Monday, June 24, 2019

Review: Pixar defies the odds and goes 4 for 4 with "Toy Story 4"

Toy Story 4 Review
"Toy Story" must be Pixar's baby.

They certainly treat it as such.

It makes sense, the first "Toy Story" was 1995 and it really put Pixar on the map in a big way. "Toy Story 2" was the company's first sequel and soon after, they would be known as a company that didn't really play the sequel game. When Pixar finally decided to really start playing the sequel game, none of them measured up to the "Toy Story" sequels. Any of the three of them. The sequels to "Cars" are just mediocre, as is "Finding Dory." I am usually not a prequel person myself and sitting through "Monster's University" once was enough. When I rewatched "The Incredibles 2" to decide if I'd put it on my Best of 2018 list, I found myself impatient watching it a second time, and I am not sure it's a sequel built to last.

It seems like the "Toy Story" movies were destined to stand the test of time. It could just be my bias. I've had this little franchise of films ever since I was in Kindergarten. By the time I was in the middle of college, "Toy Story 3" came out, and I couldn't believe that the trilogy was still so profound all these years later. I figured they'd stop after three movies. What other stories could they possibly tell? What else needed to be said with these characters? It didn't seem like anything else, and the trilogy capped things off with an ending that was as close to perfect as it could get. Trilogies are hard to pull off in the first place, so knowing we had three great movies was a blessing.

There was no way a fourth film could work, right? My expectations have been really low ever since a fourth film was announced. I thought it would just be a cash grab, nothing to it but monetary profit. Even though Tom Hanks and Tim Allen talked it up, I still couldn't 100% give myself over to the idea of a fourth film we didn't need. Perhaps the low expectations made this experience a good one. I can't believe I am about to type these words but Pixar has gone four-for-four with their "Toy Story" movies. I can't believe I am saying that "Toy Story 4" is an excellent movie. Full of things I never would have guessed I'd see in a Pixar movie.

As the film begins, we learn what happened to Bo (Annie Potts), Woody's little girlfriend from the first two movies. We learned that she was given away sometime between 2 and 3, but we just didn't know how. We learn that she was given to a new family when Andy's little sister decided she didn't want her anymore. After the opening scene, we go back to Woody and the whole gang, adjusting to life as toys to Bonnie. The problem is Bonnie doesn't play with Woody much recently. Sure, she loves all of her toys, but she does have favorites, as all children do. Woody just isn't getting chosen as often as he was when he was with Andy. Woody being Woody, he sneaks into Bonnie's backpack when she goes to Kindergarten Orientation Day, just to be sure she has a good day.

She's pretty lonely at the start though, and Woody works behind the scenes to try and make Bonnie's day better. Which leads to the invention of Forky (Tony Hale). Forky is a spork with two googly eyes glued on it and paper for a mouth and a pipe cleaner for arms. Bonnie's creation makes her day so much better and she brings Forky home. She loves her new character. Thing is, when Woody introduces him to the rest of the toys, he runs straight to the trashcan. He is constantly trying to destroy himself. Because he knows he's not a toy, he wasn't created to be a play thing, he was created to be used then disposed of. Woody is constantly saving him, he knows the value Bonnie puts on Forky and he will do everything he can to show Forky how much he means to Bonnie.

Bonnie's family takes her on a surprise mini-vacation to celebrate how much of a good girl she was at Orientation and this leads to Woody and Forky getting lost due to all their bickering. They bond while trying to get back to Bonnie's family trailer and on the way back, Woody hears a voice from the past. The voice coming from an Antique store. Its Bo. The Bo we remember. When Buzz realizes Woody and Forky are missing, he goes out to look for them. All the while a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is also at the Antique Store wanting Woody's voice box. This is the major crisis of the story, because it wouldn't be a "Toy Story" without a major crisis.

As we learn Bo is a toy free from any ownership, who helps other lost toys find kids, and while Forky brings everything back to being "Bonnie's trash" the metaphor that "Toy Story 4" is making comes quite clear. I've seen children's films challenge the zeitgeist. I've seen bold statements on social issues made in family films before. But one thing I didn't expect from a "Toy Story" movie was a metaphor for existentialism. And the way the film goes about discussing this topic, still wrapped in its happy-go-lucky, children's animation is rather remarkable.

I don't think I really need to tell you about the animation itself. Its Pixar for crying out loud, and they are once again at the top of their game. It was funny watching a special on the entire series before the films release over the weekend. Because even in high definition, you can still see the seams of mid-1990's computer generated animation watching the first "Toy Story." It really is amazing how far we've come in the animation field and the attention to detail in this fourth chapter is powerful on such a grand scale.

Now, is "Toy Story 4" as good as the other three? Honestly, I am not sure. Don't get me wrong, "Toy Story 4" is a great, great movie. Probably one of the very best you'll see all summer. I am just not sure it hit in the heart on the same level the past three films did. There is no scene that can even compare to the incinerator scene from "Toy Story 3." The reason why "Toy Story 3" felt like a perfect ending was how Andy gave away the toys as he went off the college, and that goodbye scene before the credits still hits hard almost a decade later. "Toy Story 4" will definitely give you all the feels by the end, but for completely different reasons. Also, for reasons I didn't find as emotional. By the end of "Toy Story 4" characters are saying goodbye all over again, and it feels like a stutter.

"Toy Story 4" also doesn't feel like a complete "Toy Story" movie. This is mainly a Woody and Bo adventure, with Buzz pretty much a supporting character. The other fan favorites like Jessie, Bullseye, the Potato Heads, Slinky Dog and the rest are pretty much regulated to cameos. I would be lying if I said that didn't bother me, and I would have preferred a story that featured all of Andy's ex-toys as big parts of the plot. I guess its a good thing that the new toys Woody encounters are so much fun. Keanu Reeves plays Duke Caboom; a Canadian Evel Kenival if you will. Who was abandoned and now doesn't have the confidence in himself that he once had. Oh my God is Reeves hilarious as a voice actor, breathing life into a character I didn't know he could. Reeves created my favorite character in the entire movie. I was also pleased as punch that Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele show up as Ducky and Bunny, two plush toys who help Buzz find Woody. 

I may not think "Toy Story 4" quite lands the emotional sledgehammer they are so graciously aiming for. But that doesn't matter. There were moments in this movie where I was laughing through tears, moments that made my heart jump for joy. This is a tremendous edition to the franchise, both harrowing and hilarious. The rich animation makes for an experience to get lost in. I may end up preferring the first three to this one, but that doesn't change the fact that "Toy Story 4" is still a great experience. I didn't know I needed a complete ending to Woody's character and emotional arc, and now that I have it, it all feels right in the end. I will always have a friend in all four of these movies, to infinity and beyond.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Review: "Men In Black: International" is four times too many

Men In Black: International
Before we begin, I need to get something out of the way. I LOVE the first "Men In Black." It was a movie I watched quite a bit as a kid. I remember having an Agent K and a Edgar action figure. It was one of my favorite movies of the 1990's, one that I really go nostalgic for. The two were just that, they were sequels. They were fun, but they were disposable fun. They tried different things, but they just didn't hit the high I felt the first film did. Still, I will always have fond memories of the franchise as a whole.

The Hollywood landscape has changed drastically since 1997 though. One of the first things I wrote on my website here was how the idea of selling an idea using one or two A-List stars is dead now. You need a recognizable brand in order to build a franchise these days, and just because something was hot in the late 1990's and the early 2000's, does not mean there would be an audience today. The last "Men In Black" was only 2012, so perhaps there was still enough juice to make another go, even though the fourth film didn't feature the original two leads.

There was plenty of fighting between the director, the producers and the studio heads on "Men In Black: International," the new fourth film recently released. I can tell there were disagreements on this movie, it shows. "Men In Black: International" is mostly a mess. A forgettable chapter in this franchise that nobody asked to continue. Its a cobbled together Frankenstein Monster that feels like its three hours long. In short, nope doesn't work.

If you need more, I'd be happy to indulge. So let's jump in, shall we? First of all, like I said, even though the second and third films of this franchise were uneven, they at least tried something different. They at least expanded upon the universe in interesting ways. "MiB: International" is pretty much the same movie as the first. Tessa Thompson is a person who happens onto the MiB pretty much by chance, a la Will Smith. The movie vaguely ties into the past of another agent, a la Tommy Lee Jones. There is a royal alien in danger. You can tell they used the first film as a guide and built a movie that feels like it was made from a kit. Don't even get me started on all the callbacks to the first film either. Each and every one a stupid distraction. Oh, there's the pug that can talk! Oh, there's the noisy cricket! Oh, the cars are so fast! 

The thing is, old fans of this franchise aren't going to want to see the first film redone. New fans won't get half the callbacks to the old film. "Men In Black" was hit in 1997, but lots of kids who have the summer off don't remember that year, perhaps they weren't even born yet. This film suffers from the same problem "Independence Day: Resurgence" did. In 2019, I don't know if there is a strong enough audience for this. You have to think outside the box if you are really going to get it work and this is a film that played everything safe.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are solid leads, and they play their parts well. Hemsworth will be a movie star for quite awhile, and Thompson is right behind. There is no doubt that they had a blast making this. There are actors like Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, and Kumail Nanjiani, all of whom give it their all. There is really no fault in the performances, I just wish what this cast would have done with a better script. The visuals have that cartoonish, exaggerated animation to them, which became kind of a hallmark after the first film. I liked seeing those.

For an hour and forty-five minute movie, it feels overly-long. There seems to be one main villain, but then there is another, and then another. The film feels like a climax that doesn't end once it rolls to the end. There are also times when the it doesn't even feel like a "Men In Black" movie. I want to see cool guns and gadgets in a "Men In Black" movie, clumsy fighting scenes I can do without.

I know Sony fought hard to make another one, but sometimes its better to leave something alone. How many great fourth movies can you name?


Monday, June 17, 2019

The Banana Splits Movie

I wasn't alive yet in the 70's, so I did not see The Banana Splits show. Apparently, there is going to be a movie about the old children's show. But it is going to be horror?

I wonder if this does well if we'll get a Sesame Street horror movie?

Review: "Murder Mystery" is a somewhat funny Aniston/Sandler romp, but ultimately predictable

Murder Mystery Review
The long Adam Sandler experiment on Netflix has shaken out just as you'd expect. There are lots of silly comedies starring Sandler that have filled up on the streaming service. Some have been good, most have been forgettable, which is a nice way of summing up Sandler late in his career. What's extra interesting is when he teams up with Jennifer Aniston. So far, including the new Netflix film "Murder Mystery," all three films of theirs have been the same. There is lying and deceit, there are exotic locations, and ultimately love wins. Certainly some nice messages, but I am left wondering when they'll decide to think outside the box.

In "Murder Mystery," Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston play Nick and Audrey Spitz. He's a cop who is struggling to become detective and she's a hairdresser who is addicted to murder mystery books. They are the type of couple who had many dreams and things they wanted to do as a couple, but they just never got there. Time got away from them, and Nick didn't move up the latter as fast as he thought he would. As the film opens, Nick has once again not got detective and he's running out of courage to tell his wife. Nick promised a long time ago that he'd take Audrey to Europe, and Audrey is starting to think they'll never go. As a way to dodge telling Audrey the truth, he takes her on the much anticipated Europe trip.

While on the plane to Europe, completely by chance. Audrey strikes up a conversation with Charles Cavandesh (Luke Evans) an uber-rich guy who was off to a family meeting, and on a whim invites Audrey and Nick to a party on his family yacht. When they think their original plans are too boring, they reluctantly agree. They meet actress Grace Ballard (Gemma Arterton), billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terrance Stamp), his son Tobias (David Williams), his girlfriend he stole from Charles (Shiori Kutsuna), a race car driver (Luis Geraldo Mendez) and a colonel (John Kani). The meeting is about who will get the Quince family fortune, which he ends up giving to the girlfriend. Before he can sign the will, the lights go out, and he is killed. 

This is a movie where everybody at the party has a motive to want the Quince fortune. For a little while, it feels like Agatha Christie on a boat. After a few more bodies pile up, the main suspects are the Spitz's, who have to try and clear their names. Audrey tries to help using her mystery book obsession, and Nick tries to use his detective skills he knows he has. Of course, his lie will come to light. Of course the couple will help each other figure out the case. Of course, they will use the skills they have to figure out the murder.

What's even less surprising is that the mystery is pretty straightforward. You'd think for the amount of time spent developing Audrey's obsession with mystery novels, that the movie would have a trick or two up its sleeve. Well, don't make me laugh, the mystery in this movie is about as basic as it gets and very little is surprising. Sandler and Aniston are Sandler and Aniston, they have both developed two movie star personas that they use well. I'll admit there were a couple times when Sandler really cracked me up, still he's been funnier in the past. Luke Evans looks built to play a smuggish aristocrat and there really wasn't anything surprising about his performance.

If you want a good Netflix original with Sandler, check out "The Week Of." Its a funny movie, but its got real heart and soul in it too. It seems when Sandler and Aniston team up, they go through the motions. "Murder Mystery" is nice fluff, but fluff nonetheless.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

Doctor Sleep Trailer

It was my dad that got me on Stephen King. One of the first King books I read was "The Shining."

I didn't see the Stanley Kubrick movie until much later in life, and even though it really isn't the book, Kubrick was able to make something that still truly terrifying. There are some adaptations that truly ADAPT the books, and sometimes there are REACTIONS to things. I believe Kubrick's "Shining" was a reaction.

In 2013, Stephen King wrote a book called Doctor Sleep and picked up Danny Torrence, the main character in "The Shining," as an adult. They are now adapting the movie into the book and it really, really looks like a straight up sequel to Kubrick's classic.

There are going to be some things that will be interesting about this adaptation. In the Kubrick movie, the chef Dick Hallorann died, he did not die in the book, and he later teaches Danny to restrain his shining powers, as Dick has them too. I wonder if that will just be a thing in the movie that gets omitted. There is updated imagery here I never thought I'd see again, and its certainly made me curious to see.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Review: DC Animation can't lose! A look at "Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review
When I was a wee lad, I used to collect action figures. You can also bet I would soak up any cool cartoon I could at any given moment. I loved the "Batman The Animated Series." That will, in my mind always go down as the best Batman cartoon ever. Probably the best Batman series, period. Growing up in the 1990's, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was at the height of its popularity as a cartoon. There were all sorts of action figures in my collection, characters from fandoms of all kinds. When I had friends over or if I was just playing by myself, I'd make up crossovers before making crossovers became cool.

If I were a kid growing up right now, I'd probably would have lost my mind for "Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." I definitely would have lost it growing up in the 1990s. Who wouldn't want to see Batman teaming up with the Ninja Turtles. Sure, sometimes they'd fight each other. But their heroes, it really isn't a spoiler that they'd come together as allies. Fans of either property is really going to love this movie. Its fun how it all comes together. Batman is the stern upper lip, no-nonsense leader and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Well, they are just that, with each of their individual personalities still intact.

Shredder makes his way to Gotham City. He has formed an alliance with Ra's Al Ghul. The Shredder wants the secrets to the Lazarus Pit in order to achieve immortality, and Ra's Al Ghul wants the mutating ooze to make his assassins stronger in battle. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles follow Shredder and his Foot Clan to Gotham. Batman is already investigating and can see something is on the rise. The two factions of heroes eventually team up to stop Shredder and Ra's. Along with a bunch of mutated Gotham villains.

Oh yes, imagine a Snake version of The Joker

If you've been having fun with the animated DC movies, get ready for their most ambitious crossover! 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Review: "Dark Phoenix" feels like the first X-Men movie that is phoning it in

Dark Phoenix Review
Just in case anybody didn't know, there is a re-release of "X3: The Last Stand" in theaters right now!

Wait, what?

If there is one big ticket franchise that has been moving forward in a very weird way, its been the "X-Men" franchise. You can almost compare it to the James Bond movies of the 1960s through the 1990's. Each movie seems to beat to sound of their own drum. No matter what they do, continuity doesn't seem to be a factor in the storytelling at all, and if you think about the continuity of the franchise for too long, you will give yourself a migraine. It was a franchise with a difficult birth. Fox studio head Tom Rothman tried tooth and nail to bury the franchise at every turn. He didn't believe it would make money, so he tried to torpedo it immediately to save face. The thing was, the franchise did catch on. It was one of the key ingredients we needed to really get the superhero movie culture we are living in today.

The X-Men are my favorites. I've always had such a deep love for the characters. They are my favorite of the Marvel stable, and I hope that says something, because I prefer Marvel to DC. I love these characters, I loved them growing up. I continue to enjoy X1 and X2. X3 is a mediocre effort, there is some silliness to it, but some parts are okay. I would rather not talk about "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." New life was breathed into the franchise with "X-Men: First Class." I really liked "The Wolverine" and "Days of Future Past." I thought "Apocalypse" was decent, not bad and not good, decent. The "Deadpool" movies are great, but they are on an entirely different wavelength. Overall, its been a fun series. 

This leads us to "Dark Phoenix," the last mainstream X-Men movie in the Fox franchise. Yes, we are getting one more spin-off, so this is essentially it. Just as I feared, its essentially a remake of X3. Do you guys remember X3? The X-Men movie from 2006? It told a half-assed Dark Phoenix Saga adaptation, the biggest problem was that major story was shoehorned into another story. Like I said, there are some things I like and some fun in it, but its mostly a mess to get through. "Dark Phoenix" may have an entire runtime to itself and it doesn't really have to share itself with another story. But it's essentially a remake of X3.

I mean, here's just a quick list of similarities. Jean Grey acquires strong powers as a child. Jean Grey meets Charles Xavier. Xavier takes young Jean Grey to his mutant school. He puts mental blocks into her head to keep her from using her power. Her powers get unlocked. Some major characters die. She seeks help from Magneto. She gets manipulated by a greater evil. She turns a bunch of people into molecules. Heck, even the set during the final fight in "Dark Phoenix" looks eerily like the set from "X3." Its like they didn't even try to do anything different.

This new movie follows the comic books just a little bit better, and maybe that will make comic fans happy. But the movie as a whole is burdened with the feeling of "been there, done that" and it almost makes the movie slightly embarrassing. Jennifer Lawrence seems like she's been phoning it in as Mystique since "Apocalypse." and she comes off mostly bored in this movie. Plus, she gets a big SJW line that is shockingly bad. If you thought the A-Force reference in "Avengers: Endgame" was bad and forced (I'd personally disagree with you) just wait until you hear the name change Mystique suggests. I was a fan of Sophie Turner on "Game of Thrones" but here, much like Lawrence, she seems bored by the whole thing. Tye Sheridan  has always come off as a blank and while it slightly worked for him in "Ready Player One," he never really comes off like Cyclops, but maybe a Cyclops impersonator.

There are a couple of performances that stand out. James McAvoy is still a convincing Professor X as is Micheal Fassbender as Magneto. Fassbender has crafted a performances so canny that I feel like he's set a new definition of the character, separate from Sir Ian McKellen's. Nicholas Hoult is still a striking Beast, and still pours plenty of emotion into his character. Evan Peters once again has some great moments as Quicksilver, but he's knocked out of the movie fairly early. That's a damn shame, he stole two movies and the thanks he gets is getting sidelined for this entire movie. Plus, the hint that maybe Magneto and Quicksilver are related is totally dropped here. Alexandra Shipp does a nice accent and newcomer Jessica Chastaine was apparently told to just stare glumly at the camera and blankly blurt out dialogue.

The special effects are about as standard as they come for X-Men movies and I have always dug that there was a certain look to the spectacle of these characters that separated itself from the MCU. After so many superhero movies, and after each of these movies creating fantastic superhero scenes (and some mind-numbing superhero scenes) "Dark Phoenix" is oddly normal looking. Like every other X-Men movie, some characters are given no traits to play with and just show up to simply show off their powers. It never quite hits the epic feeling it so strongly wants to.

Some fans have been wry of X-Men going back to Disney, but perhaps that might be a good thing. Fox had a decent run, no doubt about it. We certainly owe Fox as fans our thanks for really helping turn the tide on the attitude toward superhero movie, because we wouldn't be in the golden age we are in now if we did. But all good things must come to an end, and telling from "Dark Phoenix," the train may be coming into the station one last time.