Quick Reviews, Fall 2019, Part 2: Harriet, Motherless Brooklyn, Ford V Ferrari, Midway, Dark Waters, Knives OutRead Now
Ford V Ferrari
Disappointing in every sense of the word
Frozen II (2019): Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa's powers in order to save their kingdom.
As usual, I need to preface every review about an animated film by reminding you that I don’t watch that many animated movies. Trying to review them tends to feel rather foreign to me. However, this isn’t just any animated film, it’s Frozen II – the sequel to the biggest animated film of this decade – so I’ll give it a whack and see what happens.
The moment I walked out of the theater after seeing Frozen, (fun fact: one of the first reviews I ever wrote right there, so go easy on me) I knew I had seen a genre-defining film. Its story was timeless and inspirational, the characters were lovable and charming, and the music was damn near instantly iconic. (“Let It Go” has been stuck in my head ever since, as I’m sure it has been in yours.) So it goes without saying that the predecessor has big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, this sequel is not Cinderella. Instead, it’s one of the evil stepsisters.
Forced Disney metaphor aside, before I go any further let me just say this: this movie is fine. It’s cute, fun, upbeat, brisk, and energetic. Young children will almost certainly be entertained. But, as a sequel to Frozen? This is the best you could do? Really? The film’s problem’s start with its music, which is decent at best and decrepit at worst. The only song here with any sort of staying power is “Into the Unknown,” which is 100% propped up by the enviable diaphragm of Idina Menzel. (The Panic! At the Disco version is better, but that should hardly come as a surprise. BRENDON URIE SINGS THIS SONG IN THE SAME KEY, PEOPLE. THE SAME KEY. AS IDINA MENZEL.) Even this song, the best Frozen II has to offer, is seriously lacking in instrumental catchiness, with a very awkward and sudden ending to cap it off. If this song goes on to win Best Original Song at the Oscars, that would mean it was a depressingly weak year for Hollywood and original music. Meanwhile, the worst song in this film undoubtedly goes to Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) big number, which somehow manages to totally waste the voice behind the character on an awkward, out-of-place 1980’s hair metal-esque song that is clearly only here for the dads in the audience that have to watch this film. Seriously… what was that, and why do you waste Jonathan Groff on something like that? At least have that be an Olaf (Josh Gad) number! (While still out of place, that would’ve been funnier, at least.) But I want to know why it’s in the film at all, as it feels so out-of-place it borders on an actual Frozen parody.
While the music is…. Disappointing, the characters are not. Once again, the core cast is excellent, with Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) successfully reprising their beloved characters. There’s even a clever bit of gender reversal here, as Kristoff spends most of the film trying (and hilariously failing) to propose to Anna. Hey, isn’t it nice to have a guy spend an entire film talking about a woman, for once? I also thoroughly enjoyed Olaf’s comedic relief. Writer / directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee transform Olaf into a sort of teenage philosopher, and adults in the room will find themselves laughing a lot as he discovers the world with a contemplative sense of zeal, joy, and innocence. But, the overarching story? It’s a cardboard cutout of corporate mandated filmmaking. The film never takes anything even resembling a risk, forgoing anything that could be viewed as a deep and contemplative philosophical topic or theme in place of a standard hero’s journey with sisterhood, FTW! thrown in to boot. While the music was disappointing, the story may be Frozen II’s biggest offense. There is absolutely no courage to it. No edge. Every side is smoothed out for the widest possible audience appeal. Heck, the only character failure in this film arises from someone being overly ambitious to discover the truth, which is kind of ridiculous when you think about it. (Imagine what our world would look like if we all taught that to our kids…) The characters hardly face any meaningful adversity, and when they even approach the topic it’s cast aside with an overly simple, single line of dialogue. There is absolutely nothing here to grapple on to, which could not be more disappointing.
I don’t know. I’m just frustrated that, in a animated sequel of this titanic proportion, Disney and the filmmakers weren’t more willing to take some risks in their storytelling. The original Frozen was significantly more interesting in its tale of overcoming the fear of something you don’t understand with Elsa’s great character arc. However, this story couldn’t be more ordinary if it tried. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the sequel to one of the biggest animated films Disney has released this century to have a bit of fortitude to go along with being entertaining. But this lack of audacity, combined with the instantly forgettable music, is what leads to Frozen II being nothing more than…. Fine. Take the kids, have a good time, then forget about it as soon as you get home. Sigh.
My Number: 5/10
Zombieland: Double Tap
What.... exactly.... do you do here?
Doctor Sleep (2019): Years following the events of The Shining, a now-adult Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as he tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.
It's rare for a film to leave me this flabbergasted. This dumbfounded. This awestruck by the sheer audacity of what I just witnessed. We've waited nearly 40 years for a sequel to one of the greatest horror films, (and films period, for that matter) and, in this current Stephen King Renaissance, it was inevitable that it would finally come. Doctor Sleep is that long awaited sequel. Going in, I was temperamentally excited. How bad could a sequel to The Shinning, The EFFING SHINING, possibly be? The Shining's haunting formula of psychological terror and human degradation is the standard-bearer for what horror films should be. All they had to do was replicate that genre-defining formula, or at the VERY LEAST attempt to mimic it, but instead we get….. witches. And, look. I get it. Stephen King is weird and somehow didn't like Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his book. The Overlook Hotel (the setting for The Shining) isn't even in the Doctor Sleep novel. That's not my problem with this film - in fact, I actually somewhat enjoyed the lore King expanded on. That's not my issue with this film. My issue is that it ignores EVERYTHING that made its legendary predecessor great in favor of…. witches. Effing witches. Doctor Sleep is not just the most disappointing film I've seen all year, it's one of the most disappointing films I have ever seen. WHY DO YOU IGNORE EVERYTHING THAT MADE YOUR PREDECESSOR ICONIC?
Ok, I'm gushing over it to a near unhealthy degree, so let's talk about The Shining for a minute. Yes, the original is buoyed by one of the greatest performances ever, (thank you, Jack Nicholson) but the meticulous filmmaking of director Stanley Kubrick (you've probably heard of him) also amplified the sheer horror of this pillar of American cinema. The Shining plays on the very human fear of the unknown to deliver its terror, versus the stereotypical jump scare. As Kubrick himself put it, The Shining is, at its core, about one family going insane together. It's simple, quiet, and elegant. And that's what makes it terrifying. You don't have any singular omnipresent being slowly ramping the scares up to eleven before everybody dies. The Shining is, simply, a study in the human psyche when confronted with some weird and unusual, yet eerily plausible events. However, Doctor Sleep gives all of that up in favor of witches. By rooting this sequel in the supernatural, director Mike Flanagan (and more so Stephen King, for that matter) forgo the entire psychological evaluation that made The Shining as great as it was. The fear of the unknown is completely lost in favor of something realistically implausible, something supernatural and near omnipresent, which is as frustrating as it sounds.
Yes, this comes despite some admittedly decent lore-building moments. Rose the Hat is a legitimately interesting villain, and actress Rebecca Ferguson certainly had a ball playing the character. She's cool, calm, and collected, which makes her pretty terrifying when she goes off on someone. Rose the Hat is a somewhat menacing yet identifiable character as she does anything to protect her flock, but she is lost in this incomprehensible sea of noise. Because, again…. Witches.
I don't know. Maybe if you approach this film more as a suspenseful, supernatural, spiritual successor to The Shining, you'll have a better time. Clearly, I was hoping for a more forward sequel. But…. Will you? This film is 151 minutes long and it draaaaags in the second act. The writing is all over the place. At times it's great, but at others.... characters stop to drop monologues at the most random times, the Stephen King tropes feel depressingly forced, (lines like, "Fresh off the bus" are worn out in 2019 after 15 other Stephen King adaptations since It) and there's just…. Zero tension. It takes 2 full hours for the film to finally revisit the iconic Overlook Hotel, (which isn't in the novel, mind you) and when it does there are some admittedly great moments. (That can be described as fan service, but at least there was some good psychological tension here) There's one truly great sequence between Dan (Ewan McGregor) and his father figure, Jack, that doubles as a child coming to grips with the insanity of his father, all dressed as this incredibly tense and gripping moment with a seeming innocent bartender. In this moment, all the tropes that made The Shining great return with haunting effects, buuuuuuuut it really serves to make the rest of the film that much more frustrating. Where were sequences like this in the previous 2 hours? Why did it take the unforgettable set of The Shining to make this film interesting? Why did Stephen King go all-in on witches??? Not even a good performance from Ewan McGregor can save this. I don't think it should take somewhat blatant fan service for us to be like, "Oh, this is what made The Shining great, why didn't you do this earlier?" I think if you approach this more as a film about witches and their titanic struggle against Dan Torrance and Abra Stone, (Kyliegh Curran - also really good) you'll have more fun. If you're looking for anything resembling a direct sequel to The Shining, however..... stay away.
My Number: 4/10
An Unstoppable Force
Hustlers (2019): Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, Hustlers follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.
Ok, first things first. Before you read this review: GO WATCH THIS MOVIE. RIGHT NOW. It is an absolute must-watch and deserves every cent of its box office gross. Stories like this, told like this, don't come around very often. A film about female empowerment, female companionship, based on strippers, that avoids the male gaze thanks to its meticulous female director, Hustlers is exactly the kind of film I want to see more of a post #MeToo Hollywood. Make ALL of the money, please!
This film is an unstoppable force, and it shines through in the performances and the filmmaking. Jennifer Lopez is at this film's molten center, like the freaking star that she is, putting in easily the best performance I've ever seen from her, ever. (And I've seen more of her films than I should probably care to admit!) Her performance as Ramona is the heartbeat of this film. From the first moment she's on screen, Ramona owns this film and everything in it, and we're just lucky enough to witness it. However, she is complimented spectacularly by Constance Wu. The star of Crazy Rich Asians puts the haters to bed by showing us that she really can bring it, regardless of whether the role is in her comfort zone or not. Her character, Destiny, is the brains to Ramona's unbridled spirit. Destiny is the emotional centerpiece of this film, and her character is fleshed out flawlessly by director / writer Lorene Scafaria.
We need to talk about Lorene Scafaria, because she is the reason this film works as well as it does. The director / writer of this film, (and formerly of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World acclaim) she puts a touch on the filmmaking that sets it apart from so many other films about criminal subjects. She makes Ramona and Destiny personable, authentic, and relatable. Not only in the writing of each character, but in the filmmaking itself. The editing, reminiscent of an Adam McKay project, (he and Will Ferrell happen to be producers on this film) is a driving force, and a big reason why these two characters are so relatable and sympathetic. Pulling a play out of The Social Network, this film intersperses sequences with the journalist who wrote this real-life story, (played by freaking Julia Stiles and I'm here for it. Also Lizzo, who I'd be seriously depressed if I neglected to mention the fact that LIZZO IS IN THIS AND NOW I'M ALIVE. Wait, where was I?) which really helps to ground the story. This film is not like The Wolf of Wall Street, which focuses on the excess itself, instead, Hustlers focuses on the relationships and how the excess both brings them together and tears them apart. This makes Hustlers far more human, even as they're giving each other million dollar fur coats in their penthouse apartments. You feel for them, and their suffering, which is all thanks to the perspective director / writer Lorene Scafaria puts on this film
End of the day, this is one of the best films I've seen all year. While it does struggle to develop any meaningful characters outside of Ramona and Destiny, it doesn't necessarily need to. These characters are more than worth the cost of admission, as is this story of female empowerment. See it once. See it twice. See it a hundred times. Hustlers is still worth it.
My Number: 9.5/10
Quick Reviews, Summer 2019, Part 2: Yesterday, The Lion King, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Official Secrets, The Farewell, Ad AstraRead Now
The Lion King
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
The Peanut Butter Falcon
It Feels the Same
It: Chapter Two (2019): Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.
Two years after the wild success of It, one of the most successful horror films of all-time, a film which brought about the Stephen King Renaissance we're currently in, Pennywise and the Losers Club return in It: Chapter Two. And…… I'm not sure what happened between the first (which I loved) and second film, but this time around the formula feels... forced and uninspired. While there is absolutely nothing that can replace the feeling of watching big budget horror unfold before my eyes, which clearly I LIVE for, (please give us more of this, Hollywood) It: Chapter Two is missing the magic that made its predecessor work so unexpectedly well. Maybe it's the fact that we've seen 14 Stephen King adaptations since 2017. Maybe it's the fact that It: Chapter Two does the exact same thing as its predecessor, only 27 years later. Or, maybe it's just the fact that its predecessor caught irreplicable lightning in a bottle. Whatever the case may be, while I did enjoy It: Chapter Two, it failed to live up to the (admittedly) lofty expectations set by its predecessor and becomes nothing more than a (rare) big budget horror film that's…. Fine.
One thing I love about this film that is undeniable: it is wonderful to watch AAA list stars like Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader wander through horror setpieces. Yes, the best part of this film is the fact that it is a big budget horror film, and the dark ages of the 2000s and most of the 2010s are still so recent that it still feels invigorating to watch it unfold before you. We, as a society, need more big budget horror, stat. Let's see a solid psychological horror with Amy Adams at the helm. (No, Nocturnal Animals doesn't count.) Or a film where Tom Hanks plays a creepy serial killer. (We can dream, right?) Watching James McAvoy navigate a funhouse (the scene from the trailers) was an absolute delight to watch, as was watching Chastain interact with a superficially kind old lady. The horror setpieces are grand and pragmatic, and their orchestrater, Pennywise the DANCING Clown, is as menacing as ever. Once again Pennywise is a terrifying and unstoppable villain, played manically by Bill Skarsgard, only this time he's treated as an established entity versus an unknown one. Which, unfortunately, detracts from the overall film.
I'm really trying to put my finger on why this film doesn't work as well as the original did. I just rewatched the original one night prior to seeing It: Chapter Two, and once again I loved it. The setpieces all served the easily translatable narrative about overcoming your fears, with a relatable and identifiable core of misfits. The effects were huge yet delightfully cheesy. But here, the Losers Club feels recycled and reused. Rehashed in a narrative that feels almost identical to its predecessor. It just feels….. lazy and uneventful. I'm all for the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" narrative, but you have to give us at least some originality. This time, Pennywise is a character you know and either love or loathe. The backstory to how he came to be is utterly ridiculous. (I know, the source material this franchise has to go off of is pretty ridiculous, but still.) So, you're left simply loving (or loathing) Pennywise because… he's Pennywise the DANCING Clown. He's no longer this new and unknown figure, he's just this ominous, sentient being our heroes have to kill. Maybe this sequel never had the chance to give us a "fresh take" on Pennywise. Maybe my expectations were too lofty to begin with. But just doing the exact same thing again left me unfulfilled.
I think that's the biggest loss of this franchise. Because of the million Stephen King properties between the 2017 It and now, combined with the fact that this film essentially picks up the original 27 years later and does the same thing again, It: Chapter Two feels like nothing more than a rehash and, at times, lazy sequel to its 2017 counterpart. While it is wild to watch Jessica Chastain go through a horror setpiece, and every member of the Losers club puts in a great performance respectively, the magic of the original is all but gone. Which just leaves us with a bloated, big budget horror film. And, while we do still need (a lot) more of those…. I was hoping for so much more.
My Number: 5/10
Quick Reviews, Summer 2019: Late Night, Ma, Her Smell, Men in Black: International, Spider-Man: Far from HomeRead Now
Men in Black: International
Spider-Man: Far from Home
Dat male gaze dough
Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood (2019): A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood's Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.
Quentin Tarantino is back! The 9th film from the so-called "Godfather of indie films" turns the self-indulgence and self-referential humor up to 11 while inexplicably doing everything he can to derail an otherwise enjoyable film. That's right, folks. The worst thing about Quentin Tarantino's latest film is.... Quentin Tarantino. But, despite Tarantino trying so hard to be the most Tarantino possible, the final product is still a somewhat enjoyable one, thanks entirely to its once-in-a-generation collaboration between two of modern Hollywood's most recognizable stars. Which makes all the Tarantino aspects of this film THAT MUCH MORE FRUSTRATING.
Ok. Look. Before I trash Quentin Tarantino's distracting storytelling style, I should tell you: like every self-proclaimed film buff, I love Quentin Tarantino films. When his style works, it's iconic. I will never forget how I felt when Lt. Hicox held up three fingers the wrong way. Or when Pumpkin decided to hold up a random diner that's not-so-random. Or when any Christoph Waltz character did anything in a Tarantino film. When it works, it works! But when it doesn't, you'll find yourself bored out of your mind, wanting to SCREAM at the screen to move along. This film DRAGS. The Hateful Eight did too, but that film also heavily featured a Tarantino trait that is sorely lacking for most of Once Upon a Time….. tension. Without any sort of tension, Tarantino's overzealous style becomes glaringly distracting, and it does everything it can to derail an otherwise perfectly enjoyable film. Also, where TF are the women?? The male gaze is disturbingly obvious here. Let's not forget Tarantino was BFFs with Harvey Weinstein, and the legendary Uma Thurman had some things to say about his…. abusive directing style once the #MeToo movement was in full force. So, what does Tarantino do in his first post- #MeToo film? Have a female lead who's rich, dynamic, and interesting? Hahahaha NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. MARGOT ROBBIE HAS NOTHING TO DO BUT BE CAUGHT IN SQUARELY IN THE MALE GAZE. About 2 hours in, when Sharon Tate (Robbie) FINALLY goes to a local movie theater to watch herself in one of her films, she had had basically one line of meaningless dialogue the entire film. (Yes, that one scene from the trailer is basically her only meaningful scene in the ENTIRE film) For the first TWO FREAKING HOURS, Tarantino spent more time uncomfortably checking her out with the camera than actually letting her speak. After SKIRTING by the #MeToo movement…. This ain't a great look, Quentin. Oh, and if you think any other woman will have a notable part to play in this film….. lol! Think again. Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) has ONE SCENE. She was probably on set for a single freaking day! Sure, the same goes for George, (Bruce Dern) but if only the old white dudes were ignored as much as the women. JAY SEBRING (Emile Hirsch) HAS AS MUCH DIALOGUE AS MARGOT ROBBIE. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, QUENTIN. Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) has one scene too, and it's there entirely to serve one of the male leads. And I haven't even mentioned the controversy surrounding Bruce Lee's character! Which is a major problem in and of itself. Seriously, this film flirts with being a #MAGA's wet dream, and the further I get away from it, the more frustrated I am by it.
(Deep breath.) That said…. Maybe it's because Tarantino has unlimited budget and clout in Hollywood at this point, but damnit….this film is also so freaking charming. When you accept this film is essentially a buddy picture between two best friends who happen to be played by two of the biggest stars in the world, who have somehow never shared a silver screen before, in a nostalgia-driven 1960s fantasia Hollywood…. yes, you will have a good time. Leo and Brad are iconic! Leonardo DiCaprio, playing the lead Rick Dalton, in his first role since winning his Oscar no less, reminds us why he is one of the greatest living actors today. And his dynamic with the equally rich Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is palpable and (frustratingly) worth the cost of admission. Both Dalton and Booth are incredibly fleshed out and have a great relationship with each other and everyone around them as the events of the film drive them apart and bring them back together. And the nostalgic odes to classic Hollywood are intoxicating. How many directors would be able to revert the actual Sunset Blvd to its 1969 state? The attention-to-detail is incredible. Just give them the Oscar for Best Production Design right now. These tracking shots are so cool! And the music is so good! Tarantino's taste in music is impeccable once again! H!
This film is so polarizing! It's propped up squarely by its two iconic (white male) leads, while leaving its female star in the dust. The male gaze is so infuriating. Its director does everything he can to ruin the experience. And its ending..... is something. I wasn't a huge fan of the moment where Tarantino finally went full Tarantino at the hands of an acid-dipped cigarette. Your mileage will vary with this ending, but I will put it squarely in my rearview. As I will the rest of this film. Why oh WHY did we have to waste this iconic duo on Tarantino? Can we get a do-over, please? Hey, Damien Chazelle, you watching this?
The Critique: Despite having one of the most iconic collaborations of the 21st century as its leads, Once Upon a Time squanders any hope of greatness at the hands of its overzealous director.
The Recommendation: Film buffs will rush out to see this if they haven't already, but the rest of you? Just rewatch Rocketman or something.
My Number: 4/10
Even though we stayed out long past midnight, we were up early once more with our final day in Cannes. The final day of our accreditation program coincided with the final day of the festival, which meant the primary venue was screening the "best of fest" films. This gave me the opportunity to see the film that won Best Actor, (Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory) Best Actress (Emily Beecham, Little Joe) and the ultimate winner of the prestigious Palme d'Or. (Bong Joon-ho, Parasite) Quite an action-packed day that started bright and early at 8 AM!
Pain and Glory
The queue for Parasite was absolutely insane. And this was before it officially won the Palme d'Or.
And with that, our journey through the wonderful world of Cannes came to a depressing end. For 3 delirious days, we were at the pinnacle of the movie world: not watching the cultural conversation through the lens of social media, but actually at epicenter of it all. It was nothing short of incredible, and something which I look forward to repeating next year in my final year of eligibility for this program. Till next year, Cannes!
The intro that greeted us before every film during the festival. It's kind of cheesy, but it's undeniably iconic.
After sprawling out on a Mediterranean beach until the wee hours of the early morning drinking cheap wine with great company, our journey through Cannes continued with an early morning screening of the new Terrence Malick film, A Hidden Live. At least, it should have. The film gods had something else in store for my early morning screening.
Chambre 212 (On a Magical Night)
Il Traditore (The Traitor)
The first real day of my adventure in Cannes began bright and early with a 9 AM screening at the venue's premier theater, the Grand Theatre Lumiere, for a screening of Xavier Dolan's latest work. We also had a chance to see a film at another venue, the Salle Debussy, which on the outside looks like a tent, but on the inside had some of the best seats in the entire festival. We also took advantage of our accreditation program and saw two films at the Les Arcades, including the best film I saw at the entire festival. Onward!
Matthias & Maxime
The view inside the Grand Theatre Lumiere. Easily a 2k capacity movie theater!
Sorry We Missed You
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This year, I was fortunate enough to experience one of the oldest, most prestigious film festivals in the world in Cannes, France. I made the most of my trip, seeing 13 films both during my 3 day accreditation program, as well as the day before the accreditation began. This journal will chronicle the films I saw during those dizzying days, the highs and the lows, the good, the bad, and the downright bizarre. (But, for real.... Wounds, though.)
This entry chronicles the films I saw before my accreditation began. There is another film festival the runs simultaneous to Cannes, the Quinzaine, or Directors' Fortnight. We were fortunate enough to see a premier on our prelude day, as well as one of the craziest bad films you'll ever see. First on our journey, though, was a trip to the Olympia, (a cineplex in Cannes) to see the film that opened the festival.
The Dead Don't Die
Fortunately, the fun is just beginning. Now, we step into the big leagues with the first day of our journey.
Great until the final moments
Toy Story 4 (2019): When a new toy called "Forky" joins Woody and the gang, a road trip alongside old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy.
I've always had a strong connection with the Toy Story franchise. The first 2 were my most-viewed animated films in my childhood, and I was lucky enough to have Toy Story 3 release the summer I was heading off to college, adding even more emotional wallop to easily the greatest ending in any Pixar film. (I think that's a safe assumption even with my biases.) The ending of Toy Story 3 is one of the most emotional moments I've ever seen in a film, period. It is the definition of a perfect conclusion. So, when Toy Story 4 was announced, to say I was skeptical that it would be nothing more than a cynical Disney cash-grab is an understatement. But…. I was genuinely impressed with most of the end result. Up until the final 5 minutes, I'd even say it was a grand time. The story is simple, the animation is fantastic, the film features one of the best female leads I've ever seen in a Pixar film, and even cynical Joe, looking for reasons to say this film doesn't deserve to be in this near-and-dear franchise, couldn't find any in the first 90 minutes. But then, the ending happened.
Ok, positives first. The best thing this film has to offer, by a considerable margin, is Bo Peep. Initially the only female toy in this entire franchise, (ya, the first Toy Story doesn't even pass the Bechdel test) then completely MIA in Toy Story 3, Bo Peep makes a triumphant return in Toy Story 4. Her character is the strong, independent female lead that this franchise so desperately needed yet hasn't really seen to this point. (Jesse in Toy Story 2 is the closest thing, but even she had, and still does, for that matter, severe limitations with a surprising lack of personal identity, despite one of the most emotional montages in a Pixar film.) Bo Peep is not only intelligent, witty, and resourceful, she is the undisputed leader for much of the second and third act, covertly taking on the role of Woody for much of the film as he can merely follow her around. It's a beautiful character and story around her, while not being in-your-face about it. Love it. The new characters are also fun and engaging (even though we spend entirely too much time with them over the existing characters, something cynical Joe thinks was corporate-mandated to sell merchandise and appease the Supreme Mouse Overlord) with Key & Peele (Ducky & Bunny) leading the way and putting their unique and welcomed stamp on yet another major IP. Also, Keanu Reeves. 'Nuff said. The "villain" of this film, Gabby Gabby, (Christina Hendricks) is also dynamic and interesting. (Definitely more interesting than Lotso in Toy Story 3.) She fits into the overall world perfectly, with her motivations lining up with the likes of Woody and the rest of the core characters in an intriguing way, culminating with a great emotional moment that SHOULD HAVE been the finale of this film. But it wasn't.
Instead, the film goes on for another 5 minutes and finishes with one of the most abrupt, frustrating, about-face transformations for a significant character in this franchise that even the Game of Thrones writers would scoff at. (Seriously, the turn from Daenerys was less abrupt than this.) It's a depressingly cheap emotional string pull from screenwriter Andrew Staunton, eliciting an ugly cry simply to elicit an ugly cry, while also cheaply setting up a potential Toy Story 5. It single-handily brings down the entire film for me, and since it is the actual final moment it will be the one that sticks long after finishing this review. I've been struggling to think of a worse ending to a Pixar film than this, and for it to happen in my beloved Toy Story franchise makes it all the more frustrating. Also, the toys interact with their environment faaaaaaaaaaar more in this film than they did in previous installments, which drove me bonkers. The toys even talk to their human counterparts, which led to cheap laughs, sure, but also broke any semblance of immersion. (Yes, I get that this is a world where toys come alive, but with how much they interact with their environment in this film there's NO POSSIBLE WAY a human would not have realized that this was happening. Maybe it's setting up a human counterpart storyline in Toy Story 5, which I'm not looking forward to.) The later, though, is an admittedly minor complaint, especially when compared to this dumpster fire of an ending.
While the journey is a blast, the destination is as frustrating as it gets with its infuriating conclusion. It's hard for me to think of anything else, but I'll try to....Bo Peep is a boss, and I'll certainly give it that. Gabby Gabby is very interesting, and Forky is a lovely and surprising new character to this franchise. And Key & Peele are great! Just..... brace yourself for a trainwreck at the end.
The Critique: A fun new cast of characters join the beloved Pixar franchise and deliver a fun new installment, despite an infuriating ending.
The Recommendation: Definitely fun for the whole family, as you would expect from a Pixar film.
My Number: 6.5/10 Almost Good
The biopic Elton John deserves
Rocketman (2019): A musical fantasy about the fantastical human story of Elton John's breakthrough years.
…...and you can tell everybody, this is your review. It may seem quite simple but, now that it's starting..... this movie is freaking great. Regardless of whether you actually like Elton John or not, this film is the standard-bearer for what a musical biopic should be. Step aside, Bohemian Rhapsody. (Actually shoves BoRap off to the side to be forgotten forever.) There's a new queen in town.
This film works on so many levels, but it starts with actually getting Elton right. Taron Edgerton is phenomenal as Elton John. From his voice actually sounding like vintage Elton (you hear that, Rami? Yes, I'm gonna take pot shots at BoRap throughout this review because society won't actually let me forget it) to matching the mannerisms with incredible makeup to boot. The A-lister is absorbed by the mystique of the knight. And it helps that the story here is the story Elton deserves. Each scene embodies the definition of what Elton John stands for while actually being informative about his life and teaching us, the viewers, some lesser-known things about his life. Never did this film feel influenced by the man himself. Never did this film feel entirely too complimentary of its subject matter. Never did it feel revisionistic. (Betcha don't know what film I'm indirectly referring to!) It felt accurate and meticulous, moving gracefully from one flamboyant scene to the next, surrounding Elton's rockstar life with the music he actually released in those moments, using his songs to actually convey the emotion of individual scenes. Ah! It's so good!
Oh ya, this film is a musical, and the music is wonderful regardless of your feelings towards Elton. The dance scenes are actually well-choreographed and shot, with only the editing rearing its ugly head at a few points. (Though, let's be real…. It's not the worst editing to come out of a musical biopic recently. Cough cough) Also, I do take slight issue with John Reid's (Richard Madden) near comedic villain character. For a film that feels as meticulous as this, Reid feels very out-of-place. I'm not sure how accurate that character was to his real life counterpart, but it sure beats creating an entirely fictitious character to turn down a certain rock band after a DESTINATION ALBUM RECORDING SESH. THAT DOESN'T EVEN MAKE SENSE, WHY WOULD YOU TURN DOWN THE END RESULT OF A MILLION DOLLAR RECORDING SESH? That eerily specific example doesn't refer to anything in particular, I swear! That said, Reid is made up for by Elton's partner-in-writing, Bernie Taupin. Portrayed wonderfully by the incredibly underrated Jamie Bell, Taupin helps to ground Elton throughout most of the film, almost turning into an "audience POV" character as Elton's worst impulses play out. All wrapped up in a dynamic and intriguing supporting character that is the embodiment of a true friend. Not someone we're supposed to laugh at because he wants to write a song about loving his truck. (Kristen Bell sums up my sentiments right about now.)
In short, Rocketman is wonderful, and soooooooooo much better than Bohemian Rhapsody it actually hurts. I hate that I've taken pot shots at BoRap as much as I have, but when one film becomes the highest grossing musical biopic in history and the other is struggling just to break $75mil at the domestic box office, it's hard not to constantly remind people that Rocketman is just that much better than BoRap. It encompasses Elton to a wonderful degree, complete with beautiful dance montages and amazing song choices from the knight scattered throughout. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll dance, you'll sing. What more could you possibly ask for? I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind, that I put down in words. How wonderful this film is, now that it's in the world.
The Critique: The story Elton John deserves, Rocketman is the best musical biopic I've seen in years, showcasing his life brilliantly with great musical numbers and an incredibly engaging story.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for everyone. I think that's my first must-see rec of 2019?
My Number: 9/10
The Sundance Short Film Tour is starting to make the rounds across the country, and I had the wonderful chance to see them early. For those unfamiliar, the collection is a small snippet of the shorts that play at the Sundance film festival every year, a showcase of the incredible diversity the festival sees year in and year out. Overall, they're definitely worth a viewing, despite the occasionally varied quality, if not simply to see facets of our country and our cultural consciousness you wouldn't have the chance to see otherwise. Here are my thoughts on each of the shorts as I watched them in order of programming.
EDITORS NOTE: These short films are coming to Cincinnati World Cinema's Garfield Theater June 21-30. I had the chance to see these films thanks to this organization, an organization which I also volunteer for.
Sometimes, I Think About Dying
Starting off the list of shorts is a heartbreaking film from Stefanie Abel Horowitz. The 12 minute film grips you from the opening moment to the credits thanks to an incredibly genuine performance from its lead, Katy Wright-Mead. She is absolutely wonderful in the main role: timid, shy, reserved, but thanks to a great use of voiceover narration, thorough and dynamic. That said, it doesn't really feel like it's saying anything about it's subject matter - a quiet character who's obsessed with death. The short frustratingly cuts to black right before a moment of coping is able to take place, instead leaving us with a film that simply stars a character who thinks about death, despite simply knowing that's not healthy. I don't know, maybe that was the point, and the abrupt cut to black at the end was supposed to signify the beginning of this coping phase, but it frustrated me personally. That said, it's still a good short, with a great lead and some great editing / cinematography. (Mad kudos to how director Horowitz handles texts.... Sherlock would be proud.)
My Number: 7/10
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take away from this one. A docushort about a Native American horse relay team, Fast Horse doesn't seem to know what it wants to say. Sure, there's some interesting cinematography, (particularly in the finale of the relay itself) but the short seems to be rather aimless, a Free Solo knock-off with a far less satisfying ending. (Seriously, the main jockey is built in the exact same mold as Alex Honnold.) There's really not much else to say about this one. Good cinematography, enjoyable (albeit not satisfying) finale, but no message, heart, character, or really any substance worth mentioning. Hard pass.
My Number: 3/10
I've mulled over this one in particular the last week or so, and the more I think about it, the more firm my low number becomes. There was an opportunity here to showcase the depressing struggles of the Native American population in our country, an opportunity this film let slip away in order to tell the story of this race team. Which is totally fine, but if you're going to go all-in on the race team, the final result needs to at least showcase some room for future improvement. We get none of that, and the result is exactly what I mentioned before. Sure, the filmmaking is very good, but it alone is not enough to make this short feel truly worthwhile.
Suicide by Sunlight
I'm very torn on this one. On the one hand, it's a bold / interesting premise that's executed fairly well. A world where vampires are widely known / accepted to the point that there's intriguing societal issues surrounding them, (similar to the issues facing our society today) but the main character, Valentina, isn't particularly alluring to boot the premise. The first half of this 17 minute short is spent almost in a "is she or isn't she a vampire" story, which feels like a total waste because when we finally do establish that she is, (something which you'll know by reading the actual first sentence of the synopsis on IMDB) the short abruptly flies through its most interesting bits, not even taking the time to establish that Valentina is even struggling at all to contain her bloodlust. (She's a vampire who works in a hospital, Only Lovers Left Alive taught us that there's plenty of ways for a vampire to sustain themselves in a flippin' hospital. A single scene of this not being enough would've gone a long way.) So, while this short does present some interesting ideas, it spends far too much time establishing the simple fact that Valentina is a vampire for it to reach its full potential. Sacrificing this first half and speeding through a lot in the second half is as criminal an oversight as it is a frustrating one. But hey, at least the end credits song is great!
My Number: 5.5/10
This one is extremely short, clocking in at just 4 minutes in length, but it's 4 minutes of adorableness. It's animated wonderfully and has a charming message about how one interacts / interprets art that's executed well in the brief runtime. Also, the art that's interacted with here is wonderful and hilarious. You'll definitely get a solid laugh out of it, and it serves as a nice change-of-pace from the serious tone of the rest of the shorts to this point.
My Number: 7/10
Buckle up, y'all. This one is WILD, and I loved it. This is a crazy short that has a lot to say about friendship and showcasing your talents wrapped up in two characters with mostly useless superpowers. It's shot in a very Arrested Development kind of way, highlighted by some comedic zoom-ins and totally ADHD editing, which hammers the unknown / unpredictability of growing up aspect of the short. There's a LOT going on in these 15 minutes, and while I think it will be rather divisive among the general public, something like this is exactly what I want to see in the Sundance batch. Crazy, zany, quirky, and unpredictable, but still bringing quite the wallop. Despite some so-so acting from the leads. Wasn't a huge fan of their performances. It felt like they, too, were going "Whaaaaaa?" when they were reading the script. But, still. It'll stick with you simply because it's so uncanny. Also, it is easily my favorite to this point.
My Number: 8/10
This film continues to resonate with me a week+ after watching it. It has such a relatable message encrusted in its zaniness, I can't shake the look into these girls' lives while also having (mostly) useless superhero powers. While it may be divisive, I think this short has the boldest filmmaking in the bunch.
We're on a roll now. This short, from director Robert MacHoian, stars a real-life grandfather and his grandsons, showing a small portion of their everyday lives. The genuineness of this short is its selling point - MacHoian does a phenomenal job eliciting great performances from his cast of first-time actors; certainly not an easy thing to do with 3 of them are kids. It's a very simple, yet heartfelt story, as it merely captures a quick scene in their lives - band practice - but peel away the topmost layer of the short and there's a lot more going on. A grandfather yearning for a past life while enjoying spending time with his grandsons. Kids who are just discovering music and still approaching every moment as if they've never experienced it before. How music is a common language that transcends all barriers. All of which is conveyed in a very brisk 10 minute runtime. It's lovely, and far more approachable than Crude Oil. I have one short left to go, but this one is a surefire crowd-pleaser.
My Number: 8/10
And Brotherhood provides the emotional wallop to bring us home. This devastating short film from Meryam Joobeur follows a family from a Middle Eastern country around Syria, confronted with the return of their son from Syria with a new wife. The elements at play here are ancient yet devastatingly current: a father who sees his son for the first time in over a year and cannot accept his traditional Muslim wife, and a son who returns seeking acceptance from his father. As the events of the short unfold, a picture is unveiled that leads to easily the most emotionally devastating climax in this entire collection. The performances are genuine and grounded, the cinematography is amazing, as director Meryam Joobeur makes great use of shooting on film throughout the 25 minute short, and it all leads to a simply incredible finale that will leave you speechless. This short alone is worth the cost of admission for the group, the definition of perfection in under 30 minutes. Don't miss it.
My Number: 10/10
Hope you enjoyed my takeaways from these shorts! Do yourself a favor and don't miss them if they are playing at a theater near you!
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/51b3dc8ee4b051b96ceb10de/t/5bff15171ae6cfb7775d0efd/1543443741245/?format=2500w (Sundance Banner)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19914-2-1100.jpg (Sometimes, I Think About Dying)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19918-1-1100.jpg (Fast Horse)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19931-4-1100.jpg (Suicide by Sunlight)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19912-4-1100.jpg (Crude Oil)
http://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19913-2-1100.jpg (The Minors
Quick Reviews, Spring 2019: High Life, Pet Sematary, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Detective Pikachu, Aladdin, Godzilla: King of the MonstersRead Now
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Pokemon Detective Pikachu
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
More of the same, and I ain't complaining one bit
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019): Super-assassin John Wick is on the run after killing a member of the international assassin's guild, and with a $14 million price tag on his head - he is the target of hit men and women everywhere.
The latest installment in the unexpectedly solid John Wick franchise is exactly what you'd expect: more of the same. Now, is more of the same a good or a bad thing? Did you like the first two John Wick films? Then it's safe to say you'll like this one. Did you either not care / not watch either of the previous two films? This probably isn't the place to start. That said, I fall squarely into the former category, and, as you would expect…. I had a ball of a time here.
At its core, John Wick is a phenomenally choreographed action movie with some breathtaking visuals. This franchise is the pillar for what a modern action film should look like, second only to the Mission: Impossible franchise for best action movie franchise in Hollywood today. (Sorry James Bond / Fast and Furious.) At its core is its heart-stopping fight sequences. These sequences showcase the very best of what Hollywood can do in 2019, with cinematography that actually allows you to see the action unfold. Who knew doing something as simple as shooting your action sequences with as few cuts as possible and giving us wideshots so we can see everything would make such a huge difference, but that's why someone like me (who couldn't care less about the John Wick lore at this point) keeps coming back to this franchise. In a post-Bourne Identity world, where so much of what's considered "action films" is inhibited by Marvel doing whatever they feel like with whatever budget they want, few franchises pay this close attention to detail while making every cent of their production budget count.
That said, the budget of this film clearly went to the stunts / action sequences, because the lore continues to be completely uninteresting to me. Sadly, much of the second act of this film investigates said lore of this franchise, and for people like myself who don't care it was veeeeeery boring. On a surface level the lore is interesting, but it contorts itself to service the protagonist John Wick at every turn, which makes it ridiculous, unbelievable, and boring. Also, Keanu Reeves's portrayal of John Wick has lost the pisaz it once had, an unfortunate result of the fact that there's now 3 of these films. Long gone are the iconic lines of previous installments.
However, that's a rather marginal complaint for the film and franchise as a whole, after all you come for the breathtaking action sequences and tolerate the lore as a tradeoff. Because of how much time this film spends on its lore, I don't think Parabellum will do a good job bringing in new fans, (start with John Wick: Chapter 2 if you're new to the franchise) but for those who are already dug in, Parabellum delivers exactly what you're looking for: mesmerizing action scenes with an increasingly mediocre story to compliment it.
The Critique: Pulse-pounding action sequences continue in blissful fashion in the latest installment of the John Wick franchise.
The Recommendation: This franchise continues to be an absolute must-watch for anyone who considers themselves a fan of action movies. Don't miss it
My Number: 8/10. And that's a testament to how phenomenal the action here really is.
A hilarious and raunchy modern buddy comedy
Booksmart (2019): On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night.
Booksmart is 2019’s Blockers and I love it. A raunchy, over-the-top buddy comedy that's actually about something and makes you feel things (even in your cold, cold heart) by film's end. We've had a surprisingly decent run of American comedies between surprise hits like Blockers, Game Night, and soon-to-be (currently just Sundance darling) Booksmart. I am actually starting to have hope that directors like Kay Cannon (director / savior of Blockers) and newcommer Olivia Wilde (Booksmart, directorial debut) may actually be able to bring the genre back from the hopeless abyss it's been in for the last decade or so. That statement may be a bit too optimistic, but after being this uplifted by an American comedy, (again! For the second time in a year at least!) I'm ready to say anything. Let's keep it going, Hollywood!
At this film's core is a wonderful, genuine, and charming relationship between its two main characters, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy. (Kaitlyn Dever) Seeing two well-written, strong, intricate high school female characters lead a film like this is totally invigorating. Every time they're paired on screen together, Booksmart shines brightly. There's a palpable chemistry between them - a gravity that pulls all other forces in this film to their undying, unyielding presence. From the opening scene featuring the hilarious monologue in the trailer, you can't help but root for each of these girls as they realize there's more to life than just schoolwork. Straight up: this is one of the best buddy comedies I've ever seen. An honest, personal, convoluted relationship between two women is so refreshing to watch. This film is well worth a watch with your best friend just for some quality bonding time alone. Just.... be prepared for the raunchiness because there's a lot of it. But I know I found myself laughing more times than I could count. I had a blast watching this film.
That said, these two aren't on screen together the entire time, and when they're not together the film power recedes slightly. I still enjoyed it, but some of the storylines felt rushed, messy, and too conveniently placed given the overall chaotic tone of the film. There's some time around the start of the third act where Amy and Molly spend about 15 minutes apart, and I found myself getting kind of bored during those moments. Amy has a romantic subplot that, while fresh in its originality, resolves itself in a rather cliché way while the duo goes through a very overused "events separate them but they get back together because of X" trope you see in a lot of modern American comedies. (Like, all of them.) Formulaic, is the word to use here. The film gets formulaic in its third act. But, formulaic isn't necessarily a bad thing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? I just wish a film with this much originality (depressingly) didn't have such a formulaic final act.
Booksmart was a hit at Sundance, and I can see why - it's a trailblazing film, despite some of its faults, from a beloved indie actress making her anticipated directorial debut. Olivia Wilde's mumblecore roots can be felt throughout the film, (I'm sure there will even be some comparisons to Drinking Buddies) and it is wildly refreshing to see a premise we hardly ever have the chance to see put forth in a modern American comedy. It's opinionated, it's raunchy, it's ridiculous, and it's uplifting. It's exactly what we need in a modern American comedy in 2019.
My Number: 8/10 Great.
2018's most underappreciated film
Widows (2018): Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands' criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
This review is from the archives of Enter the Movies, also known as getting lost in my Google docs folder until now.
You want a suspenseful heist film that grips you from the first pulse-pounding moment and never lets go until the credits roll? May I present to you: Widows. The latest work from director/writer Steve McQueen, (who's last work, 12 Years a Slave, only won him Best Picture so it's not like there's a high bar or anything) Widows, for me at least, has come out of nowhere and become one of my favorite films of the year. Featuring a phenomenal cast, unpredictable story, and masterfully executed filmmaking, it just might be the best heist film I have ever seen.
There's not much this film does wrong, but there is one slight hiccup in the character Amanda. (Carrie Coon) In a film that takes the time to develop its large cast, this glaringly underdeveloped character stands out even more. Despite being one of the namesakes of the movie, (she is one of the four women who loses her husband at the beginning of the film) she becomes nothing more than a plot device as time goes on. I'm guessing there was a scene or two with Amanda that was cut for one reason or another, (the movie is 129 minutes long, so time was probably one of them) but it is a real shame. Especially since the other three core characters are developed so freaking well.
This is, by far, the strongest point of Widows. The characters of Veronica, (Viola Davis) Linda, (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) each experience unique and fleshed out arcs. Each cope with the loss of their husbands in different ways and each way is equally compelling. The three also have phenomenal chemistry together, and if Viola Davis could lead every movie ever made, I'd have absolutely no issue with that. The rest of the cast here is equally phenomenal, and all bring something unique to the table. Jamaal and Jatemme Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya, respectively) are starkly contrasted by Jack and Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, respectively) in their race for the 9th Ward of Chicago. All four of these characters receive plenty of opportunities to shine, and shine they do. Daniel Kaluuya in particular provides some of the most memorable sequences in the film. (Including a sequence that did make my favorite movie moments of the year.) The contrasts between how these politicians run their races, and how they go about trying to achieve their ambitious goals, is one of the best parts of this incredible script from Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl acclaim) and McQueen.
Which brings us to the filmmaking. Steve McQueen's footprint is all over this film. The cinematography is where it's most notable: there are a mess of unorthodox shots here that are rich and full of insight into the world these character's live in. One of the best shots of the entire film focuses on Jack Mulligan's car as it transitions from the poor section of the 9th Ward to the rich section, where Mulligan's house resides. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit, a long-time collaborator with McQueen, is at the top of his game here. There's also some terrific editing here courtesy of Joe Walker. He does an amazing job building up suspense with his cuts, while also providing a great deal of fluidity throughout the film. There is a boatload of meandering character development in Widows, and yet thanks to the editing the pacing never slows down from start to finish.
In short, Widows is amazing, and would have been higher on my top 10 list (it was number 9) were it not for the treatment of one of its core characters. That aside, this is a phenomenally executed piece of filmmaking dressed up as an engaging heist film, and if you need to find me I'll be on my soapbox screaming to the heavens that this was EASILY the most underappreciated film of 2018. Whatever you do, do not miss Widows!
The Verdict: One of 2018’s best films, Widows is a masterfully executed heist film with interesting characters, great filmmaking, and an unpredictable story.
The Recommendation: An absolute must-see for all!
The Verdict: 9.5/10 Damn Near Perfect
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