(R / 149 mins)
Overview: 'The Goldfinch' is the film adaptation of Donna Tartt's globally acclaimed bestseller of the same name, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
Theodore "Theo" Decker (Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tragedy changes the course of his life, sending him on a stirring odyssey of grief and guilt, reinvention and redemption, and even love.
Through it all, he holds on to one tangible piece of hope from that terrible day … a painting of a tiny bird chained to its perch.
Verdict: You have to wonder about a business in which an enjoyable airport novel like “Big Little Lies” gets adapted into an entire prestige-TV series and a far richer work like Donna Tartt’s 'The Goldfinch' gets squished into a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved every minute of “Big Little Lies.” But the new film version of 'The Goldfinch,' directed by John Crowley, feels like a disappointing misfire; it needed more room to breathe, to soar. Where’s HBO when you need it?
Tartt’s novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014, is a sweeping coming-of-age story. At its center is Theo Decker, who is 13 when his mother is killed in a museum bombing.
Theo himself emerges from the attack unscathed, but forever changed: not only has he lost his beloved mother, but he has, in the confusion, taken a famous painting from the rubble, one that she loved.
The book, and the movie, follow Theo and that painting (Dutch artist Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” tiny and perfect) through a modern-day Dickensian series of adventures, as he lives with a wealthy Park Avenue family, then his dissolute father in the Southwest, then a kindly antiques restorer in New York’s West Village — and, finally an adult, in Europe, as he chases the painting in hopes of making his damaged life whole again.
Peter Straughan’s screenplay is mostly faithful to the book, but trades its linear structure to a zigzagging timeline; we begin with grown-up Theo (Ansel Elgort, oddly styled like Matt Damon in 'The Talented Mr. Ripley') collapsed in an Amsterdam hotel room, and flash back and forth to the character as a boy (Oakes Fegley).
The film, shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (a 14-time Oscar nominee), looks immaculate — the painting seems caught in magic light — and the supporting cast of grown-ups is mostly impeccable.
Nicole Kidman does another perfect turn as a whispery, loving mother figure; Luke Wilson is chilling as Theo’s snake-oil dad; and Jeffrey Wright, as Hobie the antiques dealer, makes something warm and nuanced from a small role. (One discordant note: Boyd Gaines, as Kidman’s character’s husband, giving a weirdly satiric performance that seems to belong in an entirely different movie.)
But the young cast is problematic. It’s tough to hang a large part of a film on the performance of an actor barely in his teens, and Fegley, though trying hard, never quite breaks through.
Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”), as Theo’s satyr-like friend Boris, offers an uneven Russian accent and a vaguely unfocused expression. Too much time is spent watching the two of them drifting — which is true for the book as well, but at least there they’re more charismatic.
Ultimately, 'The Goldfinch' feels like a series of often-elegant moments, in service to a story that never quite comes into focus.
Elgort doesn’t get enough screen time to really register as Theo, and the character’s love for art and beauty — which is part of why he clung to the painting in the first place — mostly seems to have been left on the page. Like the goldfinch itself, the movie feels tethered and trapped; it wants to fly, but it can’t.
'Brittany Runs A Marathon'
(R / 104 mins)
Overview: Brittany Forgler is a hilarious, friendly, hot mess of a New Yorker who always knows how to have a good time, but at 27, her late-night adventures and early-morning walks-of-shame are starting to catch up to her.
When she stops by a Yelp-recommended doctor's office in an attempt to score some Adderall, she finds herself slapped with a prescription she never wanted.
Forced to face reality for the first time in a long time, Brittany laces up her Converse and runs one sweaty block.
The next day, she runs two. Soon she runs a mile. Brittany finally has direction, but is she on the right path?
Verdict: It's not often that your best friend writes and directs their debut feature film about you, but Brittany O'Neill's mental and physical transformation inspired her friend/writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo to make 'Brittany Runs a Marathon,' a drama disguised as a comedy about the hard work of changing yourself.
Comedian Jillian Bell steps into her first starring role as the funny, frumpy Brittany, a New York City party girl/slacker whose body can't keep up with her arty all day/sleep all night routine (Bell also produced the film). Under doctor's orders, she hits the pavement in search of salvation.
And along the way, she finds herself.
The ending is right there in the title, but Colaizzo's film leans into the old adage that it's all about the journey, not the destination, following the achingly hard work of Brittany's trek toward the finish line of the New York City Marathon, and ultimately, toward happiness.
Brittany's problems aren't unique, and they aren't insurmountable, but they aren't easy. She's got a lame job, flounders in her love life, grieves the loss of her father and has high blood pressure to boot.
Living with a wannabe influencer, Gretchen (Alice Lee), isn't the best influence either. But for all her external problems, the highest mountain Brittany has to climb is getting over herself, a struggle Bell makes poignantly, piercingly real in her performance and that takes the film into its darkest yet most relatable moments.
To anyone who can relate to Brittany's predicament of feeling stuck and depressed, this may all sound familiar. She's unable and unwilling to receive and accept help and love from her loved ones, so she wallows in her own bad thoughts and negative spirals.
During a particularly nasty relapse, while recuperating from an injury at her sister's home, a drunk Brittany spews all her judgmental thoughts (clearly about herself) at another plus-size woman, envious that this person has decided to choose happiness and joy in her own body rather than self-hatred.
It's an ugly moment, tough to watch, and Bell and Colaizzo don't shy away from the darkness.
Colaizzo has stacked the cast of this dramedy with gifted comedians alongside Bell, including Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Lil Rel Howery, who all bring a natural levity. But the script also offers each performer a meaty dramatic arc.
Bell demonstrates her otherwise-unknown dramatic chops, and her performance is surprising and nuanced, yet also incredibly funny when it needs to be.
Cinematographer Seamus Tierney brings a handheld immediacy to the look and feel of the film, which is far more indie drama than broad comedy.
'Angel Has Fallen'
(R / 114 mins)
Overview: When there is an assassination attempt on U.S. President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), his trusted confidant, Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), is wrongfully accused and taken into custody.
After escaping from capture, he becomes a man on the run and must evade his own agency and outsmart the FBI in order to find the real threat to the President.
Desperate to uncover the truth, Banning turns to unlikely allies to help clear his name, keep his family from harm and save the country from imminent danger.
Verdict: After an assassination attempt on POTUS leaves only two people alive, Banning is immediately suspected of being behind the operation. The fact that the two survivors are Banning himself and the President (Morgan Freeman), who he is literally paid to keep alive, doesn’t seem to matter.
This kind of conspiratorial, paranoid storyline works in the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises precisely because the heroes’ allegiances are fuzzy. Bourne and Hunt are employed by the government, but they protect a personal vision of ‘justice’.
On the other hand, super-patriot Banning’s job is to make sure nothing happens to a specific individual, regardless of what that person might stand for.
Yet at no moment in the film does anyone try to come up with a real, existential reason why Banning would ever betray the President, who is not simply his boss but also the boss of America itself.
A plethora of evidence collected by FBI Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) appears overwhelmingly to implicate Banning, so much so that one might assume his colleagues would instantly smell a rat and suspect a set up.
But in this world, logic is not the most consistent principle. It is only much later, after the death toll has risen considerably, that Thompson remembers the basics of investigative work and wonders: ‘Who would have the means to pull this off, and who would benefit from it the most?’ The answer, of course, is not, and never was, presidential body guard Mike Banning.
But enough about the implausibility of the plot. Movies are not real! Let’s talk about the kills.
The assassination attempt is the film’s biggest set-piece, and as is franchise tradition, it queasily recalls real-life operations in modern American combat.
Against the dozens of bomb-carrying drones flying over them, the highly trained agents surrounding the President on his fishing trip in the middle of a lake (?) are utterly powerless.
Each one gets blown to bits during an extended sequence of mayhem that is somehow less unpleasant than the scene which soon follows it, in which Agent Thompson calmly looks over the many corpses thrown into unnatural shapes on the bank of the lake.
The camera repeatedly lingers on inert bodies throughout the film, drawing attention to the way a person, alive and kicking one minute, can become dead meat in a matter of seconds.
Besides a claim for realism, or even cheap provocation, the purpose of showing such brutality is not really clear. Both sides of the fight are presented in this way and there is no sense of fun, of gory glee or subversion in the presentation of the bloodshed.
The product of a vague and unconvincing plot, the violence here is simply and purely awful.
What is certain is that explosions look less cool when you have to see their bloody aftermath. They look even less cool when they appear every 10 minutes.
But 'Angel Has Fallen' doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘overkill’. The drone downpour that almost kills the President is closely followed by a building exploding and a small-scale fire apocalypse brought on courtesy of Banning’s father, Clay (Nick Nolte).
The old man is a hippie opposed to American involvement abroad, but father and son share a love for killing. Male bonding doesn’t get much more macho than this.
But bad guys are not the only thing blown away in these explosions. Judging by the many unconvincing green-screen moments, so was much of the film’s budget.
With incoherent fight scenes and seriously ropey CGI, slightly more low-key moments and hand-to-hand combat feel rushed in a way the explosions do not. The script appears similarly throwaway, recycling old tropes and barely attempting to sustain the mystery around who the mastermind of the coup might be.
A side plot about Banning getting too old to do this job could have served as an interesting commentary on the imminent obsolescence of the action man body and so forth. As things are, it’s just a lazy way to try and make us care.
'It - Chapter Two'
(R / 141 mins)
Overview: Evil resurfaces in Derry as director Andy Muschietti reunites the Losers Club in a return to where it all began with 'IT - Chapter Two,' the conclusion to the highest-grossing horror film of all time.
Verdict: Personally, I loved 'It' - it made my top 10 films of 2017 because not only was it pants-browningly scary, but it was also a beautifully shot coming-of-age story that deserves to be a rite-of-passage horror movie for teens now and in the future.
But that film was only half the story, literally. Stephen King's 1986 source novel divided its action into two sections, set 27 years apart. So It: Chapter Two finds the protagonists of the previous film all grown up, all unhappy, and trying to repress their 27-year-old memories of a child-eating clown named Pennywise (Skarsgård).
But Mike (Mustafa) stayed behind in their hometown of Derry, obsessing over Pennywise, while all the rest of his "gang" The Losers moved on and away. When it seems like "It" has returned to fulfil his 27-year murder cycle, Mike summons The Losers back to Derry to fulfil the promise they made to deal with the murderous clown once and for all.
The success of the first film (which works as a standalone movie) saw this sequel greenlit with double the budget and a top-shelf cast. It's this quality cast - notably Chastain, McAvoy and Hader - that helps elevate Chapter Two above its potentially schlocky material.
A handy FX budget also helps sell some of the more ludicrous effects sequences, particularly in the inevitably CG-heavy showdown.
But the way the material is handled is top-shelf too. Whereas the first film dealt with adolescents on the brink of adulthood and the typical fears that come with coming of age, here we find the protagonists on the brink of mid-life crises, riddled with uncertainty and haunted by their pasts.
Unrequited loves, closeted sexuality, childhood trauma, unfulfilled lives, self doubts - these are as much a part of the nightmares of The Losers' lives as the monstrous Pennywise.
As much as the likes of Chastain, McAvoy and Hader (and Ryan and Ransone too) bring the goods in the acting stakes, it's Pennywise's show. Aided by some freaky make-up and FX work, Skarsgård is again utterly terrifying, his performance a masterclass in scary.
He again makes It's secret weapon, of course, "It". While the film leans heavily on its jump scares, delayed jump scares, and rising soundtrack, it also finds other ways to unnerve.
A kid alone in the dark with Pennywise lit by a single firefly, a broad daylight encounter between Hader's Richie and Pennywise, an old lady acting strangely in a loungeroom, Pennywise headbutting a glass wall trying to break through - all of these moments will have you checking under your bed when you get home.
Pennywise may be the star, but special mentions goes to Hader, who gives the performance of his career. He's hilarious, providing some much needed levity amid the po-faced seriousness, but he also helps make Richie the most well-rounded and interesting character of The Losers.
It's an under-rated turn from an under-rated actor in a film you might not necessarily seek out for its top-notch thespianism.
The only real creaks come in the story itself. Each character wanders off for their own trip down memory lane, which keeps the scares coming, but drags the story out.
There is also the matter of how one kills a millennia-old fear beast, which tips the film's ending into absurdity somewhat. But the film is self-aware enough to poke fun at itself, via the age-old Stephen King critique that his endings suck, with McAvoy's Bill standing in for King (who also cameos in the film). This at least helps keep expectations in check.
It's likely we haven't seen the last of 'It' (they're already touting the possibility of prequels), but if they can leave It well enough alone, then we have a finely crafted horror duology on our hands that will stand the test of time as one of the better Stephen King adaptations.
'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood'
(R / 159 mins)
Overview: Quentin Tarantino's ninth feature film is a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.
The two lead characters are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of a western TV series, and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
Both are struggling to make it in a Hollywood they don't recognize anymore. But Rick has a very famous next-door neighbor ... Sharon Tate.
Verdict: With this playful ode to cinema, Quentin Tarantino proves that he's a master of weaving complex narratives using both filmmaking expertise and an unusual attention to detail.
A swirling collage of plot threads and sideroads, the film has a seamless feel to it, bringing these seemingly disparate meanderings together into a stunning depiction of Hollywood at a pivotal point in the history of both movies and American society.
With his career waning in February 1969, Rick (DiCaprio) is working as a guest villain on episodic TV with his sidekick, stuntman Cliff (Pitt). But not being a leading man is getting to him, and mogul Schwarzs (Pacino) advises him to star in spaghetti Westerns instead.
Meanwhile, Rick's neighbour Sharon Tate (Robbie) is starting to get some notice as an actress. And Cliff meets a flirty young woman (Qualley), who takes him to a former movie-making ranch in the Valley, where he meets her "family". Six months later, their fates are on a collision course.
As a writer, Tarantino does his research, using what is known about this specific time and place to build suspense around characters who can't imagine what's coming.
This cleverly keeps the audience gripped right to the twisty final act. And along the way, the filmmaker takes a witty trip through the industry, including the relationship between television and cinema at a point when Old Hollywood prestige gave way to a focus on profits.
Performances are earthy and raw. DiCaprio has an enjoyably complex role as a wheezy has-been who still has the chops to steal scenes from a series star (like the superb Olyphant).
His interaction with Pitt is the film's heart, and Pitt gives his most relaxed performance in years, shining in unexpected encounters with the likes of Bruce Lee (Moh) and the ranch owner (Dern). Robbie also finds surprising textures to Tate, a kind young woman who simply adores her life.
Of course there are a lot of cameos, from Damian Lewis (as Steve McQueen) to Lena Dunham (as a Manson Family leader), plus a fantastic side role for Pacino. But Tarantino is the real star, and he's at his bravura best with meaty conversations and technically complex set pieces.
His blurring of Western iconography is particularly memorable here, both in the movies and shows within the film as well as the tense ranch sequence.
Like other Tarantino movies, what feels like a period drama is actually another entertaining romp through his own wild world.
'The Lion King' (2019)
(PG / 110 mins)
Overview: From Disney Live Action, director Jon Favreau's all-new 'The Lion King' journeys to the African savanna where a future king is born.
Simba idolizes his father, King Mufasa, and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub's arrival.
Scar, Mufasa's brother-and former heir to the throne-has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba's exile.
With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.
Verdict: Disney continues to underwhelm with yet another uninspired remake of an animated classic, this time revisiting the celebrated 1994 gem, 'The Lion King' in a photorealistic adaptation so single-mindedly focused on creating life-like CGI animals that it forgets to do anything else of merit along the way.
The new film faithfully retells the tale of Simba, a young lion (voiced by JD McCrary) who is the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the King of the Pride Lands.
In a bid to usurp power, Simba’s uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills Mufasa, and makes the cub believe that his father’s death was his own fault. Simba flees the kingdom, surviving an attack by Scar’s hyena minions before collapsing. He is rescued by meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) whom he befriends.
But his past comes calling again a while later when he is a young adult (Donald Glover), forcing him to remember who he really is and embrace his role as the rightful king of his native land.
The story remains the same, as do many of the familiar scenes and the songs (although some of the iconic moments are curiously missing here), but the new film fails to recapture the original’s timeless charm.
The animals, though incredibly realistic, lack the expressiveness and emotiveness of their traditionally animated counterparts. The storytelling no longer holds the same impact it did the first time around.
The vibrancy and liveliness is gone, replaced by hollow retreading that leaves you yearning for original content instead of this endless string of remakes.
The vocal performances are mostly unmemorable. Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter (who is the grown-up voice of Simba’s love interest Nala) – both talented artists – are out of place here. John Oliver (who voices bird Zazu) sounds distractingly like John Oliver.
The only real exception is (surprisingly) the joyous duo of Eichner and Rogen who effortlessly steal the show, with their characters breathing life into an otherwise dull movie.
Also, Jones is (unsurprisingly) impressive as he reprises his part and voices Mufasa majestically.
Ultimately, the new 'Lion King' is very likely to make you wish you were watching the original instead. The film just feels like a soulless rehash of its predecessor and proves that no amount of technical wizardry can trump solid, affecting storytelling.
'Hobbs & Shaw'
(PG-13 / 138 mins)
Overview: Ever since hulking lawman Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a loyal agent of America's Diplomatic Security Service, and lawless outcast Shaw (Jason Statham), a former British military elite operative, first faced off in 2015's Furious 7, the duo have swapped smack talk and body blows as they've tried to take each other down.
But when cyber-genetically enhanced anarchist Brixton (Idris Elba) gains control of an insidious bio-threat that could alter humanity forever - and bests a brilliant and fearless rogue MI6 agent (The Crown's Vanessa Kirby), who just happens to be Shaw's sister - these two sworn enemies will have to partner up to bring down the only guy who might be badder than themselves.
Verdict: An action-packed movie is supposedly a good thing. Is there any such thing as too much action? Of course not! Just keep stuffing it in.
Need to cut some banter or character insights to fit more action? Go right ahead. Nobody really cares about that stuff, anyway.
Or do they? For audiences who love either Dwayne Johnson, the affable former pro wrestler whose grin is like the blessing of a benevolent sun god, or Jason Statham, the action star with a sultry rasp of a voice as velvety as the nap on a Gucci tux, the promise of 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw' is almost irresistible.
A whole movie, just for these two guys? Add to that the presence of the appealingly spiky Vanessa Kirby, from the Netflix series The Crown but also one of the standouts of last year’s 'Mission: Impossible—Fallout,' that should be enough sizzle, and enough wisecracks, to carry three movies, let alone one.
But too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and this movie’s unwieldy, double-ampersand title should serve as a warning: Johnson, Statham and Kirby are all wonderful in 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw' — when they’re talking.
They’re terrific for much of the time when they’re moving, too — Johnson and Statham aren’t action stars for nothing. But somewhere around the midpoint of 'Hobbs & Shaw', the action sequences become so elaborate that they start to weigh the movie down; it becomes less a lean machine than an unwieldy, chubby sausage.
And even if you feel certain there’s no such thing as too much action, you surely know when you’ve had too much sausage!
(PG-13 / 112 mins)
Overview: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, BBC's Eastenders) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend, Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again).
Then, after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles have never existed ... and he finds himself with a very complicated problem, indeed!
Verdict: The premise of 'Yesterday' is that, for some strange reason with no explanation whatsoever, a worldwide electrical blackout causes the entire catalog of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Star, a.k.a. The Beatles, to vanish from existence with one man, a struggling singer/songwriter named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel), the only person who remembers either them or their music.
He proceeds to pass off their songs as his own and becomes an overnight sensation who catches the ear of Ed Sheeran and gets signed to a major label recording contract by cutthroat music producer Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon).
Along the way he is estranged from his longtime manager and childhood best friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James), not realizing until it’s almost too late that his feeling for her go way beyond the strictly platonic.
That’s it. That’s the movie, and as intriguing an idea as that might be, I’m not at all certain that Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill screenwriter and Love Actually and About Time writer/director Richard Curtis is the guy to pull a conceit like this one off.
Working from a story he originally conceived with Jack Barth and handing the directorial reins over to Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later and Trainspotting filmmaker Danny Boyle, the scenario he’s composed never strays too far away from the readily anticipated.
His tale is perfectly content to be a moderately pleasing, overtly melodramatic what-if curio piece that places more emphasis on the potential romantic longings of its two leads than it does anything else.
As enjoyable as the movie can be it oddly flatlines right at the moment it should be building to a knockout crescendo, and I found its climactic choruses strangely forgettable and not at all worth humming as I exited the theatre.
The weird thing is that Boyle and Curtis don’t do a particularly good job of making it clear just exactly why The Beatles entire catalog would resonate so instantaneously with a modern audience.
I totally get why a songwriter like Sheeran would be blown away by something like “The Long and Winding Road” or “Let It Be.” Those are exquisitely constructed songs with superior lyrics that have stood the test of time for a reason.
But I honestly don’t get why something like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” would be a universal smash outside of Russia, or how “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “I Saw Her Standing There” wouldn’t sound anything other than slightly archaic in the 2010s no matter how passionately they were being performed.
On top of that, a key component to The Beatles success were the crafty, pitch-perfect harmonies that Lennon and McCartney so often manufactured for their band to perform, an aspect of their musicianship that is lost when it’s just one man up on the stage performing on his own.
Still, there is an incontestable charm in watching Jack figure out how to use the band’s music to his advantage. He’s such a nice guy, so unassuming and selfless, the idea that he is going to go through with passing off someone else’s work as his own even though for all intents and purposes none of their art existed in the first place so alien to him he’s instantly aghast that he’s even contemplating doing it.
But when he sees the response from Ellie and his friends when he first sits down and starts singing the title track, when Ed Sheeran shows up at his family’s door asking him to go tour a few Russian clubs with him after hearing a couple songs, Jack almost can’t help himself.
The singer is faced with an existential crisis that offers up a number of moral and ethical questions, the weight falling upon his shoulders as his ruse continues building exponentially at virtually the same rate as his fame also grows.
Not that Curtis seems to be concerned with almost any of that. His script reduces all of these ideas to easily digestible platitudes that basically culminate by saying, “love is all you need,” and little else.
But that paraphrasing of The Beatles is reductive and rudimentary, adding a layer of melodramatic schmaltz to their music that, no matter how emotional many of their songs might have been, was arguably never there until now.
Worse, his depiction of Ellie and her feelings for Jack often feel as if they are from another era entirely, and while I’m all for stories that explore how someone’s feelings of love and affection are not always reciprocated as one hopes they would be, her character would be more at home in an Andy Hardy vehicle than it is in one set in 2019.
Thankfully James is far too talented an actress to make Ellie anything other than supremely likable, the more odious aspects of her situation having nothing to do with her.
The Cinderella and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again star has an enchantingly innate ability to warm even the hardest heart to its melting point, the quiver of her lip coupled with the alluringly crooked nature of her smile positively infectious in the best possible way.
She has melodious chemistry with Patel, and in a movie without near as many issues I’m certain I’d be sitting here singing their mutual praises as boisterously as I possibly could if that were not the case.
That’s not going to happen. Boyle is a great filmmaker who is hardly afraid of sentiment (just watch his magnificent family drama Millions), but even in his lesser efforts like Trance or The Beach his imprint upon the material is always noticeable.
But that’s not how it is with 'Yesterday', and if you had told me Curtis had directed this and was just utilizing Boyle’s name as a pseudonym I’d be hard-pressed to find any reasons to say you were wrong.
The last third of this drama is an ineffectual slog that wastes the talents of its stars, and as breezy, inoffensively enjoyable and as adorably light as so much of this was to suddenly hear it hit so many sour notes was undeniably disappointing, my emotions gently weeping the more I keep thinking about it.
'Toy Story 4'
(G / 90 mins)
Overview: Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) has always been confident about his place in the world, and that his priority is taking care of his kid, whether that's Andy or Bonnie.
So when Bonnie's beloved new craft-project-turned-toy, Forky (voice of Tony Hale), declares himself as "trash" and not a toy, Woody takes it upon himself to show Forky why he should embrace being a toy.
But when Bonnie takes the whole gang on her family's road trip excursion, Woody ends up on an unexpected detour that includes a reunion with his long-lost friend Bo Peep (voice of Annie Potts).
After years of being on her own, Bo's adventurous spirit and life on the road belie her delicate porcelain exterior.
As Woody and Bo realize they're worlds apart when it comes to life as a toy, they soon come to find that's the least of their worries.
Verdict: Adding a dash of creepiness to the usual formula, 'Toy Story 4' exceeds expectations by - ahem - toying with them.
It's not as if the world needed a fourth Toy Story movie. After an unbroken string of gems, Pixar has been hit-and-miss since Cars 2, and Toy Story 3 was a step down from its predecessors, although it did manage to deliver a great third act and a poignant coda that seemed to wrap up the franchise and put it to bed for good.
What more was there to say after Andy passed on his toys to a new child?
Surprisingly, 'Toy Story 4' has an answer good enough to justify the film's existence as something more than a cynical cash grab. It may not be A-list Pixar, but overall it is better than its immediate predecessor.
Fans will not only be pleased to see the lovable characters back in action; they will be surprised to see a new story unfolding on its own terms, uncompromised by concerns for preserving the franchise.
You don't need an advanced degree in plot structure to see that 'Toy Story 4' is all over the map. First, it's about Woody feeling bad that Bonnie chooses to play with other toys. Then it's about Forky wondering why he's alive.
Next it becomes about rescuing Forky from the antiques store, which leads to the subplot about Gabby wanting Woody's voice box, which in turn segues into Gabby's dream of being chosen by the granddaughter of the store owner; which leads to one of Pixar's patented third-act action scenes, in which the other toys prevent Bonnie's family from continuing on their vacation, which would leave Woody and Forky behind.
You also don't need an advance degree in existentialism to see that Forky's angst shouldn't be particularly remarkable in the Toy Story universe. After all, his Big Question ("Why am I alive?") could just as easily have been asked by any of the other toys, all of whom were created by humans; the only difference is that he was not made professionally. This isn't really enough to self-awareness more of an issue for him than it is for the others.
Fortunately, this is not a problem, because Forky's suicidal tendencies are a plot device that give Woody a problem to solve; the film rightfully focuses on Woody's issues, which form the film's emotional core.
The first level of genius of Pixar's writing team is that they know how to wrap the various set pieces and plot devices in a character-oriented story, which is ultimately about Woody finding his place in the world in the wake of Andy having outgrown him.
The glue holding the film together is the love story about Woody reuniting with Bo, who was given away nine years before the events of this film take place.
At that time, Woody's loyalty to Andy prevented him from running off with Bo, but now things are different, and Woody has to decide whether he is acting simply out of desperation to make himself feel useful when he might be better off following his own personal happiness.
The second level of genius of Pixar's writing team is they know how to dramatize this conflict with action, hiding the love story in the weave of other plot threads, then tying them all together and taking the film around full circle in a way that allows for a revisiting of Woody's earlier decision after he has gone through enough adventures and hardships to give him a new perspective affecting the choice he will make.
It would be unfair to reveal that decision, but let's say that it is completely motivated by the character and the story, not by planning for future sequels. It's pure and perfect.
The horror elements are a welcome surprise: those amusingly creepy ventriloquist dummies certainly outshine Chucky, and Gabby's harvesting of Woody internal organ (well, voice box) has an aura of mad science surgery.
Even better, this apparent tangent turns out to be part of the film's emotional fabric - Gabby becomes Woody's mirror-image, also acting desperately to win the love of an indifferent child, revealing the dangers of too desperate to be needed.
Ultimately, 'Toy Story 4' is not up to the standard of the first two installments, but it asks some interesting questions: Is it better to be free or to belong?
If being needed gives your life meaning, does it also restrict you from following your own bliss? Heady stuff for a family-friendly entertainment, but the film is amusing throughout, if not hilarious, mixing the familiar gang with some new characters (stunt rider Duke Caboom is more annoying than funny, but Ducky and Bunny are a blast).
Pixar's computer-generated animation continues to improve, making the once-amazing original Toy Story look almost drab by comparison. (The technique still seems better suited to anthropomorphized toys than to humans.) Randy Newman's score expertly underlines the big emotional moments.
Like its immediate predecessor, the latest Toy Story sequel delivers a wonderful resolution that redeems any missteps along the way - it's a three-star film with a five-star ending.
There is less of the interplay between Woody and Buzz, who is reduced to supporting character here; fortunately, Buzz's time onscreen is well spent, especially near the end when he delivers an ambiguous line that informs Woody's ultimate decision.
Buzz's limited screen time is perhaps emblematic of 'Toy Story 4's success: the movie doesn't deliver exactly what you expect, but it does deliver.
'Child's Play' (2019)
(R / 90 mins)
Overview: A contemporary re-imagining of the 1988 horror classic, 'Child's Play' follows Karen (Aubrey Plaza), a single mother who gifts her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) a Buddi doll, unaware of its more sinister nature.
Verdict: Conceived by Don Mancini, directed by Tom Holland, and scripted by Mancini, Holland and John Lafia, 1988’s 'Child’s Play' was a nifty horror yarn that introduced the world to Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif), a “Good Guy”-brand doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer following a voodoo incantation.
Kevin Yagher designed the excellent effects that animated the Chucky doll, with a clear distinction between the harmless “Good Guy” mode and the demented killer look.
In other words, simply based on looks, it was easy to see why kids would want a Good Guy doll and equally obvious why absolutely no one would want a psychotic one.
The new version, also titled 'Child’s Play', has no room for such niceties, preferring to bask in laziness at every turn. In this rendition (which tellingly received no input from Mancini or Holland), Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) isn’t evil because he harbors the soul of a mass murderer; instead, he’s naughty because a disgruntled factory employee disabled all of his AI safety features.
Be still, my beating heart. It’s a ludicrous concept, although I suspect some susceptible viewers might arrive home after the screening and worry that Alexa might burn the house down or, even worse, cancel their Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions.
As for the look of Chucky? The poor design means he’s as creepy before he’s possessed as afterward, and the thought of children lining up to buy this hideous doll is only slightly less believable than the thought of 5-year-olds queueing up to purchase a Che Guevara T-shirt or a DVD of Antonioni’s 'The Passenger'.
The general plot is the same, as Andy’s mom (Aubrey Plaza) gives her son a Buzz Lightyear — wait, wrong Andy — gives her son (Gabriel Bateman) a damaged Buddi doll that ends up going on a homicidal tear.
But the story modifications do this version no favors, particularly the risible climax in which shoppers are bombarded by Chucky-controlled toys.
With a scarcity of scares and little internal logic at play, here’s one defective product that should be placed back in the box posthaste.
(PG-13 / 114 mins)
Overview: In 'Dark Phoenix', the X-MEN face their most formidable and powerful foe: one of their own, Jean Grey.
During a rescue mission in space, Jean is nearly killed when she is hit by a mysterious cosmic force. Once she returns home, this force not only makes her infinitely more powerful, but far more unstable.
Wrestling with this entity inside her, Jean unleashes her powers in ways she can neither comprehend nor contain.
With Jean spiraling out of control, and hurting the ones she loves most, she begins to unravel the very fabric that holds the X-Men together.
Now, with this family falling apart, they must find a way to unite -- not only to save Jean's soul, but to save our very planet from aliens who wish to weaponize this force and rule the galaxy.
Verdict: ‘Dark Phoenix” isn’t kidding about the “dark” part. The latest, and probably final, chapter in the X-Men superhero saga is a somber, even funereal affair — not in a stylish, Christopher Nolan-esque way, or even a la “Logan,” the deliciously cynical comic-book-noir contribution to the mutant canon from 2017.
Rather, if a movie can be said to suffer from low-grade depression, this one certainly seems to be, shuffling in its socks and bathrobe through a not-quite-two-hour running time with an attitude that is closer to grudging obligation than enthusiastic commitment.
The movie opens, with a literal bang, in a violent, 1975-set prologue that introduces us to the film’s protagonist Jean Grey, first seen as an 8-year-old girl (Summer Fontana) who is about to experience tragic loss, thanks to the unintended consequences of her telepathic and telekinetic abilities.
Jumping ahead 17 years, we next meet Jean’s 25-year-old self (Sophie Turner), a young woman now more confident in her paranormal gifts, having been raised — with all the requisite self-esteem of modern pedagogy — in a school for mutant children run by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).
Jean is one of Charles’s X-Men, a band of superheroes with extraordinary physical and mental abilities — and a hotline to the president, from whom they receive their marching orders.
This dynamic is a little different from the typical X-Men movie, in which mutants are seen as freaks and outcasts. If things are topsy-turvy here, it’s because the time-traveling plot of the 2014 film “Days of Future Past” altered the franchise’s timeline (including the erasure of Jean’s death in the 2006 film “The Last Stand.”)
One of those presidential marching orders soon comes in. A spaceship full of astronauts has been damaged in Earth’s orbit. The X-Men, whose powers range from teleportation to controlling the weather, must save them.
Their mission goes off with only one tiny hitch: While in space, Jean is irradiated with some kind of strange cosmic energy, rendering her even more powerful — and, unfortunately, more of a loose cannon — than before.
She comes back perpetually P.O.’ed, a Popeye with a reserve of supernatural spinach that always lives inside her, and over which she has little control.
Naturally, bad things ensue!
From this point on, 'Dark Phoenix' seems to go into a kind of low-energy mode, which is especially ironic, considering that it’s about a being who is touted as the most powerful entity on Earth. (This assessment comes from Jessica Chastain’s character, a mysteriously otherworldly figure who wants a taste of Jean’s mojo for herself.)
Sure, there are some fights — most of them internecine, as various X-Men start to doubt the leadership of Charles, a powerful clairvoyant who is revealed to have tinkered with Jean’s mind as a child.
Alliances shift, old resentments are stirred, and Charles’s sometime nemesis Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) comes out of semiretirement in the agricultural commune where he lives with a band of renegade mutants.
Half the people in the movie want to kill Jean, and half of them want to save her from herself. A handful of government stormtroopers just want to lock the whole crowd up after Jean’s misbehavior freshly demonizes the mutant community.
But despite what sounds like all-out war, 'Dark Phoenix' mostly plays like turgid psychodrama, with characters throwing around cheesy lines like “I thought I’d lost you,” “Why can’t you admit you were wrong?” and “She’s not your little girl anymore.”
By the time the X-Men finally get around to doing what they do best — levitating metal trains, shooting eyeball lasers, conjuring lightning and engaging in dueling mind-control — it all feels borderline tedious, like a game of superhuman rock-paper scissors.
There are some kicks, here and there. The character of Peter Maximoff — a super-fast mutant known as Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who stole the show in “Days of Future Past” — is mostly sidelined here, despite getting in a couple of mildly funny lines.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with 'Dark Phoenix.' There’s way too much darkness, and not enough quicksilver wit.
'John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum'
(R / 131 mins)
Overview: In this third installment of the adrenaline-fueled action franchise, super-assassin John Wick (Reeves) returns with a $14 million price tag on his head and an army of bounty-hunting killers on his trail.
After killing a member of the shadowy international assassin's guild, the High Table, John Wick is excommunicado, but the world's most ruthless hit men and women await his every turn.
Verdict: Superior exercises in action-movie formalism, the John Wick movies evoke everything from Fritz Lang’s silent thrillers (in their imagining of vast, underground criminal networks) to Gene Kelly’s musicals (in their inventive and breathless fight choreography) to Brian De Palma’s self-aware genre pastiches (in their allusions to high art and the way they veer close to parody).
This third entry in the series picks up about an hour after the second one ended, when the international assassins’ guild placed a $14 million bounty on the head of Keanu Reeves’s unflappable killing machine.
As in the film’s predecessors, the plot barely matters; it’s simply an excuse for director Chad Stahelski and company to stage one remarkable action set piece after another.
Some of the more impressive ones take place in New York’s Chinatown, a Moroccan palace, and the lobby of a luxury hotel. With Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Huston, and Ian McShane.