erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2019 posts

Friday January 17, 2020

Movie Review: Ip Man 4 (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Bummer. I was psyched for this. I mean, Ip Man in America. 

And yes, in my head, I was thinking “Kung Fu,” the TV series about the Shaolin priest wandering the American West in the 19th century kicking racist ass, before I realized, wait, it’s gotta be, what, the 1960s at this point? Exactly. 1964 to be precise. But I was still psyched.

And there would be more of Chan Kwok-Kwan’s perfect Bruce Lee in it? Yes! And he actually gets into an alleyway fight with a superbeefy, chest-thumping karate champion (Mark Strange) and says a variation of the “Boards don’t hit back—but I do” line from “Enter the Dragon”? Yes again! A good antidote to the lame Bruce Lee portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s otherwise stellar “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”

But overall “Ip Man 4” is too similar to, and not as good as, the other three. The most interesting aspect—to me—is how much of today’s xenophobic politics infuse the story. Even the lesson is one aimed at today’s more affluent, educated Chinese: Sometimes, the happiness you’re seeking can be found in your own backyard.

不乖孩子
As we open in Hong Kong, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is dealing with a son who’s ignoring his studies, getting into fights, and not listening to his father. Ah, but the doctor treating his son’s injuries recently returned from getting his degree in the U.S.; and while before he’d been a bit of a rebel, now he’s polite, handsome and successful. Ip Man sees the answer.

(Of course, at that time, in the country now making the movie, such a move would‘ve gotten you reeducated or worse. But onward.)

All of this dovetails with an invitation from Bruce Lee to attend Lee’s famous appearance at the 1964 International Karate Championships; Lee even buys Ip Man a planet ticket. So he goes, less to see Lee than to search for a school for his son.

Most “Ip Man” movies are basically this: For the first half, fight local Chinese (who disparage wushu); for the second half, take on racist foreigners (who disparage kung fu/Chinese generally). Here, it’s once more with feeling.

The Chinese Benevolent Society of Sacramento is supposed to help Ip Man, but, led by president Wong Zong Hua (Wu Yue), they offer a cold, decidedly un-Confucian greeting to the grandmaster. They don’t like that Ip’s student, Bruce Lee, is teaching foreigners Chinese kung fu. Chinese kung fu is for Chinese, they say.

Sans the necessary introduction, Ip Man makes little headway trying to get his son into a prestigious school. (The idea of attending a public school, for free, doesn’t seem to enter into it.) Meanwhile, I was wondering who Ip Man would fight for and protect here; Bruce Lee seemed covered. Ah, but at one school, Ip runs into Wong’s daughter, Yonah (Vanda Margraf), who, in becoming a cheerleader, makes an enemy of Becky (Grace Englert), your typical mean girl with racist overtones. Becky terrorizes Yonah with like 6-8 jocks, so it’s Ip to the rescue. A not-bad scene.

Ip next fights Wang, who thinks Ip helped Becky only to get that letter, and they go toe-to-toe before an earthquake strikes and they have to help the residents of Chinatown. Then ... ? Oh right. A subplot—which really turns out to be the plot—involving a student of Lee’s, a Chinese-American staff sergeant in the Marines, Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu of the Taiwanese boyband F4), who is trying to get his outfit to take kung fu seriously. Problem? Gunnery Sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), a pumped-up, roid-rage machine, thinks Chinese kung fu is weak, hates foreigners generally, but also, oddly, prefers Japanese karate. We see his favorite toady, Colin Frater (former U.S. Marine and martial artist Chris Collins), bullying people in the ring and breaking arms. Because Hartman Wu has the audacity to bring a Wing Chun dummy into the Marine gym, he has to fight Frater, loses, and while running extra laps sees a smiling Geddes set the Wing Chun dummy aflame. As often happens in the Marines. 

The movie’s view of America—and the Marines in particular—is kind of amusing. That Hartman would bring the wing chun dummy on his own onto base? And then convince a general into considering Chinese martial arts? Going over how many heads? To prevent this, Geddes sends Frater to dispense with the Chinese martial artists at Chinatown’s Mid-Autumn Festival, where Hartman will be filming the demonstration. But Frater goes a brutal step too far and Ip Man steps into the ring. Previously, Hartman had lowered his camera in shame; but once Ip Man takes a pose, he starts filming again. Another good scene. 

There’s a second subplot—ripped straight from the Trumpian headlines—in which Becky’s father turns out to be INS, and he gets revenge by arresting Wang with intent to deport. Then our subplots clang together in an odd way. Sgt. Geddes shows up at the detention facility and demands custody of Wang just so he can fight him. And Becky’s dad says sure. Because that’s how things work in the U.S.

This pretty much sets up our end. Geddes clobbers Wang so it’s up to Ip Man again. Ip Man wins. 

回去中国
The fight scenes are good—choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping—if a bit over the top; but I still love the stillness and balance Donnie Yen brings to every fight. I guess I'm just tired of the roided-out, racist, rage machines: Twister in “2”; Big Daddy in “Wolf Warrior II”; three more here. They’re all the same—without anything close to nuance. All of them disparage Chinese gongfu, too. With reason? Everyone sucks at defending it except for one guy.

I’m curious: Did the success of “Wolf Warrior II” lead to this storyline? Hero travels abroad, takes on the racist Caucasian, preserves Chinese honor. And what’s with the Chinese fixation with the U.S. Marines? Leng Feng keeps talking about them in “Wolf Warrior II" while in Yen’s previous movie, “Big Brother,” he was a former U.S. Marine. Now this. Look at that Chinese poster. Tell me they’re not selling something. (Mouse over for the U.S. version.)

After Ip defeats Sgt. Geddes, Wang finally offers him the letter of recommendation but he decides “the grass isn’t always greener.” (Surely a message from the current Chinese government to educated Chinese living abroad.) Ip returns home, reconciles with his son, teaches him wushu, dies. The end. For this story. But may I suggest—yet again—Donnie Yen as Kwai-chang Caine in “Kung Fu: The Movie”? A joint Chinese-U.S. production? Wandering the American West in the 19th century and kicking racist ass? Seriously, people, how hard is it to make that happen?

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Posted at 08:34 AM on Jan 17, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Thursday January 09, 2020

Movie Review: Marriage Story (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” spends two hours on the dissolution of a marriage and its subsequent divorce proceedings, and the early critical take was how even-handed it was. Both parties, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), have their faults and their favors. Some viewers side with Charlie, some Nicole, but you empathize with both.

This is particularly impressive since much of it seems based on Baumbach’s recent divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Even the attorneys have real-world parallels. Baumbach, people are saying, managed to tell his ex-wife’s side. What Kundera says about “the wisdom of the novel”? Baumach had it here. 

That was the early critical take.

It’s not mine. I can’t remember the last time I was as furious at a movie character as I was with Nicole. I hated her. I was literally flipping her off in the movie theater. Both fingers.

Why I hated her
Early on, it’s obvious they’re going to get divorced. There’s sadness, etc., but they’re mature, and they agree that the whole thing should be without attorneys to make it as amicable and as cheap as possible.

A few things prevent this from happening.

They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson, in a great performance), so there’s the custody issue. But they’re fine sharing custody.

The issue is where. As a family, they’ve always lived in New York. Except she recently got a gig on a TV show and moved back to LA, where she grew up, and where her family lives. So how can they share custody on two different coasts? Would Henry go to two different schools? Can you even do that?

Anyway, that’s the basic dilemma.

How do Charlie and Nicole deal with it? Charlie mostly ignores it, to be honest. He’s kind of got his head in the clouds—or in his art. And he assumes that the LA thing is temporary and Nicole will soon move back to New York City. Which she loves, right? Bad on him for not seeing things clearly.

Nicole deals with it by hiring an attorney. And not just any attorney, but a high-end, cutthroat, creepily ingratiating attorney, Nora Fanshaw, played to the hilt by Laura Dern in all of her Laura Dern-ness. So Nicole does what they told each other they wouldn’t do. And she seems oblivious to this fact. And for the rest of the movie, she’s basically secure. She has a well-paying job, a big home in LA, Henry is with her.

Not Charlie. The rest of the movie is his humiliating scramble to keep up. First he hires his own 40th floor, glass-office-tower attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), but no, that guy’s way too cutthroat, he’d say mean things about Nicole. So he hires amiable Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), whose office is cramped, cluttered and cat-filled, and who sees Charlie as a person not a case. Charlie loves that. He’s momentarily relieved but we aren’t. I was thinking there was maybe a 10% chance Bert might make a decent match against Nora but she eats him for lunch. Huddling in a back office, Charlie suddenly realizes his predicament while Bert veers off into a joke. It’s long, pointless, with repeated iterations, and Charlie keeps glancing at the clock. “I’m sorry, Bert,” he finally asks, “am I paying for this joke?”

Cut to: The return of Marotta/Liotta. “I needed my own asshole,” he tells Nicole.

Guess what? Nicole doesn’t even get that. She thinks it’s out of bounds. I’m like: What did she think Nora Fanshaw was?

It gets worse. While she’s living in her nice home, Charlie is forced to rent a motel, then an apartment that feels like a motel. While Nicole takes Henry trick or treating through rich neighborhoods; Charlie is forced to get late, sloppy seconds in his shitty, highway-heavy neighborhood. We see the pain he goes through when the evaluator, in all her grand dimness, arrives. We hear the pain he’s going through when he sings a Stephen Sondheim song “Being Alive” before his friends at a NYC club. We imagine the pain he goes through when his Broadway play closes because he’s making too many trips to the coast. Nicole? She sings a wacky song with her sister and mother, all smiles, we never see her interact with the evaluator, and her stupid TV show is doing just fine, thank you.

And then Baumbach implies, through Nora Fanshaw, that women somehow have it tougher in custody battles? Are you shitting me? It was only in the last few decades that men even had a chance in hell. Before that, everyone thought, “Of course children should be with the mother!” But here, Nora pointedly gets to blather on about how people don’t accept mothers who swear and drink too much wine but imperfect dads are just fine. There’s a larger truth in that, sure—the bar for men is way lower—but not in custody battles. I think that's the wrong arena. Even the attorney Fanshaw is based on says she doesn't agree with it.

Just how awful is Fanshaw? In the end, she makes Charlie—or maybe Marotta—accept a 55-45 split without consulting her client, who wanted 50-50. She does it for herself. For her own ego.

I’m sorry, but I don’t know how anyone can watch this and feel equal empathy for both sides. 

What’s my mantra?
So is it good? Sure. Great performances. Driver particularly. And the kid. I thought of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” of course. But there, Dustin Hoffman's Ted has to become a good father. Here, Charlie starts out a good father. What he has to become is both a better ex-husband (one who hears what others are saying) and a tougher ex-husband (one who knows enough not to hire Alan Alda). I also thought of “Annie Hall”—that whole Jewish New Yorker/Gentile LA dynamic. Except here Charlie is won over. He winds up moving to LA. That would never happen to Alvy. 

The most devastating scene, as well as the funniest, is the one with the court-appointed evaluator, Nancy Katz (Martha Kelly), who is visiting Charlie to evaluate what kind of father he is. And my favorite part? She rings the wrong doorbell. So the woman who is going to evaluate the most important decision in his life can’t even figure out where he lives. And he has to be nice to her. 

Is Baumbach best when he tells stories that are autobiographical? Or about divorce? Up to now, my favorite of his has been “The Squid and the Whale,” his 2005 take on his own parents’ divorce. I liked “Greenberg,” too. Hated “Frances Ha,” which still has tons of fans, while “While We’re Young” felt inconsequential and misplaced. Missed “Mistress America” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.”

What I disliked abut “Frances Ha” and “While We’re Young” is that the characters seemed like they could be real but felt untrue. They felt forced. Plus their dilemmas weren’t interesting. The characters of “Marriage Story” seem real and feel true—probably because they were. Plus their dilemmas matter. Or his does.

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Posted at 05:59 AM on Jan 09, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Tuesday January 07, 2020

Movie Review: Ad Astra (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

You know those pretty women in Terrence Malick movies that run ahead of the camera and look back and laugh? The ones that represent something just out of reach? Well, they’re well-rounded characters compared to Liv Tyler in “Ad Astra.”

She plays Eve (of course), the ex-wife of our lead, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s the son of a famous astronaut. What does she do in the film? Let’s see: She sends her hubby, or ex, somber video messages. She semi-haunts his memories while he’s in space, then shows up in the final frame for reunion and possible redemption. That’s her role. She represents where he’s gone wrong and how he might be saved. As for what she does/likes/is? Please. 

At one point, in one of those draggy selfie videos, she says, “I have my own life, I’m my own person, and I can’t just wait for you.” Actually: You don’t, you’re not, you can. And you do. 

A little Conrad
I wanted to like “Ad Astra” even though I’ve never been a huge fan of James Gray’s movies (“The Immigrant,” “The Lost City of Z”). And I liked it. Pitt is great—he’s so underrated as an actor; he conveys so much with so little. And I liked the movie’s somber, thrumming tone. I liked its seriousness. It wants to be a great movie. According to IMDb, Gray described his movie thus:

If you got “Apocalypse Now” and “2001” in a giant mash-up and you put a little Conrad in there.

Wow, that’s reaching high. That’s reaching as high as an International Space Antennae.

But how bad is it that I want to correct even this quote? A little Conrad? Isn’t there already enough Conrad in “Apocalypse Now”? How about a little “Contact”: the search for the parent in the stars? That’s more like it. Plus “Apocalypse” is John Milius’ bag about man descending into savagery, his true state, while Gray wants to upend our heroic tropes. He wants to reveal the sad, gnawing emptiness at the heart of the strong, silent type. He wants to create a better model.

But yes, the tone is all “2001,” while the journey is right out of “Apocalypse”: the half-dead man sent on a mission to discover what happened to the great man at the end of the river. In this case, the great man is also his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), sent decades ago to the other side of Neptune to head up the Lima Project—our search for intelligent life in the universe. Like Col. Kurtz, he may have gone mad. Unlike Col. Kurtz, it’s more than just PR to bring him back/down. Clifford may be sending anti-matter surges that could destroy all life on Earth, while Roy’s mission isn’t to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” as in “Apocalypse”; he’s being used by SPACECOM (basically NASA) to draw out his father so others can (one imagines) do the deed.

First the journey upriver. Roy starts it with Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old friend of his father, and they fly commercial to the moon. I like this bit: 

Roy: Can I have a blanket and pillow?
Flight attendant: Certainly. That'll be $125.

Unlike in “Apocalypse,” he keeps losing and gaining partners. He and Pruitt are attacked by pirates on the dark side of the moon—a great chase scene—and Pruitt’s heart isn’t up to it. Roy then takes the spaceship Cepheus to Mars, but en route, and over Roy’s objections, they investigate a Norwegian research lab, which has put out a distress call. It’s like investigating the Viet boat family but instead of disaster for them it’s disaster for Capt. Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz), who gets his face eaten by a lab baboon.

We get some good voiceovers from Roy. During the pirate attack: “Fighting for resources. What the hell am I doing here?” When Roy realizes the Cepheus’ second-in-command is scared: “Most of us spend our entire lives hiding.”

I also like the perfunctory psychological evaluations he has to keep taking. So near future. So now. But some of the dialogue rings false. When the mission begins, Roy tells Pruitt he thinks his father is dead. Then on the moon he suddenly says this: “My dad’s a hero. SPACECOM is trying to impugn a man who’s given his entire life to the program. I think it’s despicable.” Before, he barely seems to feel anything; now he not only feels but says all this? And to his SPACECOM handler? It felt off—like a tuba blast in the midst of a flute solo.

My biggest problem, though, is how the movie gives away early its biggest reveal—what Roy finds upriver.

The horror
At the beginning, working on the space antennae, Roy hears, “A perfect day to try to contact our distant neighbors out there in the heavens,” and I immediately thought, “How do we know we have distant neighbors in the heavens?” Later, looking over old video messages, Roy hears this from his father, “We’re about to answer the number one question: When do we find all the intelligent life out there—and we know we will,” and I immediately thought, “How do you know we will? Maybe there’s nothing.”

And that’s the answer. That’s the big reveal. It’s just us. I would’ve urged Gray away from some of this earlier chatter. You can’t push your audience into thinking the answer two hours before you give it.

That said, it leads to poignant moments:

Clifford: We need to find what science tells us is impossible. I can’t have failed.
Roy: Dad, you haven’t. Now we know. We’re all we’ve got.

Or this in voiceover:

He captured strange and distant worlds in greater detail than ever before. They were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder. But beneath their sublime surfaces, there was nothing. No love or hate. No light or dark. He could only see what was not there ... and missed what was right in front of him.

I also would’ve argued against the “trying to be a better man” thrust. Sorry, but that emotionless emptiness? That’s what makes Roy who he is. That’s why his BPM stays below 80. That’s why he’s good in a firefight, good landing a spacecraft during a surge, good at everything we’re watching the movie for. You don’t get both—but the movie wants to give us both. It’s like assuming Capt. Willard goes home to a happy ending after terminating Kurtz’s command.

Or how about a little Conrad? At the end of “Heart of Darkness,” its hero, Marlow, returns to England to give the bad news to Kurtz’s widow and winds up telling her Kurtz’s last words. No, not the real ones. Not:  “The horror, the horror.” He says: “The last word he pronounced was—your name.” God, that’s good. He tells her this romantic fiction to make the horrible reality more palatable. Gray (or the studio, with its notes) is telling a romantic fiction, too—about Liv, about betterment—but to us. They want to make us Kurtz’s widow.

Shame. The movie came so close.

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Posted at 08:11 AM on Jan 07, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Thursday January 02, 2020

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I heard it was bad and the numbers on Rotten Tomatoes agree:

YEAR MOVIE RT %
1977 Star Wars 93%
1980 The Empire Strikes Back 94%
1983 Return of the Jedi 82%
1999 Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace 53%
2002 Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones 65%
2005 Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith 80%
2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens 93%
2016 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story  83%
2017 Star Wars: The Last Jedi 91%
2018 Solo: A Star Wars Story 70%
2019 Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 54%

Look at that chronology, by the way. We’ve had nearly as many “Star Wars” features in the last five years (five) as in the previous four decades (six). No wonder this galaxy feels overdone. And of those 11 films, even crap like “Attack of the Clones” or “Solo” was considered fresh. “The Rise of Skywalker” is only the second film in the canon, after the sterile “Phantom Menace,” to get labeled “rotten” by the critics. Or by RT’s algorithms.

It’s really not that bad. You know what it seemed like to me? Another “Star Wars” movie. “Last Jedi” didn’t seem good enough to get a 90s rating and this one isn’t bad enough to rate in the 50s. They all just seem the same. That’s the real critique.

Errata
Why that subtitle? “Rise of Skywalker”? He’s barely in it and she’s revealed to be a Palpatine. Oh right. At the end, on Tatooine, after Rey (Daisy Ridley) buries the Skywalker lightsabers in the sand, a passerby asks her name, and she replies “Rey Skywalker.” Because I guess she’s carrying on his tradition rather than Palpatine’s. She’s the rise even as the others have fallen.

Sure.

One of the main criticisms is that it’s a “fan service” movie. Whatever its rabid fan base has objected to in the past, writer-director J.J. Abrams tries to correct here. So in “Last Jedi” Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) keeps schooling Finn (John Boyega), who seems stupid and pointless. No worries. Now he’s “Force Sensitive” while she’s relegated back to cameo status. And hey, how come Chewie never got a medal with Luke and Han at the end of the original 1977 “Star Wars”? No worries. He gets it here—handed to him by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) after Leia’s death. And good god, why does Luke Skywalker, the hero of this whole, long affair, flee to a distant planet, Ahch-To, after his nephew turns to the Dark Side? That doesn’t seem very heroic. Well, Luke agrees with us now that it was a bad move:

Rey: I saw myself on the dark throne. I won’t let it happen. I’m never leaving this place. I’m doing what you did.
Luke: I was wrong. It was fear that kept me here.

Except these corrections don’t correct anything. The original error still exists. Luke went from whining on a desert planet to moping on a water planet without ever gaining a wisdom commensurate with his powers.

Maybe the biggest change relates to Rey’s origins. From my “Last Jedi” review:

The movie does go off in some new directions—notably with Rey’s lineage, which isn’t related at all to the Skywalker/Kenobi clan. Thank god. She’s a nothing from nowhere. She’s the exceptional borne from the unexceptional. In this way, the Force is being democratized. Cf., the kid before the end credits who uses the Force to grab his broom.

Nope. She’s Palpatine. And the kid with the broom is forgotten.

Has the “Star Wars” saga become Palpatine’s now? He showed up in the second film, “The Empire Strikes back,” dominated the third, dominated the shitty prequels, and is resurrected here for its finale. Three generations of good guys (Obi-wan, Luke, Rey) battled his bad-guy surrogates (Anakin, Darth, Snoke, Kylo) before having to confront him—the true power. He’s like the Mitch McConnell of this galaxy. Cackle and all.

Palpatine seemed to die at the end of “Return of the Jedi”—tossed over the railing by Darth Vader in one of the worst edited scenes in movie history—but this is “Star Wars” so no one ever dies. Except Palpatine didn’t just survive in astral form as Obi-wan, Yoda and Luke did; he survived in corporeal form. He says the Dark Side is “a pathway to many abilities some consider to be... unnatural,” and I guess this is one of them. A few other questions: How did he wind up on Exegol if he’s unable to move? And if it’s an uncharted planet, how did it get named? Why do wayfinders help you find it, who created them, and why do just two exist? And how, physically impaired on this uncharted planet, does Palpatine secretly create the greatest armada of star destroyers the galaxy has ever seen?

He just does, it just did, they just do, they just did, he just does.

A few more. When did the Force begin to heal people’s wounds? Never seen that before. And Rey can just lift her hand to the sky and bring down a spacecraft? I remember when Luke had trouble summoning his light saber on Hoth. Was he a piker or something? In the prequels George Lucas tried to take away the magic of the Force by reducing it to midi-chlorians but Abrams wants to make it like Doug Henning magic: It can do anything.

Where have you gone, Bail Organa
We first see Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) cutting through armies to get to Palpatine, his true lord, and we first see Rey sitting in a midair lotus position trying to summon the spirit of the Jedis who came before her. He succeeds, she fails. Why? Because it’s the beginning of the movie? And she succeeds in the end because it’s the end of the movie? Did she learn something in the interim? Or were the other Jedis not paying attention before? Hard of hearing, we are, hmm?

Then the roller coaster begins. Searching for a thing (the wayfinder), with the bad guys hot on their tail (Kylo and the Knights of Ren), the good guys zip to this or that planet, encounter old allies (Lando/Billy Dee Williams) and local obstacles (quicksand), escape, get separated, assume someone is dead (Chewie), infiltrate the bad guys’ ship, blast Stormtroopers, nearly get blasted, escape by the skin of their teeth. Along the way, the hero learns who she really is. This intergalactic scavenger hunt leads to the finale, in which, while outnumbered rebel forces take on the spaceships of the Empire, Jedi and Sith battle for the soul of the galaxy 

Within this familiar storyline, what worked? For me, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), who has most of the film’s funny lines; the remains of the second Death Star on Kef Bir, reminding us that the past isn’t dead (it isn’t even past); and Kylo/Ben’s shrug after reacquiring his light saber during battle with the Knights of Ren. Loved that bit. 

But the new “Star Wars” is still weighted down by its predecessors. Lando, Leia, Luke and Han all make appearances. Our leads aren’t given enough room, or—save Rey and Ren—a reason to be. In the original trilogy, when Luke went off with Yoda, Han and Leia made up the love story. Here, Rey and Ren are the love story. So where does that leave Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn? Some fans wanted them to be a love story, too, but Abrams went the opposite route by creating Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell) for Poe and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) for Finn. So much for fan service. Those two are basically our only new characters in the movie, and neither is particularly memorable.

That’s an interesting experiment, actually: What memorable characters are introduced in each “Star Wars” movie? In the first we get Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2, Darth Vader, and Obi-wan Kenobi. That’s our whole universe right there. And in the sequel they added Yoda, Palpatine, Lando, and Boba Fett; and in the sequel to that, Jabba, Akbar, and the Ewoks. OK, Ewoks. But still a good run.

The prequels were horrible at this. Most of the new characters were dull (Qui-Gon, Padme, Mace Windu), and if anyone was memorable it was for all the wrong reasons (Jar-Jar Binks).  And the sequels added no one. I mean, no one. Apologies to all the Sen. Bail Organa fans out there.

That’s why “Force Awakens” was so exciting. It injected fun, new characters into the mix: Rey, Kylo, Finn, Poe, BB8, Maz Kanata and Snoke. Sure, they were derivative, but they popped. Then the sequel undercut them. In “Last Jedi,” newbie Rose Tico outperformed Finn while Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) outthought Poe. Is that why Zorii and Jannah were added here? To support rather than undercut? Still didn’t work. The bros had such promise four years ago but it feels like it mostly went unfulfilled. Poe winds up “leading the fleet” (yawn) while Finn is tossed the sop of “Force Sensitivity” so he has something to do.

I guess General Pryde is a new character, too, but he’s mostly memorable for being played by Richard E. Grant. The Knights of Ren could’ve been memorable if given more screentime. They could’ve been like the super-posse in “Butch Cassidy.” Instead, they barely register.

Exit through the gift shop
You know what this long saga has never been able to do well—except for right at the beginning? Show the appeal of the Dark Side. Yes, Darth Vader emerged through the smoke as his theme music thundered on the soundtrack, and later in meetings he choked out dissent; all that was cool. For two movies, we got it. Then Palpatine is revealed as the true power and everyone went “Yuck.” He’s constantly extending a grizzled claw to young Jedis and is shocked when they don’t take it. The Dark Side should feel like a clean surge of anger; it should feel like revenge or even justice. I mean, c’mon. So much depends on whether young Jedis (Ani, Luke, Rey) will be enticed by the Dark Side, so at least make it a little enticing. Instead they just make it dark.

Is this the end then? Nah, there’s still money to be made. But based on box-office receipts, interest is waning. I’d move Abrams off this; I’d get someone else to shepherd it into a new age. They need new blood both behind the scenes and on the screen. And the characters they have on screen should have a better reason for being.

Who is Rey? For most of her life, she lived a lie (a nobody from nowhere), and as soon as she found the truth she retreated into another lie (“Rey Skywalker”). Is that good? Start there. See if there are consequences—for her and for us. For nine movies, our various heroes have been pawns in Palpatine’s games. What happens when your common enemy goes? What happens when the roller coaster ride stops?

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Posted at 11:45 AM on Jan 02, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Wednesday December 18, 2019

Movie Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I didn’t think they’d pull it off again. They ended things so neatly in “Toy Story 3,” with Andy off to college, and Woody, Buzz, and the gang resurrected with Bonnie, making us believe, for a moment anyway, that we’ll all be needed and necessary forever.

Why go on from there?

Plus, in the interim, Pixar was bought by Disney and it’s not quite the same studio. Since “Inside Out” it's released:

So I was against the idea of a “Toy Story 4” from the beginning. But they kinda pulled it off. It’s sweet, includes redemption of the villain, and, most important, it's funny.

A Toy and a Gentleman
This doesn’t mean there’s not a sameness to it all. Every “Toy Story” contains these two dilemmas:

  1. How are the toys in danger?
  2. Why is Woody (Tom Hanks) no longer useful?

The toys are in danger because of: 1) the creepy kid next door; 2) the creepy toy collector; 3) the creepy toys at the orphanage; and, here, 4) the creepy toys at the second-hand store.

And Woody is no longer useful because: 1) Andy prefers Buzz Lightyear (reflecting the historical moment when kids’ heroes stopped being movie/TV cowboys and became real-life astronauts); 2) his arm is torn off; 3) Andy goes to college; and 4) Bonnie prefers Jessie.

Here’s the thing about Woody, though. The less necessary he is, the more of a micromanager he becomes. So even though he’s been relegated to the closet, and his sheriff badge has been pinned on Jessie, he stows aboard Bonnie’s backpack for her orientation day of kindergarten in order to make sure she does OK. He becomes the invisible helpmate, the guiding hand. When another kid just up and takes the supplies Bonnie’s working with, at a table by herself, Woody, saddened and then determined, empties a nearby trashcan to replenish her supplies. From this, she creates a toy out of a plastic fork/spork, some googly eyes, and pipe cleaners for arms, and names him Forky (Tony Hale). This basically sets in motion the rest of the movie.

Forky becomes Bonnie’s new favorite. Except he doesn’t understand his raison d’etre. Or his raison d’etre is something else entirely, since he keeps trying to return to the trash. Only after much struggle from Woody does Forky stop trying to throw himself away. 

By this point, Bonnie and her parents are in an RV traveling the country before school starts again; and in historic Grand Basin, which is in the midst of “Carnival Days,” Woody spies the lamp of his one-time flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts) in the window of Second Chance Antiques. “Toy Story 4” cold-opened with the moment she was given away, and how Woody almost left Andy for her, but couldn’t quite do it. But now? With Andy in college and Bonnie relegating him to also-ran status? This is his second chance.

Inside the store, though, he doesn’t find Bo. He finds Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage 1960s-era doll with a busted voicebox, who runs the joint with her creepy muscle, the Benson dolls—basically bow-tied ventriloquist dummies with large, lolling heads and useless arms. Gabby Gabby has never been a child’s toy since she was born with a busted voicebox. She thinks if it’s fixed, or replaced, she’ll finally find a child who will love her. And Woody’s voicebox works just fine.

Ewww. It’s like a doll’s version of organ harvesting—with Woody the target.

He escapes, of course, but, in the manner of “Toy Story” movies (all tentpole movies, really), our principles are scattered to the wind:

  • Woody is with Harmony, the granddaughter of the antique store owner, heading through Carnival Days
  • Forky, in the clutches of the Bensons, is being used as bait
  • Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is being offered as a prize at a carnival game

How do these small toys reunite in such a big, wide world? Woody meets up again with Bo Peep, who, porcelain aside, has remade herself as a shepherd-staff twirling martial arts action hero; Buzz teams up with two trash-talking fuzzy animals (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele); and all of them converge at Second Chance Antiques, along with the movie’s best new character, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian knockoff Evel Knievel, whose slogan is “Yes, I Can-ada!” and whose dreams of big jumps are forever undercut by the haunting memory of being rejected by his first child, Rejean. “Re-jeeeaaaannnnnn!”

Bo knows all about Gabby Gabby—she was stuck there before going out on her own—but her careful plans are undercut by Woody and his desperate need to retrieve Forky for Bonnie. This leads to his kind of “Officer and a Gentleman” moment, when, like Richard Gere in the rain, he admits he has nowhere else to go. “It’s all I have left to do!” he cries. “I don’t have anything else!”

The end?
Bo is actually less sympathetic to this admission than Louis Gossett, Jr. was with Richard Gere: “So the rest of us don’t count?” she asks. Right. Sorry. Next time I won’t pour my heart out to you.

How much is Woody willing to give up for Bonnie? Almost anything—even his voicebox. He submits to the surgery, Gabby Gabby gets it, and, though her chosen child, Harmony, discards her, she eventually finds a girl as desperate for a doll as she is for a girl. Villain redeemed. Happy ending. (Except for those creepy Bensons. What terrors will they unleash in Second Chance Antiques with Gabby Gabby gone?)

Even as Gabby finds a home, Woody loses his. Or he decides to stay with Bo. He becomes a lost toy. Or as Buzz wisely says at the end: “He’s not lost. Not anymore.” 

It's a good ending. It's another ending that feels like an ending. But is it? “Toy Story 4” grossed more than $1 billion worldwide—more than any G-rated movie in history—so I’m assuming ... not. Plus it's not like there aren't questions to answer. Woody has always been about loyalty to the kid; so what will he be like without a kid to be loyal to? How will he recreate his own raison d'etre? Either way, they’ll be back. If a franchise keeps making $1 billion at the box office, it’ll keep going. To infinity and beyond.

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Posted at 08:18 AM on Dec 18, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
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