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Movie: Inside Out (2015)
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****
Notes: Pixar's latest foray beyond their comfort level, hand-in-hand with the heavy influence of Disney, takes them inside the mind of a young girl, Riley, whose developing, personified emotions act out the trauma of relocation to a new city. Riley's mind and the adventures therein are the real stars of the film, inventive and whimsical, like a cross between a videogame, an amusement park, and a kinetic sculpture - all par for the course considering the source. Running amok amidst the playland are an ensemble cast of emotions - old people like myself will immediately recall the four-season show "Herman's Head" from the early 90's - featuring comedian and character-actor voices from across the spectrum, but leeching heavily from "The Office". The actual story of Riley, however, is abjectly derivative and heavy-handed on parenting themes. But anything by Pixar can freshen up even the most rote nursery rhymes, so the CG (as good as ever), schmaltz, and manipulation are laid on thick. It's clever and humorous, but too frantic and lacking in memorable scenes or lines, similar to the director's prior Pixar entries, shooting for emotional over entertainment. I can't help but feeling that this could've been done just as well, if not better, with a live-action/CG mix, as the outside of Riley's head is mundane. The film lands around the middle of the Pixar pantheon, which is still several steps beyond most other animated fare.

Movie: Stranger By The Lake (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: Urgh, French cinema... In this very brave but excruciatingly dull "thriller," a gay man cruising at a secluded nude beach becomes conflicted when he witnesses the object of his desire commit a murder. The entire film takes place at and around the lake area, and the two main characters, as well as many other actors, spend 90% of the film completely nude. If this isn't experimental enough, it also features numerous graphic scenes including masturbation, fellatio, ejaculation, and would have also featured penetration if the actors' body doubles had not refused to film without condoms. If these weren't professional actors and if the primary subplot had been any less obvious, this would be a borderline hardcore gay porn. For arthouse lovers, you may get past that to see it as true cinema, but as with most French fare, the main story consists of unnecessarily long shots of walking, swimming, sitting in silence, greetings, pauses, and slow dialogue that will send you to sleep mid-film. It starts out with mildly interesting conversations and ends with graphic violence (followed by a whimper of an epilogue), but the rest is either sex or trudge.

Movie: God Loves Uganda (2013)
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****
Notes: Uganda passed a law in 2014 criminalizing homosexual conduct, threatening life imprisonment and even the death penalty for repeat offenses. This documentary attempts to demonstrate that the seeds for this legal prohibition were planted in part by American Christian missionaries, implanting religious fears, values, and prejudices on a vulnerable and uneducated population. It focuses on an organization called IHOP (International House Of Prayer), a large organization of megachurches which train and send young Americans to educate and, in the process, indoctrinate both adults and children to Christianity. There is plenty of evidence of the missionary work via video footage of it being performed. Of the activities targeting homosexuals, the documentation is less direct, focusing on other individuals who have spoken before the Ugandan government and campaigned via different methods. The only interviewed subjects advocating this view are two liberal Ugandan religious figures, a surprisingly slim slate of talking heads. The latter half of the film covers much of the same territory as "Call Me Kuchu," another doc focusing on repression of gays, including what appears to be some of the same footage, interviews, and interview subjects from that film. "God Loves Uganda" could have used more direct evidence and speakers to buoy its cause, but there's enough proof from numerous other media that show this work is not fiction.

Movie: Grand Piano (2013)
Rating: **** out of *****
Notes: A small, little known, but entertaining small feature, "Grand Piano" relates the trials of a great orchestral piano player returning to the stage after a disastrous meltdown five years ago, only to find himself targeted by an assassin hidden amongst the audience who will kill him or his loved ones if he misses a single note of a notoriously difficult piece. Starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack, the small scale, pacing, looney score, and madcap script are strongly reminiscent of the more Hitchcock-ian "Tales From The Crypt episodes. In fact, if you subtract the 12-minute credits, the entire film only clocks out at under 80 minutes. The tone is reinforced by the casting of an aged Alex Winter (Bill from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure) in a supporting role. Arguably dark humored, depending on your tastes, it's a giddy thriller but not particularly scary and not at all bloody. But the undeniable ridiculousness of the situation and the cartoonishness with which it's played out make for a zany and desperate mystery the likes of which haven't been on screen in some time. A little treat for when you need something short and sweet, but satisfying.

Next: Patrick: Evil Awakens, Journey To The West, Cheap Thrills

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