Creed (2015)

Starring- Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Tony Bellew, Ritchie Coster

Director- Ryan Coogler

PG-13- violence, language and some sensuality


   It’s strange that it took twenty years and a half-dozen movies for Rocky sequels to start feeling vital, but it’s a trend that I hope continues. Sylvester Stallone said he was done with the character after Rocky Balboa, and for once, I’m glad that someone talked him out of it. Creed is a good, old-fashioned sports movie and the ideal way to send off one franchise and kick off another. 

   When he was a child, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) — everyone calls him Donnie, for obvious reasons — was kicked around from juvie to foster homes and back again. His father died before he was born, and his mother did the same not too long afterward. He’s in detention again when Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) finds him and tells him the truth — he’s actually the son of her late husband, the famous boxer Apollo Creed. She takes him in, and he spends the remainder of his childhood and young adulthood in privilege. 

   But he is his father’s son, and all he wants in this world is to be a champion boxer. However, his adoptive mother doesn’t approve, and his peers reject him as an untalented silver-spoon kid chasing a random whim. So, he decides to start from the bottom. He drops the Creed name, moves to Philadelphia, and begins searching for a trainer, eventually finding one in his father’s old friend and rival: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

   I’ve had faith in this project since it was first announced, and I’m happy to have been vindicated. For most people, it seemed as though the movie came out of nowhere, barely marketed itself as a Rocky movie, and was just more unnecessary Hollywood franchising.  But Ryan Coogler’s involvement had me interested from the beginning. Fruitvale Station seemed like the sort of debut that marked its director as someone who was here to stay. However, the pleasant surprise of Creed is not only that Coogler delivers but that almost everyone else does, too.

   Creed lets us see a bit more of what Coogler can do behind the camera, mainly showing us that he can work in other styles than the intimate, handheld indie cinema of Fruitvale Station — including, possibly, blockbuster action. Creed has some of the best, most dynamic fight scenes of any boxing movie in recent memory. I’ve seen a lot of films centered on boxing, mixed martial arts, wrestling, and similar activities, and the direction often goes weird when the characters get in the ring. I think it’s because such events are televised blow-for-blow in reality, and it’s difficult to move past our ingrained perception of how they ought to be shot — the same reason scenes where pastors are giving a sermon so often look like televangelism. 

   Fortunately, Coogler finds the right way into the boxing sequences and, most importantly, doesn’t over-direct them. Even though what’s happening in the ring is fast and fierce, his direction is gentle and patient. It’s reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s approach to weightless space perils in Gravity — Coogler uses comparatively long, slow takes. He anchors the shot to a character, and he directs the combatants to move in such a way as to guide the camera. It slides gracefully in and out of the action, which allows it to budget its quick zooms and close-ups for the truly brutal punches. The end result is action that’s clear and easy to follow and only heightens the fury on the screen. There’s weight and motion behind every punch thrown, and you feel each one. Usually, when boxing or MMA movies get PG-13 ratings, I roll my eyes at how sensitive the MPAA has gotten, but Creed actually earns that. It gets up close and personal and truly identifies you with the physical pain of the characters in the ring.

   Fruitvale Station gave us hope, but Creed makes us believe that Ryan Coogler is a talent to watch.

   However, filmmaking is a collaborative art form, and Coogler isn’t the be all and end all. He gets support from a great cast — or rather, a pair of great leads.

   Michael B. Jordan is a name that remains somewhat new to the public at large, but to obsessive cinephiles like me, he’s already arrived. It isn’t surprising that he’s a charismatic, likable lead; he’s done it a handful of times already. Adonis Creed is a character who could easily lead his own series, provided the story is there. (Admittedly, I’m not sure I want sequels to this — for starters, I don’t know where Donnie goes from here as a character; more importantly, there are appropriate ambiguities in this movie that future sequels would have to resolve one way or another, and I don’t want them to. Still, when they arrive, I will be open-minded.)

   Stallone’s the one who will — pardon the pun — knock you out, delivering one of his best performances and reminding you why society collectively fell in love with Rocky Balboa all those years ago. It’s a performance so effortless and powerful that it becomes baffling — is this just the part Stallone was born to play or something? He’s spent the overwhelming majority of his career in dumb parts that are sometimes in good movies and oftentimes not and doing…fine in them, I suppose. But then, you throw something like Creed at him, and he immediately starts going toe-to-toe with the best actors of our time. If you showed someone Rocky and Creed and nothing else, they’d think we considered him one of the all-time greats.

   Whatever the case may be, he’s fantastic in this movie. The Oscar talk is not B.S. As of right now, having not seen a lot of the other potential nominees, I’m actually okay with him winning. His take on Rocky — another 10 years older since the last time we saw him — is subtle and detailed and lived-in. There’s so much history in this character, so much struggle, so much pain, so much loss, so many varied and interesting experiences, and Stallone brings all of that to the screen. Even if you’ve never seen another Rocky movie, I suspect you’ll leave Creed with a good sense of who the character used to be — and that’s without a single flashback or extended reference to what happened all those years ago. You can see traces of the man Rocky used to be — some of the trademark humor, warmth, and talkativeness remain in the character we see in Creed. However, the character is carrying around a lot of pain, and those lighter qualities are muted. Rocky isn’t dark and brooding; he’s just tired. You can see that behind his eyes even in the film’s happier moments. Adrian died between Rocky V and Balboa, and now Paulie has joined her. Rocky feels as though his life has already happened and is functionally over. His wife and best friend are gone, he’s too old for boxing, and his son and grandchildren have moved to Canada. He’s just sleepwalking through the remainder of his days. He’s not miserable, but his lust for life is gone.

   And that’s reflected through the entirety of the film. What people may be most surprised to discover is that Creed is a tightly-written, intelligent story, on top of being a viscerally engaging sports drama. I think that, as time has passed, people who only distantly remember Rocky have written it off as pure formula that we only liked because of how enjoyable the main character was. I would encourage those people to give it another go. Rocky only borrows its biggest beats from the traditional sports movie formula, and even a few of those are twisted up a bit. The space in between is filled with complex and interesting characters — every single one of them, from Rocky to Mickey to Paulie to Adrian, are, for different reasons, nobodies desperate to matter. Each chases that longing in his or her own way, some for good and others for ill.

   Creed is the same, only this time, the story is about how we view the past, the present, and the future. Rocky, as stated, believes he’s already done all the living he was meant to do and ambles around without purpose, seeing the future as empty and purposeless. Donnie, on the other hand, has a negative relationship with his past — he never recovered from his birth mother’s death; he has a complicated relationship with his father, half resentment for conceiving him as a result of an affair and dying before he was born, and half love and respect; and he lives in the shadow of the Creed legacy. Everyone sees him as someone raised, albeit not born, in wealth and privilege, and who advanced his career solely through the strength of his name. Donnie loves and hates being a Creed, and he struggles to make peace with his own past. In the middle is Donnie’s girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer with progressive hearing loss. The movie presents her as the ideal — someone who understands the value of the present and holds the past and the future in appropriate perspective. She knows that she won’t be able to pursue her dreams in a few decades, that she won’t even be able to experience music at all, but the now is more important. She’s an interesting piece of the thematic puzzle, but she’s the weak link in the cast as a result — she isn’t struggling with anything and doesn’t change over the course of the film. 

   I think the bigger issue with Creed is that it’s a bit hamstrung over its adherence to formula — not only the sports movie formula, but the Rockyformula specifically. It follows almost exactly the same basic structure — a dreamer jumps from one ring to another trying to become a professional boxer, only to have a high-profile title fight dropped in his lap. That worked in Rocky, because it was more specifically about that — a random schmuck who gets a shot at the title as a publicity stunt and wants to prove he’s worthy of it. Creed seems as though it would be better-served with a climbing-the-ladder sort of story, with Donnie training and getting better and better, stepping into the ring and making his name, slowly gathering notoriety. I don’t think the movie needs a final fight as big as this one, especially since the story has more to do with what’s going on outside the ring anyway. It would work just as well with an opponent intimidating enough to put Donnie on the map and force him to deal with his father’s legacy. When the final fight is as big as this one, you need to make sure that’s a necessary component of the film’s emotional stakes, and I’m just not sold on it here. I think it would work better with a more progressive, gradual approach to the boxing part of the story. 

   Regardless, film franchises don’t usually deliver installments this good on the seventh movie in. It’s even better that Creed moves the story of the previous films in intriguing new directions. Even when they’re well-made, a lot of sequels struggle to justify the narrative necessity of their own existence; Creed, on the other hand, feels as though it’s latching onto character and thematic threads that were always in there, somewhere we couldn’t notice them. It’s no small thing trying to continue the story of Rocky Balboa, one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time, and the artists behind Creed can rest easy knowing that they did him justice. Is the movie formula? Admittedly, yes. Is it still rousing and powerful? Also yes.

   Flying high now…

   -Matt T.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

Directors- Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

PG- rude humor


I’m having trouble writing this review because I’m worried my lack of anything interesting to say about Shaun the Sheep Movie will reflect on the film in a way that I don’t intend.

I think the issue lies in Shaun the Sheep’s simplicity — it isn’t really trying to do a whole lot, so it’s difficult to pick it apart at length and examine the complexities within its successes and failures. It’s essentially a feature-length, animated Three Stooges with no dialogue — a short, brisk movie with very basic needs and mechanisms.

That’s my way of saying that Shaun the Sheep Movie is pretty good, but this review probably won’t read that way.

I don’t have any particular relationship with the Shaun the Sheep shorts on which this film is based. They aired on a few family channels when I was a kid, and I remember watching one or two. So, I didn’t go into this movie with all that much knowledge or any significant bias, and you’ll have to forgive me if I get anything wrong.

This feature-length adventure finds Shaun the Sheep and his farm friends up to their usual mischief. Tired of the same old routine, Shaun concocts a scheme to distract the Farmer for a while so the animals can have a day off. Their plan goes awry and ends up stranding the Farmer in the middle of the city with a severe case of amnesia. And so, it’s up to Shaun and his flock to save the day, pursued all the while by a deranged animal control officer.

It’s a simple concept that remains simple in execution. It’s mainly an excuse for 90 minutes of slapstick, with little touches of heart here and there. The plot doesn’t get more involved than what I just described and doesn’t end up in any particularly unexpected places.

Its needs are pretty straightforward, and it meets them in a straightforward manner. Establish characters, motivations. Introduce physical conflict — the Farmer is in the city, and the sheep must rescue him. Put an emotional twist on it — the Farmer has no memory of who he is, and the sheep must remind him of what they used to mean to each other. Introduce comical villain, the animal control guy, to move things along. The movie budgets its time pretty well and does a good job setting up everything it needs to set up and moving along. Like I said, it’s an animated Three Stooges — the plot is the vehicle but not really the destination. You just need a mildly sad moment here and there; Shaun the Sheep gets that but doesn’t overdo it.

It’s mainly about the comedy, and the movie is quite funny. Aardman Animations’ feature-length films usually have dialogue and thus use a combination of wit, sarcasm, and slapstick to get laughs. Shaun the Sheep has none — even the human characters speak in garbled gibberish. So, it’s all slapstick, with the occasional visual pun. And even in slapstick mode, Aardman’s sense of humor is distinctive and immediately recognizable, maintaining an air of dry Britishness that’s charming and difficult to resist. Shaun the Sheep wrings a lot of tired, ordinarily unfunny comedy through that lens and comes out with something surprisingly amusing — I have to respect any movie that can make me laugh at a burp joke.

And, of course, the animation is beautiful. Like other forms of animation, claymation has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and I really enjoy seeing the former in action — it’s got the freedom and excess of animation and the texture and physicality of live-action movies. It trades a little fluidity and expressiveness, but no other type of animation has the same weight. Shaun the Sheep exemplifies the best of what Aardman is able to do within the medium.

I’m trying to sound more enthusiastic about this movie because I promise you it really is good. It’s just hard to make the case when it’s good in such a simple, stripped-down way. Still, I think part of my problem is that, while I fully enjoyed Shaun the Sheep Movie, I’m not quite inflamed with passion for it. It’s one of those movies that exist in that weird middle ground where the problem isn’t that they’re bad but that they could be better. I understand the need for the small, basic, largely formulaic plotting; it’s ultimately a background to the humor. But I do wish the humor were stronger overall. Like I said, the movie is largely amusing, but I don’t remember there being any huge laughs for me, just a couple of modest chuckles here and there. The main issue is that a lot of the humor is just plain obvious — jokes you’ve heard (or, rather, seen) before that no longer carry the element of surprise necessary to make them stick. None of it’s groan-worthy or anything; it just goes in one ear and out the other.

I gave this movie four out of five stars on my Letterboxd account. I fully believe it deserves that, but trying to persuade others of the fact is challenging. There isn’t a lot to talk about; it’s good in a way that isn’t very complicated or interesting. It soars mainly on its charm, which is a difficult thing to quantify and explain in the form of a review. Ultimately, it’s something you have to see to understand. Shaun the Sheep Movie is a family film pitched more at the younger half of the audience, but it’s worth checking out anyway. I laughed (lightly), I cried (almost), it was great (mostly).

-Matt T.

Also, it should either be THE Shaun the Sheep Movie or Shaun the Sheep: THE Movie. Don’t play games with this stuff, Aardman.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Starring- Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcolmson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham

Director- Francis Lawrence

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action, and some thematic material


The Hunger Games has, if nothing else, been consistent. Mostly, I mean that as a compliment, but partly, I don’t. Now that the curtain has fallen on this mega-popular series, I’m able to say that I liked all four installments more or less equally. Marginally, Catching Fire is my favorite. Marginally, Mockingjay – Part 2 is my least favorite. But I assigned all four films to the same category on my year-end list and gave each the same rating on my accounts elsewhere.

I have liked each but loved none. This film series, ultimately, is a compromised vision — each one made with care but undercut by its own accessibility. The end result has always, in my opinion, been good but let down by the momentary touches of greatness it isn’t allowed to explore.

In short, my feelings toward Mockingjay – Part 2 are mixed-leaning positive, and mixed-leaning positive in pretty much exactly the way I expected.

Picking up right where Part 1 left off, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 continues the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she continues her fight against the totalitarian Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She remains a figurehead for the growing rebellion, uniting all the scattered districts in their battle for freedom. But she’s breaking on the homefront as her sort-of-boyfriend from her original Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), recently freed from Capitol captivity, turns out to be mentally broken, brainwashed to hate and fear her.

There’s little time to sort things out, as the rebels are gathering to move on the Capitol, and Katniss knows the Mockingjay must be with them on the frontlines, even if her District 13 handlers don’t. She joins a squad headed for the heart of the Capitol with only one mission in mind — kill President Snow.

This movie marks a bit of a milestone for me — it’s the first major film series I’ve reviewed from beginning to end. So, you already know where I stand on most of this, or at least you can find out. Throughout, I’ve made reference to my minority stance on Mockingjay as a book — it’s my favorite of the trilogy, despite the overwhelming consensus that it’s the worst. Strangely, I don’t think that consensus is wrong. I think that, examined under the most objective lens I can muster, Mockingjay has the most trouble accomplishing its goals — for heaven’s sake, nothing whatsoever happens for an entire third of it. But as I’ve said repeatedly in the past, I have a greater appreciation for things that I find personally interesting than things that are objectively well done (though, obviously, it’s great when those elements coincide). I find that Mockingjay is interesting in a way that more than makes up for its ample flaws.

I say that for one reason: I’m not sure whether the fact that I’ve read the book (once, and over three years ago, but my memory of it is decent) influenced my feelings for better or worse while I was watching Mockingjay – Part 2. Throughout its run-time, I found myself reacting, positively or negatively, not to things the movie explicitly did right or wrong but rather the relationship of its scenes to the source material. Basically, a lot of what I like about this movie comes not from the movie itself but from the little details and character motivations and emotional context the book gave me. Most of what I don’t like about this movie comes from what it doesn’t do badly so much as worse than the book. And since I’ve read the book and can’t exactly un-read it, I’ll never know what effect this will have on someone who has only experienced this story on the big screen.

Mockinjay – Part 2 is fine. I’m not here to tell anyone off of it. Of course, one’s enjoyment of it is affected by one’s enjoyment of the rest of the series. I find that, when you stick with a franchise long enough, you get accustomed to the characters and sympathetic toward their plight, and even when the movies start to get bad, you don’t mind overmuch. You’re just happy to spend more time in the company of the characters. Mockingjay – Part 2 benefits from that effect as much as any other sequel (particularly one that’s continuing the story rather than just beating the horse a little more). That it isn’t bad means it benefits even more. It’s hard to imagine a diehard fan disliking this — I largely think the books and the movies are mainly okay, but Mockingjay – Part 2 even managed to work a bit of that magic on me.

The cast remains stellar — particularly Jennifer Lawrence, who might be delivering series-best work here. I suppose that’s the unintentional benefit of what’s usually a problem with teen lit adaptations — the constant cycle of old and new characters leaves you with a finale where the guy who wanders across the screen for five seconds and mutters expository dialogue is Stanley Tucci. You end up casting someone extremely talented in almost every role, and it leaves the world feeling very full, as though each character has an inner life, a complex series of motivations, and a story outside of the one being told. Even some the lesser-known stars deliver in this installment — I wasn’t fond of Mahershala Ali as Katniss’s squad leader, Boggs, in the first part of this duology; he struck me as too rigid and unfeeling; but here, he brings a little warmth to it, something a little closer to the reliable father figure type he was in the book.

The direction is largely solid as well. Admittedly, I don’t think the action is as well directed as it could be; it has a tendency toward indecipherable chaos. That actually works in scenes like the climax, which are supposed to be disorienting and hazy; then, you’ve got scenes like the sewer fight, which is so dark and jumpy that the screen is barely even conveying visual information anymore. But Francis Lawrence has pretty much nailed the bleak, apocalyptic tone of this story, and he does a great job with a mixture of practical and visual effects — the technology and monsters (yes, monsters) are integrated well, for the most part; they have presence and weight within the scene, and they don’t look weird against a foreground or backdrop of practical elements.

There are also a few sequences that are independently well executed. I already mentioned the climax (and admit it may be a happy accident that resulted from the way Lawrence shoots all of his action sequences in this movie), but I absolutely must talk about the lead-up to the sewer fight. The level of tension Lawrence achieves in that scene is insane; most horror movies don’t put you that much on edge. He spends an absurd amount of time presenting opportunity after opportunity for the attack to come, setting things up and cooling them down, repeating over and over again, until you lose your mind preparing yourself for the jump. And it still gets you when it comes. Seriously, I can’t overstate how fantastic this sequence is; even on its own, it almost makes up for everything I didn’t like about the movie.

More importantly, despite the changes that were made and the flaws that came about as a result, I still like Mockingjay – Part 2’s story, on some level. I think I may like what it’s trying to be more than what it actually is, but I like what it’s trying to be a whole lot, mostly because of how unprecedented it is. It’s exciting to see people latching onto a series with such complicated, weighty themes, even if a lot of them are latching onto it for the wrong reasons (yes, you can consider that a slight repudiation of my overlong semi-review of the first film in this series). Blockbusters have always been a bit callous about violence and the value of human life, and I like when something a little more humane really catches on — whether it’s a fun movie like Ant-Man, which delivers its thrills through responsible characters who guard the lives of others while fulfilling their mission, or something like this, which goes for a massive body count but feels every single one of those losses. Nothing about this movie is at all fun; not a single action sequence is presented as an entertaining bit of righteous adventurousness. They’re all chaotic, tragic, and mournful. The feeling you get as they approach is dread, not excitement. And I’m just plain grateful for a major blockbuster that manages its own implications and their consequences.

If only it did it better.

The book did, and that may be the only reason I attended so closely to the flaws. I have conceded that Mockingjay – Part 1 was better than its segment of the book; it used all the aimless meandering as an opportunity to build on the world, dive into the theme of manipulation through propaganda in mass media, and develop the story outside of Katniss. Mockingjay – Part 2 isn’t so lucky.

But it met my expectations. Honestly, if you’ve been following me long enough to read all my Hunger Games reviews, you’re probably going to roll your eyes at me. I have said everything I’m about to say a dozen times over, because Mockingjay – Part 2 has exactly the same problems as its predecessors.

Obviously, I still object to the decision to split the last movie into two parts. I may not have disliked either one of them, but if you cut them together and trimmed the fat, there’s a chance that I’d love them. Having watched both of them, I can’t discern any compelling artistic reasons for the split, and it’s hard to give it the benefit of the doubt when you consider that every teen lit adaptation (and The Hobbit*) comes in at least two parts nowadays. Weirdly, despite being the stronger part of the book, Part 2 suffers from the split a lot more than Part 1 did. I suppose it’s easier to watch a set-up that doesn’t resolve than a resolution that isn’t set up; at least you can follow the former in real time.

Of course, some movies tell one story in multiple parts solely because it has to be done — The Lord of the Rings, for example. It isn’t inherently an issue. The problem with Mockingjay – Part 2 may be the way the story is told.

And here’s where you’re really going to roll your eyes at me: This movie really needs to be rated R.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve been suing for an R rating since the beginning of the series. And I stand by that. I still think the first Hunger Games would have a much stronger impact if its violence were more visceral, if there was a physical consequence in addition to the emotional and spiritual one. But whatever — I was able to adjust myself to the idea of it and Catching Fire being rated PG-13. Still, I was convinced Mockingjay had to be R. I knew it would never happen, but I strongly suspected that it would need to.

And I kind of hate being right all the time.

My insistence on Mockingjay going for an R rating had very little to do with the effect of the violence on the audience. I would be willing to make the same compromise on that score. No, I wanted it to be R because I legitimately had no idea how it would complete itself thematically if it didn’t. The answer is…it doesn’t. The thing with Mockingjay is that you need to do more than tone it down in order to get a PG-13 rating — you have to cut things entirely, and some of those things are important.

As a result, Mockingjay – Part 2 is largely theorizing in the abstract. As a novel, it’s the point where the series stopped being a dark media satire and started to be an anti-war story for teenagers. And the reason I like the book is how that theme turns the entire series on its head — it was feasible that you could enjoy the previous two as heroes vs. villains story, but Mockingjay was specifically structured to make you feel absolutely terrible about it if you did. It’s basically a punch in the face to everyone who criticized the way the first book kept Katniss from getting her hands dirty in the Games; Mockingjay gets her hands absolutely filthy.

The movie doesn’t, so the scattered remnants of the themes don’t have stakes in anything personal; they’re happening around Katniss, and all she’s able to do is watch them and look troubled. The book set her friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), as something of a temptation — he’s embraced morally unsound methods in his quest to destroy the Capitol. On the other end is Peeta, who would never do something like that. In the middle is Katniss, who’s trying to figure out what that means, and whether she’s just replacing the Capitol with a new fascist dictatorship.

Here, Gale talks about it for a bit in the first five minutes of the movie and never mentions it again afterward. And we get hints throughout that District 13 isn’t altogether different from the Capitol. But it’s not until the very end of the film that Katniss is wrestling with that in any way.

Not so in the book. Katniss wasn’t wrestling with it in the sense that she devoted much thought to it, but those questions very much informed her actions. As a result of all the horrors she experiences during the battle for the Capitol, she slips further and further into ambiguity. She does questionable and even blatantly immoral things. She spills a bit of blood on her hands. The movie seems afraid to have her do anything that would seem unheroic; it doesn’t steer her into ambiguity until it has absolutely no other choice, and even then, it’s muted. As a result, the movie avoids directly involving her in the story and leaves it with no larger theme than that war is terrible.

And even that message doesn’t come across as well as it might, because of what the movie cuts in order to maintain Katniss’s unquestioned heroism. As flawed as it is, no book has ever shattered me to the extent that Mockingjay did; it was such a hellish and insane take on war that I felt winded when I turned the last page. But because the movie never really sends Katniss into her own version of Apocalypse Now, it loses the psychology the book has in its last pages — the sense that everything has been changed, that so many were lost, that the survivors will never be the same, that the scars will never fully heal. The third act of the book gives you a direct line into the deteriorating mental state of a soldier who’s lost everything; the third act of the movie shows you images of Katniss looking sad while allies and enemies alike kill and die. It’s not as direct, and it’s not as compelling.

The result is a movie that I mainly wish were better, even though it’s already good enough. I just don’t like the conflict at the heart of it, the constant, uncomfortable compromise between storytelling and mass appeal. That’s how, at the end of the day, I feel about the entirety of The Hunger Games as a film franchise: It’s good. I sure do wish it were better.

-Matt T.

Welcome back to Retroviews! Our Pixar series continues. This week’s subject: WALL-E.

I’ve really, really, really been looking forward to this one.

I think I may have subconsciously had the idea for this series solely to have an excuse to watch this movie again, for the first time in way, way too long. Regardless, there was no movie in the Pixar canon I was more excited to revisit and review.

You remember how I said Finding Nemo is one of the 60 or so movies in my all-time Top 20? WALL-E is one of the 20 or so movies in my all-time Top 5.

And watching it again, my opinion wasn’t shaken one bit — WALL-E is, by a comfortable mile, my favorite animated film of all time and one of my favorite movies just in general.

If you’re here looking for criticism, or a balanced perspective where I highlight one or two things that don’t quite work and then expand upon everything that does, kind of like I just did with Ratatouille, you’d better look elsewhere. As far as I’m concerned, WALL-E is perfect — at the very least, as close to perfect as a manmade thing can possibly be. It’s Pixar’s masterpiece, the movie it’ll spend the rest of its existence trying to top and probably never succeeding. This movie is the one that best exemplifies everything I love about the studio’s work, the one that shows what happens when all the filmmakers involved bring their A-games and absolutely no one stumbles or miscalculates.

I was nearly in college when WALL-E was released. Even so, I think it was foundational in the development of my taste and understanding from then on. It was so different; I had never seen something so exclusively visual. I had rarely seen movies that were so patient, gentle, and grounded in atmosphere. WALL-E isn’t exactly a small-time art film, but it certainly acted as the gateway that ultimately allowed me to eventually embrace what I found off the beaten path. Simply put: For me, it was new, and I loved the uniqueness of it so much that I had to go in search of more. It had to be an incredible gamble, even for a household name like Pixar — it’s a kids’ movie that’s probably 75 percent silent and takes its time establishing and developing characters and atmosphere. I’m so glad they decided to roll the dice.

From the beginning, WALL-E signals that it’s going to be something different. The opening scene is one of my all-time favorites. You get the Disney and Pixar logos; then, the movie opens on the vastness and beauty of space, the realm of a science fiction, while an upbeat song from Hello, Dolly!, incongruous yet strangely appropriate, charges out of the speakers without prelude. The film moves from one shot of the cosmos to another before settling on Earth; then, the camera begins to slide toward it, faster and faster until it’s racing through the atmosphere and we see… Garbage. Debris floating in space. A dusty, clouded atmosphere. The camera descends below the clouds and begins to fly over a desolate wasteland, mountains of dirt and trash, while the jaunty tune plays on unabated. It slowly begins to fade out; the film adds an unsettling echo to the song as it dissipates. Then, there’s a moment of silence, and we meet our protagonist, milling about in the garbage below. Atmosphere: established. In less than a minute, we know most of what we need to in order to understand the world the film inhabits. It’s lonely and dead; all that’s left is a solitary little trash robot.

The film spends a lot of time in silence getting to know this odd character. He doesn’t speak — well, he does, just one word at a time and with apparent difficulty. One gets the impression he wasn’t designed to speak and has only figured this out after spending so much time alone on Earth, with only his VHS tape of Hello, Dolly! to show him how to interact with the world around him. All of this means that Pixar is restricted exclusively to visual storytelling in imparting the personality, worldview, and motivations of this character.

They couldn’t have done better. They establish WALL-E through his reactions, through his actions, and through they way he emotes. I remember hearing a story — whether it’s true, I don’t know — about WALL-E coming to existence at a time when director Andrew Stanton was at a baseball game, messing with his binoculars between innings. He had decided that the lenses resembled eyes and was trying to figure out how to make them simulate sadness, happiness, curiosity, and affection. I love that story for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the unique way in which the filmmakers designed this character. WALL-E isn’t particularly anthropomorphized — he’s a box with stubby arms and claw-like attachments for hands; he has a treads in place of feet; and his entire head is, essentially, a pair of binoculars. But the filmmakers studied him and figured out how to give him an inner life despite his entirely mechanical design, and it all goes back to that story. The animators shift the lenses he has in place of eyes and move the two halves of the “binoculars” up and down and back and forth. And they found an entire range of emotion in that concept — you always know how WALL-E feels about something. Always.

So that makes it a little bit easier for the storytellers to do the work of putting the little guy in situations that let us get to know him — many of them entirely mundane. We see him doing his job for a while; he has a purpose and fulfills it dutifully. While working, he collects and plays around with strange new items that fascinate him; he’s curious and filled with wonderment at the world around him. He meets a cockroach and immediately befriends it; he bears no ill will toward anyone and won’t harm a living thing. In addition, this shows us that he’s lonely — he accepts the companionship of the cockroach and invites it into his home. He has the aforementioned VHS tape of Hello, Dolly!; he’s fascinated not only by humans but by the way the world used to be. He fixates on a love song in the movie and tries to learn about romance. He practices holding hands and seems to desire the equal companionship he sees on the screen. That screen, by the way, is rigged together out of a dozen different odds and ends he found on the job; he’s sharp and resourceful.

In general, WALL-E is a completely adorable character, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. He’s the robot equivalent of a constantly happy puppy. Fortunately, it’s grounded in character, so it doesn’t feel manipulative — even though it’s basically impossible not to root for him.

And it makes him a good foil for our other lead, EVE. He’s square, junky, and old; she’s sleek and high-tech. He crawls around on treads; she flies and hovers and goes wherever she pleases. He embraces every new thing he encounters; she’s more likely to shoot it on sight. But he’s fascinated by life, which she is trying to find and protect, and that’s what binds them as a duo.

And it’s also, I think, what the movie is truly about. People latch onto WALL-E as an environmentalist fable — and that theme is there; it’s inevitable with a premise like this. But I think that’s background detail. My interpretation of the film as a whole is that it’s about technology, connection, and life, particularly the relationship between them.

WALL-E doesn’t really change in this movie. He has no character arc. He’s basically the same robot at the end that he was at the beginning — happier, having found the love and connection that he longed for, but with an unmoved foundation. Fortunately, that’s not where the story is going. It’s not about the lesson WALL-E learned. It’s about the power of love, engagement, curiosity and wonder, and it develops that theme by assigning the arc not to WALL-E but to everything else. WALL-E has already found love, engagement with the world around, curiosity, and wonder — the movie is about how he, unwittingly and solely because he possesses those traits, changes everyone around him. He has a singular goal — to win EVE’s heart by helping her deliver the plant — and he doesn’t at all grasp the significance of that mission. He just wants to be around EVE. But because he’s so kind, so playful, so fascinated by the world around him, he proves contagious to everyone with whom he interacts.

When he follows EVE to the Axiom and meets the humans, we find that they’ve sacrificed everything that made them great on the altar of ease and leisure. There no longer appears to be any larger meaning to their existence. They’ve grown obese to the point that they can no longer walk and spend their days doing nothing while robots tend to their every whim. A corporation appears to be the actual leader of the human race — the President delivers addresses behind a podium emblazoned with a Buy N Large logo. That same corporation seems to control all entertainment, activities, and trends — the humans no longer have any individuality and simply adopt every new fashion Buy N Large foists upon them. We even see toddlers in a classroom being taught to love Buy n Large.

The humans don’t even directly communicate with each other — one of the first things we see when we get aboard the Axiom is a pair of friends talking to one another through screens hovering in front of them, despite the fact that their chairs are literally right next to each other. It’s a joke, but it also tells us something, especially since we don’t see a single face-to-face interaction between the humans until after WALL-E arrives and shakes things up. They’re no longer curious or excited about anything; WALL-E, on the other hand, is always chasing the possibilities and finds each new thing he discovers to be even more thrilling than the last. He makes them pay attention. They see the way he interacts with the world, and it makes them want to do so as well. The symbolism is a bit obvious, but note that everyone bumps into inadvertently changes the color of his or her suit. His influence affects the Captain of the Axiom as well — he starts out a placid guy, perfectly content that the most exciting part of his day is delivering the morning announcements, but when he meets WALL-E and EVE gives him the plant, he catches WALL-E’s enthusiasm for something other than the routine. He studies Earth, he gets excited about the possibilities, and he decides that he wants to do something for a change.

The film delivers this message with a touch of irony — it’s a story about humans who have lost themselves in technology and technology in the process of discovering its humanity. The machines know what it means to be human in a way that the humans have forgotten — it’s about love, relationships, discovery, gratitude, marveling at things, engaging with the people and world that surround you. And I think that irony makes the film’s message even more nuanced — this isn’t a rant about kids today and their gizmos and their Twitter and how everything was better back when we walked to school uphill both ways and barefoot. This movie isn’t anti-technology — the main characters are technology! Rather, it suggests that the purpose of technology is to help us understand the natural world and to make things better for everyone, not to check out of reality completely and stop creating and innovating. It argues for a balance, working in harmony.

It’s important that, in the end, it isn’t WALL-E who saves the day — he’s severely damaged and benched for a lot of it. Rather, it’s an alliance of EVE, the Captain, the humans WALL-E met, and an army of friendly machines, all working together to return to Earth and create a better future for everyone. Keep in mind — the arc doesn’t belong to WALL-E, but to everyone else. In a weird way, he’s the Obi-Wan of the movie — eventually, he has to be sidelined so the other characters have a chance to prove that they’ve changed because of him. It’s why this movie has, in my opinion, the best of Pixar’s credits sequences. The credits play over hand-drawn, impressionistic sequences of the characters working to turn the Earth green and growing again and rebuild society, and what we see is a mixture — the robots have all been repurposed, no longer waiting on the humans hand and foot but out in the fields, planting and raking, or in the construction yard laying out the new world. And the humans are right there with them, performing the tasks the robots can’t. The final image is of two pieces of technology, WALL-E and EVE, standing side by side in a rich, green field at the base of the massive tree that ultimately grew from the plant they were carrying around the whole time. And yes, it is basically the most heart-meltingly adorable thing ever.

The film in general is just absurdly beautiful — it cuts straight to the heart of what it means to live life well and what role technology has in the future of the human race. It’s the sweetest, most hopeful dystopian fiction ever committed to film.

After all that, I’m not sure what I can even say about the rest of the movie. At this point, it ought to go without saying that it looks fantastic; every Pixar movie does. From this point on, just take that as a given when I write these reviews. It’s also another Pixar movie that relies heavily on physical comedy for its lighter moments, and it does so really well — maybe not on the level of Ratatouille, but it doesn’t have as many opportunities either. The comedy here is all in the direction — the specific shot or edit chosen to deliver the pratfalls and slapsticks. It’s simple but effective.

I do want to call special attention to one element — Thomas Newman’s score, the only aspect of this movie that was nominated for the amount of Oscars it deserved. It’s absolutely perfect for the tone of this movie; it even backs up the themes — primarily using more traditional instrumentation, mainly strings but some orchestras here and there, but there are quick bursts of electronic compositions. When the score fuses both approaches, the result is beautiful — go take a listen to “Define Dancing,” one of my all-time favorite tracks from a film score. The scene in which it appears is gorgeous as well.

WALL-E is just bursting with life, which is a bit odd considering it’s about machines. But it’s true. It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching it. You feel content with the now and optimistic about the future — happy but motivated. It leaves you wanting to change the world. It’s also cute and funny and even quite rousing when it wants to be.

It’s filmmaking of the highest caliber. WALL-E is, simply put, one of the greatest movies ever made.

Next time: Up.

Pixels (2015)

Starring- Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski

Director- Chris Columbus

PG-13- some language and suggestive comments


Hey, you know what I haven’t done in a while? A live review.

Let’s get started.

8:30: Movie begins.

8:31: Happy Madison: The Pixar of Comedy.

8:31: I’m very curious who has nude photos of Peter Dinklage.

8:32: Wait, Sean Bean is in this movie? How did that happen?

8:33: This opening scene reaffirms for me that it’s pretty difficult to romanticize people playing video games.

8:36: I’ve never been to a video game tournament, but I have a feeling that gamer groupies…probably aren’t a thing.

8:37: Scott Pilgrim’s lawyers will be arriving shortly.

8:40: Even the children in this movie seem like they don’t want to be here.

8:41: Movie signals that it will be about a protagonist whose only flaw is a failure to realize how awesome he is.

8:43: Someone stop the improv, please.

8:44: So far, a lot of lines of dialogue have been delivered by extras, and not a single one has done so believably. Most of the movie thus far has felt like community theater.

8:45: It isn’t helping that Adam Sandler is 100 percent on sleepwalk mode. He’s mumbling every line, and his eyes are just dead. There is absolutely no life in this performance.

8:47: Bad CGI fire is bad.

8:47: That was…weirdly brutal. For an Adam Sandler movie.

8:48: Is every joke in this movie going to be middle-aged people complaining about those young-uns and their iPhones and their satellite TV and their badly-spelled names?

8:49: Admittedly, I complain about that last one a lot.

8:49: I was temporarily impressed with this movie for having Michelle Monaghan tell off Sandler after his unprovoked advances, but then it immediately went full nerd and had him get self-righteous at her for being superficial.

8:51: I’m not particularly surprised to find that the Adam Sandler movie is primarily about how amazing Adam Sandler is. I’m just thirsty after that brief hint of nuance got snatched away from me.

8:53: Oh, no, Brian Cox, you too?

8:56: They keep saying the name of Adam Sandler’s character, and I keep forgetting what it is immediately.

8:57: Brenner! Okay! Memorized! That’s what I’m going to call him now.

8:57: Why is no one reacting to the crazy person threatening someone with a baseball bat in the middle of a public street?

8:58: The problem so far isn’t that the jokes are actively painful but that they’re so obvious. I halfway don’t even recognize them as jokes until they’re over and I think about them. It’s light, predictable sarcasm. The biggest joke so far is that Josh Gad has a grandmother he hangs out with sometimes. I wouldn’t have known it was supposed to be funny if it hadn’t been framed as a reaction shot.

9:02: I’m starting to think this is aiming more for “80s family comedy adventure,” given how subdued and infrequent the humor has been thus far. But if you’re going to forsake the comedy, you should consider devoting more energy to the story — have some buildup, some mystery, some character. Attach a Spielbergian sense of wonder to it. Everything in this movie feels so obligatory.

9:04: Now that they’ve established that the people who get pixelated don’t die, they’re really enjoying their newfound liberty to make it look as painful as possible.

9:06: It is not Michelle Monaghan’s fault that she isn’t in love with Brenner, movie. It doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault. Sometimes, people simply aren’t romantically interested in you. And that’s okay.

9:07: LOL, General Zod! That is a character who has nothing in common with you other than also being a general! I am great at insults! Brenner out! *mic drop*

9:10: I expected there would be some arc attached to Sandler’s video game theory and people’s acceptance of his ideas, but nope, pretty much happens immediately. Is anything actually going to challenge the heroes in this movie?

9:11: Jane Krakowski! But…you’re funny. Why would you be in this? There are too many people I like in this movie.

9:12: Sean Bean, you were in The Lord of the Rings. Shame. Shame.

9:17: Now we have a death for real. And it’s also surprisingly messed up. These aren’t bad by the standards of PG-13 movies, but they really don’t fit the light, fuzzy tone of the film to this point.

9:18: Observation I missed due to writing previous point: Why on Earth are they letting civilians stand immediately adjacent to this nonsense, behind a tiny wooden barricade?

9:19: The generals hugged! Joke! And Adam Sandler then pointed out that they were hugging! Two jokes in one!

9:21: Nope, looks like I’m going to continue to call him Adam Sandler. Sorry.

9:23: This is still feeling like a movie without conflict. As soon as the nerds get involved, everything is resolved immediately and without struggle.

9:24: It’s bad enough that Peter Dinklage is in this movie and worse that he appears to be giving the worst performance.

9:25: And what in the world is his voice supposed to be?

9:29: Japanese person struggles to understand American profanity. Now it’s officially an Adam Sandler comedy.

9:29: I really hope they didn’t drag Jane Krakowski into this solely to have her sit next to Kevin James and look worried.

9:30: Then again, considering what they’re doing to Peter Dinklage, maybe that’s for the best.

9:30: This is why you don’t spoil extended jokes in the trailers — this Pac-Man scene is basically a five-minute eye roll.

9:31: Not that the end result would be unpredictable even if I didn’t already know it. This joke has been done a million times.

9:31: Is it just me, or is 95 percent of the comedy Adam Sandler and Co. stringing random words together that mean nothing in sequence? “This is some serious Pinocchio Gepetto stuff.” …What?

9:34: I’ll admit that the Pac-Man chase is at least a little bit clever in execution. Though it’s not clear why the gamers are specifically needed here. Or why they’re suddenly professional stunt drivers. I know that sounds like a nitpick in a movie like this, but understanding what the characters can do and watching their skills develop is a big part of establishing some emotional grounding. These characters are lucking their way into solutions — either that, or they already know exactly what to do — and that’s boring. Even though it’s a lame flaw, they’ve established that Adam Sandler needs to recognize and embrace his talents, but in what sense is the script at all developing him on that point?

9:39: Brian Cox is becoming evil and worried about what will happen if the nerds succeed in saving the world. I’m going to need that motivation explained.

9:41: So it appears that Michelle Monaghan’s arc will be to fall in love with Adam Sandler and become involved with him. For a little while, I suspected that her arc might be to fall in love with Adam Sandler and get rejected like she rejected him earlier. No, there was never a version of this where she wouldn’t fall in love with Adam Sandler.

9:43: Hey, Jane Krakowski got to say a line!

9:46: The non-Adam Sandler nerds are pretty pointless, aren’t they? I mean, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage and Kevin James are here, but they’re just running around in the background and yelling most of the time.

9:46: I wonder how much money they offered Serena Williams to get hit on by Peter Dinklage in an Adam Sandler movie.

9:49: How do Peter Dinklage’s cheat codes work in real life? Seriously… What is he plugging them into? What are they affecting? Did the scientists build cheat options into the ghost cars? I…don’t get this.

9:51: That moment when improv goes wrong, the actor realizes it went wrong, his co-stars don’t know how to respond to it, but it stays in the movie anyway.

9:53: Oh, hi, climax that came directly out of nowhere. I guess that last scene was our thirty-second dark night of the soul, and now we can just do explosions. “The bad guys are coming back to destroy everything!” “Oh, man, we’re all going to die!” “Better now?” “Yeah, I guess.” EXPLOSIONS! This still somehow feels like it has no stakes.

9:54: This whole nostalgia thing would work a lot better if the video game references had connection to character, emotion, cultural significance, anything, instead of being action sequence props that could be replaced with anything at all without any relevant impact on the plot.

9:57: Also, I don’t know how old you have to be to understand these references, but clearly, it’s much older than me. I don’t know who any of these characters are.

9:58: So glad Josh Gad’s creepy video game crush is real now so the whole thing can become a more grounded sort of creepy.

9:58: So, apparently Q-bert is an important character now, even though we’ve only known him for, like, ten minutes, and he’s mostly seemed like a lightly comedic reference. But nope, we care about Q-bert now.

9:59: Was it established that Michelle Monaghan knows kung fu? She seems to know kung fu.

10:02: It’s bad enough that the jokes are bad, but why is it only the worst ones that the movie draws extra attention to? Sandler’s “grab my mighty hammer” joke is dumb enough on its own, but then Michelle Monaghan had to be all, “Hey, I totally see what you did there.”

10:04: Unsurprisingly, I’m not particularly sad about Josh Gad losing his creepy woman-slave.

10:05: And Peter Dinklage completes his entire arc in five seconds and for no reason.

10:06: Whoops, never mind, Q-bert transformed into the creepy woman-slave, thus making this significantly more unsettling.

10:06: Is it just me, or did Kevin James have almost no point whatsoever in this movie? Is he just part of Sandler’s contract at this point?


10:08: I am never going to unsee the mental image I now have of Josh Gad and his video game wife in a hospital giving birth to freaking Q-berts. I just…don’t…even…

10:09: Seriously, I almost got through this entire review without yelling. Why did you have to do that to my brain, movie?

Final observations: This wasn’t as bad as the last few movies I live-reviewed, but it’s still pretty bad. I expected that; what I didn’t expect was how lifeless it would be. This is a movie with a moderately intriguing premise that positions itself as a celebrator of a nostalgic era of pop culture; regardless of whether it was ever going to be a good movie, you’d at least expect for there to be some joy at the heart of it, a sense of love and care. What we actually got feels like a quick buck.

Also, I proofread the live comments and realized that this movie literally did nothing with Brian Cox acting evil. There was one scene where he talked like he was going to sabotage the heroes, and then…he did absolutely nothing else for the rest of the movie. Okay.


-Matt T.


Welcome back to RetroViews! We’re continuing our series on Pixar movies as we wait for the release of The Good Dinosaur. As such, it’s appropriate that, today, we’re talking about a film that came about under very similar circumstances: Ratatouille.

Ratatouille is truly interesting in the extent to which it and The Good Dinosaur share a production history and a cultural circumstance. People weren’t necessarily pessimistic about Ratatouille so much as they were keeping a wary eye fixed upon it — Cars might not have been universally loathed, but it was safe, goofy, and a bit brainless that many feared it was a herald of worse things to come. Film culture was counting on Ratatouille to assuage our fears and assure us that Pixar never went anywhere; it just stumbled a bit.

Then, Ratatouille became, to my knowledge, the first Pixar movie to crash into serious production problems. I don’t remember the specifics of those problems, other than that there was a major shakeup, significant rewrites, a director got pulled from the project and Brad Bird was brought in to save the day.

It’s almost the exact situation in which the upcoming The Good Dinosaur finds itself. It was originally to be released in 2014, but it became clear that director Bob Peterson wasn’t happy with the way it was coming out and was struggling to crack the story. Apparently, Pixar agreed — someone else took over as director while he left to work on another idea. The story ended up being substantially rewritten, and most of the cast was replaced. It ended up being delayed over a year.

It’s shouldering its fair share of expectations as well. Pixar entered its sequel slump after Toy Story 3, releasing only one original film, Brave, which had production problems of it own and came out somewhat incomplete as a result. In fairness, Pixar already proved it’s still around with Inside Out earlier this year, but as long as the sequel slump lasted — and given that Pixar isn’t releasing many original offerings in the future — people seem to be waiting for it to prove that it can do more than a one-off great movie. That’s honestly kind of a good problem to have — if people expect greatness from you, it’s only because they know you’re capable of it.

So, the question remains: Will The Good Dinosaur be Ratatouille? Or will it be Brave?

Here’s my answer: I’m not sure it matters all that much, because viewed in retrospect, I think Ratatouille and Brave, despite the difference in their quality (I don’t hate Brave, by the way; it just isn’t as good as it could be), exist on the same spectrum.

You remember what I said earlier about Cars? About how a good (or, in that case, basically decent) movie can still herald a more negative trend to come? I think that, even though it’s a really, really good movie, Ratatouille is one of those. Despite everything, it suffers from its troubled production; its problems would only be magnified when Brave came around. What that says for The Good Dinosaur, I don’t know.

I’ve found that the easiest way to identify a film that changed hands and directions a number of times before being finalized and released is to look closely at the story. A movie written by one person or one group of people working toward a shared vision, provided the author(s) know what they’re doing, is usually going to have a singular, consistent direction that every character and plot element feeds into. A script that’s been tossed around from writer to writer, gone bad at certain points, been salvaged, repaired, and sometimes fundamentally reworked has a tendency to reflect multiple ideas and visions without ever really choosing one.

I think Ratatouille has this problem. I obviously have no idea whether the production troubles were the cause or if it’s just a coincidence, but Ratatouille has its hands — or should I say paws? No, you’re right, I shouldn’t — in a lot of different pots. It feels as though it’s tugging you sharply from one scene to the next, dividing its effort across a dozen motivations and subplots, and struggling to weave them into something cohesive.

Yes, the story is, on the surface, pretty contained, even by Pixar standards. It’s got a relatively small cast of core characters and a low-stakes story that doesn’t really affect anyone who isn’t a direct player in it. It’s mostly a buddy movie between Remy and Linguini. The problem is that it finds and attempts to address so much texture and so many motivations in its characters that it becomes difficult to follow emotionally — you’re often unsure exactly which of the established elements are at stake in any given scene, and it’s sometimes difficult to find a complete thematic undercurrent to trace along with.

Seriously, what is this movie actually about — again, beyond the simple, surface level of “a rat wants to be a chef and teams up with a talentless garbage boy to gain access to a gourmet kitchen”?

Is it about the joy and necessity of creative endeavors? Kind of. But what does it actually say about that? And is there any arc attached to it?

Is it about the need for us to value our differences and give everyone the opportunity to show what they can do, no matter who they are or where they come from? Kind of. Do the main characters learn that? No, they’re already aware. So, the arc is centered outward — it’s about the other characters in the film coming to realize what they were missing by responding with selfishness and judgment. But who actually walks through that arc? Well, Anton Ego. There’s a reason his speech is the part of this movie everyone remembers. And he certainly does belong in the pantheon of great Pixar characters. But since he’s only in the movie for five minutes, what is it doing with the other 90?

Is it a buddy movie about Remy and Linguini? Kind of. But what is the movie saying about that relationship? It’s emotional low and high points are found near the end — Linguini won’t give Remy credit for his masterpieces, Remy retaliates by letting his family into the pantry to steal everything, Linguini finds out and feels betrayed, they mope around for a bit until the climax. It’s the old “liar gets caught” story that Pixar sometimes tends to slide into. But more importantly — does the movie signal any of that before it happens? Somewhat, but not really — Gusteau constantly lectures Remy about trying to steal food, but it always comes across as a random aside rather than something the film is building up; plus, Remy’s decision to let his family steal the food doesn’t really have anything to do with his relationship with the concept of theft, does it? It’s purely an overreaction to Linguini’s mistreatment of him; it’s a symptom of their friendship and not of this flaw the movie has told us Remy has. On the flipside, Linguini — do we see anything early on that would mark him as the sort of person who might take all the credit? Before you answer that, keep in mind that he’s a great chef because a hyper-intelligent rat lives in his hand and moves him around like a puppet. How do you break that news, and is it entirely Linguini’s fault for avoiding it.

Is it a relationship movie about Linguini and Collette? Kind of. Could you cut the romance without affecting anything? Yes.

Is it a metaphor for the creative process in general, specifically the collaborative nature of filmmaking? Kind of. But that just brings me to the point I think actually bothers me the most about this movie: Remy doesn’t really learn anything. To me, his biggest flaw is clear — it’s not the stealing but the ego. That’s what generates the most conflict in the story. Remy is basically a perfect chef, a fact the film only ever supports, and the fact that he’s great isn’t a problem as much as his total inability to let anyone else contribute to his menu. He does what he wants regardless of what anyone else thinks, and at the end of the film, there’s no sign he’s any more willing to let someone other than him experiment a little and come up with their own ideas. He’s the genius, and everyone else in his kitchen is a workhorse. There’s no real collaboration there. Remy doesn’t have much of an arc, and everyone else’s has them basically learning to sit down, shut up, and obey their master.

…Wow, I didn’t mean for that to sound so dark.

The point, to bring it all home: Ratatouille is chasing a lot of subplots, and not all of them unify or support one another. It becomes a game of picking up and dropping threads and then picking them back up again. The themes that center on creativity and invention are the most consistent and, as a result, the strongest; it’s easy for an artist, aspiring or otherwise, in any medium to connect with it. I suspect that’s the key reason for its success.

It’s difficult to express why Ratatouille emerges more or less unscathed anyway and is still a very good movie. As abstract as it sounds, the answer comes down to “that good, old Pixar magic.”

Which is not to say that “Pixar magic” doesn’t have objective components that can be isolated and analyzed. Their attention to character is the big one — not only in the sense that they focus on and properly develop their characters but that they think outside of the box even when creating them. The Pixar canon has a lot of unusual protagonists you don’t often see helming their own stories. They aren’t always immediately built to be heroes, nor do they conform to the usual archetypes of characters in their position. Finding Nemo: How often is the hero an exasperated, neurotic dad running into danger and battling the odds to rescue his son? Toy Story: How often is a protagonist as unlikable, entitled, and mean-spirited as Woody prior to completing his character arc? Up: When are elderly people the main characters of anything, much less a homage to serialized adventure stories.

And Ratatouille: For starters, Remy is a rat. That’s not particularly common. But his personality is one you don’t ordinarily see in the protagonist role. He has contradictions at the heart of him that I really enjoy. He’s a rat, but he aspires to be a five-star chef in the heart of Paris. Personality-wise, he’s a wide-eyed dreamer, but there’s also something abrasive about him, in a semi-likable sort of way: He’s a bit loud, easily angered, self-assured, very controlling. He loves what he does so much that he’s absolutely livid when he sees others doing it wrong (he’s the Roger Ebert of rats, basically). So, he’s a really good foil for Linguini, who is aimless, clumsy, untalented, panicky, soft-spoken, and generally a nice person.

I think the movie is at its best when it’s just the two of them. It opens on Remy and his family and allows us to hear him speak in plain English, but once the movie gets to Paris, he’s surrounded by humans who don’t speak Rat, so the movie benches Patton Oswalt for a while and lets Linguini do all the talking. All the storytelling with Remy is purely visual. I really enjoy that contrast — Linguini babbling, Remy trying to make his points using other means. It actually makes for great comedy — Remy has to communicate nonverbally, but he retains his caustic personality, so there’s a lot of unspoken rage, irritation, and condescension in the dumb things he does to get Linguini’s attention.

That’s one thing that really stood out to me on this latest viewing — Ratatouille is very, very funny. I used to consider Monsters, Inc. to be Pixar’s funniest movie; I think I even said as much in my recent RetroView. But now, I’m not sure. Ratatouille gives it a run for its money. Because of the language barrier, the comedy is largely physical, and Ratatouille handles it about as perfectly as possible. Remy and Linguini can be loosely described as close friends who annoy one another; most of the jokes center on Linguini bumbling through something while Remy creates chaos in an attempt to get his attention and everyone else looks on bewildered. I like the character-driven nature of the comedy; it’s funny because you know the characters well enough to sit there thinking, “Oh, that Remy.” It’s sort of a quieter moment compared to the huge slapstick present in other scenes, but one of my favorite bits happens during Remy and Linguini’s first time in the kitchen after Remy figures out how to puppeteer him — Remy gets increasingly infuriated with Linguini’s incompetence and finally just grabs him by the hair and drags him around the room, knocking things off of tables and grabbing the ingredients he needs from the hands of other employees. There’s a passive-aggressive quality to the relationship that just cracks me up; Remy doesn’t need to do a lot to tell Linguini, “You’re an idiot.”

It’s equally funny in scenes that don’t have as much to do with the main characters’ relationship. The principle behind the film is inherently funny — there’s a rat, and he figures out he can control a man by pulling his hair, so they set out to become the greatest chefs in Paris. Brad Bird has even said that one of the big draws of the project was the unlimited potential for fresh, unique, physical comedy. The scene where Remy tries to control Linguini while he’s sleeping in order to keep him from getting in trouble isn’t particularly story-motivated, but it’s very funny — and it’s a textbook case of how good Pixar is at visual comedy. It’s the subtle parts of that bit that make it one of the film’s strongest — that well-placed snore; the bored, exasperated look Linguini has while he’s sleeping, worsened by the way Remy orients his limp head to face Collette; and the sheer panic when he wakes up in that situation, having just been punched in the head for no reason he can discern.

There’s a playful tone in the comedy, coupled with a Monty Python-esque faux dignity that really makes it stick. Something about it resembles Charlie Chaplin — the exaggerated movements, the precision of the physical comedy, the goofy but measured charm.

Obviously, the film is visually impressive all around. Like I’ve said in the past, the one thing Pixar is always getting better at is the animation — even the studio’s worst films are its best-looking at the time of their release. Ratatouille doesn’t look quite like anything else they’ve made — it doesn’t have a particularly varied color scheme; it mostly trades in fall colors. But there’s a softness to the yellows and oranges that’s really inviting and that perfectly matches the typical interior of a high-end restaurant. The character design is solid, with no trips into the uncanny valley. What really struck me on this viewing — and maybe it’s always been there and, for some reason, I was simply primed to notice it this time — is how fluid the animation is here, how tactile and weighted it feels, how the motion in the frame has energy and flow to it. It’s another great-looking addition to the Pixar stable.

In short, there’s a heck of a lot to like about Ratatouille, and that’s why I give it a pass on its somewhat unfocused story. It’s hard to find a more immediately appealing family comedy, one that plays to all ages with equal skill. It’s hilarious, the characters are great, the animation is pretty. What’s not to love?

Next time: WALL-E. And believe me, I’m excited to write this one.

Paper Towns (2015)

Starring- Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair

Director- Jake Schreier

PG-13- some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity — all involving teens


I’m glad I didn’t have time to write this review yesterday when I intended to do so because my opinion regarding Paper Towns has really changed under further scrutiny. I came out of it feeling pretty decent about it, but as I get distance from it, I’m not so sure. I haven’t been reading other reviews and surrendering to them or anything; I’ve just been thinking it over. And the issue I’ve run into is this — Paper Towns is pretty decent at what it’s trying to do, but what it’s trying to do will only have the intended effect on people who either have never seen a movie like it or have never intellectually engaged with a movie like it.

Confused yet? I’ll explain in a moment.

High school senior Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) believes that at least one miracle happens to everyone — there are billions of people on Earth and billions of different kinds of miracles, so it’s just good statistics, right? He already knows what his is — that he has the good fortune to live across the street from Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). He’s been head over heels in love with ever since her family moved in when both of them were small children. They were friends back then, but ever since high school, they’ve drifted apart. Still, Quentin obsesses over her.

Then, one night, Margo appears at his window to recruit him into an adventure like the ones they had as children — this one a revenge quest against a cheating ex-boyfriend and those who enabled him. Quentin reluctantly agrees and ends up finding the whole experience surprisingly enjoyable — everything like it was when he was a kid.

The next day, Margo disappears, and no one has any idea where she’s gone. It’s not at all unusual — throughout high school, she’s had a habit of disappearing into thin air for weeks at a time only to return with wild stories of her adventures across the nation. This time is different, though. Quentin discovers clues and becomes convinced that she wants him to follow her. So, he and his friends set out on a cross-country road trip to figure out where Margo has gone, right some past wrongs, and figure out what they’re supposed to do after high school.

Here’s why I have mixed feelings about this movie: It really irritated me for about two-thirds of its run-time, until the third act revealed that the sources of my irritation were included knowingly; however, I don’t think my in-the-moment response to them was supposed to be irritation.

I guess I’m still not making sense. So, I’ll start from the beginning.

Paper Towns is primarily a subversion and critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that’s become increasingly common in millennial indie cinema. I’m aware that I keep using that phrase, and it’s occurred to me that members of my readership who aren’t hardcore cinephiles (or who don’t read a lot of socially-oriented movie blogs) might not know what it means. I didn’t come up with the term; film critic Nathan Rabin first coined the term in a review of Elizabethtown in 2005.

Essentially, it refers to a female character whose personality amounts to being a vivacious life force and whose role is restricted to unconditionally loving an always awkward, always nerdy, always suburban, always middle class, always either a teenager or 20-something, always male character and helping him overcome his existential embrace by becoming romantically involved with him and taking an almost absurdly active interest in his development as a functional person. Her entire personality boils down to her relationship with the male lead; she will have no inner life, desires, or motivations of her own.

This character has been around for as long as human beings have told story, but it seems to have become especially common within the last decade or so. If I were to speculate about the reason for that, I would say it’s because that was the decade wherein children of the 80s and 90s — a time in which video games were invented, RPGs came into popularity, and the advent of home media and the Internet gave nerd culture a means to expand and define itself — reached the age at which they were filmmakers. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the personification of the girlfriend every nerdy teenage guy wants to have — she’s already interested in you, and you don’t have to do anything to earn that; she will approach you, so no awkward attempts at talking to her; she’ll be feminine in a bright, bubbly way; however, she’ll also have stereotypically masculine traits that your average awkward teenager wishes he had, such as assertiveness, confidence, a measured dose of humorous crudeness, and a little bit of rebelliousness. Basically, she’s perfect; she thinks you’re perfect no matter what you do; and she’ll help you overcome all the flaws you know you have but can’t kick. Believe me — I was once an awkward, nerdy, and stupid teenage guy, so I understand exactly why this character has become popular. Of course, this character also doesn’t exist in real life.

Culture has become aware enough of this trope that, even when it’s played straight, someone forces in a few scenes that complicate things. Just a few weeks ago, I put Me and Earl and the Dying Girl in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl category, even though I think it’s trying very hard to have the criticism come down on its male protagonist’s shoulders — I just think it accidentally falls into the trope anyway.

Though it isn’t clear at the outset, Paper Towns ultimately reveals its main purpose to be deconstructing the trope under the lens of reality. That’s good.

The problem, at least for me, is that it does so by spending most of its run-time playing the stock MPDG story as straight as possible — so straight, in fact, that its first two acts could be considered the most extreme example. You’ve got Quentin, a geeky, awkward teenager who hangs out with other geeky, awkward teenagers. He has no romantic prospects. He’s smart, but he can’t figure out what to do with his future. He lacks confidence and fears change. Into his life comes Margo, who’s mysterious and adventurous; she pulls him out of his comfort zone and makes him do everything he’s afraid to do. She’s extremely interested in his life for no immediately discernible reason, and when she disappears and leaves her clues behind, it seems as though she’s done so explicitly for Quentin’s sake, as a way of making him confront all his fears and anxieties on the road to finding her — and probably true love as well.

I spent a solid hour and a half of this movie rolling my eyes at just about everything. Margo’s perfection and lack of any life outside of Quentin, coupled with the low-stakes story and the predictable, trite ending I thoroughly expected I would be getting, really got on my nerves. Some of it was good — there were some big laughs here and there, and the story elements outside of Quentin’s pursuit of Margo (mainly the big themes of growing up, leaving childhood friends and comforts behind, standing on the precipice of an entirely new life) occasionally struck home with me. But then, the movie would get back to the A-plot and start to bother me again.

But then, in the third act, the film breaks off in a new, interesting direction and reveals that everything I’d watched up until that point had been a misdirect — but a graceful one, since it results from the movie being grounded in Quentin’s perspective and understanding of the situation. And it turns out the film was never an embrace of the MPDG archetype; on the contrary, it was an attack on it, a criticism of Quentin’s idolization of Margo and sense of entitlement regarding what she can be to him. And the misdirection of the first two acts is a deliberate component of that. It wants to tackle its themes in such a way that directly implicates the audience. I have seen some stories do this absolutely beautifully — they put you in a character’s perspective and make you root for him or her to get what he or she wants, only to insert a complicating element that makes you realize that you and the character were wrong to want it.

The issue with Paper Towns is that it wanted me to perceive Quentin’s motivation in a different way than I did. I don’t think it intended to tick me off, only to turn everything on its head late in the game and make me realize that I shouldn’t have been irritated at all. I think it wanted me to be totally on board with Quentin throughout, to feel what he feels and want it as much as he wants it, and then turn the tables and implicate me in his objectified view of Margo. Basically, Paper Towns is a movie that can only work as intended for an audience that has never heard about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.

And that’s probably fine. Not every movie is made for every person. Still, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that straddles that line to the extent that Paper Towns does. It’s the movie equivalent of an elementary school’s intermediate reading level — a more challenging version of what the kids are already able to read that will serve as a gateway into more adult fiction. This, by the way, isn’t me saying that Paper Towns is childish or that you have to be childish in order to enjoy it; I’m pretty sure, after a lot of thought, that I mostly enjoy it myself, despite all this criticism.

Even accepting this as the message of the film and the means by which it delivers it, however, I think Paper Towns could still handle it a little better. Mostly, it needs to be in better touch with its meta-level. This movie is, for the most part, fiction that criticizes other fiction, and I think it could stand to be a little more aware of that. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a concept that exists only in storytelling — sure, a lot of nerdy, awkward guys fantasize about finding her out there somewhere, but since she doesn’t exist, I don’t think they ever get the chance to apply those fantasies to a specific person. Quentin does, so the fact that the film is not only set in the real world but seems determined to be a 1:1 match for it messes with the tone a little — it feels as though it’s telling a story about something that couldn’t happen in our world but treating relationships like Quentin and Margo’s with complete seriousness. I actually think it would benefit from at least bending its tone toward Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — something heightened, stylish, a bit goofy.

And, of course, I’m not saying that real people in real relationships don’t project a heck of a lot of impossible expectations upon one another, but it isn’t a close match for what Paper Towns is saying. Basically, Paper Towns plays out as though it’s about social trends when it’s actually about cultural trends.

So, I’m conflicted about this. I think that’s pretty obvious by now. I respect what it does and how it does it but wasn’t able to experience that directly because of my understanding of the tropes it’s criticizing. I was impressed enough with it after my first viewing that I started planning a review that would really go to bat for it as one of 2015’s most underappreciated movies. Now, I’m thinking it’s appreciated the right amount, albeit for different reasons in some cases. Like I said, it’s funny and redeems itself thematically, and it did connect with me in places. I don’t know whether or not that constitutes a recommendation, but there it is anyway. Paper Towns may be one of those movies that I have to figure out as time passes.

-Matt T.