One Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Fractured Fairy Tale

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I have a great amount of respect for Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker. He is a combination of modern pop culture auteur and big name money-making director. The period of 1969 in Hollywood, was a pivotal period for the town. It would also host one of the most tragic crimes to haunt the city since the Black Dahlia. To this day, the memory of  it is fairly fresh. Tarantino has chosen to address that period and time in a unique way with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The Tate Murders by the Manson Family may seem like a subject of poor taste even, for a Tarantino film, and I must admit to having a minor sense of dread through the first two of the two hour and forty minute running time of the movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton a one time hot property in Hollywood westerns and action films. His glory days were as a 1950’s bounty hunter in a television show called Bounty Law. But since then, he’s been languishing in B movies and guest appearances on other shows as the bad guy of the week. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and his stunt double for many years. Both have found their careers waning in a Hollywood that is changing. Dalton lives right next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the new young faces of Hollywood. It is also a world he doesn’t think he’d ever be a part of. Next door neighbors to one of the hottest directors in Hollywood and he’s never met him or Sharon Tate.

More than any other Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not have an overall plot like the claustrophobic The Hateful Eight, or alt-historical Inglourious Basterds. Most of his films may seem like they lack a plot, but they tended to coalesce in the end to tie everything together. This is a character driven piece that also serves as a love letter to a bygone period in Hollywood glitz and glamour.  Rick’s latest bad guy of the week show is on Lancer, a real television show that ran from 1968-1970. During the filming, it dawns on him that he truly is a has been and is old news.

Cliff has not exactly had a stellar career himself and his reputation is somewhat tainted as he may or may not have killed his wife. The last time Rick managed to talk stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) into having him on set, he started a fight with Bruce Lee (Michael Moh) and dented the car of of Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell). So most of the time, Cliff spends his days running errands for Rick, driving him around (because Rick had his license suspended after the last DUI), and fixing things around the house.

While driving about Los Angeles, he picks up a hitchhiker who he’s been seeing all over town. He gives her a ride to the Spahn Ranch, which is the historic compound of Charles Manson and his “Family.”  That sense of unease starts to settle in right about here. And as the compound was an old western set, it has a certain tension about it that is evocative of how Sergio Leone would film scenes that were pure tension leading to brief moments of violence.

Interspersed between the stories of Cliff and Rick is Margot Robbie absolutely exuding charm as Sharon Tate. The up and coming starlet spends much of her time having a good time around town, visiting a bookstore in Hollywood and even watching her own film, The Wrecking Crew at a movie theater (single screen, kids). We don’t see much of her for a good portion of the film until the third act where she is very pregnant. And frankly, Tate, as a character just sort of breezes in and out of her scenes like some wisp. Margot Robbie isn’t the only person to get the short straw even though she shares the billing. The women really get little to do. The most significant female role that effects that interacts with the male leads is a child actress played by Julia Butler who gives precocious acting observations and opinions while Rick is on the set of Lancer.

So let us address the elephant in the room. This movie is not about the Manson Family murders. The Manson story and the Tate story is peripheral to Rick and Cliff’s story. And without giving away anything, bare in mind that Tarantino does not make historically accurate films even if they are in historical settings. His point seems to be that Hollywood is at the cusp of change in 1969. Taking place a year after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in a California hotel, as the country seems to have lost its innocence with Kennedy’s death, Hollywood is about to lose its innocence with the horror of the Manson Family. Charles Manson is played by Damon Herriman who has portrayed the infamous cult leader twice now, once in this film and again in the upcoming second season of Mindhunter for Netflix. He’s obviously doing something right since he’s darn creepy in the few scenes and lines given to him.

The Dragon in the room is Bruce Lee. Now Michael Moh portrays Bruce Lee very well but he also plays him as not a person but a caricature of not just Lee but of the Kato character from The Green Hornet. Sure cliff is a total tough guy and can hold his own. But in real life, just like when we were watching the Batman/Green Hornet crossover that Kato would kick Robin’s ass. We all know that Bruce Lee would really kick Cliff Booth’s ass. He’s not only nerfed in his skill but he is also mocked it, which I think is quite disrespectful. Film portrayals never do enough research to figure out hat he fighting style Lee used in his films was not how he sparrerd in real life.

This is unabashedly a love letter to the lost richness of not only Hollywood but old L.A. where extinct icons of late 60s Los Angeles are portrayed in their heyday as we drive along with Cliff in Rick’s Cadillac. And no matter how you may feel about Quentin Tarantino as a director, his movies are without a doubt shot really well. Much respect is due him for still using film in the age of digital. The nostalgic scenes of driving around the city with old Hollywood landmarks still standing were recreations, and not computer generated — another point of praise owed to Tarantino. Older Los Angeles and Californian natives may enjoy that nostalgia like I did, others may not realize how much has changed since then since it is before their time.

But the film is ultimately a collection of character piece scenes that showcase the talents of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. When the dual are on screen together, they are captivating. This may go down as one of the biggest bromances in film history. The two actors have a natural chemistry together as if they have made dozens of films together as opposed to this being their first. But because it it is more character piece than plot driven it can feel dragged out and disjointed. There really is not a plot to speak of and as star studded as the cast is, outside of DiCaprio and Pitt, the rest of the cast is relegated to cameos, even Margot Robbie. Nevertheless, this is some of the best work that DiCaprio and Pitt have ever done.

The tone of the ending and the way it ends is going to be divisive in some ways. Debra Tate, Sharon’s surviving sister, did give the movie her blessing after being reached out to by Quentin Tarantino. But it does seem like a total tonal shift in the way the movie had been coasting through for the last few hours. It’s as if the director felt obligated to insert his signatu7.5re staples and tropes into it. It’s not horrible, but it is unexpected and came across as cartoonish. I was not sure if the laughter in the theater was nervous or cathartic at what it could have been. This film will do well for for history buffs.

In some ways, this is Tarantino’s most accessible work, but it is also uneven plotless film with a collection of character scenes, some of which are brilliant in either the way they are acted or shot, but other scenes bloat running time make the movie feel long. It could run shorter. And in fact, if the whole Manson subplot were eliminated it could have been a fine straight up comedy and avoided an ending that plays loosely with history. But Tarantino is not telling history here, he’s telling a fairy tale. It’s a fractured and flawed fairy tale, though. It also does nothing positive for the women characters considering 1969 was a pivotal period in the Women’s Movement. And like practically all film portrayals of Bruce Lee, it chooses to portray him as a mirror of his on screen personality as opposed to the real him.

Final Score: 7.5/10

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Marvel at Comic-con 2019

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I have not gone to San Diego Comic-con in over a decade, and of course not Hall H. I frankly don’t miss all the crowds and the annoying press of people , especially for Hall H where it can get really packed and  bit hot. And it seems that a lot of studios are not going for the big wall to wall presentations anymore like that have done before. Warner Brothers and DC had nothing to bring  to comic con this year. And originally, neither did Marvel. But  Kevin Feige being the smart marketer that he is, realized that this year was the perfect opportunity to dominate the geek news cycle with Marvel news. So on Saturday, July 20th, Feige and Marvel brought the boom to the room.

Since I could not be there personally, I had to rely social media feeds and YouTube streamers who were also watching social media feeds. It was actually kind of fun. The slate of announcements were for many things were already expected. However there were a few surprises such as casting, and a major reveal in the end.

Obviously if you are not up to date on the most recent Marvel films, including Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, there will be spoilers ahead.

The Eternals

I know that most fans know very little to nothing about the Eternals. And I highly doubt that anyone out there were thinking “Yeah! Eternals! This is what I’ve always wanted.” And in the history of Marvel comics, they were not a top tier title,  or middle tier for that matter. But their existence as the early inhabitants of earth feeds into that History Channel Ancient Astronaut itch. Their inclusion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be huge, though. For one thing it is possible this lays down the foundations on why some people become super powered instead of getting killed by, say gamma rays, a radioactive spider, or a super soldier serum.

The Eternals are not exactly a superhero team, they are a race of beings that have existed on earth since the beginning of time. Marvel’s panel introduced audience to the cast: Angelina Jolie will star as Thena alongside Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Lia McHugh as Sprite, and Don Lee as Gilgamesh.

That is a huge stable of talent. And I looks forward to seeing what they do with this. For a more informed take on the significance of The Eternals and what the implications are for the MCU, I recommended Robert Jefferson of Comics Explained to break it down for you.

 

Thor: Love and Thunder

Gracing Hall H were Chris Helmsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman. Now Ms. Portman has had very little to do in the Thor movies since the Dark World and even her scenes in Avengers Endgame was previously shot footage with some post audio recorded by her. That would beg the question on why she is there. Director Taika Waititi was a fan of Jason Aaron’s comic run of The Mighty Thor where Jane Foster assumed the mantle of Lady Thor. I don’t know how they are going to handle the handing over of ther mantle because the circumstances are unique in the comics and the way the MCU is set up now, it doesn’t seem to be going in the same direction. For the film, though, Jane Foster will be known as Mighty Thor.

Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Yeah, I know a lot out there have no clue who Shang Chi is but I have to say I have never been more dreading and excited. I am excited because Shang Chi was one of my favorite comics in the 70s and especially when artist Paul Gullacy was drawing the comics where he straight up modeled Shang Chi after Bruce Lee to the point that Marvel probably told him to cut it out.

Now, Shang Chi comes with some baggage and the big one is of course that he is the son of Fu Manchu which is possibly one of the worst racist Yellow Peril Stereotypes in history. Marvel lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer characters a few years back. And now they have cast Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as the true Mandarin who had been hinted at as a character since Iron Man and did wrong in Iron Man 3. Now the Mandarin is still a problematic character as far as race, but the name doesn’t have the racist baggage that Fu Manchu has.

Newcomer, Simu Liu was introduced as Shang Chi who had only received news that he got the part four days before the panel.  But Mr. Liu is not a stranger to Marvel Studios as he had been campaigning for an Asian superhero before Shang Chi was ever officially announced as a project. He seemed to interact really well with the crowd and has a natural charming personality.

I’ll have more thoughts on Shang Chi in an future post. But Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a lot riding on it that casual fans may not be aware of.

Black Widow

After the events of Endgame, many cynics hve coiced the opinion on why people would want to see a Black Widow movie. Which begs the question of why not? Just because Tony Stark dies in the finale of Endgame does not mean that there is no reason to watch the previous movies with Iron Man. Black Widow is no different. And make no mistake, this is going to be an origin. Joining the cast besides Scarlet Johansson  will be David Harbour as Alexei, the Red Guardian.

This looks to be a more grounded film as well as a spy thriller. Besides the Red Guardian which is essentially Russia’s version of Captain America, will be Taskmaster who is a master mimic of fighting styles, making him very difficult to defeat.

WandaVision

Coming to Disney Plus. When the creators outright say that the show is going to be strange, they probably. It will feature Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, and Vision who we last saw dead in Avengers Infinity War. And it will take place after the events of Avengers endgame.

Now, how they bring Vision back from the dead has not been revealed but there are no shortage of theories as to how this can be done. Most likely it has to do with what Shuri did at the last minute in a scene in Infinity War.

I had also been promised that other MCU characters would make appearances in the show as well. The rumors that the show would take place during the 50’s was a bit off. It will apparently have a 50’s feel to it, whatever that means. But it will explore the nature and powers of Wanda more. That brings us to her joining Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

“Just because Quentin Beck made up lies about the multiverse, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”  Declared Kevin Feige. Director Scott Derrickson promises that this will be the first Marvel Studios horror movie. Benedict Cumberbatch showed up and received a belated happy birthday from the host and audience.

The title itself opens up a lot of possibilities and it has also been confirmed that not only will Benedict Cumberbatch be reprising his role as Strange, but that he will be joined by Elizabeth Olsen reprising her role as Scarlet Witch. My personal theory which is total speculation is that an event will happen within the WandaVision series that will lead up to being resolved in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

And it could all lead to Marvel’s House of M, which would be epic. Robert Jefferson is once again, on hand to give an in depth explanation to one of the major storylines to shape the Marvel Comics universe in his four-part House of M videos. Part 1 is below.

Falcon and Winter Soldier

Coming to Disney Plus in 2020 will be Falcon and Winter Soldier in their own limited series. It’s not Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Let me say why this title really works and just may shot down the nerdy theorist out there. Just because Steve Rogers gave his shield to Falcon does not mean he is Captain America. In my opinion, these things may work in the comics where you have month to month to sell the transition. I may even work as a television series. This series is only supposed to be six episodes, however.

From a storytelling standpoint it makes sense that public wants Wilson to be the new Captain America, and maybe he even tries to assume the mantle for a while. But Sam Wilson is not Steve Rogers and he has to come to terms with his own identity too. This really

What If

For Disney Plus, this has the potential to be the most fun and experimental of any series they have on their table or even their movies. What if? was a comic series that was popular for some time in the 70s through the 80s which were usually one issue speculations such as “What if Conan was in the Modern Age?” “What if Mary Jane were Bitten by the Radioactive Spider?” The comics would start with an introduction by a Watcher who basically served as the Rod Serling of the series.

Jeffrey Wright, who has been seen in such big franchises as The Hunger Games, Westworld, and Boardwalk Empire will be providing the voice of The Watcher.

Hawkeye

Also coming to the Disney Plus streaming service is a Hawkeye series. Apparently it will be focusing on Renner’s Hawkey character training Kate Bishop to be the new Hawkeye. “I get to teach someone else how to be a superhero without super powers.” They used the same graphic as the title graphic for Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye, which Io9 called one of Marvel’s greatest comics. Yes, there will presumably be a female takeover of the Haweye mantle. Cue anti SJW outrage. But I am intrigued.

Loki

So some bloke named Tom Hiddleston showed up for the announcement of a show that was no secret. Loki will be a limited series streaming on Disney Plus although he had died in Avengers Infinity War, he was very much alive in the time travel portion of Avengers Endgame. And we saw that he had an out. And the version of Loki that will be on the show is going to be the evil Loki, not the chaotic good one that we saw at the end of Thor Ragnarok and the beginning of Infinity War.

Blade

Two-time Academy Award winning actor Mahershala Ali came out on stage at the very tail end of the Marvel presentation. At this point, everyone on stage and in the audience were handed Black Widow hats, but Mr. Ali did not have one. WHen Kevin asked him why he did not have a hat on, he said he brought his own. He put it on and it had a newly revamped logo for Marvel’s Blade. Mic drop of the con.

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Blade had a decent following and had some success as a film franchise starring Wesley Snipes. This would mark Marvel Studio’s foray into the darker universe. The original movies were rated R and Bob Iger, CEO of Disney has said in no uncertain terms that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not be rated R. Deadpool would be on his own at Fox. It is not impossible for Blade to be rated PG-13. The original comics were written under the outdated days of the Comics Code.

Nevertheless, the it will be some time before we see Blade on screen as Kevin Feige said after the presentation that it would not be part of Phase 4 but rather Phase 5. So many things can happen behind the scenes. Maybe Bob Iger will change his mind.`

Fantastic Four and More

A reboot of Fantastic Four was essentially name-dropped as the panel was closing as well as mentions that Black Panther 2 and Captain Marvel 2. We know the sequels are coming, but there is no release time frame set but it is inevitable. They were name-dropped as well as Fantastic Four. And like Blade, these sequels look to probably be in Phase 5.

Final thoughts

Now, if you think this is Marvel’s mic drop, remember that their appearance at Comic-Con was a last minute decision. And there is still D23 coming up in August which is the major convention run by Disney which they have been promoting for some time to supplant San Diego. Expect to hear more details on Black Panther’s sequel, Captain Marvel, and expect a team-up film to close out the phase. I am sure Marvel has a lot more news to make and more details on the films already mentioned.

There is going to undoubtedly be some pushback against Marvel for having such a diverse cast of characters in their upcoming phase of movies and it will probably be from the same corner of the internet that were going to boycott Captain Marvel and drive its box office numbers down, you know, the same ones who thought that Black Panther was pandering to minorities and was going to be a box office failure. Well, they are proving themselves to be nothing more than circular group of people echoing each other. And we know that half these people on YouTube making their little screeds could not care less or really even believe in what they say. They do it for the clicks and the views. And the fact that there is supposed outrage over diversity shows exactly why there is a need to have diversity. Now these movies may fail. But it probably won’t be because of diversity or more representation of marginalized people. If they fail, it will fail because they are just bad.

If I made any errors in the announcements, forgive me. I will make corrections in the comment section if needed.

The Lion King 2019 – Why? Just Why?: A Review

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GHOST If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
HAMLET O God!
GHOST Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
HAMLET Murder!
GHOST Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
HAMLET Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love, 30
May sweep to my revenge.

Disney has a series of nature documentaries labelled as Disneynature. They have a tendency to anthropomorphize the animals in these documentaries. A recent one about Adele Penguins focuses on one specific penguin as the camera crew follows him around and searches for a mate and lives out his year or so why having someone provide internal dialog and one sided conversations with other penguins and animals. That kinda works in short bits and is funny.

I kept thinking of those Disneynature documentaries while watching the latest Disney remake The Lion King. Then they start to talk, and it just feels off.  Now, there is nothing technically wrong with The Lion King, but it does nothing besides being a technological marvel. Director Jon Favreau had quite a bit of success with the Disney remake of The Jungle Book.

After the murder of his father, young lion cub Simba believes he is at fault because of the machinations of his uncle, Scar. He flees the scene and the pridelands where he meets up with the comedic dual of Timon and Pumbaa which brings some much needed personality to the movie by the midway point. They sing, they trot around, they get revenge on Scar, etc. I mean, come on, it’s been twenty-five years and it’s pretty much a shot-by-shot remake, these aren’t spoilers. But in the long run, Timon and Pumbaa are one of the saving graces of the film.

There are shots in this that are phenomenal and look right out of something shot by National Geographic or BBC’s Planet Earth. And for me, when I see CG animation I can never help but look for flaws and that maybe something can be done better. This is a near flawless movie on a technical level. They photo-realism of the animals and the entire computer created environments is astounding. And the crew who created this world along with director Jon Favreau should be applauded for their work. But technical brilliance can only go so far.

As far as the performances go, the actors are more than serviceable. Donald Glover as the adult Simba is fine, not particularly great. John Oliver does well as Zasu. And believe it or not, James Earl Jones, now with an older voice is even better as Mufasa than when he first voiced the role a quarter century ago. Seth Rogen is great as Pumbaa, but he also is basically playing himself. And Beyonce basically does not really do any voice acting so much as play herself as Nala. Chewetal Ejiofor does well enough as Scar, but they did him wrong for his musical moment. This is a hugely talented cast, yet some of the performances come across as flat. And when that happens, it’s not the actor, it is the voice direction. I don’t know wheat happened in the recording studio, but something was certainly missing.

Even if I were to disregard the existence of the original, at a certain point, the marvel of the computer animation wears off and you are taken out of the realism by the fact that these are animals talking and singing. And it also becomes apparent how simplistic the story is.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what I or paid professional critics say, The Lion King is going to make a lot of money. Kids are probably going to dig it, though in my showing I notice some fidgeting for most of the film until towards the end. Disney knows how to make money on remakes. Okay, Dumbo was a box-office bomb. But what does the audience actually want? Do they want a shot by shot remake of what they already own on DVD and Blu-ray? Or do they want an original take on the old story. That debate is currently going on with nostalgic old folks like me about the upcoming Mulan and The Little Mermaid. But with stories like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and even Aladdin, they are stories that can be remade endlessly.

Of course there’s the argument to be made that this is for a generation of kids who may have never seen The Lion King. Really? In this day and age of DVD, Blu-ray, UHD disc, and digital streaming? Plus a whole generation of parents that hold the original in high regard? No, that dog don’t hunt. And speaking of home video, this is probably better served on home video because you can just plain stop after so long or just skip to certain scenes you like. Maybe this is the first time kids will be exposed to The Lion King and ts perfectly serviceable for them, at home. Because seriously it is cheaper to buy the movie than it is to get the kids to the theater, pay for parking, get the popcorn and sodas, and multiple tickets than just waiting a few months for the disc. But if you want to show your kids The Lion King for the first time, the original is available.

Final Score: 6/10

Review: I Believe in ‘Yesterday’

 

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The first record I remember ever playing was by the Beatles. It was a 45 RPM single of “Let it Be” and I played it again and again. I was maybe twelve or thirteen with my little AM/FM with built in turntable. I have been a fan of the Beatles ever since. I distinctly remember the time and place when I heard over the radio about the death of John Lennon and it broke my heart.

Yesterday, a film directed by Academy Award winner, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) poses an interesting , and rather bleak idea. What if the Beatles had never existed? Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling musician who has been working the pub and small club scene in and around Suffolk England for years now, and is about to lose all hope and just pack it in and go back to being a school teacher.

While riding his bicycle back home, there is a power outage…a worldwide power outage which lasts twelve seconds. Jack is hit by a bus and wakes up later in the hospital a bit bruised up, and missing a few teeth. He gets some really nice implants pretty quickly, later. I don’t know if that’s a commentary on British healthcare or not. By his hospital bed, when he wakes up, is childhood friend and manager Ellie played by Lilly James.

When Jack says jokingly, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” she has no idea what he’s talking about, but he lets it go. Later, when he meets his friends, they give him a nice shiny new guitar. Appreciating the gift, he decides not to play one of his own songs, but “Yesterday,” one the most iconic songs in the Beatles songbook. His friends are mesmerized by the song, thinking it was something that Jack wrote and saying they have never heard of the Beatles. Jack thinks the joke has gone on too far and heads home. Looking online, he finds no results for the Beatles of the names of the individual Fab Four. His album collection is missing his Beatles records. At least David Bowie and the Rolling Stones still exist.

It dawns on jack that he may be the only one in the world who remembers the Beatles, so he decides to remember as many Beatles songs as he can, write them down and pass them off as his. What could possibly go wrong? He doesn’t quite achieve instant success, and still plays pubs but manages to get a demo disc made and a TV appearance on a local TV station. It is after the TV appearance that he is contacted by some bloke name Ed Sheeran, played by some bloke named Ed Sheeran. He is invite to join him on a tour as an opener.

Thus begins his journey towards stardom as he is approached by Sheeran’s American agent Debra, played to scene stealing perfection by SNL’s Kate McKinnon to sign him up for a recording contract. But left behind is Ellie who chooses to stay back in Suffolk as a school teacher, but not before admitting herself into the friend zone before Jack had a chance to process her confession.

Debra’s plan is to make Jack a viral hit before his first album is released. before long, his songs are getting huge buzz as they slowly get out into the internet. The early release songs are a hit and he is hailed as a genius songwriter.

Yesterday may not be the most original idea. It has probably been done before in other mediums, but this is definitely full of British humor and sweet charm. Himesh Patel performs the songs and plays the guitar with soulful dedication to the classic songs made famous by the Beatles and there are quite a few amusing scenes of Jack trying to remember words to certain songs. Eleanor Rigby apparently is his most beguiling.

Underlying the road to stardom is Ellie’s relationship with Jack, hiding her love away ever since they were seven years old. Jack goes from clueless to realizing that the only thing he needs is love. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can kind of see where this will end up. But even then, the payoff is warm and touching. And speaking of payoff, how he deals with that impeding wealth and fame is straight up fairy tale stuff.

There is no explanation on why the world no longer has the Beatles, or a couple of other things like Coke and Cigarettes. But with most fantasy, we are given the fantastical premise and whether it works for us or not is up to us. To me, a world without their music would be a pretty horrible world.

Yesterday is not a perfect film. It has a few flaws especially with the middle portion of how Ellie and Jack interact, but it is full of charm with of course music that the world loves. Himesh Patel is charismatic, and Lilly James is the perfect girl next door. Ed Sheeran seems to be having fun playing himself. And Kate McKinnon just steals every scene she is in.

Sick of blockbusters, remakes, and sequels? Give Yesterday a spin. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10

Review: Aladdin 2019

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Aladdin, like Beauty and the Beast, is one of the more beloved of their animated films which came during a sort of Disney animated comeback that was led by The Little Mermaid. Two-thousand and nineteen will see three remakes of Disney animated films by the year’s end; Dumbo came out earlier, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is so unique that I won’t actually count it as a remake since it is so different from the animated film as well as the source material. On the heels of Dumbo’s financial failure, Aladdin doesn’t come without doubts, chief of which, how can one possibly replace the comedic genius of Robin Williams as the genie?

Will Smith steps into that role with gusto and brings his own style to the role – as well he should. When early promotional pictures first out they were not very flattering to Smith but, you know, come on, it was Will Smith with blue body paint. Later promos showed him as, of course, a motion capped CGI genie which looked better. The reactions were more positive.

As far as the movie as a whole is concerned, it is a good to above average piece of musical entertainment that can be enjoyable for all audiences. It is however a a near beat for beat remake of the animated film. Which begs the question of whether a remake was even necessary.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street rat who has been on his own since he was a child. With his pet monkey, Abu, he’d been living as a thief, fencing stolen items for money or even food. But he, of course, has a good heart and after just eating a couple of dates, gives his whole bag to some starving children.

Parallel to this is a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) who is incognito amongst the common people in the marketplace. While noticing some starving children she hands some bread to them from a merchant’s stall. Unfortunately she does so without permission of the vendor and also has no money on her to pay for it. Aladdin sees her good heart and tries to help. Hijinks ensue and a street chase commences. Once away from the guards, Aladdin susses out that Jasmine because of the way that she is dressed is not only from the palace, but a handmaiden to Princess Jasmine. Oh, he was so close too. In true fairy tale fashion there is a love connection between the two. But jasmine has to make herself back to the palace as a suitor has entered the city to woo the hand of the Princess.

Aladdin sneaks into the palace to return a bracelet that was, uhm…left behind/stolen by his monkey. He is also arrested by Jafar (Marwan Kanzari), the vizier of the palace. For some time, Jafar had been trying to obtain a magic lamp from within the Cave of Wonders, unfortunately everyone that he has sent in is consumed by the lion’s head entrance.  Jafar reveals, that he like Aladdin, was once a common thief himself and offers Aladdin a bargain, riches and the opportunity to woo the princess if he retrieves the magic lamp from the cave. Just don’t take anything but the lamp. So of course while inside, Abu tries to take a big ruby.

Yeah, you can see it coming. Cave collapses, Aladdin gets trapped, Genie appears from lamp, allows him three wishes. Through a technicality, getting out of the cave is a freebie. So Aladdin’s first official wish is to become a prince so that he may be able to woo Jasmine where the law says that she can only marry a prince.

There is much to like about the Aladdin remake being a live action rendition of a well loved animated classic. Some of the musical numbers just pop to life on screen with such numbers as “Prince Ali” with his entrance into Agrabah. It is vibrantly colorful and filled with infectious choreography. It also has the look of a Aladdin themed Disney Main Street parade brought to the big screen. Depending on whether you like Disney Main Street Parades you’ll have a great time. Will Smith’s first number, “Never Had a Friend Like Me” is a fun a different take from the that of the late Robin Williams and that is good. Will Smith is very much his own personality and he is allowed play up his comedic talents.

Mena Massoud as Aladdin is charming enough with an infectious smile and a look in his eyes that actually look like they are drawn by old time Disney animators because they are so expressive. He is a competent enough of a singer for his solo songs, but unfortunately he is overpowered in the famous duet “A Whole New World” by Naomi Scott.

Speaking of Naomi Scott, she is absolutely charismatic Princess Jasmine. Her character above all others has had the most changes done to her characterization. Instead of being a shut-in who has no one to talk too except her pet tiger (even though she still has it). She has a confidante in her handmaiden Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad who not only provides some added levity but support. Jasmine isn’t portrayed as the object for men to pursue, she actually shows why she is different from others. She is smart, has studied not only the politics and maps of the world but has learned leadership from her father. Yet tradition prevents her from becoming Sultan or Sultana. She gets a showstopper new song called “Speechless” which shows off Naomi Scott’s vocals very well. Also, the costume designer must love dressing her as every outfit stands out.

The musical numbers overall are a feast for the eyes and feature energetic Bollywood inspired dance numbers, some of which are very tempting to tap your toes along with. The costumes are vibrant and look to be inspired from various Middle-eastern, Indian, and Byzantine cultures. Despite all the cultural influence portrayed on the screen, though, the Chinese origin of the Aladdin tale does not seem to be present at all. But this is clearly a fantasy story that is inspired by the history and culture of the aforementioned cultures but without using their actual history. It does a better job of not stereotyping characters, but not a perfect one. But at least we don’t get chained up slave Jasmine which just would not was today.

Jafar as the villain has a little more motivation than in the animated film as his background reflects Aladdin’s background as once being a thief himself. Their paths are juxtaposed with the paths they have chosen.

There are several plot threads that are laid out laid out but seem to go nowhere. Jasmine mentions early that her mother is not only dead, but was killed. This never goes anywhere the neighboring kingdom that Jafar is trying to talk the Sultan into attacking is the home kingdom of Jasmine’s mother. There is also no explanation to how Jafar knows about the Cave of Wonders, let alone the magic lamp. It’s also never really explained why Aladdin is the “Diamond in the rough.” There is no explanation of why Jasmine is in the market in disguise either.

Along with our human cast is of course, not one, not two, but three animal mascots. Just as in the anime, Jasmine has a pet tiger named Raja, which is a fairly convincingly rendered big cat. Abu like the animated film’s counterpart is Aladdin’s often troublesome monkey that is much more sentient than any monkey should be unless the Planet of the Apes virus has infected him. Jafar’s parrot, Iago has actually been toned down from it’s chattering wisecracking personality yet can still communicate with his master.

Towards the end, director Guy Ritchie reverts to an almost generic big frantic chase sequence of fetch it for possession of the lamp. It seems a bit contrived but also par for the course for the director that turned Sherlock Holmes (as played by Robert Downey Jr.) into an action video game hero.

Aladdin works fine as piece of family entertainment. It is perfectly enjoyable and whether it will be remembered by future generations as fondly as its animated version will be up to the test of time and the nostalgia of audiences. Recommended

Final Score: 7.5/10

Review: Toy Story 4 is a Fitting Finale

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“…One day I’ll be put on display in a toy shop. I’ll be sold as a gift for a very special child who’ll desperately need a secret friend.”

“That’s correct.” Mr. Bodkins smiled and nodded approval. “It will be a little girl or boy who, if he grows up whole and happy, will contribute something of importance to the world. A special child, as you have said. But this will be a child who has to face enormous problems or who must live through a terrible sorrow…But whatever the child’s problems, you will be there to offer comfort, counsel, and love. You must help the child to grow up confident and loving, regardless of what cruelties the world inflicts on him. Because, you see, this special little girl or boy of yours will perhaps become a doctor who saves lives, or a diplomat who negotiates peace, or a teacher … if only he can grow up whole and happy. But if he’s broken by the tragedies he must endure, then he will never have a chance to make this world a better place.

Dean R. Koontz, Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages

Pixar Studios’ first animated film was in 1995 and it revolutionized American film animation forever. That movie was Toy Story and for better or worse, traditional animation has gone by the wayside in the wake of fully computer rendered animation. It’s been twenty-four years since then and nine years since Toy Story 3 and many other great animated films in-between those movies and the years. Toy Story 3 seemed, at the time, a fitting end to the trilogy.  Andy had grown up and moved on to college. The toys had been passed on to a new child, Bonnie, to enjoy.

We are now presented with Toy Story 4, a movie that even I would say was not asked for or needed. The story felt like it was complete at the end of the third film. It’s actually a good thing to be wrong sometimes. Toy Story 4 does more than any other film in the franchise to examine exactly why toys are needed in a kid’s life and how important they are. Not only do the toys need kids to serve a purpose, but kids need toys in their lives. Sure, it’s mentioned that toys need to be there for their kids but it is not until Toy Story 4 that a toy’s true purpose to be there for their kid is best displayed.

In a flashback to nine years previously, Andy is still the energetic fun kid wearing his cowboy hat and playing with Woody and Buzz. During a heavy rainstorm a car pulls up to pick up Molly’s lamp which had Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her little sheep from the previous films is being given away. It was mentioned in Toy Story 3 that Bo Peep was lost, but not why. Now we know she had gone to another home.

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Now with their new kid, the gang seems to be settled in nicely. But Woody (Tom Hanks) finds himself being taken out of Bonnie’s closet less and less. She even pins his sheriff badge on Jesse. When Bonnie finds herself at a crisis point in her young life, namely orientation day at kindergarten, Woody decides on his own that he needs to accompany her to school hidden in her backpack.

While there, Bonnie does feel isolated and alone amongst a room full of other kids she sits alone feeling alienated and alone. During a crafting session, even though Bonnie doesn’t have anything to craft with, Woody sneaks some random things out of the trash, including a spork. Bonnie is inspired enough to create what she will name Forky.

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Sometimes it is the simplest things in our world that gives us delight and the simple creation from trash of Forky not only gives Bonnie delight but also praise from her Kindergarten teacher. While in Bonnie’s backpack, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) comes to life. Now for someone like me, that raises some deep philosophical questions about existence and purpose. Like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story, he does not believe he’s a toy. Unlike Buzz, he thinks he is trash and has already served his purpose as a spork and must be thrown in the trash. He spends much of the film trying to throw himself in the trash.

There is a certain formula to the Toy Story films and part of that is going on a trip and separation of the toys. It happens here as well. Bonnie’s parents take her on a roadtrip since kindergarten doesn’t actually start for another week, and as typical for Toy Story someone gets separated from the group. Forky jumps out the window as an escape and Woody, who has been trying to keep an eye on him follows.

Woody catches up with Forky and on the way to the RV park that Bonnie and the gang are at, they have a long conversation about being a toy. Well, basically it’s Woody reminiscing about his life with Andy and with the other toys. Forky does begin to understand what he is, though. He is a toy, and because Bonnie made him and that he was there for a difficult time in her life, Forky is the most important thing in her life at the moment.

Of course getting back to the RV that the family has been traveling in would be too easy as Woody spots a familiar lamp in the window of an antique shop, but without the porcelain figures that are supposed to go with it. Woody decides to check and see if an old friend is possibly inside. She’s nowhere to be found, but Woody and Forky do meet another doll from the same era as Woody, Gabby Gabby with her entourage of ventriloquist dummies. Dead giveaway folks, ventriloquist dummies are outright creepy, and an entourage of four identical ones is a sign that you are about to deal with a freaking villain. And Gabby has a really dark side to her. But she is not villainous for villainy’s sake

Woody manages to get out of the antique store but Forky is left behind. Across the road is Bonnie and the gang and parked by a traveling carnival. On his way he gets reunited with Bo Peep. Over the years Bo Peep has changed, though. Finding her time in the antique shop dull and boring she set off on her own and spent the last few years in local park living freely with other other toys. With the arrival of the carnival, she plans to hitch  ride and travel along with it.

All this time, Bonnie has been more concerned with her new toy, upset that it’s missing. So of course, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) decides to go looking for Woody. Along the way we will meet other toys. A pair of them from the carnival are played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. They are a plushy dual of a big bunny and an attached duck, respectively.  Now, Pixar has not exactly been known for their casting diversity and with the comedic talents of Key & Peele, it could have veered too far into the “sassy black” stereotype. In my opinion, I don’t think it did that here. That’s not to say it did not flirt with it. The pair provide some of the best gags and have some interesting plans that involve breaking the toy rules. Listen for a cameo of Carl Weathers as several action figures known as Combat Carl.

In the antique shop, the gang gets some action figure help from Canada’s greatest Stuntman, Duke Kaboom. Another trope of the Toy Story films is the elaborate heist movie plans to escape or rescue another toy.  After four films, this formula has the real possibility of getting stale, but the script and the characters keep it creative. A large part of that fun it is Duke Kaboom who has the most to prove in order to help the gang. Keanu Reeves as Duke Kaboom seems to be having the time of his life portraying what is basically the Canadian version of an Evel Knievel toy while injecting a new catchphrase into the movie lexicon, “Yes I Canada!”

Bo Peep had always been a minor character in the early films. Her porcelain nature may not have been good for the madcap adventures of the other toys. Her fragile nature is actually played for a gag in one bit as she laughs of one of her limbs breaking off and just tapes it back up. And since she was not really Andy’s toy, but his younger sister’s, she ended up being more in the background too. Ultimately it was always about Andy’s toys. But time around, the story tightens and focuses on a lot on not just Woody, but his relationship with Bo Peep. It plays off the little hints of romance we first saw in the original Toy Story.  It’s also good to see more depth to the Bo Peep character and her inherent badass nature.

As par for the course with Pixar films, the quality of the animation is outstanding. There are levels of details here that may be ignored by other studios but are meticulous in its presentation here, such as the presence of dust and cobwebs behind the cabinets of the antique store, or the subtle reflections of objects in the eyes of characters. The scenes of the fair are rendered with such exacting photo-realistic detail, you can almost smell the popcorn and cotton candy.

Despite the formulaic nature of the franchise, Toy Story 4 has an exceptionally strong script. It is very emotional at times and if it doesn’t hit you in the feels at least once, you are dead. Even the Gabby, the antagonist, has a deep story that comes to a conclusion by the end. I think this is what makes Pixar films rise above the rest, the belief in strong storytelling. And the Toy Story films are especially good at telling good stories about relatable characters and their relationships with each other. They connect not only with our children, but with us as adults. And the comedy is still darn funny.

With this fourth entry, this does feel like a a true ending for our characters. But if somewhere down the line another one comes along, it’ll be a welcome friend. Highly Recommended.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home

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Spoiler Warning: This review will contain major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame while keeping Spider-Man: Far From Home as non-spoiler as possible.

Spider-Man Far from Home is not just a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming but is also considered the final film in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taking place eight months after the events in Avengers: Endgame, the world is still coming to grips with a world post snap, or “blip,” as it is called in Far From Home. The memory of Iron Man haunts the movie throughout as the world still mourns Tony Stark and honors his sacrifice.

This especially looms over Peter Parker who has looked up to Tony as not just a father figure but a superhero mentor.  And as Spider-Man, others keep looking to him as either the “next” Iron Man or the next leader of the Avengers. Along with his superhero responsibilities, he is also trying to balance life as a normal teenager. This balance is strained as Peter Parker and his class go on a European science trip, which really doesn’t get much science done. Part of that is because there is a global threat from — well — monsters.

The students first see one rise out of the waters of Venice and while Peter does his best to save the city’s civilians without his costume handy, a mysterious caped character appears to fight the creature and appears to destroy it by blasting it with green energy from his hands that resemble Captain Marvel’s photon blasts while also wielding what look like Dr. Strange’s spell glyphs.

The students dub him Mysterio as a play on the Italian press describing him as a “Mysterio” or Mystery Man. It turns out that his name is Quentin Beck, a soldier from an alternate earth, and he has been working with Nick Fury to battle creatures known as Elementals, based on the elements, they had destroyed his earth.  Fury wants to recruit Peter into the team to combat these things. Peter is reluctant to do so as he doesn’t feel he is up for the task plus he wants to just be a high school kid for once. Of course if great laid out plans worked as they are dreamed of, we would not have a movie. And he’s still an awkward dork.

This may be Tom Holland’s second Spider-Man movie, but it’s the fifth time he’s played the web slinger. He’s really come to personify the role now and is as connected to the role as much as Robert Downey Jr. has Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America. His performance as both Peter and Spider-Man come across as a authentic teenager who has accepted his great responsibility but has doubts about his ability to step up.

It helps to have a strong supporting cast to lift up our main and they are on hand for Spidey. These current Spider-Man films have the most ethnically diverse cast in any Marvel film and it really makes the setting of a New York City High School believable.  Jacob Batalon returns as Ned, the world’s worst best friend. He is mostly around for some comic relief and a source of distraction for Peter when he needs to get away. Since they are out of their home element, their is no opportunity for him to really be the “guy in the chair.” But he owns all his scenes.

Zendaya is back as MJ. Previously, she provided sarcastic commentary every few scenes like a deadpan Greek Chorus. She still does that, but is also the object of Peter’s affections and a such a contrived plan to confess his feelings, it rivals that of anime slice of life romances. Nevertheless, romance does play an important sub-plot for Peter’s character as deals with his hormones and added superhero responsibilities. Though her character is still deadpan, and dry humored, she brings a certain charm to it which reminds me of the goth kids I grew up with in my high school.

Of course, Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, a role he was born for. Well, technically, this role was made for him as it was based on the Ultimate Universe comics version oh Fury. And those Ultimate comics line based their Fury on Samuel L. Jackson. Funny how these things work out. Jackson’s is, as always, a welcome presence in the role and brings along Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) as the guys in the chair tag-team for Spidey this time around. He provides the contractually obligated snappy one-liners with typical Jackson panache, minus the use of motherf***er word, of course.

Jon Favreau is back as Happy Hogan with a bigger, more involved, role this time around and also serves as the closest person Peter can turn to for emotional support in the absence of Tony Stark.

If it were any other actor than Jake Gyllenhaal, the character of Mysterio would be a joke. But he manages to not just embrace the role, he manages to sell it to us. For those who know the character from the comics, it’s not too major a surprise what his story is, but it’s more about how and when it is revealed. There are of course differences between the character’s history in the comics as opposed to the MCU, but this fits the movie universe quite well. And for those that were picking apart the trailer looking for clues to support fan theories, y’all got played a little.

The locations from Venice, Prague, and London look great on film and is a welcome change from the almost stale look of generic locations that are so often used in other Marvel Studio films. It really does make the film feel large in scale. And the eye-popping action sequences utilize the locations to great effect.

The film does suffer from a few issues however, one of which is a major dumb decision from Peter Parker that will put himself and everyone he knows in danger. The plot hinges on this, of course, and I guess it was necessary for him to make that dumb move.

With the evolution of the MCU movies, the tech has gone from plausible to near magical and I’m not sure how I feel about that. From magically omnipresent A.I. to spider suits that are magically put together by nano-technology that not just stretches believability but really makes the stakes feel less high is magical tech is going to solve everything.

As humorous as Far From Home is, some of the jokes land flat and romance angle seems to drag at points with what seems to be an unneeded and contrived triangle involving fellow student Brad Davis (played by Remy Hii) for MJ’s attention.

And of course, stick around through all of the credits until the end to catch the two post credit scenes. These two scenes aren’t just little stingers, but they setup major plot points and teases for events moving forward not only for Spider-Man’s future but the MCU as well. Despite a few shortcomings, Spider-Man: Far From Home is a fun entertaining film and is not just a palate cleanser to Avengers: Endgame and close to Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It opens the way for the next phase of movies to come. It comes with two thumbs up from me and is Highly Recommended

Final score: 8.5/10

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