Toy Story 4

Posted on June 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action peril and violence, character sacrifices a part of his body
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2019

Let’s get right to the big three questions about “Toy Story 4.” Yes, it’s good, yes, you’re going to cry, and yes, you have to stay ALL the way to the end for one final blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is worth the wait.

The small miracle of the “Toy Story” series is that a film that would have been memorable for its technology alone as the first fully computer-animated feature film, the shiny, plastic toy characters the focus because Pixar had not yet developed the technology to animate hair, fur, or more expressive faces, was smart, heartfelt, and genuinely moving. Woody (Tom Hanks) was a retro cowboy doll with a pull-cord attached to a voice box and said things like “There’s a snake in my boot” and “You’re my favorite deputy!” When their boy Andy was away and the toys came to life, Woody was their natural leader, looked up to by the other toys, including Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, the T-Rex (Wallace Shawn), the slinky dog, and Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

And then a new toy arrived, a shiny spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), with flashing lights and pop-out wings, and a digital voice to proclaim, “To infinity and beyond!” But Buzz did not know he was a toy, creating an existential conflict. He thought he really was a space explorer who could really fly. The conflict in the film came from Woody’s jealousy over Andy’s affection for the shiny new toy and his frustration in not being able to persuade Buzz that he was not “real” in the way he thought he was. His purpose was not to explore space and fight the evil Emperor Zurg. His purpose was to be a companion and inspiration and comfort to Andy, a boy we barely glimpse in the film. The excitement comes from the toys’ efforts to escape the mutilations of the boy next door and to be reunited with Andy when they become separated. The heartwarming theme of the film, though, is about the friendship that develops between the rivals and their mutual understanding of the meaning of their existence as Andy’s toys.

These themes continued through the next two films. The second raised the issue of value — the difference between a mint condition toy still in the box that can be sold for a good price and a well-loved toy that might be scuffed and missing some pieces but meant something to a child, even a child who has grown up and has other interests. The third film gracefully and very poignantly saw Andy leave for college but give his toys to the imaginative pre-schooler Bonnie, so they could continue to fulfill their purpose. The first image in the original film was of clouds in a blue sky that turned out to be painted on the ceiling of Andy’s room. The final image of the third one was the real sky, showing that Andy’s world had opened up.

So, how to move on from that perfect ending? With another existential crisis, or maybe two. Woody has always defined himself by being important to a child. But increasingly Bonnie is leaving him in the closet, even taking his sheriff star and pinning it on Jessie (Joan Cusack). When Bonnie is nervous about her first day of kindergarten, Woody sees a chance to be useful and he sneaks into her backpack so he can to with her.

But what comforts Bonnie at school is creating something new. From a plastic spork and a broken popsicle stick she makes a…something she calls “Forky” (Tony Hale). When Woody tells the other toys back at home that Bonnie made a friend at school, he is speaking literally. But, in a parallel to Buzz in the first movie, Forky does not know he’s a toy. He cannot adjust to the notion that he is more than a single-use plastic utensil whose destiny is to be thrown in the trash. He keeps trying to throw himself away. But Woody sees Forky as a chance to be useful to Bonnie. If Woody can’t be important to Bonnie, he can teach Forky how to be.

And once again, the characters are separated from each other and from their child. Bonnie and her family rent an RV and go on a trip that puts the toys in two settings rich with fascinating details, colorful characters, and all kinds of wildly inventive and delightfully treacherous adventures. The first is an antique shop, where Woody glimpses the lamp stand that his old friend — and maybe more — Bo Peep used to be on. He brings Forky inside to look for her, and there they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a Chatty Cathy-style talking little girl doll with perfect curls and an imperfect voice box and her entourage of identical creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies all called Benson. Note that “Toy Story 2” involved “vintage” toys but now they are antiques. Keanu Reeves all but steals the film as a proudly Canadian Evel Knievel-style stunt rider toy called Duke Caboom.

The other new setting is a carnival, with rides and arcade games, and there we meet two plush toy prizes, Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have a blast riffing with each other. And it turns out that Bo Peep is there, too, having left her lamp, traveling with the carnival and seeing the world.

There are separations and perilous rescues, many near-misses and close calls, a gasp-inducing sacrifice, and a very sad farewell. The Pixar team is getting older, and they take us with them as they confront their own existential conundrums. You know you’re not going to get out of a Pixar movie without tears, and this one may be more like boo-hoo sobs. But that’s because we care about these characters and we care about the way they care about and for each other. Watch out for another shot of the sky — and for some fun scenes over the credits and, when the long, long list of filmmakers and production babies is over, a just-perfect scene at the very end.

Of course you can now buy a Forky doll. You can even choose between one that talks and one that walks. But I’m guessing that kids who see this movie will want to make something of their own.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action/fantasy-style peril with some scary ventriloquist dummies, and a genuinely shocking moment when a character voluntarily undergoes doll surgery to give up a piece of himself for another toy. Characters use some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why does Bonnie love Forky? How does Woody change Forky’s mind? Did Woody make the right decisions about Gabby Gabby and Bo Peep?

If you like this, try: The other “Toy Story” films and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”

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Men in Black International

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/comic book style peril and violence including weapons and explosions, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019

Copyright 2019 Columbia Pictures
So, you watch “Thor Ragnarock” and you say, “Boy, I’d watch Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in anything!” And you watch the original “Men in Black” and you say, “Boy, this is one of the best movies ever, funny, smart, exciting, with wonderfully vivid and engaging human and non-human characters. I’d like to see more of this world.” And so, someone put it together and we have Hemsworth and Thompson taking over for Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton,” “The Fate of the Furious”) taking over as director from Barry Sonnenfeld, and it’s just okay.

For example, among the many understated, near-throwaway jokes in the first movie, we saw a bank of television monitors tracking people on Earth who are in reality aliens. Unless you were watching it on a DVD player with a pause button, you would miss most of it, but the “aliens” included “Today’s” Al Roker, singer and psychic promoter Dionne Warwick, Tony Robbins, Sylvester Stallone, and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. They use the same joke again, but it’s just Ariana Grande. Really? That’s the best you’ve got? Much of what made the first film such a wonder was the sense that there was a fully-imagined, world where supermarket tabloids were the only non-fake news, that somehow made more sense than the one we think of as real. It never winked at its characters or the audience. This one goes for a cheap laugh by having Hemsworth reach for a sledgehammer. He’s Thor, get it?

Thompson plays Molly, who had an alien encounter as a child and was accidentally not neuralized with the MiB’s memory eraser. She helped the fuzzy green alien escape and even learned a couple of words of its language. Since then, she has been so obsessed with learning more about the way the universe works that most people, including the man who was impressed with her record on the tests for government service, dismiss her as nutty.

By tracking an alien arrival, she sneaks into the MiB office, where the director (Emma Thompson as Agent O) agrees to take her on for a probationary period and sends her to the London office, where the top agent is H (Hemsworth), whose character seems to be based on the roles Rock Hudson played in “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back,” a rakish playboy who hangs out with aliens at card games and nightclubs. While he is a legend in the office for having defeated The Hive with his then-partner, Agent T (Liam Neeson), he has pretty much checked out, sleeping at his desk and annoying his play-by-the-rules colleague, Agent C (Rafe Spall). H takes a visiting alien dignitary out for a night of drinking and debauchery but things go wrong and the alien is killed, with just enough time to pass on to Molly, now Agent M, a small object that seems to be very important, but he does not tell her why.

This fourth in the “Men in Black” series owes as much to James Bond as to its original (in both senses of the word) off-best, off-kilter, world-building story-telling. Our heroes hop around glamorous and exotic settings: Paris, London, Marrakech, a mysterious fortress on an island. Characters and incidents from the past are confronted and characters from the present may not be what they seem. A new character, voiced by “Silicon Valley’s” Kumail Nanjiani nearly steals the film with a reminder of the understated but pointed humor of the first film.

It has an awkward twist that indicates some struggles over rewrites, but H and M are so blandly conceived that even two of Hollywood’s most versatile and appealing performers can’t make them vibrant.

Parents should know that this film includes action/comic book-style peril and violence, powerful weapons, mayhem, characters injured and killed, monsters, disturbing images, some strong language, and a non-explicit inter-species sexual situation and sexual references.

Family discussion: Why did H change after his experience with the Hive? What did M want to understand about the universe and were her questions answered? Which alien was your favorite?

If you like this, try: the other “Men in Black” movies and the comics, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Paul”

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:34 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, references to drug abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019

Copyright A24 2019
“The Last Man in San Francisco” is an exquisitely filmed story about love and loss, beauty and pain. The star of the film is a young black man named Jimmie Fails, played by a writer and actor named Jimmie Fails, and the script is based on a story by Fails and director Joe Talbot, friends since childhood, based on incidents in Fails’ life.

The movie Jimmie has a best friend named Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) who lives with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Jimmie has been sleeping on the floor next to Mont’s bed. Every two weeks, they visit the Victorian home Jimmie’s family once lived in. Over the strong objections of the middle-aged white resident couple (she objects more than he does, but she seems to be the one with a real ownership stake), they perform small touch-ups to maintain the trim, fixtures, and garden. The middle-aged white owners see it as intrusive (and possibly as criticism). But for Jimmie, who is determined to live there again some day, it is a chance to care for the house that is a legend in his family, built by his grandfather, and a symbol of an idea of home that seems to be gone for good.

The film creates a poetic, dreamlike mood that almost floats over the story, an astonishingly assured debut that trusts the story and trusts the audience to let us fill in the details and come to our own conclusions, especially refreshing in an era of multi-national financing where specifics are smoothed over and everything has to be explained two or three times to meet the expectations of an international audience.

Instead, here, we have the infinitely expressive faces of Fails and Majors, as eloquent as any performances you will see this year. We first see them waiting for a bus that never comes, as telling a moment as the entire text of “Waiting for Godot.” So they hop on Jimmie’s ever-present skateboard, the perfect freedom of their ride in tandem in sharp contrast to the restrictions they face everywhere else. We get glimpses of what has made the house so important to Jimmie in his encounters with his father and mother, each disconnected and making clear that those relationships are not able to give him any sense of home. We see Jimmie and Mont talking to a group of guys who hang out on the street tossing insults at each other and everyone else, their only way to create a sense of camaraderie and belonging. In one of the film’s highlights, he approaches the group with his own version of the dozens — some directorial notes about the meta-impact of what is quite literally their performances.

The residents have to move out of the house and, like the characters in the film, it falls into a kind of limbo. Jimmie knows this is his moment. He retrieves his family’s furniture from his aunt, who has been storing it, and returns to what he will always think of as his home.

In a film like this, the house itself has to be a character in the story, and this one is, a grand old place with a witch’s hat roof, a library filled with vintage leather-bound classics, an organ and a piano, and all of the original architectural finishings of the era perfectly preserved. We see a Segway tour go by (led by Jello Biafra), and Jimmie correcting him about the history of the house. This is a place for dreams to come true, including Mont’s dream of writing a play. Jimmie tells him the play will be performed in the house, and they invite everyone they know.

But a treasure like this house must go to someone who can afford it, and that is not the only terrible loss in the film. While Jimmie mourns what is gone, Mont mourns with him. The depiction of a deep and tender friendship between two men who are always sad, sometimes lost, seldom angry, and always open to love and beauty, echoes movingly throughout the story and the story-telling in this unquestionable cinematic masterpiece.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, some violence, family tensions and dysfunction, and graphic non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why are Jimmie and Mont friends? How can communities prosper without pushing out lower-income residents? What do we learn from the guys on the street? Where will Jimmie go?

If you like this, try: “Blindspotting” and “Sorry to Bother You”

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Shaft

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language including the n-word and many crude terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic crime-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019

Copyright New Line Cinema 2019
Cheerfully retro past the point of winking at us, through the point of smirking at us, up to the point of pushing back in favor of toxic masculinity, the new “Shaft” is an above-average summer chases, wisecracks, and shoot-out movie, thanks to its cast, its heritage, and of course the most memorable movie soundtrack theme of all time, a Grammy and Oscar winner.

Like two of the previous films in the series, this one is just called “Shaft.” The 1971 original starred Richard Roundtree, who also appeared in “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa.” Then Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a 2000 film just called “Shaft,” playing the nephew of the Roundtree character. (In this film, it turns out the original Shaft was not his uncle but his father.) This “Shaft” brings the story up to the present day, with Roundtree and Jackson returning to their roles and the third generation, J.J. (for John Junior), played by Jessie T. Usher (“Survivor’s Remorse”).

The first Shaft film, based on a tough with the bad guys/catnip for the ladies private investigator in the novels of Ernest Tidyman, was among the best of the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s.

The character in the book is white, but director Gordon Parks cast Roundtree, to “see a black guy winning,” and, toward the end of the Civil Rights movement era, that gave audiences a hero that had not been seen before, a strong, confident, supremely capable black man who operated by his own set of rules and applying his own form of justice. This had enormous appeal in an era where pretty much the only black actor in films was Sidney Poitier, who nearly always played characters who were near-saintly, designed to appeal to white audiences. Shaft did not care about appealing to or appeasing anyone. In the words of a black politician of the era named Shirley Chisolm, he was “unbought and unbossed.” He exemplified Hollywood cowboy-style notions of masculinity, supremely secure in his own power and control, and in the context of the movie that included his relationships with women, if using them as sexual objects could be characterized as a relationship.

Director John Singleton’s 2000 version with Jackson was an affectionate tribute to the original. Shaft is first seen as working for The Man as a police officer, but he quits in disgust and sets up an office as a private investigator. As this film begins, it is 1989 and Shaft (Jackson) is arguing with his significant other (Regina Hall) in a car when a gunfight breaks out. “This time it’s different,” she tells him, after it is all over and he’s the last man standing. In the back seat of the car is a baby. She knows that in order to keep their son safe, she will have to leave him.

The ensuing years are amusingly zipped through in a montage with pauses for the occasional and always-inappropriate gifts Shaft sends to JJ, wrapped in plain brown paper, including a box of condoms when he is 10 and a collection of porn when he is leaving for college at MIT. After graduation, JJ works as a data analyst at the FBI, where he is frustrated at not being assigned to take the lead on big cases like a possible terrorist cell at a local mosque. He lives in a tastefully furnished apartment with a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall and lacrosse sticks over his bed. He treats women with respect — with so much respect he has not been able to get out of the friend zone with Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), a doctor he has known since he was a child. He does not like guns, but he has mad skills as a hacker.

When another childhood friend, a Muslim veteran named Karim, is found dead from an overdose, JJ thinks it is murder, and he visits his father for the first time to ask for his help. A naked stripper covered with glitter answers the door, and Shaft appears with glitter in his beard. This is supposed to be funny and to convey how manly he is. Anyway, he agrees to help, and we’re suddenly in a buddy cop movie, with senior bashing junior every step of the way for not being many enough and junior giving it back about his not having been there as a dad. Much of that happens as they are being chased, shot at, or fought with, including the inevitable scene at a nightclub, with a dance/fight that puts the “tip” in “tipsy” and is actually pretty fun.

Someday people will look back on this movie as an exemplar of its moment. The exaggerated masculinity of 1971 may have been humorous and empowering, but in 2019 it seems creaky and skeezy, especially when JJ finally picks up a gun and the strong, capable female character suddenly melts into a puddle of adoration. It’s too soon to be a parody, too late to be ignored. The exaggerated bravado makes them seem fragile and over-compensating.

I admit, though, that Hayes theme still makes me melt into a puddle, and it is fun to see the three generations striding without regard to the oncoming cars in their shades and long coats. While it does not succeed in the same terms as the original or as an affectionate update, there are moments when it is an entertaining popcorn movie with appealing performances, when I can dig it.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of intense, graphic peril and violence including shoot-outs fights, and torture, with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use strong and crude language, including the n-word and the p-word, and there are vulgar sexual references, homophobic and transphobic jokes, and nudity, with a casually exploitive attitude toward women and a prove-it notion of masculinity. The movie also includes drinking and drunkenness and drugs and drug dealing.

Family discussion: Why wasn’t JJ a field agent? Why was his father so dismissive of his clothes and apartment? How do the Shaft movie’s attitude toward women and masculinity hold up today?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Shaft” movies and “Jackie Brown”

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The Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Cat becomes intoxicated on catnip
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/cartoon-style peril and violence including whip, gun, taser, and tranquilizer dart used on animals, fistfight played for humor
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2019
Well, what a nice surprise! “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a vast improvement over the original, which had a promising beginning but ended up with a lackluster imitation of “Toy Story.” This sequel combines three different stories and adds some terrific new characters all in a zippy under 90 minutes. It is colorful, exciting, and a lot of fun.

Our hero is still Max (Patton Oswalt, taking over from Louis CK), a lovable mutt who does not like change but has made his peace with his new apartment-mate, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). But more change is ahead. Max’s owner (that is what he calls her) Katie (Ellie Kemper) meets Chuck (Pete Holmes) and soon there is another new resident in the apartment, a baby named Liam. Max, who thinks he does not like children, cannot resist the baby who clearly adores the two dogs. But the changes are very stressful, and when his anxiety about keeping Liam safe is so severe he has to be taken to the vet and finds himself in the Cone of Shame, to keep him from scratching all the time.

Katie and Chuck take Liam and the dogs to visit their family on a farm. Max asks Gidget (Jenny Slate) to watch his favorite toy, Busy Bee, while they are away. (Fans of “Best in Show” will remember Parker Posey’s frantic search for a dog toy called Busy Bee on the day of the dog show.) Gidget, whose unrequited crush on Max is the movie’s weakest plot point, agrees, but almost immediately manages to knock it out of the window, and it lands in the apartment of the cat lady to beat all cat ladies.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), a soft, fluffy white bunny whose little girl owner dresses him as a superhero, begins to believe he really is one, and when newcomer Daisy (a terrific Tiffany Haddish) asks him for help freeing a friend of hers who is being abused, he is happy to agree. The friend is Hu, a white Chinese tiger, and he is in a cage at a circus, guarded by wolves.

Max will get some guidance on dealing with his fears from a wise farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford!! At his Harrison Ford-iest, which is awesome!). Gidget will have to get cat lessons from the languid pudgeball Chloe (Lake Bell) on how to be a cat so she can go undercover to get Busy Bee back, in the movie’s best scenes. And Snowball and Daisy will have a lot of wild adventures along the way.

It all moves along with brisk good humor and some nice lessons about how to handle being scared and what we learn when doing what scares us gives us the chance to be surprised at what we can do. The design of the characters and settings is witty and engaging enough to invite repeat viewings. Parents may need to talk to their kids about some of the plot points — we don’t want anyone trying to let a tiger out of the cage, sometimes it makes sense to listen to your fears and not take risks, and kids should know there are laws protecting animals from the abuse Hu suffers. But this is a treat for the family that makes me hope number three is in the works.

Parents should know that this film includes comic/fantasy/action peril and violence including very dangerous stunts, a protracted fistfight, and a man who threatens animals with a whip and a gun, some potty humor and schoolyard language, and a cat becomes intoxicated on catnip.

Family discussion: What did Max learn from Rooster? Why did Rooster give him a bandana? Was there a time you pretended to be braver than you felt? Why did Max change his mind about Liam? Which pet in this film would you like to have?

If you like this, try: “Despicable Me” and “Rio”

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