Saturday, December 5, 2015

Critics Season Opens, While Films They Honour Do Not

December is officially here, so the critics have begun unloading their year-end superlatives. But since those of us in the real world still have 26 days before the end of the year, some of the biggest honorees are still an unseen mystery to us. Todd Haynes' Carol was undoubtedly the biggest love-affair for the New York Critics Film Circle, who handed it four prizes including Best Film, but I'll be lucky if it opens anywhere near me before the month is out.

The National Board of Review, while naming Mad Max: Fury Road their best of the year, threw far more support in terms of number of prizes behind films like The Martian (Best Director, Actor and Adapted Screenplay) and The Hateful Eight (Best Supporting Actress and Original Screenplay). The latter won't even begin limited engagements until Christmas!

But I was not completely starved for entertainment. Rocky spinoff Creed opened during the American Thanksgiving weeekend, and I found it rather enjoyable. Writer-director Ryan Coogler showed much promise in his 2013 debut Fruitvale Station, as did star Michal B. Jordan, and both continue to prove their genuine talent in this crackerjack boxing flick.
Creed may be beat-for-beat predictable and a tad melodramatic (as a good sports movie should be), but Coogler's considerable storytelling gifts ensures that those tropes never play to the detriment of the film. His sense of visual rhythm is clearly evident, especially in one centerpiece bout that goes to show you don't need furious Raging-Bull-style editing to construct a thrilling boxing sequence. His aural instincts ring true as well, utilizing a blood-pumping soundtrack that's laced with echoes of Bill Conti throughout.

But what I was most impressed with was the acting. Jordan makes the picture his own, Tessa Thompson elevates her supportive girlfriend character well above what's written on the page, and Sylvester Stallone brings new textures of wisdom and regret to his iconic Balboa that we've never seen in any Rocky movie (or in any of his movies, for that matter). Sly may even be gunning for an Oscar nomination, and he would not be unworthy of it.

I also took an evening off to catch Pixar's The Good Dinosaur, which recently reaped 10 Annie Award nominations (the runner-up behind Inside Out's 14).
The film -- basically a mishmash of every frontier Western, boy-and-his-dog saga, and Land Before Time movie -- is far from terrible, but I would lobby for a title change to The Okay Dinosaur.
Unlike much of Pixar's output, which can claim to be for both children and their parents, this simplistic adventure flick is ostensibly for kids, and within those parameters it's perfectly fine. Its narrative and thematic modesty are not weaknesses in and of themselves. The film has its moments -- moments of brilliance, actually -- but they ultimately emboss how wildly uneven and dangerously undercooked it is as a whole.

Originally the brainchild of the ousted Bob Peterson (one of Pixar's best story men on projects such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and Up), The Good Dinosaur we ended up getting doesn't delve especially deep into its premise of an unextinct dinosaur population evolving into an agrarian society. You can sense a lot of ideas being thrown around the writers' room without ever really getting refined into a fully-formed cinematic world. Some of the detours are just plain surreal, and not always in a welcome way.

At least, being Pixar, you can expect superb animation. It didn't take me long to adjust to the incongruity of seeing such elasticized caricatures embedded into such majestic photo-real environs (background are straight up gorgeous). If all you came for was a good looking movie, you won't be let down. But if you came expecting top-tier (heck, even middle-tier) Pixar, then you may be.

(And speaking of good-looking, middle-tier Pixar, the short Sanjay's Super Team plays before the feature. It's a pretty light show, but I found it kinda hollow.)

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