Tag Archives: 2019

Toy Story 4

The toys are back in town one last time for Toy Story 4, a superfluous but satisfying sequel to the seemingly conclusive Toy Story 3 from 9 years ago. As someone who wasn’t quite as taken with that third entry as others seemed to be, I was relatively open to another Toy Story adventure while still acknowledging that this could just be another excuse for Pixar to return to their cash cow once more. While this latest film does reincorporate many of the themes from the previous entries, it mines enough fresh ideas from its collection of new characters to make it a worthwhile addition to the series.

We pick back up with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of the gang, who are all now possessed by a kindergartner named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). On her first day at school, she unknowingly gives life to a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale) while merging a spork with pipe cleaners at craft time. When Bonnie and her family hit the road for family vacation, we’re introduced to new toys like the daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the pullstring doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) while being reintroduced to Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

Opening with an exceptionally well-animated flashback that fills us in on Ms. Peep’s whereabouts, the film gets off to a bit of a slow start until Forky makes his first appearance. His character, a dilapidated creation who considers himself more trash than toy, is easily the most conceptually inspired and comedically gratifying of the entire film. The existential dilemma that drives the forlorn utensil to catapult himself into the waste basket time and time again is darkly humorous while adding some unexpected philosophical weight to boot. Although the context is different, Woody’s mission in this film mirrors that of the first Toy Story: convincing a toy that they’re actually a toy.

Once the family packs up the RV and heads out of town, most of the action takes place inside the Second Chance Antiques shop, where Gabby Gabby resides with her creepy ventriloquist dummy henchmen. The chase sequences that take place in the store are nothing new to this series but the setting, filled with cobweb-drenched corridors pierced by smatterings of sunlight, is stunningly detailed and hauntingly beautiful in a completely original manner. A brief moment between Bo Peep and Woody as they behold the light from a chandelier display features a caliber of animation that Pixar only could have dreamed of when Toy Story first premiered 24 years ago.

While this is the best-looking chapter in the franchise, I would consider it the funniest as well, thanks to a clever script from Stephany Folsom and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton. It’s also no surprise given that comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele lend their voices this time around. A scene in which their two plush toy characters talk through a series of extraordinarily amateurish plans to obtain a door key might be one of the funniest gags I’ve seen all year. Toy Story 4 may be one trip to the toy chest too many for some but those who are open to another glimpse of this pint-sized world will be rewarded for their curiosity.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Annabelle Comes Home, starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, is another entry in the Conjuring series and third film about the titular creepy doll who returns to wreak havoc on a new family.
Yesterday, starring Himesh Patel and Lily James, centers around a young musician who wakes up from an accident and finds that the rest of the world is unaware of The Beatles’ existence.
The Dead Don’t Die, starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver, brings together an all-star cast for a horror comedy about a small town that becomes the target of a zombie invasion.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #33 – Toy Story 4

I’m joined again by my friend Kate as we wax nostalgic for Toy Story 4, the latest sequel from animation juggernaut Pixar. Then we talk over some things we’ve been watching at home, including the Netflix miniseries Tales of the City and the HBO series Barry, which recently concluded its second season. We also share some brief thoughts on the fifth season of Black Mirror. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

The Souvenir

The stately and subdued drama The Souvenir stars Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, a quiet but passionate aspiring filmmaker making her way through film school in early 1980s England. While snapping photos at a party one evening, she meets the older and seemingly wiser Anthony (Tom Burke) and after a series of initial dates, the two move in together and begin a romantic relationship. We then see snapshots of their life together, from the promising sparks of humor and shared interests between the couple to the seeds of discontent that are sown from deceit and over-dependence.

Around the mid-point of the film, Julie discusses the technical aspects behind the classic shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho with her film school colleagues. It’s fitting, then, that The Souvenir feels like the emotional equivalent of that very scene played out in super slow motion, as we watch a budding romance gradually decay over the course of two hours. “Gradually” is very much the operative word in this case, as the deliberate and sometimes lugubrious pace of the narrative is both the film’s most notable and most frustrating creative decision.

The Souvenir would seem to be, at least in part, an autobiographical tale from English writer/director Joanna Hogg, who also attended film school in her mid-twenties just like the film’s heroine. The sense is that this is Hogg’s way of reckoning with a toxic relationship from her youth, a foggy look into the past realized with fittingly hazy camerawork from cinematographer David Raedeker. While this experience may well have been formative for Hogg in her personal or professional life, the significance of the “tragic love story” at hand is obscured further as it drags on to its inevitable conclusion.

Though the direction comes off as incohesive and haphazard, what kept me thoroughly invested through most of the runtime were the terrific performances by Burke and especially by Byrne. Sporting an initially alluring dry wit and near-permanent sneer, Burke is properly detestable as the passive-aggressive leach that latches himself to our naive protagonist. Byrne, the real-life daughter of powerhouse actress Tilda Swinton (who also appears briefly in the film as Julie’s mother), is even better in a star-making turn that will hopefully earn her plenty of work in the future. The film’s best scene, in which a character played by an always welcome Richard Ayoade relays portentous details about Anthony to Julie, allows Byrne to play out stages of heartbreak in a series of dynamically-framed reaction shots.

The central question most audience members will no doubt have while watching this film is “why doesn’t she just break up with this guy?” Hogg’s sly inclusion of the pop song “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” implies that she anticipates this reaction. The issue is that the answer to these inquiries is never relayed convincingly and is often sidetracked by inert scenes involving Julie’s film project that distract from the narrative at hand, particularly in the film’s second half. Hitchcock once quipped that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out” and in the case of The Souvenir, it seems Ms. Hogg left too many of them in.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Toy Story 4, starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, brings the toys back together one more time as they head out on a road trip adventure with a new toy named Forky.
Child’s Play, starring Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry, reboots the 1988 slasher film about a murderous robot doll who terrorizes a mother and her teenaged son.
Anna, starring Sasha Luss and Luke Evans, is the latest action thriller from Léon: The Professional director Luc Besson about a fearless government assassin on a dangerous new mission.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dark Phoenix

Fox’s X-Men franchise flames out with Dark Phoenix, a formulaic and forgettable superhero entry that contributes hardly anything unique to an already overpopulated genre. Sometime after the excellent Days Of Future Past in 2014, this series inexplicably took a turn towards darker themes and a more moody atmosphere, evidenced by the joyless bore that was 2016’s Apocalypse and carried through in this latest chapter. Put simply, these X-Men films just aren’t as fun as they should be and this lifeless addition drives home the point that this series needs a new spark in order to keep things going.

The story this time is focused on the telekinetic mutant Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who is taken in at a young age by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her powers result in the accidental death of her parents. Years later, while working on a space mission with her X-Men crew, Jean absorbs a mass of dark energy in order to save members of the Endeavour space shuttle. After coming in contact with the mysterious force, her powers continue to grow wildly out of her control and it’s up to the rest of the X-Men, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), to set things right.

This isn’t writer/director Simon Kinberg’s first crack at adapting the lauded comic book series “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” as he was previously a co-writer for 2006’s The Last Stand. While this second attempt does try to bring more dimension to Jean Grey’s character and her potentially interesting story arc, there just isn’t enough on the page to make her transition into Dark Phoenix compelling. The character development is entirely too rushed across the board but especially so for Jean Grey, who was barely introduced in Apocalypse and is now the focal point for this massively abridged version of her story.

As the film centers around an underwritten female protagonist discovering herself while also on the run from shape-shifting aliens, the comparisons between Dark Phoenix and the recently released Captain Marvel are inevitable. It’s even rumored that the entire third act of the former was re-shot to avoid similarities with the latter. The biggest distinction between the two is that Marvel was able to inject some levity into its storyline while Phoenix couldn’t possibly take itself more seriously. Neither film features particularly captivating action sequences, although the space mission scene from Phoenix succeeds mainly on the chemistry between the stellar cast.

Despite the shaky script, most of the actors do their level best to make this story work. Turner does a fine job in a challenging lead role that requires a large range of emotion and McAvoy continues to fill out his Xavier character nicely. While he’s always been the strongest part of the ensemble in these “new” X-Men films, Fassbender feels especially overqualified this time around as Magneto’s role in the movie is more perfunctory than ever. Now that Fox is done with this franchise following their acquisition from Disney, we can at least hold out hope that a better X-Men series will rise from the ashes.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Men in Black: International, starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, reboots the sci-fi comedy franchise with two new MIB agents who are sent to London to investigate alien attacks.
Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher, brings a third generation to the Shaft series as an FBI agent turns to his father and grandfather for help on a new case.
Opening at Cinema Center is The Souvenir, a new romantic drama from A24 about a young film student who becomes romantically involved with a complicated and untrustworthy man.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

After a five year hiatus, everyone’s favorite giant lizard monster has returned in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third and best film so far in Legendary’s ever-expanding MonsterVerse. While 2014’s Godzilla did have some stunning imagery and a final battle worthy of its namesake, it spun its wheels far too long with character development that goes nowhere and a lifeless plot that lurches along like a slug. If Godzilla resembles something of a responsible big brother, then this sequel is undoubtedly the more impulsive and hyper-active little brother by relation. In most cases, I could see myself aligning with the former but when it comes to monster movies, it seems I fall in line with the latter.

The story revolves once again around the shadowy organization Monarch, where Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has created a device known as Orca that can keep Titan creatures like Godzilla at bay. The Orca is summarily stolen by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who plans to use the device to summon the ominous Monster Zero from its Antarctic prison and “restore balance” to the Earth’s natural order. It’s up to Emma’s ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) and his estranged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) to team up with Godzilla to stop the fearsome Monster Zero and the other Titans that it conjures in its wake.

Director Michael Dougherty, the mind behind campy cult classics like Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, is a near-perfect fit for this particular installment. Where Godzilla director Gareth Edwards waited an hour to show us Godzilla in full and then a half an hour after that to show him in a proper battle, Dougherty wastes no time getting the monster melee underway. He knows exactly what kind of a movie he’s making and it’s clear that he’s having a blast doing so. His exuberance for the material and passion for the existing Godzilla franchise was infectious even for someone like me who is typically on the fence for this genre.

Like its predecessor, King of the Monsters sports a stellar cast that tackles their admittedly one-dimensional roles with admirable aplomb. It’s no secret that the human characters in these creature features are typically underserved to make way for their mammoth computer-generated counterparts. However, if that trade-off allows for more time to spend with Godzilla as he dukes it out with likes the pterodactyl-like Rodan and the three-headed hydra Ghidorah, then I deem it a necessary sacrifice. The silly and sometimes incomprehensible storyline is hung with just enough character motivation to give context to these splendid and transcendent battles.

It’s easy enough to recommend watching a larger-than-life film like this in the IMAX format for the enhanced picture but more often than not, I’m recommending IMAX these days for its enhanced sound quality. This is a perfect example of a blockbuster using its immaculate sound design to make otherworldly noises sonically convincing. It’s not just enough to hear Godzilla roar; you truly do need to feel it to get the maximum effect. Fueled by old-fashioned movie magic, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a step in the right direction for a series that I hope will continue to embrace the joyously campy aspects at its foundation.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Dark Phoenix, starring Sophie Turner and James McAvoy, is the latest film in the X-Men series concerning the transformation of Jean Grey into the powerful mutant Phoenix after a mission goes awry.
The Secret Life of Pets 2, starring Patton Oswalt and Eric Stonestreet, follows up the highly successful animated comedy about a misfit band of animals who go on adventures together in the big city.
Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, tells the tale of a late-night talk show host who teams up with a new writer on staff to try and turn the show around in the face of falling ratings.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Aladdin

Disney’s endless parade of live-action remakes based on beloved animated classics continues with Aladdin, a pointless and tedious exercise in cynical corporate filmmaking. While one could argue that there’s still value in trying to “refresh” films like Cinderella and Dumbo that were released 70 years ago, the artistic merit behind bringing back movies that aren’t even 30 years old yet seems dubious at best. Even though this retread isn’t quite as bad as the abysmal Beauty and the Beast variant from 2017, it offers virtually no improvements from its predecessor and wastes most of its opportunities to branch off into new directions.

This “re-imagining” follows many of the same plot details of the 1992 original, in which the amiable “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and his pet monkey Abu scrounge for food in the city of Agrabah. After sneaking away from the palace, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) crosses paths with Aladdin and the two have an instance connection, despite the disparity between their social standings. Through deception by the treacherous aristocrat Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), Aladdin becomes trapped in a mystical cave, where he meets a magical Genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes.

The easiest way to sum up Aladdin would be to say that it feels like watching a version of the original that has been stripped of most of its charm and personality. It’s simply an odd experience to watch a film that quotes specific story beats or lines from an existing work but does so in the most lifeless and stilted way imaginable. If anything, this nagging sense of déjà vu made me appreciate the stellar voice work and vibrant animation style of the original even more by comparison. Perhaps Disney is going for a grounded or serious approach for this live-action iteration but the muted tone does no favors to the magical elements of the story.

With the exception of Naomi Scott, who does a fine job of conjuring both the grace and panache that make Jasmine a memorable heroine, none of the actors are able to access the defining aspects of their respective characters. Both Kenzari as Jafar and Navid Negahban as The Sultan are one-note and spectacularly miscast in roles that require some over-the-top flourishes to make their characters work well. Massoud strains hard to keep the ship afloat in the titular role but there just isn’t enough in his performance past his flashy smile to mirror the affability of his animated counterpart.

But perhaps it’s time to address the Genie in the room. Since footage of Will Smith as the singing and dancing jinn emerged months ago, many have lambasted the off-putting computer-generated work that sloppily rendered Smith’s face atop a smoky blue monstrosity. I won’t add to the sea of well-founded criticism that’s already been heaped upon it but would instead call out a more galling aspect tied to this Genie, which is that it relies too much on comedic callbacks derived from Robin Williams’ performance to get its point across. It’s obvious the heads at Disney don’t adhere to the axiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and Aladdin is further proof that they aren’t likely to adopt it any time soon.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Godzilla: King of Monsters, starring Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler, pits everybody’s favorite green lizard monster against other gargantuan foes like Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah.
Rocketman, starring Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell, is another music biopic hot off the heels of recent Oscar winner Bohemian Rhapsody detailing the life and career of English rocker Elton John.
Ma, starring Octavia Spencer and Luke Evans, is the latest Blumhouse horror film that follows a group of teenagers after they accept an invitation to party at a lonely woman’s house but soon regret their decision.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Booksmart

Actress Olivia Wilde makes her feature directorial debut with Booksmart, a joyfully vulgar and endlessly witty teen comedy that is destined to go down as an all-time classic. Taking cues from genre pillars like The Breakfast Club and Clueless, Wilde paints a hilarious portrait of high school life that feels specific to this generation while still remaining timeless on a thematic level. Even though we’ve been recently spoiled with an abundance of excellent coming-of-age movies like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, we have yet another winner on our hands.

We meet best friends and academic overachievers Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on their final day of high school as they prepare to graduate with top honors. Upon discovering that most of her rambunctious peers were also accepted to prestigious universities, Molly grows envious of their party-hard mentality and vows to make their last night of senior year one to remember. The pair set out on a conquest to find an ever-elusive house party (“We are A+ people going to an A+ party,” Molly asserts) while naturally running into increasingly absurd obstacles along the way.

Penned by an all-female quartet of writers, the masterful script for Booksmart is filled with humor that can be shockingly explicit one minute and then unexpectedly high-minded (indicative of the film’s title) the next. This means that copious amounts of four-letter words and jokes about the human anatomy are tempered with relatively obscure references to famed documentarian Ken Burns and Queen Noor of Jordan. In her first time out as a director, Wilde deftly juggles an impressive array of comedic styles with unfailingly hilarious results.

Atop a talented ensemble of both first-time actors and veteran comedy performers, Dever and Feldstein sport an undeniable chemistry full of charm and warmth that trickles down to the rest of the cast. A chief complaint I had with Superbad, another very funny high school romp to which Booksmart will inevitably be compared, is that the friendship between its two central characters seemed to be rooted more in malice than in mirth. Even at their snarkiest, Amy and Molly always find small but significant ways to empower one another and, in one notable instance, reprimand each other when they occasionally succumb to negative self-talk.

While SNL alums like Will Forte and Wilde’s fiancé Jason Sudeikis turn up in amusing adult roles, the cast of the film is mainly made up of fresh faces who make the most of their time on screen. Billie Lourd, the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, is a scene-stealing highlight as a relentless party girl who continues to pop up mysteriously throughout the night. Molly Gordon is similarly terrific as a character who seems to fit the “mean girl” mold early on until a pivotal monologue reveals greater depths to her character. As a high school comedy that both invigorates the genre and reminds us why it’s such an enduring one in the first place, Booksmart succeeds with flying colors.

Score – 4.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Aladdin, starring Mena Massoud and Will Smith, is another live-action Disney remake of a animated classic about an affable thief who hopes to win the heart of a princess with the help of a magical genie.
Brightburn, starring Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, inverts the traditional superhero origin story and depicts a child from another planet who comes to use his powers for evil instead of good.
Opening at Cinema Center is Hail Satan?, a documentary that traces the recent rise of The Satanic Temple, which is regarded as one of the most controversial religious movements in American history.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Based on the hugely successful video game franchise, Pokémon Detective Pikachu stars Justice Smith as Tim, a young Pokémon trainer who learns that his father Harry has died in a suspicious car crash. Upon hearing the news, he travels to Harry’s apartment in Ryme City, a unique town where Pokémon and people live in peaceful co-existence. It is there that Tim encounters Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), a Pokémon who is able to communicate freely with Tim while other humans can only hear him repeat his name ad nauseam. The two set out to uncover clues which point to a cover-up that suggests Harry could still be alive.

It’s no secret that video games tend to translate poorly to the big screen and while this film does have some admirable elements, it often feels too far removed from its original source material. An early scene suggests a simpler movie that could have been, where Tim and his friend (who disappears from the film afterwards) are trying to catch a Cubone with a Pokéball in the wild. Even as someone who hasn’t played Pokémon in 20 years, I was still able to track with the terms of this Poké-world but the actual premise of the film rarely resembles the gameplay of those early Gameboy entries or the anime series that coincides with them.

With visual allusions to Blade Runner and a storyline that mirrors Zootopia to an uncomfortable degree, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is conceptually busy even before we meet the cherubic titular character. When Reynolds enters the mix with his signature brand of smart aleck banter, then the film veers more in the direction of a buddy comedy along the lines of The Hitman’s Bodyguard. On top of all of these incongruous tones, director Rob Letterman drags us through a whodunit so convoluted that even the most ardent of Poké-fans will have a hard time making heads or tails of the unnecessarily complicated plot developments.

As one may expect, the movie is packed to the gills with bits of fan service embedded in nearly every frame and loads of Pokémon make blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos. If the sight of Machamp directing street traffic or Jigglypuff singing karaoke doesn’t sound enticing, it’s likely that you’re not in the film’s desired demographic. As someone who is relatively Poké-agnostic, the barrage of admittedly well-rendered CG creatures didn’t add or detract much from my overall experience, although I did grow attached to the adorably nebbish Psyduck character. His ability to create powerful psychic blasts unexpectedly when he gets overwhelmed is a subject of my favorite gag in the film.

Less successful from a comedic standpoint is woefully miscast Reynolds as Pikachu, who quickly wears out his welcome with tiresome riffing and snarky injections that come at a non-stop pace. It’s not clear exactly how much of his dialogue is the product of the screenplay or vocal booth improv from Reynolds but the results suggest the latter over the former. The decision to cast him was obviously designed to cash in on the subversive persona cultivated from the successful Deadpool films but that R-rated brand of humor just doesn’t gel in this kid-friendly environment. Overdeveloped and under-realized, Pokémon Detective Pikachu serves as a reminder that sometimes simpler is better.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, starring Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry, pits the unstoppable hitman against a legion of trained assassins after he is excommunicated from their guild.
A Dog’s Journey, starring Dennis Quaid and Josh Gad, is the family-friendly follow-up to A Dog’s Purpose is which a dog is reincarnated into different canine bodies to enrich the lives of those around him.
Opening at Cinema Center is Amazing Grace, a recently unearthed Sydney Pollack-directed concert film that captures Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance from New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup