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Monday, July 8, 2019

"Toy Story 4"

            This may be the most boring movie review you ever read. Don’t get me wrong, “Toy Story 4” is far from a boring movie. In fact, it packs in so much action that I wondered if it could even reach a satisfactory conclusion in its 100 minute runtime (spoiler alert: of course it did). No, it’s boring because I have nothing but compliments for this movie. The most consistently praise-worthy franchise in movie history continues its praise-worthiness, Pixar has done it again, this movie should make history by becoming the first animated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, blah blah blah.

            After a prologue where we learn how Woody the cowboy (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep the shepherdess (Annie Potts) became separated between the second and third movies, we cut to Woody’s life post-“Toy Story 3.” He enjoyed a comfortable life as the favorite toy of previous owner Andy, with his position only threatened briefly by astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) in the first movie, with the two eventually learning to coexist at the top. But he’s nowhere near the top with new owner Bonnie, who seems to only want him for his sheriff’s badge, which she can put on Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack). Bonnie is so fickle, in fact, that when she handcrafts a new toy out of items found in the trash, Forky the spork (Tony Hale) becomes her new favorite toy of all.

            Bonnie takes Forky, Woody, Buzz, and all the other toys (I won’t rattle off the full list, but if they’re a series mainstay, they’re probably here) on a road trip where Woody constantly has to keep Forky from returning to the trash from whence he came in order to keep Bonnie happy. That’s how he maintains his importance, by watching out for the true favorite. Forky, for his part, isn’t crazy about living the toy life and just wants to be trash again, not out of a lack of self-preservation, but just because he really likes trash. He attempts escape in small town with a carnival, and Woody pursues him, but notices something in a nearby antiques store. Could it be… Bo Peep? He figures he and Forky can peek inside the store, possibly reconnect with his old friend, and get back to Bonnie before anyone’s the wiser. As you can probably imagine, things don’t go according to plan.

            People are going to come out of this film singing the praises of the new characters. Likely the most popular will be Forky, who gets laughs anytime he moves with his googly eyes and popsicle stick feet. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is the de facto villain, a bygone baby doll with a fleet of ventriloquist dummy henchman who wants a voicebox to attract an owner, and decides that Woody’s will do. Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) are a conjoined pair of carnival prizes eager to attack humans. Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) is a traumatized Canadian stuntman figure. This movie has the good fortune to be coming out at a time when every entertainment outlet seems to be obsessed with Reeves on a level not seen since the Betty White craze of 2010 (oh, and she’s in this movie too!). And Bo Peep has been on the lam(b) (sorry, had to do it) for so long that she’s practically a new character herself. She’s taken to the life of being a “lost toy,” though Woody knows that toys can only be happy if they have a human owner… right?

            Kids are going to love “Toy Story 4” because it’s funny and engaging and its main characters are toys. Adults are going to love it because it’s bittersweet and nostalgic and because Pixar managed to make a fourth movie after three great ones without screwing up the franchise. Who am I kidding, everybody has every reason to love this movie. I recommend seeing it as a family and loving it together.


Grade: A
11:43 am edt          Comments

Men in Black: International"

            “Men in Black: International” doesn’t deserve to call itself a “Men in Black” movie. Sure it’s about a mismatched pair of secret agents (Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth) who wear black suits and sunglasses and police space aliens and wipe people’s memories with a flashing neuralyzer, but it lacks the heart that gave the first three “Men in Black” movies their identity. And I’m not just saying that because we have two new leads instead of the legendary team-up of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, I would have been fine with any two leads as long as they had good chemistry. I’m saying that because these new characters and the story surrounding them are not funny, exciting, or interesting.

            Agent M (Thompson) is the new kid at MIB’s New York City branch, having pursued a spot in the mysterious organization since childhood. Her boss (Emma Thompson, no relation to Tessa) feels that her talents could be more immediately useful in London. So M is off to a world she doesn’t understand (the steering wheel is on the right over there!) to do a job she doesn’t fully understand, where she has to work with beings that she definitely doesn’t understand.

            One such hard-to-understand being is her new partner H (Hemsworth). He’s a human, that part she can understand. But she doesn’t understand why the reckless slob has such a high standing in the organization. Apparently a few years ago he and now-head T (Liam Neeson) defeated a powerful enemy called The Hive using nothing more than their wits and a couple of Series 7 de-atomizers. It would seem that the “wits” component has since diminished in H, and he now succeeds only through bribery and dumb luck, creating headaches for T and the justifiably grouchy C (Rafe Spall).

            M and H’s first mission together is a simple bodyguarding assignment for an alien royal. But the mission gets botched with the return of The Hive. They’re back and have their sights set on conquering Earth. Suspecting that The Hive has a mole in MIB, M and H go rogue and travel to Morocco, where they find more dead royals, discover that they’re in possession of a weapon of mass destruction, get in a flying motorcycle chase, burgle H’s multi-armed arms dealer ex-girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson), and have other adventures typical of this franchise. Along the way they take on the services of ineffective protector Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani). My only strong opinion of this movie is that Pawny is incredibly annoying.

            Most of the film’s humor comes from either alien weirdness or M and H bickering with each other. As far as the aliens, there is literally a universe of possibilities, but the film rarely goes for anything more ambitious than “they sure look funny when they’re amorous, huh?” As for M and H, I won’t go so far as to say they have zero chemistry because I think it’s scientifically impossible to make these two actors unlikeable, but they already teamed up in “Thor: Ragnarok” and they were much better there.

            I loved 1997’s “Men in Black” so much that I bought it on video. This was at a time when the number of movies I owned (as opposed to rented) didn’t reach double digits. But I liked the creative aliens and gadgets, the funny script, and the general sharpness of Smith and Jones so much that I wanted to have access to them at a moment’s notice. Compared to that movie, or even one of its less-inspired sequels, “Men in Black: International” is staggeringly ineffective. Nothing outside of Pawny is truly terrible, but this is a film that is all too satisfied to merely be “not truly terrible.” An easy joke would be to say that I wish I could be neuralyzed and forget this movie, but this movie is perfectly capable of being forgettable on its own.


Grade: C-

11:41 am edt          Comments

"The Secret Life of Pets 2"

            I just barely enjoyed 2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets.” The cutesy animated movie about house pets had to scratch and claw its way to a Two and a Half Star rating (now a B-) from me. I remember that the main story about cozy domestic dog Max (Louis C.K., a bad casting choice at the time and an even worse one in hindsight) having his world turned upside down by overbearing rescue Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the two having to learn to cooperate and share did nothing for me. Fortunately, that movie was saved by its supporting players, especially villainous bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart). Now comes a sequel that does not need to be saved by Kevin Hart (of all people), it’s funny at every turn.

Not long after the first movie, Max and Duke’s owner (Ellie Kemper) got married to loving schlub Chuck (Pete Holmes) and the two had a baby named Liam. Max (now voiced by Patton Oswalt in the film’s first brilliant decision) was at first worried that Liam would turn his world upside down, but has come to realize that he’s turning it upside down for the better. Skipping over the part where Max worries about the owner’s attention being divided like it was with Duke is the film’s second brilliant decision.

Max and Liam get along fine, and Max has even assumed the role of protector for the toddler. He takes the role seriously, so seriously that he’s beginning to hurt himself with anxiety attacks whenever he thinks Liam might be in danger, which is constantly. He has to wear a cone for the family’s trip to a farm, where he meets a gruff herding dog (Harrison Ford) with a different approach to… parenting, basically.

The farm storyline gives purpose to Max, Duke, and the humans. But the movie has many more marketable characters it wants to use. So it comes up with a story where pampered poodle Gidget (Jenny Slate) loses Max’s favorite toy in the home of a batty cat lady and has to reach out to wicked feline Chloe (Lake Bell) to teach her The Way of the Cat to get it back. That still doesn’t give everyone a purpose, so there’s yet another storyline about Snowball fancying himself a superhero and teaming up with a determined Shih Tzu (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a tiger from a deranged circus owner (Nick Kroll).

Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I saw the movie or maybe the writing and direction really are better this time around, but I thought that every joke in this movie landed perfectly. At no point was I rolling my eyes or thinking the humor was beneath me or wanting the movie to end. As if the well-executed humor wasn’t enough of a reason to see this movie, it is an animated movie about furry animals and a baby, so I shouldn’t have to tell you that it operates on the highest levels of cuteness.

I can’t say that the film holds up incredibly well under scrutiny. Storylines could be tightened, characters could be developed (Duke, a major physical presence, contributes almost nothing to the story). This movie isn’t painstakingly written and directed on the level of, say, a Pixar movie. But its flaws are well-hidden under layers and layers of fun. I wasn’t even out of the theater before I felt compelled to send my mom a text telling her how much I loved this movie. And if I’m in a hurry to recommend this movie to my own family, it’s only fitting that I highly recommend “The Secret Life of Pets 2” to you and your loved ones.


Grade: B
11:40 am edt          Comments


            The big question surrounding the new live-action remake of Disney’s 1992 animated classic “Aladdin” is, can the iconic comedic performance that defined the original be replaced and still make the movie marvelously magical? I’m sorry to say that the film doesn’t pull it off. Alan Tudyk tries, but he falls short of Gilbert Gottfried in making Iago the parrot memorable. Fortunately you’ve got Will Smith as an excellent replacement for Robin Williams as the Genie to offset the disappointment.

            Disney buffs already know the plot, but for those who don’t: Arabian street-rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) after she ventures out of her palace disguised as a commoner. He and his monkey Abu are directed by evil royal vizier Jafar (Marwen Kenzari) to retrieve a magical lamp that can only be taken by a “diamond in the rough.” Jafar betrays Aladdin, so Abu betrays him and steals the lamp, which Aladdin rubs. Out pops a Genie (Smith) who is bound to grant Aladdin three wishes. Aladdin only wants one thing, the love of Jasmine, but she can only marry a prince, so he uses his first wish to become Prince Ali Ababwa and woo Jasmine with his flying carpet. He’s so happy with the arrangement that he promises to use his third wish to set the Genie free from a life of wish-granting, presumably after he figures out what he wants for a second wish. But his new persona is a lie, and Aladdin soon finds himself ensnared in a moral quagmire, one that the suspicious Jasmine and power-hungry Jafar aren’t exactly helping.

            Some things are changed from the 1992 movie, some aren’t. Some changes are good, others aren’t, and the same can be said of the non-changes. The samenesses that work can by nature be taken for granted, but the ones that don’t make for some of the weakest parts of this movie. A lot of Aladdin’s early dialogue and song lyrics are unchanged, and Massoud tries to put new inflections into them to “make them his own,” but these lines were clearly not written with his voice in mind.

            As for the changes, my favorite is the addition of a new character. Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) is Jasmine’s handmaiden who serves as sort of a big sister. She’s also a scene-stealing romantic interest for the Genie, who in this version disguises himself as Prince Ali’s human manservant, which thankfully means that he’s not a blue CGI blotch the whole time. Also high in the running for my favorite change is a new song for Jasmine called “Speechless,” no doubt added when the filmmakers realized that Naomi Scott’s voice was too good to be limited to half of “A Whole New World.” And I like the decision to have Smith take over “Arabian Nights” at the beginning. He’s not the best singer per se, but his charisma more than carries the song, think Dwayne Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” from “Moana.”

            But every time there’s a change I like, it’s cancelled out by one I don’t. The initial Cave of Wonders scene, a great source of suspense in the original, here goes by so fast that new viewers probably won’t know what’s happening. Jafar is supposed to be a miserable old man, but this newer, younger version just sounds like a brat when he’s delivering “I’ve worked for this all my life” dialogue. The less said about a rambling riff about jams, the better. And the movie’s not immune from the CGI ugliness that has plagued a lot of these recent Disney live-action remakes.

            The whole thing averages out to a movie that’s, well, average. Smith, Scott, and Pedrad push the movie into “recommended” territory (and sure, Massoud and Kenzari have a few moments as well). This new version of “Aladdin” doesn’t fully capture the magic of the original, but it makes for a decent family viewing experience.


Grade: B-

11:39 am edt          Comments

"John Wick Chapter 3"

            Neither the first “John Wick” movie from 2014 nor its 2017 follow-up did enough business to warrant an official review from me. How I wish they had. I could have written about how much fun I had watching Keanu Reeves play the world’s greatest assassin amidst a world full of assassins. The second movie in particular had me beaming for hours afterward, trying to whittle down which scene was my favorite before giving up and declaring something like a five-way tie. Now comes a third movie, which I wish we had gotten right after the second. How come “The Matrix” gets two sequels less than six months apart from one another and this vastly superior franchise doesn’t?

            At the end of the second movie, John Wick (Reeves) let his emotions get the better of him and killed an enemy within the consecrated walls of the Continental hotel. The Continental, run by a man named Winston (Ian McShane) and his concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) is supposed to be a safe haven for assassins, and anyone who violates this rule incurs the death penalty. Winston could have killed Wick himself, but opted instead to excommunicate him from his community of assassins, with a $14 million bounty on his life going into effect in one hour.

            In “Chapter 3,” we see what happens when that hour is up. Several New York-based assassins try to collect the bounty, and Wick has to fend them off without underworld privileges like guns and cars. He has to settle for using a heavy book as a weapon and a horse for transportation (and also a weapon). He makes his way to a Russian ballet Director (Angelica Huston) who can send him to Morocco, where he has an old friend (Halle Berry) who can put him in contact with his world’s High Elder so he can beg for his life. Meanwhile, an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who works for this world’s High Table, is using an assassin of her own (Mark Dacascos) to punish those who helped Wick escape justice, including The Director, underworld crime boss The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and Winston. The High Table is willing to deconsecrate The Continental in order to punish someone whose crime was violating the sanctity of The Continental - how’s that for logic?

            The high points of the movie are of course the gleeful action sequences where Wick dispatches one would-be killer after another. His favorite method is a gunshot to the head, but he’s not above breaking into a knife museum and using whatever he can find in there. The fighting is always crisp with no wasted motion. And it’s worth mentioning that Wick and the other assassins are all professionals, and they’re excellent about not harming or even bothering innocent bystanders. An early fight scene takes place in a library, and Wick and his attacker don’t get shushed once.

            “John Wick: Chapter 3” is the usual trigger-happy good time I’ve come to expect from this franchise. My only real complaint is the ending, where some of the fighting seems rushed (Wick should get more time to fight with two henchmen that I recognize from a certain Indonesian action franchise) and nothing feels resolved. Granted, nobody promised that this installment would represent a resolution, but could this movie be a little less blatant about sequel-baiting? I’m already sold on “Chapter 4” because I like these movies, not because it’s implying a series of showdowns that frankly we could have gotten here. On the other hand, what am I complaining about? We’re getting more “John Wick” movies and that’s a good thing!


Grade: B

11:37 am edt          Comments

"Pokemon Detective Pikachu"

            I should start off by saying that I’m not a fan of “Pokémon.” I have never found the game or its creatures to be cute, funny, interesting, or worthwhile. Except for Squirtle the Turtle, who I just “get” because of my love of turtles. But I feel that it’s important for you to know that this review is not coming from a place of fandom. If you or someone in your family is indeed a fan of Pokémon, they will probably like this movie more than I did. I’ve been told that many people who don’t like Pokémon do in fact like this movie (it’s currently sitting at a 63% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the best-reviewed video game adaptation of all time), but I am not one of them.

            And I tried to give this movie a chance, I really did. I was looking forward to a grittier Pokémon movie where cat-thing Pikachu’s incessant repetition of his own name was replaced with Ryan Reynolds smart-aleckry. Deadpool trying his hand at a children’s franchise was something I had to see. I knew he couldn’t be too crude in this PG-rated movie (though a surprising amount of smutty jokes make it into the film), but I was looking forward to seeing how his general attitude would translate. Sadly, “Pokémon” dopiness wins out over “Deadpool” irreverence.

            The movie takes place in Ryme City where humans and Pokémon live side by side. Supposedly they’re equals in contributing to society, but I didn’t see the Pokémon bringing many skills to the table, with the unsurprising exception of Squirtle, who can put out fires. Tim (Justice Smith) is the estranged teenage son of detective Harry (whose casting is a surprise), who has to travel to the city when he learns his father’s been killed. At Harry’s apartment, Tim runs into Pikachu, who was apparently Harry’s partner, though a recent bout of amnesia has left him unclear on the details. Also, Tim can hear Pikachu speaking in Reynolds’ voice, where everyone else just hears “Pika Pika.”

            Pikachu believes that Harry is still alive somewhere, and that solving a case they were working together will help reunite him with his son. Tim and Pikachu form an uneasy alliance and team up with aspiring reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton) to investigate Ryme City’s seedy underbelly. They wind up in front of founder Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) who believes that his son (Chris Geere) is performing illegal experiments on Pokémon and that Harry was about to thwart him. The son is clearly not sharp enough to be the movie’s Big Bad, and I gritted my teeth waiting for the obvious “real” villain to be revealed. The final showdown occurs during a sloppy mass panic where even Ken Watanabe (who made the film seem respectable in an earlier scene as Harry’s captain) can’t maintain his dignity.

            The action scenes are lame, Tim and Lucy are shoddy human protagonists, and the worldbuilding is a knockoff of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” without the legendary chemistry. On top of that, we get a last-minute twist that makes Tim look like the least-cognizant person on the planet. A lot rides on what Reynolds can bring to the table, and of course he’s the best thing about this movie (I even found myself quoting some of his dialogue at work the next day), with my favorite bit being a tearful version of the “Pokemon” theme that he sings while wallowing in self-pity, but he’s not enough to save the movie as a whole. I’d recommend crossing “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” off your list of suspects for which movie to see.


Grade: C-
11:36 am edt          Comments

"The Intruder"

            The first lamb for “Avengers: Endgame” to slaughter is “The Intruder,” a home invasion thriller where the invader cares deeply about the home. It’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about the positioning of its release. Weekend estimates indicate that the “hot” new film (of three new releases, and you’re lucky I’m not here to voice my displeasure with “UglyDolls”) did roughly one thirteenth of the domestic box office as the second weekend of the unprecedented overperformer. I have to wonder how much of its $11 million haul came from it being the second choice of “Avengers” turnaways. It certainly wasn’t the first choice of anyone who likes good movies.

            Rich couple Scott (Michael Ealy) and Annie (Meagan Good) think they’ve found their dream home: a creaky old mansion overgrown with vines, far removed from Scott’s job in San Francisco, and available for just over $3 million. The outgoing owner is Charlie (Dennis Quaid), a swell-seeming guy who greets the prospective buyers by firing a gun in their direction. His target is a nearby deer, but it still gets the hopefully-friendly relationship off to a hostile start. Scott isn’t as crazy about the place (and Charlie) as Annie is, but “happy wife, happy life” and all that, so they take it. Eh, Charlie’s on his way out, so his unnerving presence won’t be a factor much longer.

            Charlie’s unnerving presence remains a factor for a long time. He shows up uninvited to give the lawn a final mow. He shows up admittedly invited to Thanksgiving where he disapproves of some remodeling ideas and develops a distaste for Scott’s muscle-headed work buddy (Joseph Sikora). He shows up uninvited to advocate for guns in lieu of an electronic security system. He shows up uninvited to skulk around the woods. He shows up uninvited to leer at Annie. He shows up uninvited to wing Scott with his car. It is clear that Charlie isn’t ready to let the house go.

What isn’t clear is how exactly he intends to get the house back. I think his plan is to get rid of Scott and marry Annie so the two of them can live in the house together, but that seems like an awfully long game for a guy like him to play, and even in his twisted mind, does he really think that he’s that good of a seductor? He’ll probably have to settle for just eliminating both of them and… getting the house back through squatting, maybe? A more thoughtful movie would see Charlie try to get the terrified couple to sign the house back over to him, and this would lead to a series of mind games and calls for submission, but this is not a thoughtful movie. All we know is that he wants to get rid of Scott, and that is where the suspense and action lie.

Bad news: “The Intruder” is an awful movie, with stupid characters and a script ripped off from better stalker/home invasion movies. Good news: Quaid gives a fun, scenery-gnashing performance that fills the film with unintentional laughter. Bad news: A lingering scene of sexual assault undoes even the film’s accidental charm. Good news: the film goes by rather briskly and the credits hit before you know it. Better news: those record-smashing crowds for “Avengers: Endgame” are beginning to taper off, so you’re increasingly unlikely to have to settle for “The Intruder.”


Grade: C-
11:34 am edt          Comments

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