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
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