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Review: Toy Story 4 (2019)

Woody makes his triumphant return in Toy Story 4, meeting a colorful array of new characters while also reuniting with Bo Peep. This is Woody’s journey to find purpose under a new owner, one who is likely to leave him in the closet and wouldn’t notice if he ended up missing. Other classic characters also appear, but they feel like clear afterthoughts. Buzz is reduced to a bit role while the others are stuck waiting in an RV while Woody rescues Forky.

Toy Story 4, despite all its positive qualities, struggles to get past this feeling of being a side story. There’s a sense of finality to a certain extent, but it rarely seems all-encompassing. Toy Story 3 reached a high point by treating these characters as an ensemble; following that up with a sequel so focused on just one of those characters feels wrong, even if his journey is a strong one.

Luckily, everything else about this movie is on point, with two of the new characters being among the series’ best. Forky is an instant classic, taking the underlying existentialism of the series and ramping it up to a crescendo. He asks a question most of us didn’t think to ask; what makes something a toy? His gleeful declarations of being trash is certain to resonate with a certain class of self-deprecating millennials, and his mere existence as a suddenly conscious being carries a certain level of horror – in muted Pixar form, of course.

Where Forky seems to serve a more meta-purpose, Gabby Gabby acts as one of Pixar’s most complex antagonists. A defective doll abandoned in an antique shop, she is driven to repair herself when she realizes Woody shares the same style of voice box. Where previous Toy Story villains are rather straightforward in their sinister nature, Gabby instead acts out of lonely desperation. Part of what makes her work so well is the fact her philosophy largely lines up with Woody’s; like him, she simply wants to make a child happy. Her antagonism is defined by a need instead of power.

Purpose is the driving force of this movie, which might be why I keep thinking about those characters sidelined to the RV. They are allowed to happily continue with a new owner, never having to question their purpose and therefore not being required to take much action. By so easily being granted purpose in their lives, they are stripped of purpose on a narrative level. They exist as set dressing, a reminder that Woody has a sense of belonging somewhere. It’s fine to toss aside characters like Mr. Potato Head and Rex, but it feels wrong that Jessie is put on the same level.

Ultimately, Toy Story 4 carries a lot of the same strengths as the previous films, just with a different set of characters. The series has served as a barometer on the evolution of animation, and this is certainly a visually impressive film. The screenplay is perhaps the funniest in the series, though it also lacks the emotional weight that granted those earlier films a more lasting impact.

This is a satisfying journey, but where the first three films felt like complete stories on their own, Toy Story 4 can’t shake the feeling of being a mere diversion until its final act. Woody’s journey here is one of the stronger character arcs Pixar has come up with, but the film as a whole seems to be missing convincing stakes. It’s notably lighter than the other pieces.

Toy Story 4 is the weakest film in its franchise, but being weaker than a collection of near-masterpieces still gives it enough room to be a great film.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)

Rolling Thunder Revue is a new Bob Dylan film by Martin Scorsese; perhaps one could say documentary in place of film, but that isn’t exactly true. This is certainly loaded with real footage from Dylan’s tour of 1975 and 1976, his Blood on the Tracks and Desire era, but the work as a whole sits in murkier water. Scorsese and Dylan spin a tale mixing fact and fiction, giving no differentiation between the two as to disorient.

The concert footage is the real meat of the work, perhaps its one safe truth. This is Dylan at a career high point, and his performances of songs such as “Hurricane” are stellar. Mixed in is footage featuring artists such as Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith, along with poet Allen Ginsberg, capturing a wider scope of the art scene beyond Dylan alone. Patti Smith must be standing here at the eve of the punk movement, while Ginsberg is on a clear decline after the fall of Beat. This is a film of intersections; Dylan himself had a several year gap of practical irrelevance in the early 1970s, and this brief peak is followed by his controversial Evangelical era.

The disorientation reflects this; could anyone really be sure what this would add up to at the time? It seems a sure thing now, what with the lasting presence of Blood on the Tracks and to a lesser extent Desire; but no one could have known how fleeting this moment would be. Dylan wouldn’t have a string of great albums again until the release of Time Out of Mind; 1989’s Oh Mercy was perhaps the one noteworthy work he put out between 1977 and 1996.

Despite this gap, Dylan always endured as a figure, and the falsities exist here to build up that image. If even official materials can’t stick to the truth, how can we ever know the real man? The full title states that this is a “Bob Dylan Story;” not the truth but an approximation of real events. Martin Scorsese is mythologizing here.

What, then, is the effect on the audience? A lot of these fake stories involve entirely fictional people, including a supposed director who recorded the original footage but never ended up using it; but using this as a fictional element seems slight when a real concert documentary, Amazing Grace, shares a more extreme story in its production. What is added in this particular choice to obfuscate the people who actually recorded the footage? All I can imagine is a less informed person walking away with false information and a more informed person growing tired of the constant return to this figure.

Rolling Thunder Revue is a mockery of the music documentary but not as a comedy; in an era of untruths, it seems fitting to get a true story loaded with blatant deceptions that never acknowledges that element, leaving an audience who questions every moment and has to search out articles to separate fact from fiction. It could be a political statement, to ask us to question what presents itself as fact; it’s just as much two mischievous old artists pulling our legs, having fun with our perceptions of them while letting a certain set of journalists reveal the truth for them.

Like Welles’ F for Fake, Rolling Thunder Revue asks us not to differentiate fact from fiction but whether it matters when the replica is the more intriguing of the two. Why not engage with this suggestion that Dylan’s life was rather fantastical? Where’s the harm in misunderstanding a few details in the life of a superstar?

This is all a fun concept, but with so much obvious posturing, Rolling Thunder Revue is bogged down by its length. F for Fake runs for a brisk 88 minutes, while this is nearly two and a half hours. Scorsese’s twisted tale isn’t quite up to the one Welles spun, either, so it reaches a point where it’s easy to just tune out the details between concert footage; why pay attention if you figure half of it isn’t true? Welles succeeded by promising the truth but for only an hour; Scorsese offers his audience little to nothing in regards to where the truth lies.

Ultimately, Rolling Thunder Revue is two artistic powerhouses coming together to question a form of expression that claims to offer truth. There’s a lot here to be celebrated; Bob Dylan is one of the all-time great musicians and being able to see his performances is wonderful, while Martin Scorsese knows how to craft a compelling documentary. You have to buy into the mythologizing element – but if you do, it’s a rather unique experience.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: I Am Mother (2019)

Grant Sputore’s debut, I Am Mother, sits comfortably in a category of understated science fiction. This is a story of a girl being raised by a robot after humanity is wiped out, our species’ last hope to continue on. This is brought into question when another woman arrives, in desperate need of medical attention.

Tonally comparable films such as the works of Alex Garland offer an extra edge over I Am Mother; the film looks nice enough, especially the design of the robot, but it’s clearly a low budget work that doesn’t carry the technical craft necessary to suggest a bigger picture. Mix this with a slowly building plot, and I Am Mother fails to build up a convincingly heavy atmosphere. The best movies in this style are quickly overwhelming, and while this film offers plenty of twists, it rarely earns them.

I Am Mother spends more time trying to surprise us than actually building the world. It can be effectively disorienting, but it’s too straightforward in its presentation to have a wider effect; it’s quiet but not quiet enough, not leaning hard enough into the style to do anything unique. Many moments still manage to land, but it’s easy to see where things could have been improved with a bit more care.

Despite its focus on twists and turns, it never does anything too surprising; these are familiar tropes. Most serve to confuse the young girl, who must choose between her robotic mother and this unknown outsider; but our understanding of all three is rather limited. It becomes a simple game of guessing who is telling the truth, and the mere presence of an outsider reveals Mother as a liar. The girl naturally carries some hesitation, having been raised by this machine, but it’s much easier to see the truth as an outsider.

Despite its familiarity and tonal flaws, I see something of value in the overall product; matching the skills of Garland is a difficult task, but the fact that the film got me to think of it in that language suggests it was doing something right.

Most credit goes to the three women at the heart of the movie; Hilary Swank plays the paranoid survivor well, while Clara Rugaard really captures an ignorant but intelligent teenager. Rose Byrne lends a calming element to the otherwise inhuman Mother. The visual design here drops the usual sleekness for something bulkier, reminding us that this is merely an advanced computer, down to the ventilation holes. Byrne’s voice is the one human element, but it goes a long way in convincing us that the young girl finds comfort in her presence.

Ultimately, I Am Mother is a flawed but intriguing thriller; it’s not going to be anyone’s favorite, but anyone who enjoys this kind of quiet sci-fi should get something out of it.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Hail Satan? (2019)

Penny Lane’s latest documentary takes a look at the Satanist movement, specifically the Satanic Temple, an organization that popped up in 2013. Led by Lucien Greaves, this community is dedicated to fighting back against Christian encroachment on the separation of church and state.

Hail Satan?, like the organization at its heart, seems to be taking an easy route; by covering a subject so inherently controversial, it’s elevated to a certain level of attention. This is not to say the film is poorly made but, rather, it coasts by invoking a certain kind of playful deviance.

With documentaries, it’s important to question what the filmmaker gains from choosing their specific subject matter. Penny Lane appears to have a proclivity for oddities, her previous film covering an obvious bunk doctor from the early 20th century who implanted goat testicles into human patients as a cure for impotence. Hail Satan is a suitable, modernized follow-up, but only on the surface – these people have better intentions than Dr. John Brinkley, carrying a certain savviness about what to do to garner media attention.

This film feels as politically charged as any Michael Moore film; Penny Lane has a very clear statement. This film falls too easily on the side of Lucien, seemingly advocating for his beliefs. The Satanic Temple is rarely questioned over the course of this film; the one internal conflict we see is a woman who goes too far with a ritual and gets kicked out. She jokes about somehow being too much for Satanism.

How is that possible? Well, the Satanic Temple seems to be more of a political movement than any real religion; they simply use the Satanic imagery to highlight what they view as illegal activities in the name of religion. There’s a satirical edge to their acts, to suggest a Christian monument needs a Satanic monument to match. As surface level as this movement seems, they appear to get the results they want.

But does this really work? Would these Christian monuments not have been taken down on their own, or without a standard legal challenge? These are the questions that need to be asked, but the film never does. At one point, an older Christian woman is asked about the Satanists, and she’s not convinced these are true beliefs; they are, essentially, trolling for attention.

This could be an interesting question: what exactly constitutes a religion? Several members of the Temple seem open about the fact there’s no real association with Satan, or any other theistic systems. What happens to the Satanic Temple when everyone is aware their use of ‘Satan’ is purely performative?

Penny Lane seems to simply capture what she observes. There are a few key moments where the film reflects on the past, such as clearing up the difference between the Satanic Temple and the Church of Satan while also contextualizing the rise of Christianity in American culture and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. She justifies this organization’s existence but never digs into whether they are truly effective; we take their word for it.

In the end, Hail Satan? is a story of political activists going to extremes to prove a point; it’s a fun ride to enter their unusual approach to life. It rides on the back of its subject matter, not offering many complexities nor doing much to make it engaging as a film – in fact, some talking head shots linger to the point of awkwardness. But, ultimately, the subject matter is neat enough that you might as well check it out.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Few films have put up as many red flags before release as Dark Phoenix – a fact that seems doubly sad when you consider the fact there’s yet another movie in this franchise giving off more. This film was plagued by production issues and was repeatedly pushed back, all while being carried by a man who had no business being in the director chair. Add on that it revisits a story that the series already dabbled in (and failed) while again neglecting to set it up properly, and Dark Phoenix has all the makings of a Hollywood disaster.

Conceptually, the Phoenix story line is hard to capture in a single film; that force works better as a building threat than an immediate antagonist, yet both films just spring it upon us. Though we’ve had twelve X-Men related films at this point, we don’t necessarily have a meaningful attachment to these specific versions of the characters; Phoenix as an invasive force doesn’t land when we don’t really care about this Jean Grey yet. Even if every other part of this movie was handled well, the impact would have still been muted by a lack of attachment.

Of course, this film isn’t handled well. You don’t need to get further than the opening flashback to get a taste. “You’re not like the other doctors,” young Jean has the nerve to say as she meets Professor X, who responds with an even more laughable “And you’re not like the other patients.” Cliche statements such as these plague the dialogue.

So much of this film feels like actors going through the motions, a simulacrum of a legitimate X-Men adaptation. Characters are burdened with dull motivation, earnestly pursuing goals they should be too smart to follow. It’s so painfully melodramatic; can the supposedly super-intelligent Professor X and Hank McCoy not think through their emotions? Every action is rash, serving the sole purpose of delivering our characters to the next set piece.

One particularly egregious scene has Jean meet up with Magneto in the hopes of asking for help – but she decides to show up in a blood-covered shirt. I’m not quite sure how the blood ended up there considering the incident that happened, but even ignoring that, can she not think through this enough to hide the blood or change her shirt first? Especially when she knows it belongs to someone important to Magneto that will likely set him off? Even if she didn’t have time to change, it’s established she can make people see her differently than she physically appears.

Jean is written as if driven by raw emotion, but I’d still expect her to have some sort of self-awareness here. It’s not like she somehow missed the blood, as an earlier scene shows her desperately trying to wash it out. This is a classic idiot plot, characters making stupid decisions that only make sense in the context of a writer trying to move a plot forward with no logical reason behind most of what happens.

Jessica Chastain’s Vuk and her alien associates are about as generic as superhero movie villains can be; I understand that they’re mainly a backdrop for Jean’s internal struggle with the Phoenix Force, but that doesn’t excuse how surface-level evil they are. They’re genocidal maniacs, the type that adds no moral complexities to the idea of watching our heroes slaughter them.

As a franchise, X-Men has always been a bit morose compared to other superhero stories; this is a series that tends to tackle prejudice and its surrounding violence. Dark Phoenix is dreary to the point of lifelessness, all while lacking any real moral relevance. There’s little here beyond poorly written character drama. Why make a blockbuster-style movie so consistently bleak while not bothering to say anything? It’s a relief this film has such cheesy dialogue, as it would otherwise be dominated by ineffective melancholy.

There are so many minor distractions that dot this film. This is set 30 years after First Class and features many of the same characters, yet none seem to have aged. I can understand Mystique due to her shape-shifting abilities, but why does Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey look just a few years younger than Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy? Could they not have added some makeup to show some aging? There’s really no reason to have had so much time pass between these movies; all it does is muddle our understanding of the supposed timeline.

Dark Phoenix fumbles as expected, mishandling established characters with poor dialogue and worse motivation. The story is entirely structured around a few concepts and set pieces without finding a believable way to get from one to the next. The worst thing about this experience is that, after so many films, a lot of the people involved still know how to make an X-Men film on the surface; this is a semi-polished Hollywood production. None of these details drag the movie down into the truly awful territory. Instead, it’s joylessly bland.

2 Stars Out of 5

Review: Shadow (2018)

Zhang Yimou is among the world’s most masterful visual artists, beginning his career with vivid, colorful period pieces and eventually mixing in gracefully choreographed combat sequences; Hero and House of Flying Daggers are among the best action films from last decade. Shadow reverses his usual tendencies in a fitting way; the color is drained by limiting its set and costume design to shades of black and white while still being filmed in color.

This is a film of contrasts; in its color scheme, in its story, even in its structure. Everything about this movie’s design is very deliberate; the question isn’t whether it achieves its artistic goals, but whether those goals actually add up to something beyond their concept.

The flaw of this film’s affinity for stark contrasts is that it’s a story divided in two halves; political intrigue slowly leads into stunning combat. By dividing itself down the middle, the first half begins to feel like a narrative dump. The best slow films usually support themselves with stunning cinematography, and Shadow seems like it would have much to offer with such strong visual design – but because these sets are so artificial, not much is added by lingering on the image.

There are a few moments of training in this first half, but it naturally carries little stake. Much of it is people simply talking, setting up conflict that will later be resolved. Perhaps if all this didn’t feel like mere set-up for the true meat of the film, it would be more entertaining in its own right. It’s an exposed backbone to the full picture.

Thankfully, halfway through Shadow, the action finally kicks off and Zhang gifts us with a film that reminds us why he captured our attention all those years ago. Stark contrast is carried into the combat style, protagonist Jingzhou bringing an umbrella to a sabre fight in a battle of feminine grace versus blunt masculine force. As absurd as this sounds, the final result is surprisingly cool; this whole back half is loaded with stunning sequences exploring what these weaponized metal umbrellas can do.

Every element of the design has pay off here; the contrast of colors is highlighted by the sudden addition of spilled blood, while the heavy set-up grants these fights some serious stakes. The brutality of this film actually caught me off guard; this is a story of vengeance and backstabbing, and the final sequence is legitimately difficult to sit through.

As such, I almost want to say that brutally slow build-up is worth it; but there are other slow openings that I adore. The problem isn’t that Shadow‘s opening is slow, but that it’s tedious. The image itself is more engaging than how it’s captured here, and everything about its design works better in motion. It could have cut down quite a bit of time and only gained from doing so.

Shadow is a stunning action film with an unfortunate amount of build-up, but the final payoff is worth the tedium, especially when it moves into the chaos of its final act. Few films are as simultaneously graceful and horrific. Though it might not reach the heights of Zhang Yimou’s classics, Shadow is still a more evocative action film than most.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: Rocketman (2019)

The biopic is familiar territory, a genre with a tendency to fall into a disappointingly mundane sense of realism. These are stories of supposedly great people, and one would hope a film dedicated to their life would attempt to capture some sense of their spirit, especially when covering people of certain aesthetic sensibilities. Yet so many of these movies instead fixate on the supposed ‘truth’ of their story, sacrificing style to do so.

Here comes Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, hot on the heels of the divisive Bohemian Rhapsody, on which he served as replacement director halfway through production – it’s clear this latter work has benefited from his total control. This is a film that kicks off with its protagonist barging into an AA session while decked out in a flamboyant devil costume, his first words leading into a childhood musical number.

Elton John has always been bigger than life, and Rocketman does so much to capture his grandiosity. Turning his life into a stylized musical that slips in and out of time lends his story a surprising energy; even if the plot beats seem familiar, what really matters is how they’re handled. This film rarely misses a beat, seamlessly stringing together elements of his life through musical numbers.

Taron Egerton kills it here as Elton. It’s difficult to match the real Elton on a vocal level, but Egerton does enough justice to lend these songs a distinct form; Rocketman is thoroughly a musical, not just a biography that happens to feature music, and part of that distinction is by giving the numbers a new shape. Egerton likewise captures the outward exuberance underlined by a familiar anxiety; the tortured artist is a common story, but again, it’s captured well here. Rocketman is a work that does little new, but it excels at the familiar.

Part of this strength stems from its subject; Elton John is one of the world’s biggest stars, but his personal life has always been shrouded by a prominent persona and his music. Most of his modern coverage, the stuff I’ve experienced, is dedicated to his now happy love life.

Part of what sets Rocketman apart is the fact it’s a story of a gay man that doesn’t end tragically. It largely avoids the common tropes of mainstream LGBT films, especially historical ones, while still diving into the more personally devastating elements of the experience. This is a story of living in a lonely world, where it’s easy to fall for people who are simply incapable of returning that feeling, where the options sometimes seem limited enough it’s easy to settle for someone less than alright. Most importantly, this is just one aspect of Elton’s grand life.

The film is surprisingly heavy throughout; though Elton obviously finds great success, everything is tinted with addiction and that crushing loneliness. We expect these stories to hit the highs and lows, but Rocketman actually tends to gloss over many of those high points as they get shrouded in turmoil. What’s strange about this film is the distance; musical numbers perhaps summarize certain eras too quickly, but this lends a certain affectation when combined with the framing device of Elton in counseling. The “Rocket Man” number begins with Elton perhaps at his lowest point and abruptly transforms into a surreal stage performance; how slyly but flamboyantly Fletcher captures someone trying to overlook their issues by focusing on the successes that in no way negate their problems.

Some of the musical numbers work better than others, but those that work are fantastic. The film starts off with “The Bitch is Back,” a perfectly campy choice for child Elton to sing in his innocent youth. The movie really gets rolling with the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” sequence, which is loaded with stellar visual design while aging Elton from a child to young adult. This film is a visual treat, a key point that assists in setting this apart from most biopics.

Rocketman is about as good as Hollywood biopics can be, mixing the rather dark details of Elton John’s personal life with the extravagant styling of his public image. Taking a step back from realism really sells the actual story here, and hopefully future musician-based biopics take inspiration. Just as important, this is a mainstream LGBT film that really explores sexual identity as an aspect of the subject’s life without becoming fixated. Elton John has always stood as a definitive gay icon; Rocketman reminds us that he too struggled along the way while offering hope for a brighter future.

4 Stars Out of 5