Review: An ode to change, ‘Toy Story 4’ is a poignant coda to our greatest animated franchise

I really wonder what a younger version of me time-skipped to now would have taken away from the splendid, colorful, contemplative “Toy Story 4.”  Let’s say 4 years old—right around when experiences start to anchor themselves in the mind as memories, if hazy ones.  For me, chief among those recollections as they pertain to movies: Watching the original “Toy Story,” early and often.

Animation had already been changed forever upon the movie’s release, but at 4 I couldn’t be bothered by its historical and cultural footprint. Give me the fantasy of toys coming to life when no one else is around, their unwavering loyalty to kids like me and the introduction of a big-screen brand with a timeless sense of endearment that I was able to appreciate even at that age.

20 years on, like a toy chest that gains new treasures over time, there’s much more to appreciate from the “Toy Story” movies. There’s perhaps no other franchise – certainly not an animated one – that audiences have grown with as steadfastly as it’s produced new installments, its lessons and humanity and pure pathos shining ever more luminously. Continue reading →

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Review: In ‘Shazam!,’ a teen becomes Superman and DC gets Amblin-ified

Superhero movies weren’t supposed to be like this anymore.

The current stage in the life of the superhero genre, with all its strengths and flaws, has been its most prosperous. Caped crusaders and steel-hearted heroines have made a ho-hum achievement of the billion-dollar box office threshold, and have done so by way of ever-maximizing spectacle and a collection of perennial Hottest Celebrity of the Year candidates. The genre feels increasingly beholden to larger narratives that span more than just trilogies, their capital-C Characters sacrificed at the altar of commerciality to become just another character.

TL;DR, you already know what you’re going to get when you buy a ticket to superhero movies these days. And we’ve been conditioned to believe that what we’re going to get is how the genre will remain for as long as the general moviegoing populace justifies it with their wallets.

Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Juliet, Naked,’ a delightful (if unfinished) updating of the love triangle trope

We all have idols. Human monuments – whether in the public’s consciousness or merely our own individual headspaces – who we venerate in blogs or by internal means.

But in those obsessions, do we ever stop to monitor ourselves, and consider how we believe they influence the world don’t mirror how they perceive themselves? Have we ever thought about what we’d say if we ever met them, or worse, if they alleged our perceptions are off-target?

That’s one of a few simultaneously interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts explored in Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked.” It’s also arguably its most interesting, interweaving adoration and comically exaggerated (or perhaps not?) reverence, though the one Peretz spends the least amount of time deconstructing. Continue reading →

Review: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is visually gorgeous, surprisingly grounded and vaguely formulaic

After over two decades and nearly 20 films, it’s refreshing for Pixar to provide its most grounded premise yet.

Following sustained success by way of talking bugs, talking toys, talking cars, talking fish, talking emotions, talking rats and “talking” robots, something about a Dia de Los Muertos-centric story featuring human characters (and, yes, talking humanoid skeletons) feels much more relatable, like Pixar declaring a coup upon itself.

But then again, that was the point of “Coco” – to showcase a world with more connections to reality than any other Pixar offering before it, and to flesh out that world with the humanity the animation giant has the reputation of conjuring. Continue reading →

Review: Saoirse Ronan powers the ‘Juno’ for a new generation as ‘Lady Bird’

At some point while watching Greta Gerwig’s fantastic “Lady Bird,” I managed to pull myself out of its welcoming hypnotism to question myself: “How is Gerwig pulling this off?”

In a tight, taut and splendidly radiant 94 minutes, the film not just touches on a remarkable amount of subjects, but deftly explores seemingly every thread that makes up the sometimes horrid and sometimes wonderful collage of everyone’s senior year in high school.

I talked the experience over with my two friends afterward, and it was almost immediately and abundantly clear how a different one of those threads resonated with us the most – based on our own background. Continue reading →

Review: Trust me, you’re already ahead of “Joneses

 

(An edited version of this review first appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.) 

 

Comedy is subjective, the notion of creating a successful entry in the genre as much of a gamble as anything in Hollywood. What directors and writers and producers perceive as funny could go through one ear and out the other of moviegoers.

You can come to a consensus about the quality of an actor’s performance, sure, or even how strongly a score impacts a movie’s tone. But you’ll never be able to convince a die-hard “Ace Ventura” fan that Will Ferrell is a funnier actor than Jim Carrey, or find widespread agreement that “Superbad” offers more laughs than “40-Year-Old Virgin.”

It’s inevitable, then, that some will think “Keeping Up With The Joneses,” in all its lazy and (to this critic) unfunny glory is the greatest comedy ever created, ensuring that directors in the future know that utilizing everything in the cliché playbook guarantees, at the very least, some filled seats in the theater.

Nevermind comparing “Keeping Up With The Joneses” to, say, the works of Mel Brooks, who offered comedy that is simultaneously cutting social commentary while also remembering that there’s more to a film than “Joneses” provides.

keeping-up-with-the-joneses-trailer

Logic and emotion, for example. Director Greg Mottle (Adventureland, Superbad) could have utilized some of that. Really, any bit of substance to create something memorable out of a film that anyone can predict the major plot points to as they settle into their seats.

The chronic issue with these kinds of films is that – because people are going to be okay with choosing to pay $10 for a ticket (I could think of several things to better spend $10 on) to this – they’re going to keep getting made.

And it’s easy to understand why. People like the superficial comedy, the kind of jokes that mean nothing beyond the on-screen moment in which they happen. What’s the fun anyway in thinking too hard about why something is funny or not? Hell, even cringeworthy quips about the pros and cons of the “hyena” sex position, we’ll take that over jokes of substance that speak to contemporary race relations, for instance. Politics be damned.

That’s what makes it so hard for this critic and, I’m sure, for others who aren’t easily fooled by Hollywood’s recycled moneymaking tactics. Movies like “Keeping Up With The Joneses” believe they are so smug in the way that they can (attempt to) create what passes as humor out of the absence of logic.

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I’ll give this to “Joneses”: the acting is tolerable. A couple notches above tolerable, actually; Zach Galifianakis (Th Hangover, BirdMan) makes the best of what he’s given as we can expect him to; Jon Hamm’s (Mad Men, The Town) nuanced performance as a smooth but troubled spy is as enticing as it is seductive; Isla Fisher’s (Now You See Me, Wedding Crashers) bits are memorable for someone who hasn’t done much in the realm of comedy.

They work with what they have. Unfortunately, what they have isn’t very much, but I guess actors just need to make a paycheck every once in a while.

You’ve seen this movie before, trust me. You’ve probably seen it in shortened SNL skit form, or otherwise read one of countless novels that utilize a similar premise. So should you see this film?

Let me put it this way: if just the thought of pairing up the charismatic and smooth Hamm with his contrast in Galifianakis for an action comedy flick makes you chuckle… buy a ticket, for God’s sake, you’ll have a riot.

For those that need a movie to justify that pairing and what they’re truly capable of…rest assured, this isn’t it.

 

“Keeping Up With The Joneses” is rated PG-13 for sexual content, action/violence and brief strong language

Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot

Directed by Greg Mottola

2016

Avengers: Age of Ultron, a disenchanting and explicitly naiive roadmap for Marvel’s Phase Three

Avengers: Age of Ultron is opening to some fairly lofty expectations. Everyone knows it, what with the first Avengers premiering to nearly universal acclaim, bringing every comic book fanboy’s dream to life while garnering $1.5 billion in the process.

So yes, director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Serenity) in some respects set the bar incredibly high for himself. But over the last year, it’s been raised even higher. Last year’s Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings – the noir thriller Captain America 2: Winter Soldier and Star Wars/Dirty Dozen mashup Guardians of the Galaxy – were some of the studio’s strongest outputs to date, and it was up to Whedon to keep the ball rolling.

He stumbles.

And, tragically, he starts with the titular villain, Ultron: James Spader (Boston Legal, The Blacklist, Lincoln), who voices the robotic nemesis, does his job. Whedon does not.

Ultron is scene-stealing, and it’s all thanks to Spader’s trademark verbal flourish, menacing and charming all at once. He would make an excellent Bond villain sometime just with the way he speaks, he’s so ostensibly threatening.

Spader brings Ultron to life – and literally so in a sequence that is gorgeously written and hauntingly brilliant, in the way it’s cinematically choreographed – but unfortunately it’s just downhill from there. Whedon simply can’t balance Spader’s euphemisms with the threat that Ultron poses. He ends up being underwhelming, comic relief more that we’d like. Which is a travesty given how horrifying the trailers built him up to be.

Oh, what could have been.

Oh, what could have been.

Loki, a constant highlight in MCU films, is a hard enough enemy to top in himself, but it seems like all the attention Whedon put on making Loki so endearing and mystifyingly brilliant in The Avengers was concentrated elsewhere.

That elsewhere being our heroes, banded together to finish off the remains of Hydra/S.H.I.E.L.D., albeit for only a time before cracks start to show. Age of Ultron once again does a great job balancing each hero’s contributions and showing off their abilities in battle and their humanity while not taking down enemies, especially – and invitingly – when it comes to Jeremy Renner’s (The Hurt Locker, American Hustle) Hawkeye, who has an exponentially larger role than he held in 2012’s The Avengers.

As with The Avengers, Whedon again shows his strength in the various little moments between huge action set pieces, as well as within them. The film is expectedly full of hilarious one-liners – heck, the very first bit of dialogue in the movie will make you laugh out loud – and there is even an unexpectedly human romantic storyline between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov. Their relationship is eloquently done, with just enough focus on it to detract from the world around them falling apart.

As awesome as the team is, it’s certainly not as exciting seeing them together on the screen this time around, which was what made the first Avengers so fascinating to behold. To compensate, Whedon goes noticeably darker with his sequel, something increasingly common in the MCU with recent films. The tone is about as consistent as you can be, and definitely puts the film on a different tier than Avengers, but not necessarily a higher tier.

There are some pacing issues too. It takes its sweet time on occasion, testing our patience, and Age of Ultron does have a small case of “How did you get here? Why are you here?” syndrome with some characters.

Be afraid, box office competition.

Be afraid, box office competition.

The plot isn’t exactly as straightforward as it could be, but in the increasingly interconnected and complex MCU web, when is anything ever simple anymore?

The premise is basic. Tony Stark has an idea. The idea goes berserk. Avengers assemble. It’s almost completely predictable, committing one of cinema’s cardinal sins. But Whedon covers his backside with new inclusions.

The bigger of which are the twins, themselves more interesting characters than Ultron ever hopes to be. While what drives Ultron is basically ripped off of Terminator, the motivations behind what drives Wanda and Pietro Maximoff – Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver – is much more down to earth and also much more sympathetic.

And interesting. Just much, much more interesting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Godzilla) and Elizabeth Olson (Godzilla, Oldboy) do a substantial amount with the limited exposure they have, something to be admired.

The twins also add an interesting new dynamic to the film’s action pieces, along with newcomer Vision. Whedon makes sure to get them their due diligence in what eventually becomes a pretty crowded field of players. Quicksilver doesn’t quite match the glory of Evan Peters’ iteration in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but he provides his own standout moment nonetheless.

Welcome to the party.

Welcome to the party.

Much of Age of Ultron’s two and a half hour running time can be attributed to his devotion to each individual hero, Thor’s “side mission” being the supremely weak link; it’s distracting and almost certainly there just to serve as a set-up for future MCU films (I mean, of course).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the growing rift between Captain American and Iron Man is fascinating to behold. We seen the two going at it as they did in Avengers, and they have even more at stake by being at each others’ throats this time around. Get excited, people. Captain America: Civil War should be a good one.

Wait. You're not Thor.

Wait. You’re not Thor.

But enough about plot and intimate moments. We know why we’re all here, why Age of Ultron is going to be filling up movie theaters for weeks to come – the action and spectacle!

Concerning explosions, flying cars and flying punches, this must be said: if you’ve seen the ten or so films in the MCU, you know what you’re getting. The action delivers at times, but in other moments it is mundane, kind of like you know you’ve seen a certain way Cap throws his shield at baddies fifty times before, or how you’ve become so familiar with Iron Man whizzing through the sky blowing up baddies.

At least they’re consistent, right?

That being said, out of the four or five distinct action set pieces, two of them stand out. The finale, obviously, is one of them. Michael Bay should take a few pointers from Marvel as to how to create action with weight and levity. Age of Ultron does an excellent job in his final, destructive act of infusing drama with the punches, actual consequences with each car or building that is blown up. The finale may run a tad long, but it’s something to behold, even though it is barely not just a rehash of Avengers’ New York City piece, with robots replacing alien invaders this time around.

And then there’s the Hulk vs. Iron Man Hulkbuster suit, without a doubt the most high-octane sequence of the film. Everyone wants to see the Hulk go out of his mind, and he does in a memorable sequence that the audience wouldn’t watching on repeat for an hour.

Maybe he should have been the primary antagonist. Avengers: Age of Hulk? No? Okay.

 

In a Nutshell

Whedon brings his strengths to the table with Age of Ultron, but also offers a glance at his weaknesses. If only he’d spent more time exploring the potential of Ultron himself, the film could have been much different.Thanks for the ride, Joss, but it’s time to hand the reins to the Russo brothers to finish off the Avengers’ story.

7.5 / 10

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffallo…ahh c’mon, you’ve seen this lineup before.

Directed by Joss Whedon

2015

 

 

David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.