It: Chapter 2 (2019)

Director: Andy Muschietti

Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman

Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, and Bill Skarsgård

Is It good? Does It get better or worse? How much money did It make? Should I see It before I see It 2? I will answer these confusing questions and more in my review of blockbuster horror sequel, It: Chapter 2.

As horror sequels go, this is one of those perfect studio no-brainer scenarios. Hey, we have the rights to remake this film adaptation of this really beloved horror novel, and we just have too much material! Let’s make two movies. Better yet, let’s split the films so that the first one covers the children storyline, and the second covers the adult plot. Brilliant! And that’s how the highest grossing horror film of all time came to be.

That’s right, as readers of Stephen King’s bestselling novel know, every 27 years, a monstrous demon and “Eater of Worlds” comes to feed on fear, preferring children because their fears are easier to elicit. To the kids from the first film, this demon manifests as a dancing clown known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who preys on them until they seriously wound it, sending it back to the nether-regions from whence it came…until now. 27 years later, The Losers Club is all grown up, but the past is not done with them yet.

The film opens with some really effective horror that gets the attention of Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the Losers Club who remained in Derry, Maine. The event reminds Mike of the pact they all made as kids after vanquishing Pennywise; if it comes back they all come back. And remembering is key because it turns out if one leaves Derry, the memory of what happened there fades away, so Mike is the only one who fully remembers what happened all those years ago. The film’s first act essentially follows Mike’s contacting of each member of the group convincing each to return, moving the plot forward as well as reintroducing us to each of the characters, all now grown adults. The casting of the adult characters is very spot on including the aforementioned Mike, chubby intellectual, turned hunk Ben, (Jay Ryan), chatterbox Richie (Bill Hader), asthmatic Eddie (James Ransone), neurotic Stanley (Andy Bean), ringleader Bill (James McAvoy), and outcast Beverly (Jessica Chastain). This first section of the film is quite engaging and works very well as both character and plot driven story that balances humor and drama nicely.

Unfortunately, when they are all inevitably reunited, the movie starts to drag a bit. The film wisely continues to play games tonally with the audience. One moment we’re gripped with intensity and another, we’re laughing (this tone is perfectly signified by the Stephen King cameo mid-way through the film). Unfortunately, while the Pennywise threat is real, and the conflict is clear, I didn’t feel the critical nature of what was at stake this time around. There’s an odd sense surrounding the action in this film in terms of what is experienced by individuals, what is experienced by the group, and what is really happening in the physical world. This confusion distracts from the action lessening the film’s impact. An impact that has tremendous potential. It was conceived by Stephen King to be a novel about primal fear – the things that scare us as a child and how those things stay with us and haunt us long after. I’m not sure the execution quite hits the mark when all is said and done. However, I do think the sequel is serviceable and most will walk away satisfied and entertained, as long as they can tolerate the nearly three-hour running time! B

It: Chapter 2 is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood poster

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, and a lot of familiar Tarantino regulars (and at least one of their kids)

Do you like beautiful people doing interesting things? Then you like Hollywood, and that’s precisely what Quentin Tarantino is illustrating in his 9th film, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. If there’s one thing you know about Quentin Tarantino, it’s that he loves movies, especially of a certain era. If there are two things you know about Quentin Tarantino, it’s that he admires the shit out of Japanese martial arts films and spaghetti westerns. Many of his films include trademarks of these two genres, and with the title of his latest film, he is paying homage to perhaps the greatest spaghetti western director of all time, Sergio Leone, a man responsible for two landmark epics, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Both of those films invoke the common fairy tale prelude, Once upon a time as a way to express the opening of a narrative that will be about past events, but the phrase also signals a fable-like quality within the work. The same can certainly be said about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the story of a fading TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton has the starring role in a weekly gunslinger western called Bounty Law, a program similar to the 1960’s series Wanted Dead or Alive starring Steve McQueen. Booth’s career has hit a few snags so to speak, but Dalton remains adamant on keeping him as his exclusive stuntman as well as employing him as his chauffeur and occasional housekeeper. Most importantly though, Dalton has dreams of stardom on par with the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, just as classic Hollywood is losing its grip to new Hollywood and the post-classical movement.

Many will cite this as being the least “Tarantino” of all of his films, whatever that means; however, while the plot is perhaps more loose than his previous films, Tarantino captures the atmosphere of this dynamic time with great success. There’s a lot going on in this film, which is why I think some will have a tough time figuring out what to make of it. On one hand, we have Dalton’s quest for fame, attempting to leverage some television notoriety into a film career without aging out, becoming typecast, or losing his game all the while battling an internal conflict about whether he is worthy of fame in the first place. Then we have Booth’s ambiguous, deliberate sojourn through the land of broken dreams. However, he appears mostly unaffected. His role is almost Virgil-like, like a guide on a personal tour through hell with the Manson family smack dab in the center. I’m sure most readers know by now that the film costars Margot Robbie as Sharron Tate, a Hollywood starlet forever tragically linked to the madness of the Mansons. While the two main characters are on two very separate personal journeys, Tarantino craftily balances this film on the relationship between the two men allowing the film to move along nicely despite their uniquely different paths. Moreover, the friendship between Dalton and Booth is smart, clever, and relatable. There’s no arbitrary cliché-constructed conflict dropped on the audience for cheap drama. There’s a sense of history between them both, and this comes through mostly thanks to the exquisite performances given by Pitt and most notably DiCaprio. The scenes of DiCaprio prepping and delivering various shots as an actor within the film are some of his best work.  

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton
DiCaprio as Rick Dalton

The ending of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood will most likely be the greatest discussion topic and conversation piece produced by the film, and it is a doozy. It’s those ellipses (…) that set this film apart from the Leone films I mentioned earlier, and it is there where I could start to go down the rabbit hole. However, not to spoil anything, all I will say is that I am already eager to see the film a second time with the ending in mind, and my guess is I’ll appreciate the film differently and quite a bit more upon a second viewing. A familiar experience with most of Tarantino’s films, but this one may be one of his most fascinating conclusions of any film he’s made.

Pitt and DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
This won’t be the last time we see these two paired up in a film.

What we have here is a modern-day auteur at the top of his technical game taking chances and making movies that still make an audience appreciate the medium and the experience it can offer. There’s tremendous atmosphere populated with thrilling takes on movies, dreams, American culture, music and the divisive nature of society. Plus there’s a bitching soundtrack curated no doubt for some of the blunt references they make to the film’s plot. The soundtrack also being the medium for Tarantino’s only cameo, a device in nearly all of his films, some being overt (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Django Unchained), and some being practically non-existent (Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, Jackie Brown). Speaking of cameos, this film has some good ones that are not Tarantino, and I will not spoil any of them. Just go see this movie. I have almost nothing bad to say about this movie other than it’s not Tarantino’s best, which is to say it’s the best movie of 2019 so far by a long shot, just not the best movie of 1994. A

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 41 minutes.

The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King Poster

Director: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson

Cast: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogan, and Alfre Woodard

Like with most good things, there comes a point where the end must eventually come. The Lion King live action remake is officially that moment in terms of these cinematic cover versions of classic Disney animated films, where the wheels have finally come off. And this is coming from a guy whose power went out on the hottest day of the year, so he took his family to the movies for some sweet air conditioned relief. In other words, I was an easy audience to impress.

But impress it did not. Jon Favreau returns to direct his second of these live-action remakes after the 2016 hit The Jungle Book, a film that kind of jump started this whole remake-craze at Disney. I guess it’s also fitting that he also helms the one that starts its descent.

The Lion King opens with a live-action rendering of the opening scene from the 1994 animated film. It is starkly identical to the original, where animals all gather around Pride Rock to view the presentation of the newly-born king to be, Simba set to the excellent song, “Circle of Life.” This opening does succeed at programming the audience for nostalgia, and it is quite impressive how exact the animators were able to recreate this scene with life-like CGI creatures. Bringing back James Earl Jones to voice Mustafa serves a comparable purpose, setting the table for what could be a nice mix of old and new. Unfortunately, this similarity to the original does not end here, to the point where I’m not sure exactly what screenwriter Jeff Nathanson is really responsible for beyond that of the original screenplay from 1994. The Lion King sticks to the script more than any of these remakes have to date.

The plot of The Lion King remains Hamlet, Disneyfied. The brother of the king, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), desires the throne to the pridelands for himself leading him to hatch a plan to murder the king and his son, steal the queen, and usurp the throne. Simba (voiced first by JD McCrary and later by Donald Glover) escapes Scar’s minions; however, he blames himself for the death of his father and leaves the pridelands. In exile, Simba embarks on a journey of self-discovery eventually discovering the true meaning of duty and courage.

Ultimately, this film sounded like a slam dunk. Beloved story, cutting edge special effects, creative director, and some of the greatest talents of their generation. Ultimately, all of these talents are wasted including the two hugest entertainers on the planet, Donald Glover and Beyoncé (who voices the adult Nala, Simba’s childhood friend). Arguably the most impressive piece of entertainment to come from this movie is actually off-screen: The companion soundtrack The Lion King: The Gift, curated by Beyoncé. The music of the original film written and performed by Tim Rice and Elton John was always the keystone to that film, so arranging for the musical giants of Glover and Beyoncé made a lot of sense. That being said, their efforts on screen do not really deliver, while as a soundtrack off-screen they actually do. Aladdin, released earlier this year, did a far better job of creating a more sonorous experience even with arguably lesser musical content.

All in all, The Lion King is very rote, stale, and unimpressive (aside from the visual effects, which are stunning). The decision to play it so safe with this film is a real disappointment and the result is a clunky film with no personality. The only highlight comes in the form of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan’s portrayal of Timon and Pumba, Simba’s meerkat and warthog companions. They represent the only segment of the film that attempts to find some fresh territory by playfully riffing on the nostalgia of their characters (and some other Disney favorites) while also truly entertaining the full audience from young to old.

Timon, Simba, and Pumba
Timon, Simba, and Pumba in the new live-action remake of The Lion King

This is also one of Disney’s more frightening and violent films in terms of younger viewers, and the decision to make it live-action only emphasizes the violence and danger. The hyenas are also more disturbing, which is a head scratcher because they are laughing hyenas. The hyenas do not even laugh; this is low-hanging fruit. While an attempt was made to add a layer of humor to their characters, one of which is voiced by comedian Keegan-Michael Key, that decision felt like an afterthought. An afterthought that should have been obvious when Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg did such a good job voicing two of them in the original animated film.

Hyenas
I’m not laughing…

The Lion King is a forgettable rehash that could have been a wonderful update on a classic. When these films do not bring something new to the table, it is hard to see them as anything but a shallow attempt to take our money with familiar branding. And that may have been their goal all along with these films, but if you want me to have a Hakuna Matata attitude about these things, at least make me feel the love. C

The Lion King is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 58 minutes.

Man Caves, Movies, and Muscles!

Man Caves

The decisive right of passage for any adult male is the inevitable construction of the “man-cave.” Though its name suggests prehistoric connotations of Neanderthal-like quality wherein a man might exhibit all of his stereotypical gruffness, the truth of the matter is that a man-cave is a place in the home devoid of any and all purpose other than comfort. It is not for cooking, not for showing, not for entertaining, not even necessarily just for a man. The man-cave, conceptually, should be nothing more than an immersion of interests without the pressure of “fitting in” with the rest of the home’s décor.

I have recently begun the formidable undertaking of transforming my basement into a lair worthy of The People’s Critic’s name. Obviously, its design is based on gloriously accentuating a single focal point that is as large a projected movie image as possible. Comfy seats, a big screen, carpet, popcorn machine, mini-bar – everything was in place for the laziest and most epic screening room I could imagine (and afford). Once that task was accomplished, however, a funny thing happened. The lonely treadmill that was the previous, albeit ignored, focal point in the basement suddenly yearned for a new purpose and I guiltily sitting on my comfy leather couch watching The Dark Knight Rises for the fifth and time climbed aboard with a zeal for exercise previously unknown to me. My heart pumped as Batman and Bane battled it out; my adrenaline kicked in to high gear as Bruce Wayne fought to escape The Pit…and then there’s Catwoman! The next thing I knew, exercise and movies were deeply intertwined; free-weights, a jump rope, and a rowing machine suddenly joined the once lonely treadmill as the man-cave evolved into a theatrical gym with no membership costs.

The Nautilus T614 Treadmill is my recommendation.

In the past seven months, I’ve worked out to 35 complete movies. While many are action/adventure films, others are dramas, comedies, westerns, and sci-fi/fantasies. I don’t say all of this to be pretentious or to brag. Rather, I want to establish some element of credibility before providing a list of the top 10 movies to work out to, since I am not a person who is known for or claims to know much about exercising.

The List:

A note before I begin. All of the films on my list I had seen prior to watching them while exercising. Unless it stars Jason Statham (which several of them do), I find the experience is much richer if you’re familiar with the film ahead of time.

10.  The Transporter, The Transporter 2and The Transporter 3 – 3 movies? I know, I’m cheating right out of the gate, but they do star Jason Statham. Still, these movies are made for this kind of list and while not necessarily “good,” (especially in the acting category – That’s right Transporter 3, I’m talking to you) they are the perfect series to show your treadmill who’s boss.

9.  Cloud Atlas – What? That’s right, this nearly three hour Wachowski sibling brain scramble of a film is one of two films on this list that if seen REQUIRE at least a second viewing, so why not set the treadmill to “Walk in the Park” and hit those free weights every time Tom Hanks shows up as another character.

8.  The Departed – One of the best films you can watch anywhere, but it’s the great use of music that earns it a place on this list.

7.  Rambo First Blood: Part II – I resisted the urge to cheat again and include First Blood, but really this is the Rambo movie to see, but avoid Rambo 3 in all circumstances.

6.  Death Race – Jason Statham returns to the list in a remake of the 1975 camp classic, Death Race 2000. This one is worse than the original and yet much better for the purposes of this list! Lots of heavy metal, explosions, cars racing, and Ian McShane.

5. The Dark Knight Rises – This is the one that started it all for me. So you want to be Batman? This movie is the Rocky III of the Dark Knight series. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just know Batman ain’t in fighting shape; he’s a little worse for ware, which of course leads to several training montages that allow YOU to train with Batman himself!

4.  The Wolf of Wall Street – This is probably where I lose my woman audience. Like The Departed, Scorsese fills this movie with great music choices, which I think is key to a good work out movie. It’s also a party on film and a bit of a man’s movie, but with a 3 hour running time, it’s not easy to find time to watch it.

3.  Mulholland Drive – When I listed Cloud Atlas, I mentioned there are two films on this list that REQUIRE at least a second viewing; this is the second one. Certainly one of David Lynch’s finest achievements, this bizarre Hollywood mystery offers so much to interpret, it is easy to get caught up in it and lose all track of time. Beware, Lynch originally planned Mulholland Drive to be a television show, but when that deal fell through, he rewrote it as a film.  He used some footage already shot, thus he has specifications for aspect ratio and volume. If you can’t meet the volume requirements, the movie might be too quiet to watch while using any noisy equipment.

2.  No Country for Old Men – Certainly one of the finest films ever made. This dark, intense allegory for violence is beautifully filmed by the Coen Brothers and presents a film virtually devoid of score and music yet absolutely hypnotizing.

1.  Minority Report – Throw Minority Report on the screen and as the intensity builds, so will your muscle. This one was made in 2002, 5 years B.iP (Before iPhone), but watch how realistically Spielberg imagined some of the futuristic advances.

So there it is, a fun list to help make exercise less of a chore and more of an event. I included the full list of all 35 movies I’ve watched so far in the order that I watched them below. PLEASE consider adding to this list here or on my Facebook page!

The People’s Critic’s Full List of Workout Movies

  1. The Dark Knight Rises
  2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
  3. Magnolia
  4. Boogie Nights 
  5. 300
  6. The Departed
  7. Children of Men
  8. Royal Tenenbaums
  9. Death race
  10. The Transporter
  11. The Transporter 2
  12. The Transporter 3
  13. The Bourne identity
  14. Rambo: First Blood
  15. Rambo: First Blood Part II
  16. Sin City
  17. The Bank Job
  18. The Matrix
  19. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  20. The Avengers
  21. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
  22. This is the End
  23. Mulholland Drive
  24. Cloud Atlas
  25. Paul
  26. The Wolf of Wall Street
  27. Unforgiven
  28. Midnight in Paris
  29. Midnight Cowboy
  30. The Man Who Wasn’t There
  31. No Country for Old Men
  32. Minority Report
  33. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  34. King of New York
  35. Baby Driver

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man Far From Home poster

Director: Jon Watts

Screenwriters: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers

Cast: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, and Cobie Smulders

Spider-Man: Far From Home is the follow up to 2017’s Sony/Marvel Spider-Man reboot, Spider-Man: Homecoming. However, this time around it is also the first glimpse at “life-after-Endgame” in the Marvel universe, which gives it a little more gravitas.

We rejoin Peter Parker (Tom Holland) post-second-snap as the world [*Spoiler Alert for those Spider-Man fans who somehow have not seen Endgame yet] mourns the loss of lead-Avenger, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). We learn that the five-year period between Thanos’s vaporization of half of the world’s population and then the fateful reversal of that action where vaporized humans were restored has been lovingly coined as “The Blip.” We also learn that those returning from the Blip have not aged while those who did not vanish are five years older. This is very bizarre to the youth at Mid-Town High School as the vanished are forced to start the grade over that they vanished from, while the younger students they knew in middle school are now a grade above them. It’s a psychological field day!

Peter is ready to return to life as a kid and take a break from saving the world (and the neighborhood). His class is embarking on a class trip to Europe, and he sees this as the perfect time to make his feelings clear to MJ (Zendaya). The only thing standing in his way is that dorky little Brad Davis (Remy Hii), who did not blip, is now hunky, handsome, older Brad Davis, and he’s into MJ as well.

But it all can’t be wine and roses because this is a Marvel movie! We discover that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) have been investigating strange seismic activity in remote parts of the world only to witness a mysterious new character, known as Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) battle and slay a vicious otherworldly beast. Fury instantly takes a liking to Mysterio who is from an alternative dimension of Earth where these creatures (known on his Earth as Elementals) exploit the elements of earth, water, wind, and fire until they ultimately deplete the planet (cue Captain Planet!) They destroyed his Earth and he is determined to not let them destroy ours. As you can guess, the next seismic disturbance is in Italy, exactly the place where Peter and his class are first visiting on their class trip leading Fury via Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to enlist Spider-Man in plans with Mysterio to save the planet from destruction. Can’t a kid get a break?

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a lot of fun, and for my money is the finest Spider-Man movie of them all. This could be recency bias, but this film is neck and neck with Sam Raimi’s celebrated 2004 film Spider-Man 2. The first hour gets to breathe as a teen comedy, joyously following Peter’s conflicted path of pursuing MJ and thwarting Brad all the while avoiding Happy and Nick’s attempt to draw him into the fight against the Elementals.

The second hour meets the superhero quota of action and spectacular visuals. Director, Jon Watts is developing a visual style with these films, emulating the John Hughes teen comedies with Homecoming, but now seeming more comfortable building his own brand with Far From Home. One particular scene of purposeful disorientation for the characters and the audience is handled quite masterfully.

Now, I’ve been purposefully vague regarding several of the main events of this film because like the best of the Marvel films, Spider-Man: Far From Home has some tricks up its sleeves. Tricks that I would compare to those in one of my other favorite Marvel sequels, which will remain nameless so not to spoil anything (curious folks can click this link). I will say that Mysterio is a welcomed agent in the MCU; a mostly forgotten character who was completely ignored by all of the other film iterations of Spider-Man, but is damn near brilliant to include in today’s era of technology. Gyllenhaal is also excellent as Mysterio’s alter ego Quentin Beck, and the treatment of Mysterio/Beck, while different from the comics in many respects, is actually quite faithful to his character; they even nailed the costume. I still have my Mysterio trading card from the 1991 Marvel Universe Series 2 set.

Mysterio Trading Card
1991 Marvel Universe Series 2 Mysterio Card
Shot of Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio
Gyllenhaal as Mysterio in Spider-Man Far From Home

I sat grinning like an idiot through the first hour of this film because I was just so pleased that after all Spider-Man has been through cinematically, it’s culminated in something that just hits the mark so well. The second hour manages to do the business of big summer blockbusters without losing too much of the steam it builds in its first act. It also succeeds at carrying the franchise to the next phase, whatever that might be, by shifting some things around that will no doubt become vital to the ongoing saga of the Marvel films. One of these things is of course buried after the credits, so be sure to A) See Captain Marvel before you see this film, B) Be up on your Spider-Man film history, and C) stay through the credits of Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Spider-Man: Far From Home gives off a sense of things being in flux, which is precisely the right tone this film needs to have moving into Phase 4 of the MCU. More importantly, this movie is just a pleasure to watch, especially if you’re a Spidy fan, so calm your ‘Peter Tingles,” and get out there and see it! A-

Spider-Man: Far From Home is rated PG-13 with a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes.

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 Poster

Director: Josh Cooley

Screenwriters: Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves, and Christina Hendricks

When Toy Story 4 was announced, I was one of the first voices to express that this will be the sequel that nobody needed. I will now eat those words, as Toy Story 4 is as creative, delightful, and enjoyable as its predecessors, perhaps even a top 3 Toy Story film.

Toy Story 4 starts out in full awareness of its arrival nine years after the previous installment. Clearly, there is no expectation that a children’s film will have deep complex call backs to its previous franchise entries, but a series is a series. The film opens with a flashback from nine years ago that answers the burning question from Toy Story 3, “What happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts)?” This flashback serves as both a frame of reference for where this story is going as well as assurance that this is really the only thing you need to know about any of the previous films in order to move forward. That being said, we are then treated to a beautiful montage of events from the three previous films set to Randy Newman’s classic song “You Got a Friend in Me,” which is a nice touch.

We then move to modern day where Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang are now the property of soon-to-be-Kindergartner, Molly. Woody has fond memories of his days with Andy, but he is now in full Molly-mode working with Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) to run playtime with all the toys. Things get a little weird when Molly brings home a toy she made at school out of glue, googly eyes, a pipe cleaner, and a spork, whom she has named Forky (Tony Hale). This is the first time the Toy Story films have really ever delved into the mythology of what makes a toy anthropomorphic, but the movie does more to confuse that question than answer it. Anyway, Forky, assembled from trash more or less, believes he is just that, trash, and while Molly loves him, Forky wants nothing more than to find the nearest garbage can and jump in. These scenes are hilarious by the way, and casting Tony Hale was ideal! During a road trip with Molly’s family, Forky escapes prompting Woody to chase him down and bring him back to Molly.

What follows is an adventure much different from any of the previous films. For the first time, the toys are out in the world away from the familiarity of toy stores, playgrounds, and childhood bedrooms. This change of scenery is refreshing and revitalizing for the characters and the story in general. The Toy Story films are far from stale, but opening up the environment to the world at large offers a breath of fresh air that could keep this franchise going for years to come.

In their exploits we visit carnivals, antique stores, campgrounds, and the open road, all of which offer their own flavor of fun, humor, and heart.

Toy Story 4 does fall into this curious trend Disney and Pixar have perpetuated involving adding really creepy stuff in the midst of otherwise very palatable family fare. This time in the form of super creepy ventriloquist dummies. These things look like Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy doll mixed with Jimmy Nelson’s Danny O’Day and with a dash of the killer dummy from the 2007 film Dead Silence. Bottom line, to quote Forky, “They are terrifying.” I mentioned in my review of Aladdin from earlier this year that there’s a strange fixation by Disney for including brief unnecessary moments of nightmare quality imagery. WTF?

Image of the Benson dolls in Toy Story 4.
The new stars of your nightmares!

Anyway, thankfully, the creep-factor is easily mitigated by highly effective comedic relief. The best of which comes from the reunion of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as two sewn together carnival prizes with less than delicate plans of action.

Speaking of new characters, there are quite a few, which does impact the screen time given to old favorites dramatically. Most of the familiar characters including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to an extent take a backseat to Woody and the new crew. Fortunately the newbies are a blast, but that doesn’t take the sting out of seeing so many other characters on screen for such a short time.

All in all, Toy Story 4 is a surprisingly solid entry in the series. The change of atmosphere along with the addition of some really fun new characters gives it some edge. And while you won’t be a blubbering, bawling, wailing mess like so many of us were at the end of Toy Story 3, you will still want to grab a tissue or two for the inevitably sentimental final act that pulls hard at the voice box and heart strings. B+

Toy Story 4 is rated G and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin Poster

Director: Guy Ritchie

Screenwriters: John August and Guy Ritchie

Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, and Nasim Pedrad

The Summer of Disney continues. Given that Disney has now officially acquired 21st Century Fox, virtually every major film release this year falls under the Disney umbrella including Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Dumbo, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Aladdin, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Lion King, Frozen 2, and Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. That’s a hell of year, and every damn one of them is a remake or a sequel.

Speaking of this synergy, check out the similarities of three of these films’ posters, all released within one month!

Avengers, Dark Phoenix and Aladdin posters.
Innovate much?

When it comes to the latest live-action remake of a beloved Disney animated classic – Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, I am of two minds. I have always said that my modus operandi as a critic is to rate films on the simple principle of if it’s worth your money. Films aimed at a family audience are generally the toughest to rank in this regard because the money factor in play can quickly get out of hand. Two adults, two kids, and even the most modest concessions will easily run you upwards of $70 in most multiplexes nowadays. For just a few bucks more, you can buy a ticket to the Magic Kingdom and meet Jasmine in person! So the money factor needs to satisfy the fact that such an outing is entertaining to the kids but also not just tolerable but substantially fun for adults beyond just waiting for Disney+ to stream it in November.

Disney has found the blueprint for these remakes at this point. Find an established director (or create your own in the case of Pete’s Dragon’s David Lowery), write a new song, and cast one mega-star to handle your built-in PR. See Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, or Dumbo for evidence, and then just watch Lion King put a bow on top of all of them later this summer! Aladdin follows this design masterfully, and I will give my kid-stamp-of-approval right now without any haste. If your kids liked the previous remakes, your kids will like this movie. Even if they don’t know anything about Aladdin.

That being said, if you don’t know anything about Aladdin, here’s the gist. In the large kingdom of Agrabah, a young street urchin named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) has to steal to survive in the streets. His savvy wit and cunningness keep him out of trouble most days until a chance encounter with a woman he presumes is the princess’s handmaid is actually the actual Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). In classic Capulet/Montague fashion, there’s no future for a street rat and a princess, but when the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) offers Aladdin rich rewards if he retrieves a magic lamp for him from an enchanted cave. Aladdin reluctantly agrees, but is double-crossed by Jafar only to find himself trapped in the cave with only a magic carpet, his pet monkey Abu, and of course one magic lamp that happens to have a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to make his wishes come true!

If you are familiar with the Disney animated version from 1992, the first thing you need to do is separate your expectations. If you know anything about director, Guy Ritchie, you’d know that he’s a style above substance kind of guy. While he sticks to the script more or less, he will sacrifice some of the signature moments to add some of his own. This is not a critique, as a remake or reboot most certainly should innovate from its predecessor, but it’s a careful balance of familiar and new that must be maintained.

The most glaringly obvious example of this element is with the arrival of the Genie played by Will Smith. Unless you lived under a rock or really unless you were buried in the Cave of Wonders, you are familiar with the singularly exceptional performance Robin Williams gave as the Genie in the original film. Williams’s performance was on par with one of the best if not the best voice performances of all time, and sliding a new face (and voice) into the role is not without its risks. I am however, baffled and pleased to report that Smith does not just provide a serviceable performance here, but one that is both worthy of the role and perhaps his best in over a decade. Smith goes all-in as the Genie, harnessing all the charm and charisma he’s capable of, which is a lot! He also is key in the film’s most charming detail regarding the way the overall story of the film is delivered.

Ritchie wisely allows Smith to command his scenes with an immense amount of freedom, and those are the scenes that shine and are extremely memorable. He also invokes a touch of Bollywood style in the song and dance scenes, a lavish and welcomed addition to the visual palate. Ritchie’s inability to get out of his own way, however, does result in some corny use of slow-motion as well as a missed opportunity in terms of his treatment of Jafar. The biggest qualm I have with the film rests on Jafar’s cardboard development and Ritchie’s botching of the film’s climax, which also heavily involves Jafar. The climax is also unsettlingly and unnecessarily scary for little kids – a strange trait of recent Disney fare including Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet, where 100 minutes mood establishment is suddenly shattered by uncharacteristically creepy atmosphere and plot design.

That being said, what Aladdin does well highly outweighs what it does not. The music and songs famously scored and written by Alan Menken are all present and delivered amicably. A notable delight is Naomi Scott as Jasmine who not only embodies a “princess” for today’s day and age, but also is a tremendously talented singer who not only delivers on “A Whole New World,” but also impresses on “Speechless,” a catchy, empowering solo-song for Jasmine, and the only entirely new song in the film. My daughter and son already know all the words and sing it endlessly.

Aladdin represents yet another overall success with this Disney experiment of remaking their beloved animated films in live-action.  While it’s not the best of the bunch, it’s not the worst by any stretch. Audiences of all ages will find something to enjoy, especially the performances by Will Smith and Naomi Scott. B

My daughter at the movies
Proof that I understand the cost of family trips to the movies!

Aladdin is rated PG and has a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes.

An Analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Monolith
Image credit: Taste of Cinema

In Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick thematically expresses that there is a cyclical evolution of man where his intelligence will continually evolve in order to survive in the hostile environment in which he exists until he reaches a state of perfection.  To signify moments of man’s evolutionary intelligence, Kubrick uses a mysterious black monolithic figure that appears or is mentioned in each of the film’s four separate segments, and Kubrick’s theme of an evolutionary cycle is present in each of the four segments as well. 

The first of the four segments is subtitled “The Dawn of Man.”  In this segment, Kubrick explores his evolutionary theme in the prehistoric past where the human race was born from apes.  Kubrick begins this evolutionary process by immediately indicating the hostility of the man-ape environment as well as the their inability to defend themselves in it.  This is shown five minutes into the film when a leopard leaps from a rock and easily slays a man-ape.  Thus, it is obvious that the man-apes live in fear and are scavengers.  Kubrick represents the first shift in evolution when a black rectangular monolith materializes in the man-apes’ den.  This attracts the curiosity of the apes and they all embrace the foreign object.  Following the encounter with the monolith, Kubrick illustrates that the man-apes are evolving in order to survive in their hostile environment.  This is exemplified in the scene during the afternoon after the monolith arrived. 

Ape using bone as tool
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

In this scene, a man-ape is seen looking for food.  He begins to play with a bone found on the ground from an animal’s skeleton.  A quick shot of the monolith appears indicating that it has inspired a new step in the evolution of the man-apes.  In a montage of shots set to Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the man-ape begins to smash at and shatter the skeleton on the ground symbolizing the discovery that the bone can be used as a weapon.  Kubrick includes in this montage a shot of an animal falling to the ground further symbolizing that the man-apes have learned to hunt for food as well as to protect themselves from danger.  In a later scene, the man-apes, with their newfound discovery, war with other weaponless tool-less tribes easily overcoming their adversaries.  This symbolizes that man has become capable of survival in their hostile environment, however more importantly, the environment has remained hostile.          

Satellite from 2001 A Space Odyssey
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The Dawn of Man segment of the film quickly transitions into the film’s second segment.  This segment is untitled illustrating that mankind is in a new setting but he is essentially the same aggressive man from the dawn of time who must again struggle to survive in another hostile environment, thus continuing Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme.  In the previous segment, an ape-man throws a bone into the air in slow motion and the camera follows it upwards.  Then, in a brilliant transition, the bone dissolves into the image of a space satellite in the year 2000.  This dissolve from a tool/weapon of the man-apes to a satellite of 21st Century man connects the satellite as a distant evolutional and intellectual development from the first tool/weapon.  Here, technology is quite advanced and is relied upon for almost everything from guiding ships in to dock to talking to family members.  The reliance upon technology in this segment foreshadows the hostility technology will cause in the third segment. At the end of this segment, man once again finds the monolith, this time on the moon.  This uncovering of the monolith once again signals that man is about to reach another more improved level of intelligence. 

The third segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later,” and it is here that man’s hostile environment is once again realized.  The second segment ended with the monolith emitting a loud radio signal toward Jupiter.  The Jupiter mission is a nine-month expedition to search for the destination of that signal.  Kubrick again reminds the viewer that the crew of the Jupiter Mission spacecraft Discovery are completely reliant upon technology and are in fact using technology to follow a radio signal from a different alien form of technology.  It is in this segment that Kubrick introduces the film’s protagonists Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as well as the ultimate realization of man’s reliance upon technology, a “thinking” and “feeling” super computer named HAL-9000.  The HAL-9000 computer maintains the systems of the spaceship, thus putting Dave and Frank at the complete mercy of technology. 

HAL 9000
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The HAL-9000 is introduced on a BBC television program that Dave and Frank are watching and is said to be “capable of virtually all functions of the human brain, [including insanity and homicidal qualities].”  Thus, the monolith’s unearthing eighteen months earlier yielded another jump in man’s evolutionary intelligence, the ability to virtually recreate the human brain in computer form.  However, with this intelligence comes the possibility and realization of a new level of hostility in man’s environment.  Only HAL-9000 knows the actual purpose of the Jupiter Mission.  The computer has been designed to withhold this information from Dave and Frank until they are to Jupiter; therefore, man has in fact created an artificial intelligence that knows more than the men who control it.  Thus, a false trust is put into HAL because the computer is not ever supposed to make an error or malfunction.  The computer does malfunction creating a hostile conflict between the astronauts and HAL who ironically justifies his behavior by saying the astronauts “jeopardize the mission,” a mission they do not completely understand anyway.  HAL proceeds to murder Frank by ejecting him into space while he was outside the ship replacing a part HAL had misdiagnosed as faulty allowing the audience to realize HAL had planned this murder.  Dave is now alone and Kubrick brilliantly creates a sequence where man must improvise a non-rational solution to survive much like the man-ape that discovered weapons in the first segment.  In a failed attempt to retrieve Frank’s body from space, Dave exits the ship in a space pod leaving his space helmet on the ship.  HAL locks Dave out of the ship allowing no way back in except through a small air lock, but without a helmet, Dave can not leave the space pod.  Dave devises a complex and creative solution using his “human tool” of intelligence that ejects him from the pod and into the air lock.  Dave deactivates HAL and once HAL’s voice is silenced, the ship enters into Jupiter space triggering the announcement of the discovery of the monolith and the true purpose of the Jupiter mission.  This message symbolizes Dave’s intellectual triumph over HAL by mentioning the monolith and revealing the one piece of information previously known only by HAL.      

Monolith
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The final segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”  In this sequence Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme is fully realized.  Dave completes the flight to Jupiter without any dependence upon the ship’s computer.  Dave then partakes in a transcendental journey through time and space activated somehow by the monolith that floats by his pod.  This journey is symbolic of a final transformation into an eventual higher form of intelligence of evolutionary life.  This transformation is further completed in the ingenious sequence after Dave arrives at his destination.  In this scene, Dave arrives at some obscure white bedroom decorated in a luxurious style. Kubrick shows Dave transitioning through four different stages of his natural human life.  In the final stage of his life, Dave is a dying old man lying on a bed.  At the foot of the bed, the monolith towers over him.  Dave is then transformed into a fetus in utero, evolved, and reborn as an innocent, intelligent, superhuman being orbiting through a non-hostile universe without any dependence on technology.  The cyclical evolution from ape to man to spaceman to perfect superhuman is complete. 

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick expresses an evolutionary theme that man will constantly evolve in order to survive in his hostile environment.  He illustrates, with the use of a cyclical evolutionary theory, a rather hopeful and confident future for mankind and leaves open what future stages of evolution the superhuman creature is capable.  

Book Review: Room to Dream

Beautiful is the best word to describe Room to Dream, the hybrid biography/memoir written by David Lynch in collaboration with journalist, Kristine McKenna. Lynch uses the word beautiful often to describe various moments of his life, and somehow even though he uses it often, each time the term is invoked, he adds a special layer of singular majesty to what he’s describing.

David Lynch is one of my favorite artists. I say artists because while he’s most well-known for his filmmaking, he’s an accomplished actor, musician, writer, painter, furniture builder; the list goes on. Room to Dream is unsurprisingly not your typical memoir. McKenna provides expert, researched, and detailed accounts of the chronology of Lynch’s life, and after each “account” (I hesitate to call them chapters), Lynch delivers what would be best described as a “companion story” that in essence filters McKenna’s account through the Lynchian lens. This system is instantly endearing, and I found myself looking forward to each writer’s sections for entirely different but equally fascinating reasons.

David Lynch 2008 – Used with permission under CC-BY-SA

More than once, McKenna and Lynch warn you that there’s no summing up the life and stories of David Lynch in any one book. A book could be written on any one of these stories alone, therefore, the best way to take this book is as an extended conversation more or less through the life and times of Lynch with no time to waste. We get a little of everything here, and it satisfies. As a deeply enthusiastic Twin Peaks devotee, there is quite a bit to enjoy in Lynch’s discussion of the original series, the follow-up prequel film Fire Walk with Me, and the 2017 reboot, Twin Peaks: The Return, for Showtime. Twin Peaks clearly holds a special place in Lynch’s heart and the series solidified life-long relationships between Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost as well as musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. An accessibly delivered thread through his entire filmography is also crafted brilliantly in that the reader can truly follow each step in Lynch’s career and how that forged a path to his next endeavor. McKenna punctuates many of the stories in the book with quotes from many of the people who worked with Lynch or knew him including Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Sheryl Lee, and countless others.

Lynch comes across as the artist we all know he is: dedicated to creativity, desirous of the artist lifestyle, uncompromising (except for his time with Dune, which only reaffirmed his decision to be uncompromising), and passionate. The book has no low-lights, but some highlights for me were the stories about Harry Dean Stanton, Marlon Brando, and the insanity that lead to Mulholland Drive finally becoming what we know it to be today.

Lynch also spends time championing his foundation and the importance of transcendental meditation. The book allows him to expound a bit more on this topic and not be relegated to sound bites in terms of the importance this practice has had on his art form and his career. While Room to Dream is an enjoyable review of Lynch’s famous works, the book also is the most concise synopsis of his lesser-known works perhaps ever assembled. Lynch and McKenna provide discourse on the inspirations behind Lynch’s artwork, short films, and commercials. I have been a fan of Lynch’s for years, but I have never been inclined to look into his minor works, of which there are many. I missed the DavidLynch.com era, which is nicely documented in this book, but I have since done a deep dive and have really enjoyed the experience of viewing his short films, especially after reading the stories behind them. The biggest revelation for me is seeing the humorous and comedic material Lynch made. Humor has always been a part of Lynch’s persona and his work, but I had no idea that he had ideas for full-feature slapstick comedies like One Saliva Bubble, which was a vehicle for Steve Martin and Martin Short that never happened, or that he created hilarious short pieces like The Anacin Commercial or The Cowboy and the Frenchman, both of which bear Lynch’s signature style, but involve so much more levity than I’m used to seeing in his works! This ice-bucket challenge from 2014 is an easy example to illustrate what I mean!

Room to Dream is a wonderful collection of stories and insight on a brilliant man who is always evolving and always learning. Read the bit about his discovery of the program Photoshop, and you’ll see the spirit that lives inside him. Where many of us would see Photoshop as useful or perhaps even intimidating, Lynch saw it as a monolithic step to create art, beyond anything many of us can fathom.

If you can’t tell, I just loved this book. I loved it so much in fact, that when I heard for the audio version, Lynch did not read his sections but rather just used them as talking points, I went and got that version as well. The audio book works very well as a companion to the print book itself. Where in the book, Lynch is much more organized in his thought process and story points, the audio version (spoken by Lynch, of course) offers a more conversational and alive rendition of his stories providing a separate experience to enjoy.

This book is a must for any fan of David Lynch or his work, but I also recommend it to even the casual fan of his. I do think for one to get the full impact of this book there is some expectation in being familiar with his work to some degree. He rarely takes time to provide context for the discussions of his films, and he references elements of them without explanation from time to time seemingly assuming the audience has some idea of what he’s talking about. However, many of his stories are relatable and enjoyable for anyone who can appreciate the life of an artist who loves what he does.

Room to Dream by David Lynch & Kristine McKenna. Canongate Books, 592 pp., 2018. Hardcover: $32.00

Booksmart

bsDirector: Olivia Wilde

Screenwriters: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow

There was a time not long ago where we were getting a nice little onslaught of better than average coming of age films. The sweet spot maybe was 2013 – 2014; movies like Boyhood, The Spectacular Now, Mud, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Hunger Games films were all happening during this period, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe while in full swing, had not quite fully established its supreme dominance. Films like those seemed to have dropped off the mainstream in recent memory. Lady Bird certainly broke through in 2017, but other than that, it’s been a different sensibility at the movies. Fortunately, Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart may be proving that the time is right to resurrect this delicate genre where the performers wear their hearts on their sleeves and we reflect on our inner-child rather than galactic super-dominance. And just so we’re clear, I loved Avengers: Endgame, but variety is the spice of life!

Booksmart documents the final days of high school for Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two best friends who embraced school to the fullest, lead the student council, earned every academic honor, and have been accepted to prestigious colleges. Their beliefs were that in order to reach these epic academic heights, they had to be laser-focused on studies and extra-curricular activities, leaving no room for the indulgent parts of high school.

That being said, when circumstances reveal that several of Amy and Molly’s popular and partying classmates (whom they perceived were than bright) also had received admirable post-secondary opportunities, they realized that, perhaps they missed out on the high school experience after all, leading to a mission to make up for lost time in one night by hitting parties, giving into urges, and just being kids!

The bulk of the film can be described as in the vein of other films like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Superbad where outsiders decide they want to be insiders and awkwardly work their way in only to learn it’s not so great on the inside, but the journey is the truly valuable experience. I’m not subjugating the plot to be critical because while this is a time-tested format, the journey truly is the valuable part, and Booksmart does just enough with this to make it stand out as clever, relatable, and entertaining.

Much (all) of the credit for this film’s success should be given to the two lead performers, Dever and Feldstein. This movie is two actresses away from being middle-of-the-road. Comparable to the way Metcalf and Ronan elevated Lady Bird, these two actresses give everything to their performances and make us care about them, their friendship, and their futures. Supporting roles that are practically cameos come from Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s husband), Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow who all basically bolster the comedy side of things, and they do so nicely. However, this film is all-in on its two leads.

Appreciating this film does involve some true introspection. Some of the negative criticisms I have read about the film come from reviewers who clearly just missed the nuances and the point. One reviewer mentioned that Booksmart wants you to laugh at someone being vomited on, but I don’t think that scene was meant to be funny at all. Another said that “name-dropping” Malala was in poor form, but if you’ve ever met a teenager, you’d know that this is something that they would totally do, and their reasoning for it is actually quite in the spirit of who Malala is and what she represents as an activist (not that it even has to be). What I’m trying to say here is that this film attempts to breathe the air its characters breathe, and if anything, I’d say it’s not authentic enough being set in a highly affected, mostly affluent school with kids who do not really represent everyday kids. Booksmart does not want to cater to perceived expectations. It also does not want to shock or make you uncomfortable; however at times it does both of those things because that’s life. B+

Booksmart is rated R and has a running tiem of 1 hour and 45 minutes.