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SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Movie Review: Capturing the Best First Date Ever

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Let’s be real here.  SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU may be a sweet story of an epic first date largely devoid of political discussion, but that date is between Barack and Michelle Obama.  Given the contentious and exhausting politics of the presidential election which Americans will be subjected to through November, few who aren’t already missing the coolest of first couples will be drawn to this indie romance.  For those who have wondered what is behind that way Michelle and Barack look at each other, and how it all started, this movie reveals much about their beginnings.  It suggests they may have been destined to be for each other what most romantic idealists hope to find for themselves. As such, for fans of the Obamas, it’s either great inspiration to keep searching for the someone who brings out their best, or a great date movie for progressives already happily coupled.

Helmed by first time director Richard Tanne, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU plays a bit like a based-on-real-life version of slice-of-life auteur director Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE.  Much like that meandering tale of a man and woman slowly getting to know each other over one day, this new release takes place on one summer day in 1989.  It follows Obama, then a magnetic young law associate (Parker Sawyers) as he attempts to woo attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), who is his advisor at their law firm. She is guarded with Obama, as she is hyper-sensitive to how her colleagues see her, a black women on the rise inside the firm.  His plan to charm and win her over involve taking her to an art exhibit, a community-building meeting of members from his Chicago neighborhood, and a screening of DO THE RIGHT THING. He shows himself to be a thoughtful, passionate, and curious person, and the two tease each other, argue, speak about their fears and goals, and just generally fall deeply in like.  Although the conversation is scripted and imagined, the events themselves were pieced together from news articles and a video of the first couple recounting the date and courtship. Even their first kiss is based on an interview with Barack Obama.

It must have been a fascinating challenge to play two of the most scrutinized public figures in the world, especially as both leads are onscreen the entire film.  If their choices fell flat, the audience would be living with them for all of the 84 minute running time.  Fortunately they are up to the task at hand. Sumpter’s Michelle Robinson is straightforward and reticent, but Sumpter (who is also the film’s producer) doesn’t try to imitate mannerisms as much as capture the mix of her elegant composure, and her analytical yet compassionate nature. Given his worldwide recognition, Obama’s portrayal by Sawyers had to have been tricky.  He not only nails it, but embodies him so well the audience will never find chinks in believability. He especially gets Obama’s skills as an orator and what seems to be his easy comfort with himself.

The best romances, the great loves, are those where two people clearly become more together.  What is most fascinating is we as the international public know just how well it turned out for them, and how truly well they went on to compliment and support each other.  It’s the sort of happy ending that makes the story of their first steps towards each other all the more compelling to watch unfold.

4 out of 5 stars

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life Review

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Playing for a week in four theaters across the country and available on blu-ray and on iTunes August 26th, FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE is a delightful and fascinating documentary about “Disney Legend” Norman, who is widely regarded as the first African-American animator, hired at Walt Disney Studios in 1956.  The tagline for this movie says “Animator. Storyman. Troublemaker.”, and whether you are one of Floyd’s many friends in the animation industry, or someone experiencing him for the first time through the documentary, there’s no question all three labels are equally true. The term “floydering” was coined in reference to this man, who continued to go to Disney every day after he retired, to draw, visit, and interact with other artists all day.  He is equal parts an easygoing, gregarious, friend-to-all, and a rabble-rouser who doesn’t suffer fools or bullying of those around him, regardless of the source.

It’s easy to find much to appreciate in the way Norman’s life is presented without too much interference by the filmmakers.  The kudos for that go to co-directors Erik Sharkey and Michael Fiore. It’s Norman himself and the people who know him best who do the narrating.  The audience is able to get a real sense of the man as the sum of his past experiences and how they have informed his current life.

The film begins with Norman’s wife Adrienne, also an artist and currently at Disney, as she describes what it’s like to go to work at Disney publishing with her retired husband only to find him hours later in the office he has adopted for his “post-retirement”.  What she jokingly calls squatting he reframes as a friendly face, visiting and giving helpful hints.  Since Norman has been working with Disney on and off as an animator and story artist since the 50s, it’s advice they should consider very carefully. He was let go and rehired repeatedly, and each time he departed, he went off to do something fascinating and noteworthy.  In the 60s, he started a production company that wound up capturing the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles on film.  If you saw footage from that time, it was probably his company that filmed it.  His company was also responsible for creating the animated sequence in the opening of the famed dance show Soul Train. Even now, he’s a fixture at San Diego Comic-Con, a part of an extremely popular panel called  “Quick Draw” with his friend Sergio Aragones of Mad Magazine fame. He was also on my panel this year about diversity in the history of animation, and you can get to know him a bit here, and see why you might want to know all about his life and experiences:

As someone who knows Floyd, his family, and animator friends, it’s hard not to be biased towards the celebration of his life. In fact, when I know a filmmaker, I tend to be even more critical, just to make sure i’m not seeing through ‘rose-colored glasses’.  However, FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE has twists, surprises, and the sort of story arc that even the most objective viewer can appreciate.  These attributes are no less essential to a good documentary than to the best fictional releases, and they exist here without feeling forced or contrived.  The audience is treated to a wide variety of celebrities and artists talking about the man that is often labeled “The Forrest Gump of animation”. There is a balance of intimacy, when he, his close friends, and his family consider some of the more difficult times of his life, and humor, especially in the animated sequences by various artists that offer a nod to Norman’s own often satirical comic illustrations.

Incidentally, it’s those comic illustrations he’s been doing since the 50s that have propelled him into all sorts of new adventures.  They speak to his acerbic wit and willingness to fearlessly speak his mind, but as the best artists do,  through his art.  The most inspiring aspect of FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE is the fact that as straightforward and opinionated as he is and always has been, he has still succeeded and thrived as an artist.  One might even say those traits are some of his greatest gifts.  In this day of tiptoeing around the corporate world, and staying silent to stay safe, Floyd Norman proves there is a way to be kind, be true to yourself, and be honest, all at the same time, and live a long happy life by continuing to doing so.

A

Hell or High Water review: August Indie Excellence

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Releasing this week, and in need of fans and supporters to voice their appreciation at the box office, is the Indie buzz magnet HELL OR HIGH WATER.  Directed David Mackenzie, the director of English award winner STARRED UP, this film was originally released as COMANCHERIA, based on a script by SICARIO writer Taylor Sheridan, which topped the Hollywood script blacklist in 2012. Since another movie created from that year’s list is the award-winning WHIPLASH, it is in good company.

The story is of the Howard brothers, cavalier ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and thoughtful divorcee with two teenaged sons Toby (Chris Pine) who are systematically robbing the Texas Midland banks to stave off the foreclosure of their dead mother’s ranch.  Even with all their planning, they are unaware that a Texas Rangers, soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and the partner he mercilessly teases, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), are hot on their trail, and slowly figuring out their next move.

It is the script of HELL OR HIGH WATER that makes it such an exceptional watch.  The world has seen enough from the “heist gone bad” genre to last several lifetimes, but Sheridan brings new life to this particular cat and mouse game.  He manipulates the pacing, builds character through scenes with each sets of characters, the two formerly estranged brothers and the rangers.  Also, through much of the action, Sheridan raises questions of moral ambiguity.  There isn’t any clear right or wrong with most of the characters. They are constantly sliding up and down the spectrum.  Director MacKenzie knows just how to lay on the heat, visually and emotionally, easing it into the perfect low simmer.  While there’s a great balance of intensity and humor, viewers know it’s only a matter of time before something explodes.

The chemistry between men within each twosome is essential to audiences investing completely in the story.  This caused me to consider this group of actors, what their histories brought to this movie.  What made for such connectivity? Was it acting, their personal histories, or both?

Three of the four have fascinating and storied histories of life in Hollywood as children, two with well-known fathers in the acting field.  Jeff Bridges is the son of Lloyd Bridges, who appeared in over 150 movies and starred in a number of tv series, including SEA HUNT, where both Jeff and his actor brother Beau appeared as children.  Chris Pine is also from an acting family, the son of TV actor Robert Pine, who among many other roles, co-starred in CHiPs.  HIs grandmother Anne Gwynne acted in Hollywood, and was known as one of the earliest scream queens.  Ben Foster comes by his typecasting as an intense overachiever honestly. He wrote, starred in, and directed a one-act play that won him third place in a worldwide competition when he was only 12 years old.  Gil Birmingham is the odd man out in this quartet, in terms of when he started acting.  Of Comanche heritage, he fell into the profession when he was asked to be in a Michael Jackson video while bodybuilding.  Pine and Foster have a history that helped build the foundation for playing brothers, having worked together before on Disney’s THE FINEST HOURS. Bridges and Birmingham, on the other hand, found connection onset by playing guitar together between takes.  However it is these co-stars found ways to connect, it’s clear all four approached their acting craft in HELL OR HIGH WATER with an intensity and commitment of spirit that shows in every scene.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is a great example of what happens when all the components of a film come together in cooperative fashion.  The acting, writing, and direction, along with other creatives working below the line have created one of the year’s best films, and it deserves to be seen, so see it, come Hades or hurricanes.

A

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS Review: Her singing? Torture. The movie? Sublime.

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FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS Review: Her singing? Torture.  The movie? Sublime.

This week offers the perfect counter programming for thinking film fans.  Starring one of the grand dames of cinema, Meryl Streep, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is helmed by acclaimed director Stephen Frears.  No stranger to working with powerful women in film, Frears has already given us THE QUEEN starring Helen Mirren, and PHILOMENA, starring Judy Dench. In his expert hands, this film becomes a poignant, charming look at one very untalented yet passionate woman’s experience sharing her love for singing with the world.

Based on the real life of Jenkins, who still holds one of the records for most requested recordings created at Carnegie Hall, this story follows the would-be diva in her later life. As badly as Florence sang, there is beauty in her unerring commitment and passion. These qualities led to a huge following that went beyond a kitchy appreciation for her combination of cluelessness and ear-splitting warblings.  Attendees of her shows included Cole Porter, Lily Pons, and Enrico Caruso.  More recent fans included David Bowie. Who are we to argue someone’s relative worthiness onstage with Ziggy Stardust?

Florence is managed and cherished by her English actor husband (Hugh Grant).  She navigates upper class New York, leverages her considerable fortune to be taken as a serious artist, and with the help of her money and friends, ultimately performs at Carnegie Hall.  This necessitates hiring an accompanist willing to feed Jenkins’ delusions of grand talent.  He shows up in the form of Cosme McMoon, here played by Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg.  McMoon is yet another real-life character, who lived the rest of his being best known for his association with Jenkins.

Playing with subtlety the genuine husbandly compassion and commitment his character shows,  Hugh Grant may have his best performance onscreen as Jenkins’ husband St. Clair Bayfield, who displays an uncompromising, uncomplicated love for Jenkins, despite their unusual relationship, and his living apart from her with another woman.

Meryl Streep, in full “I choose what roles I want to play now, and I choose to entertain” mode, brings such sweetness and authenticity to her portrayal, that she elicits fierce loyalty for Florence with the audience, both inside the film and, I suspect, even in history. She is all Florence must have been, including a basket of nerves, a champion for music, a cheerleader, a terrified semi-invalid, and a proud performer in homemade costume begging to be embraced by her audience.  Surely no one else could have pulled off playing a woman who sang so badly so well.  The audience gets to see just how hard she has worked to be awful during a fantasy sequence when she sings as Florence imagines herself sounding.

Some who might appreciate this sort of counter programming have expressed concern to me that this movie might be corny or silly.  It is no sillier than the story itself, which begs a big stretch of the imagination, real though it may be.  As to the idea it’s corny, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, as a film, has a sort of overall deep, abiding, stubborn optimism that places it in the feel-good realm, without a doubt, but there is darkness, as with all Steven Frears-directed films.  Look no further than that Jenkins’ vocal irregularities, and likely her fierce determination, come from her decades-long battle with syphilis, which she unknowingly contracted as a young woman.

The ultimate message of this charmer is about finding fearlessness and optimism in the face of ridicule. It’s to embrace your passion, whether you’re good at it or not.  Who cares? FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS says in its 110 minutes, “since no one’s future is ever assured, why let reality keep us from our joy?  Why not celebrate the activities and things we love best, forget what anyone else thinks”?

B+

SUICIDE SQUAD Review: Fierce Fun for Fans

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There comes a time when thinking movie fans have to ask themselves, “what is with all the hate for DC”? I’ve already had a number of people ask me if the new release SUICIDE SQUAD is “as bad as they say”…With its release, once again a large number of critics have brought in negative reviews.  I’m someone who is a unique mix of film critic, as Cinema Siren, and expert in animation, who remembers the premiere of Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series.  I have a loyalty to her character, was hyper-sensitive to how a live action film would portray her, and I still have to call baloney.  SUICIDE SQUAD could subsist on the performances of Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Jared Leto alone. Though dark, it is visually sumptuous, and in both story and overall feel, writer/director David Ayer has a strong point of view. The film should appeal to and entertain audiences attracted to what was teased in the trailers. It is the WYSIWYG of superhero flicks.

If you don’t like anti-heroic villains, nihilism, or over-the-top stories accompanied by a greatest-hits soundtrack of badass rock, this film is not for you.  On the other hand, if you do, SUICIDE SQUAD is in some respects unlike any other superhero movies you’ve seen.  Though not without some issues, It might be called the less awesome, dark and twisted cousin of DEADPOOL.

US Intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has talked the joint chiefs of staff into her idea of putting together the worst of the worst meta-humans and sociopathic killers into a team to combat potential threats.  This is post-Superman, who is out of the picture.  In one of the weaker plot-points, she has found a way to control them via a DUNE or ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK-like mechanism implanted in them that kills them instantly if they misbehave.  Cue the introductions, with wailing musical accompaniment, and to varying degrees of depth, to Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).  In theory, military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is meant to be in charge of them and their missions.  He’s being controlled through his love of the last supposed team member, Enchantress, (Cara Delevingne) an ancient, powerful witch, who has taken over the body of his beloved, June Moone.  Waller also controls Enchantress, but only because she has her heart in a box.  Of course, the team is needed and dispatched almost immediately.  They are expected to succeed at their task, or die trying.  As you can imagine, almost immediately, herding these hellcats goes horribly wrong.   

The biggest problems with the movie are the derivative aspects.  There are elements that recall GHOSTBUSTERS, THE MUMMY, the recent remake of JUDGE DREDD, all in the ways those films court the ridiculous.  Tropes like the sky-opening-phenom about to end the world, and the nearly unkill-able god-like villain, are not subverted nor used to best advantage.  There is a lack of balance in character development legitimately getting called out by critics, because fans have come to believe it possible, having seen it accomplished in Marvel’s THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Last but not least, the plot is largely so straight forward, it could easily be called facile.

That being said, Suicide Squad is great nihilistic fun.  Clocking in a 123 minutes, it doesn’t feel overly long, which is a miracle, given most of the action is the squad making their way through a decimated city, video-game like, to their final showdown with their adversaries.  Side plots involving The Joker’s attempt to help Harley escape, and backstories for her, Deadshot, and Diablo force the audience into rooting for them, however ambivalent they may feel in doing so.  Also great fun is the way the team comes together, little by little, as their personal stories and what they have at stake are revealed.  Apart from DEADPOOL, (which is the gold standard), the shift of what constitutes good or bad, who should be deemed worthy of living or condemned to die, and how all that is put into question, is far better presented in SUICIDE SQUAD than any superhero movie to date.

There’s no question director Ayer took risks in how he put this movie together, and for that alone, for committing to a strong point of view, he gets my respect. The success or failure for SUICIDE SQUAD largely depends the willingness of audiences to sit back and enjoy what amounts to the superhero movie version of an LSD-laced lollipop. Tasty, full of color, and ultimately crazy, whether it’s a good trip or a bad one is entirely up to you.

B-

Jason Bourne Movie Review: Assassinate this Sequel

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Opening this weekend is JASON BOURNE, which features the return of both original Bourne Matt Damon, and the director that most succeeded with the franchise, Paul Greengrass.  Will this new film with the beloved Good Will Hunting Oscar-winner capture new viewers and the action fans who have followed the travails of the beleaguered former CIA operative from the beginning?

Franchise star Matt Damon has said himself that being a part of the films altered the trajectory of his career. It not only solidified his place on the Hollywood A-list, it allowed him a wider laterality in the future roles for which he would be considered.

There are so many films that amply display Damon’s talent as an actor.  From GOOD WILL HUNTING to THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE to SYRIANA, INVICTUS, CONTAGION, ELYSIUM, and, of course, THE MARTIAN, there are lots of opportunities to celebrate the ever-appealing boy-next-door quality he leverages in a wide diversity of stories. Skip this new release, and go straight to the good stuff that represents his great body of work.  JASON BOURNE is not among those movies.  As a diversion filled with chases, fist fights, fan favorite Damon and new A-lister Alicia Vikander, it is passable, but nearly immediately forgettable. It is, however, better than standing for the same length of time in 100 degree heat…

Once again, and with diminishing explanation, former operative Bourne is searching for answers about his past.  Former colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) has uncovered some secrets about his past that bring the reluctant, assassin, who is clearly tortured with PTSD, out of hiding.  Cue the freakout by folks at CIA headquarters, including director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, who can’t seem to play the role of a man in charge without recalling THE  FUGITIVE) and computer expert Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander).  The hunt for Bourne once again begins.  Will they kill him, call him in from the cold, or get him the therapy he needs?  If you’ve seen any of the other films, you already know the answer.  You also probably already know that the roles for women in this film are frustratingly predictable and of limited character design.

In JASON BOURNE, Damon has no requirement for range or acting skills.  His role in this film almost exclusively limits him to scowling, walking fast, and punching or shooting people.  There is no nuance, no character arc, no real story to speak of, although one thing is clear about the work required for the actor.  He must have had to train like an Olympian for months building his body for the early shot of him shirtless. The credit for his physique goes to trainer Jason Walsh, who said he was thrilled to see the trailer that featured his new muscles become a trending topic online. With that amount of effort, they should have kept him that way for at least long enough to feel the dieting and endless workouts payed off.

The biggest, and strangest action sequence included in the film given its incredibly inappropriate timing, is French actor Vincent Cassel as a villain plowing through people and cars in an armored vehicle, which, while it was shot far before the Bastille Day atrocity in Nice, still creates unfortunate echoes of the recent tragedy.

I have a huge amount of respect and loyalty for Matt Damon and a number of other people involved in this film, but there’s no way around saying it is so far off target that if it that were indicative of Jason Bourne’s skill with firearms, he’d have been dead several movies ago, having no way whatsoever to protect himself.

C-

GHOSTBUSTERS Movie Review: It’s Got Spirit

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What do you say about a film that inspired almost a million YouTube users, many of the masculine variety, to give thumbs down? I’m sure scores of women felt like me and it got their dander up.  This weekend director Paul Feig’s gal-fronted reboot of Ghostbusters is releasing across the country and, fingers crossed, will bring out female fans in droves, in support of women in film, and not least to smack down and dissuade the kind of girl-bashing behavior so pervasive online prerelease .  But is it any good?

The short answer is it’s good enough to enjoy, but not as great as representing total vindication. There are certainly moments that shine so brightly the entire audience glows like, say, Slimer. In particular, Kate McKinnon’s character Jillian Holtzmann, and Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan are wonderful, and without question, raising their stock to A-listers. Chris Hemworth makes himself nearly intolerable by being so funny and entertaining he nearly steals the movie.

This is not a sequel or a remake.  These four female ghostbusters have their own back stories, their own quirks, and exist in their own shared world.  Interestingly, the New York where they ply their trade is somewhat out of time.  We don’t see lots of cell phones or trappings of the now, and only the occasional plot-driven reference to the internet.  Kristen Wiig is Erin Gilbert, a professor of physics working to get tenure at Columbia, trying to live down and forget a book about the paranormal she wrote with her childhood friend.  Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates is that friend, who still does research in the basement of a barely accredited college, with the help of genius loose cannon Holtzmann.

When an investigation into a haunting leads to a video that gets Gilbert fired, the three decide to continue their work together.  Bored transit agent Patty Tolan (Jones) joins the team after having an encounter with a belligerent ghost on the metro tracks, and the rest is ghost fighting, quip tossing, and slime cleaning fun, especially when dumb as dirt hottie Kevin (Hemsworth) acts as their entirely inept receptionist.

There are a few weaknesses that bring the proton power down…Cameos come fast and fierce, as do other nods to the original franchise, and they tend to pull the audience a bit out of the proceedings. While McKinnon’s character is an oddball hoot and entirely magnetic, some of her moments seem to hang out in the stratosphere in a way that makes them feel out of place and badly paced.  Some jokes don’t seem to land particularly well.  The movie is probably a good ten minutes too long.

On the other hand, the camaraderie is off the charts.  I can’t remember ever feeling more excited to see four people in costumes together, especially as a woman who yearns for cosplay options that don’t involve over 80% of exposed skin.  This isn’t just women kicking butt, this is women kicking butt without any help from men, or talking about men, with confidence, fearlessness, and humor.  The moment where McKinnon’s character wreaks havoc while wielding two weapons is really worth sitting through the looser aspects of the rest of the film.

The next time the powers-that-be in Hollywood say women can’t open and carry a film, I hope they will be reminded of this one, and strong box office numbers mentioned as proof.  Ghostbusters may not be a film for the ages, but it’s definitely deserving of a thumbs up…maybe even a million of them.

B

NOW BOTH MARVEL & DC REPRESENTED ON SDCC WOMEN ROCKING HOLLYWOOD PANEL!

Leave it to the women of the world to bring together Marvel and DC in peace and harmony.  As if it wasn’t already an embarrassment of riches to have the director of Women in Film LA Kirsten Schaffer, the director of Twilight Catherine Hardwicke, and respected Indie and TV writer/director Angela Robinson on the inaugural Women Rocking Hollywood panel, we also now have both Marvel AND DC represented with Victoria Alonso and Deborah Snyder! Now you really have to drop everything else and come be a part of it!

OUR NEW UPDATED PANEL DESCRIPTION:

Saturday July 23rd:

2:00 – 3:00 Women Rocking Hollywood-This exciting new panel features powerful, talented women changing Hollywood from the inside.  As creatives, directors, and producers, they are breaking box office records and showing Hollywood altering the status-quo just makes for better movies. Scheduled to appear are Victoria Alonso (exec producer, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War), Deborah Snyder (producer, Wonder Woman, Justice League) Angela Robinson (writer/director, D.E.B.S., True Blood, How to Get Away With Murder) Catherine Hardwicke (director, Twilight, upcoming Love Letters to the Dead) and Kirsten Schaffer (exec director, Women in Film: LA)  talking about positive changes in tinsel town, their work, and future projects. Marvel, DC, blockbusters, indies, and powerful women-This panel brings it all! Moderated by Leslie Combemale of Cinema Siren. Room: 25ABC

LIFE, ANIMATED Film Review: Life Affirming and Full of Love

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Opening in wide release around the country is the highly anticipated feature documentary based on Pulitzer prize winner Ron Suskind’s book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. If you haven’t heard about this bestseller, it recounts the Suskind family’s experience with their younger son Owen’s autism, and their discovery of how to reach into and expand his world through his affinity with Disney movies.

The movie inspired by Ron Suskind’s book, Life, Animated, garnered the Special Jury Prize, a Best Director Award, and a nearly 10 minute standing ovation at Sundance this year. It is particularly pedigreed, given its director Roger Ross Williams is the first African-American director to win a Oscar, in 2010, for best documentary short subject with the film Music by Prudence. Life, Animated also got complete approval by Disney to use whatever they needed without editorial control, a rarity with the company.  Those who see it as simply promotion for Disney are missing the point.  Through the Suskind’s discoveries, what they first named ‘Disney Therapy’ has been expanded to include all sorts of subjects.  Now called ‘Affinity Therapy’, this technique has become studied and utilized by a growing group of psychologists, parents, and educators around the world.  What do you say about a documentary that is part of creating a whole new way of unlocking the worlds of people who otherwise might have always been trapped without any communication with those around them?

When Owen Suskind was around three years old, he went inside himself and stopped speaking completely.  His parents had no idea what happened, but they knew they had to help him emerge from his isolation.  In his retreat,

he spent many hours repeatedly watching Disney feature films.  They began seeing Owen mouthing the words spoken onscreen.  When he speaks out loud the words he has heard onscreen, a door to communication opens for Owen and his family.  Through a series of interactions and discoveries that spanned years of trial and error, disappointments and victories, and a lot of love and hard work, they unlocked a way to communicate through the stories and characters in Owen’s beloved Disney films.

This movie, however, is not a commercial for the studio.  It’s really about the power of leveraging the passionate interests of those on the autism spectrum, now called affinity therapy, as a way into learning, expanded thinking, and connectivity.   (Click here to read my interview with director Williams and Suskind family)

Williams chose not to simply create a film of Ron Suskind’s best-selling book, but rather expand upon it at a pivotal moment of transition in Owen Suskind’s life.  While the audience is shown some family history, and the years of struggles they experienced in helping their son develop into an independent, largely self-directed adult, the focus is on how Owen experiences life in his 20s, as he navigates relationships, work, and moving away from his family. The way Williams pivots back and forth between Owen’s childhood and the now exposes the ongoing challenges of Owen’s life with Autism in a way that ultimately achieves his larger goal of fostering understanding and compassion.

One of the most powerful tools, and most compelling aspects of the movie, is the animated sequences Williams believed were an essential part of the storytelling. They were created in 2D by the owner of the French animation studio Mac Guff, Phillipe Sonrier, and his hand picked animators. Artist Olivier Lescot, in particular, is responsible for the look of the animated sequences.  In fact, Williams and the Mac Guff crew began to call these sequences “Olivier style”.  Williams also used, at the suggestion of prolific animation producer Emily Hubley, all music and no dialogue in those parts of the film.  Electronic musician Dylan Stark created the music by incorporating recordings of VHS tapes fast-forwarding and rewinding and Owen’s self-talking into the soundscape.

Also fascinating, is what this film inadvertently says about the power of fan art. Owen creates quite a lot of it in his attempt to work out his feelings, and express what is locked inside himself.  At many points in his life, creating these images often literally expressed how he felt when he could find no other way to say it.  In a very real way, Life, Animated not only celebrates the art of 2-D animation, it also shows the value and importance of visual self expression for anyone searching or yearning for connectivity.

A

The Secret Life of Pets Movie Review: Furry Frenetic Fun

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This weekend there’s a new toon in town to compete with the juggernaut that is FINDING DORY. THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS aims squarely at the animal lover in us all, and hopes to triumph at the box office by tapping into the attachment pet owners feel for their four-legged, furry, and feathered friends.  Is the end result worthy of winning the hearts of animation fans, still singing the praises of a sequel only newly in theaters from a much larger studio?

If you’ve gotten used to the bittersweet poignancy of the Pixar films, you won’t find it in THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS. This new release from Illumination Entertainment (MINIONS, DESPICABLE ME) is all fun, and that’s not a bad thing, especially as it relates to the eccentricities of our beloved pets, and the hilarious anthropomorphized, yet diverse characterizations the filmmakers ascribe to this quirky animated menagerie. 

The story centers around an apartment complex in New York City, where scrappy, optimistic terrier Max (Louis CK) lives the good life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), and hangs out while she’s at work with his various furry-friend neighbors. There’s aloof, yet loyal fat cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), and white Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), who is clearly burning a major terrier torch. When Katie comes home with another pup, a big, shaggy wannabe-alpha named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), his canine world gets turned upside down.  The mile-a-minute ensuing plot is like an urban INCREDIBLE JOURNEY that involves a gang of cats, Animal Control, and a creepy collection of abandoned animals  called “The Flushed Pets”, headed up by a deceptively cute bunny named Snowball (the hilarious Kevin Hart). Part of their odyssey include a meeting with a terrifying, deranged sort-of Siamese Ozone (Steve Coogan), a paralyzed hound dog named Pops (Dana Carvey), and a hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks), who is exhibiting extreme self-control in not turning half his new friends into snacks.

Where THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS excels, and richly, is in the voice casting.  Between Louis CK, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, and Lake Bell, the film has some of the most comical, yet nuanced voicings in recent history. Brooks, Carvey, and Bell are particular standouts. I have the feeling that between the three of them, they could voice any character, in any cartoon.  It’s a belief that writer Brian Lynch shares. When I spoke to him, he waxed poetic about the number of choices each of these actors bring to the table, and the additions to their characters their talent and invention that are evident in the final film. I can believe it.

There are a number of scenes where at least 10 characters are on screen together, and at one point, there are many dozens, all with their own character, and very clearly delineated.  That is no small feat. Look for a clear ode to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, which apparently was the basis for the entire movie. Max was supposed to see something happen across from his apartment that was meant to begin his adventure. How fun that they still incorporated a reference to that in the film.  How nice too that there’s a level of sweetness to that scene that leaves audiences smiling as they walk away from the theater. 

As it happens THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS doesn’t need to make nearly as much money as FINDING DORY to prove profitable. Illumination has stuck to their business model of being relatively lower budgeted for animated features, and comes in at around $75 million versus $200 million for FINDING DORY.  Whether this model translates to success from larger risks in story, is up for argument. There’s no question, though, that the studio repeatedly churns out entertaining and diverting feature animation.  They have developed a particular niche that has served them well.

It isn’t in the plot, which treads some fairly familiar territory, but rather in the characters that THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS that makes it so winning, it’s nearly best in show.

B+