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Toy Story 4

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Toy Story 4

I was 15 in 1995 when the first Toy Story was released. That’s a bit older than the target audience for Pixar’s inaugural feature film, but I vividly remember seeing it and being dazzled by both the story and the groundbreaking animation. I’ll be 40 next year. I’ve been wowed by each successive Toy Story installment released over the last quarter century. Both the astonishing leap in digital animation technology and the touching stories involving old pals Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the gang – Toy Story 2 and 3 consistently bring me to tears with every revisit – get better with each new film.

That’s definitely the case with the seemingly impossible jump in animation quality between Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4. The plot, however, isn’t quite up to the level of the earlier films, especially Toy Story 3, probably the strongest of the series. While “cash grab” is too strong a phrase, this is the first entry in the franchise that feels like the artistic vision got a little fuzzy.

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Isle of Dogs

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Isle of Dogs

Nuance is a good thing. That might seem like a bizarre sentiment to post here on the internet, where considered discourse goes to die. Wait, that’s not really fair. You can find plenty of nuance on the internet. It’s just usually drowned out by clickbait headlines and the outrage machine, which only has one setting: full volume. And, of course, let us not forget about the comments section.

Taking a contemplative and nuanced approach to what I write about movies is one of my most important goals. It’s right behind setting down my honest emotional and intellectual reaction to each movie, as well as putting the movies in the context of film history. Wes Anderson’s new film, Isle of Dogs, has made me think hard about being nuanced, especially when it comes to cultural appropriation. It’s what I’ll spend most of this review covering, because it was at the forefront of my mind while I was watching the movie.

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Loving Vincent

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Loving Vincent

What’s more important to know about Vincent van Gogh ­– the man art historians consider the father of modern painting – how he lived, or the circumstances of his death? That’s the question the visually stunning new film Loving Vincent tries to answer. If that’s all you’re thinking about after seeing the film, though, you’ve missed the point. That’s why it’s forgivable that the movie’s story is the weakest thing about it. The way the story is told, though, is unforgettable. Every frame of Loving Vincent was oil-painted by hand. It took a team of 125 painters two years to complete. The movie is a beautiful exception to the rule “form follows function.”

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Sausage Party

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Sausage Party

Sausage Party is about as shallow and lazy as comedy scripts come. The cleverest thing about the movie is the restricted red band trailer. It’s quite a shock to see that trailer for the first time. In the first twenty seconds, you’re led to believe the movie is another Pixar-like children’s animated movie. This time it’s food that is being anthropomorphized, and the adventure will begin when the heroes are chosen by humans at the grocery store for a life beyond the walls of the supermarket.

The (admittedly hilarious) shock comes when the woman who bought the groceries starts to peel a potato in front of the rest of the food. Like the humans in this sort of Pixar movie, she’s oblivious to the sentient nature of our heroes, and she can’t hear the horrific cries of the potato as he screams, “Jesus! Fuck!” After that initial shock, you realize this is one of the most sexually explicit, most foul-mouthed animated movie ever made, and that there’s not much else to Sausage Party.

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Finding Dory

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Finding Dory

I’m a runner, and I live in Texas. The day after I saw Finding Dory, I ran seven miles in 86° heat with 70% humidity. I promise I’m not bragging. The sequel to the 2003 Pixar smash hit Finding Nemo actually helped me get through that run. While I was baking in the heat, my mind wandered back to the theater several times – to the cool, wet mise-en-scéne of the movie’s oceanic setting. One of my favorite things about Finding Nemo was the gorgeous underwater animation, and the meticulous care that was clearly spent bringing the world beneath the surface to life. Finding Dory absolutely excels in these areas, too. If you find aquariums soothing, you know what I mean.

Aside from the visuals, Finding Dory also does an admirable job trying to match the magic and fun of the original. It doesn’t quite make as big of a splash as its predecessor, but it’s a close call. Close enough to make Finding Dory a really rewarding time at the movies. I don’t know what it is about the deep sea environs that translate so well to the Pixar style of animation, but, for me, both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory are absolutely mesmerizing in a way few other Pixar movies are. The Toy Story franchise comes closest to achieving the same effect, but even the first rate animation of those pictures don’t beguile me in the same way that the Finding movies do.

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Anomalisa: These puppets definitely aren't kid friendly

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Anomalisa: These puppets definitely aren't kid friendly

My initial reaction to Charlie Kaufman’s new film, Anomalisa, was to call it his most solipsistic work yet. The central character, Michael, is a famous self-help author who has a little problem with the way he relates to other people. While watching the film, I interpreted his problem (I don’t want to spoil this central plot point of the movie, so I’ll try to dance around it) as a way for Kaufman to explore one man’s narcissism. His rather unique inability to connect with those around him seemed like a study in self-absorption. Then I did some homework on the movie.

The screenplay is an adaptation from Kaufman’s own 2005 play, written for a unique artistic endeavor called “Theater of the New Ear.” It was a series created by musician and film composer Carter Burwell, and it was an attempt to bring to life the old live action radio plays of the 1930s and 1940s. The actors were seated at desks on stage, reading their lines while a live orchestra and foley artist created the music and sound effects. When I came across the pseudonym Kaufman used for his play, Francis Fregoli, everything clicked into place. Solipsism and narcissism aren’t what Kaufman is really interested in here, after all. I’ll let you decide if you want to Google Fregoli Syndrome before seeing Anomalisa, but I don’t think knowing the secret would irreparably spoil the movie. Rest assured, he uses the device to explore his trademark preoccupations: existential dread, personal isolation, and general unease with society at large. As is the case with every other work Kaufman has crafted, there are many layers to Anomalisa. It’s a difficult, thought provoking picture, and one that you’ll wrestle with long after you’ve seen it.

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