2019 Summer Movie Review: Toy Story 4

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Woody (Tom Hanks) catches up with an old friend (Annie Potts) in Toy Story 4. (Source: Washington Post)

In 1995, John Lasseter made history by bringing the first ever feature-length computer-animated film Toy Story. It followed a group of toys coming to life whenever humans aren’t around, and they help each other in the most perilous of situations. It became a monster box-office success, Disney/PIXAR decided to make a sequel. Toy Story 2 featured a much bigger adventures that went into new heights. No one knew the toys would make a comeback ten years later with Toy Story 3, where things got more emotional and intense. When it was announced there is going to be Toy Story 4, everyone (including myself) got nervous. If the previous film ended on a pitch-perfect note, how would the series go on? Director/co-writer Josh Cooley (who worked as one of the screenwriters for Inside Out) steps into use his bag of tricks. The results are nothing short of surprising.

A year after Andy has left for college, the toys have a great owner in Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, via audio archives, and Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the toy gang go on a road trip with Bonnie and her parents before heading for kindergarten. At her orientation, Bonnie makes a new toy made out of a spork called Forky (Tony Hale), although he sees himself as trash instead of a toy. Woody embarks on a mission to save her new toy. Along the way, he encounters Bo Peep (Annie Potts) at an antique shop, who helps him make his way back to Bonnie and the toys.

This movie really shows how much the animation has evolved since the first film. It opens up with Woody and the toys trying to save a toy in the rain. Notice the water droplets dripping on the toys. It’s clear the animation is more photo-realistic and a lot more breath-taking this time around. Every single shot is like a painting come to life. 

Of course, you see a lot of familiar faces (and voices) as well as some likeable newcomers. Toy Story 4 is centered more on Woody than the previous entries. It continues to contain the wonderful message about always being there for one another (either toys or human owners). Before, Woody’s relationship with Bo Peep was more flirtatious. Here, they have matured over the years. I’m so glad Bo Peep has a much more fascinating empowered character arc. 

The side characters are a ton of fun to watch. Forky would have easily been one that would have been straight-up annoying. But–it’s hard not to feel bad for him, despite finding hilarious ways of escaping. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are a hoot as Ducky and Bunny, two carnival prize toys who want to be “The Chosen Ones”. The scene-stealer, however, is Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a Canadian daredevil toy with a tragic backstory, who is just as sophisticated as The Stig from Top Gear. I mean, is there anything Reeves cannot do?

For all of the parents out there, Toy Story 4 might be too dark and upsetting for younger children. The appearances of vintage pull-string doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her ventriloquist dummies are intimidating. For those who have followed the series since the beginning, expect a handful of emotional moments. I sense this will be the end of a beloved saga, but it does, once again, end on a high note.

10/10

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2019 Summer Movie Review: The Dead Don’t Die

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Three officers (Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, Adam Driver) all have a feeling there’s something not right in a small town in Jim Jarmusch’s horror-comedy The Dead Don’t Die. (Source: IndieWire)

Jim Jarmusch is one of the most unique filmmakers of all-time. He has been writing and directing movies since the 1980s. Since his 1984 debut Stranger than Paradise, his films have showcased a dry sense of humor and subtle storytelling. His anthology film Night on Earth and his most recent masterpiece Paterson are among his best. The Dead Don’t Die, his latest film, is not the first time where Jarmusch uses horror-movie creatures (the two main characters in Only Lovers Left Alive happen to be vampires). With this movie having a massive ensemble featuring collaborators of Jarmusch’s earlier work as well as newcomers, it tends to have a message about climate change. Unfortunately, the movie hardly does anything to it.

Set in the small town of Centerville (population: 738), strange things begin to occur. A radio station has reported a “polar fracking”, causing the Earth to come off its axis. The sun is staying up longer than usual. Cell phones and watches stop working. Pets are mysteriously disappearing and reappearing as vicious. At night, people are being eaten alive. Chief Officer Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) begin to investigate. Peterson quickly comes to the conclusion reanimated corpses are coming out of their graves late at night. They all go around town talking to the locals and prepare for battle.

I appreciate a good deadpan comedy and a good zombie movie, and some amusing references to classic horror films, from Psycho to Night of the Living Dead. Jarmusch does show his love for the genre; adding some elegant touches. For instance, when the zombies are killed, they produce dust instead of blood and gore (like everyone is used to seeing). However, they hardly make up for the deadening dullness Jarmusch brings to his nonsensical writing and tedious directing.

Driver and Murray are both the masters of deadpan humor. Their chemistry is the only decent quality in this movie. In an early scene, they are both in the police cruiser. Sturgill Simpson’s country anthem “The Dead Don’t Die” (a song I hope gets nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar) is playing on the radio. Cliff is wondering why it sounds so familiar. “Well, because it’s the theme song,” Peterson says, sensing they are breaking the fourth wall. Then, it’s all downhill after the opening scene.

Containing an ensemble featuring the likes of Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, RZA, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop among others, everyone is about as soulless as the movie itself. There are plenty of unnecessary subplots (particularly one set at a juvenile detention center) that don’t go anywhere. Even on a low-budget, the visuals look cheap. There’s a moment where Gomez’s Zoe, a hipster from Ohio, introduces herself while bidding farewell, and computer-generated sparkles explode behind her (I don’t know what the hell that was all about). Probably the weirdest part of all is Swinton’s performance as Zelda Winston, a Scottish funeral director obsessed with the samurai, with a fate so ridiculous it will infuriate moviegoers. Every single human character is about as soulless as the zombies. The Dead Don’t Die is a wasted opportunity.

2.5/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Rocketman

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Elton John (Taron Egerton) collaborates with songwriter Bernie Taupin in Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher’s spectacular biopic of Sir Elton John. (Source: AZ Central)

A biopic of living legend Elton John has been in development for years. The singer’s first choice to play him was Justin Timberlake, but the first actor attached to play him was Tom Hardy. However, budget issues, creative differences, and the fact Hardy couldn’t sing caused the project to be put on hold. Michael Gracey (The Greatest Showman) stepped out as director of Rocketman while Dexter Fletcher (who directed the overlooked Eddie the Eagle and finished directing Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer got fired) stepped in. With Taron Egerton playing the titular artist, it’s about time to get the music biopic Sir Elton John deserves. It certainly paid off brilliantly!

Elton John (Egerton), born Reginald Dwight (rising newcomers Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor play the singer as a youngster), grew up in Middlesex with his horrible parents Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and caring grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). He dreams of songwriting and playing the piano; becomes a prodigious student at the Royal Academy of Music.

As an adult, Reggie changes his name to Elton John and meets his music partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They meet inside a cafe, discuss about popular music, and become friends almost instantly (they still collaborate to this day). Scottish music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) works under his wing while having a brief relationship. Although struggling with his alcoholism, drug addiction, and homosexuality, Elton’s motivation is to get the love he deserves.

As a big fan of Elton John, there are a lot of things in Rocketman that would have disappointed. Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse) make up for what Bohemian Rhapsody got wrong. There is a lot of graphic content (e.g. drug use, sexual content) suited more for adults, and not dumbed-down to appeal more teenagers. Instead of lip-synching, the stars actually sing the songs. Rocketman is unlike your typical music biopic. It’s a jukebox musical and a fantasy wrapped into one fantastic movie.

Egerton brings a lot of flamboyant energy and charisma as Sir Elton. It makes perfect sense not just because he looks like him, but they hint it in Sing when his character performed “I’m Still Standing”, and the singer made a small appearance in Kingsman: The Golden Circle. His singing is the icing on the cake.

The movie opens up with him in rehab wearing his “stage gear”, as he perfectly describes his ridiculous costumes he wears while performing live, setting up what’s to come during the two-hour ride. He struggles getting the respect from his friends and family, while living in his own little world. During the “Rocket Man” sequence (featuring gorgeous cinematography by George Richmond), he sets off into the night sky from the crowded arena like a rocket, and explodes like a firework, which resembles how Elton’s fame sets off. While in the “Bennie and the Jets” sequence, he fantasizes himself in an orgy, which showcases the descent into sex and drug addiction. I just love how the two contradict each other perfectly.

After coming a long way from winning everyone over with his impressive debut in Billy Elliott, Bell does great work as Bernie Taupin, and definitely a front-runner for Best Supporting Actor during awards season. Madden’s John Reid is one everyone loves to hate; he manipulates Elton for money after their first significant night with each other.

“I think it’s going to be a long, long time” (yeah, I had to go there) for a music biopic to top something as magical and devastating as Rocketman. With its colorful, extravagant sets, terrific performances, a screenplay that never shies away from Elton’s successes and struggles, this movie has its heart in the right place. One of the year’s absolute best!

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Booksmart

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Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) embark on one wild misadventure after another in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart. (Source: AZ Central)

Ever since film existed, there have been plenty of high-school classics that defined a generation. American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, and Superbad among others have all set the standard. Olivia Wilde sits in the director’s chair for the first time with Booksmart, a raunchy yet surprisingly poignant and downright hilarious portrait about the hardships of female friendship and growing up. Along with four female screenwriters, the movie brings something fresh to the genre.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have been best friends since childhood. They are about to graduate from high school, kudos to focusing hard on their education, acing the SATs to get into Ivy League schools (Amy is about to go to Columbia, while Molly is going to Yale) and participating in extracurricular activities. The duo realized they missed out on the good times during their high school years. They both thought it would be a good idea to cram four years of fun into one crazy night they will never forget. Soon, they begin to learn about the truth of their friendship.

It’s extremely difficult to make a teen comedy to be crude without being too offensive. Yes, the two talk about sex, get into a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, go into a hilarious acid trip (rendered through stop-motion animation), but it focuses on their friendship and the means of being there for one another. After a series of script rewrites, it pulls off brilliantly.

Wilde has chosen a rock-solid cast to play the high school students. What’s refreshing is none of them are portrayed as stereotypes, but more as actual teenagers. Known for her breakout performances in the TV series Justified and Last Man Standing, Dever excels as Amy, the smart girl who came out of the closet during her sophomore year. She tries to have the courage to ask her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), an awkward skater girl, to go out on a date. It’s not until reality begins to slap her across the face.

Her chemistry with Feldstein (who rose to fame in Greta Gerwig’s directing debut Lady Bird), is enough to make Booksmart worthwhile. Molly, who is just as quirky and supportive to her best friends, wants to grow up to be the youngest Supreme Court justice. There is a great scene early on where she overhears her peers mocking her in the bathroom. Then, Molly walks out of the stall to give her criticism about what she heard. I have never witnessed a scene as brutally honest as anything I’ve seen all year.

The supporting cast has their shining moments as well. It includes Jason Sudeikis as the principal, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s parents, and the scene-stealing Billie Lourd (the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) as wild-child Gigi, who always appears at the most random situations. I bet she had a blast being in this movie!

Booksmart is destined to be the next teen comedy classic. Featuring razor-sharp dialogue, a realistic portrayal of high school, and wonderful performances. Well done, Olivia Wilde!

10/10

“In The Bedroom”: A Haunting Maine Tale

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Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) are stricken with grief in Todd Field’s 2001 indie drama In the Bedroom. (Source: The Playlist)

In 2016, a little movie came out called Manchester by the Sea. Set in a small New England town, it contained a powerful message involving grief. As Lee, the main character, returns to his old hometown, his past slowly begins to creep up on him after his brother dies. Its depiction of New England feels as if the audience is watching real people battling really tough situations (not to mention, the way they talk).

Fifteen years earlier, there was a movie that received unanimous praise when it premiered at Sundance. It also became the first movie from a major film studio (Miramax) that was not only set, but also filmed in the beautiful State of Maine. In the Bedroom (2001) does sound like the title for a sexy thriller, but director Todd Field (Eyes Wide Shut) creates a little something that will haunt viewers once the credits begin to crawl.

Based on the short story Killings, Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) has recently returned home to Camden, Maine, to work on the harbor after graduating from college. He plans on going for a graduate degree in architecture. His father Matt (Tom Wilkinson) is a local doctor, who loves listening to the Boston Red Sox on the radio. His mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is a music teacher at the Rockland High School, who is teaching a summer music program.

However, they are both concerned about their son. The reason being is because Frank is dating a woman named Natalie (Marisa Tomei), who is twice his age and has two young children. When Natalie’s ex-husband Richard (William Mapother, Lost) returns to make things right for Natalie and the children, all hell begins to break loose.

The titular “bedroom” refers to the back compartment of the lobster trap. As Matt explains early on, the lobster enters the trap (“kitchen”) As it catches the bait, it soon becomes trapped (“bedroom”). While showing an injured lobster to one of the kids, he says if there are more than two lobsters in the “bedroom” compartment, something like that is going to happen.

This becomes a metaphor throughout the film. For instance, the scene where Richard comes into the house to shoot Frank dead. This becomes the set-up of what is to come of our main characters. Matt and Ruth begin to grieve over their son while being forced to see Richard out on bail, which ticks Ruth off after hearing he’s only accused of manslaughter.

The performances from the all-star cast are one-of-a-kind. But–Spacek and Wilkinson really carry it home. Out of the five Oscar nomination this movie received, they were both nominated, respectively, for Best Actress and Best Actor. Known for his performances in The Full Monty, Michael Clayton, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the British actor never lets his accent slip to give such an emotionally moving performance. Same goes to Spacek, who rose to fame with Badlands, Carrie, and winning an Oscar for Coal Miner’s Daughter. She gives one of her best performances as Ruth. Notice how she isolates from Matt. They both avoid discussing their pain while dealing with this tragedy. Then, they confront each other in one of the most natural arguments ever put to film. Matt accuses Ruth of being “too controlling”, while Ruth accuses her husband by letting Frank “get away with everything.” This indicates why Matt decides to plan an act of revenge to make them settle the tragedy once and for all.

With his slow-burning screenplay and sensitive direction, Field allows the viewer to understand Matt’s world and his morality of the whole situation. Hell, even Matt’s friends begin to understand what he and Ruth have been going through. In one scene, he and his friends are playing cards one night. Everything goes silent. Until Carl (W. Clapham Murray), who loves reciting poems, quotes a verse from “My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

There are things of which I may not speak;
There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
And a mist before the eye.
And the words of that fatal song
Come over me like a chill:
“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

The scene would have gone down as manipulative. What makes it work, though, is it steers clear of all those cliches about losing someone dear. Take a look at Matt’s face after the recitation. He knows there is something that needs to be done. Everything was going just fine until the tragedy. His friends are always there for him no matter what. The poem serves as a reminder to avenge what was so wonderful in life and to have it all thrown away in a blink of an eye. When the climax comes, it’s damn near impossible to look away.

In the Bedroom is one of those rare dramas from the early 2000s that hits all of the right notes. There will never be any other movie set in Maine containing so much raw emotion from its characters. It’s one of those movies I’ll watch for the rest of my life.

Movie Review: Gloria Bell

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Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) is on the search for happiness in Sebastian Lelio’s America remake of his own Chilean film, Gloria. (Source: Variety)

Chilean director Sebastian Lelio is not the first director to remake one of his own movies for American audiences (think Alfred Hitchcock with The Man Who Knew Too Much). His 2013 film Gloria met with universal acclaim from critics as an honest and realistic portrait of a 50-year-old woman making ends meet. After the success of his first English-language film Disobedience, he casts Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore in a role of a lifetime. She leads a terrific ensemble in a flawed yet solid character study.

Instead of taking place in Santiago, this remake is set in Los Angeles. Moore plays the title character, a free-spirited woman in her fifties who has been divorced for over ten years by her ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett). She spends days working in her office at an insurance agency, trying to call her two grown children–Anne (Caren Pistorius) and Peter (Michael Cera)– to no avail.

At night, she hits the dance floor to the numerous nightclubs the city has to offer. She usually dances alone, but she tries to make-up with people her age; if not, older. One night, her life changes when she meets Arnold (John Turturro), who is also divorced with two grown children of his own. After falling madly in love, things begin to get complicated.

Lelio understands the American vibe this version portrays. Every scene feels realistic, especially the era Gloria is living in. With advanced technology taking over, she prefers to live life the old-fashioned way. Moore gives a spectacular performance as a woman who is searching for happiness. Whether it’s trying to find out how a hairless cat always gets into her one-bedroom apartment and can’t standing to overhear her noisy neighbor off-screen (The All-American Rejects lead singer Tyson Ritter, in an effective performance while off-screen), the audience sympathizes with her in every scene she is in. “When the world blows up, I hope I go down dancing,” she says while eating dinner with Arnold and her friends.

Mark her words. While she has moved on, Turturro’s Arnold is trying to get over his changes in life. However, his children are always worried about him. They call him almost every chance they get. That’s why things are starting to become difficult for the two of them. Even when he steps aside to call his kids, he is never seen again. It makes Gloria the least bit worried. Not only that, she sees her two children move on while she is still trying to find her place in life. Lelio is at his most riveting when he has the camera following her every step of the way, even if she doesn’t utter a single line.

The movie, however, is not perfect. There are times where Gloria Bell feels somewhat dull and sluggish at times. There are a few scenes that feel out-of-place, which derails the flow of the pace. Whenever we see Gloria dance to the kick-ass disco soundtrack, it’s hard to resist. It’s nothing I’ll ever see again, but I’m glad a movie like this exists. Now, time to watch the original.

7/10

Movie Review: Hellboy (2019)

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Hellboy (David Harbour) is about to hit the crapper in Neil Marshall’s 2019 reboot. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

It has been fifteen years since Guillermo del Toro brought Mike Mignola’s comic-book series to life. Although far from perfect, the film managed to showcase del Toro’s talents as a writer and director. It featured an excellent visual style (mixing CGI with practical effects), great characters, and almost wall-to-wall action. No one could play the half-demon/half-human better than Ron Perlman, who brought so much charisma and humor underneath all the makeup. The sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, contained a bigger fantasy atmosphere. It’s a shame there wouldn’t be more adventures with the original cast.

Director Neil Marshall (The Descent) thought it would be a great idea to reboot the franchise. Sadly, even with an R-rating, meaning more gore and profanity, doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Hellboy (David Harbour), the adoptive son of Professor Trevor Broom (Ian McShane), trains to become an agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). He gets sent to England to help the Osiris Club to take down a group of giants.

After being betrayed by the secret society, he eventually joins forces with Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane), who has magical abilities after being kidnapped by fairies as a baby, and a hot-headed M11 agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae-Kim), with the ability of turning into a jaguar. They learn about ancient sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich), whose head among other body parts were dismembered by King Arthur in 517 AD. She comes back to wreak havoc on humanity, as if we have never seen it done to death already (*ahem* The Mummy (2017)).

Everything about Hellboy feels rushed to the point of feeling like a trailer to a movie that never happened. Its pacing goes all over the place. Throughout this trainwreck, we see the characters go from one location to the next; flashing back or giving too much exposition. Hell, even the action sequences are nauseating to watch. The CGI looks like something out of a video game for the XBOX. This movie contains the most blood I’ve ever seen in a comic-book movie.

Fresh from playing Officer Jim Hopper in Stranger Things, David Harbour is not a bad choice to play Hellboy. He does have the physique and attitude to play someone as tough as the red Nazi demon. Unfortunately, his portrayal comes off as immature and whiny; making terrible jokes and shouting even worse one-liners (“Quit while you’re a head,” he says to a dismembered head after letting it go). Not only sucking out the wit and charm that made Perlman’s version so good, there is also no chemistry between him and his co-stars. McShane’s Professor Broom is so over-the-top that it’s hard not to laugh whenever he appears on the screen (he’s better off training John Wick). Even in limbs, Jovovich still comes off as dull playing a whitewashed character. The weirdest performance of all is Thomas Haden Church as a vigilante who kills his victims and branding them with his lobster-claw symbol.

The new Hellboy is about as entertaining as a two-hour car accident. There is no fun to be had with it whatsoever. Everything about it is incomprehensible and obnoxious to the point of making everyone sick to their stomach and getting a headache. It’s charmless, humorless, lifeless, and cringe-worthy. Not only is it one of the worst movies of the year, it’s one of the worst comic-book movies I’ve ever seen. Of course, a movie like this will end on a cliffhanger; leaving room for a sequel. It’s blockbuster hell.

0/10