Sunday, June 30, 2019

Movie Review - "Toy Story 4" (2019)

The "Toy Story" franchise has always left a cowboy and space ranger-sized imprint on us, and not like many other long-running movie franchises. Instead of rekindling nostalgia, these films play with tiny toys having adventures in a massive, threatening world, delving into the psychology of a toy and why they find joy in being play things, but most importantly it captures the awe and imagination of being a kid playing with your toys. The reasons to love these films are as vast as the scenarios you created with your toys. They are some of the most wholesome, exciting, imaginative, down to earth movies of all time.

The newest entry in this series, "Toy Story 4," is no different, offering up the best Pixar sequel to any of their products. While the film was not necessary, there is no sign of rust or complacency on display here. Like every other entry, it is always heart-warming, gorgeously animated, and funny. But what propels this film above Pixar's many sequels is how it offers something fresh and innovative to a series that continually reinvents itself, as themes of purpose and association make these 25-year old characters seem just as shiny and out of the box as ever.

Set shortly after the events of "Toy Story 3," Andy's old gang of toys are settling into their new roles as Bonnie's toys. But Bonnie quickly starts to develop favorites amongst her new toys and Woody (Tom Hanks) is not one of them, often spending most of the day in her closet. When Bonnie is terrified of going to kindergarten though, Woody does everything he can to help his new owner, including giving her supplies to make a new friend, a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner hands named Forky (Tony Hale). This comes as a surprise to all of Bonnie's toys, especially Forky whose only desire is to be put back in the trash.

While the previous "Toy Story" movies focused on the relationship between Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and their owner Andy as he grew up, "Toy Story 4" focuses more on Woody and his own personal journey after losing Andy. While it is a little disappointing to see beloved characters like Slinky Dog, Ham, Rex and Mr. Potato Head having significantly smaller roles and only getting a few good jokes each, you don't mind it as much because Woody's development is so strong and the new toys introduced are just as lively and funny as ever.

In fact, I loved all of the new toys this film introduced. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele play a pair of stuffed animals joined at the hand with vivid (and hilariously violent) imaginations, while Keanu Reeves plays a Canadian-toy equivalent of Evel Knievel with an over-inflated ego and crippling abandonment issues. There's a creepy baby doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) that wants something from Woody and is not afraid to use her army of terrified ventriloquist dummies to get it. But the best new toy is certainly Forky, who can't understand his existence and always has a difficult time doing the simplest tasks using his pipe-cleaner hands and popsicle stick feet, but always remains excitedly optimistic, whether that's for questioning how the world works or getting back into the trash bin. Each of these characters, along with many of the veterans, gets a moment where their vibrant personalities shine.

Overall, "Toy Story 4" is a return to form for this series. Always beautifully animated, often terrifying and heart breaking, but always adventurous and thoughtful. The biggest takeaway for me was just how funny it was, especially when it came to Buzz's own adventure with his "conscious" and the many great side characters. This was easily Pixar's funniest movie to date, which added to the already charming experience. While it is not the best film in this series, "Toy Story 4" is the best family film experience since "The Lego Movie" and Pixar's best sequel, a great addition to an already wonderfully creative film series.

Final Grade: A-

Friday, June 21, 2019

Movie Review - "Late Night" (2019)

As I've grown older, I've begun to notice the divide between my generation and my parent's generation grow wider as we develop more of our own identity where imperfections and vulnerability are valued and how that is in direct conflict with older generations views. But I've never seen it addressed with such ferocity as in "Late Night," a new-age comedy that is less about saving a dying talk show as much as it is about the war of values between millennials and Gen-Xers.

In this movie, a respected but harsh late night talk show host (Emma Thompson) and her newest writer, a bright-eyed honest woman who admires her new boss (Mindy Kaling), constantly butting heads about what would really make the show stand out, while the two unknowingly fight over what they hold most dear, to the point of questioning what they're fighting for.

While "Late Night" isn't particularly funny, with most of the best lines going to Thompson and her dry delivery, I was amazed at how honest the film was at portraying the flaws and strengths of my generation and my parent's generation. There is a genuine understanding and respect for both generations, especially the drive and maturity of the older generation and the honesty and forgiveness of the newer generation, all perfectly captured through Thompson and Kaling's performances. It never felt like I was watching cardboard cutouts of what each generation should be, but rather damaged individuals that try to heal through comedy. Even if the story is nothing special, this one is worth checking out for the best cinematic version of millennials against Gen-Xers.

Final Grade: B

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Movie Review - "Rocketman" (2019)

Going into "Rocketman," I expected something along the lines of "Bohemian Rhapsody," detailing the life and music of one man and how that impacted the lives of so many people. But instead, "Rocketman" dives into how the art impacted just one man, in this case the artist. Instead of a realistic approach the music like in "Rhapsody," this is more of a traditional Hollywood musical, where the songs are used to show a character's emotional state of mind in ways that can't be described without using fantasy and imagination, much like Elton John himself. Moments of overpowering joy are highlighted by "Crocodile Rock," while "Tiny Dancer" makes another scene far more melancholy and tragic.

Rather than doing a documentary style retelling of a musicians' life, "Rocketman" puts us in the mind of the musician, as if the whole movie feels like we're experiencing life from Elton John's eccentric perspective. Instead of the music coming from his soul, his music is used to describe moments in his life, defining who he is as an artist, friend, lover, son, and icon. For once, it feels like we see the full picture of a rock star's life, without ever cutting corners just to play to the audience. Both the good and bad of Elton are shown to the audience, while always celebrating his life and what he created, always brutally honest.

It certainly helps that Taron Edgerton plays the role with sincerity and passion. He practically disappears in the role, only sometimes reminding us that he's there when he doesn't quite sing the line exactly like Elton did. Then again, that only makes me appreciate his performance even more, since you know he's singing with much of the same emotion as Elton John. Edgerton's chameleon-like performance makes "Rocketman" one of the best rock star biopics and one of the best musical fantasies in decades.

Final Grade: B+

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Movie Review - "Booksmart" (2019)

On paper, I would describe "Booksmart" as a gender-swapped "Superbad." Both films are about a couple of dorky best friends near the end of their time in high school that want to make a lasting impression on their classmates by going to at least one big party, only for it all to go horribly wrong, while the best friends learn just how much they care about each other. Both films have a similar sense of humor when it comes to high school antics and a first-time exposure to drugs, as well as the chill adults that witness these kids losing their adolescence.

I say "on paper" that both films are similar, but in terms of characters and the overall message, these two films couldn't be further apart. Whereas "Superbad" had laid-back, fun-loving leads, the two main characters in "Booksmart" are assertive, often to the point of being in everyone's face, and have a hard time locating fun, mostly because they don't know what they really want.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is a hardcore feminist who is out to prove that she, and by extension all women, are better than her male counterparts and can do anything she sets her mind to, while Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is a quiet but equally proud feminist who would follow Molly to the ends of the Earth. The two spend all four years of high school getting the best grades in class, getting into the most prestigious colleges in the world, only to find out that the kids they thought spent their entire time partying also got into those same colleges. Feeling like they wasted their time in high school, Molly and Amy set out to do what their classmates always did to prove that they are not the stereotypical bookworms.

One thing that certainly puts "Booksmart" ahead of "Superbad" is that these girls come across as confused high schoolers who aren't sure what they want out of life anymore. Their whole lives have been turned upside down, and Feldstein and Devers' angry and confused performances reflect that. The conflict between these two feels as genuine as their chemistry, where they're unsure if going to a big party will solve anything or if they'll just make a fool of themselves. Despite their hatred of men, I can see a lot of my own high school fears and anxieties in these two.

The comedy also feels very genuine and hits the nail on the head most of the time. A lot of the comedy comes from these high schoolers filling out the stereotypes that have become so synonymous with high school movies like "The Breakfast Club" or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and turning them on their head. Some of the best include the theater majors that bring drama to every aspect of their lives and turn even karaoke into a performance piece, or the stoner chick that secretly knows everything and wants everyone to be as mellow and peaceful as she is. While Molly and Amy have some great moments for themselves, some of the best jokes belong to their supporting cast.

Overall, "Booksmart" may feel a lot like "Superbad" but there's much more heart and honesty here. It always feels like these characters are in high school and that they are learning and growing from one another. There are a ton of hilarious moments and just as many hilarious characters, while almost all get a serious moment of reflection or maturity. As far as movies about high school go, "Booksmart" might be one of the best ones out there.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review - "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" (2019)

What should a great monster movie be like? What elevates a film about abominations of life above your standard eye candy into something worthwhile and meaningful? Can a monster movie be more than just eye candy?

I ask this because of my own mixed feelings about the newest entry in the Godzilla series, "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," and how it excels at what the general audience goes for, namely intense monster action with a massive size and scope while the monsters exude power and might, while seemingly fails at nearly everything else, especially with the narrative and characters. The film was often exciting and satisfied that burning urge for monster destruction, something that hasn't been done this well since "Pacific Rim," so does that make "King of the Monsters" a worthwhile experience? And if it doesn't, what would it really take for a monster movie to be better than this?

When I think of great monster movies, the first ones that come to mind are "Frankenstein," "Jaws" and "The Shape of Water." While all play with the monsters in different ways, some showing that man is the true monster, while others show that monsters are simply misunderstood, these films never lose sight of their humanity, the soul of any monster movie. No matter how much death and destruction these monsters bring, they have no lasting effect if they don't challenge us and our ideals. This isn't to say that using monsters as action sequences is bad, but that unless the whole movie is nothing but monsters fighting one another there needs to be something that touches the mind as much as the heart.

The Godzilla movies are no exception to this. Despite every movie indulging in city-wide destruction and monster battle royales, there are some that are much better than others, like "Mothra vs. Godzilla" or "The Return of Godzilla." These outstanding movies, like "Frankenstein" and "Jaws" value a compelling story, often about how the world would react to such giant indestructible monsters, with characters that are tested by a storm no one could ever comprehend. There are of course Godzilla films that serve merely as eye candy and do it well, and I think that's what most people see Godzilla as, even though he can be so much more.

"Godzilla: King of the Monsters" is one of those monster movies that knows the audience wants monster destruction and couldn't care less about the story. When the movie focuses on the scenes of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah tearing the world apart and making humanity feel small and insignificant, it is heart-pounding and mesmerizing, keeping the same sense of scale and scope from the 2014 "Godzilla" while amping it up with fantastic powers and abilities for King Ghidorah and Rodan. When the film isn't showing the monsters though, it is a confusing mess of poorly explained science fiction and inept characters that can't decide what they want.

But while I firmly believe that a film titled "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" should be about Godzilla and shouldn't have any human characters outshine him, there is no attempt at bringing humanity and challenge here either. Any message or themes are muddled by the many scenes of destruction, brought on by a group of humans unleashing monsters upon on the world to "save humanity." Without that challenge to our ideals and our struggle to remain strong in the face of something stronger, it's just a dumb, mindless action movie.

And that's exactly what "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" is - a mindless action movie with some visually-stunning sequences that rival any of the Marvel movies in terms of gripping action, but has nothing else going for it. I can see myself skipping over every scene with these bland, unlikable or poorly performed characters and going straight to the monster scenes when this comes out on DVD, but I don't think that's how Godzilla movies should be watched. That's just a clip show or a YouTube video, not a film.

While I am happy to see Hollywood bring King Ghidorah and Mothra to the big screen and make them as intimidating and majestic as they deserve to be, I can't help but feel disappointed in "King of the Monsters." The movie screams of Hollywood clichés, including corny one-liners, and predictable moments that we've seen in dozens of action movies. It might not be as cliché as the 1998 "Godzilla" but it does reek of studio interference, which might be the biggest disappointment of all.

Overall, there's just as much to love about "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" as there is to hate about it. It bounces between being some of the best monster eye candy in recent memory and a bloated mess of a story. While it will please many Godzilla fans with the return of classic monsters, nods and references to films from the Showa and Heisei series and a rather heart-pounding score by Bear McCreary, it all feels a bit superficial. The love for Godzilla's past only goes so deep, especially with all the typical Hollywood clichés getting in the way. It is a serviceable action movie, which makes it an okay Godzilla movie, if a bit worse than the 2014 film.

Final Grade: C