Nothing More Than Feelings

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Pixar was in an interesting position entering 2015, and for the first time there was a real sense that audiences and critics were starting to lose interest. The company that once dominated the theatrical animation market no longer seemed to be at the top of the mountain. 2014 was the first year without a new Pixar film since 2005, and its three latest releases (Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University) failed to live up to the studio’s usually high standards. It may be unfair to expect a classic year in and year out from anybody, but for years Pixar made it seem possible. However, the best way to end the talk of a creative decline is to unleash a film like Inside Out on the world, which stands among the best things the studio has ever done.

From the beginning, it hits all the marks you expect of a great Pixar movie, starting with one of their best premises this side of Toy Story. The film concerns the 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and the personified emotions that live inside her head. They are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). After Riley’s family moves to San Francisco, and Joy and Sadness find themselves lost in the landscape of her mind, everyone scrambles to try and return things to normal. This story is told in typically great Pixar fashion, mixing frenetic entertainment and comedy with moments of genuine emotion and profundity.

The brilliance of a film like Inside Out is its ability to work for all ages without having to resort to crass tactics employed by other studios. (Too often “keeping the adults interested” means throwing in a dumb double entendre.) Here, Pete Docter and his team are confident enough in their story to let it do all the work, and its cumulative effect is something else. Much credit also should go to the voice cast, which is one of the best I can recall. Each part is given the perfect performer, including a large supporting turn for Richard Kind as Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing Bong. It’s family entertainment, to be sure, but it’s family entertainment that respects the entirety of its audience and knows it has something to offer to everybody. Inside Out is not just a Pixar comeback, but an affirmation that it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The victory tour isn’t done yet; there is another Pixar film, The Good Dinosaur, coming out this November.

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Three films into his directorial career, Seth MacFarlane is starting to make it clear that he has no interest in changing who he is. His eye is always on the joke, and nothing else. It doesn’t matter if it’s the easiest joke imaginable, or how much he has to derail his story to get there. If there is a punchline he’s fallen in love with, everything else goes out the window. This has always been his style on television, and there has been little change in his feature film output. When it works, it can really work, and for proof look no further than the original Ted, which remains the best piece of entertainment connected to the MacFarlane name. His follow-up, A Million Ways to Die in the West, didn’t have nearly the same charm, but it was still able to wring some laughs out of the ordeal. For his latest effort, Ted 2, this is not the case. Not even close. MacFarlane has always thrived in the gutter, but his attempts to mix the lowbrow with a story that plays on American civil rights struggles leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It goes off course early and never looks back.

There’s something particularly gross about this type of movie coming from a bunch of privileged white men, particularly in an age when we, as a culture, have more or less decided that stuff like this isn’t okay. The gist of Ted 2 is this: our eponymous teddy bear (MacFarlane) has all his rights taken away and is deemed “property” by the government, and it’s up to him to fight for his humanity. This happens in between sessions of getting stoned with old friend Mark Wahlberg and new lawyer friend Sam Jackson (Amanda Seyfried). Ted’s situation is compared many times to the plight of slaves and homosexuals in America, sometimes for humor and sometimes not, and many of these jokes are delivered in particularly tone-deaf fashion. It doesn’t help that the rest of the film delights in being offensive; you can’t make jokes at the expense of an entire race (or a certain public university in Arizona) and then turn around and try for sincerity when it hasn’t been earned.

The heavier issues are best discussed by others, but those problems are only amplified by the film’s complete lack of laughs. MacFarlane’s work typically alternates between advancing the plot and telling jokes, and has never shown an ability or desire to do both things at once. When those jokes stop working, the whole machine falls apart. While no movie with a three-minute sketch about Liam Neeson buying a box of Trix can be all bad, those jokes are but brief blips of humor in a sea of uncomfortable silence. MacFarlane may yet have a great movie in him, but Ted 2 is an unfortunate example of a particularly stubborn writer/director embracing all his worst tendencies at once.

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Let’s burn through a few more recent releases…

  • I’m not sure anyone expected Jurassic World to become the smash hit that it is, especially since the reaction to it seems to be polite at best. You can lump me into the “polite” camp as well. The film is well made and as diverting as it needs to be, but is ultimately entirely unremarkable. In addition, it becomes entirely clear upon reflection just how dumb most of these characters are. Here is a blockbuster that meets expectations and nothing more.
  • One of the most talked-about movies from this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the story of an awkward cinema-loving high school student who befriends a cancer-stricken classmate in her final months. It’s directed with stylistic abandon that showcases Gomez-Rejon’s undeniable skill, but I wish it was in service of more interesting material. It’s a story that knowingly deals in stereotypes and clichés as part of its protagonist’s worldview, but for me every big moment fell completely flat. Either you buy what this movie is selling or you don’t.
  • Speaking of Sundance hits that don’t quite come together, there is Dope, directed by Rick Famuyiwa. It’s certainly more interesting than Earl, and it’s able to mix in some fantastic moments before it spins a bit out of control in its second half. It tells the story of a group of teenage outcasts in the “bad” neighborhoods of Inglewood, California, and Famuyiwa provides audiences with a point of view you don’t see in most movies. Eventually, our protagonists accidentally find themselves in the middle of the drug-dealing world, and the film follows them as they attempt to unload their newfound stash. Dope leaps from tangent to tangent with great energy, but not much grace, and the climax seems to reach for some grand statement that never quite materializes. Promise abounds, and it’s a film that remains fresh even if it doesn’t always work.
  • The Overnight, written and directed by Patrick Brice, is one of the more interesting comedies to come out this year. It stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as a couple still adjusting to their new home in Los Angeles, and in an attempt to make friends they decide to have dinner at the home of another couple, played by Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche. The night goes on longer than anticipated, and things get weird. Hilarious in parts and genuinely affecting in others, it gets a lot of mileage out of putting four characters together into one setting and letting the magic/awkwardness happen. It’s a minor achievement, but a fine one nonetheless.

Other cultural observations:

  • As great as Inside Out is, I should mention that the preceding short, Lava, is one of the worst things Pixar has ever released. That doesn’t stop the dumb song from sticking in your head forever, though.
  • I might go deeper into the second season of True Detective in the coming weeks, but the two comedies that follow it on the new HBO Sunday schedule are surprisingly weak. Ballers has potential to turn into an interesting show about the culture of modern football players, but I have very little faith it will get there. The Brink, meanwhile, is a toothless and grating political “satire.” That it had to follow an incredible season of Veep doesn’t help matters, and it only highlights what a waste it has been so far.
  • Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies, along with our current superhero movie saturation, have essentially killed any interest I had in this franchise. So, when a new star (Tom Holland) and director (Jon Watts) were announced recently, I had no reaction except a prolonged sigh. I’m tired.
  • Oh, yeah. Independence Day 2 is happening. I forgot about that. Here’s a picture tweeted by director Roland Emmerich, complete with #PullmanBeard and the bargain Hemsworth brother.

Next week, the blog post will include my choices for the best films of the year so far. Fasten your seatbelts, get ready to rumble, and other clichés.

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