“Gifted”

LOUISA:  4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I didn’t expect much from “Gifted,” a small little movie with a minimal ad campaign (you’ve probably never heard of it either) which appeared out of thin air. I also didn’t expect how quickly the film managed to gain my attention and earn my respect. This smaller scale story from director Marc Webb has such an intensely personal vibe that if in the hands of another filmmaker, it could’ve (and probably would’ve) gone horribly wrong. The reason why this astute heartstring-tugger succeeds is because it rings genuine and true.

Chris Evans gives a quietly understated, emotional, and effective performance as Frank, a single man raising sassy child prodigy mathematician Mary (Mckenna Grace). When Mary’s first grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) takes action to ensure the child gets every opportunity to excel, a legal custody battle between Frank and his overbearing mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) ensues. That’s putting the plot in the most simple of terms, but the script here is smart, clever, and isn’t dumbed down in any way. It keeps you guessing yet also entertained with an unexpected revelation at the end and some really funny, breezy one-liners for laughs.

There’s not a slacker in the bunch when it comes to the dependable ensemble cast (which also includes Octavia Spencer in her trademark role as a strong, proud woman who cries a lot). Slate is terrific as a caring first grade teacher, and Duncan offers up plenty of harsh verbal cruelty with a sharp bite. The real star of the show is the extremely talented Grace, who reminds me very much of a young Dakota Fanning. You’ll love her character as soon as you meet her. She’s a child actor to watch.

While it’s predictable in premise, the film manages several surprise twists. Tom Flynn has written an intelligent, honest and wise screenplay that feels real and authentic, reminding me much of the insight laid out in Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea,” yet without the unspeakable woe. This isn’t a tragic story by any means, but it has the potential to make some folks sob (so bring your tissues). Educators will likely respond to the undertones of how society should deal with its super smart kids, feminists will admire the heavy-hitting elements of true “girl power,” and animal lovers will be fond of the positive attitude portrayed toward shelter pets.

This family-friendly drama is sweet, smart, funny, and charming, the cinematic equivalent of a snuggly, cozy sweater. It’s an emotional manipulator for sure, but I delighted in being manipulated every step of the way.

Sundance Review: “Landline”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

In a crowded sea of male-dominated Hollywood films and paper-thin female characters, little independent gems like “Landline” generate even more of an electrifying spark. Writer / director Gillian Robespierre follows up her abortion dramedy “Obvious Child” (which earned an Honorable Mention on my Top 10 Movies of 2014 list) with a look at a dysfunctional Manhattan family that bonds over lying and cheating.

The film is set in 1995 and features many intermittent references to the time period, from smoke-filled bars to record stores with cd listening stations to a discussion about Helen Hunt’s unfortunate wardrobe choices on “Mad About You.” The pre-cell phone era setting isn’t exactly crucial in order to tell the story, but it manages to work without being gimmicky at all. It actually makes perfect sense as a method of taking social media and 24/7 connectivity out of the equation, even if the film does feature the prerequisite car singalong to a pop hit from the era (in this case, it’s appropriately Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”).

Dana (Jenny Slate, in what is easily one of the best performances of her career) and her sweetly devoted fiancée Ben (Jay Duplass) are dealing with their own twentysomething relationship issues while mom and dad (an excellent John Turturro and Edie Falco) are wrapped up in their own accusations of cheating and falling out of love. Dana’s high school senior sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is a rebellious, drug experimenting teen suffering through the trials of impending adulthood and the struggles of becoming her own person. The family may be flawed as individuals and as a whole, but their doubts and insecurities are what makes them endearing and all the more human.

Robespierre and her co-writer Elisabeth Holm have a beautiful knack for penning honest, credible and fully realized characters, especially when it comes to women. I haven’t seen such a great representation (or understanding) of the female psyche in a movie in a long time, and the script rings with an eye-opening truth that shines a light into the relationships we have between lovers, friends and family. These are complex, fully developed characters that provide remarkable insight, and their organic (and sometimes raunchy) dialogue speaks the truth — no matter how painful that may be.

The movie is at times very funny yet also surprisingly tender with a slightly subversive feel. It’s an accurate, realistic exploration of how family bonds grow stronger through the cheating, lying and discord that is life.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

“The Secret Life of Pets”

LOUISA:   3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Anyone who is fortunate enough to share their life with a companion animal will undoubtedly get a kick out of the latest Illumination animated effort, “The Secret Life of Pets.” The film soars when it focuses on animals interacting with their human guardians, with the canine and feline characters acting like real pets do (if my cats could talk, I’m sure they’d converse in  similar dialogue as portrayed onscreen). The first part of the movie is incredibly perceptive and clever, as is the last 10 minutes because it zeroes in on these very relationships (the opening and closing scenes of the movie are touching and have lots of heart). The problem comes in the middle when the story stops being about ‘pets being pets.’ Sadly, the majority of the film lags when it ventures into the dreaded animated movie territory of sheer stupidity.

Loveable human Katie (Ellie Kemper) and her pup Max (Louis C.K.) are the best of friends. Max has several animal buddies that live in the same New York City high rise, including dogs, cats, birds and guinea pigs that stop by for daily visits. When Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the animal shelter, Max devises a plan to get rid of him. Problem is, the two dogs find themselves lost in the big city and Max’s would-be girlfriend Gidget (Jenny Slate) takes it upon herself to recruit other pets — including the elderly paralyzed basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) and lonely falcon Tiberius (Albert Brooks) — to bring Max home. Along the way they find themselves at odds with the anarchist gang of “flushed pets,” a group of outspoken, anti-human animals led by former magician’s bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart).

The voice acting runs the gamut from phenomenally good (Slate) to wince inducing (Hart). Slate is perfectly cast as Gidget, a poufy white spoiled little dog who eventually saves the day. She proves herself tenfold as a legitimate voiceover actor, and I hope to see her get more work in animation in the future. There’s no denying that Hart is a super likeable actor, but his portrayal of Snowball the bunny is nothing more than repeated, strained yelling. His overall performance felt so labored and unnatural that listening to him onscreen actually made me uncomfortable. I will not hesitate to nominate Hart for a Razzie award for worst actor of the year because his voice work is that bad.

In the ‘oh no, not again’ category, there’s plenty of dopey, brainless scenarios crammed in with a feeling that their sole existence is to appease young kids. We get yet another ridiculous animal driving a car stunt that we had to endure in this summer’s nearly insufferable “Finding Dory.” In fact, in “The Secret Life of Pets” we get not only a rabbit driving a van but also a lizard driving a bus and a pig driving a taxi.

The absurdity isn’t the only problem: it’s the repetition. The filmmakers must’ve run out of good ideas and instead of moving the story forward, the audience gets the same monotony over and over and over again. I don’t require my animated films to be completely based in reality (there’s a particularly amusing Busby Berkeley inspired musical sequence in a sausage factory), but I do expect more originality than is delivered in this movie. The story at times takes a cynical approach in several places and some of the themes may be too much for sensitive kids (but the film provides a great starting point for a learning opportunity about pets and how animals shouldn’t be viewed as disposable).

At least the animation is commendable, nice and colorful with lively, fully realized backgrounds. It’s visually interesting enough for adults and fans of the genre but it’s also vibrant and bustling enough to keep the kids interested. There’s a lovely original score with a lighthearted, almost vintage sound. For me, the original music in this film is one of the standout elements.

Overall I feel like this film takes a great idea and almost completely wastes the opportunity. This dull, unremarkable action caper is mostly moronic, but the imaginative peek behind the door at an animal’s life when the humans are away is what’s pure gold. I really wish the film had focused on that component. “The Secret Life of Pets” is fine, but isn’t destined for greatness. I’m throwing it a bone with a 3 star rating.


Matt was unavailable for review.

 

“Zootopia”

LOUISA:   2 STARS   MATT:  4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Zootopia” is a darker, more serious take on the classic mismatched buddy cop movie. Make no mistake, this animated film earns its PG rating and may be a little too intense for some little ones. While I appreciate Disney trying to tackle some serious societal issues here, I’m sorry to report that the film, as a whole, fails miserably.

The story is a cut above most junk animated movies, but this crime caper lacks the sophistication of animal-centric cartoon classics like “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Shaun the Sheep,”and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” First off, the animation is just plain ugly. The backgrounds feel incomplete and lacking in detail, and the color palette is completely ‘off’ (as if the animators argued about which color scheme to use throughout; check out the still photo above: see how the background is nothing more than browns muddled with other browns?). I love films where animals exist in their own world but I couldn’t enjoy the movie from the start because of the unsightly animation. Was most of the movie slapped together at the last minute? A good majority of “Zootopia” sure looks as if that’s the case.

Another big problem with the movie is the voice talent (Jason Bateman, Jenny Slate, Idris Elba); I found it to be irritating across the board. Grating voices coupled with ugly looking characters sank this movie for me. Perky bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is one of the most annoying animated characters in recent memory (yes, almost as bad as Bing Bong from “Inside Out“). I found no character to be lovable.

The funniest bits were spoiled in the film’s preview trailers. There is a particularly horrible groan-inducing scene with a mole as a Godfather-esque mobster. It’s so dreadfully dumb that I was squirming in my seat. I think the writers threw in too many “this one is for the grown-ups” pop culture references masquerading as jokes — yes, I “get” that the other two lab partner sheep are named Walter and Jesse but that’s not a joke, that’s a pop culture reference. Of course that line resulted in a few knowing chuckles from the adults in the audience but they were laughing because they recognized the reference, not because it was genuinely funny. In this film you’ll find many instances of this type of lazy writing and paltry attempts at humor.

“Zootopia” is not all bad. I did like the positive girl power, tolerance and anti-bullying messages — but get ready to get continually beaten over the head with them. The messages are good ones, but herein lies the major problem with the film: while the story is filled with the suggestion that all animals (read: humans) can live in harmony, it muddles its “can’t we all just get along” message by filling the movie with stereotypes of its own!

As a person who grew up in a very small rural town, it bothered me that the film presented the idea that country bumpkin animals are less sophisticated and tolerant than their big city counterparts. When our heroine bunny Judy Hopps is in her rustic natural habitat, all of the animals stay segregated and in their “rightful” place (in Judy’s case, she’s a bunny who lives and works with other bunnies on a carrot farm, selling carrots to other bunnies.) Of course the rabbits sometimes work with a token fox and mingle with some other animals, but let’s just say they’ve never had a polar bear as a customer. When Judy moves to the big city, she lives in harmony with all species of animals, from so many different habitats! Big city folks sure are more tolerant because wow, they live in the big city! What on Earth could simple country farmers know about tolerance and acceptance? 

Another big stereotype portrayed in the film is the undeniably funny DMV scene where all of the verrrrry slow workers there are sloths. It’s funny, but it’s still a stereotype. Want more? How about the wolves who just can’t resist a group howl, the unnecessarily sexy pop star gazelle, or the weasel who is, well, “weasely”? Most distasteful is the overweight leopard who works at the police department. He is repeatedly shown doing silly, clumsy things and he’s always eating donuts. Let’s all point and laugh at the fat cat because all he likes to do is eat because he’s FAT! How on Earth is this contributing to a message of tolerance?

The last straw for me (and the reason behind my rating) is that the movie suggests that wild animals need to be tamed. That bothered me most of all. When predators are suddenly reverting to their biological wild nature and attacking prey, the Zootopia police department officers immediately want to figure out how to make it stop. Can’t animals just be wild? Why do they need to be tamed? Why can’t they live naturally?

Before you dismiss this as being “just a movie” or decide that my review is too serious or harsh,  stop and consider how kids tend to soak up things like a sponge. “Zootopia” could have and should have done a much better job with its inventive premise and big ambition. I’m sure the film set out with good intentions but it ultimately sank into a divisive stereotype of its own.

MATT SAYS:

Donald Trump would hate this movie. If you’re a Trump supporter, you will probably hate it, too.

Why? Because “Zootopia” is about acceptance. Acceptance of other races; acceptance of other cultures; acceptance of other personalities; and acceptance of people who are simply just different from you. It is also about the politics of xenophobia and fear of the “other,” and its central lesson is that we should not place labels on others based on how they look, what gender they are, or their cultural identity. Whereas Trump’s campaign is about using jingoistic nationalism based on fear of the “other” to separate us from other nations, cultures, and people, “Zootopia” is about tearing down those walls (literal and figurative) that divide us, respecting one another, and finding a way that we can all work and live together.

What surprised me about “Zootopia” aside from its high-minded messaging is that it wasn’t at all what I expected based on the previews. I thought I was going to see another mindless throwaway talking animal movie for kids layered with dumb not-so-subtle jokes to keep parents interested. There was some of that, to be sure, as well as annoying winking references to other Disney movies that were basically just audience laugh cues (hey, he just referenced “Frozen,” didya get it? Huh? Huh? Didya?), but I was surprised to find that this movie actually had a fairly interesting plot with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. For once, the movie wasn’t just about cute and fuzzy anthropomorphic animals doing cute things. The nature of the different animals – as well as the stereotypes that we all have about them – played an important role in actually driving the story.

Not everything about this movie is outstanding. As with many of these movies, some of the voice talent was great, and some was just stunt casting. I particularly liked Ginnifer Goodwin‘s protagonist rabbit, Judy Hopps, and Jason Bateman‘s fox Nick Wilde (his delivery is perfect for the character). Some of the other voices were just so-so. The animation was okay, not great. There are a few too many lazy allusions that were played out long ago (I mean come on, how many more times are we going to have to sit through heavily-borrowed references to “The Godfather?”).

Overall, though, I liked this film quite a bit. I liked the lesson about racial, cultural, and gender relations. I liked this movie’s more traditional Disney-esque “you can do anything you set your mind to” message. I liked the story. I want you and your kids to see this movie, particularly if you are one of the aforementioned Trump supporters.

Sundance Recap: “Joshy”

LOUISA:    4 STARS     MATT:   4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Don’t be fooled into thinking writer/director Jeff Baena‘s “Joshy” is a lighthearted comedy about a bro’s bachelor party weekend in the woods — there are some very serious and somber themes at play here: and I liked it! Almost all films in this genre tend to overshare and show the same repetitive debauchery (massive drug use, booze drinking, guns and sex). But thankfully, this one is different. “Joshy” is most definitely in the spirit of traditional mumblecore but it’s surprisingly insightful (and actually good)!

I loved the brief introduction of minor characters who were out of the plot as quickly as they arrived. This worked to keep the story moving forward and prevented it from stalling. Each of the male characters has some serious stuff going on but we are never told exactly what; the audience is left to their own devices to devise their own backstory. Very effective.

The icing on the cake comes from the heartfelt performances all around from the dream team comedy roster of Jenny Slate, Nick Kroll, Thomas Middleditch, Adam Pally, Alex Ross Perry, Aubrey Plaza, and Brett Gelman. The film is perfectly cast and all of the actors completely sold their relationships. I didn’t detect one false note in this movie.

Oh, and did I mention it’s also funny? All of this solemnity and the multitude of tragic undertones are capped off by themes of finding support and friendship in the most unlikely of places.

MATT SAYS:

“Joshy” is one of those movies that defies audience expectations. You take an ensemble cast of actors mostly known for their comedic work and throw them right in the middle of a dramedy that is heavy on the former and light on the latter, and most people don’t know how to react. Certainly, the audience that watched the movie with me didn’t — they insisted on laughing at things that weren’t funny simply because they thought it was supposed to be a comedy and there were funny actors onscreen.

The story starts out with a horrible tragedy involving the title character on his birthday. Several months later, he gets together with several of his friends for a guy weekend away. Together, they alternate between dealing (or attempting to deal) with the elephant in the room and avoiding it entirely.

The diversity of personalities between the men, and the problems each of them is dealing with in his own life, makes them both relatable and likable. The humor — when it is there — is real and flows naturally. Based on the mumblecore pedigree of the filmmakers and certain of the actors, I half expected to hate his movie. I didn’t.