Review – Toy Story 4


FILM REVIEWTOY STORY 4With the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keanu Reeves. Written by Andrew Stanton & Stephany Folsom. Directed by Josh Cooley. Rated G. 100 minutes.

toy_story_four_ver8Nine years ago, I reviewed “Toy Story 3” by noting, “It is a fitting end to what now must be called the ‘Toy Story’ trilogy. The ending is so right it would be criminal to try to squeeze any more out of the series.”

Thus, there was some nervousness about the release of TOY STORY 4. Pixar has created some of the greatest animated movies of all time. Their Achilles heel, so to speak, has been with their sequels. Whatever one thinks of movies ranging from “Cars 2” to “Finding Dory” to “Monsters University,” they all fell short of their originals. The one exception were the “Toy Story” films. In between the laughs and thrills were issues about growing up and growing old. As the characterizations deepened, we saw how Woody’s sense of loyalty and Buzz’s bravery turned into both an asset and a burden.

So, after the brilliant and emotional conclusion to “Toy Story 3,” was there possibly anything left to be said? As it turns out, there was. In “Toy Story 4” Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) and Buzz (voice of Tim Allen) are starting to see changes in their lives. Bonnie, the girl whose toys they now are, is entering kindergarten and very nervous about it.

She makes the transition, with the help of an arts-and-craft doll she made called “Forky” (Tony Hale) for reasons that will be immediately apparent. On a road trip with her parents, Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts) at a curio shop, after her having become separated from the rest of them. What ensues are the plot points that move things along: meeting action doll Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) who turns out to be Canadian, encountering Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who covets Woody’s voice box and, of course a last-minute rescue.

Beyond the jokes and wonderfully surreal touches, from Forky to Gabby Gabby’s retinue of creepy-looking puppets, this is ultimately Woody’s story. He’s been fiercely loyal to whichever child he belonged to as well as to the other toys. In many ways he’s been the moral center of the “Toy Story” universe. Now he gets to ask if its time to be loyal to himself, with Bo Peep extolling the virtues of living freely. She’s not alone – she has her sheep – but she’s charting her own course while Woody only reacts to what’s going on around him.

If that sounds too deep for the youngsters who are the key demographic here, the movie is rated G, and has plenty of antics and thrills to entertain. However, for the adults, whether with kids or not, there’s food for thought as well. Those who have enjoyed the previous movies will appreciate just how hard it is for Woody to deal with choice he is faced with: continuing life as he’s always known it or taking a chance on the unknown.

“Toy Story 4” demonstrates that Pixar remembers what G rated movies were supposed to be: movies intended to appeal to everyone.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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Review – Men In Black: International


FILM REVIEWMEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONALWith Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Rebecca Ferguson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson. Written by Matt Holloway & Art Marcum. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material. 114 minutes.

men_in_black_internationalThe original “Men in Black” (1997) was so much fun that we keep hoping the sequels and spinoffs will live up to it. After more than two decades of trying, you’d think we’d know better. Instead we get the quirky aliens, and the stoic agents who can wipe the memories of any civilians who see what they shouldn’t have seen, and yet another tired story that fails to engage.

The best thing about MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL is the arrival of Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth to the franchise. Thompson is Agent M, a civilian who encountered an alien as a child and has figured out how to contact the Men in Black, the organization that oversees alien visitors to Earth. She’s told they usually do the recruiting of new members but accept her as a probationary agent. Her boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson, no relation), sends her to London on assignment. There she is partnered with Agent H (Hemsworth), the superstar of the British office.

What was amusing in the first film – that the agents are known only by single letters – is less so here, as there are only 26 letters in the alphabet. Just how many agents share the same letter? The plot involves an alien weapon, a pair of alien assassins, and the threat of a mole in the British operation. None of it is especially interesting, and while the special effects are dazzling, they have the narrative depth of a fireworks display. At no time do we actually care what’s going to happen beyond the default “rooting for the good guys.”

The bulk of the film falls on Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, and its shortcomings are not due to anything on their part. Thompson plays Agent M as a young woman getting the opportunity of a lifetime eager to prove herself. As with the recent “Dark Horizon,” the film notes that the number of women in the organization makes the “Men in Black” label as misleading as “X-Men,” but Thompson is allowed to be a character, not a symbol with which to bludgeon the audience.

If there’s a reason to see this, it may be to watch Hemsworth continue his emergence as more than beefcake, but a genuinely funny performer. As he showed in “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Avengers: Endgame,” he’s got the looks and build of a conventional action hero, but he can also be genuinely goofy. One of the best gags in the film is an allusion to his performances as Thor in the Marvel movies. The announcement that he’s to work on a forthcoming biopic as wrestler Hulk Hogan is definitely something to anticipate.

Unfortunately, “Men in Black: International” is a film that requires an undemanding audience that will be satisfied by simply repeating variations of what worked before. The two leads both deserve better, as do moviegoers.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Shaft (Sean’s Take)


FILM REVIEWSHAFT. With Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp. Written by Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow. Directed by Tim Story. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity. 113 minutes.

shaftHow could they do this to John Shaft? One of the coolest characters in movie history — the cat who won’t cop-out when there’s danger all about — is now a reactionary old crank pissing and moaning about those damn millennials and their coconut water. Gordon Parks’ 1971 original may have been no great shakes as a detective story, but the movie electrified audiences thanks to Richard Rountree’s effortless elegance and the revolutionary jolt of a major studio action picture in which a sexy, funny African-American lead was calmly in command of every situation.

Reconceived as a bickering family sitcom by “Black-ish” writer Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow of “The Goldbergs,” director Tim Story’s excruciatingly unfunny SHAFT features Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role as John Shaft’s namesake nephew from the late John Singleton’s gratuitously unpleasant 2000 sort-of sequel to Parks’ film, also confusingly called “Shaft.” (Pretty sure this is the first time three movies in a franchise have all shared the same title, which strikes me as especially lazy considering how Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s series of Shaft novels had amazing names like, “Shaft’s Carnival of Killers,” “Shaft Has a Ball,” and most intriguingly, “Shaft Among the Jews.”)

Shaft’s a deadbeat dad this time, still working as a private investigator in Harlem when his estranged son J.J. (Jessie Usher) comes to him with a case regarding a boyhood friend who overdosed under mysterious circumstances. Polite young J.J. works as a data analyst for the FBI, shops at The Gap, and generally comes off like a gentle, decent kid. This is a source of no small horror to Jackson’s Shaft, a macho blowhard who barrels around in a muscle car shouting, swearing and constantly accusing his son of being a homosexual because he knows how to use computers, treats women with respect, and doesn’t love guns. “Your mama done fucked you up,” is an oft-repeated refrain in this movie where any sign of femininity is coded as weakness, the word “pussy” flung around ad infinitum as an all-purpose epithet.

Generational clashes can be the stuff of great comedy, but “Shaft” is like watching an episode of “All in the Family” in which Archie Bunker’s always right. The movie doesn’t just endorse the elder Shaft’s backwards worldview, it valorizes it – with J.J. heroically ditching his millennial manners and learning how to cuss, whup-ass, and push people around. This neutered little wimp is finally seen as a real man by his childhood crush (Alexandra Shipp) only after he shoots up a nightclub – a sequence viewed through her eyes in comedically erotic slow-motion to the tune of “Be My Baby” as bullet casings ejaculate from his borrowed pistol.

Samuel L. Jackson is one of my favorite working actors, but he’s always been all wrong for Shaft. As in Singleton’s picture, he’s strenuously flexing and preening in trenchcoats and turtlenecks with his eyes bugged out, angrily shouting everybody down. Part of what made Roundtree so cool was that he never seemed to exert himself, while Jackson is exhausting to watch. Plus, there’s nothing carnal about his presence. As I noted in my Philadelphia Weekly review of the 2000 movie, “he’s too busy being pissed off all the time to show much interest in sex, which seems an inappropriate choice for a character named after part of a penis.”

(As in Singleton’s film, Roundtree shows up for a too-brief cameo that puts the rest of the picture to shame. Mystifyingly, he’s now playing Jackson’s dad and we’re told that he was only pretending to be his uncle in the last movie for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, it’s a rare pleasure to be in Roundtree’s company again and I tacked an extra half-star onto this review just for his offhanded delivery of the line, “Oh hell no, I shot him.”)

But even if “Shaft” weren’t so retrograde and obnoxious it would still look like garbage. Director Tim Story previously helmed the “Ride Along” pictures, which I guess goes to show that you can keep making the same movie in which gun-toting tough guys drive around loudly calling their co-stars “pussies” over and over again without necessarily getting any better at it. The indifferently staged action sequences all suffer from the same flat television comedy lighting, and the glaringly obvious Atlanta locations won’t fool anyone no matter how many times these characters keep claiming they’re in New York. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to let Isaac Hayes’ immortal theme song play out in its entirety.

What’s depressing about “Shaft” is that a film so progressive half-a-century ago has been revived as an ass-backwards celebration of boorish, boomer intransigence. Every generation likes to think they’re so much tougher than the ones that follow, but only the laziest of comics congratulate their audiences for feeling likewise. A lot of the so-called jokes in this new “Shaft” – particularly some ugly, left-field jabs at trans folks – would feel at home on an episode of Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing.” If this movie spent any more time bitching about millennials, I’d assume it was written by Bret Easton Ellis.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Shaft (Dan’s Take)


FILM REVIEWSHAFTWith Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Roundtree, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp. Written by Kenya Barris & Alex Barnow. Directed by Tim Story. Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity. 113 minutes.

shaftThe new SHAFT walks a tightrope in wanting to be both an action comedy and yet be respectful to the early ’70s series starring Richard Roundtree and the 2000 reboot with Samuel L. Jackson. It works, but it’s a movie where the action and the comedy are more important than the plot or any notion of strict continuity with the earlier films.

John Shaft, Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), is a data analyst with the FBI. When an old friend dies under mysterious circumstances, he reaches out to his father John Shaft (Jackson) who he has not seen since infancy. The father is an ex-cop turned private detective who likes to party, drive fast, and shoot things up, not necessarily in that order. Junior is much more strait-laced and yuppiefied, for which Senior blames his ex-wife (Regina Hall).

Part of the comedy is the “odd couple” nature of father and son, and part of it comes from when Junior – a college graduate who insists he doesn’t like guns – proves to have some unexpected talents. Things get ratcheted up in the third act with the arrival of the original Shaft (Roundtree), which turns the story into a family reunion. Apparently, the family that busts up drug lords together stays together.

The humor may occasionally be subtle (as in a reference to how Roundtree was identified as Jackson’s uncle in the 2000 film but is now his father, even as the two actors are only six years apart in age). However, that’s the exception to the rule. Much of it is raunchy or slapstick or both. When Junior first meets his father, he’s greeted by a half nude woman, and when dad shows up it’s pretty clear what was being interrupted.

What the original “Shaft” films represented were the emergence of a black action hero who called the shots and who was as virile and sexy as, say, James Bond. Jackson and Usher put their own spins on the character, but when we see the three of them together it’s clear that they respect what they’ve inherited even as they take it in new directions. It’s a lot of fun for those who understand the sex (mostly talked about) and violence (shown repeatedly) are taking place in movie fantasyland, and not to be taken literally. This is not for the easily offended or the overly squeamish.

“Shaft” may not relaunch a franchise, but this one takes its audience on a fast-paced ride.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Late Night


FILM REVIEWLATE NIGHTWith Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott. Written by Mindy Kaling. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. R for language throughout and some sexual references. 102 minutes.Late Night - Poster

In a season of sequels, reboots, and superheroes – which is to say, the summer movie season – someone in Hollywood usually figures out that a bit of counterprogramming will find a grateful audience. LATE NIGHT is just such a film, a finely tuned comedy/drama that tackles such issues as sexism and ageism while not forgetting to tell an entertaining story.

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), has carved out a niche for herself as the only female late night talk show host in otherwise all-male world. Once a ratings winner, the 50-something Newbury seems to have lost her connection with viewers and sees the network grooming a younger – and male – comedian to take her place. To kickstart her show, she hires Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) to be the only woman writer on her staff.

The two characters have parallel arcs. Newbury has to prove that she’s not past her shelf life and can adapt and remain relevant. Patel has to prove not only that she can write funny but can hold her own in the competitive atmosphere in the writer’s room. The two come to see that by helping each other, they are helping themselves.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts native Kaling also wrote the script, and undoubtedly drew on her memories as the only woman writer on the TV show “The Office.” In giving herself a plum role as Patel, she has also created a compelling character in Newbury, who has to justify herself to her boss at the network – ironically, another woman – as well as to younger viewers who might not be looking for laughs from someone they see as their mothers’ age.

While it might seem formulaic to some extent, the film works because the characters are complex and sharply defined. Thompson conveys Newbury’s caustic wit, which may work on stage but makes it difficult for her to get close to people, or people to get close to her. Patel’s optimism and earnest desire to succeed would seem to be the antithesis of this, but it’s just what Newbury needs. Likewise, Patel needs to stand up for herself and push back rather than allow herself to be shoved aside.

Director Nisha Ganatra, who has worked primarily in TV, keeps things moving – there are quiet moments but no dead spaces – successfully taking us behind the scenes into the world of a television talk show. Fans of the late-night comedians will get a sense of just how much effort goes into making it look easy in front of the camera.

“Late Night” may not make any end of the year ten best lists, but for those seeking something original and pitched to adults at the movies in this summer movie season will find it a welcome relief.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Domino


FILM REVIEWDOMINOWith Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Carice van Houten, Guy Pearce, Søren Malling, Eriq Ebouaney. Written by Petter Skavlan. Directed by Brian DePalma. Rated R for strong violence, some language and brief nudity. 89 minutes.

dominoDOMINO is your basic thriller, with a Danish policeman avenging the death of his partner and getting caught up in an international terrorist plot. While the plot has some surprising twists and turns, it’s essentially a potboiler. What makes it interesting is how the story is told. In his first film in seven years, veteran director Brian DePalma shows he’s still in full control of his signature visual style.

The story opens with Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his partner Lars (Søren Malling) engaging in the sort of bantering familiar in any police procedural. After several scenes setting up their characters and relationship, we get to the film’s first bravura set piece that begins with them answering a call and ends with Christian and a murder suspect (Eriq Ebouaney) engaging in a rooftop chase. To go much further into the plot would give too much away, but suffice to say, the suspect is more than he seems to be, and attracts the attention of an unscrupulous CIA agent (Guy Pearce) who wants to use him to get to an ISIS leader.

Throughout his career, DePalma has been praised and criticized for the obvious influence director Alfred Hitchcock has had on his style. Such is the case here, with not only visual echoes of “Vertigo” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” but the musical score by frequent DePalma collaborator Pino Donaggio, channeling Bernard Herrmann, who provided some of Hitchcock’s most notable scores.

This is especially clear in a nearly wordless climatic sequence focused on a planned terrorist attack at a Spanish stadium where a bull fight is taking place. DePalma juggles Christian, his new partner (Carice van Houten), a suicide bomber, the ISIS command including someone operating a drone to film the attack, and numerous other players. The director expertly builds the suspense without tipping his hand how it’s going to play out. Given the violence in the film, including a mass shooting at a film festival, there’s no guarantee that the good guys are going to win.

Coster-Waldau works well as the police detective with something to prove. If he seems familiar, it’s because he just completed several seasons as Jamie Lannister on “Game of Thrones.” Interestingly, he’s joined by van Houten, who played Melisandre on the show. As the CIA agent, Pearce has less to do, but is crisp and chilling, while Ebouaney manages to be both menacing and sympathetic as the killer, as his character’s motivations become clear.

“Domino” is getting a limited theatrical release while going to Video on Demand. For DePalma’s fans, it’s a welcome return.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Dark Phoenix


FILM REVIEWDARK PHOENIXWith Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language. 113 minutes.

dark_phoenix_ver2There are really two stories at play in DARK PHOENIX and only one of them is taking place on screen. Taking place a few years before the events in the original “X-Men” (2000), the focus here is on Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), one of the mutants who lives at the school run by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). During a rescue mission at the request of the American president, Grey encounters some alien force and finds her telekinetic powers have vastly increased.

She also learns how she was manipulated by Xavier as a child to shield her from the memories of a childhood trauma, and breaks with her former teammates, including the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Her journey brings her to Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who has created his own safe haven for mutants. The mutants ending up fighting with each other, with the authorities, and with a small alien force led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who craves Jean’s new powers as well as the entire planet Earth.

As usual in the best of the films based on Marvel Comics, it as much character-driven as it is about the battles and special effects. Turner plays Jean as a young woman torn as to what direction her life should take, and whether her powers are a blessing or a curse. The other character struggling is, surprisingly, Xavier. McAvoy has played the part in several films as a younger version of the character played by Patrick Stewart. Here Xavier has to confront the fact that in his desire to protect Jean he made terrible mistakes for which other people pay the price.

(We’re not supposed to notice that the odd time line of the series, which has gone back into the past as well as into the future, has created a continuity problem because McAvoy and Fassbender haven’t aged. Their characters, as well as that of Jean Grey, Storm, Mystique, and Cyclops, should be much older than they appear here.)

The off-screen story is that, like the recent and much higher profile “Avengers: Endgame,” this film marks the end of the line for this iteration of the franchise. The reason for that is that Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, recently acquired 20th Century Fox, which had the license for X-Men. Now the characters can be folded into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it enters its second decade and “Phase Four.”

“Dark Phoenix” may divide hardcore Marvel fans, but while it may not rank with the very best in the series neither is it just going through the motions. Simon Kinberg – scriptwriter on several of the film and who makes his directorial debut here – can hold his head high. It may not be a blockbuster, but it provides a graceful exit after nineteen years.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.