now he finds out that the man responsible for their deaths has been released from jail. So he decides to take justice into his own hands. Dwight is homeless, scrounging in dumpsters for food.  sleeping in a beat up Pontiac (The titular blue ruin, as far as I can tell, unless the title means that Dwight himself is blue, and ruined, which is kind of corny.)

But this isn’t really a revenge movie; it’s about how difficult it is, once that horse is out of the corral, to get it back. Dwight is comically incompetent when it comes to violence; you wonder if this guy has ever even played a violent video game, let alone held a gun for real. And he’s up against a family that keep submachine guns in their La-Z-Boys. He’s way out of his depth, and the only thing he’s got going for him is that he doesn’t care if he dies.

Because Dwight is so completely incompetent, “Blue Ruin” functions on one level as a warped mirror, refracting back to us the violence of action movies.  It’s almost as if there’s a checklist of stock action scenes — the kill, the getaway, the stakeout, the interrogation, etc. — all turned on their head so they go terrible wrong, and yet, exactly right. The film highlights just how detail-oriented most action heroes are.  Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson are nothing if not attentive to the little things.  They are as meticulous as an ace wedding planner.  No contingency is left to chance. Dwight, on the other hand, makes plans and abandons them like they’re used Kleenex, mostly because in the middle of the plan he realizes how stupid it is. There’s also a healthy dose of reality here, the kind usually missing from big action flicks – he manages to steal a pistol, but breaks it trying to get the trigger guard off.  He almost gets caught and killed because he can’t get his flashlight to turn off. He doesn’t survive because he’s skilled, or determined, or prepared. He’s fairly resourceful, but mostly just lucky.

There’s not a lot of talking in “Blue Ruin,” which is one of its strengths.  Director Jeremy Saulnier has spent a lot of time as the DP and cinematographer on other low-budget indie projects since his last feature, and it’s clear he has put that time to good use, learning a lot about visual language, imagery, and how to tell a story without words. This is also a great example of how to make a great-looking movie on a tight budget. Nothing about “Blue Ruin” feels cheap or corner-cutting. A lot of big-budget movies don’t look this good.

As much as anything, “Blue Ruin” is about the terrible cost of violence in our society. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Dwight gets his revenge; that happens pretty early in the movie.  But it sets in motion other forces that he can’t control, and it’s pretty clear that (of course) it’s not nearly as satisfying as he hoped it would be.  Is there any way to end this before everyone on both sides of the feud is dead?  And if so, will Dwight be able to move on with his life, or will he go back to living in that rusted out Pontiac?  The answers to both these questions are decidedly up in the air.  That’s the kind of movie this is.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Inside Out

My favorite thing about Pixar’s excellent new film, “Inside Out?”  All the way home, my six-year-old was using the basic concept to talk about things that have been going on lately with her own emotions.   A few days later, she was building her own personality islands with Legos, and telling me about the core memories that powered each island. Because we watched this movie together, I know my daughter better.  I understand better what is happening inside her head. That’s not just great, it’s verging on miraculous.

The center of “Inside Out” is Riley, an 11 year old girl who is in the middle of a major transition. Along with her parents, she is moving from the iced-over lakes of Minnesota to the crowded hilltops of San Francisco. (It appears to be a shaky business venture for her dad, but the details are neither disclosed nor important.)  Inside Riley’s head are an entirely separate cast of characters, who help her process everything that happens to her.  There is bright and bouncy Joy, in her tinkerbell dress, and turtle-necked, bespectacled Sadness.  Also Anger (Lewis Black – is this guy ever allowed to be happy?)  who looks like an inflamed tooth, and Fear, and my favorite, Disgust (Mindy Kaling.)

The plot is pretty basic (and more or less the same as Toy Story.) Joy(Amy Poehler, bringing her combination of cheeriness and oblivion straight from “Parks and Recreation”) and her least favorite companion, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), get separated from headquarters, and must make their way back before something terrible happens. Those left at home do their best to keep things in order, but are terribly, comically inept. Along the way, Joy discovers that Sadness isn’t so bad after all, and in fact may be necessary for Riley to understand what’s happening to her.

But the worldbuilding is fantastic.  I can’t wait to see “Inside Out,” because I know there are a plethora of things I missed or didn’t fully understand the first time around. Joy and Sadness spend time in Riley’s imagination, where they meet an almost forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong (voiced by one of my favorite voice actors ever, Richard Kind.  Remember how great he was in “A Bug’s Life?”) they stumble into Abstract Thought, and make a hasty exit.  And of course, there are the Personality Islands, the memory orbs, and the dark, scary Subconscious.  This is great stuff.

The writers at Pixar have clearly done some reading. There are a number of psychological insights tucked into “Inside Out,” beyond the most clear and obvious, which is that Sadness isn’t a nuisance, but a necessary part of the emotional team.  I’ve even heard that choosing these five emotions is based a theory from Charles Darwin about our emotional responses, but I don’t know if that’s exactly true. Nonetheless, I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find another movie this year, for kids or adults, that is more psychologically insightful, creative, perceptive, and in, the end, wise.  I’m looking forward to the conversations I’ll continue to have with my six-year-old thanks to this movie.


Posted in The Movie Blog.