There was a time when every Pixar release was a chance for nasty old critics to show they had hearts and that the problem was that movies had lost theirs.
Unless they were Pixar movies. A pure-hearted love of humanity oozed out of each, and unlike other animation studios, the studio always took the high road, relying on craft in story-telling and visuals instead of gags. Reviewers went into raptures.
Then the high point that was Toy Story 3 (2010) would be followed by Cars 2 (2011) and Monsters University (2013). The latter two showed that Pixar could make movies that were less than perfect, even a little bit cynical. Between them was Brave (2012), a fairly good but forgettable effort.
It seems some soul-searching has gone on inside the company. Instead of cranking out a picture a year as they used to do, Inside Out(PG, 102 minutes, opens tomorrow/4 stars) has emerged after a two-year absence from the market.
And it has been worth the wait. Pixar has gone back to what it does best: Making characters you care about and want to stay with, who feel and act the way real people do.
Inside our heads, there are five principal emotions, personified here as Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Joy (Amy Poehler).
Joy, by running the controls and keeping everyone else under check, becomes the de facto boss inside the head of young girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). A happy Riley is a well-adjusted Riley and her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) are pleased with her.
After her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco for her father's business, Riley's mind is thrown into a tumult. Control slips from Joy's hands.
Sadness, for some reason, asserts herself and Riley's long-term memories, which are mostly happy, might become sad ones if Joy cannot regain control.
This sort of personification, of making the abstract either concrete or literal, goes on constantly - categories of life, such as sports and family, are floating islands and there is an actual tail-riding Train of Thought moving between them.
Each new example is unveiled as a little throw away joke for adults who enjoy the wordplay.
For everyone else, it is just fun to look at. Riley's mind is, and perhaps this is no coincidence given the movie's Disney pedigree, a theme park, complete with its scarier places.
And like the best Pixar works, this one will have its hanky-dabbing moments, when the Sadness sprite in your head will have its way, whether you like it or not. The first drops are likely to dampen one's cheeks during the opening featurette, Lava, a Polynesian musical about a lonely volcano dreaming of a volcano-ette.
It is a dead simple concept, executed with tenderness and attention to artistic detail - almost every frame contains a visual surprise.
Detail is exactly what too many biopics skimp on but the moving and frank Amy (NC16/128 minutes/ opens tomorrow/4.5 stars) covers the chain of bad decisions leading to singer Amy Winehouse's death by drug overdose in 2011 at age 27.
Director Asif Kapadia (the Bafta-winning biopic of race driver Senna, 2010) had the sort of access every journalist dreams about - videos and pictures from childhood friends, interviews with close relatives and colleagues - and uses it to paint a picture of a troubled person for whom success failed to fill a hole in herself and who, just before her death, became a punchline for comedians.
Along the way, there are glimpses of how prodigious her musical gift was, starting from her teen years.
Kapadia shows that she was not just another female singer, an interpreter of other people's songs, but an active shaper of songs as well.
Kapadia's gift for getting inside the milieus of his subjects is in top form here, as it was in Senna. He uncovers the pop industry's promotional machine, its handling of artists with emotional problems, how family relations can be both an anchor and a dead weight.
There are no searing indictments, but blame for her death is placed squarely on a few shoulders, and not ones that come immediately to mind if you have been following the tabloids.
There is plenty of death and chaos in No Escape(NC16/ opens tomorrow/1 star). An American expatriate, Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) has a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad day in an unnamed South-east Asian country when rebels overthrow the government and begin shooting foreigners on sight. He and wife Annie (Lake Bell) must find a way out of this non-English speaking hellhole before harm comes to them or their two children.
Co-written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, the person behind recent low-quality horror works Quarantine (2008), Devil (2010) and As Above, So Below (2014), this features scares not from demons but from beings just as nasty and implacable: foreigners.
It becomes clear why the country is unnamed - this is as unflattering a portrait of a nation as you can get. The rumpled long-term visitor Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) calls its women "eager to please" and its men are shown to be either submissive servants or psychotic killers.
Intended to be a rip-off of the Liam Neeson vehicle Taken but featuring a younger, cuter family, this work manages to dehumanise an entire region while providing little entertainment value.
This article was first published on Aug 26, 2015.
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