1917

1917 poster

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch

1917 is first high profile World War I film since 2011’s…did you see that tracking shot? …uh, 2011’s War Horse directed by Steven…that tracking shot though… ahem, Spielberg – who has championed Mendes’s career since the beginning… I mean the first one was at least 30 minutes long right! Where did he even cut?… Now Mendes has emerged with his best film since 2002’s Road to Perdition….there are hidden cuts in there; there must be, but regardless – that tracking shot!

image of 1917 set
Don’t screw up…we’re doing this in one take!

Ok, have I drawn enough attention to the obvious elephant in the film? 1917, shot as one continuous shot, is not the first to attempt this style of narrative, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious and successful at it! Films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or as recent as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films Birdman and The Revenant have executed this technique. Sometimes this method is used ironically or as a stunt, but in the case of 1917, it is used to accentuate the point that the events of this film are happening in real time. Brilliant and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully implements Mendes’s vision, all but guaranteeing him his second Oscar in three years after having had 14 straight nominations go the other way.

The plot of 1917 is rather simple: A pair of soldiers are sent on a crucial mission to deliver orders for a Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stand down before walking into a trap that would cost 1600 soldiers their lives. It’s a race against time (hence the single-shot shooting style) as the two men cross enemy lines in an attempt to deliver the message in time. The two men are Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), British soldiers selected by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) because Blake’s brother is part of MacKenzie’s command that will be decimated by the Germans if the message is not received in time. The movie painstakingly documents these men’s journey through the trenches and across enemy territory in the hopes of preventing a tragic tactical mistake.

Mendes does an excellent job of crafting a simple plot but giving us a powerful story, a story that is personal to him. The idea for the film, which is fiction, is based on a story Mendes’s own grandfather, a World War I veteran, told him. The story was one of another soldier tasked with carrying a message into no-man’s land during the war. Sam Mendes used that story as the basis for 1917 and dedicated the film to his grandfather and the many others like him who fought for our freedom. This gives the film an added layer of quality, but regardless, 1917 is a film that is certainly technically brilliant; it managed 10 Oscar nominations without a single one in any acting category, which is precisely what happened with another technical marvel from 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road. Like that film, 1917 is also narratively engrossing in all the best ways making it one of the best films of the year. A

1917 is rated R and has a running time of one hour and 59 minutes.

Ford v. Ferrari

Director: James Mangold

Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller

Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, and Tracy Letts

Ford v. Ferrari was released November 15th, and that makes sense because it’s a finely set table of exactly what you expect in heaping quantities with few surprises, and when you’re done you need a nap.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale headline this cinematic slog through the American pastime of driving cars fast. Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a famous race car driver and designer who finds himself with a heart condition that forces him to end his driving career. Of course, you can take the driver out of the car, but you can’t take the car out of the driver, and soon Shelby is busy working for Ford to deliver a car fast enough to defeat Ferrari at the world renowned race at Le Mans. Shelby selects hot-tempered British mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to be his driver to the chagrin of Ford President Henry Ford II and VP Lee Iococca. Nonetheless, Shelby and Miles must work together with little to gain and everything to lose.

Ford v. Ferrari is this year’s Green Book. Now depending on who you are, that statement will mean different things. To me, it’s another installment in a troubling cinematic trend. Every year, a handful of “Oscar darling” films are released that follow a virtual template of style and perceived wit. Essentially odd-ducks are paired up to navigate an unkind social climate full of architypes and caricatures that must be thwarted. Movies like The Help, Green Book, and Driving Miss Daisy all fall into this category. Now like I said, you may see that list and say, well that’s a pretty good list! What’s the problem? To that I say, that upon examining these films, what you really have is a film where everyone is uni-dimensional except the principal characters, and the film progresses with a style that broadly spoon feed audiences hearty portions of quippy one-liners and unlikely conversations practically winking at the camera instead of being in the moment. Obviously, Ford v. Ferrari does not contain the racial subject matter that the other films I mentioned have, but the style of this film matches those precisely. These historic, character-driven dramas shot with this disingenuous style ring so false to me, and I wind up caring less and less.

We do have the essential ingredients to a film like this in spades though. The main characters of Shelby and Miles are portrayed strongly by Damon and Bale respectively. They ground the movie as best they can, especially through the racing scenes, of which there are many.

Director James Mangold is generally not guilty of producing these kinds of films. In fact, his 2017 film Logan was raw and exporative despite being a “comic book” movie. Ford v. Ferrari, unfortunately, has little gas in the tank and more or less feels like it’s just going in circles, taking too many pit stops before ultimately just being totaled (puns intended). C-

Ford v. Ferrari is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 32 minutes.

Doctor Sleep

Director: Mike Flanagan

Screenwriter: Mike Flanagan

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, and Carel Struycken

When I heard that a film adaptation was in the works for Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining, I admit I was worried. When I read the 2013 novel, I remember immediately thinking, “Well, this will never work as a film.” Then, to my surprise, within a few years, it’s announced that it’s already in production, and with the talented horror-guru Mike Flanagan (Haunting of Hill House, Hush) as writer/director. That’s enough to get me in the theater, and fortunately, Doctor Sleep does not disappoint.

As I mentioned, Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s long awaited follow up to his horror classic, The Shining. The original film version of The Shining from 1980 directed by Stanley Kubrick has taken on a life and mythology of its own being hailed as one of the greatest horror films of all time as well as inspiring countless stories and documentaries about some of the strange occurrences associated with the production. Doctor Sleep picks up 30 years after the events at the Overlook Hotel from the original novel. Danny, now going by Dan (Ewan McGregor), is a fully grown, recovering alcoholic, and still has the shine, a term referring to his psychic abilities. Dan’s pretty messed up as one tends to be after a haunted hotel possesses your dad leading him to chase you and your mom around with an axe and just murder a bunch of people before freezing to death in a hedge maze. Oh…spoiler alert.

Now, Dan is sort of a lost soul leading him to taking a job as a hospice nurse, a job that puts his abilities to good use, as his shine gives him an uncanny ability to help soothe the dying in their final moments – subsequently earning him the nickname Doctor Sleep. The shining is a pretty valuable thing – even more so to a group of steam-punk looking, cultish demons known as the True Knot. Lead by ancient matriarch, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the True Knot travels by RV across the country seeking out those with the shine, torturing them, and then devouring their essence, which they call steam. It’s a motley crew of weridos with weird names to say the least (a tip of the cap to Twin Peaks’s Carel Struycken as Grandpa Flick). They survive on steam and it must be extracted through pain and torture, which results in some very unsettling scenes in the film.

When the True Knot sense the presence of a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who possesses incredibly strong abilities, Rose and her band of scoundrels look to hunt her down. Abra reaches out to Dan asking for his help to stop the True Knot from capturing and killing more people in their caravan of death!

I enjoyed Doctor Sleep much more than I expected I would. The performances are good, especially by Rebecca Ferguson as Rose. The horror is quite terrifying in parts, and while The Shining is on a different plane in terms of achievement and experience, Doctor Sleep is a well-told, strongly designed sequel. The nods to the first film are appropriate, but this is a fully realized, complete story all on its own. The adaptation from the source material is extremely faithful in most respects, but Flanagan also takes some massive left turns in other places, most notably with when Abra’s powers manifest and with the film’s ending. Stephen King said in an interview that it is important for readers to understand that the novel Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the novel The Shining and not the film. I think Flanagan took to that approach with this film in that the movie Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the movie The Shining and not the book, therefore the choices he made to deviate from the book make sense to the characters as we know them from the movie (even though I would have loved to see the novel’s ending play out in the film).

Doctor Sleep does what it set out to do very well. It invokes the spirit of The Shining without needlessly relying on it to stay above water. The inexplicable 152-minute running time does unsurprisingly result in the occasional drag here and there, especially in the first act. Still, there’s plenty that works and more than enough play in this film to keep Doctor Sleep from being a dull boy. B+

Doctor Sleep is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 32 minutes.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse Poster
The Lighthouse (2019)

Director: Robert Eggers

Screenwriters: Max Eggers and Robert Eggers

Cast: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson

Arrr – ye all be a scurvy lot, boastin’ a tall tale of the sea be ye? That is not a line from Robert Egger’s 2019 film, The Lighthouse…but it could have been! The Lighthouse is Egger’s follow up to his film The VVitch: A New-England Folktale, which gained the director a lot of attention in 2015. Now Eggers is back with a film about two lighthouse keepers that will no-doubt have people talking…like a pirate!

The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers off the coast of Nova Scotia sometime in the mid-to-late 19th century. Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a grizzled, weather-beaten veteran and foil to Pattinson’s young, idealistic Ephraim Winslow. Wake and Winslow arrive for a four-week shift looking after a lighthouse as wickies, the colloquial term for this occupation. It’s isolating, hard work, as you can imagine, especially given Wake’s insistence that he is the only one who gets to keep the light atop the lighthouse, leaving Winslow to most of the hard labor and grunt work. At night, there’s little to do but eat, drink, and talk and much of the film is dedicated to these activities, but that’s where we as the audience learn the most. These men have secrets.

Dafoe and Pattinson in The Lighthouse
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as sparring lighthouse keepers who drive each other mad in Robert Eggers’s “The Lighthouse.” Image Credit: A24 Pictures

As the film progresses, we get quite a bit of insight on these men. Both have questionable pasts that have brought them to this “rock” as Wake calls it, and both are dealing with inner struggle that slowly reveals itself. That slow burn could result in a slog of a film; Eggers’s dialogue through the mouths of Dafoe and Pattinson goes a long way. First, a word about Dafoe. Whether you know it or not, Willem Dafoe has been quietly scooping up Oscar nominations left and right. Assuming he is nominated for this role (which in my opinion is a sure thing), he would be receiving his third nomination in as many years, placing him on the shortlist of actors like Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and Marlon Brando who have accomplished such a feat! Dafoe puts out a vicious, raw, funny, and technical performance as the gritty Thomas Wake. The credits express thanks to the dark Romanticist, Herman Melville for inspiring much of the dialect and language for the film, and Dafoe masterfully spits this lugubrious, Melvillian prose in such a captivating way that I searched in vain for the screenplay for this film just so I could read and treasure every syllable of exactly what resulted when poor Ephraim Winslow expressed disfavor with Thomas Wake’s prepared lobster dinner. It is a scene for the ages.

Dafoe as Thomas Wake

Pattinson too gives a layered and impressive performance. While his character has fewer eccentricities with which to chew the proverbial scenery, his performance is solid and aggressively mysterious.

For a movie with really only two characters and one principle setting, The Lighthouse is actually quite confusing; however, I would preface this with the understanding that this confusion is mostly deliberate. Writer/Director Robert Eggers layers the film with texture. Shot entirely in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, the film resembles something out of German expressionism resembling films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu (coincidentally Dafoe played Max Schreck, the actor who portrayed Nosferatu, in the 2001 film Shadow of the Vampire). This places us as viewers in bizarre territory as madness and insanity are tropes often associated with films that look like this, and The Lighthouse, it seems, is no exception. Eggers uses Expressionist qualities to tell a fable-like story full of mystery and mythology that takes some serious unpacking upon its conclusion.

The Expression I get

I certainly cannot say I got every bit of this film, but I can say that I enjoyed the ride from start to finish, and I look forward to reunitin’ with this salty cinematic saga again one day if the sea-god Triton grants it be so. B+

The Lighthouse is Rated Arrrrr as has a running time of 1 hour and 5 minutes.

Joker

Joker Poster

Director: Todd Phillips

Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Zazie Beetz

Todd Phillips’s dark origin story of the nefarious, titular Clown Prince of Crime is a moody film that feels much closer to the Christopher Nolan vision of Gotham City’s milieu than any of the most recent efforts in the DC universe. And by universe, I mean adaptations of material from Detective Comics because the makers of Joker have made it quite clear that this film is not part of what has been called the DC Extended Universe, which includes films like Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman

Joker is drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 thriller, Taxi Driver as well as to his 1983 dark comedy, The King of Comedy. These comparisons are quite justified as all three films explore celebrity, sub-cultural unrest, and showcase the talents of Robert De Niro. These comparisons come ironically on the heels of Scorsese’s own recent public comments in Empire magazine that other comic book movies are “not cinema.” Whether or not Scorsese has seen Joker remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the film is heavily stylized and inspired by his early works. But this film is much more than a Scorsese tribute; it is actually quite an astute commentary on some very difficult issues to discuss, making it one of the most necessary films produced this year.

At its core, Joker is a character-driven story about Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a meager, struggling performer hoping to someday be a stand-up comedian. Fleck also has a “condition” which manifests as uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. The film quickly establishes that this is a film about man vs. society where Fleck’s numerous mental illnesses result in a rejection from society regardless of his desire to be part of it. Fleck is literally beaten at one point by some kids simply because he stands out. This significant but minor violent experience results in a series of events that eventually see Fleck unemployed, unsupported, and friendless.

To make matters worse, Fleck, who lives at home with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) discovers that he may be the illegitimate son of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who ultimately abandons both Penny and Arthur. The film is quite ambiguous on this point, and so I leave it up to your interpretation on exactly what is going on here, but suffice it to say, just the idea of it would certainly contribute to Arthur’s coming unhinged. Phoenix is excellent in this film allowing Fleck’s struggles to feel very real and human. His decisions, as radical as they are, all come from a raw and authentic place within the character that Phoenix is able to capture and put on display in a very captivating way.

Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as ‘Joker.’

Joker as a film also does an excellent job of pitting this dynamic individual against a society that is crumbling into chaos and compartmentalizing into a vastly unsettling class struggle. There is no need to underscore the parallels director Todd Phillips is attempting to draw between Gotham and say New York City. The rich are getting richer, the poor are being underserved and beaten down. Fleck simply wants his chance at the American dream, but the more he looks around, the more he notices that the dream is not attained, it’s taken by whoever wants it most by whatever means – which in itself distorts the “American Dream” into something entirely different. You can be rich and famous in America if you’re lucky enough to have it already or if you’re bold enough to destroy others to get it. Jesus Christ – that’s a scary thought! Fleck’s one dream is to be a stand-up comedian and perform for his favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). The film wisely frames the film’s climax on this notion, and what transpires is compelling and profoundly unsettling. Not because it is necessarily “shocking” but because of what it does to us as viewers who will no doubt be feeling a variety of conflicting emotions by the end – all worth examining.

The film does wind up in some familiar territory at the end that on its surface feels a bit unnecessary; however, when reflecting on the film as a whole, and depending on where you sit on certain interpretations of events, the significance of the film’s final scene is quite subjective. Joker is at its worst, a conversation piece, and at its best the most socially significant American film released this year.  A-

Joker is Rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.

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.

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.  

Shazam!

shazam!Director: David S. Sandberg

Screenwriters: Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou, and John Glover

A weird thing is happening with mainstream cinema right now. We are now fully saturated with superhero films. It is undeniable. Usually, when this level of inundation occurs in a pop culture medium, fatigue sets in, and another trend emerges. Oddly enough, seven superhero-related films had major releases in 2018, and at least ten more are slated to come out in the 2019 calendar year, demonstrating that fatigue is not setting in, and in fact with Avengers: Endgame predicted to break all box office records, we have not even reached the pinnacle of this superhero-film era.

Why might that be? Well, for starters, unlike many movie fads, the superhero genre has proven to be quite versatile. These films have broad reach and audience appeal from absurd to intense, to adult-themed, to even awards-caliber social commentary. But even more than that, the most successful of them have wit, charm, and charisma that carries them and allows them to massively engage in the original purpose of cinema: Escapist entertainment. Shazam!, the latest offering from the DC Extended Universe, is the latest of superhero fare and represents everything that works for the genre as well as the finest achievement so far in the DCEU.

Shazam! is like Big meets Home Alone, so allow that to sink in before you proceed. It also knows it is like Big meets Home Alone and lets you know it knows. That being said, it is not stale nor does it lean on preconception. The gist is that in an alternative dimension, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) is tasked with restraining the seven deadly sins’ influence on Earth. With his powers growing weak, he must find a new champion who is pure of heart to replace him before his powers fade, and the sins are released from their captivity. His search spans many years, once nearly selecting a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), but finding his heart to not be worthy. This dismissal by the wizard sparks a maniacal 45-year pursuit. As an adult, Sivana (now played by Mark Strong) seeks to discover the wizard’s hidden realm and take the power for himself. The good news is that the wizard finds his new champion in a foster kid named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), charging him with the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) simply by calling the name Shazam and with the ultimate goal of protecting Earth from the seven sins. Unfortunately, the wizard is not able to fend off Sivana, and he is able to transform into the sins’ vessel and harness their power, which he plans to yield maliciously, of course.

Now the table is set for a battle of good and evil between Shazam! and Sivana, who wants Shazam’s power for himself. Nothing really to write home about. However, the conflict is not the magic of Shazam!. Few, if any, superhero films so far have succeeded in capturing the cultural identity that comic books represent to the generations who grew up with them. Shazam, however is an exception. The true accomplishment of Shazam is how effortlessly and flawlessly it showcases the majesty, hopefulness, and glee that this style of fantasy has on our imagination. Much of this is accomplished through the chemistry between Billy/Shazam and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Their scenes together make the movie, and fortunately, about 80% of the movie is focused on their exploits together, navigating the tricky world of becoming a superhero. Levi has been on my radar for years, having been a big fan of the NBC series Chuck, and even though he has been consistently working since that show went off the air, he still had not found that break-out role that showcased his talents. That is no longer the case. Zachary Levi has a tremendous amount of fun in this role, and his performance elevates the movie to being truly enjoyable whenever he’s on the screen.

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I mentioned that about 80% of the movie is focused on our heroes, but unfortunately, that means that the other 20% is focused on our villain. For some reason, the DCEU is still struggling with the whole villain thing. Mark Strong does his best with what he’s given to play Dr. Sivana. While menacing, evil and fixated on chaos, the old tropes of daddy-issues fueling an absurd quest for power for the sake of aimless revenge is tired and uninspired. Sivana sits somewhere between General Zod and Steppenwolf in the DCEU villain hierarchy.

Shazam! does manage to avoid one common pitfall of new superhero movies, and that’s delivering an origin story that is not dull, mediocre, and contrived. Writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke were able to access the source material in such a way that everything feels fresh about the journey to becoming Shazam. Shazam! shows us (as well as DC) that we all do in fact have a fun and inspired superhero inside of us. B+

Shazam! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one mid-credits, and the other post-credits. The first is plot-based, but the second is just played for laughs.

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