Welcome to playland purgatory as Woody and his island of misfit toys ponder the post-Andy afterlife. Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 (B+) explores what lies beyond for the playthings of yesteryear as their very reason for being – the owner who needed them for years – fades to a distant memory. The characters must heed their inner voices to summon what comes next. Told through the joint metaphors of a creepy antique store populated by capricious and dead-eyed vaudeville dummies who cling to the past and a kaleidoscopic carnival full of color, imagination and possibilities, there is more subtext afoot in the film than meets the very entertained eye. Lushly rendered and tenderly told, this tale takes a moment to gain momentum but ultimately delivers solidly. Although most of the usual ensemble members are sidelined so the cowboy protagonist can seek his fortune while playing guardian angel to the timid little girl Bonnie, mentor to her Gumby-esque arts and craft project Forky and potential love interest to Bo-Peep, the streamlined approach enlivens the quality of storytelling. Bunny and Ducky (played by Key & Peele) are hilarious additions as mischievous mavens of the midway. This is a splendid family film with messages at work for multiple generations about the stories we still have to tell, about trashing assumptions and treasuring the next chapter.
There’s more pleasure than guilt in enjoying this guilty pleasure as director Tate Taylor collaborates with Octavia Spencer, his muse from The Help, for a memorable, against-type, unhinged performance in the psychological thriller Ma (B). When a lonely veterinary assistant starts opening her basement to a quartet of partying teens, it becomes clear something sinister is afoot in her drug and alcohol crazed makeshift speakeasy. In the spirit of Misery, Carrie or One Hour Photo, there’s a disturbing backstory to the central character’s plight and a method to the madness. Spencer nails the macabre mood swings of a character who longs to fit in with the in-crowd, and she brandishes a smartphone and ruthless cunning as weapons of choice. For every routine resolution, there’s also a disturbing detour, including some surprising props and prosthetics; and the sometimes preposterous story works as perverse entertainment largely because of the subversive nature of Spencer’s unflinching presence. The film practically begs for the call-back, “No. She. Did Not.” The teen actors including Diana Silvers and Gianni Paolo are authentic and engaging, and so are Spencer’s contemporaries including Luke Evans, Allison Janney and Juliette Lewis, the latter of whom has some satisfying echoes of her Cape Fear role. The chocolate icebox pie Taylor and Spencer served eight years ago has aged into a new mocha bonbon, a dish of revenge served cold by a woman scorned. By the time the film reaches its delicious denouement, you may find yourself grinning from the thrill and audacity of it all.
If you’re seeking a summer chore to catch up on, look no further than Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix (C-), the twelfth and promised final film in 20th Century Fox’s Marvel X-Men series. It is a touch below average in nearly every respect, bringing back some familiar characters from the prequel-era timeline (thank goodness for Michael Fassbender) with not much to do while putting an uninspired Sophie Turner as Jean Grey front and center. She is joined by Jessica Chastain as a one-note shape-shifting alien named Vuk, about whom I didn’t give a flying one. Weak special effects, a rehash story of the series’ third outing and virtually no tension or humor cause this X to mark the spot when this long-running franchise whimpered away from relevance.
Dexter Fletcher is the director who finished filming Bohemian Rhapsody after Its filmmaker was dismissed and further flexes his love of musical storytelling in the Elton John biopic Rocketman (B-), a motion picture whose blissed-out protagonist is rather hard to get to know, even after a whole film about his life has unspooled. Taron Egerton is convincing and charismatic in the lead role, and Jamie Bell is also enjoyable as Bernie Taupin, the musician’s longtime lyricist and friend. The story, told in both the musical style of characters breaking out into song and sequences reenacting live performances, gets glowing support in terms of flamboyant costumes, buoyant choreography and Bryce Dallas Howard in a juicy role as the musician’s mum. Unfortunately the plot is inert, and stock characters like the agent/love interest played by Richard Madden are crocodiles who fail to rock. Many of the jukebox musical numbers come to brilliant life with delightful orchestrations, especially “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song.” However, some favorites from the catalogue are oddly missing or marginalized, and John’s character choices are mainly muddled in a drug and alcohol fog. Much more bittersweet than celebratory, the film is crying out for a drying out, and the ultimate detoxifying denouement is begging for an audience still standing by the end, but sorry seems to be the prevailing word.
The kaijū film genre, marked by fantastical creatures storming world cities, gets epic treatment in Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (B-), the third in a proposed quartet of “Legendary MonsterVerse” films (preceded by 2014’s Godzillaand 2017’s Kong: Skull Island). This movie is wall to wall action around the globe featuring a clash of spectacular Titans – the titular beast, the flying Rodan, the multi-headed King Ghidorah and the exotic Mothra. Grounded in a domestic drama at its core but absolutely unleashed in terms of glorious effects, set pieces and apex predator showdowns, this is as exciting and thrilling as a Hollywood disaster and destruction blockbuster gets. Kyle Chandler sinks his teeth into the monster-hunting leading man role in psychological battle with Vera Farmiga, who harbors a belief that the colossal creatures may help restore the earth from mankind’s foibles. Exploring all the strangest things firsthand, Millie Bobby Brown is solid as their conflicted offspring. Bradley Whitford provides coy comfort in the situation room, and Ken Watanabe steals the show a scientist turned soldier hellbent on maintaining the balance and safety of all living things. There may actually be too much packed into this creature feature as the momentum rages on a bit too long. Sometimes the sheer spectacle crowds out promised characterizations, but this film delivers the goods in terms of action and intrigue.
Imagine finding out that single-minded discipline in high school yielded no more success than that of the the cool kids who also partied all four years. That’s the premise of first time director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (B), one of those very sweet films wrapped in the package of a vulgar comedy, in which its central duo endeavors to make up for lost time with a free-spirited romp on graduation eve. This irreverent movie has plenty of great laughs and gags and is notable for its central friendship between a lesbian character (Kaitlyn Dever) and her loving but controlling straight best friend (Beanie Feldstein). Feldstein steals the show with her potent mix of feisty friendliness and devious directness (for those who don’t know, she’s Jonah Hill’s sister and equally super-badass). The film is largely a series of episodic moments through misbegotten parties with its ladies getting into maiden voyages of mischief, but the film’s characters are generally good-spirited and it never gets too dark. Jason Sudeikis, Jessica Williams, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are enjoyable in small roles. Wilde demonstrates command of the medium and brings a fresh female perspective to the notion that all hard work and no play is no fun for anyone.
While the studio that pioneered 2-D animation has evidently put that art form on ice, Disney has adapted its golden age cartoon musicals into Broadway shows and transformed them back into hybrid “revisal” live action movies to mixed effect. What was vintage or even moribund is now cryogenically reawakened as both blatant cash grab and opportunity to amend already sterling properties with new flourishes. Macho action film helmer Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (B-) mines his man cave of wonders and faithfully recreates many of the nostalgic beats of the madcap magic lamp comedy, but here’s the rub: it doesn’t add enough new invention to distinctively better its predecessor in many remarkable categories. This live action lark is clearly bringing something borrowed and something blue: the latter, Will Smith’s cyan-hued comic Genie, is the surprise here and literally saves the movie at mid-point from an odd gloominess, the megawatt star nailing the iconic wish-granting role by simply being himself in fresh-prince mode as if the RuPaul’s Drag Race team had whispered him some funny shade to throw. He almost has to slow his droll to avoid eclipsing the rest of the ensemble, but his bromantic bond with the title character is shining, shimmering and sometimes a little splendid. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are attractive and in good voice in underwritten but appealing roles as Aladdin and Jasmine; Marwan Kenzari is less effective as villainous Jafar who comes across, well, too cartoonish. Lavish craftsmanship of handsome sets, vivid spectacle, eye-popping costumes, whimsical effects and fairly woke casting fill every frame in this entertaining bazaar, with rooftop parkour, a girl power anthem and Bollywood style dance moves adding spice to the pixel dust. Overlong and under-cooked, Ritchie’s romp finally gives Genie and company their wish to be real humans and gets a mild ride into recommended territory.
Jonathan Levine’s comedy set in the high stakes world of international diplomacy, Long Shot (B+), is equal parts shock and aw-shucks. Its central odd couple pairing is a meeting of hive minds and makes a wry statement about not always playing it safe, even in love and politics. Charlize Theron’s character is living in the bubble of a secretary of state role with eyes on the presidency when she encounters Seth Rogen’s schlubby ex-journalist turned speechwriter, and it’s a burst of unexpected laughs and chemistry as they embark on a world tour to save the planet, boost her likability polling and dodge a few unexpected hazards of the job. June Diane Raphael and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are supporting delights as the central duo’s witty advisors. If you’re not easily offended by vulgar sex and drug references, par for the course on the Rogen milieu, you’re in for one of the snappiest rom coms in quite a while. Theron steals the show as she reveals the vulnerability behind the statuesque veneer, especially in a sequence when she diffuses a global crisis while recovering from a night of particularly hardcore partying. Rogen enjoys his best role in years and gets to demonstrate his earnest side. The state of this union is quite satisfying.
Bring on the ballet of bombast! Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (B-) delivers more of what fans desire – the stoic Keanu Reeves as the titular retired hit man now with quite a bounty on his head, brutally graphic action sequences and elaborate fights and stunts staged against epic and ultra-cool set pieces. A few Oscar winners and nominees are thrown in the mix – Halle Barry, Laurence Fishburne and Angelica Huston chief among them – and none should expect a repeat nomination from this outing. Barry is particularly hit or miss. But for sheer propulsive action and energy, this flick brings the goods. Front-loaded with some of its best sequences including a fight in a library with books as weapons and a more straightforward showdown in an actual weapons store, the film ultimately gets a bit campy with elaborate lairs resembling Bond villain hideaways re-imagined by Max Headroom’s electronica DJ nephew. Following the rules and lore of the assassin underground becomes a bit puzzling, but by the time the travelogue has taken viewers from NYC to Casablanca and back, you realize it’s all just a big canvas for grotesquerie, kung fu and bloodsport. Nothing seems to slow down this earnest and absurd series.
The bar is set low for movies based on video games, and Rob Letterman’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu (D+) lurks right below that threshold. Justice Smith is a bit adrift as an insurance agent who lost his estranged father in a mysterious accident near a lab on the outskirts of a utopia where humans and Pokémon (plural!) live mostly in harmony (like humans and toons in Roger Rabbit‘s milieu). Smith’s reluctant hero is joined by the spry voice of Ryan Reynolds as the titular adorable yellow creature at the heart of the story. The film fails to take full advantage of its film noir set-up nor does it add many compelling layers to chase and action sequences, so it basically isn’t interesting, funny or exciting enough to justify all the average special effects bouncing around its screen. Because Pikachu’s dialogue can only be heard by his human friend, there could have been something wry or subversive here, but alas it’s all aimed at a very young audience. And to that end, it doesn’t really set much of a life lesson or warm the heart either. Perhaps there’s a demographic to whom this will have exact appeal, but Letterman and his intrepid detectives didn’t make the case to many new fans with this one.
Nearly eight decades after the animated original, Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo (C+) has flown onto the scene again, and the pachyderm protagonist remains a charming silent star, no matter what’s going on in the peanut galleries around him. Disney executives appear to operate under the premise that, unlike elephants, moviegoers sometimes forget, so there’s liberty to color in some detail around the original 64-minute cartoon’s plot for those with only a hint of familiarity about the circus-set story. Burton adds generous dollops of fussiness around what was formerly a pretty simple storyline about a misfit animal who finds his big ears actually enable him to fly and become a sensational performer. The human actors including Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green have very little to do in underwritten roles. Characteristic of all but about a half dozen of Burton’s films is his propensity to deliver style over substance or story, and this entry comes up short on all of those metrics. The art direction and costumes are quite lovely, and there are some nice homage and heartstrings moments, but largely it’s a mediocre show at the multiplex.
Anyone who’s ever fantasized about having a twin has probably not seen many horror movies, because doppelgänger-dom is typically hell one earth when your double turns out to be trouble. In telling the suspenseful story of a privileged family facing off with unfortunate duplicate “others,” Jordan Peele’s Us (B+) peels back lots of layers about Modern America and reveals a complex and fascinating motion picture experience. The terror – set largely in West coast enclaves near a lake and a beach amusement park – is taut and the tone of unease singularly stirring, but the imaginative writer/director overreaches at times in his ambition to top Get Out with this unsettling sophomore effort. Lupita Nyong’o is simply fabulous in two distinct and challenging performances, but the problem with all the players is that allegorical characters aren’t that fundamentally interesting. Winston Duke doesn’t fare quite as well with a ho-hum husband character who can only be described as not wearing the pants much, literally or figuratively. Peele’s parade of timely topics spans from red state politics to the digital divide, from defanged authority figures to upper class malaise as clones endeavor to claw their way into the mainstream. A viewer could enjoy the fresh and breathless action without absorbing all the creative points of view the auteur is trying to convey. Ultimately although everything doesn’t add up in this creative piece of speculative fiction, film fans and horror enthusiasts will relish the journey. Peele’s undeniable style and subversive commentary about a country of haves and have nots is sly and smart.