Friday, June 26, 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear

This review originally appeared on

Mark Ruffalo stars as Cam, the bi-polar father of two young girls in 1970's Boston, who must take on full-time fathering when his wife, Maggie, (Zoe Saldana), goes back to school to earn a business degree.

The story is a fictionalized version of director Maya Forbes's actual childhood, and her real-life daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, plays a fictionalized version of herself (she's named Amelia in the movie). Both she and Ashley Aufderheide, who plays younger sister Faith, give amazing performances in the film, complete with some really expert comic timing. Their frequent outbursts of embarrassment over their father's actions lighten some moments that would otherwise come across as upsetting. After all, Cam does some really dangerous and irresponsible things while parenting those kids — like leaving them alone at night because he's fed up, and wants to go out drinking. Or driving them around in a car that doesn't have a solid floor.

Cam's illness isn't played entirely for laughs. Mom Maggie knows too well what the manic episodes can wreak. But she also knows that the sight of a drugged up Cam is much more traumatizing to the girls than a Cam that's only occasionally manic. Of course, that's a difficult balance to master when you don't take your medication consistently, which tends to be the case with Cam. So, while the movie attempts its own balance between comedy and drama, it doesn't always succeed, and sometimes — even knowing those kids actually turned out fine — I couldn't help but be distracted by the constant feeling that something could go terribly wrong at any moment.

The Day Cynicism Took A Holiday: Batkid Begins

This review originally appeared on

I had barely dried the tears from my face after seeing Inside Out when I had to go to a screening of the documentary Batkid Begins, and just as I feared, I was overcome by another bout of quiet sobbing. Of course this didn't come as a surprise; I was crying at my desk that November day in 2013, when it seemed like everyone in San Francisco was either in the streets, or glued to social media and local TV stations, watching a little kid in a Batman suit save the city from fictional crime, and real life cynicism.

I'm not sure how the documentary got started, as it is clear from the outset that no one knew the day was going to be as huge as it turned out to be. It's likely that as Miles' wish began to take shape, those at Make-a-Wish saw there was something to be gained from documenting the process, perhaps just to use as a short film that could then be shown to and shared with those within the organization. This foresight results in some great behind-the-scenes moments, interviews with some of the key players, and reactions from the Batkid (and Batman) as they day played out. (They were miked the whole time.)

But no superhero tale would be complete without an origin story, and young Miles Scott's is told via some comic book style animation at the film's start. We learn about his life in the small northern California town of Tulelake, how his parents were childhood sweethearts, and how, at only 18 months old, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and underwent almost three years of treatment.

Since Miles's biggest love was dressing up and superheroes — and dressing up as superheroes — it made sense that when given the chance to live a wish, he chose being Batman, and it was up to Bay Area Make-a-Wish chapter CEO Patricia Wilson to make it happen.

Granted, that part of the movie is not the most enthralling — watching someone co-ordinate an event, gather volunteers, and make phone calls is seldom riveting, but it does give Wilson her due — she turned a vague wish into something concrete, and that idea turned into something huge, with the involvement of 25,000 people within San Francisco.

We also meet some of the other players, including Eric Johnston, the inventor, engineer, and circus school teacher (!) who played Batman, Mike Jutan, the ILM engineer who played the Penguin, and some of the social media professionals who helped turn the day into something huge. (SFist's coverage also gets some love.)

I was most impressed with Johnston, and the effort he put into making the day extra special. For instance, he created a small projector that he could attach to his wrist, so he could project the "commissioner's" messages to Batkid on the ceiling or wall, instead of having Miles look at a boring iPhone screen. He also trained Miles — and a slew of other superheroes — the day before the event, and that scene is one of the movie's highlights.

It's also great seeing the before Miles, who is, indeed, a pretty shy and reserved kid — a kid who answers the question, "Did this all turn out the way you thought it would?" with "Yes" — and seeing how, when he finally puts on that Batman suit, he suddenly turns into a tiny John Wayne, strutting through the streets of San Francisco, ready to kick some butt.

Seeing how the day progresses, not without its fair share of hitches, including severe time delays, WAY bigger crowds than were originally expected, Lou Seal having to take an Uber to the kidnapping spot, and a Batkid who almost throws in the towel in favor of a nap after lunch — he's a five-year-old! — made me doubly appreciate just how well it really did turn out. The odds were against it.

And while the movie does suffer a bit from some self-congratulation — I didn't really need to learn how a PR company put together a social media action plan for the day, or how that guy from Twitter accomplished a life goal by having the President re-tweet him — I prefer to view it with the tearful eyes I had on November 15th, 2013...

...and save the cynicism for Julia Robert's planned movie version.

Friday, June 19, 2015

An Extraordinary Thing: Inside Out

This review originally appeared on

It's basically a given that if the movie comes from Pixar, I'm going to be crying at some point. Maybe within the first 10 minutes (Up); or closer to the end (Toy Story 3); or even after it's over (Cars 2, because I just realized I'd lost 90 minutes of my life I'd never get back). Pixar has emotional storytelling down to such a science that Inside Out can be read as a movie about what it's like to experience a Pixar movie: how memories can have a tremendous effect on how you react to life events — and art; how happiness can relate so closely to sadness that they're often inseparable; and how one of the best feelings in the world can be laughing while there are still sad tears on your cheeks.

Inside Out centers on 11-year-old Riley, who has moved from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents so her father can start a new job. Leaving the home she loves, her friends, her school, her favorite sport, hockey — and facing a new city, a run-down house, (that probably cost her parents their entire savings), a school full of strangers, and pizza covered in BROCCOLI (the food she hates above all others), is tough for Riley. But she does the best she can to keep her emotions in check... at first.

Riley's Emotions are literal characters that live in her head, or, headquarters, if you will. They make sure Riley's emotional life is steady, and filled with appropriate moments of Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy. Most of Riley's young life has been filled with happiness, so it makes sense that sparkly blue-haired Joy is the the de facto leader of the group. (Also, she's got more than enough energy to take on the job.) But suddenly blue Sadness, who had previously not had much of a purpose, is doing things that are having a seemingly negative impact on Riley. And soon, Joy and Sadness must venture into the heretofore unexplored realms of Riley's mind to save Riley from what they fear may be an irrevocable loss of happiness.

The world of Riley's mind is like a slightly askew, dreamed up version of Disneyland, and how it all works is best to discover yourselves, with its literal "Train of Thought," "Islands of Identity" and lands devoted to abstract thought, daydreams, and nightmares. Joy and Sadness's adventures through this virtual id are colorful, exciting, and very, very funny. You'll find out why you can't remember that phone number, but can sing the words to that stupid commercial jingle at the drop of the hat. You'll see how your nightmares are really formed. And you'll learn that your childhood imaginary friends might still be running around up there, waiting for you to want to play again. (Riley's is named Bing Bong, and he's voiced by the hilarious Richard Kind.)

All of the emotions are cast perfectly. Of course Lewis Black makes an ideal red-faced Anger. Bill Hader's Fear is like Bill Nye the Science Guy if he were literally afraid of everything. Mindy Kaling's valley girl voice has finally found the perfect home in her green-haired Disgust. And Amy Poehler's Joy is basically the animated equivalent of her Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope, filled with boundless optimism and never-quit spunk.

But it's Phyllis Smith, who is probably best known for playing Phyllis on The Office, who is the biggest revelation. Personifying sadness could easily lead to some, well, depressing cliches, and a character you'd never want to spend any time with. But Smith's bulky sweater-clad, bespectacled Sadness, who is always a little slow, and a tad quiet, but also very smart, is completely endearing, and the film's highlight.

If this were a simpler animated movie, then there would be a clear villain the Emotions have to conquer in order to save Riley from permanent sadness. But part of what makes Inside Out so great is that what the Emotions are trying to save Riley from — Sadness — is one of them. And a very important one of them at that. It's not for nothing that both Joy and Sadness are the only Emotions with a matching hair color...

Much of Inside Out will probably go over the heads of younger viewers, but there's plenty of action, color, and laughs to keep them entertained, so, go ahead. Bring those kids of yours. Especially those girls! Because one of the film's biggest accomplishments is finally giving us an animated movie, centered on a girl, that isn't in any way about princesses, or quests, or being "special." This is a story about, very simply, one girl's happiness. And it turns out, that can be an extraordinary thing.