Movie Review ~ Onward


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodgriguez

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: By this point, I’ve gotten pretty good about preparing to see a Pixar film. I always make sure I bring Kleenex from home because when I inevitably cry, wiping my eyes/nose with the rough napkins from the movie theater always leaves them a bit red and raw. Also, it’s best to make sure you know where the exit is so you can make a quick dash out of the place if the theater is cruel and turns the lights on immediately when the movie is over, exposing all the tear-stained faces to the rest of the crowd. The best place to sit is near the entrance, on an aisle and definitely not near a family with small children because you don’t want to step on any kids as you try to avoid people seeing the after effects of your ugly cry.

I say this now looking back at my experience of watching Onward and recognizing that my mind was in a completely different place that day and I totally forgot all my pre-planning rules. Here I was, a guy that just celebrated a milestone birthday and about to mark the 12 year anniversary of the loss of my father and I had no tissues, was seated in the middle of a row with families all around me seeing a movie about sons using magic to spend one last day with their deceased father. Was I completely crazy?

The town of New Mushroomton isn’t quite the magical mecca it used to be as we see when the prologue for Onward begins. All sorts of magical creatures coexisted and used their gifts to get by, whether it was creating fire for light/heat or flying over vast oceans. Then, with the evolution of science the world began to find ways to accomplish magical tasks without magic (lightbulbs, airplanes) and the need for wizards, magic staffs, and important quests dissipated.  On the eve of his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just wanting to feel a little more at home in his own skin. His mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said) encourages him to be more outgoing at school and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) thinks that life should be lived like its one big role-playing game. More than anything, though, Ian wishes he had met his dad who died before he was born. Barley barely remembers him but at least he has something…Ian doesn’t have anything. So when their mom presents a gift their dad had asked her to reveal when both were over 16, it sets them off on a journey to complete a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours.

The first attempt at the spell only brings back the bottom half of their dad so communication comes through the feet, and it will take finding another rare stone to complete the magic that will restore him fully. Forcing the vastly different brothers to work together, the search for the gem puts them into contact with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer, Ma) who was once fearsome but is now toothless and through challenges straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As is typical with any Pixar film, there’s a host of wild supporting characters throughout with some appearing briefly (two words: feral unicorns) and others getting a bit more screen time (Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe is Pixar’s first confirmed lesbian character) but the main focus is on the brothers and how they come to appreciate one another through their time together.

The long and short of it is this: yes, I did cry in Pixar’s latest tear-factory fantasy movie but it was not the severe ugly cry I was afraid it would be. Instead, I was taken with how the studio has once again managed to take a sensitive subject and made it palatable for children and a good jumping off discussion point for adults to have with their kids if any questions come up after the movie. Death is always a hard topic to discuss but in several of their movies, Pixar has found a way into that conversation that isn’t as scary as it might have been years ago when there weren’t animated characters that are saying some of the same things children are also feeling. Writer/director Dan Scanlon also has a nice way of bringing a lot of plot points together into one theme as the film moves toward its conclusion – I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it but it gets there in a lovely way.

It’s always risky now in this Must Be Proven Franchise Material cinema world we live in to create original story but Onward is a striking bit of computer generated fun with pathos on top of it all. The animation is beautiful…so is the message.

 

Movie Review ~ Queen & Slim


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Bokeem Woodbine, Sturgill Simpson, Flea, Benito Martinez

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: What most audiences don’t know is that by the time they see a film on opening weekend in a large multiplex with reclining seats and a big bucket of popcorn, the movie has been through a number of committees, approvals, screenings, edits, and adjustments.  From studio heads to a soccer mom recruited in the parking lot at a 7-11, someone has watched this movie already and had some sort of say in the final cut.  This is done to maximize the appeal in order to make the most money, hopefully in the first few weeks before something newer comes out to steal its thunder.  It’s filmmaking by committee and it’s a disappointing way to get things done – that’s why you may get the feeling of a certain staleness lately when you head to the theater.

Then there are the rare directors/producers that get “final cut” written into their contracts, making them the last word when it comes to how the movie will turn out.  If the film is a bomb, the buck stops with the director and the same goes if it’s an out-of-left-field success.  I was surprised and totally delighted to learn the filmmakers behind Queen & Slim had negotiated this clause with Universal Studios and it makes sense why they pushed for it.  The story being told is one that needed no outside tinkering or interference, no focus groups or market strategies…because sadly you can imagine opening up a paper tomorrow and reading about it happening in real life.

Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) has finally convinced Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, The Neon Demon) to go out with him.  He works retail and she’s a lawyer that defends murders. He’s easy-going and passive, she likes restaurants to get her order right the first time.  Slim’s driving her home from their pleasant but fireworks-free first date when they are pulled over by a Cleveland police officer.  All Slim wants to do is take the ticket and go but the officer is clearly looking to make something more stick based on vague suspicion.  Within seconds the situation has escalated, the officer is shot with his own gun, and the young couple flees into the night.

So begins a cross-country crime drama that’s equal parts Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise, and Badlands but is delivered clearly in its own voice.  That voice comes from Emmy-winner Lena Waithe who came up with the story with author James Frey and has written a script that doesn’t pander to audiences.  Waithe has created two distinct main characters that represent differing points of view, not just simple devil’s advocate opposites.  Flipping gender roles on its head, Queen is the more aggressive and dominant partner throughout, often acting on impulse instead of taking time to consider the emotional consequences of actions.  Slim is the more sensitive of the two, holding off the shock of what he’s done by focusing on the growing feelings he has for Queen.

As they make their way from the Midwest down South, they encounter folks who have seen the dashcam video of their crime that has gone viral and want to offer solace as well as people who feel they are only contributing to the police violence against people of color.  Waithe isn’t afraid to introduce players that challenge her titular characters strongly because it shows all sides to the discussion…and allows the discussion to be had in the first place.  There’s nothing one-sided in Queen & Slim, which gives it greater distinction from similar “issue” movies that come with a clear angle and objective.  Waithe is obviously troubled by what is happening in the world and has used the film medium to express her frustration but it’s communicated in such a sophisticated way that you are compelled to lean forward in your seat and engage.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas, she brings her excellent eye from the music world (she’s behind Beyonce’s Formation video) but thankfully doesn’t fashion her feature debut as rapid fire head-spinner.  This is a finely crafted movie, conscious of how it develops and what path it turns down.  A trip to see Queen’s war vet uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Overlord) living in New Orleans with a houseful of barely clothed ladies could have been a real low point but Matsoukas has paced it so well and Waithe provided such defined personalities for the women we meet that it doesn’t feel as exploitative as it could have been.  Only the drab taupe-ness of a visit with a husband and wife played by Flea (Boy Erased) and Chloë Sevigny (The Dead Don’t Die) is a bit of a yawn.  Likely the point, but the mundane parallel of this visit compared to their New Orleans layover is etched with fairly broad strokes.

It makes little difference who else we meet, though, because Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are in almost every scene and they are fantastic.  Kaluuya continues to show his strength at disappearing into any role he takes on, easily stepping into the soft-spoken Slim and your heart breaks watching him see his plans for the future fall apart with each setback they encounter along the way.  He’s got great chemistry with Turner-Smith and it’s her you’ll want to keep your eyes on because it’s a star-making performance if ever there was one.  Though she’s been in several movies already, this is her highest profile role to date and she knocks it out of the park.  As Queen, she’s often asked to be front and center, exposing herself (literally) in the most vulnerable of ways.  The icy front she has at the beginning isn’t totally an act and the reasons behind her emotions are made clear not just by Waithe’s late-breaking exposition but in Turner-Smith’s carefully constructed work.

It was an interesting experience to watch Queen & Slim with a packed house filled with responsive audience members.  I was surprised at how many of them weren’t on the side of our lead characters and it was an eye (and ear) opening experience to have running commentaries during the movie. Normally I would get frustrated at the talking while a film was going on but here it was helpful because it gave me greater insight into how another person was interpreting the film from a perspective I could never truly understand.  What’s happening with police violence is frightening and the growing number of deaths in the black community at the hands of police needs to be resolved.  Queen & Slim won’t stop it but it introduces necessary conversations for audiences as take-aways – my hope is that people see the movie and do something, anything, afterward in response.

The Silver Bullet ~ Queen & Slim

Synopsis: A couple’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Thoughts: There are so many interesting cooks in the Queen & Slim kitchen, I didn’t even need to see a preview to know it was something to take notice of.  This extremely timely tale was written by Emmy award winner Lena Waithe (Ready Player One) from an idea by infamous author James Frey (you know, the one that embarrassed Oprah) and directed by Melina Matsoukas who was a creative force behind many of Beyoncé’s most prolific music video experiences.   Matsoukas has put together a dynamite cast led by Daniel Kaluuya (Widows) and relative newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith (The Neon Demon) as a star-crossed Bonnie & Clyde for the modern age.  I’m quite looking forward to this one…and to the inevitable important discussions it will provoke.