Nine years ago, PIXAR Animation Studios seemed to have wrapped up the adventures of Woody, Buzz, and their toy pals in a nice, emotionally-charged little package…or so we thought.
Toy Story 4 catches up with Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang shortly after the events of the last film. While Woody struggles to help his new owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), things get weird when a craft project Bonnie dubs Forky (Tony Hale), suddenly comes to life!
It is during a road trip that the manic creation wanders off, leaving Woody to try and return the new “toy” back to it’s owner. During the journey, they encounter some new toys…and a familiar face or two.
In watching the Toy Story films over the years, it has felt like their plots mirror human life, but in “toy terms.” If the last film was about Woody learning to let go of his owner Andy, then this film is him dealing with his retirement years. In that sense, Woody’s part in the storyline will probably go over the heads of the younger crowd, but for those getting on in years, they will probably see something of themselves in the cowboy doll’s struggles.
Compared to it’s predecessors, this film definitely feels like it’s trying to pay homage to it’s past stories, but also trying to embrace these characters with new eyes. Much of the original crew that created the first film have moved on, making this an effort largely created by a newer generation.
For a portion of the film, the character of Forky becomes our Buzz Lightyear: a toy that can’t quite accept what it is, and thinks it is something else entirely. I had hoped there would be a bit more interaction between Woody and Forky, but while Forky’s antics are quite entertaining, he soon seems to become little more than our macguffin for the story.
For those expecting to see some of their favorite toys in action, most of them are shuffled to the sidelines. Even Buzz feels quite under-utilized here. At one point, the story “equips” him with a running gag, but it quickly peters out after the first few uses.
In this film, our attention is given over to a number of “new toys.” From an antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to a pair of carnival toys named Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), the film gives these characters (and several others) a chance to shine.
One thing the film’s advertising has not shied away from, is publicizing the return of a character that was sorely missed from the last film: Bo Peep (played once again by Annie Potts). Her appearance here may be one of the most radical re-imaginings for a character PIXAR has done, as the once soft-spoken porcelain doll, has become quite independent in her time away from the others. One of Woody’s greatest fears is to be a lost toy, but Bo seems to prove that one may not always need a kid to survive in the world.
For most film series, the fourth film is usually the one that ends up crashing-and-burning, leaving people wishing the filmmakers had walked away a long time ago. While Toy Story 4 doesn’t quite top the toys’ last adventure in my book, it proves that PIXAR is still a major talent to be reckoned with.
I will confess that a whirlwind of emotions passed across my face through the course of the film, and while I was rarely ever bored, the flow of the film felt uneven at times. Still, when Toy Story 4 slowed down and took its time, that was where some of it’s most beautiful work “burned brightest,” and showed the company’s next generation of filmmakers may be quite capable of carrying the studios legacy to infinity, and beyond.
Final Grade: B+
Rated PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Over the last two decades, the topic of adapting the Japanese manga Battle Angel Alita, would pop up in conversations with writer/director James Cameron. However, once he set full-sail into his own world of Avatar, it seemed like Alita would just be another of his “lost projects” (like his plans to make a Spider-man film in the 1990’s!).
Enter Robert Rodriguez. Having seen what Cameron wanted to do many years before, Robert was able to obtain Jim’s blessing, and has now brought Alita’s story to the big-screen.
While looking for parts in Iron City’a scrap yard, Dr Dyson Ido (Christopher Waltz) comes across the severed torso of a feminine-looking cyborg. After reviving the cyborg and giving it a new body, Ido names it Alita, and sets out to help her start a new life.
However, the more Alita experiences of Iron City, the more she begins to learn about humanity, along with the darker sides of our world…and possibly, who she once was.
Much like Avatar, the key to Alita is believing in the main character, created exclusively through motion-capture and visual effects.
With actress Rosa Salazar and the team at Weta Digital behind him, Rodriguez has managed to craft a believable performance that delivers for the majority of her screen time. Early trailers had some unsure of Alita’s anime-style eyes, but as the film goes on, you’re soon drawn moreso into her journey.
It is also in the characterization of those around Alita, that keeps us invested in her. Waltz’s performance as Ido, gives the two a father/daughter relationship, but one that can get testy at times as the cyborg yearns to know more than what Ido wants her to. Alita also develops a friendship with one of Ido’s friends named Hugo (Keean Johnson), whose adventurous spirit she quickly latches onto.
While the focus on Alita’s story is a positive of the film, it falters a bit at times in how jam-packed it is with subplots. Cyborg hunters, a ghostly presence that can possess anything cybernetically-enhanced, and even a deadly sport called Motorball, are just a few of the things that may have you a little confused as the story progresses. It feels like a film series could tackle these topics one-by-one, but this film seeks to take on the herculean task of trying to juggle all of them, and hope the audience is keeping track of what is going on.
Most of the action scenes do benefit from the skills of cinematographer Bill Pope, who has cut his teeth on the Matrix films and Scott Pilgrim vs the World’s hyper-kinetic, anime-inspired action sequences. Given the shadowy, noir-like environments, Pope’s focus works greatly to keep us close to Alita, throughout her journey.
Like anything associated with Cameron these days, Alita also tries to draw us into viewing the film in 3D. However, given the number of dark environs for much of the film, it doesn’t feel like the extra money is necessary to viewing the story.
Battle Angel Alita manages to succeed where many other American-adapted manga films have failed. Alita herself and the characters that surround her, help make us care for her plight, and feel grounded in the world of Iron City.
It’s easy for me to see why Cameron was drawn to adapting the manga. Much like Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, and even Rose Dawson, Alita is a character who soon realizes she has the potential to be something more than what others feel she should be. And just like those characters, Alita also proves she can hold her own in a world largely controlled by men.
Unfortunately, the film overloads itself with a few-too-many subplots, and it’s juggling act at times can be a bit cumbersome to follow.
Even so, Robert Rodriguez has done a commendable job in showing us a digital world that builds upon his experience directing the Spy Kids and Sin City films. One can only wonder if he’ll get another chance to play in Cameron’s toy box, in the future.
Final Grade: B
Growing up in the 1980’s, one director who rose to prominence in my eyes was Robert Zemeckis. After entrancing me with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in my youth, I soon considered him to be one of my favorite directors beyond the norms of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Over the course of his film career, Zemeckis has never shied away from wanting to push the boundaries of storytelling and technology. This was evident in several of his films like Forrest Gump, Contact, and The Polar Express.
In recent years, Zemeckis has pushed into biographical territory, notably with his 2015 film, The Walk. With Welcome to Marwen, he is attempting to once again tell the story of a real-life figure, with special effects to enhance the tale.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carrell)’s life changed one evening, when he became the victim of a hate-crime. The results of these brutal events left him with memory loss, post-traumatic stress, and the inability to walk.
After regaining most of his faculties, Mark took refuge in the construction of a miniature village that he named Marwen. The village is the residence of a WWII pilot named Hogie (Mark’s alter-ego), and five women (each one based on a woman in Mark’s own life who inspired him). However, the quiet of the village (and Hogie’s life), is often disrupted by a small group of Nazi’s (based on the men who victimized Mark), leading Mark to take photographs detailing the stories of how Hogie and the women of Marwen fight back against their tormentors.
Mark finds unexpected fame when interest in his photography, leads to a number of requested exhibitions of his work. However, as his latest exhibition is about to begin, he is faced with two daunting situations.
The first is the upcoming sentencing of the men who assaulted him, leading Mark to grapple with the ghosts of his past.
The other situation concerns a new neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann), who has moved in across the street. As she grows interested in Marwen, Mark soon believes a new “recruit” may be moving in to the village.
With his latest film, Zemeckis was given the opportunity to show a man struggling to emerge from a terrible event, through the powers of creativity. Stories like this I am often willing to get behind if done properly. Unfortunately, Marwen’s story seems unsure of just how to tell itself.
At times, it feels like we are meant to see the world in a disjointed way, as if we were inside Hogancamp’s head as he struggles to keep himself functioning. A few times, we get jarring scenes revolving around Mark’s PTSD, and are left to figure out just what happened.
Zemeckis has done films before where he trusts his audience to piece together what’s happening, but it feels like some important pieces to the story are missing.
Most notable is in regards to the women who inspired the dolls living in Marwen. One would assume that we’d get a little more backstory about them and how they helped Mark, but only a few of their real-world counterparts even get the chance to be on-screen.
Speaking of the dolls, this seems to be where the film spends most of it’s time, as a number of imaginary scenarios that play out in Mark’s head, are animated through motion-capture technology. Zemeckis tries to weave seriousness and whimsy together in some of these scenes, but the numerous attempts to animate what Hogancamp envisions, feels a bit like CGI-overkill.
For most of the film, Steve Carell is front-and-center as Hogancamp (and his alter-ego, Hogie). He does his best to try and make us believe in Mark’s plight, but the story zig-zags so much that by the time it all ends, it feels more like we’ve been on a long car trip, rather than actually learned something from the experience.
Aside from Hogancamp, his neighbor Nicol feels like the only other “real” character that is given much screen-time. She seems to be our window into understanding Mark and his world, but there are some times she seems a bit too innocent. A good example is when she doesn’t see anything strange when Mark suddenly claims he’s added a new doll to Marwen…a redhead named Nicol.
That also is a fine line that the film seems hard-pressed to balance along. We’re meant to find some of Mark’s actions to be endearing and believe that it is okay to be different, but it feels like we’re never given enough time to be comfortable understanding him. This seems to be a major hump the film is unable to get over, and makes some scenes that are meant to be emotional, come off as a little unsettling or questionable.
I went into this film hoping to see beyond a lot of the negative talk I was hearing, but it feels like Welcome to Marwen falls into the lower areas of Robert Zemeckis’ filmography. He’s shown himself many times to be a competent and capable storyteller, but many of the decisions he makes regarding Mark Hogancamp’s story, makes the whole experience feel incredibly disjointed.
I think when it comes to learning more about Hogancamp and his work, it might be best to consider the 2010 documentary Marwencol. I know after I saw Zemeckis’ film, I did wonder if that documentary could shed some more light on helping me understand more about who this man (really) is.
Final Grade: C-
Rated PG-13, for some sequences of fantasy action
After the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was more than content to say goodbye to the world that J.K. Rowling had created, having enjoyed the grand adventure. Much like when George Lucas’ Star Wars Trilogy ended however, there were many that wanted to still play in the sandbox the author had created.
And so, Rowling revisited the Wizarding World, centering a new film series around the character of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). Newt’s adventures took place during the late 1920’s, and his first film showcased an adventure among witches and wizards in America.
In the Fantastic Beasts sequel, the action returns to Europe, as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes confinement. At the insistence of Albus Dumbledore (played this time by Jude Law), Newt is asked to help in apprehending Grindelwald.
When it comes to sequels, many people eagerly anticipate seeing their favorite characters again. For this film, you do get Newt’s American friends returning (including Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski), but for the most part, the film doesn’t really seem to be about them.
Instead, we’re introduced to a large group of ancillary characters (including a few from the first film), and are given several mysteries to unravel. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t give us enough time or development to care, as we’re throttled along from one new set-piece after another.
Unlike the first film, this one really seems to be trying hard to throw out little asides to those who are fans of the series. We get a few familiar name-drops, and if you’ve seen the trailers, a (brief) return to Hogwarts Castle.
I couldn’t help but wonder about the film’s writing process, given that this is Rowling’s second screenplay (after the first Beasts film). There are a number of times I couldn’t help but feel the screenplay could have benefited from some rewrites, to narrow the focus and make us care more about what was going on. At times, the film felt as overloaded with material, as Rowling’s fifth Harry Potter novel, The Order of the Phoenix.
Where the film does succeed, is in captivating us with even more magical creatures that Newt encounters. While fan-favorite Niffler is back, the film gives us some intriguing new animals, including a Chinese creature called a Zouwu. Sadly, the new menagerie isn’t enough to save the film.
This is going to sound like a major film-bash, but I can’t help but feel The Crimes of Grindelwald, could be this series’ The Last Jedi. I think a lot of people are going to go into this film with a certain set of expectations, and find they’ve wandered into a different film entirely.
By the looks of where the story is headed now, the Fantastic Beasts title seems almost like an afterthought. With three more films scheduled to follow, one wonders how much longer Newt’s life-long obsession with magical creatures will last on-screen, as he and his friends are pulled into a story that wants to be just as big as the one we saw in Rowling’s Harry Potter series?
Final Grade: C
(This film is Not Rated)
Once upon a time, the suburban landscape was seen as the next safe bastion of modern society, beyond the seediness and crime of the city.
Soon, it seemed that the well-manicured lawns and the gable-roofed dwellings, were little more than false-fronts to unspeakable terror.
In the 80’s, there were a number of films that explored what might be hiding behind the locked doors, with films like Fright Night and The Burbs showing normality being invaded by the abnormal.
In Summer of 84, the directing trio behind the cult-favorite film Turbo Kid, move their 80’s-era focus out of the action genre, and into the territory of suspense.
In Ipswitch, Oregon, 15-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), is spending his summer vacation delivering newspapers, hanging out with his best friends, and lusting after the neighborhood hottie, Nikki (played by Tiera Skovebye). However, the lazy summer mood is soon broken, when word comes that a serial killer is on the loose, and a number of boys in the area begin to turn up missing.
A fan of mysteries and unexplained events, Davey soon believes he has the perfect suspect: his next-door-neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer). This seems strange to his friends, as Mackey is a local Police Officer that has lived in their neighborhood for years, but Davey is determined to solve this summer mystery, with or without them.
When it comes to retro-laced media, we seem to be living in an era that is currently set on idolizing the world of 30 years ago. In the last few years, we’ve seen shows like Stranger Things and film adaptations like It, plunge their youthful protagonists into a familiar-yet-frightful world.
Unlike those recent pop-culture hits, Summer of 84 has no supernatural elements to be found, or multiple plot layers to pick through. The story strives for something a bit simpler in it’s execution, with much of the time focused on the main kids.
Along for the ride with Davey, are Dale Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Tommy Eaton (Judah Lewis), and Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew). While the film starts out feeling like it’s just going to be these four talking trash to each other and oogling skin-mags for a majority of time, it surprisingly manages to open up a bit more, and reveal a bit more about who a few of them really are.
I was also surprised to find that there were also a fair amount of jump-scares that actually end up working in the film’s favor (with some of them getting quite creative). The filmmakers definitely use an impressive sleight-of-hand trick to make them work.
While the strange, outlandish wasteland of Turbo Kid seemed open for unquestioning acceptance of that story’s world, there are quite a number of areas in Summer of 84 that had me questioning some of the film’s logic that the directors use.
A good example would be that while we see headlines about a number of young boys disappearing in the Ipswitch area, we never get any indication that the parents or local authorities are that concerned for their kids. Several times we see the four boys and some other non-descript neighbor kids playing a game at night, and yet there’s never a call for a curfew.
There also are some uneven bumps in the road regarding Davey’s crush (and former babysitter), Nikki. Originally seen as an object of desire, the film soon throws her in as an unofficial member of the boy’s investigative group (kind of like how Andy and Steff became unofficial Goonies), but some of the ways the story has her pop up in certain areas seems a bit odd. It almost feels like some added backstory on Nikki could have made her character a bit more acceptable in some scenarios.
Much of the film’s tone almost seems to meander along, until it gets to it’s third act. It is here that it felt like the audience I was with, was suddenly jolted awake by what we were seeing. The suckerpunch end scenes of the film are definitely something that is still seared into my brain, but I did wish that the film could have given us a few more moments during the story, that made us sit-up and take notice a bit more.
Summer of 84 is commendable for not throwing in a supernatural element to it’s nostalgic tale, but there are areas where the storytelling gets a bit too loose for my tastes. A good film, but it feels like with some extra time and care, it could have been a great one.
Final Grade: B-
(This film is Not Rated)
When I was younger, we were often taught that what a person wore, signified who they were. A person in a Police Officer’s uniform was someone you could trust to protect you, or someone in a fancy business suit was a wealthy entrepreneur. Of course, in the last few decades, we’ve seen more and more instances of how appearances (and reputations) can be deceiving.
With his latest film The Captain, writer/director Robert Schwentke has chosen to look into the perceptions of humanity and appearances, all based around actual events that occurred in the waning days of the Second World War.
As the film begins, we find a German soldier named Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), deserting his post. As he runs across the barren countryside, he soon stumbles upon an abandoned vehicle, which contains a Nazi officer’s uniform inside.
Willi puts it on, and soon encounters a number of other German soldiers, who upon seeing the uniform of a superior officer, quickly offer their services to him. He soon spins a tale that he has been sent to the front lines under direct orders from Der Fuehrer, and the men are quick to believe his story and follow him.
Their journey eventually leads them to a camp that houses a number of German deserters, and the start of a reign of terror that would lead to Herold being dubbed, “The Executioner of Emsland.”
To many of us in this country who have seen historical events portrayed on the big-screen, our perceptions of the Germans during World War II have largely been shaped by stories either involving American soldiers (Saving Private Ryan), or those dealing with the Holocaust (Schindler’s List, The Pianist). The Captain manages to stray from the path of ‘the familiar,’ holding only on Herold and the German men he encounters. The only traces we get of any ‘foreigners’ to this world, are in the form of several (enemy) planes flying overhead.
While the film is based on actual events, Schwentke makes a bold move, by not giving his subject an elaborate backstory. At first, one can see that Herold’s wearing of the uniform gives him easy access to hot meals and warm beds. However, as he gathers more men, his actions become more enigmatic. This open interpretation allows the audience to draw their own conclusions to a number of the snap decisions he makes, and will probably make for some interesting discussions after the film ends.
When it comes to the enigmatic Herold, Max Hubacher does a decent job in his characterization of the historical figure. One can at times see his fear of being found out, and at other times, he creates a steely gaze that makes one question just what is going on behind those eyes.
Of the men that Herold commands, two that stand out are Freytag (Milan Peschel), and Kipinski (Frederick Lau). Freytag is Herold’s most loyal soldier, but also one of his more restrained confidantes. In contrast, Kipinski seems to revel in any chance to cause trouble, oftentimes becoming the loose cannon in the group. In several instances, it is how these men react to Herold’s commands, that adds some extra tension to some of the film’s more haunting scenes.
The Captain is also an intriguing look at how easily some people will compromise their morality. This is best shown when Herold begins giving orders to deal with the deserters at the camp he and his men arrive at. One can see the camp’s officers growing upset at their command being usurped, but given Herold’s uniform and proclamation that he is in the good graces of Der Fuehrer, many of them are quick to go along with his orders.
Where the film falters a little for me, is in the rather loose, pseudo-documentary style that Schwentke chooses to use. Some scenes seem to drag on a little too long, and there are a few instances that feel like someone may have spliced in film from another reel altogether.
There also is the use of a synthesized score in places, intermingled with traditional German music. Several of the synthesized pieces seem like odd choices given some of the scenes they are used in, though for much of the film, it is the general ambiance of the bleak scenes and music of the era that pull us into the film’s world.
Overall, it is rare to find a film about Germany that does what The Captain does. While Robert Schwentke’s historically-based film may have it’s flaws, the thought-provoking look at perceptions and power that it gives us, makes it an intriguing film to experience.
Final Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril)
25 years ago, Steven Spielberg ruled the summer box-office with Jurassic Park. The film not only wowed audiences around the world, but also signaled full-speed-ahead for the use of computer technology in feature films.
Since then, the film series has had two mediocre sequels, a nostalgic ‘reboot,’ and now, with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, an attempt to shake things up in a big way.
Three years after the events in Jurassic World, the island’s long-dormant volcano, is about to erupt.
While debates rage about trying to save the dinosaurs, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), are recruited as part of a secret operation to try and rescue as many of the dinos as possible. This order comes from John Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), and his assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall).
While Claire and Owen are to assist with helping collect a number of dinosaur species, key among them is Blue, one of the velociraptors that Owen trained, and who exhibited some remarkable intelligence.
However, as the clock ticks down to the destruction of the island, things start to quickly spiral out of control.
Much like how The Last Jedi looked to change the game with Star Wars, Fallen Kingdom is looking to rock some people out of their comfort zone as well.
Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow vacates the director’s chair (but has co-written the script along with Derek Connolly), and passes the torch onto director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls).
The character depictions manage to be ‘passable’ for the most part. Pratt seems to have dialed up the ‘smugness’ in his depiction of Owen, and in the three years since the first film, Claire has gone from ‘proper businesswoman’ to a ‘dinosaur rights activist’ (shades of John Hammond in The Lost World?).
The two are joined by two conservationists that Claire knows, in the form of a no-nonsense paleo-vet named Zia (played by Daniella Pineda), and a tech-whiz by the name of Franklin (Justice Smith). Franklin ends up being the comic relief for much of the film, though his ‘city-boy-out-in-the-jungle’ act may grate on some who’ve seen it in a number of other films.
Like all Jurassic films, this one attempts to shoehorn in a child, in the form of Bruce Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon). The film tries to add an air of mystery surrounding her, though I think if you pay attention to several scenes, you might be a few steps ahead regarding what the resolution is.
Watching the film, you may be surprised how quickly the story moves through the island of Isla Nublar, almost like Bayona is excitedly wanting to get us to ‘the good stuff.’
Unfortunately, much of the film quickly starts to feel like it’s a little too overloaded with subplots. It wants to not only add more to Hammond’s backstory, but also try adding more to Owen and Blue’s history, let alone dabble a bit more with the ‘genetic tampering’ we were privy to in Jurassic World. Plus, don’t be surprised if you get some Lost World vibes from the film, regarding it’s sub-plot about mankind trying to once again control nature…and once again getting lectured on this topic by Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in a very brief appearance).
By this point, the awe of seeing a dinosaur has worn off, and Bayona tries (commendably) to give us a few notable moments, but none of them come close to those ingrained in our minds from the 1993 film. Where he does succeed, is in elevating the tension with several darkened scenes. After awhile, the audience may find themselves keeping track of the flashes of light in some scenes. This is usually the key for something to sneak closer to us, depending on the number of light flashes.
Speaking of ‘flashes,’ that seems to be what may stand out the most regarding the film. There are little ‘flashes’ of memorable moments that will probably stick with the viewer, but in regards to embracing the film as a whole, it feels like that may be a tall order to fill.
Even so, I couldn’t help but sense that Bayona’s fandom of Steven Spielberg, is inscribed all over Fallen Kingdom. I noted not only a number of scenes feeling “Spielbergian” regarding their use of lighting and reflections, but also a number of touchstones related to the 1993 film (and possibly it’s sequels from 1997 and 2001?).
In the end, Fallen Kingdom attempts to steer us in a new direction regarding a world in which dinosaurs and man exist…one that may surely divide fans of the Jurassic franchise, on just which direction the series should head towards.
Final Grade: B- (Final Thoughts: Following in the foosteps of Colin Trevorrow, director J.A. Bayona attempts to steer Fallen Kingdom in a new direction. The film’s attempts to shake up what we’ve come to expect, ends up getting a bit unwieldly, as it strives to balance a number of subplots over the course of it’s 2-hour run-time. The attempts to awe the audience, pale in comparison to a number of moments where the director manages to build tension with some well-paced scenes, relying a bit on the ‘Spielberg playbook.’ )