Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Wonders and The Good Dinosaur

                       Expectations Not Fully Met

                                             Reviews by Ken Burke
 After a heaping helping in our last posting of after-Thanksgiving-reviews (tasty treats [with Trumbo {Jay Roach} possibly the best of the lot] except for the stale leftover stew of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 [Francis Lawrence]—I don’t care how much money it’s making [a lot, admittedly; with about $198.5 million domestically after only 2 weeks in release plus about $244 million from the rest of the world with #1 status in many countries just last weekend]) I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a lot to get excited about in the couple of new ones I’ve recently seen, despite excellent pedigrees from both of them, so I’ll get to my official reviews shortly.  But, maybe they were just lacking by comparison to something else I saw again last week—it comes around on a fairly regular basis on my Netflix queue—the jaw-droppingly-impactful-acting of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), which secured his 2-in-a-row-Oscar-nominations as Best Actor (based on its wide-release in the U.S. in February, 1973, not its initial October, 1972 opening in NYC, a distinction that’s often confusing because the run must be somewhere in Los Angeles county for 7 consecutive days to be eligible within a given awards-consideration-year, so Last Tango … was a 1973 product as far as the Academy was concerned).  I know that Brando had no chance to win that year given his refusal to accept the Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) the previous time around, but his impact here still is astounding even after all this time (further frustrating me that more votes went to Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger [John G. Avildsen, 1973], a strong performance but one that pales by comparison to Brando’s, although the win smacks of both anti-Brando-retaliation and sympathy for long-beloved-Hollywood-favorite-Lemmon).

 Actually, this Corleone-tinged-situation would repeat itself the following year when Al Pacino’s masterful work in The Godfather Part II (Coppola, 1974) would lose to a sentimental win (in my opinion) for 1950s’ TV favorite Art Carney in Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky, 1974—for that matter, to continue the travesty [Sorry, Art, wherever you may be after departing our shores in 2003; I loved you in those Honeymooners skits with Jackie Gleason but winning over Pacino for Godfather II? No.  No!  NO!]  he also topped Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express [Sidney Lumet], Dustin Hoffman for Lenny [Bob Fosse], and Jack Nicolson in Chinatown [Roman Polanski]).  Given those inequities as background, here’s what I encountered with a couple of current cinematic “wonders” that just left me more to wonder about than they should have.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be blissfully transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                             The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher)
A rural family of beekeepers in central Italy struggling against government regulation deadlines to upgrade their facilities or be evicted from their farm acquires new complications both from taking in a troubled German teenage boy as a new worker and from the attempts of the family’s eldest daughter to solve their economic problems, against her angry father’s will, with entry in a local TV contest. 
What Happens: A country couple, German (or Belgian; even Rohrwacher’s press-kit-comments aren’t definitive about him) Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and Italian Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher—the director’s sister) took up residence in the border-region between Italy’s Tuscany and Umbria-Lazio provinces (near the sea in their case) at some point in their earlier lives (one of the many desired background details that are seemingly unnecessary for our appreciation of this story), where they now try to maintain a beekeeping/ honey business while living in a dilapidated farmhouse with their 4 daughters (in descending age) Gelsomina (Alexandra Lungu), Marinella (Agnese Graziani), Caterina (Eva Morrow), Luna (Maris Stella Morrow)—Dad’s often criticized by his neighbors for not yet siring any sons—along with unidentified Cocò (Sabine Timoteo)(I took her to be Angelica’s sister—as does a critic from a prestigious publication’s review; yet, another writer from an equally-prestigious-pub doesn’t know who she is, one of several negative citations that person made against the film; after watching, I found the director’s production notes where she identifies Cocò as “a permanent guest,” so I guess my “top critic” colleagues didn’t read the same material I had easy access to.)  Wolfgang’s certainly no romp-in-the-fields, displaying a sour manner regarding just about everything but he’s really upset that something’s killing his bees, a problem he traces to neighbor Carlo’s (Carlo Tarmati) use of a government-provided-poison-containing-fertilizer, a complaint abruptly dismissed by Carlo who’s less concerned with Wolfgang’s desire to maintain a traditional rural way of life, more interested in better prosperity coming to the region through increased tourism thus he’s fully in support of a TV competition among 5 local farmers in hopes of winning the jackpot prize (for heritage-maintenance) while Wolfgang frustrates eager, almost-teenager Gelso (as her family usually calls her) by dismissing her interest in this contest (“We don’t need that crap.”) along with his kid’s fascination toward charming TV host Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), constantly dressed in an Etruscan (forerunners of Roman domination of the Italian peninsula)-type-costume complete with a white wig of lengthy-braids.  Gelsomina enters them in the show anyway, which Wolfgang begrudgingly goes along with given the predicament the family faces as government-dictated-improvements to their honey-gathering-facilities are way beyond the family’s means.

 Another complication arises early in this plot when Wolfgang (with no input from Angelica, as is his usual mode of operation) cooperates with a German social worker to take in a silent, delinquent 14-year-old-German-boy, Martin (Luis Huilca Logroño), not for any sense of the boys' rehabilitation as is being demanded by his “Second Life” organization’s social worker (Margarethe Tiesel) but purely for the fee Wolfgang’ll receive for Martin’s work on their farm.  However, Gelso has other reasons than help with the bees for being interested in Martin’s inclusion in their workforce, although she has to keep those desires under control, again at Wolfgang’s furious demand.  A contest-crisis arises one day when the parents are away on an errand, leaving Gelso in charge; Marinella cuts her hand on one of the machines so she’s rushed off to a nearby hospital for emergency treatment but no one remembered to change the bucket on the device that dispenses the honey so when Cocò and the family group return home they’re horrified to find the sticky stuff all over the floor (at least it’s linoleum, not dirt).  While they’re scraping it up back into a bucket (remind me not to buy a jar from that batch) a guy from their dream-world-Countryside Wonders-show drops by, although they keep him distracted until cleanup is complete, then give him a taste of honey (great cue for a Musical Metaphor, but those upbeat lyrics aren’t where The Wonders is headed) which he raves about, giving them high hopes for winning the contest.  The finals are broadcast from a nearby island, where each family gets to present some talk and/or performance to enhance their image with the judges; Wolfgang can barely put 2 words together, but Gelso and Martin make a better impression with their act where a few bees crawl on her face while he whistles a lovely tune.

 That’s not enough for the judges, though, as Carlo’s family takes the prize, followed by an increasingly-uncomfortable scene where Cocò’s supposedly trying to spark romance between Gelso and her beautiful boy but instead is using the opportunity to try to kiss Martin herself; frightened, he runs away deep into the woods with everyone else finally giving up on finding him then rowing back to shore until Gelsomina slips away later in the night, returns to the island, locates Martin very easily, at the very least sleeps next to him in a cave (although active shadows on the wall from their fire—straight out of Plato’s famous analogy of life’s true actions vs. mere, deceptive illusions—imply something further).  The next morning, Gelso returns to see that her family’s been evicted, their furniture and sheep have been confiscated (but a 2-humped-camel that Wolfgang bought in an ill-timed-move is still there), with them all huddled under blankets.  Dad’s finally mellowed, though, as his daughter is accepted under the covers with the rest of her family as this strange tales just comes to a quiet ending.

So What? One of the prime reasons I considered seeing The Wonders, aside from its generally-positive-critical-reception (a truly magnificent level of 94% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes although a more moderate 76% tally at Metacritic; more details in the links to this film far below), was its winning of the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival (the prestigious jury prize second only to the coveted Palme d’Or) so I thought it might well be a contender for the Foreign Language Oscar when those awards are given out in February 2016, increasing my interest in being aware of what it had to offer.  Had I read the coverage about it more closely, though, I would have seen it had its Cannes triumph in 2014 so it’s already past its Oscar opportunities, as it didn’t make the hallowed-final-5 last year (given my motivation, I should’ve been seeking Hungary’s Son of Saul [László Nemes] because it’s the 2015 Grand Prix winner, but in checking through some reference material I see that it's not opening until mid-January 2016 in my San Francisco area so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway [further, the 2015 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Dheepan {Jacques Audiard}, from France, hasn’t been announced for my local Pacific shores yet at all, so I’ll likely not have much exposure to whatever the upcoming Foreign Language Oscar contenders will be until after the awards have been given—a usual dilemma—making my annual predictions and preferences in that area even more of a crap-shoot than with other categories]).  All of this prior assumption on my part just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read from someone else (except me, of course!), or at least you can’t trust that your sensibilities will be completely in tune with someone else’s opinion (even when that someone else is a person you’ve read for quite some time and think you have a general understanding of when you’re likely to agree or not); final verdict in this case, though, I didn’t find all that much agreement with my effusive colleagues, although the various characters in The Wonders were interesting enough to keep watching in hopes that something more significant might arise from their actions and difficulties, while the scenery confirms that Tuscany and adjacent regions will always be worth traveling to again, when time and money might be right to do so.  

 I’ve seen a lot of glowing (even gushing) reviews for this film, which director Rohrwacher (in those same production notes that I have no way of linking you to; sorry) says contains some autobiographical material but mainly is about “small wonders made of light, shadow, animals, and childhood secrets [… yet] It is a film probably about failure. People do not change, do not improve. If they have no place at the beginning, they will not find it in the end. There are no good or bad people. There are only people more exposed and people that dig burrows. Often those who expose themselves fail. But they are able to feel tenderness toward themselves and happiness in the end.”  The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday probably gets closest to my feelings: Structurally, ‘The Wonders’ suffers from awkward bulges and sags, especially toward the end. Still, it’s a beautiful, richly imagined ride that doesn’t end as much as evaporate into a dreamlike puff of smoke,” although I’m more in league with “dreamlike” than “beautiful” or “richly imagined” but even those dreams come in small measures in Rohrwacher's film.  (Still, thanks to my friend Barry Caine for pointing me to this review, which finds its essence more concisely than I’ve been able to do here.)
Bottom Line 
Final Comments: 
However, I did learn quite a bit more about the daily operations of beekeepers than I'd known previously 
(I attended a screening of a rather-blasé-movie called Hard Country [David Greene, 1981; its one distinction for me is that it was co-written by Michael Martin Murphy, a very talented Texas singer-songwriter {probably best known for “Wildfire,” from his 1975 Blue Sky—Night Thunder album}] with, among others, the brother of the late, great film critic for the Dallas Morning News, Philip Wuntch, where Philip’s brother [I’m embarrassed—nothing new there—that I can’t remember his name, but given that he’s not mentioned in Philip's obituary from earlier this year, I guess he might be deceased by now as well, so a sincere R.I.P. to them both] dryly noted that Hard Country had taught him everything he “needed to know about chain-link-fence”; the same holds true for me and beekeeping via The Wonders).  Beyond the bees, the Italian setting (which did inspire a wonderful dinner at the Berkeley restaurant, Lo Coco’s [not related to the film’s  ambiguous character, as well as there being no compensation to me for the plug—damn it!], after the screening I saw, a more robust meal than anything I recall from the film, as this family struggles to maintain their only source of income, pining far too much hope on winning the Countryside Wonders contest), and the general ambiguity of the family’s background and future options (which was a bit intriguing even though it left so many unanswered questions about what’s going on here, including the opening nighttime scene when men who appear to be soldiers come into the family home, shining flashlights around the family without waking up any of them [?] or the sudden appearance/disappearance of old-family-friend Adrian [Andre M. Hennicke]) I’ll just have to say that despite the imprimatur of the Cannes’ jury and almost all of the Tomato Tossers, I found The Wonders to a be a decent caprese salad at best, with no real main course to relish (although it does leave a lot of honey dripping everywhere if you’d prefer that on your bread rather than dunking it in a dish of oil).  Further, if you don’t speak Italian or reject reading subtitles (that part I didn’t mind) then this oddly-mysterious-film will have another strike against it although you may enjoy the early scene of Wolfgang sleeping on a cot outside in his underwear so that he can yell at dawn-roaming-hunters (about what I’m not sure, but it hardly matters because they pay him absolutely no mind anyway).

 Despite the few joyous moments presented (the family frolicking in the ocean prior to being shushed by the TV shoot, Gelso’s ambiguous night on the island with Martin followed by her return to her blanket-covered-family the next morning), I consistently encountered a general sense of gloom here, both in the difficult daily circumstances of the displaced beekeepers (whose plight reminded me just a little bit of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath [John Ford, 1940], except that this Italian brood couldn’t even ride their camel to a next unknown destination while our downtrodden Oakies at least had a truck that never completely gave out on them) and the sense of inevitable demise of local, independent farmers being pushed by their government to not only compete with each other for precious few resources but also being given tools such as the poison fertilizer that will just hasten their extinction, making way for wealthy-urbanite-takeover of the land.  In recognition of this ongoing somber mood of the film (including mine after viewing it), I’m going to offer as my chosen Musical Metaphor for The Wonders a thoughtful, subtly-bitter song written by Randy Newman (from his 1968 self-titled debut album), “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” at, sung by Judy Collins, a performance from the 1967 New Year’s Eve broadcast of the Smothers Brothers Show, chosen just because I’ve always been astounded by Judy’s angelic voice (so much so, here’s another one from her in 1990 at with harmony from talented-vocalist-in-his-own-right Graham Nash, but this song has been recorded by a lot of folks so if you search just the song title on YouTube you can find other versions by Norah Jones, Bette Midler [a couple of different ones, including from the Beaches movie {Gary Marshall, 1988}] Barbra Streisand, Peter Gabriel, Nina Simone, Neil Diamond, David Gray, and others, including several options from Newman himself).  Especially given The Wonders’ final shot, inside the now-empty-farmhouse with a curtain falling listlessly over an open doorway, the mood of this song seems to parallel the ongoing difficulties of our struggling family, especially in the verse “Broken windows and empty hallways A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray Human kindness is overflowing [like that bucket of spilled honey in the barn] And I think it’s going to rain today.”
                            The Good Dinosaur (Peter Sohn)
In Pixar’s latest animated feature we find an alternate Earth timeline where the asteroid impact that ultimately killed the dinosaurs never happened so they’ve evolved to speech, farming for the herbivores, and cattle-ranching for the carnivores, but in our primary family of Apatosaurs runt-of-the-litter Arlo has to overcome many challenges to tame his fears and truly become part of his family.
What Happens: 
Rain plays a part in Pixar’s latest animated feature, The Good Dinosaur, as well, especially when an over-abundance of it triggers a tragic flood, but we’ll get to that momentarily; first, we have to back up to the initial premise of 65 million years ago in a reimagining of how our world’s lifeforms might have evolved if that huge asteroid that slammed into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula had missed planet Earth completely, thereby not causing the climate-catastrophe/atmospheric-sun-block that resulted in non-tropical-temperatures which contributed greatly to the inevitable death of the cold-blooded-dinosaurs. (Or were they? Some new evidence is beginning to question that aspect of their existence, as being warm-blooded after all.  Whatever that situation may be, the “thunder lizards” did die off after that giant-rock-smashing-event from outer space, leading to the rise of global-dominating mammals, including us [too dominating where we’re concerned, it surely seems today].)  Therefore, without the asteroid collision, The Good Dinosaur’s narrative presents an existence where these giant beasts continued to survive—gaining speech ability along the way (English, of course)—with herbivores turning to farming to get through the winters (so some climate change must have been in the offing after all, even before our massive human intervention), carnivores turning to cattle (or buffalo, based on their appearance in this movie) ranching (or rustling, depending on the dino-species), and humans as minor, speechless foragers, with one little boy functioning as a rodent, gobbling up the corn stored in a silo by our protagonist family of Apatosaurs (related to and looking much like the more-familiar-Brontosaurs of my childhood memories).  

 We first meet our hard-working-farmers (at least they don’t have anyone trying to throw them off their land, as with the beekeepers in The Wonders), Pappa Henry (voice of Jeffrey Wright) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand), they’re waiting for 3 eggs to hatch; when they do we meet Buck (Ryan Teeple early on, Marcus Scribner as he’s older) and Libby (Maleah Padilla) as expected, but the larger egg contains the smallest baby, Arlo (Jack McGraw, but mostly Raymond Ochoa), who gets a bit larger but doesn’t outgrow his fears of just about everything, including the family chickens (note that no other animals have evolved what we know as speech, an odd turn of events but one that's conducive to this story's overall needs).

 One day while Henry’s out in the wilderness with Arlo a sudden storm arises which creates a problem for these large beasts trying to hustle back home on a rocky trail by a river; Poppa manages to help Arlo up a steep embankment but loses his own footing, falling into the now-ranging-waters to be carried to his death.  Later, Arlo again finds the little wild human boy (voiced by Jack Bright, although it’s all in grunts, shrieks, howls, etc.; he also scampers around on all-fours) in their corn silo so he angrily chases him into the woods (still trying to fulfill the task given to him by Poppa long ago to catch and kill this “rodent,” which he sees as ultimately being the cause of Henry’s death as they pursued this moocher into the woods after Arlo intentionally let him get away); this time, though, Arlo and the boy accidently fall into that same river, finding themselves carried far away from the family farm.  Once back on dry land, Arlo begins the long, unknown, uncomfortable journey back home, finally accepting the company of the lad he spontaneously names “Spot” after the kid brings him some food as well as helps chase away a snake-like-creature threatening Arlo.  They further bond through sign language in a touching scene that allows Arlo to express his sorrow over the loss of Poppa, just as Spot reveals that both of his parents are also gone. These travelers soon find themselves threatened by a deadly enemy, though, a gang of Pterodactyls (ringleader Thunderclap [Steve Zahn], with buddies Downpour [Mandy Freund] and Coldfront [Steve Clay Hunter] who boldly worship “the storm” [a frequent weather occurence during this tale] while wanting to make a meal of Spot).  As Arlo and Spot run away, sure to be caught by the fast-flying-reptiles, they’re suddenly saved by a couple of young Tyrannosaurs, Nash (A.J. Buckley) and Ramsey (Anna Paquin), children of grizzly old Butch (Sam Elliot), all of whom are cattle ranchers looking for their herd, stolen by a gang of rustler Velociraptors (including Earl, voiced by John Ratzenberger, the perennial Pixar auralist), led by tough-guy-Bubbha (Dave Boat).  With help from Arlo and Spot, all is set right so Butch helps lead the youngsters in the right direction toward home.

 The trouble’s not over, though; Thunderclap and his vicious company return, grabbing Spot while leaving Arlo tangled in a mess of vines.  At first he thinks he’s been miraculously rescued by Poppa Henry but realizes it’s just been a dream, then rises above his fears to save his new “pet,” even as the rescue’s interrupted by another flash flood that carries Arlo and Spot over a high waterfall which they survive to continue their journey.  However, just before getting back to his farm, Arlo sees a family of humans who also catch Spot’s attention.  He tries to ignore them in favor of Arlo, but the “good dinosaur” nudges him back to this own species after they share a final tender moment.  At last Arlo’s home, warmly welcomed by Momma and siblings, where he finally puts his footprint onto the corn silo, at last a full-fledged-member of the family.

So What? I’ve been a fan of Pixar’s animated movies ever since the original Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)—I love their shorts as well but haven’t seen or just don’t remember as clearly as many of those—so, despite a good number of mediocre reviews (along with uninspiring numbers from Rotten Tomatoes [76%] and Metacritic [66%]—a fairly normal span among their respective-survey-critics, with the latter often notably lower, all based on whose comments are included in each survey; more details on who said what about The Good Dinosaur in the links far below) I chose to see it, mostly to keep my mental inventory of Pixar product up-to-date (having seen all 15 of their previous features).  Even without reading reviews you could know just from show-business-news that something was wrong here, given that the original release date of November 27, 2013 was shifted first to May 30, 2014, then to November 25, 2015 as the honchos at Pixar kept announcing that story elements and character voices were being replaced, a clear indication that these creative geniuses (verified just this past summer with the celebrated-box-office-and-critical-success of Inside Out [Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen; review in our July 2, 2015 posting]) faced difficult-to-resolve-problems with The Good Dinosaur, which doesn’t hold together all that well—it constantly feels like a story straining to find a clear concept that can justify the various segments within it, although those individual sequences, especially the initial thawing of relations between Arlo and Spot as well as the cattle-rustling/trail-herd scenes, have a stronger sense of presence than the movie as a whole.  In searching for that elusive narrative spine, though, The Good Dinosaur clearly looks toward the sense of the universal hero’s journey written about so eloquently by mythology-scholar Joseph Campbell (beginning with The Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949]) as Arlo is called to action (lost far from home), endures major trials (from various other dinosaurs, as well as not knowing which way to go), eventually returning from his challenges (reunited with his family) showing a new sense of confidence and purpose.

 However, Arlo’s journey is often more like that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) than Hercules as his fears often hold him back, he constantly depends on others (especially Spot) to help him along, and his final liberation comes from a spontaneous reaction to save a close friend (just as Dorothy throws water on the Wicked Witch of the West when Scarecrow's threatened with fire, Arlo's aroused to save Spot via dream-inspiration from Poppa—if that aspect reminds you of Simba finally finding his mojo in The Lion King [Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff; 1994], well at least this Pixar story is just borrowing from their own amalgamation with Sugar-Daddy-Disney).  Both ... Oz and ... Dinosaur also conclude with a “There’s no place like home” message, intended to keep those adventures well-grounded within a return to the familiar.

 In working toward their story’s cohesion, the Pixar-brain-trust does offer the consistent theme of Arlo going through an inner growth that will eventually belie his runty-physical-nature (at least where dinosaurs are concerned; he’s still huge compared to whatever size Spot will grow into) throughout the various challenges that the 2 travelers encounter, just as there are lovely moments of celebration such as when Henry teaches Arlo how to energize the night by romping through a field to stir up a swarm of twinkling fireflies (a scene which Arlo repeats later with Spot), but I can’t help but feel that once the basic framework—(1) Arlo feels ashamed of his life at home (especially after Henry dies, attempting to finish the work of eradicating Spot that Arlo had botched through compassion for the little beast), (2) becomes lost far down the river from his place of safety, (3) then must journey back to his family to arrive with a new sense of purpose—was established the real problem became “How do we fill out the rest of our running time with interesting problems that Arlo must overcome?”  (Including accepting Spot as a companion rather than a reminder of Henry’s death, given the foundational decision of using the animal-human-relationship-reversal as a subtheme for this movie.)  In a way, this resembles the animation process itself where lead animators (on paper or with a computer) lay out the fundamental outlines of a character, then in-betweeners and finishers fill in the details, as well as provide the connecting-visual-steps necessary to move a character through the actions of a technology that requires 24 separate images a second (Or do they have to use 30 now that most everything on a cinema screen originates and is projected in video?), although we’re working in another sort of reversal as 5 different contributors are listed for the story concept of The Good Dinosaur (Sohn, Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann, Bob Peterson) while LeFauve is given the task of stitching together all that emerged during those many development years into a coherent script.  

 What emerges here isn’t a bad experience (there’s some good wit in it at times, a real sense of what it might be like for these dinosaurs to evolve into more complex personalities rather than just trampling over everything in their paths, plus the landscape images are extraordinary: conveying another existence entirely that merges—yet transcends—drawings, photography, and simply looking out onto actual vistas while being there yourself), it’s just missing some of the best Pixar magic from past successes, including one that was so triumphant just a few months ago with Inside Out (as if they’re saying, “We’ve already made our mark this year and probably can expect another Best Animated Feature Oscar, so let’s just bury this long-overdue dinosaur story during a busy holiday time so we can focus on the buildup for next summer’s [Finding Nemo {Andrew Stanton, 2003} follow-up] Finding Dory [Stanton, scheduled for June 17, 2016 release]).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: 
No matter what else anyone might think about The Good Dinosaur, the animation-rendering of the landscape backgrounds is astonishing in this movie; conversely, the rather-rubbery-old-school-cartoonish-appearance of the characters—especially the Apatosaurus family who are intentionally made to look like blow-up-dolls (“All the easier to market you with, my dear.”)—does make them stand out more distinctly against these exquisite backgrounds but provides a sort of incongruity between figure and ground that I don’t recall as being so noticeable in previous Pixar presentations where the characters seemed to be more organically connected to their environments; here, the Apatosaurs remind me too much of Dino, the anachronistic pet from the old TV Flintstones show (1960-66) while even the other dinosaur species, particularly T-Rex Butch, are drawn in a style that seems much more appropriate to the space they inhabit.  There’s enough dialogue and activity to command your attention so that this visual discrepancy (intentional as it may be, to highlight Arlo’s story-long-displacement from most everyone and everything around him) isn’t too much of a bother, but it does provide just one more reason to slightly pull you out of the total cognitive investment you’ve come to expect from a Pixar film, especially the ones that fully immerse you into either their emotionally-driven-concepts (WALL-E [Stanton, 2008], Up [Docter, Peterson, 2009], Toy Story 3 [Lee Unkrich, 2010]) or just their marvelous flow of slam-bang-action (Monsters, Inc., 2001 [Doctor, Unkrich, David Silverman], Finding Nemo, Inside Out [although this last one does plenty of the former as well]).  Some speculate that The Good Dinosaur will be Pixar’s first feature to not overwhelm its budget with hearty income (cost is listed at $200 million with worldwide gross currently at about $133 million after a couple of weeks in release; their all-time-best is Toy Story 3, where the same $200 million budget brought in about $1.063 billion worldwide), especially when promotional costs and income-splits with the theaters require it to actually pull in about $500 million to truly break even, but I guess the Disney conglomerate could use a tax write-off occasionally.

 Bottom line of these bottom lines is that I’m not saying that you (and your kids, if applicable) won’t enjoy seeing The Good Dinosaur (although you may have to deal with the dead-parent-trauma that haunts many animated features all the way back to the hunter’s killing of the precious faun’s mother in Bambi [David Hand as overall director, 1942], although we’re already in the realm of an unwanted stepchild protagonist in the movie that started it all for feature animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [Hand as overall supervisor as well, 1937]), it’s just that Pixar has set such a high standard for themselves that they really have to hustle to match their own track record, a hard thing to do at such an established level of success (just like Oakland, CA’s own basketball wonders, the Golden State Warriors, following up their 2014-15 NBA Championship with a record-setting-start this season of 23-0, closing in on the overall-streak-record of 33 in a row during a season—damn, I hope I haven’t jinxed them by mentioning this, although it’ll be posted before they have another opportunity to be brought back to Earth but I do hope they hit at least 34 straight wins before that happens).  There’s a lot to enjoy here, just not fully as much as you might have come to expect from these masters of animation (also housed in our increasingly-notable-East Bay [relative to San Francisco], with their headquarters in Emeryville, right between Oakland and Berkeley), whose reputation has risen to such heights in the last 20 years as to make it difficult for them to keep astonishing their audiences as effectively as they have with some of those great accomplishments noted above.

 For a Musical Metaphor to close us out on The Good Dinosaur I’m offering “Take the Long Way Home”) (from the 1979 Supertramp Breakfast in America album) at com/watch?v=HAjYoe63 MSA, performed in this video by writer/original vocalist Roger Hodgson, a co-founder of the group with Rick Davies, but the version here comes from a time after Hodgson went solo in 1983.  This song is more about a musician in a bad marriage hesitating to go back to it but speaks on a more general level about anyone making a decision about where, what, and who they want to be, in young Arlo’s case wanting to find the courage to face life’s obstacles which include braving natural disasters and predators in order to reunite with his family, as evidenced especially in the lyrics ““Does it feel that your life’s become a catastrophe Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy. When you look through the years and see what you could have been oh, what might have been, If you’d had more time.”  This reflects well on the movie’s theme of not wasting any more time feeling scared and inadequate but instead making the most of your life, however much may still be left to you, rather than being like the frightened Styracosaurus, Forrest Woodbush (voiced by director Sohn), who surrounds himself with pets that give him security (thus, his desire for Spot rather than ceding him to Arlo) because the terrors of the world have already become too much for him to bear.  Better to be like Butch (or, ultimately, Arlo), just facing whatever comes despite the inherent difficulties.
Short Takes
 As we move further into Awards Season I’ll try to note anything I find particularly interesting, such as when critics’ groups make their choices for Best Films of 2015.  Just for an example, the one I like most so far, Spotlight (Tom McCarthy; review in our November 19, 2015 posting) has been given that highest designation by the 
Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, D.C. 
organizations, while the British Independent Film Awards gave their top honor to Ex Machina (Alex Garland; review in our April 30, 2015 posting) and the National Board of Review chose Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller; review in our May 20, 2015 posting)—this one’s been getting a lot of love from critics’ groups so far but not me; I felt I was generous in giving it 3 stars out of 5, largely because of its command of technical elements.  I’ll leave the various acting, directing, scriptwriting, cinematography, and so on awards to your interest in reading the article-links cited above because it all gets to be too lengthy to tabulate, plus there are far too many contenders that I haven’t seen yet (such as Carol [Todd Haynes], which took Best Film from the New York Film Critics Circle)—as I don’t have access to that many preview screenings or DVD screeners from those still-to-be-released-films—for me to have any valid opinion on Best Actor, Best Actress, etc. at this point, but you might like to consult the Top 10 lists and various awards lists links just below for more of this type of info on an ongoing-basis.

 Further, whenever a reader contacts us with a request we try to address it so here’s one from Heather Aspinall, who’d like you to know about a new British short film she’s written and directed, Trapped Magic, about a “shy and unassuming teen who discovers a small, glass, magic witch’s bottle containing the ghost of a malicious 18th century witch […].”  You can view the trailer, a short clip, and more details of the production if you like; as usual, Two Guys in the Dark get no remuneration of any kind for anything associated with this project, but we do wish Heather well as she sets out upon the daunting festival circuit.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2015’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 28, 2016 we’re also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2015 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success, which you can monitor here*, and what wins the awards)but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

* You can find another take on that topic in this article, "Why Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season".

Here’s more information about The Wonders:

I couldn’t find much else in the video realm about The Wonders, but here a clip from the film at (the beekeeper family comes up a TV crew in the wilderness shooting a promo for the Countryside Wonders contest)

Here’s more information about The Good Dinosaur: (8:25 video on the so-called Pixar Theory that all of the Pixar movies fit into one time-line-continuity—which means that the sentient, talking dinosaurs here will still be killed off in the future by catastrophic weather patterns of damaging storms that will open up the opportunities for humans to further evolve, eventually leading to all of the other Pixar stories)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. It's interesting that Last Tango in Paris was highlighted this week. I remember seeing it with a girlfriend at the Village Theater in Houston, probably in 1973. I am not sure that it helped that relationship at all, but at least I fared better than Brando's character in the end.

    For younger readers, the film generated massive controversy and negative press at a time when the country was done with Vietnam and Nixon had not yet resigned. Last Tango was literally banned in some countries and was heavily censored in others, including some cuts for the US market. Both of the lead actors later claimed they were degraded by the production. The fact that we could see it at all in Texas was amazing in retrospect. Wikipedia has a decent overview of the film and associated issues here.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the comments on Last Tango in Paris; I saw it with my then-wife when we lived in Queens, NYC. That relationship didn't work out too well either, but I'll put that more on our eroding lack of chemistry than anything this film may have contributed. I appreciate the comments and the link. Ken