Inside Out (2015)

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Pixar’s films were always deeply psychological. Toy Story wasn’t just a film about funny toys coming to life. It featured a mental breakdown. The main message behind it was that we can’t be anything. We have to understand our limitations and make the best of them.

Inside Out is the most overt psychological film yet. The main setting is, after all, the inside of a girl’s head. It’s also their most metaphorical film to date. Nothing about the film is meant to be taken literally, not even the life of Riley. There is clear meaning behind everything happening outside her head. It’s that meaning that makes this film a success.

I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this film unless they’re past high school age. The fact that Riley is frustrated with the moving isn’t the point. The meaning of moving to a new environment is an extension of the new environments we encounter when we grow up.

Growing up is receiving blows to our core worldview. High school, a new job or a new town makes us question who we are. We’re forced into a new environment and have to make sense of ourselves over again. Riley moving away is paralell to any other radical change in your life.

The same goes for her running away. She’s not running away but she’s running back. She’s trapped in nostalgia. It’s reminiscing over old memories taken to the extreme. Since so far she only knew how to be happy, she thinks that simply going back to the old place means going back to happiness.

Happiness isn’t enough for deep thought, however. It’s often when we’re depressed that we ask questions. It’s when we’re depressed, seeing problems that we actually search for solutions. Sadness also makes us see reality for what it is. When Sadness (the character) colors the core memories with that emotion, it’s the realization that it’s over. You can’t go back.

The original meaning of ‘nostalgia’ is a form of homesickness. The term was coined to describe how Swiss soldiers felt, missing their land. I first felt this fully in the military when I was away from home. Looking back, I noticed how nothing will be the same. I was still with the same people, but how we are now is vastly different from the past. Growing up is having a whole chunk of past to look behind to and feeling sadness over the fact these happy moments ended. That’s why Sadness colors these memories.

Growing up also means seeing the various colors of life. In truth, no moment of our life has a single emotion. Entering a romantic relationship, you’re happy that she said yes and fearful she’ll break it tomorrow. Some people said of their loved ones’ suicide that they’re at least happy their pain has ended.

Inside Out doesn’t recall Toy Story just because of the artificial details (both films feature two characters who are opposites, on a journey of return). The main message behind it is that we should embrace our emotional comlexity. It’s anti-‘Be positive’. It’s amazing how a film with bright colors and cute characters can have such sentiments. It goes to show you that no matter how many gangsters, witty lines and suits you have in your film it doesn’t equal depth.

At this point, talking about the technical details of Pixar’s films is boring. They know their formula. The good old journey of return is back. Since it works, since they have enough visual ideas and depth to make it feel new again it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s the content, rather than the form that’s harder to get right. So if following this pattern means Pixar can focus on the themes and ideas I don’t mind.

There is a small alteration to the formula. Pixar tends to push their journies to the extreme. It’s amazing how always, no matter how hard they push the characters the solutions make sense. This time they’re more restrained. Althugh they had an oppurtunity to roll the snowball more and make it bigger, they didn’t. They stopped it just in time. The grand moment of realization is also more subdued this time. That’s a good thing. Pixar are always one step away from becoming manipulative and after the brilliant behemoth that is Toy Story 3, it’s good to see them more restrained. Success can get you drunk.

Inside Out is as brilliant as people say it is. Of course it’s beautifully animated and cleverly written. What makes it unique and what makes it another classic by Pixar is the deep psychology, the complex emotions and how maturely they treat their material. At this point, it’s ridiculous to call these films for children. Sure, Pixar never has any violent or sexual content but they can say so much without it. They make it seem so simple.

4.5 voices in your head out of 5

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Kemono no Souja Erin (Beast Trainer Erin)

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It’s a curious thing. Good stories tend to come when the creators know their limits and strengths. You cover up your weaknesses and emphasizes your strengths. Some stories know their weak point and still find a way to get around them. Erin is an anime that’s often focused on its weak parts, yet aside from a weak patch in the middle it’s fantastic.

The strength and weakness is in Erin herself. She’s not a psychological portrait but a mythic one. The whole story is, in fact, more mythic than psychological. Characters aren’t complex or odd, but have very specific role they fill.

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It can sound limiting, but it’s not. Giving your characters a certain role gives you focus. Since the series never pretends to be a deep psychological examination of these roles, they manage to breathe life into them in other ways. Sometimes, two characters have the same role but act on it differently. Jone and Esal are two very different kind of teachers.

These aren’t roles that limit characters. They are never moral ones, of villains and heroes. They give them agency and define who they are. The story is often more than about Erin. There are many episodes in which she barely appears. Other characters star them and their viewpoint is explored.

Excluding one power-hungry villain that only reveals himself in the end, Erin is a series full of shades of grey. Almost any character that is introduced as villainous is immidiately revealed have a logical viewpoint. Even when their intentions still side against Erin, the anime expects us to understand them. This goes further than grey morality. Erin is clearly a moral hero, yet we’re expected to understand her enemies.

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As for Erin, she’s a great example of how a moral hero should be. She’s not defined by her morality. Her moral behavior comes from somewhere, specifically her fascination with nature which her mother gave her.

This is also where the series, despite not being psychological manages to accurately display what growing up is. Like any good story for children, it deals with the themes of childhood. Erin has the natural curiosity of a child. The difference between her and others is that her mother encourages it. As Erin grows up and meets more mentors, they keep on encouraging it rather than discouraging for some bizarre reasons that create the contemporary education system.

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When Erin starts to display extraordinary abilities, it’s not a case of Mary Sue-ness. Erin is a moral hero who represents curiosity, and curiosity naturally leads us to develop our skills. Curiosity is also what what makes us reach towards others and understand them.

That’s its answer to the main conflict. The show doesn’t have a central theme but it builds towards an epic climax that’s expressive, rather than a placeholder. The central conflict between the two populations is simple. It doesn’t rival the complexity of real life conflicts and it doesn’t have to.

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Political ‘intrigue’ is often a crutch authors rely on, killing characters off to surprise (Game of Thrones still suck). The root of many conflicts is in disagreements, and violence is what we use when we don’t try or think we can reach out to the other side.

As the best episode displays, it’s easy to love one another when you agree with that person. It’s harder to still love them they take a separate path from yours. The episode that chronicles this divide between two brothers is easily the best one of the show.

While the lack of a central theme and psychological exploration don’t harm the series, they do take its toll on the middle part. It’s almost neglectful of a traumatic experience and the pace grinds into a halt.

It doesn’t replicate the serenity of Mushishi. The view of the natural world is different. Rather, the show gets stuck, recycling the same ideas (Erin’s curiosity) and adding characters who only become fleshed out later on. There are worthwhile moments there, but about 8 episodes could have been cut.

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There’s also the odd technique of repeated flashbacks. While some are well-placed, showing them over and over first makes them lose their impact. Then it comes off as lazy and just trying to kill time. The big traumatic event’s repetition is especially bad. Since the series isn’t psychological, the flashbacks don’t make sense and they just make it lose its impact. That said, when they do return in the last arcs of the series they retain their impact.

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The series also teases too much in these episodes about characters who become fleshed out later. Since the series is static during that section, it’s not a slow build-up. Rather, the series feels shy at throwing itself at something greater. What’s weird is that anytime it does become ambitious are fantastic. Nearly every dramatic moment is powerful regardless of Erin’s age. The line “Don’t harm these people with the same hands that can play such a beautiful song” is more profound than any time with realistic design and adult characters wearing suits.

The art style is excellent and beautiful. It’s ‘childish’, but in a good way. There is a simplicity and elegance to it like a children’s drawing. The backgrounds are where the series does it best. They often have a sketchy look to them, relying more on basic shapes and colors to create an atmosphere. It’s not chaotic, though. The sketchiness creates a bare background which fits with the sombre atmosphere. When the series gets dark, it stands in contrast.

 

Erin doesn’t justify its length. It lags in the middle and has too many repeating flashbacks. The varied cast also don’t the development they clearly can. While these flaws can make it tedious at times, the improvement at the second half saves it. From then on, as an example of how deep and emotionally engrossing children’s stories can be it’s perfect. It may focus on a single heroine, but it’s a world of shades of grey, with only one truly villainous character who has a purpose anyway. It fell off the radar because it’s not immediate, but it’s worth pushing through its weak parts. At its best, it’s almost the best anime ever.

4 lizards out of 5

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

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A film that’s such an event can’t be this unremarkable. The seventh episode of Star Wars was supposed to be either a rejuvination or a complete disaster. It either proves the franchise has another lifetime in it or destroy its Death Star for good. For all the references, new faces, re-hashed concepts it’s just okay.

The most interesting about it is how it updates the series to 21st century worldviews. Aside from Kylo Ren, who’s a more flawed and humane villain the update does mostly damage. In fact, the movie doesn’t stay true to the spirit of the old films at all.

Millenium Falcon, cute droids and Cloak-and-Mask villains are props. They are not the spirit of the series. The original series was a pulp adventure. It was silly, overblown and never meant to be serious. Everything in it was insane, but it was never cruel.

When the Death Star destroyed planets, all we saw was the explosion. The camera didn’t linger on the suffering because it didn’t matter. Darkness was not important. It was only important to establish that the Empire is so evil they’ll destroy planets for the fuck of it because they’re evil.

This cartoonish approach doesn’t mean you can have emotionally effective or shocking moments. It’s because of the contrast that Vader’s cruelty was frightening. He was a heartless leader backed by an Army of Nonsense. That madness imbued characters with humanity and made Luke a generic moral hero with charisma.

It takes about half an hour until something light-hearted comes in. The opening scene has the massacre of a village which is depressing in its cruelty. It’s a scene more at home for a film about the horrors of war. The presentation doesn’t add any depth but just removes joy.

Compare Jakku to Tatooine. Tatooine was an insane planet. Everyone was weird. Jabba was menacing partly because everything around him was so bizarre. We had aliens with oversized heads playing music and walking cloaks who collected droids.

Jakku is a gloomy post-apocalyptic landscape where nothing happens. Everyone struggles to get by. Life is harsh and that’s it. There are no odd moments, moments of madness and absurdity. Rei is a scavenger who has a hard time making ends meet and the guy shells stuff to is just an unpleasant asshole.

There are enough Fallout games to draw inspiration from to make a convincing Post-Apoc landscape. There’s no reason to settle for this boring gloom. Junktown or Megaton are more lively and realistic places than Jakku.

It’s not that the film fails to capture the magic of the previous chapters. It doesn’t even try. Gone is the wide-eyed approach. Instead, it’s replaced with more serious grimdarkness. Perhaps they know their target audience, which are fanboys who take the films as serious mythologies rather than great adventures.

Rey is also more of a joke than a character. She walks around looking tough and screams at Finn to stop holding her hand. This is a not-so-subtle way to tell you it’s feminist and doesn’t put women into traditional gender roles. It just puts them in new roles, but Rey is just as one-dimensional if she were a damsel in distress.

The makers forgot. Furiosa was a boring character whose purpose was to hold a shotgun. It was Max’s shaking and paranoia that made him real and charismatic.

Finn is much better, and alongside Kylo he provides some grey morality that was missing from the original trilogy.

In most stories, the heroes struggle against a powerful villain. No matter what ideas the character holds, it boils down to who’s a better swordfighter. Kylo Ren isn’t a powerful villain. He simply desires power. He’s not just similar to Darth Vader to evoke nostalgia. He wants to be him and Vader is a shadow that looms over him and affects him.

Kylo is dangerous because of his personality. He’s not in control but impulsive. It’s actually that impulsiveness, that desire for power that makes him so weak. As an expansion of the Dark Side, it’s brilliant. He’s also aesthetically fun. His mask and voice are different enough than Vader, but similar enough to make him a worthy successor.

As for BB-8 who is going to be the mascot of the new trilogy, he’s more needed than it looks. The original droids were brilliant, but BB-8 injects a sense of fun that’s missing from the film.

In many scenes, he’s the only relic of Star Wars’ energy and silliness. He’s a great addition to the droid trio. He’s not a copycat of R2D2 even though he’s another attempt at taking an inanimate object and making him cute. He has a childish, jumpy personality that makes him different than C-3PO’s nervousness or R2D2’s heroism. R2D2 is perhaps Star Wars’ weirdest achievement, creating a vivid character out of a machine. BB-8 is a great successor, but hopefully we’ll see the two interact.

The story itself re-hashes A New Hope, sometimes too much. Some ideas are turned on their heads in an amusing way that expands upon them. They failed in replicating the Death Star’s menace. It’s transformed into a huge gun that’s a hole in a planet.

The first Death Star was menacing because it nonsenscial (why’d you go out of your day to wreck a whole planet?) but symbolizing ultimate destruction. The second was frightening because of its wrecked look, which shows how it leaves other planets. The 3rd one is bigger, but that’s it. There’s no unique features to it and we don’t even a cool shoot that makes us admire it.

Speaking of visuals, the old style isn’t back. The effects are technically better, but they visual ideas aren’t as interesting. I kept looking for some background detail that will catch my eye, a random alien or a ship. The best shots are those that show old Empire vehicles wrecked.

All the details don’t necessarily make for great visual details. Now we can film in darkness, but darkness still obscures the view. That’s the problem with working without limits. With nothing to limit you, you have no obstacles to overcome. You can throw everything in and you don’t think of ways to make it catch the eye.

It’s a good film. It’s not the disaster it should’ve been and it often points that there’s still life to this. It can move the franchise towards a more psychological and morally grey area, but it also points to a worse angle. Grimdarkness and Hollywood Feminism also have a strong presence, suffocating creativity for the sake of looking cool. It’s just a stepping stone. The sequels will tell us more whether this was a good idea.

3 Death Stars out of 5