Friday, June 28, 2019

"SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME TELLS A MODEST TALE THAT TRAPS US IN ITS WEB ONCE AGAIN




Where should the Marvel Cinematic Universe go after the epic, all hands on deck finale of AVENGERS: ENDGAME? It looks like SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME has the right idea. This Spidey sequel tell a story that’s smaller, more intimate, and with a distinct emphasis on character. It may not reach the heights that last year’s animated and Academy Award-winning SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE achieved, but as superhero films go, it’s easy, breezy, and satisfying. Also, it has the best post-credit teasers in many a Marvel moon.

The film’s story picks up soon after the Avengers saved the planet and returned the population lost when Thanos snapped his fingers in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. And while Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is grateful that many of his classmates have returned, he’s still mourning the loss of his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It’s hard for the teenager to move on, especially when Happy (Jon Favreau), Stark’s right-hand man, shows up with a special gift for him - Tony’s A.I. infused glasses. Those glasses come in handy on his science class’s trip to Europe where he’s trying to figure out if his girl crush M.J. (Zendaya) is interested in the handsome and confident Brad (Remy Hii). Peter taps into their cellphones to read corresponding text messages and ends up unwittingly ordering a drone strike on Brad. Oops!

Peter gets out of that jam, but then Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up, demanding that he help thwart some environmental villains based on the elements, alongside a mysterious superhero named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) who hails from a parallel dimension of planet Earth. Mysterio, as Peter dubs him, quickly becomes a stand-in father figure to Peter, filling the void left by Stark’s death. And soon enough, they’re fittingly saving Europe together as they battle and prevail over two monstrous demons – a water monstrosity in Venice, and a fire demon in Prague. 

The fun of these set-pieces is two-fold. One, the CGI is deftly done, never overstaying its welcome and happening in real settings, so it’s all the more believable. And two, the characters really come through in the action. Parker’s uncertainty translates to his movements even as Spider-Man, and despite his extraordinary abilities, his hesitancy speaks volumes about his character. One of the reasons that Spidey is so beloved is that he is a vulnerable kid in these films, even though Fury insists he takes upon adult responsibilities. That makes for a more uncertain hero, one whom the audience isn't always sure will prevail.

Mysterio's backs story is fascinating and seems to want to play off of the alternate universes of Spidey from the Oscar-winning animated film this past spring. That opens up interesting possibilities for future films, but here, it's more of a tease. The truth of who this new foil is are much more grounded, though such revelations allow the special effects team here to mine some new territory - the world of VR that is becoming so prominent across all our entertainment devices.

None of the strengths, from the shrewd use of CGI to the deftly done action sequences to Parker’s vulnerabilities, would matter if we didn't care about the main character at the center of it all, and in Tom Holland, the MCU has found the most likable and relatable Spidey yet. Interestingly, Holland is given very little dialogue. In almost every scene he’s in, the other characters say much, much more. That means the young actor mostly reacts, but his facial expressions and body language speak volumes. He’s one of the best actors of his generation, and it would behoove the MCU to keep him for several other films in this franchise.

But he’s not the only game in town. Zendaya is terrific, underplaying the cynicism of M.J. and letting the sweet kid come through, even under all her sourness. Favreau is always a comic delight, and despite being one of today’s most sought-after directors, he should do more work in front of the camera as well. Gyllenhaal makes the most of all the layers revealed of his character as his true identity makes for one of the better rug pulls in the MCU history.

Additionally, the script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers gives a lot of the third tier characters a lot to do. Hii and Angourie Rice as his love interest Betty are cute and funny in their mismatched romance abroad. As the two teachers chaperoning the trip, Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove hilariously brighten the picture each time they show up. Only Marisa Tomei gets shortchanged, as one wishes that her Aunt May had more screen time, particularly when she can throw off sarcastic zingers with such aplomb. 

Jon Watts’ direction moves things along at a crisp pace, never dwelling on anything too long or underlining gags. There are posters and murals throughout the film of Tony Stark, as the sacrifice he made to save the world has turned him into a mythic figure, but Watts doesn’t oversell the idea. His ability with actors and comic sensibilities make this Spider-Man movie as funny as anything in the MCU, including the zany ANT-MAN films too. In fact, the only real quibble here is that Marvel produces so many films, their superhero specialness is starting to wane a bit. Luckily, this one is done so well that it never wears out its welcome even if we’ve seen dozens of superhero movies this past decade. 

And, as previously mentioned, the post-credit sequences are a hoot, nicely setting up the call for yet another web-slinger adventure. Just when we think we may have seen enough, we get stuck in the web again, wanting more. Bravo, Marvel.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

“MIDSOMMAR” IS AN ODD BLEND OF CLEVER HORROR AND HOARY CLICHÉS


After two ambitious but wildly uneven horror films, Ari Aster’s modus operandi as a writer/director of the genre has become apparent. His strengths lie in setting a mood, telling stories fueled by odd characters and demented behavior, and using sound design to make his well-thought-out visual schemes all the more disturbing. But just as evident are his faults. Alongside such virtues are an abundance of genre clichés, characters collapsing into caricature, and a loss of control over the material that usurps the third act. Aster is an audacious filmmaker, indeed, the kind who imaginatively sets a horror film in the sunny hillsides of rural Sweden of all places, but he’s also an unruly one. Too much of what he puts on the screen feels undisciplined, and often times, inept. 

Last year’s HEREDITARY was a wonderfully tense and insinuating frightener until its hellzapoppin’ third act dove headlong into silliness. Aster started out telling a serious-minded horror tale about a dysfunctional mom who was repeating a cycle of erratic behavior and endangerment similar to her past with her own mother. Toni Collette gave one of the 2018’s best performances as that complicated matriarch battling her demons, but then Aster turned her character into a cartoonish nutjob in the third act. Suddenly, she was rubbing shoulders with ghosts, cultists, septuagenarian orgies, and wall-climbing demons, all while trying to kill her teen son. She ended up, in the final moments, levitating in mid-air while sawing off her own head. Aster's serious psychological thriller had dissolved into a manic phantasm, something resembling an arch Freddy Krueger nightmare.

Aster’s new film MIDSOMMAR travels a similar course. It’s subtly unsettling at first, set up as a story that will examine and ultimately savage religion. The plot concerns four American college students who venture to Sweden to attend a mid-summer pagan ceremony and end up discovering practices there that are far more insidious than they could have possibly imagined. It resembles the 1973 horror classic WICKER MAN in its focus on an amiable, sheltered community where the smiling residents are not quite the loving commune at first believed. 

In MIDSOMMAR, Josh (William Jackson Harper) is an anthropology student anxious to do his senior thesis on European rituals, a young man chomping on the bit to witness alternative religious practices first-hand. His fellow student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is Swedish, and he invites Josh home to his native land to partake in his community's pagan festival during the summer break. Joining them will be Josh's buddies Mark (Will Poulter), a wise-acre horn dog hoping to score with a few blonde locals, and a couple now in their fourth year of dating. Christian (Jack Reynor) doesn't really want his needy girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) to tag along, but she needs a distraction after witnessing a horrendous family tragedy.

Dani had a feeling her sister was in trouble when she left a cryptic text ending with an ominous ‘goodbye,' but her concerns fell on Christian's indifferent ears. Her slacker boyfriend was more interested in chowing down pizza and playing video games, so Dani was left alone to discover a triple murder in the family home. Her psychotic sibling gassed herself, along with mom and dad, using a garden hose to pump exhaust fumes from the family auto into the residence. It all makes for one incredibly harrowing opening as Aster brilliantly sets up the film's sense of despair and inevitable doom. 

Pugh gives a knockout performance in the first act too, suggesting a teen girl on edge, rubbed raw by the events in her family, and aching to find solace in the arms of her lover. Unfortunately, Christian is a shit of a boyfriend, and we have a sneaking suspicion that their Swedish vacation will either make or break the relationship.

When Pelle and his four American guests arrive in Sweden, they journey to join the festivities already in progress far up in the mountains. There, the townsfolk greet them with warmth, enticing them with drugged libations before they barely drop their suitcases. The hallucinogens dazzle the boys but frighten the girl. Dani's reaction is that of a bad acid trip, filled with visions both idyllic and terrifying. Aster uses his camera to echo her loopiness as it vibrates and swoons along with his lead character. Dani even imagines her dead family members are there amongst the locals, and it's one of Aster's best set pieces in the film.

The filmmaker cleverly foreshadows disturbing events to come too as the camera lingers on pagan practices depicted on the historical tapestry and wall art in the cabins. One drawing shows a bear on fire, and another illustrates a woman’s private parts being cut out and turned into an entree. Then, when an actual grizzly bear shows up quietly sitting in a nearby cage, we in the audience start to put two and two together, even though Dani and the boys are slow on the uptake. 

Then, on only the second day of the festival, the students witness a ritual that concludes with two senior citizens throwing themselves off of a nearby cliff. The old-timers commit suicide in front of everyone as part of their religion's take on the cycle of life, but their ultra-violent acts sour the Americans. Aster shrewdly shows their deaths in all of its bloody grotesquery, horrifying his movie-going audience as well. But soon after such a dramatic highpoint, the filmmaker starts to lose his grip on the material. 

His faltering begins when two British students, also in attendance, overreact to those leaps of death. They scream bloody murder at the locals, and their petulant rage doesn't sit well with their hosts. Would guests in a foreign land genuinely behave so indignantly? Their furor is so over-the-top, you know that they're doomed, and it starts to caricature the horror. Indeed, soon they've both disappeared, yet the Americans continue to act oblivious. Even when screams are heard in the distance, suggesting torture, the remaining students stick their heads in the sand. 

Worse yet, the remaining students continue to partake in all the rituals, ingesting all sorts of drugged drinks and entrees willingly. Their stupidity starts to grate, and we begin to lose interest in rooting for them. Soon enough, Christian will discover a pubic hair baked into a pot pie, echoing the tapestry illustration, but doesn't see it as the clarion wake-up call it should be. Why aren't these characters smarter? Why do they stick around? Being so oblivious is a construct by Aster to keep them there, but such naivete on the Americans part rings false, especially as the creepy cult around them starts closing in. 

Aster clearly wants to ridicule religion in his telling, suggesting that the pagan practices depicted here aren't any more absurd than the Methodists who put on their Sunday best to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ at Easter over a potluck dinner of ham and scalloped potatoes. But as the film goes on, the filmmaker's points become more strident, his American characters become uglier, and the many deaths that occur feel as hoary as the easy ones perpetrated by the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers in their 80's franchises. 

The audience even starts to get way ahead of Aster’s story. We can see the deaths coming a mile away. So why can't these smart college students? As they become dumber and dumber, continuing to let themselves be drugged, or walk into traps, or be coerced by their hosts, it becomes wholly irritating. And in his third act, once again, Aster cannot resist throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. Full-frontal nudity, ritual sex, excessive gore, and over-the-top visuals that border on caricature appear, marring the ending just as they did in the finale of HEREDITARY.

It's such a shame too because Aster's film has many strengths. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is superb, as is the production design headed by Henrik Svensson. Pugh's performance is a standout of 2019 too. But then Aster blunders badly with the cartoonishness of some of the other characters, including a deformed pagan who shows up, supposedly the community's oracle. What he's really there for is to give one of the evil Swedes the unmistakable face of a monster. It's a hoary, horror movie cliche, a gilding of the lily really. Aster's pagans are already hideous enough, even though they're blonde and beautiful.

In THE WICKER MAN, a smiling group of cultists also lured unsuspecting lambs to the slaughter, but writer Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy got to their horrifying ending with fewer missteps. Aster overplays things, suggesting a filmmaker who doubted if his points were hitting home. (Really? Giving your most oblivious student character the name of Christian doesn't communicate enough contempt for Western religion?) In the end, the film makes for a monstrously witty riff on the extremes Dani will plumb to break up with her crap boyfriend, but the rest of the film lurches towards silliness that belies the often superbly rendered horror. By the end, Aster even has his crazed locals descend into dancing, cackling fiends. It feels like an insane move for a smart filmmaker who should have known better. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"OPHELIA" SETS THE BARD HIGH FOR REVISIONIST TAKES ON WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE


Original caricature by Jeff York of Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA. (copyright 2019)


People complained about modern dress productions of MACBETH in the ’60s, and Baz Luhrmann’s MTV-esque version of ROMEO & JULIET in the ’90s, so I’m sure there will be those with knives out for director Claire McCarthy’s revisionist OPHELIA. This modern take on HAMLET is told from his girlfriend’s POV, rather than the Danish prince, and that lens gives it a #MeToo modernity. After all, Ophelia could easily claim to be bullied by at least three men – her father Polonius, her king Claudius, and of course, that melancholy, on-again, off-again boyfriend of hers. This time out, she’s hardly a spoiled girl who goes mad and drowns in the nearby stream, but rather, a smart, young woman well aware of all the politics around her and determined not to get swallowed up by it.

Such revisionism of William Shakespeare’s most famous play could quickly be scoffed at, but here, director Claire McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellas work Lisa Klein’s source material novel with a delicacy that pays respect to the Bard while illuminating the motives of his ingenue character. In fact, the filmmakers don’t actually stray too far from the plot of HAMLET. Quite the contrary, almost all of its significant beats are here. The highlights are just given slightly different shadings as we see all of the story's machinations through Ophelia’s eyes. And in doing so, she manages to respond to them behind the scenes providing an endlessly fascinating counter-narrative to what's going on in the kingdom. 

Early in the story, it’s clear that Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) will be fighting an uphill battle in every aspect of her life. She’s a woman with limited privileges and a servant to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), one always reminded of her lowly station. Ophelia’s dad Polonius (Dominic Mafham) may be an advisor to the throne, but the best he can counsel his daughter with are instructions to stay out of the way and know her place. He also doesn’t like her flirtations with Gertrude’s son Hamlet (George MacKay). Making matters even worse, the rest of the ladies in waiting don’t think much of Ophelia’s earthiness and refusal to adhere to the expected ladylike manners.

Indeed, Ophelia is no shrinking violet. She often speaks her mind, and the girl stands up to the Queen when needed and cajoles her when she's at her most self-pitying. Hamlet thinks she’s terrific too, but he’s too self-absorbed to treat her properly. And after his father dies, the prince becomes preoccupied with getting the stolen throne back from conniving uncle Claudius (Clive Owen). Ophelia sees and has opinions on all of this and tries to navigate the tricky politics as best she can. To do so, Ophelia becomes an expert listener. And what she hears could bring down the entire kingdom.

By being so close to the royals, she is within earshot of all sorts of gossip, secrets, and skullduggery. No flighty girl worrying about parties or dresses, Ophelia watches for the right opportunities to share her knowledge and make things right. She's on the side of righteousness and uses what she knows to help Hamlet, her father, Laertes (Tom Felton), and Horatio (Devon Terrell) too. She'll keep her head, thank you very much, and help others keep theirs as well.

If this were wholly modern day, Ophelia might be cast as a reporter or an office secretary using her inside tracks to scurry up the food chain, but this is Medieval Denmark, and she’s stuck in a brutal caste system. The best she can do is stay above the fray and the ground, and that's what motivates her. Ophelia would love to be happy and marry, but she'll be damned if the girl's going to sell her soul to be some unbearable nobleman’s wife. She pines for Hamlet but knows that he's in no position to devote himself to her, so she devotes herself to thine own self be true.

Ridley does wonders in the role, moving infinitesimally through a scene, with a mere blink or a slight eyebrow raise that speak volumes. It’s subtle, clever work, showcasing a strong heroine that no one realizes holds most of the cards. She should be in contention on awards shortlists by the end of the year.

Watts is terrific too in a dual role as Gertrude and a witch in the woods. The reason as to why Watts is playing both roles is cleverly revealed in the third act, but you’ll likely figure it out by the end of the first. MacCay makes for a young and appropriately callow prince, unlike so many who were too old and knowing in the role. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Mel Gibson.) And Owen is quickly becoming the best English screen villain since Alan Rickman passed, and the way he holds as stare is deliciously despicable. 

This film has strengths across the board, starting with Chellas' sly script that manages to honor both of the film's source material. She cleverly paraphrases much of the Bard, updating it just enough to make it sound accessible. And her writing gives many tart lines to various characters. My favorites? I love it when Watts’ witch tells the impatient Ophelia, “You’re a lady in waiting…learn to wait.” Equally affecting is when Ophelia remarks to Hamlet putting her down for being a woman, “Frailty in love is not governed by sex…perhaps it runs in families.”

The costumes and production design are equal to that in the recent MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, and Steven Price’s haunting score is one of the year’s best so far. McCarthy wisely never over-directs any bit, even when the material vamps on the familiar tropes of HAMLET. Instead, she saves her more artistic flourishes for the visuals. She makes a lot of hay out of water imagery, from bathing to sweat on a brow to babbling brooks. It nicely foreshadows Ophelia's end, but here, it's not quite what you'd expect. 

I also love the way McCarthy shot the scene where the troupe plays out its drama for the court, showing the influence of Hamlet's vengeful narrative. As the King is killed, the actions play out behind a scrim curtain in silhouette - - all the better to make things very black and white. Nicely played, Hamlet and Ms. McCarthy.

Some will be galled by Ophelia’s turning of the tables at the end, but it fits the trend to rewrite such tales as old as time. This OPHELIA has a lot in common with the Broadway show  WICKED (based on Gregory Maguire’s bestseller) and a more feminist approach to sexist material. If you can accept such updating, you'll love and applaud this OPHELIA. There are all kinds of pure takes out there, but this one attempts something new and succeeds, raising the Bard for other revisionist versions.

Friday, June 14, 2019

"MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL" PROVIDES MODEST, IF FAMILIAR, FUN



After three movies, a TV series, and oodles of other entertainments based on the MEN IN BLACK comic books, it was inevitable that the franchise was due for a big screen reboot. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones took their final bows in MIB3 back in 2012, and now some new blood has been infused into the series via the comely forms of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL makes for pleasant enough entertainment, repeating a lot of the tropes that played well in the previous films, not to mention it borrows liberally from the stars’ chemistry established in THOR: RAGNAROK. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL will undoubtedly appeal to family audiences looking for an easy, breezy outing at the summer cineplex, yet this new adventure misses the chance to be edgier and stand out from the pack.

The MIB franchise has always had a user-friendly appeal to it, but this one could have made a lot more hay about its ‘hunting down aliens” storyline in today’s climate. If only it had chosen to savage the immigration paranoia and chaos running rampant in world governments today. To ignore America’s preoccupation with a border wall, not to mention Brexit and the burgeoning nationalism sweeping the globe, misses a golden opportunity for satire. 

The perfect example that MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL could have followed was what playwright Paul Rudnick did when was tasked with writing a sequel to THE ADDAMS FAMILY adaptation back in the early 90's. The first big screen version of that property was too cute and cuddly, miles away from the edgy sarcasm Charles Addams in his original panel cartoons for the New Yorker. That’s Rudnick plied his pithy and politically-minded leanings to ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES, the sequel stabbing Reagan/Bush era hypocrisy right in the heart. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL could have and should have, pushed the envelope in a similar vein.

Instead of satirizing a world trembling at misbegotten fears of the other,” the film opts for one, big world-traveling chase caper. Similar to previous outings, the plot here focuses on hunting down a ginormous alien enemy while eradicating a lot of smaller ones along the way. Here, the big bad is the Hive, a race out to take over the earth. The film starts with them seemingly vanquished by macho MIB members Hemsworth as Agent H and Liam Neeson as Agent T.  After besting them at the Eiffel Tower, the two are promoted, and one of the film’s better jokes is that Neeson’s character is charged with heading the London office where he’s now known as “High T.”

Meanwhile, back in America, a bored telemarketer (Tessa Thompson) who’s been obsessed with aliens since encountering one as a child in Brooklyn, tracks one down vis a vis her employer’s state-of-the-art computers.  She’s got a knack for interpreting shifts in weather data and electrical activity in the earth’s atmosphere, and soon enough the sleuth is following two MIB agents to their underground lair to process a Martian. Once there, she talks her way into the program and quickly graduates at the top of her class. 

The coolly cynical Agent O (Emma Thompson) admires her gumption and assigns her to London to help Agent H who is just starting to investigate re-emerging Hive activity. She meets H, and they bicker and banter as they go about their duties, arguing about who gets to drive and who to shake down. 

When Smith and Jones did it in the three previous films, they were like oil and water. Smith’s character played loose, hip, and earnest, while Jones’ vet was tightly wound and cynical. They made for one prickly pair; almost as much a threat to each other as they were to the aliens. Thompson and Hemsworth seem only mildly irritated by each other. He’s lazy, and she’s determined, but their differences don’t seem as many and thus, their interactions lack spark.  

Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to keep some sort of sexual chemistry between them, but it’s so mild as to be nonexistent. The banter they do have plays similarly to the bitchy brother and sister vibe from their Thor movie together. You want their words to sear, but they never quite achieve an acidic zing. Hemsworth is a hoot, but his character is written very close to Thor’s egotism. As for Thompson, she's likable and committed to the shenanigans here, but she doesn’t play her type-A agent as nearly funny enough. Imagine what a nervous, coiled Tracee Ellis Ross could have done with the part, or an intensely quirky Ellie Kemper, for that matter. The film needs more oomph like that. 

H and M’s case takes them from the UK club scene to the deserts of Morocco. They gently troll each other, but most of the best lines fall to Kumail Nanjiani voicing an acerbic CGI alien named Pawny. He’s eight inches tall and rides in H and M’s pockets a lot as he throws away his delivery, turning good lines into great ones. The three heroes encounter numerous aliens in disguise – one is a street vendor’s beard! – and there’s a lot of fighting and special effects that make for amusing set-pieces. Still, some of the shenanigans feel very “been there/done that,” especially when Rebecca Ferguson shows up as an ass-kicking arms dealer with three arms. It’s so similar to her MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE  character that it plays as simply too on-the-nose. 

This venture will likely warrant another, and the filmmakers would be wise to sharpen their knives. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum’s script is jocular without ever being knee-slapping, and F. Gary Gray’s direction is deft and action-packed without ever riffing on all the actioners he’s helmed before. The two Thompsons should work as an onscreen team too as their chemistry is more palpable. Finally, much more hay needs to be made out of our current global fears, something far from alien to the MIB brand. This is amusing stuff, but it needs to sear to soar. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

PIXAR IS FOUR-FOR-FOUR WITH “TOY STORY 4”


As if being one of the greatest trilogies in film history wasn’t enough for the TOY STORY franchise, with the LORD OF THE RINGS remaining its only genuine competitor, along comes a fourth feature that’s just as fun, witty, and incredibly moving as the first three. Hats off to Pixar (and parent company Disney) for being four-for-four with TOY STORY 4. This new film is one of the year’s best and easily the clear favorite to take the Best Animated Feature Oscar come next February.

How does Pixar do it? Well, it’s been argued that because animated films take a few years to make, such a calendar allows filmmakers to tweak the script as they go along and use time and distance to make more objective calls when putting together such a time-consuming film. All true, but there’s more to what Pixar does. They genuinely put their passion for great storytelling and character development first before technique and style, even though they have plenty of those characteristics in all they do too. And nowhere in the Pixar portfolio can you find a striving for fully-dimensional characters and nuanced stories more than in the TOY STORY films. And in this new one, even though the story includes characters we’re all very, very familiar with, the filmmakers find amazing ways to dig deeper into who they all are. 

Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), the doll who’s the titular head of the box of toys in these films, is experiencing a building sense of panic as TOY STORY 4 starts. He’s no longer little girl Bonnie’s favorite toy, as he often gets relegated to the closet to watch his friends dominate playtime. Woody’s too proud to lash out or express his envy blatantly, but he does search for ways to ingratiate himself to Bonnie more and more. When the little five-year-old frets about heading off to orientation day for kindergarten, Woody stows along in her backpack, hoping to provide some familiar comfort to her. His fellow toys object to Woody leaving the house in such a way, but the toy cowboy's neediness is more paramount than even Bonnie's.



At school, Bonnie feels all the lonelier when a selfish male classmate nabs the box of crayons from her table where she’s about to make a pencil holder. Woody intervenes and tips over the trash can for the little girl to discover some discarded crayons and other materials. The creative Bonnie makes a character out of a dirty spork and adds feet, arms, eyes, and a mouth to it. Suddenly, she's made a new friend, literally and figuratively. She calls him Forky, and Woody is amazed that Forky comes to life just as all legitimate toys do.

Forky, voiced as a frazzled utensil by the superb Tony Hale, thinks of himself as garbage and keeps tossing himself back in the trash. Thus, three characters feel unworthy, and this compels Woody to keep saving him to keep Bonnie coddled. The themes of abandonment and worthiness are very adult ones, but the Pixar people make them work amazingly well amongst children and toys here.

The relationship between Woody and Forky becomes even more of the new film's focus when Bonnie's toys end up in a rented RV together as her family sets out for a quick visit to a local carnival. During the journey, Forky ends up getting separated from the others and Woody goes after him. Soon, the two find themselves smack dab in the middle of the local town’s second-hand store. Talk about abandonment, everything in the store is somebody's trash, and that includes a host of new toys for Woody and Forky to discover. 

Key among the finds there is Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody's old girlfriend, and her three sheep. The foursome got traded to a collector in the first moments of the film, and Woody had trouble letting Bo go too. Their adventures in the shop make up the body of TOY STORY 4 as it cleverly riffs on its themes with a subtle nod to Rankin-Bass' ‘island of misfit toys' from their RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER Christmas classic. 


It may be shocking to some fans, but Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the group of toys from the previous films take a definitive background role to the new toys at the store. There, Woody, Bo, and Forky bond with other toys that feel discarded, and must also figure how they're going to get out of their predicament to reunite with Bonnie, et al. in the RV. Standing in their way are all sorts of obstacles, everything from shop customers to a curious cat to the needy doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Gabby likes the three newcomers, but she mostly covets Woody’s voice box. His works and hers hasn't since coming out of the toy factory, so she schemes to steal it from him.

Most films would make Gabby into little more than a straight-up villain, especially as she employs a quartet of discarded ventriloquist dolls as her henchmen. This is Pixar though, and such expected machinations are never the path to take. Instead, the creative forces at Pixar ensure that Gabby is a three-dimensional character with complex emotions that drive her actions, even her evil ones. Yes, she's desperate to be whole and is willing to rob Woody of his voice box battery to do so, but she's been thrown on the trash heap of life as well. Her neediness is very similar to that of Woody. 

Pixar follows the laws of toy physics too, despite giving them thought and movement. The new character of Duke Caboom (voiced by the game Keanu Reeves who is having a helluva year in 2019) can only pose and move in his G.I. Joe sort of stiff-limbed way. He does a lot of posturing too, and each movement earns enormous laughs, but he moves only as much as he can. It's also true with the ventriloquist dolls who have no voice in their hidden world either. Even there, they need someone to speak for them, and that’s Gabby!  


TOY STORY 4 is constructed with such precision; it could easily serve as a screenwriting class all on its own. Each of its action set-pieces means something to the plotting, and they're storyboarded so audiences can see what's going on in the through-lines. Such scenes are truly exciting too, breathlessly executed, and given as much detail as all of the characters and plotting receive. Kudos to director Josh Cooley, screenwriters Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, and the story contributors John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Valerie LaPointe and Martin Hynes for delivering such a thoroughly thought-out film. 

To tell more of the story would be to spoil the many surprises along the way. (I will tell you that there is a running gag concerning a couple of carnival sideshow plush toys voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key that is one of the funniest bits in film comedy in some time.) Woody ultimately finds purpose, as do all of the others who feel left behind here, and the ending will have you in grateful tears. TOY STORY 4 is wondrous, made with care and craft by Hollywood's most stunning filmmakers. They continue not just to deliver the goods, but truly great films. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

THE MANY MIRACLES OF “BOOKSMART”

Original caricature by Jeff York of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in BOOKSMART. (copyright 2019)
A funny thing happened on the way of the film BOOKSMART being consigned to the trash heap of comedies that bombed at the box office despite stellar reviews…

…it actually became a qualified hit.

Indeed, despite being called a “bomb” by much of the national entertainment media for only coming in sixth its opening weekend just under three weeks ago, BOOKSMART has managed to remain in the top 10 despite being in the thick of the burgeoning summer season. (More on that later.) And it made 1.5 million this past weekend, 1.3 the weekend before that, and 2.7 during its opening three days. 

All told, that puts its box office performance at over 17 million in three weeks, and the steady word-of-mouth seems to be sustaining it. That, along with a concerted effort by its many supporters to keep it top-of-mind on social media, could propel this film to make well over 25 million during its initial run. And if BOOKSMART reaches that mark, it will be better than many films that have not been castigated as failures. In fact, BOOKSMART will likely best the box office performance of Oscar winners like CALL ME BY YOUR NAME ($18 million), ROOM ($16 million), and WHIPLASH ($14 million), according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. 

This doesn’t erase the multitude of mistakes that Annapurna, partnered with United Artists, made in releasing the film. After incredible buzz coming out of 2019’s SXSW, the studios launched BOOKSMART on 2,505 screens. Whew! That’s an astonishing sign of confidence that the studios had in the film, but it was probably too ambitious for a quirky, character-driven comedy without stars, headed by female leads, and opening in the thick of summer actioners with existing brand value. 

Was BOOKSMART ever going to be able to compete with the likes of John Wick and Godzilla?  Not really. But the fact that the film has remained in the top 10 at the box office despite almost a dozen summer releases crowding the cineplexes around it is almost miraculous. Just as impressive is how the rebellion against those painting BOOKSMART as a failure has really taken the internet by storm.

Kudos to director Olivia Wilde and her stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever for never saying “die.” They’ve tweeted, talked up, given interviews, and shared all kinds of press and word-of-mouth about BOOKSMART everywhere. As they should. The film is a remarkable achievement. Yes, the film should’ve been released during a less crowded month, say late August, and it would’ve helped if the poster didn’t make the whole shebang look like a moody teen drama. But those who’ve seen the movie, along with those who made BOOKSMART, know what it is and how worthy it is of our attention. In the final analysis, it is a side-splittingly funny entertainment about two lovable nerds trying to go out with a bang their senior year of high school, one part LADY BIRD, two parts SUPERBAD, and all parts fantastic.


I am late to the dance on this one myself, having missed the critics’ screening of it, let alone the opening weekend of BOOKSMART. But I did make it the second weekend and returned again to see it its third. So far, it’s my favorite film of 2019, and will readily place on my 10 Best List at the end of the year. It’s also a film that I cannot get out of my head because of how impressive it is - - the writing, directing, performances, editing, camera work, and soundtrack are exemplary.

Its critical reputation should be uttered in the same sentence as LADY BIRD and EIGHTH GRADE  as it is an equally sharp comedy about high school, but even more importantly, a brilliant examination about what it means to be an American girl in our modern age. All three films do the miraculous – they root for our heroine(s), yet never dole out excessive punishment for their transgressions. Even male character-centered coming-of-age comedies are usually not that generous. In BOOKSMART, Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) may be the kind of girls derided by gossips, male lotharios, and pissy one-percenters, but the two let such crap roll off their backs. 

The scene that epitomized such savviness occurs in a high school bathroom when Molly overhears two male classmates trashing her **ckability and are joined in their condemnation by one of the more popular girls. Molly exits the stall quietly, and then coolly and calmly throws the ball back into their court. She points out their immaturity and how it will lead to their inevitable doom after high school. But when the bullies confess that they’re all going to thrive because two are going to Ivy League schools, while the third has already been hired to work for Google, Molly’s case dissolves. 

Does she break down, cry, or let them get the best of her? As played by the marvelous Feldstein, an actress whose eyes convey everything, Molly cannot hide her rage, true, but these malcontents will not break her. Granted, somehow they've managed to forge a path to success, one that Molly had to scrape and claw for, but despite her outrage, Molly doesn’t collapse into a heap of pathos. Instead, she uses her ire to go and push her friend Amy to join her in a "last hurrah," one where they'll party like it’s 1999. All this will happen before they return to form and accept their pigskins the following afternoon as the academia wunderkinds everyone knows them to be.


From there, the film becomes a hilarious series of misstarts, detours, and screw-ups as they try to find a classmate’s party, and indeed in all their raucous chaos is where the film earns its R rating. Yet, even with all of the craziness in their adventures together, this year's best comedy manages to triumph additionally as one of the best love stories of the year too. Even though both Molly and Amy desire other classmates, the genuine article of love is to be found in their deep and unbreakable friendship with each other. The height of the drama, amongst the comedy, comes when they explode at each other during the party, after being betrayed by their would-be trysts.

Again, neither is devastated by being rejected, and the film doesn't wallow in pity. Molly and Amy are hurt, and angry, yes, and they take it out on each other when they should be yelling at their callow lust objects, but they’re not doomed as some teen comedies would have done in the third act. And here is where the film wholly wins over its audience, I think, and why the word-of-mouth has kept it in the top 10. Even with the sex jokes, the outrageous secondary characters, a narrative run-in with a serial killer, and plenty of screeching tires, masturbation jokes, ill-fated Uber rides, and one drug-induced fantasy sequence where the two girls turn into Barbie versions of themselves, what really resonates the strongest in the film is its unstoppable affection for these two wondrous, young women. Molly and Amy wholly deserve our respect, admiration, and love. They deserve each other too, and the love and care that only such immense friendship can provide.

Stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein flank director Olivia Wilde. 
In the chatter of Hollywood, you hear a lot about "four quadrant films." Such releases are those that can appeal to all four segments of the marketplace – older audiences, younger audiences, male audiences, and female audiences. I don’t know if BOOKSMART can hope to compete with most tentpoles aimed at all four segmentations, but I’m decades past high school, let alone a male, and this film affected me wholly. I love it and have been one of those talking it up to anyone who will listen. And indeed, I’m writing about it here now to hopefully give the sterling film even more momentum.

Kudos to Wilde, the exceptional actress who here shows a simply brilliant talent behind the camera, and to the sensational writers (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman) who penned the film, and to its across-the-board stellar cast. They have all made a marvel of a film, and one that everyone should see and see again. You’ll laugh, you might even cry a little, and for certain you will fall in love with Molly and Amy. Additionally, dollars to donuts, you’ll get the film into the box office hit column too. Go!

Friday, June 7, 2019

“LATE NIGHT” STRUGGLES TO ACCURATELY SATIRIZE THE TALK SHOW WORLD



There are certain things to admire in the new comedy LATE NIGHT written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra. Stars Kaling and Emma Thompson give committed performances. It’s got some good laughs and plenty of pathos too. And it says some necessary things about white, male privilege and the never-ending chasing of ratings driving so much of the TV industry. But even with all that going for it, the film feels…off. It satirizes the world of late-night television talk shows yet is wildly inaccurate in its depiction. Based on Kaling’s experience as a writer on the sitcom THE OFFICE, her script indicts sexism in the comedy world without ever getting a real bead on the talk shows she’s supposed to be parodying. 

The problems start with the premise. Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a veteran late-night talk show host for over two decades. Really? In what world is that? The world of late night television is notoriously male. Samantha Bee, the obvious replacement for Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW when he stepped down, was notably passed over, but we’re supposed to believe that a Brit intellectual has been holding down a late night network show for decades? Absurd. Granted, Joan Rivers got her own late night talk show in 1989, but it lasted only 4 years, and the sexism in Hollywood and the press doomed it from the start.

As if the film’s premise isn’t unrecognizable, one that Thompson herself called “science fiction” the other night on Colbert’s show, we’re supposed to believe that Newbury has lasted that long in the brutally competitive world of late night even though her show’s ratings have slipped for over a decade. Again, what was Kaling thinking? Even novices know that bad ratings would’ve ripped Newbury off the air no matter how many Emmy’s she’s supposed to have won. 

To add insult to the injury, this film cannot even get a consistent take on its host and her niche in the market. It’s okay that Newbury is presented as a dry, British comic in a Craig Ferguson kind of mold, along with a recognizable stage with its desk, band, and opening monologue. But then the show stumbles by having the host book people like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to be the first guest? Really? Is Newbury supposed to be Conan O’Brien, or someone more like Dick Cavett from the 70s? Kaling’s script is all over the map like that.

Then there’s Newbury’s writing staff. She never visits them to work through the show and doesn’t know any of their names except one she slept with and one who’s been with her for 20 plus years. They’re all white and oafish sorts too, but somehow these aging frat boys are the types that Newbury’s show has hired to write her brand of intellectual comedy that books Goodwin? The most laughable element of this film is the absurdity of such logic. 

Equally absurd is the fact that only one of her writers pens Newbury's monologue. Kaling has to know that no talk show is like that, so why write something that mars the accuracy of her arguments about white privilege politics? She’s more accurate in capturing the ego of late-night comics, someone bullying and insecure in the ways that Johnny Carson and David Letterman were reputed to be during their heydays, but such was spoofed better 25 years ago on THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. And with all of Newbury’s problems with ratings, her staff, bullying, and the fact that she sleeps with coworkers, it’s doubtful that she’d still be on the air after the #MeToo environment.  

If Kaling was going for some sort of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA villain in Newbury, that’s fine, but she could’ve at least been accurate in the way she wrote the late night world. And Thompson, one of our best actresses, struggles to make sense of a confounding part. Newbury is vicious, potty-mouthed, a stick in the mud with everyone, including her long-suffering show producer Brad (Denis O’Hare, a great actor without a clue what to do with a terribly underwritten role), yet she’s the kind of zany host who wears designer sneakers with her fitted $3,000 suits. Who is this person? She’s unrecognizable.

Kaling does slightly better creating accurate characters in the writer's room. Head writer Tom (Reid Scott) has the expected rich kid’s ego as he smirks at everyone and everything. Max Casella’s Burditt scores too conveying precisely the type of show biz war horse who’d survive in the industry for 30 years. But why is there nothing written into Hugh Dancy’s character of Charlie to suggest that he’s a funny writer, let alone a successful, working stand-up on the side? Maybe it’s casting, but nothing about Dancy screams comedy. Nor is there anything even remotely smart about Paul Walter Hauser’s character of Mancuso, one of the show's writers. He comes off like a complete and clueless imbecile who wouldn’t last 10 minutes in the cutthroat world of network television.  

The best writing Kaling does here is for the character she plays. Molly, who lucks into the writer’s room when the show is trying to modernize, does have genuine wit to her, as well as an ability to hold her own against rooms full of people rooting for her to fail. Kaling is a vivid screen presence too, never pushing too hard to appear charming or smart, and often wise enough to let audiences see her thinking before answering. She also writes some sweet pathos for John Lithgow in a small supporting part as Newbury’s long-suffering husband. Funny, but most of the more serious parts of the film resonate better than the attempted comedy.

Unfortunately, even though Kaling should be the central focus of the film, the story becomes more and more about Newbury, and the character wears out her welcome early and never really recovers. Despite Thompson’s ability to breathe life into emotionally cut-off characters, as she’s done in everything from THE REMAINS OF THE DAY to LOVE, ACTUALLY, the Oscar-winning star fails to infuse Newbury with enough relatability for us to care. Sure, the host learns to bend, trying out Molly’s new ideas, but the best that Kaling could come up for Newbury is having her ad-lib some man-on-the-street interviews? Letterman, O'Brien, and Jay Leno have all done such bits for decades, and this particular schtick would not play as fresh or novel with today's audience. 

Kaling would’ve been wiser to make Newbury a riff on Bee, a female comic hosting a ‘woke’ and timely show taking down the patriarchy each week and running into problems with those in power she targets. Or Kaling could have written Newbury as a male character, one displaying all those horrible characteristics and is thus forced to change all of such ridiculous behavior. As it stands, casting Thompson in such a role may have seemed like empowerment, but that choice throws off most of Kaling’s repeated points about white, male privilege. Her argument for equality deserves better clarity, and we deserve a smarter film.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

“ROCKETMAN” TELLS A FAMILIAR ROCK STAR TALE WITH EXUBERANCE AND PANACHE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Taron Egerton as Elton John in ROCKETMAN. (copyright 2019)

If a biography of a rock star is going to be told onscreen, you know certain beats are to be expected. Any rags-to-riches story in the music world will showcase a humble artist who becomes a big star, but then almost loses it all to ego, drugs, and excess. Whether it’s Jim Morrison or Ray Charles or Freddie Mercury, such stories are fairly predictable. What distinguishes them is in the telling. Elton John’s story, told in the new film ROCKETMAN, follows a similar trajectory but what makes it so exceptional is the joie de vivre in the telling. The movie is filled with hellzapoppin’ energy, brilliant performances, and an integration of songs into the script done with the panache of a Broadway musical. It’s a bold, involving telling of the history of one of the world’s most extraordinary artists, transcending a fairly obvious storyline of up's and down's.

Perhaps knowing that such beats would be obvious, the filmmakers behind ROCKETMAN pushed to serve up John’s story in ways that perpetually catch the viewer off-guard. Thus, the film plays with time, structure, and reality as its narrative weaves in and out of fantasy, flashbacks, and the breaking of the fourth wall. The movie also knows that it’s a musical and revels in it. This venture could have easily been done on Broadway, and frankly should be after this, with characters walking out of serious scenes into chorus lines of dancers waiting for them in the streets. It's a serious story, yes, but one that never resists being flamboyantly theatrical. 

The film is as cheeky as Sir Elton himself, demonstrating the same frothy sensibility that he’s displayed on stage, in music videos, and during interviews for the past five decades. John has always been a consummate entertainer, one who delights in the flash and panache, knowing that it makes all of his incredible music even more worthy of an expensive concert ticket. He’s one of the executive producers here and his sensibilities no doubt inspired all associated with the project to match his flair.

Director Derek Fletcher perfectly matches such sensibilities, as does screenwriter Lee Hall, from the very get-go. John (Taron Egerton) bursts through the doors of a rehabilitation center, still in costume from a concert gig, ready to attend his first group therapy session. He's dressed as the devil, with sequins and wings as accessories, literally carrying his demons with him. Soon, he'll be opening up about all of his addictions, peccadillos, and how his unloving home led him down such a destructive path. The gait of John is heroic, filmed in slow motion, as he starts the journey to self-understanding. It’s so dramatic as to almost play as parody, and indeed, the orange onesie helps underline the outrageous approach to the start of a film. 

Soon though, such over-the-top window dressing will be countered by the utmost seriousness of John’s loneliness as a child, struggling to feel wanted by a mercurial mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and an indifferent father (Steven Mackintosh).  Even though the 10-year-old John was discovered to be immensely talented, able to play the piano by ear, only his grandmother (Gemma Jones) gave him any due attention. It's such a shame that so many artists have such an awful beginning, but it's John's too.

Even with a troubled home life, the young Reggie, his original name, manages to find solace in the music as he imagines conducting an orchestra at night after “light’s out.” They show up there, right in his bedroom, as the film starts to blur the serious with the sensational. And when the story shifts back to John in rehab, he and his group join the flashback, dancing on the streets with his family and younger self.  

The film continues to pinball back and forth like that, bouncing from serious revelations about John’s life to fantastical representations of it, underscored by his music. We see John struggling to start his music career, partnering with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and wrestling with his homosexuality, all interwoven with breakout musical numbers utilizing the John/Taupin songbook. It works spectacularly well, and often incorporates the spectacular. When John performs at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, he levitates off the stage, feeling the endorphin rush of his performance. The audience is lifted off their feet too while grooving to this new star singing “Crocodile Rock.” 

Fletcher understands what music does to the artist and the listener and literally translates such feelings into his action onscreen. Later, when a drugged-up John feels used and abused, he belly-flops into his Hollywood mansion pool. At the bottom of the water, he discovers his childish self who sings to him. Meanwhile, party guests dive in to save the singer, albeit not before performing some water acrobatics to underscore the theatricality of John's life.

As the superstar spirals downward gains steam, so do the fantasy numbers. They lift the film, giving it a buoyancy that counters the down turns. It helps keep the film from becoming depressing, even though much of what happens to John definitely is. His search for love haunts him for decades of his adult life and the movie earns the tears. 

Even at its darkest ebb, Egerton holds the audience with his uncanny portrayal of John. He's equal to Rami Malek's achievement in last year’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, but Egerton sings as John where Malek lip-synched as Freddie Mercury. Egerton sings well too, capturing the essence of John’s style without doing a flat-out imitation of it. More importantly, the young actor truly brings the legend to life, making John lovable, risible, and horrible, often all in the same scene. It will be interesting to see how the awards-worthy Egerton fairs compared to Malek’s trajectory on his way to the Oscar later this year. He should be a major contender.

In fact, comparisons to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY are unfortunate but inevitable with ROCKETMAN. Yet, while the story of Queen arrived on screen first, almost every element of this film is superior. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY's narrative was ridiculously bland and too straightforward. It glossed over Mercury’s sexuality, going for a watered down PG-13 rating. And it barely managed to make the other members of Queen characters at all. ROCKETMAN doesn't have those problems. Its narrative zigs and zags, it's rated R to give a fuller portrayal of John’s sexual proclivities, and even the smallest roles register as interesting people. Interestingly, Fletcher replaced the troubled Bryan Singer as the director on BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY to complete that troubled film. Small world, eh?

Fletcher does better here, and he uses the camera, editing, and superb production values to bring out the best in the story. He's also spent most of his career as an actor and that’s evident in the superb performances he gets from his cast. Egerton deserves Oscar consideration, for sure, but so does Howard for her nuanced turn as John’s passive/aggressive mother. Bell is always sharp, and he makes Taupin a moral center here. Plus, the two child actors (Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor) playing the young John do incredible things with their demanding roles. They sing, dance, and build the pathos with remarkable clarity. Even the third-tier characters come off thoroughly with Tate Donovan as Troubadour owner Doug Weston and Celinde Schoenmaker as John’s wife Renate being two stand-outs.  

It would have behooved ROCKETMAN to show John’s relationship with Ryan White, the teen AIDS activist in the 80’s who drove so much of the musician’s zeal for fighting that horrid disease. Just as much of a missed opportunity is the film’s failure to show the relationship John had with Princess Diana. His "Candle in the Wind" re-do for her funeral remains the best-selling single in UK history, but none of that shows up here. Granted, this biopic cannot cover all the decades of John’s career, but those key turning points are screaming to be included. 

ROCKETMAN tells a story about the artist’s search for truth in his life and his work, and it blends those themes together vividly, mixing the fantastic in with the realistic. And it works. It will make even the casual fan of John’s music run home to download his work on iTunes. And his incredible tale will stay with you long after the credits have rolled showing how faithful Julian Day's costumes were. Elton John rocks, and so does this film.