Archive for October, 2015

Southpaw (2015)

Starring- Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whittaker, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez

Director- Antoine Fuqua

R- language throughout, and some violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh2ebPxhoLs

I’m currently reading Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk (don’t laugh). It’s a very instructive book; I highly recommend it to anyone interested in storytelling in any medium. It makes one point I think is very interesting — “the ending is the conceit.” What that means is that the ending of your story is not an arbitrary stopping point where you just wrap everything up, give your characters a light moment, and roll credits; the ending of your story is essentially the closing argument in the thematic case you’ve been making, a crucial moment where you hammer all the emotional subtext home.

Southpaw ought to be a case study in this. It’s a mostly decent movie that very nearly becomes a bad one because of how hard it crash-lands in its final scenes.

Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the undefeated lightweight boxing champion of the world. He lives for only two things: boxing and his family, wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). When a rival boxer makes a scene at a charity event, Billy lets his temper get the better of him and throws a punch, starting a brawl between his and his rival’s security teams. Guns are drawn on both sides, and a stray bullet strikes Billy’s wife. She dies in his arms.

The tragedy sends Billy on a downward spiral that costs him everything — his career, his fortune, and then, custody of his daughter.

Desperate to get her back, Billy tries to rebuild his boxing career from the ground up and to become the father his daughter needs.

Southpaw is, for the most part, a solid movie, albeit not a great one. It would be significantly better if it ended the way it should have. The movie almost fascinates me in the extent to which it would improve with only one or two extremely subtle changes in the last 10 minutes.

I can’t really talk about the ending without spoiling it — not that Southpaw is particularly unpredictable in the first place — so I’m going to illustrate my problems with it by way of comparison to a similar and significantly better film: Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. And I’m about the spoil the living daylights out of it, so if you haven’t seen it yet and plan to, warning.

Here’s a brief refresher: That movie is about Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke in an Oscar-nominated performance. Randy is a former professional wrestler clinging to the glory days that have long since passed him by. His daughter resents him for his emotional unavailability when she was a child, and the two of them hardly see each other anymore. He struggles to connect with most people. Then, he has a heart attack in the ring, and his doctor tells him to give it up. Feeling fragile, he tries to reconnect with his daughter and win the heart of the friend he has a crush on, and after some initial conflict, he actually starts to make progress. But then, he tries to move too quickly, deflating one of the relationships and sending him on a drunken bender that ends up driving both women away from him. Left with nothing else, he decides to participate in a big-league fight against an old rival from the glory days, knowing he can’t handle it in his condition. Just before the match, his friend shows up and basically gives him his last chance — he can work his way back, deal with old hurts, earn forgiveness, and make something of himself, or he can go into that ring, lose all of his relationships, and maybe even lose his life. He makes the wrong decision and leaves her to go through with the fight.

Almost immediately, his heart starts giving him trouble. His head goes fuzzy, his breathing gets ragged, he struggles to keep up, but he forces himself to continue the match, gradually getting worse with every passing second. He climbs the ropes to piledrive his opponent. The camera moves in front of him, he leaps over it, and… Credits.

Full disclosure: It’s one of my favorite endings in any movie ever. It absolutely crushed me the first time I watched it.

Southpaw is like if it ended with Randy having a fun, pain-free match, going to patch things up with his daughter and love interest, immediately being forgiven, and living happily ever after. I don’t know how better to say it than that. It tries to have its cake and eat it, too, in the worst possible way.

The weird thing is that, structurally, Southpaw doesn’t seem as though it’s planning to end on such a weak note. True, a lot of it is formula, a combination of a stereotypical boxing movie and a stereotypical courtroom drama where an irresponsible or unskilled parent tries to become a better person and get his kid back. But it’s seeded with all these little thematic cues that seem as though they’re going to transcend the formula and resolve in an interesting way. You can see those notes throughout; you can even see them in small parts of the climax. But the ending wrests that all away in favor of a more traditional sports movie ending, more of a “ra-ra” conclusion than one that’s emotionally satisfying. It would be one thing for the movie simply to lose track of itself; that’s a flaw, to be sure, but not an insurmountable one. But in going the direction that it does, Southpaw seems callous and simplified; instead of completing itself, it walks Billy through the smallest character arc it can afford, the only one that allows him space to get what he wants anyway — want being the key word here. I don’t think the movie gives him what he seems to need. You know what? Go to the comments section. I’m going to leave a spoiler-filled entry there so I can explain exactly what bothers me about this movie.

The ending isn’t the movie’s only problem — I won’t pretend that a few minor fixes there would suddenly turn it into a great movie. It has a few deep-rooted problems throughout — it mostly gets the big beats of its plot right, but the space in between is a little flat. I’m not sure it knows what Billy’s arc is, and even when it starts to get close, it handles things quickly and largely off-screen. On top of that, Antoine Fuqua doesn’t have the subtlest directorial touch, manifesting here mainly as a soundtrack full of pop songs that are so blunt and obvious that they almost become unintentionally funny in some scenes (not helped by him editing the montages like they’re music videos).

Still, the rest of the movie is pretty decent, which is why it’s a bit depressing to see the ending knock it down so many pegs. Like I said, it gets the biggest, most important beats right. It’s hard to say why. I think it’s a combination of the movie doing a decent job of establishing character — I understood Billy Hope as a person, as well as the particulars of his relationship with his wife and daughter — and a mostly good cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, in particular, is absolutely fantastic. It took no time at all for my brain to forget I was watching Jake Gyllenhaal; there was only Billy Hope. I’m really enjoying Gyllenhaal’s career trajectory right now; I don’t think there was ever a time when he was bad, but he’s a heck of a lot more interesting now and is paying off some big risks. As a result, the movie is largely compelling, despite its largely formulaic nature.

And then that ending. Ugh.

So, I think that, on the whole, I recommend Southpaw — Gyllenhaal alone is more than enough, but it has merit elsewhere as well. Just…I don’t know, maybe turn it off when the climax starts and come up with your own, more satisfying ending? Southpaw is good enough that I really, really wish it stuck the landing.

-Matt T.

Spy2015_TeaserPosterSpy (2015)

Starring- Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, Morena Baccarin, Richard Brake, Nargis Fakhri

Director- Paul Feig

R- language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltijEmlyqlg

Well…looks like we have a winner in the category of 2015’s Most Surprisingly Good Movie.

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) joined the CIA in the hopes it would change her boring, ordinary life. Over a decade later, it hasn’t really. She’s consigned to the run-down, vermin-infested office in the basement, where she communicates with field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), giving him up-to-the-minute updates and helping him solve problems.

Then, a mission goes awry, and the identities of all the CIA’s field agents are exposed. With a portable nuclear weapon in play, the CIA has to send someone into the field to prevent nefarious groups from detonating it in a public area.

Susan volunteers. She’s given a new identity and sent overseas. Her sole mission is to follow and observe, but it’s never that simple, is it?

I’m honestly stunned at how much I enjoyed Spy. I know, I know — it’s north of 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s not as though this should be a shock. Still, as I’ve said in the past, it seems that my taste in comedy is radically different from everyone else’s — and that’s not me complaining about “comedies these days” either. The same principle even applies to a lot of comedy classics.

But I liked Spy. Actually, I really liked Spy. It’s not one of my favorite movies of the year or anything, but it’s a lot of fun — and not just in spite of itself but because it’s actually smart and well made. Well, you know, in a really dumb way.

Melissa McCarthy is about to be a huge star. She’s already pretty famous, but I think she’s right on the verge of crossing over into A-list status. This is a bold prediction, I know, but I’m starting to think she’s the next Robin Williams — working primarily in comedy, but generally being really good at it, and also showing tons of range both in- and outside of the genre. She came to fame in “disgusting slob” roles like in Bridesmaids (which I haven’t seen), but she’s also shown a sweet side in comedies like, well, this. She even branched out into drama with St. Vincent, a largely unimpressive film in which she gave the performance of her career, including the most powerful scene in the movie. If she makes the right decisions, she’ll win an Oscar someday and have a number of nominations under her belt.

Despite that, she still has a tendency to be typecast in disgusting slob roles that are not always but often beneath her. I don’t know how she feels about that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had a ton of influence on the story being told in Spy — it kind of plays out as a metaphor for her career.

You wouldn’t know it from watching the trailers, which might be the reason I had so many doubts about this movie. Those emphasized her shouting at people and falling down, making Susan look like another Bridesmaids part. That couldn’t be further from the truth: The shouting happens when she’s pretending to be someone else in the field, and the slapstick is there, but more in the broad, farcical sense.

In truth, Susan is a really sweet character. That’s part of the reason the movie works as well as it does — Susan is immediately likable and never leaves the audience’s sympathies. It’s extremely easy to root for her to save the day and achieve her dreams. If anything, her problem is that she’s too nice — she tolerates her coworkers’ fat jokes, allows the field agents to walk all over her, and struggles to assert herself and her desire to be in the field. And here’s the thing the trailers for this movie absolutely refused to show us — Susan is actually a competent agent. It strikes the correct balance with her — she has a lot of valuable skills that make her an unnoticed asset to the CIA, but she also has flaws and weaknesses and is very much in over her head when she goes into the field. She’s smart, observant, and proved to be a surprisingly good shot while in the academy. She can handle herself in a fight, too — what she lacks in grace she makes up for in pure force. But she’s nervous, somewhat under-trained, and doesn’t really know how to act as a field agent.

And even when she heads into the field, her bosses subconsciously keep her in that box — her identities are old women and crazy cat ladies, and her cool gadgets are disguised as stool softener and hemorrhoid cream. It’s not until she breaks their mold and invents her own identities and methods that she begins to make any progress.

So, basically, she’s someone with hidden talent who stays in an unrewarding job because her colleagues and superiors don’t think there’s anything more to her. She’s good at that job, but she realizes she’s even better when she breaks away from it. Hmmm… That sounds familiar…

And it’s fascinating that Spy manages to express all of that in a complete and compelling way despite being a weird, over-the-top, often-crude (and occasionally, even more than that) comedy. And it’s not that the movie is constantly teetering between drama and comedy; there isn’t an ounce of seriousness in it. Its theme of empowerment is as much a part of the silliness and fun as anything else.

I’ll admit that the humor can be a little hit-and-miss. It’s more hit than miss, but the balance is noticeably off nonetheless. There are a few moments that are absolutely hilarious, a lot that are quite funny, and a moderate amount that fall a bit flat. The movie is at its funniest when it’s working as a sly parody of spy thrillers — a scene will play out like it would in a dark, serious spy movie, but the filmmakers gradually dial up the ridiculousness until it becomes funny, but without breaking its straight face. That’s only descriptive of a few scenes, though. Most of it is your standard farce — and it’s pretty good at that, showing a penchant both for (sometimes gory) slapstick and Zucker/Abrahams non sequitur humor. Unfortunately, it was released post-Superbad and, as such, was required to have at least one scatological/anatomical reference per scene (I don’t consider myself to be that much of a prude; I just don’t understand why these references are considered funny even when presented in a vacuum and even when a movie tosses them out every five minutes) and to feature extensive improv. I’ve said before that I don’t care for improv comedy. I enjoy it when it’s a couple of comics on a stage doing an entire show where they just make things up on the fly (Whose Line Is It Anyway is hilarious), but it’s different within the context of a scripted narrative film. You can usually tell the difference between the parts that were written and the parts that were improvised, and it’s distracting. Fortunately, Spy is better than most in this regard. For starters, I think the script prepared for and managed a lot of the improv — I suspect there were a lot of scenes where they simply left a line open that said “Susan insults the person she’s talking to” and left McCarthy to come up with something. The actors are better at it than most, as well — the improv feels as much a part of what’s happening as the written dialogue, so there’s no distraction. The problem is not that Spy does it badly but that it does it too often. At almost two hours, it runs a bit long for a comedy, and it does run out of steam here and there.

At any rate, Spy is, for the most part, a funny film; it just suffers in that not all of its jokes are up to that standard.

It’s the characters, though, that really made this movie for me. I’ve already talked about Susan — she’s incredibly endearing and is a good comedy protagonist as well as, weirdly, a good action hero. Like I said, the movie strikes the perfect balance with her — she’s competent, but she also doesn’t know what she’s doing. Sometimes, she screws things up; sometimes, she puts them back together. McCarthy genuinely does a great job here — she brings a lot of warmth to the character but has lots of fun playing spy and growing Susan into the iron fist of the law.

She gets great support, too. Jude Law’s Agent Bradley Fine is skilled in the art of espionage and death-defying heroics but has a complete tin ear for social situations — after a successful mission, in order to thank Susan for her assistance, he buys her a tacky cupcake necklace. In Susan’s best friend, Nancy, Miranda Hart takes what might have been an annoying character and moderates her just enough to make her a solid comic foil for the more self-aware Susan — she’s nattering, nervous, and very British and loves Susan wholeheartedly. Rose Byrne comes close to stealing the show as Rayna Boyanov, one of the conspirators Susan is keeping tabs on. Of late, Byrne seems to have decided that God created her to do comedy, and we as a society are better off for it. Rayna is a poised, snobbish rich girl who observes all the rules of propriety and good manners — when she’s not having people killed, anyway. She just has one odd habit, that being that she’s extraordinarily crude and foul-mouthed. Essentially, she says a lot of proper and polite things and just occasionally peppers it with f-bombs. Byrne’s ability to go from blunt vulgarity to prim faux-sweetness in seconds is hilarious.

Someone else actually steals the show, however, and it’s the last person you’d expect — Jason Statham. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch that he has at least a bit of aptitude for comedy, but he has never gone this deep before. Those movies were crime thrillers with a darkly comic edge, and Statham mostly played the straight man, the guy staring slack-jawed at the ridiculousness around him. In Spy, he is the ridiculousness. He plays Rick Ford, a CIA agent who dislikes Susan and decides to go rogue and solve the problem himself even though he knows his identity is compromised. And he’s a complete moron. He’s not so much James Bond as a guy who really, really wants to be James Bond. He tries hard to be stoic, manly, and cool, but it’s clear he’s absolutely none of those things. He has unwavering confidence in his ability to rush into any situation and emerge the victor, but almost everything that goes wrong in this movie is his fault. It’s a wonder he was ever an agent, actually — “stealth” and “subtlety” aren’t words that exist in his vocabulary, and he gets annihilated every time he tries to fight someone (mostly due to his own poor planning). The other characters treat him like the team pet — every now and then, they let him do his thing while silently condescending to him, and other times, they have to throw a ball to distract him so he doesn’t screw anything up. Statham’s one-note intensity — a weakness in most of the action movies he does — is his saving grace here. Ford is an insufferable idiot of a character, and Statham never once lets you suspect he isn’t serious about all of this.

Throw all of them together, and they’re a strangely likable band of misfits. I’m hearing talk of a sequel to this movie, and I’m completely game for that. I’d love to go on a few more adventures with this goofy bunch.

On the whole, I don’t think I’d call Spy one of 2015’s great movies, but it’s very enjoyable regardless. It’s a reasonably funny comedy, most of the time, and it’s one with a well written, intelligent, and thematically complete story. I’m glad I listened to the critics and gave it a chance.

-Matt T.

SteveJobsposterSteve Jobs (2015)

Starring- Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Sarah Snook, John Ortiz

Director- Danny Boyle

R- language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEr6K1bwIVs

At this point, if Aaron Sorkin decides he will spend the rest of his career only writing movies where angry guys make computers, I’ll be perfectly content with that.

Steve Jobs is the true story of Abraham Lincoln…wait a minute, this just in — it is actually the true story of one Steven Paul Jobs; Writers Block Parade regrets this error (it says a lot about me, and the movie as well, that my biggest grievance with it is that no one bothered to give it a title). It may be inaccurate to refer to it is the story of Steve Jobs; it’s more aptly described as a portrait of the man in moments.

Rather than following the traditional biopic format — either showing an entire life from beginning to end or focusing on one significant event in which the protagonist was involved — Steve Jobs frames the story as minimally as possible. There are, technically speaking, only three scenes, set during Apple product launches over the course of roughly a decade. Each scene covers one product launch, showing the Apple team behind the scenes as they prepare for the big presentation. There’s the Macintosh 128K in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Other than a handful of brief flashbacks (cut together with the main storyline to make them feel even shorter), the movie never leaves the convention centers in which Jobs is getting ready for his speech, all the while his estranged ex-wife and daughter confront him and his employees deal with his demanding, authoritarian style.

Obviously, Steve Jobs is one of the few movies that could truly be said to adhere to a three-act structure — it’s just over two hours in length, and each of the three scenes occupies almost exactly a third of that. They all conclude the same way, too — Jobs takes the stage to finally make his presentation, a newsreel montage fills us in on what happened in the subsequent years, and we cut to the chaos behind the scenes of the next big product launch. I suspect a lot of college students will be studying (and probably learning the wrong things from) this movie because of how clearly delineated each act is.

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not really a fan of the three-act structure — not to the extent that it’s been used as a teaching tool, anyway. There are reasons it can be instructive, but the way it’s used these days, it tends to be detrimental more often than not. Some storytellers work very well in three acts, but those acts have to be the natural end result of what you’re already planning to do. Right now, the three-act structure is being sold as the way to do things — not something you can do, but something you should specifically aim for from the beginning. Truthfully, most writers don’t work in three acts; you actually have to be really talented to pull it off.

So, what Sorkin did with this script is actually really interesting — he wrote a movie that looks like it has three acts but really has a lot more than that. Each of the three main scenes isn’t so much a single act feeding into the larger whole of the movie as a functional short film unto itself. The movie ends up feeling more like three episodes of a Steve Jobs TV miniseries that you’re watching back to back. And I say that as a compliment. The “episodes” inform one another and build into a finale that resolves all of them with grace, but they function on their as well. Each one is its own half-hour/45-minute story with its own character arcs and thematic concerns. And each one works really, really well.

It’s interesting to talk about Aaron Sorkin because his situation is so unusual. Obviously, plenty of actors become celebrities, and a few directors can reach the same point once they’ve achieved a certain level of ubiquity and popular success — Alfred Hitchcock once upon a time, and guys like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, even (sigh) Michael Bay nowadays. But the celebrity writer, that’s a bit less common. And that’s what Sorkin has achieved. Whatever movie or TV show he’s currently working on, the odds are decent he’ll be the biggest draw and the most talked-about person on the production. That was even true with Steve Jobs, which is directed by Danny Boyle, an Academy Award winner with major hits like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours under his belt (not all of those are movies I personally like, but that’s beside the point).

Sorkin has also achieved a level of near-bulletproof acclaim. What interests me is that critics and audiences alike seem perfectly aware of his flaws but so enamored of his strengths that they don’t really care. I include myself in that boat — his writing is not perfect, but the good stuff is so good that I leave his movies almost unable to remember the things that went wrong here and there. I love that he has these quirks — not flaws, just random things he does over and over again — and has chosen to embrace them rather than self-consciously trying to force them out of what he’s doing. The Aaron Sorkin Walk-and-Talk, where two characters rapid-fire dialogue at each other while hurrying through hallways from one room to the next, is not only something he still writes into his scripts but something he occasionally calls attention to, wielding it almost as a giant middle finger against anyone who actually cares about something this insignificant (one character even says, “Walk with me,” in Steve Jobs before starting up a conversation). He has a sense of humor about his weird tendencies that pervades his work — not upsetting it as an internally serious movie but offering a little wink here and there to let you know he’s aware of what he’s doing (one recalls his self-deprecating 30 Rock cameo, which had him just walking in circles around the room while talking to people).

That mindset allows him to continue doubling down on his strengths. He’s known mainly for his sharp, fast-paced, and witty dialogue, and instead of trying to divert focus elsewhere in order to broaden his horizons, he just keeps digging deeper into that well. The dialogue in Steve Jobs, therefore, ranks among the best he’s ever written (though, in fairness, pretty much all the dialogue he’s ever written ranks among his best). The language of Steve Jobs isn’t quite reality, but it inhabits an interesting world of its own — it’s colorful, often biting and mean, but also frequently funny as well. The jokes and philosophical speeches are equally memorable — you walk away from the movie quoting the funny stuff as often as the metaphorical stuff.

The movie retains some of his flaws, naturally. His tactic of having one character randomly start talking about something else in the middle of an unrelated conversation is never something I’ve liked, but, for some reason, it’s more noticeable in Steve Jobs. I think it’s because it’s not as character-driven — the interruptions in The Social Network, for example, worked because the film portrayed Mark Zuckerberg as someone whose mind is always somewhere outside of his environment, always 10 steps ahead of his partner in the conversation. Here, they’re just random. Part of the problem may also be that the film plays them a little too earnestly — as in the numerous moments where Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) suddenly starts probing Jobs about whether his adoption as a child makes him feel like he has something to prove.

But I think the big flaw here is just that Sorkin and Boyle aren’t a great fit for each other. David Fincher was originally set to direct this, and I think that would probably have resulted in an even better film. Sorkin and Fincher collaborated on The Social Network, which is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it seemed as though they just spoke each other’s language — Sorkin’s cold, biting dialogue perfectly matched Fincher’s controlled, precise visuals and slight satirical edge. I’m not saying that Boyle is a lesser director than Fincher — you could probably argue that one either way — but that his style just isn’t right for this material. He, too, specializes in grandiose visuals, but his approach to them comes off as very improvisational — it’s measured but rough around the edges. And though he has some dark comedy under his belt, his approach to this sort of film tends to lean more heavily on light and sincerity. His involvement, of course, is not a zero-sum game — his, for lack of a better word, “romantic” approach to the visuals give what could easily be a visually constrained film a sense of depth and scale that I enjoyed. But he’s not quite tapped into what Sorkin is doing — and, most likely, vice versa.

Fortunately, both of them were blessed with an incredible cast. You come for Sorkin’s writing and stay for the stellar performances. There is absolutely no doubt this movie is getting some people nominated for Oscars; it’s just a question of how many of them will win.

Most of the conversation has centered on Michael Fassbender in the lead role, and I have no argument with that. He finds a lot of complexity under the skin, some of it courtesy of the script and some of it coming from the way he’s interpreting it. He gives Jobs the needed sense of intelligence but also the anger, the ego, and the perfectionism. He’s prone to outbursts under duress, but even when he’s yelling at an employee and demanding the impossible, you can see something in his eyes that’s elsewhere, already working through the problem and thinking about the future. He’s capable of behaving irrationally while seeming perfectly rational underneath it all. He’s pretentious and has a severely inflated view of himself, but Fassbender plays him as someone who’s entirely sincere — a dreamer who wants to change the world and can’t handle the human error and personal flaws that interfere with that. I think Fassbender brings the most depth to Jobs’ relationship with his daughter. He’s downright cruel early on, denying that the girl is even his and shooting down every aspiration and joy she shows in front of him; however, you can see a stilted, awkward love somewhere in there. As such, you understand why he can’t quite separate himself from the girl and tries, in his own strange way, to communicate that love he doesn’t fully understand and hopefully get some of it back in return. It’s the one spark of light in him that’s drawing him, however slowly, toward some kind of redemption and personal happiness.

What I most like about Fassbender’s performance, though, is that he’s playing the role as a character rather than a note-for-note recreation of a recognizable historical figure. This was one of the major problems with the ill-fated Ashton Kutcher Steve Jobs movie — Kutcher was trying to replicate every facial expression, every random mannerism, his speech, and even the way he walked, and it was always forced and weird. Fassbender isn’t going for a copy — rather, he aims for the general tone and quality of Jobs’ presence and then builds a psychology around it. He knows what his lane is, and he stays in it — the performance is not about becoming chameleonic but acting as a window into the soul.

I’m glad that people are talking about his work here. But people aren’t talking nearly enough about one of his co-stars: Kate Winslet as Jobs’ marketing executive, Joanna Hoffman. I’m going to be completely honest here: With the caveat that I haven’t seen all of her movies, I think this may be the best performance of her career. Yes, I’m serious. I’ve been looking over her other roles, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the only one I’m not quite sure about.

I love that there’s a certain humility in the part she plays here. It just isn’t the sort of role that goes to an A-lister like Kate Winslet — yes, it’s an important part with substantial screen-time, but it’s very much a supporting role that’s all about propping up the lead performance. It’s the sort of part that would ordinarily go to a less conventionally attractive character actor who would breathe enough life into it to make it memorable and compelling but probably not much more. But in taking the role — and in Boyle’s decision to devote so much attention to the feeling behind it — Winslet elevated it into one of the freshest things I’ve seen this year.

For starters, they’ve really dressed her down — so much so that it took me a few minutes to realize it was her. Kate Winslet isn’t what comes to mind when you think of a frumpy, exasperated businessperson, but she’s totally believable here. And her chemistry with Fassbender is excellent — Jobs and Hoffman aren’t romantic, not in the slightest, but they have the lived-in quality of very old friends who care deeply about one another. Hoffman plays the role of the beleaguered best friend, the only person left on the planet who not only tolerates the self-absorbed genius but actually likes him a little. And she’s the only person allowed to criticize and yell at Jobs without him throwing things at her. As such, she becomes his conscience, the one person who pushes him to better himself because she actually cares about his well-being. At any rate, I really love surly friendships in movies. It’s difficult to say why; maybe I just find it amusing. I just like characters who are abrasive and constantly at each other’s throats but clearly care about each other on some level, the sort of people who have a massive fight, stop, take a breath, and say, “So, we still on for lunch tomorrow?”

Steve Jobs is not a perfect film — what is, really? It has problems (I haven’t mentioned this yet, but for reasons I haven’t pinned down yet, it goes just a bit slack in the second act), but it also has plenty to recommend it. I don’t think you’ll see much better writing or acting in another movie this year. It looks like we finally have our definitive Steve Jobs movie.

-Matt T.

Bridge_of_Spies_posterBridge of Spies (2015)

Starring- Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson, Michael Gaston, Peter McRobbie, Stephen Kunken, Joshua Harto, Billy Magnussen, Will Rogers

Director- Steven Spielberg

PG-13- some violence and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBBuzHrZBro

“Lesser Spielberg” is one of those phrases we really ought to banish from the filmgoers’ vocabulary, if only because of how completely meaningless it is. For all anyone knows, “lesser Spielberg” could mean anything south of a near-classic. For any other director, “lesser Spielberg” would be called “a damn good day at the office.”

Yes, Bridge of Spies is “lesser Spielberg, but good grief, look at that filmography — by that standard, so is Minority Report. Munich. Amistad. Lincoln. Compared to Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., you could even make an argument for Jurassic Park.

The point is that if your star quarterback throws ten touchdowns per game, you’re not going to harass him on the day he only throws eight. You’re still probably going to win that game. Bridge of Spies is an eight, but that’s way farther than most directors get in a year.

At the height of the Cold War, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, is called upon to defend a captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in court mainly as an international showcase of the U.S. justice system. When he talks the judge out of a death sentence, saying Abel might be needed for a rainy day, he and his family become targets of harassment and even violence. Then, that rainy day arrives, as the Soviet Union captures an American pilot and Stasi agents arrest an American college student. Donovan is sent to Berlin as a half-unofficial representative of the U.S. government, where he must navigate conflicting interests, including those within his own country, to negotiate for the release of the two men in exchange for Abel.

Bridge of Spies is really, really good, but as I get distance from it, I find that my attitude is angled toward disappointment. Yes, I, too, am capable of falling prey to Lesser Spielberg Syndrome — getting myself psyched up for a future classic and walking away disappointed when it just turns out to be one of the best movies of the year.

In my defense, it wasn’t just Spielberg. I’ve had quite the emotional journey with this movie. It played out as such:

Hollywood: Hey, we heard you like Tom Hanks!

Me: Sure, I guess so. I mean, who doesn’t?

Hollywood: Well, he’s going to be in a movie this year!

Me: I’m…not sure why you’re telling me that; it isn’t that uncommon. But yeah, I’ll keep an eye on it. Maybe check it out if I hear it’s good.

Hollywood: Well, Steven Spielberg is directing it!

Me: Now you’ve got my attention. I’m always game for a Spielberg movie. When can I see this?

Hollywood: Also, we’re putting the Coen Brothers on the script!

Me: What the what?

Hollywood: I know, right?

Me: So, Tom Hanks is going to star in a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and written by the Coen Brothers?

Hollywood: That’s right!

Me: HOLY CRAP. I need to see this yesterday! Doc, fire up the DeLorean…

Hollywood: Oh, and did we mention it’s a courtroom drama/political procedural?

Me: SAODFJNFNUKSJDFAP;QWEOJNDFOGPWOERIBNSDFJKSND

If it weren’t for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Bridge of Spies would have been my most anticipated movie of the year by far. My expectations were sky-high — so much so that maybe it could never have met them, but I at least hoped the movie would end up somewhere in the ballpark. I think I should’ve sensed trouble when I saw that there was a third writer, Matt Charman, credited alongside the Coens; usually, when that happens, it means the Coens were called in to touch up a script the studio wasn’t quite happy with, which almost never ends up as good as something they wrote from the ground up.

So it doesn’t really surprise me that most of my problems with Bridge of Spies are in the script. My main issue is that Bridge of Spies is constantly poking at its emotional center but never quite envelopes it. It introduces plenty of thematically compelling elements — how the idea of “truth, justice, and the American way” really plays out in practice and what it ought to mean; questions about human rights and the level of moral equivalence between soldiers on opposite sides of a war; an examination of the way wars are fought between governments, not soldiers; the cost/benefit analyses of international conflict; parallels between the Cold War and the current War on Terror; and a lot more — but nothing ever really takes over. The movie drags you from one to the next and doesn’t let you dive too deeply into any of them. It’s compelling on the level of individual scenes, but it makes for a somewhat unsatisfying whole. I also think the movie is perhaps a bit too broad in its scope — it has a lot of ground to cover narratively and thematically, and it ends up having the same problem as The Martian, in that I only rarely, in any given scene, felt as though the heroes might fail.

And now, I have that paragraph out of the way. Let’s talk about the good stuff. There’s a lot of good stuff.

What I like about Spielberg — and this is purely baseless speculation, so take it with a grain of salt — is that there seems to be very little process with him. He makes directing look so easy that it actually starts to seem possible he’s this talented entirely by accident — that he’s someone who loves movies so much that he just instinctively knows what to do. Like I said, this is pure speculation, and it’s probably false, too — whatever he knew at the beginning, no one becomes as legendary, and stays as legendary, as Steven Spielberg is incapable of explaining what they’re doing and why. What I’m referring to is what it’s like to experience one of his films — they seem made on instinct, like the director is somehow watching the movie alongside you and just feeling his way through it. And because he’s so in touch with his own taste, he knows exactly what to do.

Spielberg movies somehow feel as improvisational as they do meticulous. Spielberg is the master of making movies that are stylish and distinct but don’t call attention to themselves. Everything is set perfectly in support of the story — emphasis on perfectly. Bridge of Spies doesn’t have one bad edit, one misplaced shot, one strange camera movement, one bizarre lighting or color choice. Visually, it’s as close to perfection as you can get — nothing is wrong, and never does the aesthetic become foremost in your mind. It’s always about the characters and the story. Spielberg has utterly mastered this; he can do it in his sleep by now.

But direction is about a lot more than how the movie looks, and in this regard, I don’t know that Spielberg has gotten the accolades that he deserves. When we think of directors who are good with actors, we think of the David O. Russells of the world, people who hone in on a handful of lead performances to ensure that they’re spot-on. We don’t usually think of Steven Spielberg — we don’t think of him as bad, but we don’t think of him as someone who secures guaranteed Oscar nominations for his entire cast (not that such a thing is necessarily indicative of expert quality). But I would submit that not only is Spielberg good with actors, he’s one of the absolute best.

I’ve been trying to figure out, between Bridge of Spies and Lincoln (it’s something I see more in his recent films, but it’s in a lot of his older ones as well), exactly why it is that they manage not only to wrangle large casts but also to have every character feel distinctive. I’ve decided that this is the answer. Spielberg and his casting staff are like the main characters of Moneyball — they’re able, on a budget, to find one or two big stars and a huge stable of lesser-known performers who are perfect for their parts. And Spielberg is able to direct them to such specific, distinct, idiosyncratic ends. I don’t know whether or not this is the case, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Spielberg is the sort of director who comes to his actors with pages of backstory he made up and tells them to play their scenes like this and that happened to them in the last week. It’s how Lincoln is able to introduce us to a dozen politicians, a dozen more activists and party leaders, and Lincoln’s family and household servants, and still find time to bring lived-in humanity to the random soldiers who appear in the opening scene. And it’s why Bridge of Spies is able to walk Tom Hanks from one government official to the next and have all of them immediately project identifiable personality and motivation.

Tom Hanks, by the way, is perfect in this. That’s not to say it’s his best performance, and it certainly isn’t his most challenging. That’s to say that he’s simply perfect for the part he’s given. It fits so well into his screen presence that I wonder if the character was written for him. His role here is thematically similar to his role in Captain Phillips, in that he’s acting partly as a symbol of America in general. And like I said back then, Tom Hanks is the most distinctly “American” actor out there — something about him projects folksy, down-home wisdom, metered with common sense intelligence, personal independence, and a passion for justice. Bridge of Spies affords him many opportunities to speak at length about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and how it protects and champions the freedoms of all men, and coming from anyone else, it’d be cheesy. Who wouldn’t attend an American history class taught by Tom Hanks?

Spielberg has so thoroughly mastered his two main skills as a director — his instinctive visuals and his symbiotic relationship with his actors — that I feel ready to make a very bold prediction: He will not make a bad movie for the rest of his life. He might get a few lousy scripts — Bridge of Spies is just an okay one, I think — but there will always be a human center, and the visuals will always be on point. That’s going to be enough, regardless of the script. When the script is excellent — as it was with his last film, Lincoln — it’s going to be movie magic.

So, yeah, Bridge of Spies is lesser Spielberg. But it’s greater cinema. See it.

-Matt T.

EDIT, 10/27: Oh, wow, I somehow got this review without talking about Mark Rylance. I needed to make sure I put it on the record that he’s fantastic in this. Judging by the audience I saw this with, the Soviet spy in the Cold War movie is going to be everyone’s favorite character. I’ve seen Soviet characters portrayed with empathy and compassion, but I’ve never seen one that was…likable. Abel is not a very talkative character, so it comes down to Rylance to create the personality, and he really, really does. He’s a stoic, withdrawn person, soft-spoken but fiercely determined and completely loyal to his cause. He prefers to stand in silence and paint than to be around other people. When he does speak, he shows a degree of wisdom. He’s not a villain but a decent guy doing his job for his country. He’s not symbolic of the Soviet Union but of the people on the frontlines — the ones in World War II who called off the fighting on Christmas Day and had dinner with the Nazis on the other side of the field. He’s also funny — he takes his situation very seriously but refuses to worry about it; his sense of humor is very self-deprecating. He got most of the movie’s laughs in my audience. It’ll be interesting to see how the public responds to him.

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Welcome back to RetroViews! I am four movies into my Pixar series and have already run out of new ways to introduce this column! Here is a thing! It is about stuff! I hope you like it! We’re talking about Monsters, Inc. this time!

Throughout this series, I’ve made a few references to what I call Old Pixar and New Pixar without really explaining what I mean by that. I’ll have to talk about that in more detail for this review, because I see Monsters, Inc. as the cutoff point for Old Pixar.

I see Old Pixar as having lasted from Toy Story through Monsters, Inc. During this period, the studio’s movies were light, breezy comedy adventures with little dabs of emotion here and there. The transition into New Pixar began with Finding Nemo, which we’ll be talking about next week. I see it as the point at which Pixar essentially flipped the formula: Its movies focused more on emotion and “serious” storytelling, set to a backdrop of light, breezy comedy adventures. Old Pixar briefly resurfaced with movies like Cars and Ratatouille, but mostly, New Pixar was the era of WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. (Obviously, then came the next phase: Disney Got Nude Photos of Everyone and Ordered a Thousand Sequels. Inside Out and, hopefully, The Good Dinosaur offered a brief respite this year, but after that, we’re in for an almost unbroken streak of sequels to Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Toy Story.)

None of this is to say that Old Pixar is inferior to New Pixar or vice versa. I tend to prefer New Pixar as a matter of personal taste, but their early work is great, too. They’re just different — Old Pixar is fun, and New Pixar is emotional. And even then, they’re not that different — Old Pixar is still very emotional, and New Pixar is still very fun.

So, where does Monsters, Inc. fit into all of this? Well, it’s interesting — like I said, it strikes me as the end of Old Pixar, but it also epitomizes the studio’s M.O. during that period. Out of the entire Pixar canon, I think Monsters, Inc. is the most strongly tilted toward pure fun (A Bug’s Life comes close).

Which is weird, because it has what is probably the most conceptually horrifying premise of the bunch. It’s so light and fun that you almost don’t notice that the villains’ plan is to kidnap children (small children, too; Boo comes across as barely a toddler) and literally scare them to death. And of course, that makes it weirder still that I’ve found Monsters, Inc. to be strangely therapeutic for children.

I’m speaking from experience here. Like a lot of the other Pixar films I’ve already written and will write about, Monsters, Inc. was, when I was a kid, another cinematic milestone — the first movie I owned that I saved up for and bought with my own money. Despite that, I never watched it as often as Toy Story or A Bug’s Life, and it had the misfortune of becoming available around the same time that Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire captivated my 10-year-old brain. Still, I watched it fairly often and had a pretty good memory going into this revisit. It struck a lot of the old, familiar notes.

At 10 years old, you’re midway through the stage of your life where you’re able to separate reality and fantasy; it’s around the age that a lot of kids stop believing in Santa Claus, monsters, things like that. Nevertheless, you’re still a child, and your perspective on everything gets filtered through your exaggerated view of the world. I was an easily-scared and anxious kid, so plenty of things freaked me out. I wasn’t afraid because I thought monsters were real but because I knew nightmares were, so there were plenty of times I would see something on TV* or read a book that scared me and had me struggling to sleep for days at a time — I was nervous about the terrifying things that would happen after I closed my eyes.

So, there was still a space in my mind for that childlike fear of the unknown, and thus, something for Monsters, Inc. to work with.

I think the tendency might be for parents with kids who are still scared of monsters to avoid a movie that has the word ‘monsters’ right there in the dang title, but honestly, I would recommend the exact opposite — Monsters, Inc. is great for kids who still have those fears. For starters, it is, for the most part, a light, fluffy, silly movie, with a handful of potentially scary moments here and there. But its greatest achievement in this regard is its presentation of the monster world as something fundamentally normal — they’re (mostly) not evil, and they (mostly) don’t mean any harm; they’re coffee-drinking (or whatever that goop is) clock-punchers scaring kids because they have to. And even that element — the fact that the monsters are sneaking into children’s bedrooms at night and scaring them — is countered by the behind-the-scenes reality that the monsters are every bit as afraid of children as children are of them, and maybe even more so. There’s something relaxing for a kid of that age to be able to think of monsters as creatures that might play a good game but will run screaming if you take a single step toward them. Add in the lovable, funny main characters and the fact that, by the end of the movie, the monsters have found that laughs are more powerful than screams and are now coming out of the dark with silly costumes and props, and you’ve got a movie that could go a long way toward mending the right kids’ anxieties. I remember being 10 years old, afraid of something, and filtering it through the Monsters, Inc. lens in order to deal with it better. I love when family films can do something like that for children — give them mechanisms to adjust to their constantly changing realities, to move on from the things of the past that still have a hold over them.

With Monsters, Inc., Pixar completely nails that balance. It’s a gentle hand up for kids, but it’s also really, really fun throughout. Sure, it has its serious moments — I defy anyone not to tear up when Boo and Sully say goodbye — but it’s otherwise a blast. It’s energetic, constantly moving, soaring from one joke to the next. Like I said earlier, I don’t think Pixar has ever aimed for fun and comedy quite as purely as it did here. The humor in Monsters, Inc. is very strong — there’s an argument to be made that it’s the funniest movie in the Pixar canon. The comedic style seems to be rewinding to Toy Story rather than continuing the trends of A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. The latter two films derived their humor from the absurdities inherent in their premises, whereas Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. a little more joke-driven. Monsters, Inc. especially — it’s extremely quotable (“Oh, no problem; they’re under the name Googly Bear”), with a healthy dose of comic relief characters, plenty of over-the-top slapstick, and enough puns (many of them visual, including a few hidden in the background) to melt your brain. And most of these jokes are excellent — I can’t think of many moments that fall flat. I think the humor alone is more than enough to compensate for the film’s flaws.

Most of those are in the story. Monsters, Inc. is in more or less the same situation as Toy Story 2 — the story is fine and works where it needs to, but the delivery is occasionally clumsy or unfocused. Consider the opening scene, where secondary characters explain the entire premise — information they all ought to know already — to each other. Then, we get started with the actual plot, which shows us most of that information anyway and makes the opening scene a complete waste of time. It also has an occasional tendency to sacrifice story and the internal logic of a scene for a joke (i.e., Boo touches Sully a thousand times at the factory, but he loses his mind when she touches him in the apartment) or a dramatic turn (i.e., Mike and Sully’s plan in the climax, which was 95 percent luck-based).

But even though its reach somewhat exceeds its grasp, Monsters, Inc. is still operating on a lot of interesting levels. Thematically, it’s not Pixar’s densest or most accomplished film, but it’s one of the few to work that into multiple branching subplots that build up over time and weave into the main storyline. It’s easy enough to identify Monsters, Inc. as a satirical take on the politics of the real-world oil industry; the movie isn’t at all subtle on that point. But that’s just a small component of the film’s larger message, which I think focuses on our resistance to change, our fear of the unknown, the difficulty we have adjusting or taking the necessary steps to get ourselves out of a bad, but comfortable, situation. And whereas most Pixar movies take a more straightforward approach, expressing their themes through one or two characters and one main storyline, Monsters, Inc. plants the seeds on every level.

You see that in the central metaphor — taken on its symbolic level, Monsters, Inc. is basically a movie where old guard oil barons, resisting a changing world, fight to maintain the status quo despite its increasing ineffectiveness and its exploitation of people (in this case, children) who can’t defend themselves and don’t profit from their own suffering. It’s ultimately the heroes who embrace change and solve the problem. But you also see it in smaller ways. Mike and Sully are determined to maintain their own status quo by keeping their position as the company’s top scaring team — the villain, Randall, specifically invokes “the winds of change” while talking to them — and it’s their desire to remain the best, and to preserve the company, that most often conflicts with doing the right thing. Another, almost meta element of the film — Boo is basically a stand-in for the kids in the audience; the movie itself gives those kids a mechanism for dealing with childhood fears and growing up, and the story within that movie is walking Boo through exactly the same arc. The movie puts the poor little girl through quite a lot, but she comes out the other side having outgrown her fears — even of Randall, scientifically chosen as the monster most likely to scare her. That follows through to the ending, as Sully has to put aside his newfound affection for Boo and allow her to go back to the human world, never to return — well, almost (the final scene makes me smile like an idiot, as it surely does with most people, but it still bothers me that it chickens out on fulfilling the message by allowing Sully to cling to her).

Also, have I mentioned that I love this movie’s premise? I love this movie’s premise. The Internet has now contractually obligated all people talking about Monsters, Inc. to mention that there was a Howie Mandel movie in the 80s that nobody remembers and supposedly had a similar premise, which means I’m not allowed to call Monsters, Inc. original anymore. Having mentioned that, screw the Internet. Monsters, Inc. is original. I think it’s Pixar’s most interesting idea and by far its most thoroughly developed world. One assumes the movie began with someone asking the question: Why do monsters want to scare kids at all? And what I love about it is that the writers decided to explore every inch of that question. They came up with a reason and then built an expansive, fully functional world around it. Monsters need to scare kids because screams are how they produce energy. They’re in an energy shortage because kids these days are all desensitized because of movies and video games (hey, there’s more of that change theme again!) and don’t scare as easily. So, monsters aren’t bad guys but working men. As such, they have lives and personalities outside of scaring kids. And when they do scare kids, they have a system. They’ve rigged up a pulley system to deliver doors to the Scare Floor that, once powered up, allow them to travel to the human dimension and come out of the corresponding child’s closet. Each scarer has an assistant who files paperwork based on the children scared that day and receives further assignments — each child has a key card that summons his or her door. They have a system for disposing of doors once the children get over their fear of monsters. They also have an agency devoted to preventing the “toxic” children from infecting monsters — and cleaning up when they do. It’s so detailed, so thoroughly thought-out. Every time I watch this movie, I love diving into this world; I pay close attention to the smaller plot details and things going on in the background to learn more about how it works. Pixar really went the extra mile here, and it’s a ton of fun.

That’s Monsters, Inc. in a nutshell: It’s a ton of fun. It doesn’t have the unassailable reputation of other Pixar movies, and that’s fair — all told, it’s not one of the studio’s best. But as with most of Pixar’s “weaker” entries, it’s still very, very good. Monsters, Inc. is a blast: fun, funny, multilayered, and intelligent. I really hope kids today are still watching it.

Next time: Finding Nemo.

* This has nothing to do with Monsters, Inc.; it’s just a fun anecdote. Have any of you had a moment where you were watching a movie and suddenly realized that you’d already seen part of it as a kid and been terrified by it? It’s a weirdly liberating experience. It happened to me recently. I have this very specific memory from when I was a child of walking into the living room while my dad (thanks for the traumatization, Dad) was watching TV. The first shot I saw was of a spaceship; “Cool,” Little Kid Me thought and sat down. Then, almost immediately, it went to the interior of the ship, where what appeared to be the main characters were walking through some kind of medical ward where soldiers fresh from battle were being treated. And they were in horrible, very R-rated shape — bloody, shredded bodies everywhere. I remember one specific image — a man, on a table, his leg missing, him screaming horribly, in terrible agony. My child brain was not remotely ready for that. It stuck with me for weeks. Well, a month or two ago, I was watching this little-known satirical sci-fi film called, I don’t know, Starship Troopers or something, you probably haven’t heard of it, on the recommendation of a critic I like, and lo and behold. The weirdest part is that I remembered that shot from beginning to end with alarming clarity. I had only seen it once, in passing, and it somehow scared me so much that it seared everything into my brain for all of time. There was something strangely hilarious about running into that moment as an adult. I probably wasn’t supposed to, but I just started laughing. Maybe I’m the only person who really enjoys it when that happens, but it amused me regardless.

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Welcome to RetroViews, where I review old stuff (except when I don’t)! In preparation for the release of The Good Dinosaur next month, I’ve been going through the Pixar canon in chronological order of release. Today’s installment: Toy Story 2.

This might come as a surprise, if you’ve been reading the other entries in this series, but Toy Story 2 is one of the very few Pixar movies that weren’t particularly foundational components of my childhood. It’s hard to say why that was. My family owned the first movie, and I watched it plenty. I remember seeing Toy Story 2 in theaters once, and then a few times with friends and as a rental for my family’s semi-regular movie nights after that. But that was about it. We never owned a copy, so I couldn’t watch it religiously. It wasn’t until my late teens, when I acquired a box set of Pixar DVDs, that I was able to return to it. And to this day, all of my viewings are pretty fresh — it just isn’t ingrained in me like so many other movies of its kind.

On the bright side, maybe that means I can approach this movie a bit more objectively than a lot of other people my age. So, how does it hold up under adult scrutiny? Pretty well, actually. It’s a solid sequel that takes the story in logical and interesting directions. I think I may take the side that it’s the weakest of the Toy Story trilogy, but that’s some stiff competition right there. I still think it’s a really good movie.

So, what works about it? Honestly, a lot of what worked about its predecessor — you could probably just go back to that review if you want a detailed analysis. Its primary strength, in my eyes, is its economy with character. I love the way this movie gets started right off the bat, no meandering or dragging its heels trying to reintroduce us to everything. The opening scene tells you everything you need to know about everyone — not just their personalities, which are carried over, but the ways in which they’ve changed since the first film. Buzz and Woody are friends now; Buzz may still be Andy’s favorite toy, but Woody’s still more or less in charge. Buzz is the loyal second-in-command who takes charge when Woody can’t. Regardless of their status relative to Andy, everyone seems to have accepted their new roles — Woody might not be the favorite anymore, but he’s content with the fact that his kid still loves him and incorporates him into all his adventures. The supporting cast hasn’t evolved too much, but the movie still manages to reestablish their personalities in no time at all. It boggles my mind that a kids’ movie can have me choked up about a cowboy doll getting a rip in his arm and put up on The Shelf with other broken and/or forgotten toys, let alone that it can do so in no more than 10 minutes. I’m a friggin’ adult, Pixar, you shouldn’t be able to do this to me.

That economy carries through to when Woody winds up in Al’s apartment. This movie’s core cast consists of quite a few characters who aren’t introduced until the plot is already well underway, so it’s impressive how quickly the movie is able to give you a sense of the newcomers and to endear you to characters like Jessie and Bullseye. I mean, whose heart doesn’t shatter during the “When She Loved Me” sequence? That just might be the most shamelessly manipulative thing Pixar’s creative team has ever done, but they get away with it because they set it up so well.

You can tell that Pixar continued to work on its animation in the interim, too. I’m still not sure why the humans look so bad — I get that the textures and movements were difficult at the time, but surely there was a point in the production process where they realized that Gerry (sorry, The Cleaner) and, to a lesser extent, Al, worked a lot better because they were exaggerated, whereas Andy and his mom are terrifying pseudo-humans. Fortunately, the toys themselves are considerably improved — the animation is smoother, cleaner, more detailed, more textured, and moves more gracefully here than in either of the two movies that preceded it. And that’s accounting for the fact that Pixar was even more ambitious with this production — I’m thinking especially of the opening scene, which I have mixed feelings about in that it has very little to do with the story and is also ridiculously fun. The filmmakers are so alive in that scene that I find myself hoping Pixar does an original lasers-and-aliens sci-fi adventure someday.

Toy Story 2 also continues its predecessor’s stellar knack for comedy. It incorporates a bit of A Bug’s Life’s sense of humor, too — there’s a more absurdist touch here than in the first, a constant, barely acknowledged awareness that what you’re seeing is very silly. But it’s not really winking at you, compromising your ability to take the story seriously; it’s just pulling back the curtain ever so slightly.

My main takeaway from Toy Story 2 is its role relative to the longstanding Pixar vs. DreamWorks debate that was prevalent a few years ago and seems to have faded since then (or maybe I just perceive that I have because I’ve cut myself off from film communities that prize fandom loyalty over good movies). The main argument is that Pixar usually tells serious stories while DreamWorks layers everything in too many ironic pop culture references. It made me laugh, watching this movie again, to find that the latter just isn’t true. Well, it’s half-true — DreamWorks does that. But so does Pixar — especially in Toy Story 2. For crying out loud, there are three in the opening scene alone — two to Star Wars (among many by the time the movie is over) and one to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s hard to say exactly why it’s funny when it’s Pixar but annoying when it’s DreamWorks. Here’s my theory — Pixar’s pop culture references are, for the most part, sly, subtle, and for the adults in the audience; DreamWorks’ references are loud, obvious, and for the kids. Too, Pixar’s references are delivered as actual jokes, highlighting the absurdity of the premise, while DreamWorks’ tend to be…references. They say a thing, and it’s supposed to be funny. I still remember the bit in Monsters vs. Aliens (a movie I otherwise don’t remember a thing about, which says something) where a character plays Dance Dance Revolution to save the world, and there really isn’t a larger joke than that a character is playing video games, which are not serious, in the interest of a supposedly serious cause.

Pixar’s are sneakier and happen as an accessory to what’s happening in any given scene. The biggest laugh in Toy Story 2, for me personally, highlights what works about this approach. It’s the bit where the toys are in Al’s Toy Barn, and Tour Guide Barbie is driving them around. They crash into a container full of bouncy balls and flee the resulting avalanche. Rex jumps out when he drops his video game manual, then tries to catch up, and there’s this shot where Potato Head glances in the rearview mirror and sees Rex’s gaping maw as he approaches the toy car, in an exact replica of the shot in Jurassic Park where it’s a real T-rex trying to eat people. It’s funny because it isn’t interrupting the scene’s emotional needs (though this is mostly just a fun scene; nothing too serious is going on) and because it plays to an adult’s knowledge of pop culture and of the premise’s absurdity. It’s the movie saying, “Hey, you know this scene you’re actually invested in and taking seriously? Well, here’s a shot from Jurassic Park to remind you that what you’re watching is a whiny plastic dinosaur trying to jump onto a toy car driven by a Barbie doll so he doesn’t get swept up in a hailstorm of bouncy balls.”

In fairness, Toy Story 2 doesn’t always walk that line as well as other Pixar films, including its predecessors, have. The bit where Buzz and Woody swap roles and quote each other’s lines from the “you are a TOY” scene in the first movie is kind of awkward, especially since it occurs in the middle of what is otherwise one of the film’s heaviest dramatic scenes. And Buzz and Zurg’s The Empire Strikes Back exchange is…not bad, exactly, but obvious. At least the payoff — “I have to spend some time catching up with my dad!” — is pretty funny.

The few jokes that don’t work actually strike me as being a result of the mindset that brought about one of the larger flaws that keep Toy Story 2 from being as good as Toy Story. Most of the weaker jokes flop because they detract from the story — characters stop acting like characters to briefly become unmotivated comedy props, jokes interrupt the dramatic flow of a scene that needs to be more serious, and so on. And that reflects the bigger problems with the story itself.

The story, don’t get me wrong, is fine. Its most important beats work. You’re able to follow along with it and have genuine emotional investment in what’s going on. The film just has a few misaligned priorities; that’s all. It’s like a sculptor made two-thirds of a beautiful statue and then forgot to carve out the head.

The first Toy Story is surprisingly lean. There’s no meat on its bones — each scene leads directly into the next and lasts only about as long as it needs to. Everything is purposeful; you always know what the filmmakers are trying to tell you about the characters and the story.

Toy Story 2, despite being roughly the same length as the first movie, gets off on tangents and isn’t always accomplishing anything particularly important with its main plot. Early on — in the aforementioned opening scene, especially — there’s a lot of setup for the Buzz/Zurg conflict, but does anything important come of it? I’ll be honest; if I had been a writer on this film, I’d resist cutting this, too. Having Buzz interact with a younger version of him who still thinks he’s a Space Ranger is a really clever idea and gets a lot of laughs, but the second Buzz and the conflict against Zurg don’t have much to do with the main story — and they even undercut it at one point.

When the toys reach Al’s apartment, the scene becomes tense as Woody decides he’s not going home with them, then changes his mind, only for Al to walk in, box him up, and leave for the airport. The rest of the toys rush after him, only to run into Zurg on the elevator and have a completely unrelated action/comedy sequence with him. They wrap that up, and then we’re back into “save Woody” mode. In a perfect world, the tension of that first scene is allowed to continue; the toys run to the elevator, and the next shot is Slinky trying and failing to grab Woody out of the bag. With the extended interruption in the middle, you lose that initial feeling and have to work your way back to it later on. It’s a structural problem, the same as some of the lesser comedy in the movie — it doesn’t work because it isn’t needed, and we should be concentrating on the feeling of the scene we’re in. Comedy works best when it’s a part of that, which is why the Jurassic Park reference is so funny. And stories work best when they have a clear sense of where they’re going and what any given scene is supposed to tell the audience. Beyond the Zurg scene, there are a lot of little adventures on the way that are fun but doing nothing emotionally. It bothers me a bit that Woody is the only character actively changing in this movie, despite Buzz and the other toys commanding a subplot. Both Buzz and Woody had substantial arcs in the first movie, and the supporting characters were exactly that but still developed over the course of the story, particularly in their relationship with Woody and their assessment of his flaws.

It’s a slightly weaker script. It does a lot right, but it misses the emotional resonance of the first film — which is still fun and funny, proving that you’re never really facing a choice between feeling and entertainment.

Fortunately, Toy Story 2 remains both fun and funny. And the story is a little bit clumsier this time around, but it still gets the job done. Pixar will probably never stop trying to make people cry, and there are a few scenes here that I’m sure will more than accomplish that with a lot of viewers. It expands the world and characters of the first movie in engaging and emotional ways. (It’s weird to say this, but on a thematic level, I think Toy Story 2 might be about…death. I’m being serious! The fear the toys are facing is obsolescence — that they’ll eventually lose Andy, that they might well lose each other, that they’ll end up in unfamiliar terrain, and that all of them, one day, are going to break and wear down and run their course. The metaphor is kid-friendly, of course — literally, in-universe, Woody’s decision is only whether to return to Andy even though he’ll grow up and forget about him someday, but it could be easily framed as a decision to choose a short, meaningful life over a shapeless, fruitless eternity. For adults, that registers on a much deeper level than our in-the-moment, story-related concerns. I just wrote an entire paragraph about this; why did I do that? Back to the review!) Toy Story 2 isn’t perfect, but it’s still really, really good and doesn’t look too shabby standing between juggernauts like its predecessor and sequel.

Next time: Monsters Inc.

Z for Zachariah (2015)

Starring- Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, Chris Pine

Director- Craig Zobel

PG-13- a scene of sexuality, partial nudity, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxw4KFxPcoY

I didn’t expect that Z for Zachariah was going to leave me unsure how to proceed with a review. I certainly didn’t expect that immediately after I turned the TV off. It’s turned out to be one of those movies that works pretty well in the moment but doesn’t entirely hold up under further scrutiny. It would be one thing if I were simply coming to doubt its effectiveness on one or two technical levels. It’s somewhat worse that the more I think about it, the more I worry that its message is…not so awesome.

As far as Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) knows, she’s the last person alive on Earth. An environmental catastrophe — something to do with radiation — wiped out just about everyone else. For whatever reason, it left the valley where she lives untouched. The rest of her family left over a year ago to look for other survivors. They never returned. Now, she lives alone, farming and hunting, eking out a living one day to the next, with only her dog to keep her company.

Then, she finds another human. A scientist, John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), wanders into the valley one day and stumbles across her farm. They’re both desperate for company, so he decides to stay. With her farming expertise and his scientific knowhow, they’re able to come up with plenty of food, water, and power. It’s a good system — and it changes once again when yet another survivor, a miner named Caleb (Chris Pine), finds his way into their midst, upsetting the current dynamic and turning things tense and potentially explosive.

If it gives you a sense of my changing position on this movie, I left it confident in my feeling that it was a decent movie that sometimes buckled under the weight of its tendency toward clumsily integrated ambiguity. I think that, in terms of its quality as a film, I still largely hold that position. It’s engaging in the moment and doesn’t truly come apart until its endgame becomes clear.

I think it has a trio of strong performances anchoring it. It wasn’t until I wrote this review that I realized Margot Robbie was playing Ann. Mission accomplished, I guess. Robbie’s a bit of a newcomer, albeit a very promising one, so I haven’t seen her in that many roles, but I’ve seen her in enough (particularly her impressive turn in The Wolf of Wall Street) that I really ought to have recognized here. In any case, I only ever read Ann Burden as Ann Burden, and it’s impressive that someone who looks like Margot Robbie can be so convincing as a tough-shelled country girl who loves getting her hands dirty. Chiwetel Ejiofor is Chiwetel Ejiofor — I don’t know that I need to say a lot more on that point. He’s another one of those actors good enough to be effortless, to the point that you don’t even notice the acting. John Loomis has the most visible inner life of any of the characters; Ejiofor offers a direct line into what he’s thinking at all times. Chris Pine is the weak link by comparison to his extremely talented cast-mates, but he’s still impressive in his own way. Between this and Into the Woods, I’m starting to wonder if he’s the Leonardo DiCaprio of his generation — a guy who got sold to us as a dashing leading man but turned out to be an odd, off-beat character actor. His performance here is imperfect but still solid. I like the trajectory his career is taking and hope it continues.

And I think the characters they’re playing are mostly pretty good as well. I largely understood their minds and their motivations, and Robbie and Ejiofor are both good enough to hint at further detail beyond what we’re seeing on the surface. Caleb is the most difficult character to engage, but that’s probably intentional; he’s supposed to be a bit of an enigma. As you might expect with a premise like this, it doesn’t take our characters long to start up with a little “repopulating the Earth” talk, and a love triangle inevitably forms. What I like about it is the balance with which the film treats the two men. It never quite lets you trust Caleb, and it never quite lets you like John.

Of course, the love triangle is also one of my main frustrations with the film. It’s definitely its biggest in-the-moment flaw. You have this unique post-apocalyptic scenario and all this rich thematic material, ripe for the plucking, and you’re going to turn it into a goofy love triangle where Caleb puts on his best “manly sensitivity” show and John passive-aggressively whines about it? Really? Were it not for the strength of at least two of the characters and at least two of the performances, combined with perfectly capable direction and world-building, this would certainly be enough to sink Z for Zachariah.

There’s also that ambiguity I mentioned, which only gets worse the longer I think about it. There’s a way to do ambiguity right, and I think it centers on this: Does it really matter what actually happened? Inception ends with a tease that its protagonist may or may not still be dreaming, and it works because it doesn’t matter whether he is or not — the point is that he’s decided to embrace what’s in front of him and live it as fully as possible. The important part of that final shot is not that the top is still spinning but that DiCaprio spun it and then walked away. Explaining why the ambiguity in Z for Zachariah is ineffective is hard to do without spoilers, but suffice to say that it breaks the rule. Its big moment of ambiguity actually does matter in terms of what it means for the characters, and the themes don’t really resolve themselves unless we know how they react to what happened and whether or not they can or will make peace with it. It leaves Z for Zachariah feeling like a movie without an ending.

That’s where I stood when the movie ended. That’s more or less where I stand now — perhaps the flaws seem a bit more dramatic in hindsight (seriously, a love triangle?), but that’s the extent of it.

It’s on a deeper level that I’m no longer sure how I feel about this movie — and that I suspect I could easily change my mind about it in either direction as I consider it further. As I watched it, and immediately after it ended, I found it somewhat difficult to get a handle on it thematically. In part, that’s because the love triangle distracted it from so many of its more interesting ideas. But that’s also because the movie introduced a lot of philosophical elements — there’s a heavy religious undercurrent, with Ann portrayed as the perpetually faithful country girl with plenty of old-time religion (the film derives its namesake from the Old Testament book of Zachariah) — that it seemed then to abandon in favor of people kissing and fighting.

But within the last hour or so, it’s occurred to me that there is a way to interpret this film’s message that is thematically coherent and accounts for most of what it does. It just isn’t a good way.

Whether by accident or design… Z for Zachariah seems to be sending a message about the differences between religious and non-religious people — namely that the latter suck the joy out of everything, have no idea what’s important in life, and can’t always be trusted.

That’s possibly an ungenerous interpretation. It’s also the only interpretation I can come up with at the moment.

So…yeah. Take all of this as you will. Right now, I really just don’t know.

-Matt T.

P.S. For fans of the book: I haven’t read it, but I did research it a little, and the movie appears to have absolutely nothing to do with it other than the premise and the names of the two main characters. The story itself could not possibly be more different.