by Philip Price
Director: Josh Cooley
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen & Tony Hale
Runtime: 1 hour & 40 minutes
“Toy Story 4” is necessary. Know that first and foremost, that not only is “Toy Story 4” a necessary addition to the franchise that launched Pixar, but a meaningful one as well. One wouldn't be at fault for thinking the animation studio has been somewhat off its game over the past few years as it turned into a sequel factory of sorts and churned out entertaining enough diversions to more creatively satisfying original films as that's kind of the fact of the matter save for the occasional “Inside Out” or “Coco.” Since “Toy Story 3” in 2010 Disney and Pixar have released ten films counting this latest ‘Toy’ sequel and of those 10 films six have been prequels or sequels. These have all been of a certain quality, mind you-as even the third “Cars” film allowed Pixar's most underwhelming franchise to go out on more of a high note than not-and yet, “Toy Story 4” feels like the true return to form the studio needed and that audiences were waiting on. With original creative mastermind John Lasseter only credited as a story contributor among a barrage of other contributors it was up to screenwriters Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”) and Stephany Folsom to crack the story as “Inside Out” screenwriter and frequent Pixar voice actor Josh Cooley was tasked with his feature directorial debut being the fourth installment in this consistently excellent series. No easy task, but to circle back to the beginning of this review is to reiterate that the most difficult obstacle to overcome with a fourth “Toy Story” film would be that of justifying its existence. “Toy Story 3” ended in such a way that it not only wrapped up the story of these toys and the child they'd belonged to for as long as either of them could remember, but it gave closure to those who'd grown up with the first two films and were now transitioning into adulthood themselves. Almost another decade later and the characters of this world are as endearing as ever with Stanton and Folsom's narrative zeroing in on Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) as he learns that being in charge doesn't always mean being in control. While there were seeds of doubt as to whether or not Cooley and the gang (ah thank you) could find what more there was to be said with these characters and this world, what transpires in “Toy Story 4” ultimately provides the necessary comfort to the truth spoken by “Toy Story 3”; if that previous film eased the transition from adolescence to adulthood then this latest (and presumably final?) film discusses how one adapts to their new role in a mature and positive way.
One of the biggest stories around both “Toy Story 3” and ‘4’ was that of where Bo Peep (voice of Annie Potts) went and how she might make her way back into the lives of Woody, Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen), and the rest of the crew. The "how" is answered immediately as we flash back to the stormy night in which Andy's little sister, Molly, gave up a few of her toys including her Bo Peep lamp to another child and friend of her mothers. In this sequence, there is a moment between Bo and Woody where everyone's favorite sheriff is faced with the choice of choosing between his desires and his loyalty and in fine Woody fashion, he sticks to his (toy) guns and stays with his kid. Making our way into present day though and the majority of the original gang now reside in Bonnie's room even if the most popular toys of old AKA Woody aren't being played with in the capacity they might have been in Andy's room. Bonnie enjoys Lightyear's space ranger antics and has taken to removing Woody's sheriff badge and pinning it to Jessie (voice of Joan Cusack) which is completely logical for a 5-year old girl, but while he tries to mask it as best he can this lack of a sense of purpose is sending Woody into a tailspin. No longer is "Sheriff Woody" the head of the bedroom, the toy every other plaything looks to for guidance or security, but rather Woody has been relegated to the floor of the closet where he collects dust bunnies and is encouraged to name them so as to occupy the loneliness. It is this idea that prompts Woody into action when he sees Bonnie is upset at the thought of having to begin kindergarten and thus the reason he risks getting her in trouble by sneaking into her backpack and watching over her at orientation as if to serve as her own personal bodyguard. In an attempt to divert Bonnie's attention away from the fact no one sits with her at the crafts table, Woody inadvertently provides the tools necessary for Bonnie to build "Forky" (voice of Tony Hale); a spork with mismatched googly eyes, a pipe cleaner made into arms and hands, and a popsicle stick broken in two that serve as feet where Bonnie prints her name on the bottom. Forky was never meant to be a toy, but finds himself at the center of this young girl's world while Woody finds purpose in convincing Forky of his importance and therefore finds meaning in his unflinching loyalty to the idea that toys are meant to serve as tools to improve the lives and eventual memories of the children they are lucky enough to serve.
Getting too deep into the weeds and one might find themselves questioning their own purpose in life or their own sense of worth and what they've done so far that has made it worthwhile, but much like Woody-if you're a parent especially-you find yourself looking at your kid and hoping you've done as good by them as you could. There is a particular moment in “Toy Story 4,” when Woody, Bo, Buzz, and new characters Bunny (voice of Jordan Peele) and Ducky (voice of Keegan-Michael Key) along with stunt toy Duke Caboom (voice of Keanu Reeves) are making their way through an antique shop to try and rescue Forky where a brief, simple shot exists of a customer walking through the store inspecting a ceramic duck or something of the like and it immediately triggered this sort of nervous sense of "why?" as in, "why do we accumulate this stuff and these things? What purpose do they ultimately serve and aren't toys just another thing we collect to try and fill a void or satisfy an idea that might never become fully realized?" There was no reason for this particular shot to stand out and one might think such ponderings feel a little far-fetched all things considered, but it is in this reaction the film elicits that we find one of the many layers and ideas that Cooley and the gang (I'll show myself out) are exploring at greater depth than the comedy and pristine animation would initially suggest. All of the necessary peripheral characters are present and given a fair enough amount of screen time, but Scranton and Folsom were smart to make this about Woody and his journey from participant to spectator as these ideas and themes being discussed truly come from this natural arc we've seen his character take. Through Forky, this object that was given a soul and a home by a little girl who needed to create something to give these things to, we are also presented with Woody’s put upon responsibility that, if he isn’t going to be the center of Bonnie’s world that he’ll at least play a role in supporting whoever Bonnie chooses as her most important toy in the moment. It is in this desire to validate his worth as a toy by continuing to make Bonnie happy even if he's not the center of attention that Woody’s arc becomes emotionally investing. Yes, Forky is this fantastic and funny embodiment of all of our deepest fears and anxieties as he constantly feels like he's treading ground where he doesn't belong, but it is Woody’s realization that he’s no longer effectively of any use in his traditional environment but can flourish in his “sheriff” tendencies elsewhere that make the final ten or so minutes of this such a welcome yet challenging reminder for all those that must let go at one point or another: wings are just as critical as roots.
Breaking down the lines of what constitutes a toy in the first place, at what point these inanimate objects are granted souls and how the eventual end of Forky will undoubtedly skew closer to his original desires despite having been shown the greater wonders and possibilities of the world is definitely getting too far into the weeds as this hand-crafted and humbling reminder that life can be about what we make of it (or from it) tends to serve just as much as a piece of comic relief as it does a representation of all of our deepest existential concerns. As far as new characters go though, Forky is certainly a highlight as Hale lends his Buster Bluth-like neuroticism to the character making lines that are as simple as calling out for Bo Peep genuinely hilarious. Speaking of Bo-Cooley, Stanton, and Folsom handle this reintegration with an intuitive nature that allows the character's re-introduction to not only feel natural, but fated in a way; as if this were the only way she and Woody's story could be told with their paths destined to cross once again. There was caution in the fact Bo just happened to show back up and in pants at a time when, culturally, the #MeToo movement was happening and women were fighting for more equality in the workplace and across the board to the point this certainly could have felt like an attempt to capitalize on the moment, but while Bo has certainly grown into a stronger, more independent character in the years since leaving Molly's room her presence never feels like part of an agenda here, but rather an inherent thread in the narrative that was necessary to tell this next chapter of Woody's story.
In having been what is referred to as a "lost toy" for some time now though, Bo has naturally accrued some new friends in the process as a short scene with Combat Carl (voice of Carl Weathers) proves too short while Bo's right hand woman, Giggle McDimples (voice of Ally Maki), proves a precious commodity along the way. The aforementioned Bunny and Ducky are obviously a great addition as Key and Peele know exactly what they're doing and know how to do it well; a sequence where they team up with Buzz to extract a key is especially brilliant and one of the bigger laughs in a movie that consistently delivers big laughs. And while it would be unfair to expect all of Woody's original gang to get an equal amount of development while also introducing new characters the lack of Buzz here is somewhat disappointing even in light of the understanding this is Woody's movie. The other major new character is Gabby Gabby (voice of Christina Hendricks), a doll who maybe personifies what is best about “Toy Story 4” in that, while Woody must challenge the conventions of his life, Gabby Gabby forces the viewer to challenge the conventions of the typical movie antagonist. Morphing from a stock villain into what is essentially the example by which Woody sees his new possibilities each major player and new cast member tend to not only help build a hugely entertaining adventure, but play a role in both the film and Woody figuring out why they're still needed, what purpose they might serve, and how meaningful they are to those who love them.
by Philip Price
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling & John Lithgow
Runtime: 1 hour & 42 minutes
Mindy Kaling's screenplay and the energy of the ensemble cast in “Late Night” help it transcend the sitcom-like direction of Nisha Ganatra (a TV veteran with credits like “Transparent,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Shameless” to her name) to create what is both a light piece of fluff to curl up to on a Saturday night as well as a timely discussion on the points of diversity in all its forms, among other things. As much as I support and enjoy the fact these themes are being discussed as well as the chemistry Kaling ignites between her Molly and Emma Thompson's late night legend, Katherine Newbury (a pointed piece of satire in its own right), and believe me - despite the conventional plotting and genre constraints this firmly fits into there are plenty of sharp observations and smart conversations swirling around within its borders - my favorite thing about “Late Night” is how Kaling talks so passionately about comedy and furthermore, creating comedy. There is a reverence for the process and a chronicling of sorts around what it takes to make certain jokes work and why some jokes work better than others no matter the contrast in quality. As much as it adheres to the beats of its classification it also insists on making every line of dialogue count as if to insist that what is being said is important, sure, but it's how Kaling is conveying what she's saying that really matters to her.
by Philip Price
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson & Kumail Nanjiani
Runtime: 1 hour & 54 minutes
From the outset of director F. Gary Gray's (“Straight Outta Compton”) ‘Men in Black’ re-boot one can gauge there is a certain indifference to the project and if not necessarily an indifference, but a lack of creative care towards the film. This can be gleaned from nothing more than the opening credits which only goes so far as to ape the font of the original without bothering to try and emulate the objective. The opening credit sequences of the Barry Sonnenfeld trilogy would each attempt to emphasize perspective in this world in which the Men in Black existed, whether it be seeing said world through the eyes of a flying "bug" or by actually playing with perspective so as to upend expectations and re-enforce that not everything is as it seems and furthermore, not everything is as we might assume. I recall these opening credit sequences because not only did they play into the story the rest of the movie would be telling, but they played into the themes of the whole series: that this, our world-no matter how big and alone it might seem to us at times, is actually only a small part of a much grander scheme. The majority of the first three MIB films take place in and around New York City and yet they do their best to emphasize time and time again how vast the universe is outside of themselves even if what is happening within the events of the film might have epic repercussions on this, our third rock from the sun. With ‘MIB: International,’ despite going bigger in terms of operating on a global scale the film can't help but to feel much smaller-especially in comparison to that original film-both in terms of scale as well as its ideas. This is to say, the seemingly carefully plotted opening credits of the previous films are no more and have instead been replaced with text over the movie just as it would have played were the opening credits not present at all. This may feel rather finicky, but as it is noted that Gray and his team took little time to consider the legacy of the franchise and the little details that made the original so special-and more importantly, work as well as it did-it only makes it more clear as to why there isn't necessarily any care taken to carry said legacy forward in any meaningful way. Rather, ‘MIB: International’ ends up feeling like exactly what it is: a rushed and uninspired riff on a proven formula that cares more about the how it's been received in the past as opposed to the why it was received that way in the first place.
“Men in Black: International” starts out promising enough as it doesn’t immediately follow the cop procedural beats that all of its predecessors tend to hold themselves to. Instead, we are introduced to Molly (Tessa Thompson) as a young girl who is already fascinated with the mysteries of the universe who then comes to find out aliens really do exist and retains this knowledge after the Men in Black visiting her home and neuralysing her parents believe her to be asleep upstairs. Turns out, the extraterrestrial's made their visit to Molly’s room specifically as Molly makes friends with a cute, but unbearably CGI creation that you know is coming back around and will pay off in some convenient way later in the movie. It is from this inciting incident that Molly develops a lifelong obsession with this secret government agency and finding out how she herself can become a part of that agency. Meanwhile, in the prologue that forgoes the creative title sequence we are introduced to senior agents High T (Liam Neeson) and H (Chris Hemsworth) who are part of the MIB London branch and saved the world a few years back from something called "the Hive" with "only their wits and their Series-7 De-Atomizers” to boot. In the time that has passed since this historic mission High T has risen through the ranks to become the head of the MIB London in what would be equal to the returning Emma Thompson’s O or Rip Torn’s Zed from the original while H has become more of a mess and something of a has-been who prefers to work alone. That is, of course, until Molly-now known as Agent M-shows up in London on a probationary period as an agent per O and sullies the weathered H out of complacency. Joining H on his miserable excuse of an assignment to babysit an alien called "Vungus the Ugly" the film then begins to devolve into the more traditional beats of that aforementioned procedural when Vungus and Agents H and M are attacked by mysterious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois AKA Les Twins) who can manifest as pure energy and whose presence indicates a mole within the walls of the MIB as only the agents present in the room when this task was assigned-which included High T, H, M and Agent C (a forgettable Rafe Spall)-knew the location of Vungus prior to the assignment. Who is the mole? Can H and M figure out what these mysterious twins (and completely bland bad guys sans for some pretty gruesome death scenes) are after and why they want it so bad? You know how it goes and given these elements kick in around the 45 minute mark leaving an extended hour and 15 minutes of convoluted fluff to wade through you'll likely want to check out just as quick.
That isn't to say these motions the movie begins to go through couldn't be involving, but the first half hour or so of the film that sets up how this organization has moved into the future and how hard M has had to work to infiltrate the MIB is very clearly the more fascinating stuff. Why screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (“Transformers: The Last Knight,”) as well as producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald decide to rush through these beats rather than remain with M and give her character the necessary amount of time that might allow audiences to really feel as if she’s earned her place among the ranks of the Men in Black doesn't make sense. While I understand wanting to stray away from comparisons to Will Smith’s character in the original trilogy, ‘International’ would have benefited from at least giving Molly a training montage rather than utilizing said montage to show us how she tracked down the MIB headquarters in the first place. The film breezes through these beats that would otherwise allow us to invest in this character, our true protagonist, to the extent that by the time she actually becomes part of the more routine plot that dominates the second half of the movie we might have cared more about these routine events (as far as routine events go pertaining to the world of MIB). This is ultimately a long way of saying that if Sony really cared about extending the life of this IP then it would have taken more care to find the balance between new and old of fresh and stale in order to weed out the references that didn’t have a place in this new world while finding a new enough spin to maintain our interest. Fresh. Fresh is the key word here and I don't mean that in any kind of ironic fashion. And as it is, the "international" aspect is a good enough hook and the idea of someone seeking out the MIB instead of the other way around to produce a different dynamic between partners is a solid way to spice things up, but neither of these promising additions to the time-tested formula are followed through on to the point they make a difference in the overall impact this new product leaves. That's what ‘MIB: International’ is after all, a product of a movie if there ever was one; existing solely for purposes of capitalization on a known and familiar brand instead of coming to fruition due to any genuine inspiration or storytelling that justified the continuation of this franchise. Rather, ‘International’ just is.
Here's the deal with ‘MIB: International’ though, it just doesn't care enough to either excel or even fail at enough of a miserable rate to warrant any interest at all. It's so middle of the road, in other words, that I'm sincerely surprised I've come up with these many words to say about it at all. And I'll stand by this no matter how much I might come to enjoy the film or forgive its mediocrity after the repeat viewings from the countless random stops on TBS three years from now that this movie will undoubtedly garner from me. That said, and with all that has been said so far to be given serious consideration – ‘International’ also has just enough juice in its tank to make it more enjoyable than not. Yes, everything about it screams of untapped potential and the possibility of a much funnier film with a more engaging plot and more fully developed characters that it's almost infuriating, but seeing as the potential is so present it's not surprising that what we're left with, that what we do have isn't actively terrible, but in fact can be fairly pleasant despite the fact it's wholly forgettable. For starters, seeing this world we were first introduced to in 1997 expand past those central characters and into a modern world-as with everything in this movie-could have been explored more, but offers the promise of something intriguing. Then there is the partial if not full utilization of practical effects to bring the admittedly goofy, but still fun alien creatures to life. Inspired by the designs of legendary make-up artist Rick Baker, it's comforting to see Gray and his team continue in this tradition and not completely convert to fully CG creations so as to preserve the aesthetic of this world as well as assist in the tone. It is in speaking to this point though, that one should mention the main character who is in fact fully CGI and who it was assumed might be the downfall of the film yet actually turns out to be its saving grace. Yes, Hemsworth and Thompson have a chemistry, but it isn't operating at the same level it was in “Thor: Ragnarok” and what saves their awkward non-romantic/romantic entanglement here is the fact it is supplanted by their interactions with a miniature alien named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) who is the last survivor of a small group of aliens who were attacked by those evil twin dudes. Nanjiani has a knack for being able to create a sense of credibility and genuine fun where there isn't actually much of either and he demonstrates this ability to more or less "smooth things over" time and time again here. In a sense, one could say Pawny neuralysis the audience, allowing them to forget the obligatory nature of everything else in this movie and only remember its light, well-intentioned nature and almost making us glad we weren't completely reprieved of this series after 2012.
by Philip Price
Director: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender & Jennifer Lawrence
Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minutes
After experiencing the full-on force of a solar flare in the opening action sequence of writer/director Simon Kinberg's “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” Sophie Turner's Jean Grey describes the after effects as if feeling like "everything is turned up." One might think this is a subtle way of hinting at the mantra of the movie itself, but in reality Kinberg and ‘Dark Phoenix’ have taken the opposite approach and scaled things way down in comparison to ‘Apocalypse.’ And I don't mean down in terms of quality, necessarily, as-let's be honest-the ‘X-Men’ films have been all over the map in terms of quality over the years, but more simply in terms of the scope. Plus, after the disappointment that was ‘Apocalypse,’ there wasn't much further down one could go quality-wise. While there was hesitance in approaching ‘Dark Phoenix’ with anything more than slight optimism (and even that felt generous) given the rumored re-shoots, the attempt to re-tell this notable comics saga, as well as the multiple scheduling changes there was still this glimmer of hope given this was Kinberg's opportunity to finally take the reins meaning there might be some type of newfound energy to the characters and, given where the previous film had left off, some newfound enthusiasm for the world that was being built. And in many ways, this is true of the film as it is apparent from the get-go that Kinberg is taking a new approach to this world and to these characters both aesthetically as much as he is dramatically. In terms of what this fresh approach brings to this X-Men universe is the fact that, for the first time in a long time, it feels as if there is a clarity to what is transpiring-both in terms of the visuals and the direction of the story. Needless to say, Bryan Singer's aesthetic had begun to rely more and more on CGI while his stories felt more based on ideas that were fun in the moment without considering the bigger picture (I'm looking at you, timeline). With ‘Dark Phoenix,’ there is this lucidity that pulses through the film's veins as it strives to at least try different, more interesting things with the surplus of characters in its possession. As is usual, some get the short end of the stick while others who are not necessarily worthy of the focus receive too much screen time, but while there are some major qualms to be had with ‘Dark Phoenix’ there are also some serious highs that deserve acknowledgment. As someone who didn't grow up on the comics, but was instead introduced through the animated series and subsequent live-action films, this unexpected swan song of an ‘X-Men’ film delivers enough of the familiar to make one happy and, surprisingly, enough of a renewed approach that shines new light on oft repeated arcs to make one kind of wish this wasn't the last time we'd see this particular group of mutants on the big screen.
If the pessimism is high walking in it won't be immediately eased as the opening scenes of ‘Dark Phoenix’ will play like déjà vu for those who are only passingly familiar with the ‘X-Men’ franchise and might wonder, why they feel they saw these same/similar scenes some thirteen years ago. What transpires is a variation on the opening sequence of ‘The Last Stand’ of course, but you get the idea. It isn't until we jump to 1992-nine years after the events of the last film-where the Endeavor space shuttle is set to take off and experiences a malfunction that what was promised at the end of the previous film begins to take shape. If ‘Apocalypse’ was the end of the "First Class" trilogy then ‘Dark Phoenix’ would seemingly be the beginning of a new trilogy of ‘90s set adventures with the current iteration of the original team from the 2000 Bryan Singer film sans Wolverine. Sophie Turner's Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan's Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp's Storm and Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler along with great additions like Evan Peters' always wonderful Quicksilver and Nicholas Hoult's Beast as led by James McAvoy's endearingly brilliant Professor X would make for a fine enough batch of heroes to rest a new set of films on where the template is more villain of the week than apocalyptic, world-shattering events, but unfortunately this is neither what this film delivers nor will there be another opportunity for this cast to make good on that promise. With ‘Dark Phoenix,’ 20th Century Fox and Kinberg have decided to jump over the decade or so where such adventures seem to have taken place and instead delve into a famous comic book arc that was already attempted in ‘The Last Stand’ and in this iteration cuts Jean Grey's time as part of the X-Men down about fourteen years not to mention every interaction with Logan she's ever had out of the equation, to results that don't necessarily render ‘The Last Stand’ a moot point which should have been the goal. This new trilogy might have been able to finally resurrect Grey as the titular character and carry that evolution on through this new series of films as ‘Dark Phoenix’ introduces plenty of new elements that ‘Last Stand’ left out that Kinberg might have planned to carry forward had he been granted the opportunity, but alas we all now know the fate this original ‘X-Men’ series will face and that this film will ultimately serve as the end of an era. All that aside, ‘Dark Phoenix’ largely focuses on the arc of Turner's Grey-a character who was short-changed in the previous film that we're more or less told we have to care about now-while also squeezing in some extraterrestrial elements via Jessica Chastain's nameless (as far as the actual film is concerned, anyway) character that the movie could have gone without.
So, the question that continues to be asked is did this movie need to exist in the first place? The answer is definitely no, but the fact of the matter is it does and since it does, I think most people will have to admit that it's not as bad as they expected it to be. Yes, there was plenty of cause for hesitation as presented in the aforementioned factors surrounding the film’s release, but as the film fell into its groove in this opening team-up set in space it became immediately apparent that I was into this movie a hell of a lot more than I initially expected to be. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who had more or less checked out of this franchise prior to ‘Apocalypse,’ seemed more invested in and excited about the role her Mystique would be playing this time around. This immediately brings up one of the best things this "unnecessary" movie dares to do and that is challenge the status quo per character arcs in this series. While the X-Men universe of the comics seemingly has an unlimited number of characters for the movies to draw upon the films have more or less been content with focusing on a concentrated group of popular characters (with the exception of Gambit, of course) and in doing so have re-played many of the same character arcs over multiple films. For instance, every ‘X-Men’ movie that has included Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr AKA Magneto has dealt in the butting of their philosophical differences resulting in Magneto typically lifting some large metal structure and Charles sending a team of his most loyal disciples to try and show Erik the error of his ways. While both McAvoy's Charles and Michael Fassbender's Magneto return for ‘Dark Phoenix’ these arcs are played differently enough to at least appreciate that Kinberg might have had a transition for both characters on the brain. Speaking to Lawrence's (albeit abbreviated) arc, being someone who has known Charles since childhood and yet is still doing his bidding Mystique begins to question this new state of things where Charles risks the lives of his students to seemingly continue to protect not necessarily the world or the reputation of mutants, but to fuel his own ego. Of course, it would be hard to sway any long-time fan of the franchise from the point of view that Charles didn't have the most earnest of intentions, but that the film explores this possibility concerning a man who has named a school after himself is worth noting. And while such lengths might not have been investigated in regard to Magneto, Kinberg and co. still surround the super-villain with enough of a fresh starting point and new perspective that we're once again interested in seeing how Erik's very impulsive temper might affect the overall situation.
What ‘Dark Phoenix’ can't escape in terms of consistent themes across the series though is this idea that by trying their damnedest to prevent certain actions or events from taking place they inadvertently end up creating them. In ‘Dark Phoenix,’ Charles speaks of being, "one bad day away from returning to where we were," in terms of mutant/human relations as Charles now has a direct phone line to the President. In doing everything he can to prove the value of mutant's to the rest of society we get the mission where Jean is exposed to this solar flare that enables her enhanced human form to bond with the energy of the Phoenix ultimately leading to death and destruction that might have otherwise not been brought about-as well as to Charles' line to the President being disconnected. Getting further into the weeds of Charles' decision-making and where his sense of entitlement and good intentions blur comes when Jean discovers her father-who she'd thought dead for some seventeen years-turns out to be alive, but whose memory of him had been blocked from her mind by Charles as he'd helped her build up these mental walls in an effort to protect her. When consuming the rage and desire of the Phoenix though, Jean tears down these walls and discovers the truth only making her resent this man she once thought to be the most honorable of men and forcing her into the company of Fassbender's Magneto who she now feels she can relate to. From here, the film more devolves into a string of action sequences than it does continue to investigate this burden of having to contain the type of power these mutants do and therefore not really hammering home this idea that, even as mutants, it is emotions that make us human and it being the way we act on those emotions that define us as people-not whether they exist or not for that is irrefutable with as much clarity as it could have. It is the rise of this theme and the inspection of how each mutant deals in this conundrum that ultimately renders the existence of Chastain's character-listed as "Vuk" on IMDb, but never mentioned by name in the actual film-pointless given her only function is to essentially bring Grey over to the "dark side". There is a cool section in the film where Kinberg uses the "echo effect" to bring about some strong realizations, especially given the exploration of Charles' arc here, where Chastain's sentiments towards Grey after having been endowed with the power of the Phoenix are very similar to those of Charles' after she realizes she's a mutant for the first time; making the audience re-consider the context of everything we've seen/heard thus far. And while the action sequences are cleanly staged and mostly entertaining there is a bigger part of me that wishes Kinberg might have stuck with the quieter mood the first half of the film possesses.
Speaking to the technical aspects of the film though, Kinberg-in his directorial debut which I feel I need to reiterate as much as possible-tends to shoot much of the action as wide as possible and with what feel like functional camera movements that lend the larger sequences a real sense of scope while keeping them grounded in a way the previous Singer film had let get away from them. Overall, the aesthetic here is very clean and very polished in terms of character and set design as the look of both Lawrence's Mystique and Hoult's Beast look especially improved over their previous appearances. Especially of note is J-Law's eyes as they seem to have returned to using practical contacts rather than tracking her eyes in every shot in order to replace digitally. Another point for the positive side of things ‘Dark Phoenix’ has to offer is that it doesn't overly rely on or play up the ‘90s aspect and while I would have (minor spoiler alert) loved another "Quicksilver saves the day" sequence set to an explicitly ‘90s song I can also appreciate that Kinberg didn't want to ape Singer's style and chose to not play up the time period for the sake of some cheap laughs or to simply try and appeal to a certain demographic (though it is cool they set it in '92 as that was the year the classic animated series debuted). And yes, the film is at fault for wasting a Jessica Chastain performance when such effort could have no doubt been applied somewhere else more effectively and while the film does try to do something a little different with Magneto, the character's allegiances still tend to sway based on the need of the plot more than the actual feelings of the character. Overall though, the film also features a double down on third act set pieces with a Hans Zimmer score that truly heightens the epicness of Jean's powers and finally allows each of the individual X-Men to utilize their abilities in cool and useful ways so much so that-just like in that opening space sequence-make it seem as if it would have been really fun to see this group of young, motivated, and energetic mutants band together for a couple of smaller-scale adventures that might not have amounted to a last stand or apocalypse-level event, but been more than enough to sustain the future and maybe even help us forget the missteps of the past.
by Julian Spivey
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell & Richard Madden
Runtime: 2 hours & 1 minute
Elton John has always seemed a larger than life performer with a personality to match so creating a biopic to tell about the rise of his career and the hardships faced in his life was going to be a tough task. Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall knocked “Rocketman” out of the park under the watchful eye of Elton John himself, who served as an executive producer along with his husband David Furnish.
I’ve been an Elton John fan my entire life – and finally got to see him live in concert earlier this year on his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Farewell Tour stop in Tulsa, Okla. – and even I didn’t know just how hard things were for him both growing up and during the heyday of his career, despite knowing about the excesses and addictions he faced. “Rocketman” pulls no punches when it comes to the rough times Elton John faced and that’s what makes it such a honest feeling and touching biopic and not one that seems glossed over, which is what some critics and fans alike took away from last year’s massive popular “Bohemian Rhapsody,” about the life of Freddie Mercury and the music of Queen, which was actually somewhat saved by Fletcher to finish production after the firing of original director Bryan Singer. The studio wanted “Rocketman” to see some of that success ‘Rhapsody’ did and wanted certain things – like a gay sex scene trimmed or cut to reach a PG-13 rating, rather than a R-rating. Thankfully those in charge of the film didn’t budge because it just wouldn’t have seemed like the same story had they glossed over some of the things that would’ve given it a lesser rating.
“Rocketman” begins where so many biopics do with the childhood of Reginald Dwight, well before he takes the stage name Elton John. Reggie doesn’t have a great upbringing with parents who are basically trash – his father wanting nothing to do with his son and his mother preferring to party and pawn of any actual motherly duties to Reggie’s grandmother, the only true parental figure in his family. The only one who truly seems to care about the boy and his interests, which become the piano at an early age. As a fan of Elton John, I never knew his parents were essentially worthless, but it’s a great place to start for the film because essentially all of his problems later on in life come from the fact that he was never given the love he needed and deserved as a child.
One of the movie’s finest scenes comes early on and is used as a transition from the childhood of Reginald Dwight to him becoming Elton John and it’s the most musical theater scene in the movie with a performance of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” I was happy to see “Rocketman” use some musical scenes and not simply go for the by the numbers biopic method. I felt like the movie really knew Elton John’s music and did it a great service throughout in every single performance – though if you’re wanting this film to be a perfect timeline of his career it’s not going to be. It’s trying to entertain and tell a story more so than being completely accurate.
It isn’t long after that Elton John develops the most important relationship he’s likely ever had, especially when it comes to his professional life when he’s matched up with lyricist Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. Taupin is essentially the only one who isn’t trying to use or abuse Elton in any fashion. Their friendship and songwriting partnership has lasted more than half a century and continues to this day.
Going into “Rocketman” I had never seen a Taron Egerton movie. The 29-year old British actor’s biggest roles previously have been in the successful British spy ‘Kingsman’ movies. I didn’t know what to expect from him going in, but Egerton pretty much inhabits Elton John. It seems certain now it’s a role that was meant to go to him.
Egerton is able to play Elton John’s flamboyance and arrogance as a multi-million dollar making performer, while also capturing the immature boyishness of a man who’s never truly been loved and has suffered emotionally and maturity-wise as a result.
Elton’s parents, played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh, aren’t the only villains of “Rocketman.” Perhaps the biggest villain in the film is that of John Reid (played by Richard Madden), Elton John’s lover and manager, who basically chews him up and spits him out while caring more about the profit Elton can make for him than his own well-being.
Drugs are also a huge villain in the film as Elton falls into the trappings that so many rock stars before and after him suffered through. The drugs must’ve been a coping mechanism for never really being loved by his family and Reid and a way to get through the letdown of such things while simultaneously becoming beloved, but not really known (after all these are Taupin’s words and not his), by the record and concert ticket buying masses.
Before going to the cinema to see “Rocketman” I had seen a headline on Slate that read: “Rocketman Makes Elton John Look Like a Jerk,” which I didn’t bother reading. But, after viewing the film I have to wonder what the hell that headline and article and writer were thinking. Yes, Elton John does jerkish things and has jerkish moments in the film, but he’s a bruised and battered soul who’s been knocked down so much in his life that selling millions of copies of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road doesn’t just cure. Anyone who comes out of the film not feeling sympathetic for him was watching a different movie that I was.
“Rocketman” is one of the better music biopics that I’ve ever seen, right up there with films like “Walk The Line” and “Ray,” as recent examples of good to great biopics. If you’re a fan of Elton John’s music this is a must-watch and even if you’re not or you’re not yet it’s a good movie all-around that’s worth spending two hours with.
by Philip Price
Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga & Millie Bobby Brown
Runtime: 2 hours & 11 minutes
The “pictures” have always been about spectacle and spectacle, especially in this day and age, is what we have come to expect from our picture shows. Spectacle isn’t a dirty word and is often the reason to pay more to be immersed in the movies, but spectacle is best served with a meaningful narrative. There are and can be a lot of variations on the word "meaningful" mind you, but when it comes to movies about giant monsters it doesn't seem to be asking for much for said narrative to at least try and find meaning in the smallest of details, character moments, or even just in the knowing indications of the filmmaking that own up to the fact that the movie itself knows what the audience is really in attendance for; if the focus is going to be the titans at least have a little frivolous fun with the extraneous elements. What is maybe most disappointing about “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” though, is the fact director Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”) touches on the potential meaning through each of those aforementioned examples in his screenplay yet never takes them far enough to where any of them connect. Instead, Dougherty’s sequel to Gareth Edwards' 2014 “Godzilla” doubles down on the spectacle so as to please the masses who are coming to this movie looking for more of what they didn't get in that previous film. Again, there’s nothing wrong with spectacle and if that's all you’re hoping this new ‘Godzilla’ flick delivers then you’re in luck, but if you need the human element to help enhance your investment in the monsters then you'll likely be somewhat disappointed-especially considering the grade-A cast in place here. It’s not even that the characters aren’t likable or endearing, but rather that they don’t tend to be consistent in their intentions and/or as intelligent as they’re obviously supposed to be. Dougherty is a guy who knows how to deliver extravagance with a sly side of brazen as has been exemplified in his past works and while there was hope that this unique flavor might be able to transcend the big studio blockbuster system it seems Dougherty's special brand of schlock has been watered down to fit this pre-ordained plan of plain characters doing plot-convenient actions so as to bring these monsters together for a smackdown rather than being allowed the space and freedom to find meaning in any of these elements surrounding Godzilla that might have assisted in his presence feeling both more natural and impactful. That "spectacle" is admittedly grand in moments, but it can't help but feel empty; devoid of any real feeling and therefore not eliciting much of one either.
Things kick off in real time five years after the events of the 2014 film as we are introduced to the family unit at the center of ‘King of the Monsters.’ Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) who were married at the time are now separated after the Godzilla attack on San Francisco cost them the life of their son. Their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), survived and is currently living with Emma who, as it turns out, works for Monarch-the mysterious government(?) organization that is tracking and studying these creatures such as Godzilla and King Kong-and has developed an instrument known as an "Orca" which uses bio-acoustics to send out signals to communicate with the titans and potentially control them, but as you can probably guess by that description things are will definitely not go according to plan. And so, when they don't and an evil militaristic force led by Charles Dance's Jonah Alan invades Monarch's bunker and disposes off all its scientists except for Farmiga and Brown's characters the heads of Monarch-which again include Ken Watanabe's Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins' Dr. Vivienne Graham as well as newcomer Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch)-bring Mark back in, who has since estranged himself from his family in the years since their loss and separation, both out of courtesy and because he too previously worked for Monarch. It turns out that antagonist Alan is ex-British army and is now working to collect DNA from these titans and now requires Emma's "Orca" invention to wake what is known as "Monster Zero" in Antarctica. Mark, Serizawa, Graham, and the whole Monarch crew head to Antarctica to both try and stop Alan from waking this titan as well as rescue Mark's family, but it is here that things begin to get a little fuzzy and the character objectives become even more questionable as the contrivances that occur in order to allow these monsters to meet are anything but natural and as a result, come off as forced by the hands of both the characters and the screenwriters. It is from this point forward that the film becomes a back and forth of sorts between our two groups of human characters as they each either chase Godzilla and "Monster Zero" AKA Ghidora around the globe in hopes of executing two very different strategies with the same end goal of saving humanity. And if you haven't picked up on how this might be possible or what Dougherty and co-writer Zach Shields (“Krampus”) are reaching for in their character motivations then let's just say Thanos' ideology seems to have made a lot of sense to Emma.
It's not even that these motivations are terribly disappointing that, in the end, make ‘King of the Monsters’ itself so disappointing, but more that it wastes what are genuinely engaging and interesting characters on such outlandish and rather bland ideas and principles. Chandler's Mark, for instance, is this great voice of reason that we don't often get in this genre of storytelling. Mark serves this story as best he can and the complicated dynamics between him, his daughter, and his ex-wife are admittedly more effective than a 90% of the character work in 2014's “Godzilla,” but that this character is placed in more situations where he has to argue with his ex-wife over her irrational ideas than in moments of heated debate with fellow scientists over the best ways to approach and deal with Godzilla is a tragedy in and of itself. The stuff with Mark and his daughter works because both actors are able to emote in ways where we see that despite not having talked for long periods...that they still understand one another (which I can only imagine will be an asset to next year's ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ which both Brown and Chandler are returning for). Farmiga has always been a strong presence no matter the quality of the film and she does her damnedest with what she's given here, but it is in making the character resort to the obvious in terms of blaming herself for the loss of her son and going the direction of being irrational to make up for the fault she feels rather than wallowing in her own guilt as an outward expression of the understandable mental breakdown she's experiencing that the whole of the ‘King of the Monsters’ is cheapened; coming to feel more like a narrative linked together by predictable tropes that result in a mash-up of several monster-sized titans when the premise has the potential to really ground these events in a terrifying and very human manner. Of course, this is the take one comes away with if what they're wanting is authentic drama infused into their monster movie. It's not lost on me that some (most) people go to a movie like “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” fully expecting to turn off their brain and have a good time watching something that can only be appreciated in the way it was originally intended on the biggest screen possible. I understand this mindset and am more than willing to give into that kind of mentality if that is what the movie tells me it wants me to do. Bradley Whitford, for instance, with his gum-smacking, sarcasm spouting Monarch scientist Dr. Rick Stanton along with O'Shea Jackson Jr.'s Chief Warrant Officer Barnes both know what kind of movie they're in and play up the fun/ridiculous aspects to great effect, but as a whole the movie sways between tones without finding an equalizer and therefore failing to get the audience fully invested. Failing, because, the film ultimately doesn't really know what it wants to be either.
All of that said about the human characters though, what does Dougherty make of the main attraction? The titular character? The one God to rule them all? Well, we may see more of Godzilla this time around, but is his appearance more effective is the real question. And the honest answer is that in some moments, sure. Dougherty is absolutely intent on staging some serious monster carnage and for the most part manages to do so in an entertaining fashion. Was I necessarily invested in anything happening between the three-headed alien thing and Godzilla or any of the other flying/crawling/fire-spitting beasts featured in the film? No, not really, but was it fun to watch them go head to head on a giant IMAX screen as they took down cities and natural landmarks with them? Sure. The problem with the monsters in the film though, is much the same with the humans as well: there's just too many of them. And as much as there is a lack of development in the plethora of human characters there is even less in the monsters as the monsters themselves are essentially pawns in the human character's game of, "who can get to them first to best utilize the titans for their own purposes" even though Serizawa explicitly states the opposite in the film...that the humans would in fact be, "Godzilla's pets." In reality, whether it be Godzilla himself, the main antagonist that is Ghidora or any of the other monsters that show up, their purpose comes to be that since they are real and exist and pose a serious problem for mankind they will of course come to serve either one of the two agendas man has decided they will. While I'm not one to make suggestions on how a movie should have been written it would seem more natural and have more at stake that the audience actually cares about if the human characters weren't necessarily trying to dictate the actions of these uncontrollable creatures, but hoping only to survive instead; throw in a few family dynamics and or a love story and there would be enough for us, the viewers, to root for them to stay alive. There is plenty of reason given in the exposition (which is what 90 percent of the dialogue consists of here) as to why Godzilla would want to throw down with Ghidora given the history of the two entities meaning there doesn't need to be any coaxing from the humans involved. This is also coming from someone who has no investment in this series of films and has only seen the 1998 and 2014 versions which only serves to exemplify they do enough here to hint at the mythology and why a re-match is inevitable, so why not just let history run its course? The point being, the film feels so contrived in its effort to get these monsters face to face that it essentially strips much of the joy of seeing them fight away. Oh well, at least it's rarely boring even if you gain nothing from it.
by Philip Price
Director: David Yarovesky
Starring: Jackson A. Dunn, Elizabeth Banks & David Denman
Runtime: 1 hour & 30 minutes
“Brightburn” is one of those movies where you immediately recognize the potential from the premise alone. It's one of those ingenious ideas where it's hard to believe someone hasn't thought of it already. The cause for skepticism with such premises though, is that the execution of story around this initial idea might not live up to the possibilities the premise promises. For the record, I love the James Gunn-produced, Elizabeth Banks-starring “Slither” from 2006 and so to hear Gunn was producing from a screenplay by his cousin, Mark, and brother, Brian, with Banks returning for their first collaboration since that film would be enough to excite me regardless of the premise, but upon hearing the idea for the movie I was even more interested and intrigued by where this might go.
The default is that this is the opposite story of the Superman origin-the "what if" of Clark Kent having gone in the opposite direction of "truth, justice, and the American way," but what “Brightburn” insists on really being about is the "what if" of Kal-El landing in Kansas today, in present day 2019, rather than in the 1938 post-depression, pre-World War II America.
While director David Yarovesky (“The Hive”) along with his pair of Gunn family screenwriters are willing to go to the darkest possible recesses this premise might suggest and therefore be genuinely shocking in certain moments, “Brightburn” never feels as if it really delves into its base idea with any real depth. Rather than leaning into and exploring the type of or lack of nurturing given to Brandon Breyer (a somewhat stilted Jackson A. Dunn) that crafts him into this super-human creature who uses his powers for evil instead of good we simply bear witness to the kid doing creepy things for half an hour in a handful of different scenarios before feeling completely in control of his abilities and going batshit with them. Sure, he's bullied a little and his father (David Denman) is a little too quick to set boundaries on his "unconditional love", but we never get to the root of why Brandon leans towards using his power to solely hurt bad people rather than hurting bad people in order to help good people. There are pieces of the story - Banks' arc especially - that deal in loving something so much to the extent they're blinded by how bad it is for them, but while “Brightburn” has a lot of interesting ideas it doesn't exactly have interesting ways of discussing those ideas.