Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding Dory

Come baaaaacck!
My life was so incredibly different in 2003 when Finding Nemo came out. (Everyone's was, right? It was THIRTEEN YEARS ago!!!) I got married a month after its debut, and having kids was the furthest thing from my mind. But, as with all Pixar movies (and, IMHO, most animated Disney movies in general), you didn't need to be a parent to enjoy or be moved by the film about a dad clownfish swimming across the ocean in search of his lost son. (And, as longtime readers of this blog know, not having any kids didn't stop me from going to EPCOT (by myself) solely to experience the Nemo ride. Or going to Disney World/Land several times since, by myself. But I digress.)

I mention all of this because I didn't think it would ever be possible for me to love films like Finding Nemo, Toy Story or Cars more than I already did. I was wrong. Once my four-and-a-half-year-old son got into these movies, a whole new dimension came into play. One of ownership, one of feeling personally vested (both emotionally and financially because of ALL THE TOYS), one of protectiveness as he came to cherish the characters as much as I did, and one of feeling truly petrified that something could one day ruin these franchises. (DAMN YOU, CARS 2!!!) When we took our son to Disneyland this year and last year and got a huge kick out of the "Turtle Talk with Crush" attraction (seriously, it's the best) and the Finding Nemo submarine ride, the stakes grew that much higher. Finding Dory HAD to be good. It just had to be.

And it is! Praise Poseidon! (Or King Triton, perhaps?)

Yes, it is like The Force Awakens in the sense that the plot is almost completely recycled. You know what I say to that? WHO CARES. I don't see these movies for the plot, I see them for the gorgeous animation and for the clever adult humor sprinkled in alongside more obvious jokes for the kiddies. I see them because I know there will be a positive moral to the story (Dory is actually superior to Nemo here). I see them because I know I will feel the warm fuzzies at the end. And because I don't recall a time in my forty-plus years where feeling the warm fuzzies was ever a bad thing.

So, yep, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the short-term-memory-impaired regal tang, gets lost in a few different ways. Most revolve around a search for her family, who she starts remembering bits and pieces about via flashbacks. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Illinois native Hayden Rolence, represent!) are back, as are a couple of other beloved characters like Squirt and Crush—though I wish those two had been in it much more, thanks to my reignited love of Crush after seeing his Disneyland show.

There's memorable marine-life humor (yes, that's a thing)—much like we learned how seagulls are actually shouting "Mine!" in Nemo, we find out why sea lions make their barking noises in Dory. You'll squirm through a sequence involving an aquarium's "touch pool." You'll sniffle at the opening montage and additional flashbacks featuring tiny bug-eyed Dory.

Hank the tank! Hank the tank! (Old School humor)
And while there are other new characters who are cute and make their own mark on the film, you'll likely be most impressed by Hank (Ed O'Neill, a perfect choice), a cranky red octopus (minus one tentacle) who can camouflage himself and begrudgingly agrees to help Dory because there's something in it for him. The scenes where he changes colors are amazing. And overall he's just hilarious. I don't think young kids will really "get" him as much as adults will, though. Nevertheless, he's the film's standout character.

Speaking of young kids, parents should know that there is one scene that's a little intense (spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph): Nemo, Marlin and Dory are chased by a pretty scary squid, and at one point the squid comes close to eating Nemo. They of course get away, so you could always just TELL your kids this before they see the movie so they're not worried. That's what I did, and my son is at the film with his dad for a Father's Day treat as I type this.

Two non-spoilery highlights involve Sigourney Weaver and a slo-mo scene set to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," which was so crazy I can't believe the team (co-director/co-writer extraordinaire Andrew Stanton (who also voices Crush (!), co-director Angus MacLane and co-writer Victoria Strouse) not only thought of it in the first place, but then also pulled it off so magnificently.

So in summary: PHEW. No one's affection for or memories of Finding Nemo are going to be destroyed by this sequel. It was great to check in on the old gang again, and even better to meet some new insta-classic characters. Now can Cars 3 PLEASE not be horrible... ?

(p.s. Make sure you stay through ALL of the credits.)

Friday, June 03, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Never stop never stopping - whoever came up with that is a genius
I have a framed still from This is Spinal Tap displayed proudly in my house, so you could say I take my music-industry mockumentaries seriously. And while I'm not prepared to say that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping "goes to eleven," it comes mighty close.

Yes, I'm as surprised as you are. I should preface the rest of this review with the disclaimer that I know waaaaaaaay too much about Justin Bieber (who is clearly the inspiration for main character Conner4Real) and spend waaaaaaaay too much of my time consuming various celebrity-gossip articles and TV shows. If you're not into that scene, a large percentage of Popstar's humor will be lost on you. Whereas I laughed throughout the entire movie. This is one of the few times where I would recommend watching the film's trailer beforehand. If you like it, you will LOVE the rest of the movie. Bonus: most of the trailer's scenes occur within Popstar's first ten minutes, so it's not even giving away the best parts.

The story, written by SNL-digital-short-masters The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone; the latter two also directed), follows Conner4Real (Samberg), a Bieber-esque popstar who was once part of a trio called The Style Boyz. After a falling out, the Boyz break up, and Conner skyrockets to fame as a solo act, while Owen (Taccone) tags along as Conner's DJ, and Lawrence (Schaffer) retreats to life on a rural farm. Schaffer and Taccone shot Popstar as a documentary that takes place as Conner's second solo album, Connquest, is about to drop. As you might have already guessed, the new tracks are met with tepid reception, which throws Conner's world tour into jeopardy. His team scrambles to do everything, anything they can—from securing corporate sponsorships, to lining up a hot new opening act (a fantastic Chris Redd as Hunter the Hungry), to staging a very, very bizarre E! exclusive—to keep Conner in the spotlight and the money rolling in.

r u 4 real?
Short documentary-style interviews with real-life celebrities, musicians and DJs are sprinkled throughout the film, and they are hilarious—Mariah Carey's in particular, and I'm impressed she went along with it. Several other famous faces also pop up in Conner's life as either themselves or other ridiculous characters, and those cameos were also just great. None of them were the kind of cameos that seemed totally pointless (like almost every single one in Zoolander 2), either. One of my favorites was Will Arnett as the head of CMZ. (If you don't know what that's a spoof of, then again, this movie might not be for you.)

If I had one complaint about Popstar, it would be the same complaint I've made about so many recent comedies: all of the f-bombing gets old really quickly, and its cruder gags are also its weakest. But when the laughs revolve around one of Conner's absurd (but catchy!) songs, making fun of our fickle celebrity-obsessed culture, or the many ways that Conner's entourage strokes his ego (Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman as Conner's manager and publicist are particularly funny), Popstar is in Spinal Tap territory—"no bones" about it.

Me Before You

Would've been better if dragons were behind them in the sky
I read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes a few months ago, because usually if a novel that I'm even remotely interested in is being made into a film, I want to hurry up and finish the book first. I'm not typically one for weepy romances, but I have to admit that—like John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (which is waaaaay better, if equally manipulative)—Me Before You did affect me and had me sobbing my head off by the end. The film adaptation, whose screenplay was also written by Moyes, tries desperately to inspire that same emotional reaction. But for me, it failed.

The story revolves around Louisa Clark (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke), who mostly goes by her last name in the film. She's a young woman with no real ambitions who's desperate for a job because she's pretty much supporting her entire extended family. Despite her circumstances, however, she is impossibly upbeat and expresses this through outrageous outfits that look like something the four-year-old girls in my son's pre-k class would pick out. I felt like Moyes went overboard on the Quirky Scale with Clark's character in the book, so it annoyed me even more to see all of her weird clothes and shoes brought to life on the big screen.

Clark needs a job and ends up becoming the latest in a long line of caretakers for Will Traynor (The Hunger Games' Sam Claflin, well cast), who had everything anyone could ever dream of... all before being hit by a motorcycle. Now he's a quadriplegic and extremely, extremely bitter. His crazy-rich parents (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance, also perfectly cast)—they literally live in a castle—are beside themselves and are putting no small amount of pressure on Clark to convince Will that life is still worth living.

You can already guess what happens: little by little, Clark is able to break down Will's walls with her never-ending positivity and relentlessness, and they eventually fall for each other. (It didn't hurt that Clark's boyfriend throughout most of the story is a self-centered buffoon.) One thing Moyes got right with the screenplay is that she dropped two dark subplots that were in the book—one about Will's parents and the other about Clark's past. Minor characters like Will's sister are also gone, so the focus is almost entirely on Clark and Will's changing relationship.
I can't even with her outfits and hair.
But it was a misstep for Moyes and first-time director Thea Sharrock not to give us more insight into Will's state of mind. In the novel, Clark gets to know other quadriplegics through message boards, and I felt it went a long way toward understanding why Will could not bring himself to adjust to his new circumstances while others in similar situations embraced their lives more fully. I do not think this was the intention of the film in any way, but it came off as though the ultra-wealthy cannot cope with tragedy because they've always gotten what they wanted, whereas families who struggle are better equipped to handle even the most dire of setbacks.

Which leads us back to Clark and her uber-optimism. I did not have a problem with it in and of itself because I, too, try to convince others that the glass is half full more than I probably should. What I couldn't get over was Emilia Clarke's facial expressions. Girlfriend has some CRAZY eyebrows that work for her as the Mother of Dragons, but that almost took on a life of their own in this film. Clarke is an actress who acts with her entire face, which would be refreshing if it weren't so distracting in this particular case. If you go to this movie and are not bothered whatsoever by the many ways Clarke's eyebrows can move, I salute you. But to me it came off like she was trying too hard, almost like she wanted to go overboard with being animated in order to make people forget about her steely Game of Thrones character. It often ruined what should've been a somber or touching scene. Claflin, however, was exactly how I pictured Will would be, and was able to pull off both Will's biting wit and repressed rage.

I want to be clear that I'm not saying Clarke was an awful actress in this film, but I do think she was miscast and too enthusiastic with her facial expressions at key points. Her performance came off as cheesy in those scenes, which were usually accompanied by an aggressive, intrusive song off of the film's soundtrack. Luckily there weren't too many of these moments, but I must still forewarn my fellow book fans to set their expectations accordingly.