IR Film Review: TOY STORY 4 [Pixar/Disney]

The trepidation in doing a “Toy Story” sequel is why mess up or challenge a good thing. Money is usually the answer in these scenarios. “Toy Story 3” was such a fitting end with its undeniable odes to “Star Wars” lore and just essential drama that magnified and personified the essence of the journey of Woody & Buzz. “Toy Story 4” is a good movie through and through but one that didn’t necessarily need to be. Nonetheless, it works well all the same. This installment works more in all seriousness as an epilogue on existence of Woody. It is not about the kid’s room or the nursery anymore. It is set again the bigger world asking the question”Do I want more?” and “Who am I?” Wonderfully enough this theme tends to innately move the motivations of every single one of the characters here. By not having to give all the focus to each of the nursery toys, there almost seems to be broadening of character.

Annie Potts as Bo Peep definitely ups here game and the essence of a lost toy in the world does take on new meaning while essentially reflecting the mentality of a new age. The way she hangs and runs with Giggle McDimples just feels organic. Woody is struggling to catch up…which is part of the point of the exercise. The addition of Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, a doll with a flaw in an antique store feels misdirected at first but then, especially with the help of her Henchmen (sort of like Howdy Doody on steroids) there is definitely a sense of darkness but in a way misplaced enlightenment. The fact that some of the ending music from “The Shining” plays at one point just was undeniably elating. The different elements of existentialism moving through the story including the Id, hubris and the inner voice are all incredibly deep despite it being able to play very simple on the surface.

Even the introduction of Forky, a toy made out of trash by their kid Bonnie, evolves from that aspect. He just wants to be trash until he realizes his need to be but his first question is “Why am I alive?” On retrospect thinking, it can be quite filtered and intense in what the movie is talking about. That is a question that Gabby comes to terms with. Even Duke Kaboom, a racing toy played by Keanu Reeves, has a similar existential crisis. Rumor was that Keanu pushed the writers to build his character out more. And while that might be true, Duke’s journey has the same path and texture of needing to be as the other main characters. He was thrown out by his kid because he didn’t do what the commercial said he would. The irony and paradox of that statement both as an actor and as a character is, in ways, profound. Not wanting to give away any of the spoilers, this progression serves all the characters even Buzz with his basic thinking.

Towards the end of the film however which was interesting, there was a buzzy moment that very few films get when it hits the right notes finding heart and connection without being schmaltzy…and it wasn’t even with the main character. That said, though there is an almost subtle texture of “Forrest Gump” in the final moments. Not the same perception but it just about got there. “Toy Story 4” didn’t need to be but in that that it is, it is welcome as it is both a crowd pleaser but also an existential epilogue on the nature of a toy that is Woody. And Key & Peele are pretty good in it too.

A

By Tim Wassberg

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IR Film Review: ANNA [Summit/Lionsgate]

After “Valerian”, director Luc Besson has been balancing the different essences of life with his company in financial trouble for a short time. Personally he was being attacked because of supposed conduct. And a film that was supposed to be his big return to large film making simply tanked. In personification, “Valerian” wasn’t bad. It was perfectly on par with “The Fifth Element” but made in a different time. “Lucy” right before had shown with the right actress despite a slightly incomplete script that the visceral nature of the director was still there. The biggest issue, not to get too industry about the failure of “Valerian”, is that in the US, STX Films pretty much released it cold with no anticipation. And it failed. With his new film “Anna”, the trailer was phenomenal building up the aspect of a new action girl in Sascha Luss. Besson, despite anything, has the ability to create wonderfully strong female characters while still engaging in the beauty and the world of modeling he seems to love so much. The trailer simply teased one major scene which in retrospect is interestingly enough a lipnus test. “Anna” approaches what “Red Sparrow”tried to do but with a blank canvas and not Jennifer Lawrence. Within this construct, you have no preconceived notions of who Anna is because that is not her name. This is why you can buy more into the idea of it. Now while much of the movie tries to play to certain spy quotients, it is the nature of freedom that rings true even as the film is set right after the fall of the Soviet Union per se. The KGB essence here is interestingly done both in its recruiting but also the showing of Russia right after that fall. It doesn’t go easy on American intelligence either. It almost makes the point that you are under the thumb of power no matter where you are.

Sascha Luss balances this nicely as “Anna” but it helps that she has a couple actors working against her, who despite that their characters are a bit thin and sometimes more of sexual playthings to Anna than actual connections is interesting. It works because it is a reversal of what was the norm 20 years ago. Cillian Murphy plays one of his more mainstream roles and shows a level of charm and cool we haven’t seen on screen from him in awhile. Luke Evans, right off “The Alienist”, creates the right amount of patriotism while understanding this girl he recruited. Anna’s girlfriend in the modeling world creates the right amount of offset in social representation to show that identity is simply a construct depending what you want in life. It is not a criticism on anything at times with either sex except a certain degree of survival and understanding. Helen Mirren has the most interesting role in that of KGB overseer. This is the most hidden she has been with a sense of cunning, humor and drama that sometimes Besson can get out of his actors. “Red” for Mirren was play. Here she is doing some magnified work. Besson still has it. The action sequences are visceral. He can do it with a smaller amount of money but he likes the toys of big film production. The film is fun to watch, plotted decently, stylized cool (watch out for an INXS song montage) and, while not Besson’s best, far from his worse and continually shows his focus for talent. Initially this reviewer thought this might be a retooling or telling of “Matilda”, the child Natalie Portman played in Besson’s “The Professional” as a grown up assassin. A key plot turn in the movie has Sascha wearing a black bob that has harkings back to that character. Alas “Anna” will probably be lost since, for likely reasons, Summit/Lionsgate released it cold. A movie is a movie, even when it is not….that doesn’t make this one any less entertaining.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: MIB INTERNATIONAL [Sony]

The balance of tone is always a necessity in franchises but the passing of the baton is always a tricky proposition or it simply can be the reflection of an idea not being new, but of a different perspective. “Men In Black International” is a perfect acceptable addition to the pantheon of MIB but does not necessarily have a big stakes perspective to overcome. The aspect of a gung-ho new recruit and a seasoned agent fits the bill and in many ways it takes the angle that the end of the first MIB set up well with Linda Fiorentino and Will Smith at the end (though it was never built on). This uses it as the next logical step though Tessa Thompson’s character M is a bit more safe instead of Linda’s wonky morgue attendant. Thompson gives the sense of wonder that propels the idea of her love for the aliens she is seeing.

The tone of the relationship between her and Chris Hemsworth is of course not played up though the basic chemistry is there but not as vicious as it was in “Thor: Ragnarok” but that was a much different world. They play more like brother and sister here which definitely works. But, it comes off less than it should because there is not more electricity between Hemsworth and a select other character who, despite being an actress of note, has an almost two dimensional play on her character. where her previous role in a Paramount franchise was so electric. It is not her fault but something is missing. Again it comes down to stakes. F. Gray Gray as a director is perfectly adept with the material and smart to stay away from big set pieces so the budget seems within check (though that might not turn out to be true).

There are some scenes in the desert though that are balanced oddly between the gamut of “Star Wars” and “Spaceballs”. However in the film there is no real connective moment that transmutes the idea of what MIB is. Even “MIB III” despite how fantastical the set pieces were (especially at the end) they (like Barry Sonnenfeld) knew how to make it connect. The resolution here doesn’t have that since there is never a sense of any real danger. That does not make it any less fun. It just makes it less pertenant at times. Like the previous “Men In Black” trilogy, it is also about the weird aliens, not so much about the design but the comic timing. Whereas the old school chum of gangly aliens that chilled with Smith are still there (albeit very briefly), there is no throwback to the old film. Even an old school wink, like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in “Maverick”, just would have helped. A photo of Tommy. A dorky snapshot of Will Smith just out of eye sight. Emma Thompson is fine but she is limited in her role.

Liam Neeson’s character will not be discussed too much here but he plays it more straight-laced though some darker comedy would have definitely progressed the story. Again, there is nothing primarily wrong with “MIB International”. Chris Hemsworth is aloof and debonair (though too clean cut). Thompson is wonderfully optimistic yet grounded. But it doesn’t seem enough. What saves the film most times is Kumail Nanjiani as Pawny, a small alien who ends up serving M (Tessa Thompson) because he thinks she is a queen. He has the best lines and elevates the proceedings. “MIB International” is perfectly fun but safe, adventurous but doesn’t paint outside the lines, paced right but without stakes to really up the game.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: DARK PHOENIX [20th Century Fox/Disney]

The essence of the X-Men mythology has placed it with some ideals of archetypes but, with some of the actors involved, the texture of nuance is always an interesting progression in what is embraced and what is shown below the surface. This reviewer did interviews for “X-Men: The Last Stand” back in the last iteration of the cast before “First Class” but also visited the set of “X-Men: Apocalypse”. With “The Last Stand”, the approach involved the aspect of Jean Grey as well. However unlike Famke Jannsen’s iteration, there seems a times a lack of stakes or perhaps disconnection from Sophie Turner’s inhabiting of the character, much in the way of Captain Marvel in “Endgame”: she is so indestructible that the balance of her take down is somewhat like ants trying to destroy gods . That said, this installment is the most engrossing since “First Class”. The inclusion of Jennifer Lawrence works simply because of the structure of what it is setting up and that allows in true form the most connective tissue that motivates all the characters. Whether it be Tye Sheridan’s Psyclops or in a more pronounced fashion Beast played by Nicolas Hoult, “Dark Phoenix” has some more true acting from these performers because the entire proceeding is not overtaken by visual effects unlike some of the iterations before. It comes off more practical.

Also the characters, even more so, seem to engage in their baser desires at times which makes them more fully realized. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto seems both more conflicted but also at times more brutal than before. When he emerges in terms of his focus, it is interesting because it you can see him fighting against his own instincts (even though his character comes off more as supporting). James McAvoy as Professor X also has a more dynamic approach because his character is not the all wise. He makes mistakes and ego plays a part in this outing. These are superheroes but they are flawed and that is what this picture is allowing (perhaps in a darker way than perhaps Disney would approach it at a different time). Even Nightcrawler becomes brutal in a way not seen since “X2” when he was on the opposite viewpoint. That said, the story timing conversely is, at times, erratic. However this does not take away from the emotional notes. What scattershots the beats is Jessica Chastain and her minions. Chastain is on point in terms of her performance but there is not a reflective basis of her motivation. Her character’s origins are left to the ether which works to a point but not in the final revelation. “Dark Phoenix” in a great way handles many emotional beats in a way far superior to some of its predecessors thanks in part to director Simon Kinsberg who understands this mythology and the characters through and through. But endings, especially of an era, never are clean. They are messy. “Endgame” tried to do everything and reflected emotional but many plot holes still remained. “Dark Phoenix” writes a different story than the one previous to “The Last Stand” but in doing some creates something more contextual even if the final shot reflects a vague contentment.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS [Warner Brothers]

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The texture of a monster movie relies on its sheer size but the diametrics of destruction have a certain threshold of believability and therefore, art in a way. Sometimes with certain dialogue it is better to say nothing at all, than risk an essence of impact. “Godzilla: King Of The Monsters” suffers from this ailment in numerous and many ways. Even though the texture of some of the large monster scenes is indeed impressive, the core family story that is supposed to fuel it with Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown just falls flat mainly because of confused motivations and simply bad dialogue. “The MEG” functioned in this same way but with more of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor but that cannot save a bad script. Now popcorn movies can be just that but they can be done with that sense of weight. The first “Godzilla” made by Gareth Edwards took a different approach with Godzilla in terms of the mystery and especially with the Bryan Cranston family angle, it definitely gave it a sense of stakes. Here it switches it around but Farmiga’s character who is motivated by loss is one sided. Vera is an exceptional actress but one cannot save bad motivation. Kyle Chandler, so great in “Wolf Of Wall Street”, seems exceptional cardboard and flat here. Millie Bobbie Brown is the only that seems to understand or at least try to impact what she is doing but she seems like she is doing almost a different movie or script than what is being filmed. Her part works. In essence, this is likely the fault of the director.

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Michael Dougherty wanted to take the film to a different tone than the first one with this sense of scale. But oddly enough Godzilla had much more a sense of scale in the Gareth Edwards’ version. Another actor that understands what film should be created is Ken Watanabe, He has a sense of weight and genuinely a sense of loss for what Godzilla could be. His solo scene where he confronts Godzilla is perhaps the high point in the movie. The overall dexterity of the film though lacks cohesion as if the director was more interested in the sequences than the actual story. That is fine in certain cases but it really creates a separation of definition when the motivations come off as a laughable. There is somewhat of a happy medium somewhere between what Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was and this. One is a disaster movie and one is a perception on survival. The aspect here that should inspire comes out as schlock.

D-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: BOOKSMART [Annapurna]

The essence of any film is a method of voice. “Booksmart” is a great anomaly but hopefully not. It is in some ways a modern day female “Superbad” but with more heart. While the exec producers are Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, this film is guided with a steady hand and as much of a good feature debut as done by many by Olivia Wilde. The performances are pinpoint but the way the music works moves it well. This could have been a simple movie about rite of passage but it has more because the subtext but also what is on surface is done with aplomb direction. Wilde brings in some of her friends (and her husband’s friends) but doesn’t overwhelm with any star power. It is the two girls that are the leads that power this. Kaitlyn Dever as Amy is great because the performance crosses many lines and persuasions but is so universal. Beanie Feldstein plays Molly and she is a wonderful folly in many ways…but Dever is the compass of the film. Like “Superbad” there is the would-be gross out moments but not in the way Seth Rogen would do it. There is a different energy here, like “Clueless” meets something this reviewer cannot quite place. It is organic and yet there is heartbreak. There is laughs and yet a bit of truth. There is heart and yet there is awkwardness. The balance is steadily maintained.

The movie doesn’t not dumb itself down. Despite any criticisms, this is the great thing about Annapurna, Megan Ellison’s company. In a world where there is just reboots and comic book characters, this is an original and it shines like a light (even though there are certain influences from before). Even all the secondary characters from Jared, a would be rich kid to Ryan whom Amy assumes aspects about is finely drawn but not a caricature. The film is all about assumption and the damage it does but also its undeniable nature. One person with a thankless persuasion who steals almost all the scenes she is in is Billie Lourd as Gigi. You would never know that this is the girl that was in the “Star Wars” movies with her mom Carrie Fisher. You can see the brilliance that was her mom coming through here as far as physical comedy and just enough of a wink. Again all the characters stick in your mind. At graduation this is very apparent as it shows how well the film is built. It is a smaller film but that is the beauty of the mid to lower range films that get lost…that beauty of films more than an indie but less than a studio with pedigree and talent firing correctly with a director with a steady hand who knows actors in and out and can obviously communicate exactly what she wants. Bravo Olivia.

A

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM [Summit/Lionsgate]

John Wick is a product of his environment yet his choices in terms of his future seem to take on a certain level of vigilante mysticism with a certain lack of logic. The difference between Wick and Neo in many instances is that Wick doesn’t know when he is out of gas…or when to doubt. There is no stopping. The fantastic aspect is that Keanu Reeves is up for anything. This is him through and through in these scenes. While there might be some face replacement, this is mostly all him. Very few people can do this and Keanu is getting older but this demands respect. At one point, even though the film is playing with this idea, his adversaries could have already killed him if they didn’t have as much respect for him as they do. Some of the action scenes including ones with knives and dogs are undeniably thrilling at times. And the film does understand that guns aren’t the “be-all-end-all” is normal circumstance. But at times, one is taken out of the movie because of a certain suspension of disbelief. For instance, there is a gunfight in a horse stable in Manhattan (which is unusual anyway) but when the guns seem to go off there is no response from the horses which causes a break in the world. Hence the viewer can start looking at all of the muzzle flashes being replacements. It takes out some of the visceral nature of the scenes.

It seems more and more with these movies that they are simply just trying to set up the next big set piece to see how far they can push it. But as a result, it feels a little more empty. The first John Wick had itself in play because it was using the Keanu idea and the aspect of the dog with this new world. Interestingly enough, after seeing “Destination Wedding” of all things, there is definitely a growth in the acting department with Keanu. But with this, it all becomes an exercise but weirdly enough it feels like an exceptionally produced TV show at times with the story structure simply allied in place to make it to the next week. Now that said, there is no way some of this action could be done on TV. New York keeps looking more neon coated and wet than ever before so it serves the noir texture. And when Keanu says “I need guns. Lots of guns”, there is no  denying the pop culture impact of the original Matrix as in that one line. But the first “Matrix” knew its rules and never broke them (at least in the first film).

The movie jumps a little bit because of this but the aspect that makes the best impression is Halle Berry as a former foe/ally/manager of Wick. This is the coolest we have seen Berry in a while. It reminds one of her films like “Swordfish”. She is bad ass, she is doing the action and, in a scene in the study, she acts the hell out of it, almost overly so. That dynamic offers a bit more to the progression but like all things it is brief. Angelica Huston adds a bit of intrigue and beauty in a role suited to her that gives poise, grace and a bit of darkness. Mark Dacascos as Zero, a frenemy of sorts is also quite good but the tone of play in his performance is both interesting and yet out of  character. “John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum” will no doubt thrill audiences and perhaps bait a third one but the elegance of the original is, in a certain way, lost. The problem, like “The Matrix” is that you don’t want the mythic to become rote. But it also doesn’t need to move to melodrama. And that is one thing John Wick will never bow to.

B-

By Tim Wassberg