Movie Review ~ Lightyear

The Facts:

Synopsis: While spending years attempting to return home, marooned Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear encounters an army of ruthless robots commanded by Zurg, who is trying to steal his fuel source.
Stars: Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Keke Palmer, Efren Ramirez, Peter Sohn, Dale Soules, Taika Waititi, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Director: Angus MacLane
Rated: PG
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  Strangely, in this age of audiences clamoring for the next installment of the big franchise film, the one studio that gets slapped on the hand for sequel-izing their big projects the most is PIXAR.  I don’t know why it happens, but I consistently see upturned noses at the landmark computer animation studio taking their established work and branching them off in different directions.  Heads were really spinning when Disney announced that PIXAR would be releasing Lightyear, a prequel (of sorts) to their first mega-hit Toy Story, which celebrates its 27th birthday in 2022.  Perhaps it was the still fresh bruise of the arrival of Toy Story 4 in 2019 after many fans thought Toy Story 3 ended the series so well, but the advance anticipation of a new chapter in this universe was grim.

With the full disclaimer broadcasting to you that I’m over the age limit for being able to honestly grade these movies (if the screenings weren’t so late at night, I could bring a few younger critics that would really give their opinions), I’m pleased to report that Lightyear is a zippy ride into pre-Toy Story lore and one that shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers in the fandom.  As the title card that preceded the film explains, Andy received his Buzz Lightyear action figure in the original Toy Story after he saw him in a movie.  Lightyear is that movie.  Wrap your head around that for a moment, adjust your bearings, and let’s move forward.

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans, Knives Out) is a headstrong Space Ranger on a mission with his fellow ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, Miss Virginia) and a new rookie recruit (Bill Hader, IT: Chapter Two).  They’ve landed on a mysterious planet, but fall under attack before they can accomplish their task.  Buzz being Buzz, he tries to save the day but winds up stranding the three of them (as well as an entire crew back at the ship) on the desolate planet.  Working to find a way off the planet takes time, and when Buzz and Alisha finally figure out how to return home, it comes with time-altering consequences.  The more Buzz attempts the mission in space, the faster time moves back on the planet.  Everyone ages except for Buzz. 

As the years/missions pass, Buzz continues his trials, accompanied by SOX, a robot cat meant to stave off any psychological trauma of the time he’s losing but who winds up a valuable asset (to Buzz and the movie).  Just as he figures out a way home, the evil Zurg appears and threatens to destroy the colony that has been built to sustain life for the crew while they await their home trek.  Banding together with a multi-generational bunch of misfits, none of whom initially measure up to Space Ranger standard in the eyes of Buzz, the veteran ranger will need to trust his new team to have his back as he learns to let go and truly lead.  Yet there are still secrets to be revealed about the origin of Zurg and once unveiled, will it change the mission goal or push Buzz and his team to go beyond the limits of their strength?

Director Angus MacLane keeps the action fast and, more importantly, fun for audiences that were kids when the original film came out and are probably taking their children to this new adventure.  If I’m honest, the overall look of Lightyear comes off like a Disney+ film that tested well enough to get a theatrical run.  I can’t say why a more earnest effort like Turning Red would get shuffled off to the streaming service…but it shouldn’t deter you from giving this one a go.  It has a sizable amount of creative inspiration and inclusion (the mismatched gang Buzz has to lead is of varying ages and sizes), not to mention a fully formed same-sex relationship that isn’t the focus but isn’t pushed to the side as tokenism either.    

Movie Review ~ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The extraordinary true story of eccentric British artist Louis Wain, whose playful, sometimes even psychedelic pictures helped to transform the public’s perception of cats forever.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Stacy Martin, Sharon Rooney, Hayley Squires, Aimee Lou Wood, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Barratt, Asim Chaudhry, Indica Watson, Sophia Di Martino, Taika Waititi, Olivia Colman

Director: Will Sharpe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: As has often been the cast for the past several years, actor Benedict Cumberbatch has two movies that are arriving near the end of 2021 that are playing at a number of film festivals.  One film is a bit elusive and hard to see unless you are attending one of the most prestigious events.  The other one is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  One film is getting the actor much acclaim and buzz about another Oscar nomination after his stoic turn in 2014’s The Imitation Game.  The other movie is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.  Available at quite a number of film festivals over the past several months, you can see Amazon Studios and its other producers fighting a losing battle to get some traction on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the secondary Cumberbatch movie. However, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog readying for release on Netflix, it’s lights out for this twee bit of falderal that sparks early only to be undone by it’s overreliance on puffy artistry on the back end.

Look, before I saw this biographical drama, I had no clue the English artist Louis Wain played such an integral role in helping the domestic cat gain such popularity in Europe through his artwork.  As a dedicated cat lover (an animal that has a box for its own litter which it also covers for you, keeps it distance when it’s not in the mood to be bothered, and can tell when bad weather is approaching is A-OK in my book!) I am ever in his debt for normalizing the attitude toward cats in his country because many of those feelings became popularized the world over.  I was unfamiliar with his art before a viewing of director Will Sharpe’s film and the recreation of his style and technique through the screenplay Sharpe co-wrote with Simon Stephenson (Paddington 2) were fascinating bits of mechanics to watch – it’s everything else that surrounded it that became so befuddling.

Perhaps it’s the feeling that Sharpe was grasping for a style and tone that didn’t completely make sense all the time.  The opening stretch and final hour are flighty bits of quirkiness that feel curated and calculated, like what someone attempting to be irreverent with the life of a colorful character would put on screen.  By all accounts, the mental health issues that plagued Wain and various members of his family were present for a long while but only presented themselves rarely over the years until they became more serious in his older days.  It was during his romance of the family governess (Claire Foy, Breathe) when Wain found his true happiness and it’s also when Sharpe’s movie gets into its best and most easily accessible mode.

The early marketing materials and trailers I saw of the movie suggested the Foy/Cumberbatch relationship was going to be far more rambunctious, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Yet it turned out to be my favorite parts of the movie.  The two have such a natural ease of working together and I can’t help but think that it’s Foy that consistently brings out the best in her male costars, melting some icy actors down and letting audiences see the softer sides.  She absolutely lets us see another side of Cumberbatch, a far more tender one that finds himself caring for another when he previously felt like that part of his life would never come to pass.  These are the meat the film feasts on…but the meal can’t last forever and before too long it’s back to the same old ticks and tricks once more.

I’m all for biographies that color outside of the lines (and The Courier’s Suzie Davies production design along with Paddington’s Erik Alexander Wilson’s cinematography are never lacking for bold color choices) but it has to circle back to a point – something The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes an awful long time to get to.  Along the way Sharpe stops to create several beautiful moments (a shot of Foy and Cumberbatch sitting in a meadow is gorgeous) but it’s balanced with far too many repetitive scenes of Wain fighting with one or more of his disapproving sisters.

Controversially, I’m not as sold on Cumberbatch as most are.  I loved him for Sherlock but have since found him to be decidedly hit or miss with his work, feeling that perhaps he’s more limited in his range than we’d care to admit.  He’s not bad in this new film but he’s been better in others that are about far less important people and ideas.  Fans of his will want to check out The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, all others should save their Cumberbatch Cinema of 2021 for The Power of the Dog.   

Movie Review ~ The Suicide Squad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Supervillains Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker and a collection of nutty cons at Belle Reve prison join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X as they are dropped off at the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Joaquín Cosío, Juan Diego Botto, Storm Reid, Nathan Fillion, Taika Waititi, Steve Agee, Flula Borg

Director: James Gunn

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Oh, sweet swampland did I hate 2016’s Suicide Squad.  A real trash heap of a film from a talented director with a stellar line-up of A+ leads, a B+ supporting cast, and a B- set of comic-book characters to work with.  No, the Suicide Squad wasn’t an area of DC Comics that I was familiar with before I saw the film, but you can see the attraction fans had for these oddballs – it’s the same reason why the similarly jokey (but far better) Deadpool went over so well with audiences.  People like to root for the underdog, even if, and maybe even sometimes especially if, they are the villain. 

While that PG-13 rated film failed to capitalize on the red-carpet Wonder Woman had rolled out just months earlier, Warner Brothers wasn’t quite ready to throw the towel in and they made a bold move by following-up the first film with a sequel that also serves as a semi-reboot in the process.  Nabbing director James Gunn after he was briefly axed by Disney from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the studio gained a legion of fans from the Marvel franchise who rejoiced that someone had plucked one of their favorite directors up after he had been (apparently) done wrong.

The resulting effort is The Suicide Squad and after five years it looks like Warner Brothers and DC Comics are nearly back in business, but not quite yet.  With the success of an R-rated cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the studio is more comfortable letting their films carry that restricted rating because it has proven to be what fans want.  (It also doesn’t deter children from seeing the film.  At my press screening, I can’t tell you how “overjoyed” I was to see so many parents bring their little children to this hard-R film.  Congrats, all!)  With an abundance of grisly gore and language that would make the Squad from sanitized feeling 2016 blush, this crew is way more amped up and ready to play than the previous iteration and that admittedly makes for a more entertaining ride. 

Audiences are in for a surprise at the beginning of the film because nothing is quite what it seems…or how the movie has been marketed up until now.  I’ll leave it at that, and you can read between the lines in my review if you want to know more about what that means in terms of who is in the film and for how long.  Returning from the original film is Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), leading a group of skilled supervillains including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher) to an island nation on the orders of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).  The leader of the country with friendly relations to the United States has been murdered, along with his family and now a top-secret weapon is at risk of falling into the hands of revolutionaries who don’t know what kind of power they could wield.

New to the team are Peacemaker (John Cena, in his second franchise film of the summer after F9: The Fast Saga) and Bloodsport (Idris Elba, Concrete Cowboy), two alpha males forced to work together who each try to outdo one another when it comes to killing the most bad guys.  Add in King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Creed), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, Prisoners) and your rag-tag team of the strange and unusual but highly deadly is mostly complete.  They’ll find they need to rely on each other and their individual strengths (some they were born with, some thrust upon them) when faced with an enemy that’s truly out of this world. 

It’s easy to draw a line from the misfit crew in Guardians of the Galaxy all the way over to the denizens of the maximum-security prisons where The Suicide Squad does its recruiting, so Gunn makes a natural fit for these proceedings.  What doesn’t quite work all the time is the film’s overcompensation for having an elevated rating this time around.  Brandishing it’s more adult rating instead of doling it out with some style, it’s often sloppy and slappy instead of sharp like it should be.  The first fifteen minutes of the movie are legitimately terrible, and I was honestly dreading what was to come next, but then Gunn makes a move I didn’t see coming and suddenly I was interested again.  From that point on I felt like more engaging characters were brought in with increasingly raised stakes. 

By now, it’s official that Elba is a bona-fide star and this only hammers that point home.  How they missed the window of opportunity to have him take over as James Bond is simply beyond me (or is it not too late?).  He can do action, drama, comedy, you name it and he gets the chance to flex all those muscles here and then some.  In her third outing as the demented former flame of the Joker, Robbie continues to fine tune the role and even if 2020’s Birds of Prey was a better showcase, she’s no second banana here either.  I was left a little cold by Cena earlier this summer in F9: The Fast Saga but he’s a lot of fun here as an all-business killer for hire that does it all in the name of peace.  Gunn’s casting of Stallone as the Great White Shark looking for “num-num” is inspired and he easily steals the show with the least number of (full and coherent) sentences spoken out of anyone.  Kudos also to Davis for truly going for it this time out.  Davis rarely gets the chance to play these kinds of women and as morally challenged as Amanda Waller was in the 2016 film, she’s far more in the muck of it all in this one.

I guess my biggest stumbling block with both this film and its predecessor is that I just haven’t yet warmed to this branch of the DC Universe.  While I found this team to be much easier to get along with than the last one, I still don’t like the vibe that has permeated both movies.  A little of that same vibe was even present in the Guardians films so maybe it’s just a case of preferring my superheroes/villains more on the traditional side of things and less on the outskirts of society.  The Suicide Squad can hold its head high because it rights many of the wrongs that were done back in 2016, but it also needs to reconcile the fact that this team can’t even hold a candle to the likes of Batman and Superman in my book.

Movie Review ~ Jojo Rabbit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Stars: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, Alfie Allen, Taika Waititi, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: As I was watching Jojo Rabbit a few weeks back one thought kept running through my mind and it was this: “Gosh, I hope people get this is satire when they see this.”  Now, I’m not saying our society has become overly sensitive and far be it from me to use a gross phrase like ‘cancel culture’ with any literal purpose in my review but let’s face it, in the past few years there’s been a strange urge to jump on seemingly innocuous thoughts, words, and deeds and make them into what they aren’t.  Plenty of ideas and texts are out there that were obviously meant to harm, so it takes a little restraint to step back and look at the big picture to separate the serious from the satire.

Jojo Rabbit is a clear satire of anti-hate rhetoric and it couldn’t be clearer of its intentions.  Yet I sat through the screening so worried that no one was going to get the joke and take the film literally.  There are some horrific jokes concerning Nazis, concentration camps, genocide, and misogyny (to name but a few) yet they are presented in such a way that if you aren’t in on the joke you might be squirming in your seat during the opening credits when young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) skips with carefree glee around his tiny German village “heil-ing” all his friends and neighbors.  I admit it took me a few introductory scenes to thoroughly settle into writer/director Taika Waititi’s sardonic structure before I gave over fully.  Once I did, I found a lot of heart in addition to the laughs.

A 10-year old member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo is off to his first training camp with his best friend Yorki (an adorably scene-stealing Archie Yates) and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok).  With Hitler as his imaginary friend, you can imagine the kind of pep talks Jojo gets as he begins his service and in Waititi’s hands Hitler is presented as an easily excitable, petulant, man-child that provides Jojo some moral support but not always the best guidance.  Teased at camp for his sensitive nature in an arena of hate, he gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit from his fellow Nazi buds and makes a bold gesture as a way to show them he’s stronger than he looks.  When an injury sidelines Jojo, he’s put to work in the office of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, Vice) distributing propaganda while his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) works to make ends meet.

Often left at home alone, Jojo is surprised to discover his mother has hidden a young girl (Thomasin McKenzie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in the walls…and she’s Jewish.  Having lost her parents and everyone else she cares about to the war, Elsa has no one to depend on but Rosie’s kindness and has developed a steely exterior that matches well with Jojo’s extreme indifference to a girl he feels he’s supposed to hate on sight.  With imaginary Hitler encouraging Jojo to study this girl so he can file a detailed report later on (in a manifesto with a title that becomes a running joke), Jojo gets closer to her and both find out they have more in common than they think…or what they’ve been taught to think.

For all the comedic elements to Jojo Rabbit, there’s an even deeper emotional core running through the center of the movie and I was surprised as how moving the film becomes as it goes on.  With several unexpected twists (and one downright jaw-dropping one), Waititi keeps audiences involved with Jojo and Elsa’s story but never lets them get ahead of the action.  We all know how the war ended but I had no idea where their stories would wind up.  The outcome surprised me and was par for the course with the rest of the film which never followed the path I thought it would.

Walking the fine line of comedy are a strong roster of actors, some appearing only in brief cameos.  Stephan Merchant (Logan) and Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic) may pop in for a moment but they each get at least one hefty laugh; Wilson in particular gets one of the best jokes in the entire movie.  While I like Rockwell and feel he’s been on a nice roll the past few years, his role here skewed a bit too farcical compared to the other players.  On the other hand, I often struggle with Johansson but found her work as Jojo’s strong-willed but vulnerable mother to be incredibly moving.  The real stars are McKenzie and Griffin who carry the film with conviction – two young talents handling difficult subject matter but doing so with a mature sophistication.  Really stellar work.

Expected to be a major player at the Oscars, Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. In the last 11 years, 10 of the winners have received a Best Picture Oscar Nomination.  It will certainly divide people and that’s a good thing because even with the satire carefully identified it might not be the movie for you, but I’d hate to see the movie discounted solely for the fact that people didn’t get it’s sardonic tones.  Waititi adapted, produced, directed, and stars in this and deserves some credit for magically making something so audacious work so well.

Movie Review ~ Thor: Ragnarok


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Imprisoned, the mighty Thor finds himself in a lethal gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, his former ally. Thor must fight for survival and race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home and the Asgardian civilization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Sam Neill, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Let’s be real here…you didn’t like those first two Thor movies either, did you? I knew it. Seemingly out of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, likely because they were the only films that took place largely in literally their own universe, Thor and it’s sequel Thor: The Dark World were what comic book movies should never, ever be: boring. It was only when Thor joined up with his friends in The Avengers and Avengers: The Age of Ultron that the Norse god felt energized and alive. Well after Thor: Ragnarok there is enough electricity generated by director Taika Waititi to power several more sequels. It puts the other two films to shame and bests several other Marvel outings at the same time.

As the film opens, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Rush) is in a bit of a bind as he finds himself in the clutches of the fire demon Surtur. Surthur lets Thor know that a great battle known as Ragnarok is about to unfold, a battle that will see Surtur lay waste to Thor’s Asgardian home and all its peoples. Since this is the prologue and we have a couple of hours left, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Thor makes it out of his prison and finds his way back to Asgard. Arriving unannounced only to run into his mischief making adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island) masquerading as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs). Unaware that Loki imprisoned his father on Earth, Thor meets up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County) who points him in the right direction of where his father may be.

Thor does find his pops but the reunion is short-lived as his long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine, having the absolute best time ever) arrives with her eyes on Odin’s throne. Sending her siblings into another galaxy to get them out of her villainous way, she starts to wreak havoc in her homeland and Thor and Loki make their way through a new world ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park). With Loki avoiding a life of servitude on the junk planet, that leaves Thor fighting for his freedom, gladiator-style, against his old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). Assisted by fellow Asgardian in exile Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Creed) and loyal Heimdall (Idris Elba, Prometheus), all make their way back to Asgard to face off with Hela to save their world.

There’s a lot that happens in Thor: Ragnarok and it’s almost universally entertaining. Waititi (who also plays a dryly-hilarious alien made up of rocks) brings such interesting ideas to the table along with a sense of humor and fun that has been missing from not only Thor’s previous outings but from Marvel at large. With its fun cameos (not only from Marvel characters), it’s wacky and colorful and I enjoyed every minute of it. Mark Mothersbaugh’s (The LEGO Movie) score is a real tip and while they curiously use Immigrant Song twice, it makes sense and gives key battle sequences a rock concert vibe. I normally recoil at movies that are so CGI heavy but the visuals are gorgeously rendered here, making for truly exciting viewing.

While it does help to have a working knowledge of the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one may be a good entry point for newbies…but then someone will have to explain to them why the other two movies are so dull. Here’s hoping Marvel retains Waititi because he’s the reason why this works so very well.