Tag Archives: 2019

Toy Story 4 (2019) Mini-Review

Toy Story 4 Woody Forky

When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? It’s only clear with the benefit of hindsight that Toy Story 3 felt felt like such definitive closure because the audience, especially those who grew up with the movies over 15 years, identified so intensely with Andy. As Andy gave away the toys (or characters), which meant so much to him, the audience was put squarely in his position for maximum emotional effect. But this is to discount the toys. Toy Story 4 asks itself and successfully answers the question, “How can Woody, the ultimate dutiful toy, evolve?” When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? When there’s more story to tell. And why, besides a sweet box office haul, Toy Story 4? Because the characters need it.

Longtime Toyheads may be disappointed that Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Hamm, and the gang are relatively sidelined in this film. For me, it’s the sign of a focused movie, and much preferable to the How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World move of giving every tertiary comic character an arc. It also leaves room for shiny new and returning toys!

The delightful Duke Caboom is given a tragicomic backstory worthy of Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Gabby Gabby is already one of the great Disney villains (with one major caveat it would be a spoiler to discuss). Bunny and Ducky get a nice running joke that plays with the rules of the Toy Story world. Bo Peep returns after a one-movie absence, with a new streetwise characterization and, with the benefit of 2019 animation, gorgeous porcelain detailing.

And then there’s Forky. Made out of a spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and not much else, this brilliant addition to the cast gives a new perspective on the weird rules of what it means to be a child’s toy, or indeed, alive as a toy. Caught in an identity crisis between spork and toy, Forky longs to be thrown away. In this quite subversive move, we remember the harrowing furnace sequence in Toy Story 3, and realize quite explicitly that Forky wants to die like that.

It might even be said that for those still unconvinced by a fourth Toy Story, Forky is an avatar for the whole movie. He doesn’t understand the point of his existence – he constantly feels the pull to the trash can, like a rejected story idea in the writers’ room – and ultimately finds self-worth, understanding, peace, and purpose.

And what Toy Story 4 successfully plays out is a movie with a small scale, but apocalyptically high stakes for the characters. Most of the movie takes place in one antique store, and across the street, in a seasonal carnival. But the characters want what they want with every plastic fiber of their being, and wrestle with existential crises as well as external ones. And you will reward the film with tears for it. I’m not super-duper familiar with Toy Story. I like the movies, I grew up with it to an extent, but I don’t have nostalgia for it baked into me. Toy Story 4 emotionally flattened me, so just imagine what it’ll do for people with a deep love for this series. Why Toy Story 4? Because despite what Woody says to Bo Peep, you can teach an old toy new tricks.

 

P.S.: I appreciate the cameo of a couple late 1970s Kenner Star Wars figures. There’s an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I believe a Greedo – though because I just got a glimpse, it could be Ponda Baba/Walrus Man.

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Aladdin (2019) Film Review

Three Disney live-action remakes in a year (four if you count a Maleficent sequel) is insane. It goes beyond saturating the market into knocking movies over in turn like nine-figure budgeted dominoes. But when they’re as much of a blast as Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, you won’t hear a complaint from me. With the energy and visual appeal of Bollywood, this remake is, relatively minor flaws aside, a great two hours at the movie theater.

Prince Ali Ababwa

In the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) grapples with political reality. Street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives theft-to-theft. And Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) puts into motion a plan to further his grand designs of warmongering ambition, a plan that ensnares Aladdin, whose purity is put to the test when a 10,000-year-old Genie (Will Smith) has three wishes to grant.

Aladdin

Having recently rewatched the animated 1992 original, I find this remake narratively and visually distinct enough never to feel like a rehash. New handmaiden character. Fairy tale politics. More layers of clothing for Aladdin. (Or just, you know, layers at all.) The standout characters prove to be Jasmine and wicked Jafar. The villain is played naturalistically, and Kenzari demonstrates a strong threatening screen presence even, and maybe especially, when perfectly calm. As Jasmine, Naomi Scott simply gives a movie star performance, charismatic and commanding.

Jasmine Bazaar

When disguised in the bazaar, Jasmine gets in trouble with the law for giving bread to starving children without thinking of the money to pay for it. One thread in recent depictions of female heroes on screen is that there is a positive power in naïveté. It’s in Wonder Woman convinced in her thinking that World War I is caused only by a mad god’s manipulations and not the evil that men do. It’s in Ilsa Faust having the crazy idea that agents of allied nations are supposed to help each other out. And it’s in Jasmine putting her subjects first and envisioning a gender-blind monarchy. These are powerful character choices because they give glimpses of a more idealistic world. In this industry of escapism, this is a very cinematic thing to do. A whole new world indeed.

Jasmine

And as a fleet-footed musical, what fine escapism Aladdin is. Aside from a couple weird Guy Ritchie-an speed-ramping moments, “One Jump Ahead” really pops on screen. (Though Ritchie can’t help one gratuitous switcheroo flashback sequence like in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) The soaring “Arabian Nights” is used not just to introduce Agrabah, but the main cast of characters. The new song “Speechless”, while not for lack of trying, is transparently not of a piece with the original batch of songs. But I’m always here for new songs in these classic musicals, and this one does its job efficiently and emotionally as a power anthem for Jasmine.

Jafar Iago

Similar to how “Be Our Guest” is my least favorite sequence in the Beauty and the Beast remake, “Friend Like Me” is my least favorite here. Maybe it’s because both numbers trade in show-off-y visual jazz that renders (no pun intended) the line between animation and CGI spectacle almost non-existent. Throwing digital confetti all over the place is self-defeating when the whole remit of the movie is to play more realistic.

Friend Like Me

Hence both Beauty and Aladdin running the same play from the remake playbook of turning each Princess’ father character (Kevin Kline’s Maurice for Belle, Navid Negahban’s Sultan for Jasmine) from a cartoon buffoon to a dignified person. Another entry from that realism playbook: The “Prince Ali” song not continuing until the Sultan taps along to it is reminiscent of the punters struggling with asynchronous clapping in Beauty’s “Gaston” number. “A Whole New World” is sonically aces, but visually, that drive for realism feeds into a bit of a conservative imagination. No magic carpet trip to China here.

A Whole New World Jasmine Aladdin

But while that sequence’s visuals aren’t the most adventurous, one of the chief pleasures of this film is the bright visual scheme – Bollywood-inspired costume and production design is a fresh take for a Disney project, and they’re a pleasure to behold. CGI blue Genie still looks… off, but not in a way that’s particularly bothersome. Any minor awkward choices are overwhelming by all the breezily entertaining ones, and that does characterize this movie. With engaging characters and music, strong production design, and the warmth of a fairy tale, Aladdin proves that cash grabs are not mutually exclusive with genuine quality. A strong 7/10.

Captain Marvel (2019) Film Review

In the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see a montage of young women standing up to abusers, challenges on the sporting green, and other trials, as the power of the Slayers is distributed across the world. There’s a similar montage in Captain Marvel, except at different stages of one woman’s life, as she picks herself up after a fall. It’s an empowerment sequence that worked in Buffy, and works here, in a solid superhero movie that seems to point the way forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the closure of Avengers: Endgame.

Carol Danvers Crash

Under the stern command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), amnesiac Kree operative Vers (Brie Larson) hunts the shape-shifting Skrulls, led by the mysterious Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). But after a mission goes south, Vers ends up on Planet C-53 (to us, Earth) in 1995. Vers learns that she had a life on Earth as United States Air Force pilot Carol Danvers alongside wing-woman Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and begins to recontextualize not only her life, but also the war she has been a blunt instrument in.

Carol Danvers

Captain Marvel feels like a touchstone for the MCU post-Endgame. Slower, quieter, not without bombast, balanced between the weird and the grounded, doing something with the villain that’s pretty new to the MCU’s bag of storytelling tricks. There are vital sequences in the film that seem to have taken notes from Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lush and character-building Barton farm scenes (ironic given that Marvel Studios considered cutting the farm from that film).

Maria Rambeau Carol Danvers

Appropriately for a relatively unshowy movie, Brie Larson gives an appreciably subtle performance, doing a lot with micro-expressions to show Carol’s confidence, dry humor, and drive for self-discovery. That’s what happens when you cast an Oscar winner as your lead superhero. The film traces a well-thought-out arc for Carol regarding the source of her superpowers. The Kree’s Supreme Intelligence and Starforce urge her toward the unemotional, but it’s one of those Equilibrium situations where the people telling you to not show emotion are hypocrites well versed in anger and condescension.

Supreme Intelligence

The film’s approach to an origin story is novel, but may put off some viewers. Early on there’s a lengthy scrub through Carol’s fractured memories that’s purposefully disorienting, yet moored to Carol’s point of view. If directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had chosen to film the story as a traditional origin in chronological order, this sequence is like taking all that and putting it in a blender. This choice to show Carol’s life on Earth only from a remove results in Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a major mentor figure in Carol’s life, never registering as a fully realized presence in the movie. But on the other hand, it is exactly this approach that enters Captain Marvel’s most powerful moment, the montage of Carol throughout her life standing in unison, into the cinematic vocabulary of the movie.

Nick Fury

For much of the film Carol is accompanied by the very welcome mid-1990s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), whose performance is augmented by near-flawless de-aging technology. The de-aging on Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t as seamless. Maybe it’s the hair? A couple standouts in the cast are Lashana Lynch, who really tugs on the heartstrings in one of the movie’s best scenes, and Ben Mendelsohn. Reunited with his Mississippi Grind directors, Mendelsohn has fun playing with his eternal typecasting as middle management villains (Rogue One, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood) and suited baddies (Ready Player One). There’s a great little moment when Korath (Djimon Hounsou), years before appearing as a henchman in Guardians of the Galaxy, is given one line for the briefest but most efficient of insights into his psychology. Jude Law’s rather meat-headed Yon-Rogg doesn’t make much of an impression, however.

Talos

Composer Pinar Toprak’s Captain Marvel theme, like “Fanfare for the Common Man” (or Woman, as the case may be), uses majestic wide intervals to create a sense of dramatic rising that doesn’t resolve. This fits the story of Carol learning to embrace the full range of her powers. (This constant rising feeling is also found in Christophe Beck’s Wasp theme, another leitmotif for a female MCU superhero.) The rest of the score is at its most ostentatious when it deploys standard space-age synthesizers for Kree-relevant flourishes. Sanja Milkovic Hays’ costume design, of course taking a cue from the comics, lands a bull’s-eye with the red, blue, and gold Captain Marvel costume, which looks terrific on screen.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie in a lower key, entertaining and with solid emotional bedrock. It doesn’t use its mid-1990s setting as a gimmick (but look for a key use of a certain grunge classic), centering on the quiet journey of discovery that unlocks the full potential of Carol Danvers’ powers. While not reaching the heights of top-tier films in the MCU, Captain Marvel decisively points the way forward for a cinematic universe that needs room to grow after infinitely scaled crossovers. 7/10.

Glass (2019) Film Review

glass

At the denouement of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, when James Newton Howard’s Unbreakable theme ushered in a cameo from that earlier film’s lead character, jaws were dropped. “Split is a secret Unbreakable sequel!” people said. More accurately Split is a secret spinoff, and now Glass’ task is to sequelize two very different movies. The somewhat admirable and somewhat mediocre Glass goes in an odd direction, but it’s that very oddness that makes it an interesting auteur artifact.

Since Glass makes very few concessions for those who haven’t seen the previous two movies: David Dunn (Bruce Willis, better in his other recent vigilante movie Death Wish) is a street-level super-strong righter of wrongs (weakness: water), Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is a mastermind supervillain (weakness: brittle bones), and Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde/The Beast (James McAvoy) flits between 24 personalities plus one brutal animal-human hybrid (weakness: the invocation of his birth name). All three larger-than-life figures end up institutionalized where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, who will play another mental health professional of questionable competence in a Nurse Ratched TV show) tries to rationalize all of their fantastical skillsets.

At the end of Psycho, there’s a commonly criticized scene of a psychologist laying out in prosaic English his diagnosis of Norman Bates, making plain text what was shadowy subtext before. In his screenplays, Shyamalan seems to love to adhere to this super-schematic device of play-by-play commentary and explication. In Split, Betty Buckley’s character explained at length Crumb’s disorder, and here in Glass, Dr. Staple does much the same (with the occasional leaden clunker of a line). There’s a long scene of Staple debunking each character’s extraordinary abilities that at first feels agonizingly self-defeating until it becomes clear that this is exactly the point.

When he made Unbreakable in 2000, Shyamalan’s “grounded superhero movie” stood out. But in 2019, after Super, Kick-Ass, so many “realistic” takes on superhero conventions, and even riffs on the device of living within a comic book, is Glass late to the party? In ways that I can’t discuss without spoilers, Shyamalan doubles down on the tension between superhero existence and mundane reality; he sets Glass in a world that willfully bends superheroes into the contours of “the real world”. His powered characters are animated by genre, but face the existential threat of realism.

Glass is a very talky film, often to a tiringly didactic extent. But at least the actors show up to play. McAvoy once again deserves a curtain call for his herky-jerky modulation between multiple personalities, sometimes within one take. Anya Taylor-Joy, reprising her “final girl” survivor from Split, convinces with unconvincing material. But Samuel L. Jackson truly owns the screen, especially when given a self-consciously dramatic villain monologue.

With these actors, Shyamalan trusts them and favors the extreme close-up (perhaps a corrective after directing himself as the awkward lead in Praying with Anger – his Glass cameo is also endearingly goofy). He shoots much of the action with Guy Ritchie-style bodycams that play up the prosaic messiness of a real fight and other vérité techniques. The mundane is given a sweeping quality by composer West Dylan Thordson slathering Howard’s Unbreakable leitmotifs all over the score, which is rather cool to hear.

This is an idiosyncratic and sometimes alienating film, but its commitment to finding new ways to flatten superhero tropes into everyday life is notable. It’s not a particularly engaging work – too dramatically inert for that – but while Glass is often as dissonant as a Philip Glass composition, the twist is memorable and blindsiding. Glass is a proudly low-budget genre experiment that’s probably more interesting to talk about than watch.

My Most Anticipated Films of 2019

With the winter solstice just come and gone, it’s time to look forward to the cinematic offerings of the imminent new year. Hope springs eternal for the quality of movies of all shapes and sizes, though many of them aren’t ready to register on the radar yet. Of course, the franchised gears of Hollywood continue turning, but there are at least three tentpoles promising a tricky thing indeed: closure. Time will tell as to whether they deliver, but for now, here follows what I’m most looking forward to in 2019.

First, a smattering of bonus picks. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (next in the so-far-so-good “Monarch Monsterverse” brings out the big guns of Mothra and King Ghidorah, with Vera Farmiga as a possible twist villain); Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Tarantino’s late 1960s epic is his ninth film, and he claims retirement after ten); Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (an artifact of profound nerd disorientation that could be a charming slice of 90s nostalgia); The Woman in the Window (outsized talent Joe Wright’s stab at a thriller with Amy Adams and Gary Oldman, in the vein of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, etc); Hobbs & Shaw (the Fast and Furious spinoff greenlit on the strength of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham’s chemistry together); Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi’s bonkers-sounding Nazi-adjacent domestic dramedy); “untitled Danny Boyle Beatles movie” (a big swing that could go either way, about a musician who finds that he’s the only person on Earth who can remember the Beatles – could go completely cornball, or it could blow Across the Universe out of the Liverpudlian water); John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (the follow-up to the excellent Chapter Two promises more audacious worldbuilding and killer gun-fu choreography).

 

10) Last Christmas

10 Last Christmas

There’s something to the idea of being a reliable journeyman. Paul Feig is in the midst of an astonishingly solid five-movie run from Bridesmaids to last year’s delightful pulp-fizz fiction A Simple Favor. Last Christmas could well continue to keep up that quality, seeing as it’s co-written by Academy Award winning screenwriter Emma Thompson (who appears in the film as well, alongside Emilia Clarke and Crazy Rich Asians stars Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh).

 

9) Eve

09 Eve

Jessica Chastain (my favorite actress) is starting to produce and star in a slew of action movies, and I couldn’t be more here for them. Not a whole lot is known about Eve, and it doesn’t help that the directorial choice of Tate Taylor skews more on the generic side (though, hey, I thought The Girl on the Train was underrated). But it’s a time for leaps of faith, plus the movie features Geena Davis, star of one of my all-time favorite action films, The Long Kiss Goodnight.

 

8) Knives Out

08 Knives Out

Of all the digital ink spilled, vomited, used and abused discussing Rian Johnson’s work on (the masterful) Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the visual aspect is often ignored. Johnson’s sublime camerawork has a lot to do with my high regard for that movie; the guy just speaks the language of cinema. And Knives Out looks to bring him back to the mystery neo-noir mode of Brick. That is, with an absurdly deep bench of a cast, including Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette, just to name a few. This is the type of middle-budget genre fare that can really kill if executed properly.

 

7) Captain Marvel

07 Captain Marvel

It’s taken 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but some firsts are coming to fruition in Captain Marvel. The first female-led MCU picture (Brie Larson), the first female (co-)director (Anna Boden). And less consequentially but also super important given the future of franchise filmmaking: the first time the de-aging process previously applied to Robert Downey Jr. and Michelle Pfeiffer will be used for a whole runtime’s worth of Samuel L. Jackson. More prosaically, Captain Marvel will be a welcome cosmic MCU entry, even bringing back a couple lame-duck Guardians of the Galaxy villains for a second chance. This origin story for essentially Marvel’s equivalent to Superman has all the ingredients necessary to be a supersonic blast.

 

6) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

06 How to Train Your Dragon The Hidden World

After the stratospheric delights of two previous entries, The Hidden World promises much-delayed closure to this gorgeous animated trilogy. And as long as John Powell’s triumphant score is present and correct, the series should continue to soar. Given the inherent ticking clock on humanity’s bond with the dragons, there may not be much blood, but there will be tears.

 

5) Us

05 Us

Jordan Peele has set Us up a bit similarly to Get Out, but it’s a fool’s bet that this will be more of the same. Twisted-happenings-visit-a-family-unit is getting an airing here, and I can’t wait to see what layers Us will reveal. Get Out is a Swiss clock of a movie, paced and spooled out with a preternatural confidence. Look for more of that coiled tightness in service of fascinating theming here, though the trailer for Us promises even more overtly chilling horror right off the bat.

 

4) The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

04 The LEGO Movie 2

Speaking of fascinating theming, the first LEGO Movie is a poster child for it. It’s incumbent on the sequel to continue that multi-pronged storytelling that runs the gamut from delightful silliness to sharp movie narrative pastiche to trope (and LEGO brick) deconstruction. But all the narrative pyrotechnics are worth nothing without The Second Part delivering a pastel-colored rictus-grin blast, which it almost surely will.

 

In a virtual three-way tie, I could make an argument for any of the top three choices to be my number one. That being said, the following pecking order works for me. (And yes, all three are distributed by the monolithic Mouse House.)

3) Frozen 2

03 Frozen 2

As a Frozen superfan, I ride hard without irony for Frozen Fever, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, and Frozen Live at the Hyperion (the stage musical version adapted for Disney California Adventure), all in anticipation of the legitimate follow-up to one of my favorite films. Frozen left the castle doors open in a fairy tale happy ending, so introducing a movie-justifying conflict is an interesting quandary to start the sequel from. And even more daunting, there’s the challenge of living up to some of the greatest Disney songs ever written. Even so, the movie has more than a snowball’s chance in Hell.

 

2) Avengers: Endgame

02 Avengers Endgame

Avengers: Infinity War ends on a stark note to say the least (pun intended), so the first teaser for Endgame made the laudable choice to focus entirely on character and emotion, which is simply unheard of for a superhero blockbuster. The (correct) assumption is that we keep coming back not just for digital spectacle, but also for the quiet and loud human moments between characters. We love these people. And Endgame, in addition to bringing some measure of closure to 21 films, will likely be the last time we see Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, and more besides. Fans should be in for one hell of a payoff.

 

1) Star Wars Episode 9

01 Star Wars Episode 9

Here’s that word again: closure. This film will close out the Star Wars sequel trilogy begun in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, but is predominantly being sold as the culmination of the “Skywalker saga”, spanning all nine numbered films. How it will feel as such is very much up in the air (Hayden Christensen appearance?), along with most things about the movie (including how Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa will be given her due justice). But any movie including Rey, Kylo Ren, Rose Tico, Lando Calrissian, and Luke Skywalker’s Force ghost is probably my most anticipated by fait accompli. J.J. Abrams steered the ship of The Force Awakens under very specific circumstances that called for a slightly conservative imagination, and I think with 9, he and his crew are ready to cut loose. Imaginative epics like Rogue One and superbly executed stories like The Last Jedi have helped to make me a bigger fan of Star Wars now than I ever was before, and Episode 9 is the gift I’m most looking forward to unwrapping next December.