Friday, July 19, 2019

A Reel Review: THE LION KING

Disney’s photorealistic “live-action” remake of one of their biggest films of all time, THE LION KING, is their third such re-do of their animated classics in 2019. These second-tries with new skins have proven to be money-makers with varying degrees of critical success; earning dollars on name alone and occasionally offering something new or relevant to the story for old fans and newcomers. It’s been an interesting study of form and content, with filmmakers trying to find that right balance. 
Simba (Donald Glover and JD McCrary), a young lion crown prince of the Pride Lands, flees his homeland after the death of his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones), which was engineered by his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejofor). Simba finds a new home and new friends Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner), and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen), before being found by his childhood friend Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter)…and is torn between staying put or returning to the Pride Lands to face his destiny. 
Neither audiences or filmmakers seem to know exactly what to do with these live-action remakes. Stick to close to the original, and it becomes pointless. Take some risks and make a whole lotta changes, and it’s considered to be a betrayal to the original. Director Jon Favreau, who helmed Disney’s recent, most-excellent live-action version of THE JUNGLE BOOK, chooses to take a low-risk, low-reward approach. For the most part, THE LION KING is a shot-for-shot take on the original. The iconic opening sequence is identical, and the plot-points are as well. There are changes here and there in dialogue, a few place-settings, and many scenes are truncated or cut from the old version…but for the most part it is indeed the old story (which functions perfectly), in a new skin. 
And this new skin is astonishing. Created with digital imagery and virtual reality techniques, the animals and environments, ranging from jungles to deserts…are breathtakingly real. The fine details down to the dirt, bird feathers, and lion’s manes make it seem like a Nat-Geo documentary. There’s also an eye-popping amount of depth to the environments that actually improves on the original. It’s the most convincing CGI we’ve ever seen and is a leap forward for the tech. It’s stunning to see, but it also works against the film. The commitment to realism is so high that the animals simply do not emote. They can’t smile or frown, or show anger or joy, and it sucks the soul out of the story. Even the musical numbers suffer, as no animal is allowed to really dance as they are locked down in reality. Despite this, the movie is still very funny and joyful; Timon and Bumpaa are a blast, and watch out for a fantastic Disney surprise near the climax. 
The musical numbers are mostly note-for-note of the old songs, with Elton John returning to rework his old compositions. Beyonce tosses in a new song titled Spirit which feels out of place. The reworkings of Circle of Life, and Can You Feel the Love Tonight are highlights, and both Hakuna Matata and The Lion Sleeps Tonight is guaranteed to whip the entire theatre into sing-along mode. 
The voice-cast is decent but mostly ho-hum. Donald Glover is a surprise with his singing voice, and Beyonce sounds great. Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of our finest actors but he simply does not sound sinister enough for Scar. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner are well-cast, and John Kani as Rafiki the shaman/monkey is also very good. James Earl Jones reprises his role as the mighty Mufasa, but he simply does not sound right in places. 
When THE LION KING roared in 1994, it was a step forward for animation, and this version is as well. It would be difficult to find a film that looked more beautiful and jaw-dropping, but it looks so real that the expected and needed “magic” that we need from cinema is missing. That is the thorn in the paw of this film which can roar but has a limp. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


“I’m scared to close my eyes…”

This month marks the 20thanniversary of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. 
It was the first of its kind to hit mainstream with the “found footage” technique of filmmaking. Three student filmmakers; Heather (Heather Donohue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael C. Williams), hike to the Black Hills of Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend called the Blair Witch. The three vanish, but their footage is discovered a year later…and the recovered film is the movie the audience sees. 
The idea for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was born in 1993, when student filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were inspired by documentaries on paranormal phenomena which they found to be more scary than traditional horror films. They conceived of a film that combined documentary and fictional horror films, intending to film in wooded areas with improvised dialogue. 
Filming began in 1997 in Maryland, with local townspeople appearing in the film. Realism was the key to making it work, and the three actors were given crash-courses in hand-held-camera techniques as they would be doing all the filming themselves. Myrick and Sanchez were going for real reactions, and didn’t tell the actors about events that would be happening. For example, when one of the students vanish without a trace, it was done without the knowledge of the remaining two…earning  genuine fearful performances. The directors moved their actors a long way through the woods, harassing them by night and depriving them of food. Total filming took only eight days, with 20 hours of footage to be cut down to two-and-a-half-hours. 
Prior to release, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT had a unique marketing technique, and it is one of the first to be showcased via the internet; it was “viral” long before the term would become common. The film’s official website stuck to the realism attempt; showing “missing” posters and newsreel-style interviews….which had many people (including this Blogger), believing that the footage was real. So real that Heather Donahue’s mother received sympathy cards from people who believed her daughter was dead or missing. 
The efforts paid off. After a premiere at Sundance and plenty of buzz about “a record of real events”, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT would earn $248 million total, over 4,000 times its original budget. It would be the 10thhighest grossing film of year and would earn the reputation as a sleeper hit. It would draw positive reviews from critics with the found-footage technique earning universal praise, and would instantly a create a new sub-genre of horror. 
The good news about THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is that when it arrived and was met with great popularity, it instantly gave the horror genre something new to play with. It was 1999 and the genre was feeling stale, with the slashers gone out of style and not much else to look forward to. THE BLAIR WITCH began a new era of found-footage movies, and that’s where the bad news comes in. 20 years on Hollywood and indie filmmakers are still cranking out films using that style to varying degrees of success, almost to the point where it’s become stale and lazy…and many blame THE BLAIR WITCH for it all. It’s unfair to do so, because on its own it is still an effective thriller. It has convincing performances, is very scary, iconic imagery, and with the JAWS-like decision of never seeing the monster…drives our imaginations wild with terror. 
“You gonna write us a happy ending, Heather?”

Monday, July 15, 2019

A Reel Opinion: Casting Controversy

In the past couple of weeks, the world of cinema has erupted in controversy over casting decisions from two separate film productions; controversy that has enraged fans, fueled debate, and perhaps even deepening the current racial divide in America. 
The first blow-up came earlier this month, when 19-year-old singer and actress Halle Bailey was cast in the role of Ariel for Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of their 1989 animated classic, THE LITTLE MERMAID. Bailey, who is half of the band Chloe X Halle and has toured with Beyonce, has been nominated for two Grammy’s, and has been a regular in the Freeform series GROWN-ISH. She can act and sing, which are two vital talents needed for the role, but her skin-color drew out the pitchforks from fans of the original film…as Ariel was originally drawn as white with red hair. Not all the backlash was racially motivated; most long-time fans of the original just want to see the Ariel they grew up with, which is a perfectly legit complaint. The hashtag #NotMyAriel was all over social media with fans saying that the casting move is not true to the character. But others out there couldn’t help but to play the race card. Bailey has had her defenders; with Freeform and original Ariel voice-actress Jodi Benson releasing statements in her support. 
The second firestorm came just this past weekend from the now-filming and untitled James Bond film (currently being referred to as Bond 25 until they pick a title). The Daily Mail reported that actress Lashana Lynch, who appeared in this year’s CAPTAIN MARVEL in a supporting role, will appear in the film as 007. It seems that the film will begin with James Bond (reprised by Daniel Craig), in retirement, and his 007 codename has been passed on to a new character…the one that will be played by Lynch. The report points out that Lynch is not expected to replace Craig in the franchise in the future, and the change-up is merely setup for the film’s events. The explanation makes sense, but that didn’t stop fans from breaking out the pitchforks and quickly going after Lynch’s skin color. 
Both controversies have acted as a snapshot of the current state of racial affairs in America. After all, this is a country where the President fires off racially insensitive tweets, which intentional or not, empowers the loudmouth racists out there; loudmouths who seem to be just waiting for casting decisions like this as an excuse for their uneducated tirades. If they would look deeper they would find that there is sound movie-logic at play here and not an agenda. In the case of 007, it makes perfect sense that the code-number would be passed on after a retirement; the MI6 isn’t like a football team that would retire your number. The fact that it would pass onto a black woman is irrelevant, because there’s no reason why it can’t. 
The case of Ariel is trickier, as no one really seems to know what they want from Disney’s live-action remakes. If the film is made exactly like the original then the effort becomes pointless. If they make changes so it can be its own thing, then fans go into rebellion mode. While it is true that we’re not getting the Ariel we were expecting in looks, the fact is we’re talking about a fictional character of a fantasy species, not to mention Ariel’s super-red hair doesn’t exist in nature in the first place. Art should never have restrictions, and character is more important than skin color. 
It would be easy to say that we should just wait and see how all this plays out when the movies are released, but what we see on the screen can calm things down. Actress Zendaya was in the gunsights when she was revealed to be Peter Parker’s crush MJ in the new SPIDER-MAN movies, as she did not resemble the MJ in the comics…who coincidently, also had super-red hair. But then she lit up the screen in this year’s Spidey film FAR FROM HOME, and even the most critical of her casting were silenced. The productions of Bond 25 and THE LITTLE MERMAID have definitely earned some attention, but now they have to come through and make their decisions work. 
THE LITTLE MERMAID comes ashore in 2021. 
Bond 25 arrives April 8, 2020. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019


“Life is like a box of chocolates…”

This month marks the 25th anniversary of Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP. 

Fresh off the success of his immensely popular BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy of films, director Robert Zemeckis film FORREST GUMP was loosely based on Winston Groom’s novel. The story unfolds several decades in the life of Forrest Gump, a dim-witted and somewhat slow native of Alabama, who witnesses and sometimes accidently influences some of the defining moments in the latter half of the 20th century. 

The role of Forrest, who despite a slow IQ was athletically superior and fiercely loyal to the people he loved, was first considered to be filled by John Travolta and Bill Murray. The role went to Tom Hanks, who at the time of the film’s release was the reigning Oscar winner for Best Actor; having won the previous year for his role in PHILADELPHIA. The rest of the excellent cast was rounded out by Gary Sinise, Robin Wright, Sally Field, Mykelti Williamson, and a very young Haley Joel Osment. 

Director Robert Zemeckis shot the film in and around authentic locations, and by using the most-excellent services of Industrial Light and Magic, was able to create the eye-popping and landmark visuals of Hanks’ character interacting with famous figures in history. A comprehensive soundtrack of pop and rock hits helped to pinpoint specific time periods throughout the film, and Alan Silvestri added a touching score. 

The film was a major success. FORREST GUMP would earn over $677 million worldwide during its theatrical run, and would eventually win Best Picture at the Oscars…along with Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. As icing on the cake, Tom Hanks would win his second consecutive Best Actor award; becoming only the second actor at the time to accomplish the feat. The film would be selected by the Library of Congress in 2011 for preservation in the United States Film Registry, and it appears on many of the American Film Institutes’ Top Lists. As a film saturated in American culture of the past, FORREST GUMP would ironically become a part of pop culture…eventually inspiring a themed restaurant (Bubba Gump Shrimp Company) which would expand to multiple worldwide locations. The soundtrack of rock and pop hits would become one of the top selling albums in the United States. 


There are a lot of elements to admire about FORREST GUMP; so many to choose from that it is no wonder that the film is able to reach so many people. The look at history, the music, the technological innovations…for starters. But what really makes the film succeed is that the life story of Forrest Gump, as told on film, unspools like a folk hero out of legend; the type of stories that you tell your children or around the campfire. FORREST GUMP is heavy on the nostalgia, but it is also heavy on heart, which brings us one of the most endearing characters in cinema history. 

“…You never know what you’re gonna get”.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A Reel Review: MIDSOMMAR

There is a philosophy in filmmaking that says it is better to confuse your audience for five minutes than to let them get ahead of you for one minute. In 2018, director Ari Aster took that approach with his supernatural horror film HEREDITARY, which kept us all guessing right up until the shocking end. Here in 2019, Aster returns with another horror movie, MIDSOMMAR, which takes that same approach to the extreme. 

Dani (Florence Pugh), and Christian (Jack Reynor), are two college students whose relationship is on the outs. When a terrible family tragedy happens, Jack invites Dani to come with him and his classmates/friends (William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren), to his previously planned trip to Sweden to attend a remote festival that only happens once every 90 years. 

Similar to HEREDITARY, MIDSOMMAR is a horror flick that also explores intrapersonal relationships. Where HEREDITARY looked at family dynamics, this time around Aster looks into the unraveling of a relationship. It’s all about Dani and Jack; Dani is deeply traumatized by her family tragedy and can break down hysterically at any minute, and Jack couldn’t seem to care less. The environment they find themselves in; a festival run by what seems to be a remote, nature-loving, cult-ish commune, is used to reveal the true characters of Dani and Jack. As Dani becomes more fascinated with the cult, Jack grows even further away. 

The well-constructed environment of the cult is what really drives the film. The cult members at first seem harmless; dressing in white free-flowing clothing with simple food, language, dances, and a harmony with nature. Eventually their more extreme ways come out; members who reach the age of 72 give their lives via suicide, mating is done in rooms full of naked people, drinks are passed around that cause the senses to go awry, and incest helps the commune survive the centuries on their own. As a horror film, MIDSOMMAR doesn’t rely on cheap jump-scares and loud noises, and instead builds an atmosphere of uncomfortableness. There’s always a feeling of something beingoff, and it shows off Aster’s talent for getting under our skin. 

And Aster’s talent really shines here. Pacing is a wonderful slow burn and the plot reveals itself in subtle hints. As horrific as things get, the film is very funny as our students find themselves in one awkward situation after another. The film looks gorgeous and the cult’s remote dwelling looks real and feels lived-in. The score by The Haxan Cloak is outstanding. 

Acting is tremendous. The film belongs to Florence Pugh. Here character goes through some serious trauma and she is asked to cry and wail in extreme pain…and she pulls it off marvelously. 

MIDSOMMAR is packed with WTF moments that seem to be building towards something significant, and although the ending is horrific and very well crafted, the film fails to offer any context to what the hell we just watched. No explanations, no background, and no reasoning is given to tell us why our college kids eventually find blood. After all, anyone who has ever seen a movie before knows right away that things are not going to go well for our students in this strange place, and they certainly don’t…but without any context the film ends with a “that’s it?” feeling. It’s a letdown, as the film is perfect until that point, and knocks it down a few notches from a must-see. 


Wednesday, July 3, 2019


SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, the 23rdfilm in Marvel Cinematic Universe series of superhero movies, has a tough act to follow. It is the first Marvel film to arrive after their grand and emotional farewell to the Avengers in ENDGAME, which was only three months ago. But for director Jon Watts the solution was simple; don’t try to top ENDGAME, and instead bring things back to ground-level. 
Peter Parker (Tom Holland), goes on a class trip to Italy where his only goal is to tell his crush MJ (Zendaya), how he feels about her. But his trip is hijacked by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who has teamed up with a superhero from another dimension, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhall), to prevent a new threat from wiping out the Earth. 
FAR FROM HOME has a lot going on. Poor Peter is eager to put his superhero work as Spider-Man on hold for a while, just so he can work on his crush and feel like a kid again. In the meantime, he is still mourning the loss of his friend and mentor Tony Stark, along with dealing with an overbearing Fury who wants him to step-up and be the next Iron Man. Toss in another world-ending threat, and Parker has a lot on his plate. 
The threat that the world is facing is taken on with great reluctance by Peter, who is aided by yet another hand-me-down from Stark that adds to his pressures. Things get nuts in a hurry when the threat is revealed to be only the beginning of the problems, as a mid-film twist turns the entire story on its head. What follows next is the revelation of a hidden villain who has the power to project different realities. It messes with our minds and keeps us guessing as to what is real and what isn’t; a game that audiences will certainly lose as there is one surprise after another. It’s a blast to see unravel, and its secrets stretch way back into Marvel’s film history and add even more layers of intrigue. 
One of the reasons why Marvel’s films have clicked so well with audiences is that they cross-breed superhero adventures with other genres of film. Here, director Jon Watts infuses this Spidey-story with teenage crushes and drama, and it works very well. These are just kids facing the beast, and the film does great work in keeping that up-front at all times. Despite a worldwide threat, the film sticks with its characters and things feel grounded and palpable. Great work is also done in catching us up with the world after the events of ENDGAME, with society still adjusting to losing five years and with no more Avengers to save them. Action sequences are a blast, Michael Giacchino’s score is excellent, and Spider-Man looks great swinging and jumping into action. 
Acting is excellent. Tom Holland has really stepped into his role as Peter Parker and the work he has to do as a conflicted 16-year-old really pays off. His chemistry with Zendaya leaps off the screen, who is also very good. Marvel veterans Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, and Marisa Tomei are great as always, although Tomei is very under-used. Jake Gyllenhaal is awesome as the mysterious Mysterio and has a lot to work with. 
If there is any dent in this Spider-Man its that it goes out of its way to remind us that Tony Stark is gone and Peter has to deal with that one way or another. There’s a lot of redundancy, but there are also some bits of nostalgia that more-or-less make up for it; be prepared to shed a tear or two. The finale to the film offers even more surprises, and two mid-credits scenes are stand-up-and-cheer worthy…and lets us now that after 23 movies, Spider-Man and Marvel still have a lot to offer. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2019 - Episode VII

July may be the first full month of Summer, but it also marks the half-way point of the year. But before we start working on those Oscar ballots, we still have two full months of Summer fun in the theaters. Here now is a preview for the notable releases of the month. 
It all swings in with…
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME – The second solo adventure from our new friendly neighborhood Spider-Man takes place right after the events of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, and sees Peter Parker/Spidey mourning the loss of his mentor and father figure while taking on a new, mysterious threat. Tom Holland reprises his role as Spider-Man, and he is joined by Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, Jake Gyllenhall, and Zendaya. 
MIDSOMMAR – Director Ari Aster, who brought us the hit horror-film HEREDITARY last year, returns with another movie set to terrify us; this time following a group of friends who travel to Sweden for a festival that happens every 90 years. 
STUBER – Dave Bautista (Drax from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), hires an Uber driver to help him with an arrest operation. Kumail Nanjiana, Natalie Morales, Mira Sorvino, and Karen Gillian co-star. 
CRAWL – During a hurricane in Florida, a young woman finds her father in the crawlspace of their flooded home, and have to escape while avoiding hungry alligators. Kaya Scodelairo and Barry Pepper (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) star. 
ARMSTRONG – Just in time for the 50thanniversary of the first Moon landing. Using restored archival footage and film never before seen, this new doc explores the steps taken to one of America’s finest moments. Harrison Ford narrates. 
THE LION KING – Jon Favreau (IRON MAN), directs this photo-realistic computer-animated remake of the 1994 Disney classic. It stars the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Beyonce, and James Earl Jones. 
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – Quentin Tarantino (KILL BILL, PULP FICTION), brings us this comedy-drama that has an aging action star (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt-double (Brad Pitt), trying to keep their careers going. It co-stars Margot Robbie (I, TONYA), Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, and Al Pacino. 
Next month, Reel Speak previews the final month of the Summer Movie Season. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A Reel 30: BATMAN

"Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?"

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.
Prior to 1989, people who lived outside of a comic book shop had very little exposure to the superhero known as the Dark Knight; a troubled, eccentric millionaire who dressed up as a bat every night and fought crime on his own. Most of the world’s exposure to the character had been the successful 1960’s TV show which was high on color, camp, and humor while aiming towards the kiddies. Tim Burton’s BATMAN changed all that. Drawing inspiration from the comic runs by Alan Moore and Frank Miller, Burton and his screenwriters went for a dark and gothic tone, while making the focus of the film two troubled individuals who served as an antithesis for each other; Batman and The Joker.
The early goings were not without controversy. The hiring of Tim Burton as director drew laughs from the cinema world, and the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman drew even more. After all, Burton was known for his quirky and colorful style from his prior works such as PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) and BEETLEJUICE (1988). In fact, Burton’s BATMAN would not receive the green light to proceed until after the financial success of BEETLEJUICE…which starred Michael Keaton. Keaton at the time had a reputation as a comedic actor from his work in MR. MOM (1983) and NIGHT SHIFT (1982). Keaton would win the role over Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck, and Bill Murray. After the announcement, 50,000 protest letters were sent to the Warner Bros. offices.
But by the time the Bat Signal went up, it would be Keaton and Burton who would be laughing last. BATMAN would be the second-highest grossing film that year, second only to the third INDIANA JONES film. It was the first film to earn $100 million in its first ten days of release. The success didn’t just belong to Burton and Keaton. Jack Nicholson turned in an electricperformance as The Joker, and the supporting cast which included Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance were all in top form. Nicholson would earn a Golden Globe nomination, and the Art Direction would win an Oscar. Danny Elfman contributed a memorable score. BATMAN would inspire the successful animated series, and paved the way for DC Comic’s long-running DC Animated Universe. The famed Bat-symbol, once stuck in dusty comic-shops, was suddenly seen on every other t-shirt and bumper-sticker.
Long-time readers and friends of Reel Speak know that this Blogger has never been the biggest fan of Tim Burton’s BATMAN. Characters have little to do, the plot is paper-thin, and the Joker’s plan to rule Gotham was ridiculous and never made sense even then. The film has so many goddamn dance numbers it may as well be a musical, and the one-note, one-dimensional storytelling approach would get lambasted in a new film today. But…there is still a lot to admire in Tim Burton’s BATMAN. The film looks and sounds great, the cast is outstanding, and it certainly looks like it belongs in a comic book universe. But the long-lasting legacy of BATMAN is that to the wide-world, it put the colorful 1960’s TV version far away in the Batmobile’s rear-view mirror…and more importantly, it put the Dark back in the Knight. Thirty years on, Tim Burton’s BATMAN has a lot of devoted fans and consider it to be the definitive Bat on film.
“I’m Batman!”


Monday, June 24, 2019

A Reel Review: TOY STORY 4

The last time we saw our favorite Pixar toys was way back in 2010 in the outstanding TOY STORY 3. Woody and Buzz and their gang had been passed on from their beloved Andy to the play-nice toddler Bonnie, and it was a wholly emotional and satisfying assumed wrap to the series that launched Pixar’s animation dominance in 1995. Things felt finished, but with the gang still together there was an open door for more, which brings us to TOY STORY 4. 
On a road trip with her family, little Bonnie loses her newest and favorite toy; a spork that she made out of bits of trash named Forky (Tony Hale). Desperate to keep a heartbroken Bonnie happy, Woody (Tom Hanks), sets out on his own to find Forky, which leads him to an antique store which is secretly run by a sinister doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who wants Woody for her own purposes. 
TOY STORY 4 has a lot going on. Woody is having his latest existential crisis; his place in play-time seems to have passed as Bonnie plays with him less and less…leading him to a life on the closet floor. His adventures in the antique store and a nearby amusement park lead him to a chance meeting with his old love Bo Peep (Annie Potts), which has him questioning his place in the world even more. Meanwhile, Buzz (Tim Allen), is desperate to help Woody and has to figure out his own place in the world, while Gabby, while sinister on the surface, is just another toy longing for a kid to play with. It’s a character-driven animated film like only Pixar can deliver. 
This story takes our toys through a whirlwind adventure that is one thrill after another. From the bowels and dusty shelves of the antique store to the tops and bottoms of the amusement park, they run into one fix after another and the sequences are wonderfully put together. The scenes in the antique store are downright horrifying as Gabby has her own gang of creepy puppets; they rival anything in any modern horror film and Woody goes through something horrific. It all works and it matters to us as the characters have their desires and needs that we care about, and having loved them all for over 20 years helps too. Similar to the first film, TOY STORY 4 is nearly all of Woody’s story in his quest to find himself and take care of his kid. With that, Buzz is relegated to sidekick, and our favorite toys such as Jessie, Dolly, Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, and the Potato Heads fade into the background. 
Director Josh Cooley keeps the pacing tight and energy high, the nail-biting sequences are excellent, and the jokes and laughs are some of the best we’ve seen in the series. As with every Pixar film, the animation takes another leap forward, with much of the film looking as photo-realistic as possible; details such as stitching and cat-fur are stunningly real. Randy Newman’s music is once again outstanding. 
The voice-cast once again delivers. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen sound as energetic and excited about their work as they did 20 years ago. Annie Potts does great work for Bo Peep and helps create a fun and solid new role model for young girls. Keanu Reeves pops in as Duke Caboom, a motorcycle-riding daredevil toy and is a blast. 
As great as everything is in TOY STORY 4, the ending may prove to be divisive and have many of us preferring the final shot of TOY STORY 3 as the final wrap to the series. Woody and Buzz wind up in places that closes the door on any more sequels (prepare to cry, again), but Woody winds up making a decision that seems to fly in the face of all that he has preached for the last 20 years…and it’s hard to believe that his beloved Andy would approve of where he wound up as well. Similar to the previous film, TOY STORY 4 is ultimately about moving on, and just like real-life, it offers changes that we may or may not be comfortable with. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is another big bold move for Pixar. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Reel Review: CHILD'S PLAY

In 1988, the slasher-genre of horror got a much-needed twist when Chucky the killer doll arrived in the first CHILD’S PLAY film. By the time Chucky made it to his sixth (!) sequel, the series had gone into the comedy routine, and here in 2019…he gets an update for the modern world. 

A disgruntled employee sabotages one of the millions of Buddi dolls; a high-tech home companion. It lands in the hands of Karen (Aubrey Plaza), a single-mom, and her 13-year-old son Andy (Gabriel Bateman). The doll, nicknamed Chucky (and voiced by Mark Hamill), takes advantage of his quickly-learning, artificial intelligence to right some wrongs in the family. 

Anytime a remake comes along, filmmakers are always faced with the choice of copying the original work or trying a fresh take. In this CHILD’S PLAY, director Lars Klevberg deserves points for giving Chucky a modern spin that feels familiar yet fresh. The Buddi doll is like an Alexa or Siri with legs and arms, with the ability to sync-up with and control nearly any electronic device in range. This gives Chucky a virtual arsenal to work, and kill with…and gives the long-ridiculous franchise some fresh angles to play. Unfortunately, this take on Chucky makes it easier for the grown-ups to figure out how to beat him. 

But playing these new angles don’t last very long. Although the setup of the new killer doll and the way he learns how to kill and how he chooses his victims is decently done, the film eventually falls into the same-old, same-old of the doll running around with a knife. That would be passable, as that’s what we certainly expect and want out of a Chucky movie, but what’s not passable is the complete lack of horror in this horror movie. It’s not very scary at all, and the lack of tension or dread or any sort of atmosphere is noticeable. Horror movies generally lean on having surprises, and CHILD’S PLAY has none as the plot points are plainly spelled out and everything can be seen coming from a mile away. 

Klevberg films a nice looking movie with some clever lighting effects here and there, but pacing is an issue as the film feels much longer than its 90-minute running time. Editing is a hack-job as many transitions from scene-to-scene don’t make sense, Chucky is brought to life through old-school animatronics and CGI, which really work…but it never seems like we see enough of what Chucky can do. There’s plenty of blood and gore, but overall the movie feels restrained. 

The cast does a nice job despite not having much to work with. Aubrey Plaza and Gabriel Bateman have great chemistry together, and Brian Tyree Henry pops in as a friendly-neighborhood detective. Mark Hamill sounds fine as the voice of the killer doll, but like the rest of the film, feels like he’s being held back. 

The finale takes place in a Wal-Mart stand-in on the night of the release of a new and improved Buddi doll, which leads to Chucky’s new Bluetooth and Wi-Fi abilities taking control of a lot of dolls and electronic gadgets for his bloodbath. It borders on silly, and it’s a relief when all the chaos finally comes to an end. CHILD’S PLAY never pretended to be high art, and it never took itself seriously, but at the very least it had to be scary. Any horror film that whiffs on that deserves to have its batteries pulled.