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Toy Story 4 (2019)

The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.

Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box.  It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.

In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.

Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.

The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.

If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.

It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.

As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Toy Story 3 (2010)

I was completely unprepared for how emotionally involving Toy Story 3 would be. Sure, Pixar has managed to break and melt your heart through ten previous movies, but I suppose I foolishly felt that I was beyond caring for toys. But even in the opening minutes, a tremendous make-believe fantasy, I felt punches of emotion as each character was reintroduced. It felt like I was reconnecting with old friends and it was such a pleasant reunion. It’s okay, guys, to cry over toys.

Cowboy sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), the leader of Andy’s toys, is trying to keep hope alive. Andy is now 17 years old and on the verge of leaving for college. His favorite childhood toys have long since been relegated to a chest as Andy has matured. Joining Woody are spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), the timid Rex (Wallace Shawn), and the piggy bank, Hamm (John Ratzenberger). They are all the toys in their gang that remain. As Andy leaves their main goal seems to have been accomplished. They were there for their owner and now he no longer needs them like he once did. The toys have a few options left: stuffed into the attic, sort of like a retirement home, until perhaps Andy digs them out for his own kids, or being thrown out with the trash. Woody assures them that Andy would never just throw them all out, though even he has his doubts about their current purpose. They all feel the loss.

After a mix-up, the toys decide to take matters into heir own adjustable hands. They will sneak away inside a donation box for Sunnyside Day Care. The center seems too good to be true. The courtly Lotso Hugs Bear (Ned Beatty), who seems to lead the center, promises that all toys will never be forgotten again. When the children grow too old then a new batch moves in to play. It’s a toy’s dream, that is, until Buzz and the gang discover that they’re canon fodder for hyperactive, maniacally destructive toddlers. They can’t keep up with the daily abuse. Sunnyside Day Care is less a haven than a prison. New toys have to pay their dues and earn a place in the vaulted Butterfly Room, where young children lovingly interact with their toys. It’s a toy class system. Lotso refuses to cotton to rule-breakers, and toys are locked away nightly so they cannot escape. Woody must try to save his friends by breaking them out and getting back to Andy before he departs for college.

Given that the movie tackles major issues like moving on, growing up, and mortality, I knew I was in for some heavy moments, but absolutely nothing prepared for some of the emotions that clobbered me. You do realize through the course of this third film as the toys try and find a suitable place to retire, if you will, how attached you are to these characters. Late in the movie the toys are in some dire circumstances. There’s a horrifying junkyard sequence that even manages to evoke Holocaust imagery, which means parents are going to have to calm some spooked tykes come bedtime. There’s a silent moment, where the toys all seem to accept their fate, and all they want to do is join hands and face it together, as a united family one last time … and my God, I could not control myself. My face was dripping with tears (even thinking back right now is causing my eyes to well up a bit). Toy Story 3 isn’t the strongest of the trilogy in terms of character or plot (in some respects, the plot is a reworking of The Brave Little Toaster), but you better believe that it delivers emotional resonance in spades. Major credit goes to screenwriter Michael Arndt who won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine.

But fear not, Toy Story 3 is not all sturm und drang, it also provides plenty of laughs and plenty of visual wonder and excitement. The toy’s point of view has always allowed for plenty of amusing insights and satirical riffs. The personality clashes makes for the most jokes, and the new characters pull their own weight, particularly Ken (Michael Keaton), an effeminate clothing-conscious doll who finds his true love with the arrival of Barbie. The use of Big Baby as a malevolent goon is also refreshing and quite creepy. The Spanish Buzz reboot personality seems superfluous but cute. The jokes come by at a steady pace and while they all may not work as well (Ken in a trying-on-clothing montage set to “Le Freak”?) there are still moments of great creative ingenuity. The detailed escape from Sunnyside feels like a terrific parody of prison movies, and they way it utilizes all the different characters as key components is satisfying and fun. But the best moment of the break-out, by far, is when Mr. Potato Head is trapped, hurls his pieces out of an opening, and reassembles thanks to a tortilla body. It’s a weird visual, like something out of Salvador Dali, and yet I could not stop giggling from watching his floppy movements. It’s comedic while at the same time a genius move in drawing out an action sequence — it makes keen use of the players and their skills. From an action standpoint, G-rated Toy Story 3 manages to have more thrills and spills than any other 2010 movie so far.

Director Lee Unkrich (co-director for three previous Pixar flicks) makes quite a debut for himself. The complexity of the action, while still maintaining an internal logic, is hugely rewarding. The Pixar wizards truly know how to craft inventive action sequences and stay true to character. Unkrich’s command of visuals is impressive. The action is well paced, but it’s the man’s use of composition, camera movement, and editing make Toy Story 3 a visual treat. Unkrich fully knows how to best utilize and fill up the screen. The world of Toy Story is popping with color and visual whimsy, as well as plenty of sight gags and subtle movie references for adults. Ten years of advancements in computer effects has also allowed the toys to get a bit of a facelift. The 3-D process enhances the overall experience without calling attention to itself. There aren’t any standard 3-D moments where big and pointy things keep flying out at the audience. The 3-D provides a greater field of depth without distracting you from the pivotal moments of story.

The voice acting is just about perfect from top to bottom. Allen and Hanks are a welcomed pair, Cusack provides plenty of spunk, Rickles brings his usual dish of joyful disdain, and new characters like Timothy Dalton as a stuck-up thespian porcupine and Kristen Schaal (TV’s Flight of the Conchords) as a bubbly triceratops toy are fun additions that don’t overstay their welcome. Blake Clark takes over the voice of Slinky Dog from the late Jim Varney who died in 2000, and he does a fine job without sounding like a direct imitation. I was really delighted by Beatty. He has such a Southern gentlemanly demeanor that underscores the hardened heart of his villainous character. And yet, Lotso gets his own rich back-story of abandonment and bitterness similar to Jesse the cowgirl. Even when he’s dastardly we can see where the big purple Teddy bear who smells like strawberries is coming from. Ned Beatty has finally appeared in another breakthrough cultural film to redefine his identity. Perhaps now he won’t be best remembered as the guy who gets raped in Deliverance. He probably still will be.

A lot has changed in the 15 years since Pixar revolutionized the world of animation and family films with their first feature, Toy Story. Kids at the time are now teenagers; some embarking on college this summer themselves much like Andy. They too have to put away former childish things and move forward. Toy Story 3 is magic confluence of heart, wit, visual whimsy, cleverness, and drama. Not quite as sharp as the first two installments, or as artful as Pixar’s high-water mark, WALL-E, the third Toy Story is still a mighty entertaining piece of work. The last 30 minutes of this movie is harrowing and then deeply satisfying and moving, finding a fitting sendoff for characters that we’ve come to love. It’s all about moving forward, saying goodbye, and reflecting about times shared. I wouldn’t be surprised if Toy Story 3 inspires kids, and adults alike, to go home and play with their old toys, giving them renewed life and purpose.

Nate’s Grade: A

My Sister’s Keeper (2009)

How could a movie about dying children be so schlocky? The best-selling Jodi Picoult novel, My Sister’s Keeper, is awash in drama but it never tipped the scales into absurd and tone-deaf melodrama. How does one botch a tear-jerker? You need only watch the big screen version of My Sister’s Keeper for a primer on how to turn a complicated, challenging book into maudlin mush (hint: make sure to have a sizeable budget for obtaining music rights for endless montages).

Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is dying from cancer. Her little sister, Anna (Abigail Breslin), was conceived by her parents, Sara and Brian (Cameron Diaz, Jason Patric), to be a genetic match. Anna was born so that she might be “spare parts” for her ailing big sister. Jesse (Brennan Bailey), is the oldest child, and his needs have been overlooked because of Kate’s illness. Anna’s life has been one of prodding and pricking and testing and operations. Then one day, Anna consults with high-powered lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). She wants to sue her parents for the rights to her own body. She’s tired of undergoing numerous medical treatments. She wants a life of her own, something more than being “spare parts.” Needless to say, Sara and Brian are horrified. Anna clearly loves her sister but by refusing to donate a kidney she is signing her sister’s death notice.

The movie strikes one false, heavy-handed note after another. There is rarely a moment that feels authentic or genuine; everything comes across as powerfully manipulative and cloying and contrived and like a tuneless melodrama. Things are cranked to such a high degree of overkill. I swear to you that, no joke, at least seventy percent of the scenes in this movie involve somebody crying. People don’t argue, they flail and shout until they go hoarse. There is nothing subtle to be found here. I didn’t feel emotionally invested in these characters and one of them is a freaking teenage girl suffering with cancer! The first half of the movie feels far too rushed, and the majority of scenes last under two minutes, meaning that the plot lurches forward but the film fails to round out and establish its central characters. The movie’s idea of covering up its screenwriting shortcomings and lackluster character development is to produce an extended music montage. There are over five music montages (I lost count) and it possibly takes up a fifth of the movie’s total running time. I don’t know about you, but watching characters smile and laugh set to music that is so painfully on-the-nose literal does not make due. After so many matching lyrics, I was waiting for a song to literally describe everything I was watching on screen, like, “Heaven/We’re all gonna go/You’re gonna go sooner/Because you’re a little girl with cancer/Don’t you think your mother’s crazy?/So what’s on TV?” Is it better drama to hear a somber cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? It’s just one of several flimsy filming decisions that rip you out of the story and make it perfectly obvious that you are watching a movie, and a poor one at that.

There is just way too much material here for it to succeed as a streamlined, two-hour weepie. There are complicated moral issues here about exploiting one child in efforts to save another. Grief can transform the nucleus of a family in small ways. This requires a delicate adaptation and this movie is certainly not it. This is an adaptation that alternates between syrupy music montages and falling anvils. My Sister’s Keeper is beset with convoluted flashbacks, and I often was confused as to where in the timeline several of the scenes were taking place. Is this before or after Sara shaved her head in solidarity? Is this before or after she Katie starts chemo? There are multiple characters that share voice over duties, often just offering up a line or two. What’s the point of having Jesse announce in voice over, “I wondered how much trouble I was gonna be in,” when he sneaks into his house late at night? Could we not communicate this effectively without the added voice over? And only for a single line? This is just shockingly lazy writing and proof that the filmmakers have no trust in their audience. In fact, Jesse as a character is entirely pointless. He adds nothing to the story except to make things more confusing. Why does he sneak out at night to drink milkshakes in downtown L.A.? Why are judges unclear why a lawyer of such fame and stature as Campbell Alexander has a helper dog? There are intriguing dramatic setups that just get overlooked. What kind of life goes on in a family home when one child is suing their parents? Show me this stuff.

By far, the only believable part of this mawkish mess is a lengthy flashback to Kate’s boyfriend, Taylor (Thomas Dekker, sporting a good-looking dome if you ask me). This is the only segment that’s allowed to breathe and feel naturally developed. It is during this tender sequence where Kate feels like a character instead of a broadly drawn sketch of Cancer Girl. The interaction between Kate and Taylor is sweet and relaxed, until an obvious conclusion that has to spoil Kate’s small hold on happiness. The supposed twist ending is predictable and nullifies the court battle, which makes the ethical struggle of bio-engineered babies just a plot gimmick. In the end, I got the overwhelming impression that the screenwriters, Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) and director Nick Cassavetes, are projecting. We conclude on one character’s voice over, remarking, “I don’t know why she died. I don’t know why what happened happened. I don’t know why we did the things we did.” It’s like a thinly layered confession by the screenwriters that they were clueless. Any tears that manage to squeeze out are unearned and are only the byproduct of such gloomy material.

The acting is typical of such hyperactive melodrama. Diaz fares the worst as the overprotective mom who fights tooth and nail to save her daughter at the expense of everybody else. She’s abrasive and grating even when the movie tries to make her sympathetic. Diaz can do drama and can even manage understatement, as she showcased in the criminally underappreciated 2005 film, In Her Shoes. Cassavetes only knows how to direct actors when they’re being histrionic and unrestrained, as Alpha Dog and John Q. prove. The rest of the cast slogs through the overwrought material with plenty of tears to bailout the Kleenex industry. The lone bright spot amongst the cast is Vassilieva (TV’s Medium) who makes you feel her pain and manages to, at times, cloud your mind that you’re being shamelessly manipulated.

My Sister’s Keeper is supposed to be one of those moving, heart-tugging episodes that allows us all to re-evaluate life. The movie, in actuality, is a maudlin and overstuffed melodrama (cancer kids, dysfunctional families, court disputes, secret schemes, last wishes, etc.) that is so poorly executed that it manages to make Lifetime movies look like grand art. Cassavetes grounds down all the tricky ethical questions and tortured feelings down into simplistic soap opera gunk. Nothing feels genuine or honest, everything comes across as incredibly forced and contrived, and enough with the music montages. Hitting the soundtrack button does not erase screenwriting deficiencies. My Sister’s Keeper is a malformed, overwrought, clunkily insensitive excuse to empty audience tear ducts. I suppose indiscriminate fans of the weepie genre will find the material forgivable, though fans of Picoult’s novel will find the changes to be unforgivable. I like my emotions to be earned and not strangled to death.

Nate’s Grade: C-

War Inc. (2008)

What is the point of this movie? I think I get it, at least get what they were going for. The military industrial complex is bad and can mislead countries into needless conflict just for corporate profits at the expense of human life. Sure, got that, then what the hell is with the storyline of a Eurasian popstar (Hilary Duff) who has daddy issues? War Inc. is a farce but it doesn’t have much of string to connect it all. It’s all so scattershot, from lampooning politicians and corporations to squeezing in contrived romance and peculiar and almost nonsensical flashbacks with a fast-talking Ben Kingsley who sounds like he’s doing an impression of Foghorn Leghorn. This movie feels like a collection of discarded scenes that someone pasted together. The movie’s cynicism is almost repellent, and this is coming from a self-described cynic. It isn’t the cynicism that bothers me but it’s the lack of any bigger point. The satiric targets are all cheap and easy, which would be acceptable if the movie did more with the material. War Inc. is remarkably tone deaf when it comes to satire. The Duff sequences are superfluous and are begging to be scandalous, which then undercuts the movie’s potshots about exploiting teenagers for sex. The movie just utterly collapses from the inside out by the end. The most memorable and headline-grabbing moment of War Inc. is when Duff drops a scorpion down her shorts. Does that sound like an enviable creative highpoint?

Nate’s Grade: C-

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

Releasing a romantic comedy about a woman plagued by credit woes in the middle of a global financial meltdown? Doesn’t sound like the best example of escapist entertainment, but Confessions of a Shopaholic is infectious fun, and it’s all thanks to the delightfully funny lead performance by Isla Fisher. She seems like she stepped out of one of the old Hollywood screwball comedies from the 1930s. There’s a terrific hunger in her eyes and the woman knows how to punctuate a joke. The movie itself isn’t too shabby either. As far as formulaic romantic comedies go, this is one of the better ones in recent years. It has a little dash of everything, from slapstick to farcical thriller to romance to even some mildly potent drama. Director P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) keeps the movie light and fun and even spruces up the flick with some interesting visuals, like animated CGI mannequins that come alive to tempt Fisher. Even though the movie holds onto a sitcom level plot for too long (mistaken identity), Confessions of a Shopaholic is a far worthier piece of entertainment than typically found in the rom-com genre, and Fisher is a comedian to rival the best.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Martian Child (2007)

When in doubt for a sentimental story pair up a lonely man with a kid. It worked for Charlie Chaplin, Dustin Hoffman, and even Adam Sandler. There is something fundamentally appealing in an old school Hollywood way about seeing a grown man become kinder, gentler, and loving. Attaching children to slobs and jerks has been historically beneficial in the realm of cinema; they tend to think beyond themselves and become better people. In fact, doctors should take heed and start using children as medicinal services (“Feeling depressed? Raise this adorably precocious child for an indefinite period of time!”). Martian Child is the latest pre-programmed entry in this favorite Hollywood combination.

David (John Cusack) is a science fiction writer still in mourning for his dearly departed wife. He decides to stay true to a plan he and the dead misses had to adopt a child. Enter Dennis (Bobby Coleman), a kid who spends his time in a large box because he believes he’s from Mars. The adoption agency believes that a kid who thinks he’s a Martian would be ideal for a science fiction writer. David reflects that he was an outcast as a kid as well and he sees a side of himself in this spacey kid. David agrees to become a father but is placed on a trial basis because the film needs something to come to a head for Act Three. Dennis says his mission is to learn about “human beingness” but he has other quirks as well; he only eats Lucky Charms cereal, he takes lots of photos as documentation, and he steals items for further study. David learns that parenthood can, shocker, be hard.

Martian Child champions the tireless idea of the individual in a society of people that follow the herd. You’ll be beaten over the head with the movie’s rampant message of individuality and being true to yourself. David tries teaching his would-be alien tyke that there are benefits in being like everyone else and fitting in, but of course we in the audience know the only reason he would say something against his character’s nature is so that it can be repeated back to him in a time of decision-making. And sure enough, when David’s book editor chastises him for not “being what we want you to be” I felt like Martian Child had given me brain damage with the weight of its browbeating message. The problem, though, is that Dennis is not the center of the film and he’s treated as a gloriously fortuitous writing opportunity. Because of this kiddy K-Pax, David is able to shake off his writer’s block and turn in a story based upon his own experiences being a father to a being from another planet. The point of triumph doesn’t seem to be resolving Dennis’ fragile psyche as it does proving David’s book editor wrong, who we must see gingerly crying as she finishes reading the last page of the manuscript. Take that, heartless barons of mass media!

This would all be fine if Dennis was just different or defiantly eccentric, but Dennis has serious emotional problems and deep psychological issues that David is simply not equipped to handle as a novice parent. Dennis shares a lot of symptoms with Asperger’s Syndrome, a higher functioning level of autism. Watching his developmentally delayed social interaction, his total fascination with a specific topic, and his rigid routine, it seems clear that Dennis does have some form of autism, and autism is a whole lot more than being the fun weird kid that a Hollywood movie can glamorize as an outsider crushed by conformity. The whole setup feels inauthentic and potentially irresponsible.

Much of my displeasure comes back to my feelings about the character of Dennis. Personally I couldn’t stand the kid. Maybe my heart is too cold but I never could find myself getting attached to the pint-sized Martian. In fact, I found him increasingly annoying and his squeaky, horse voice to be like nails on a chalkboard by the end of the film. I was also put off by how the filmmakers seemingly turned little weird Dennis into a miniature version of Michael Jackson – pasty white face, ruby red ring of lips, sunglasses, and a parasol to hide from the oh so hazardous rays of the sun. He does show off some nice Martian dance moves, however, if we recall, Jackson also was adept at walking on the moon.

Martian Child is also hobbled by a reliance on cloying clichés. Dennis learns to play baseball. Dennis and David have a food fight but not before bonding over smashing a ridiculous number of home items to prove an earth-shattering point that material possessions don’t matter. Inspirational speeches will be recycled later during key points. David is of course a widower because that’s what single men need to be in romantic comedies in order to be acceptable romantic beings. I remember a slew of Disney animated films where most of the main characters had a parent dead or were orphaned, but now it seems that romantic comedies are following suit as well and working under the guideline that it’s better to be dead than divorced. The overt flirtation with his dead wife’s sister (Amanda Peet) seems awkwardly mishandled and needs further elaboration for any of it to sustain credibility. But the most mawkish moment has to be when Dennis is describing his Martian powers and informs us that Martians have the power to grant wishes, and that he will pass one Martian wish over to David to use at his discretion. You better believe that this is going to be referenced during a late third act hug while the music swells. Martian Child may pretend its different but it follows a very well trodden road all the way to the same happy, predictable destination.

I feel bad for Cusack. He deserves better than to headline such a maudlin misfire like Martian Child. This movie wants to aim squarely for the heart but it feels so phony. Watching Cusack interact with a kid is further proof that this man can do damn near anything but he needs some assistance and a sappy story, an annoying child, and a perplexing half-hearted romance aren’t helping. I felt more emotionally involved to the trailer for Cusack’s upcoming Grace is Gone that played before Martian Child than during any of the 108 minutes of this sentimentally cumbersome load. The film is competently made, however, it all comes back to it feeling overwhelmingly phony, being a manufactured tearjerker from the Hollywood factory line. Everything that follows feels like it’s coming from a formula playbook and there’s nothing new or interesting to offer. Perhaps I am jaded and heartless but Martian Child left me envious for the cold reaches of space.

Nate’s Grade: C

School of Rock (2003)

School is now in session. Jack Black has long been a Hollywood oddity. He’’s a whirlwind of manic energy but it can be accurately placed (his breakthrough in High Fidelity), or misused on hollow roles (Saving Silverman). Black is also a credited musician with his band, Tenacious D. Writer and sometime actor Mike White is a friend of Black’’s and said he wrote the lead in School of Rock specifically for him. Will Black measure up with his first lead role, or will he be held back?

Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a thirty-something lead guitarist who takes rambling guitar solos and crowd surfs even when there’s no one to catch him. His band mates fire Dewey from the group for his outlandish behavior. Dewey’’s roommate (Mike White), and especially his harpy girlfriend (Sarah Silverman, generally wasted here) urge him to find a job and start pulling his weight. A call comes in for Dewey’’s roommate to substitute teach at a prep school. Dewey poses as his pal and enters the ranks of academia. When he finds out that his class plays instruments he organizes them into a band as a class project. When someone questions what they’’re learning, Dewey shouts that they’’re learning rock ‘n’ roll, which he says, “”Will test your head, and your mind, and your brain too.””

Black has showed scene-stealing ability in other films, but School of Rock gives Black the role he was born to play. His character isn’’t some high-minded jerk that learns the errors of his ways by having his rough exterior melted by the compassion of children. Heck no. Black’’s character remains rock’s willing soldier from beginning to end, but School of Rock gives him the chance to share his passion and instill it in the youth. Black’’s circus of eye bulging, energetic gyrations, and infectious excitement make a vibrant lead that can make us laugh at a moment’’s notice. It’’s a marvelous performance full of rock bliss.

Non-professional actors play the prep school kids that populate School of Rock. They smartly decided to have the kids played by real musical prodigies, so when they get jamming that’s real ten-year-olds and eleven-year-olds putting people to shame with their musical ability.

The film isn’t anything new exactly. Its story is somewhat familiar, but it’s got an attitude all its own. School of Rock uses familiar elements and comforts the viewer, but its madcap energy, touching moments of heart, and ambitious belief that music can change lives will leave the viewer smiling from beginning to end. There wasn’t a second I wasn’t smiling or laughing while watching School of Rock.

School of Rock is a joyous movie that excels with sweetness. Let’s just get down to it and say the flick is monstrously funny, heartwarming, inspired, charming, entertaining and certifiably rockin’’ enough to blow you and your neighbor’s socks off. Don’t be fooled by the PG-13 label (which I’’m still scratching my head over), because School of Rock is the perfect film for families of all ages. It’s got a genuine tenderness most comedies lack, and it also has a consistently cheery sense of humor that never resorts to inane gross-out gags like so many current comedies. This is one to take the kids and grandma too.

In lesser hands this film could have been a disaster. The kids would come off as cloying, Black’s character would come off as a crude loaf, Joan Cusack’’s (a wonderful performance, by the way) principal character would just be an uptight bitch, and the familiar story would seem syrupy, like a Dead Poets Society with guitars instead of suicide. Under the smooth direction of Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), one of the stalwarts of the 90s independent film renaissance, School of Rock strikes the right balance between warmth and Black’s uncaged craziness. Linklater has taken his indie sensibilities and assuredly given the film a heart that beats to the rhythm of rock n’ roll, that also never falters into sticky sentimentality.

School of Rock is an exuberant comedy, sharply written, with confident direction, cute kids, and the dynamic performance of Black. The movie will appeal to families, fans of Black, and people tired of feel-good formula films or those looking for a feel-good film. School of Rock will lift up your spirits and make you want to dance in your seat. I raise my goblet of rock and salute you, makers of School of Rock, for the greatest 108 minutes of fun I’’ve had this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Toy Story 2 (1999)/ Princess Mononoke (1999)

There is a false prejudice circulating the land of merry movie goers as they skip from one theater to the next. This assumption is that animation is a kids only event, that’s it’s something to appease the screaming masses under three feet of height. Lately movies are giving more credit to the cause that animation can be a wonderful escape and isn’t just for the kids.

Animation can take people to worlds that otherwise could not have existed, and so is true with Princess Mononoke the 1997 Japanese import with a fresh English dubbing. Mononoke speaks of the battle between harmonious nature and forging industrious man. Often the film displays such scenes of visual passion that it seems like an animated love letter to those wishing to venture out to find it. The story is vivid and non-judgmental, you see the stories and reasons behind both warring forces and not everything is easily black and white. The English dub does not distract from the overall enjoyment as many professional actors yield their vocal talents to this masterpiece. Princess Mononoke leaves a spellbinding impression of intense ecological thought and aching beauty. The best anime has to offer.

At the other end of the animation spectrum lies Toy Story 2, the kid friendly three-dimensional quest of action figures and plush dolls. What is amazing about Toy Story 2 is how it not only matches its ground breaking predecessor but even surpasses it both in visuals and story. Story is packed with sly humor not just for kids, and it contains a poignant message about mortality and what one seizes with the opportunities they are given. The animation is mesmerizing and the humor is fast and fierce. Toy Story 2 proves that not all sequels are bad ideas.

Fresh from the gate are two examples of the great gifts animation has to offer. Couple these with the wonderful The Iron Giant, a ferociously funny South Park movie, an okay Tarzan, and the upcoming Disney redux Fantasia 2000 and it appears to be a solid time for animation. Go out and see some.

Nate’s Grade: Both movies A

Runaway Bride (1999)

Pretty Woman has now been regarded as the ultimate romantic comedy and has a soft spot in most people’s hearts. Mostly ones with estrogen pumping through their system. So the theory is to reunite the two leads, the director, even some supporting characters and try to have lightning strike twice. And how it comes out depends on the chromosome make-up of the person you talk to.

Runaway Bride never deserts the standard romantic comedy formula. It never diverts from the path, and plays every note pitch perfect. Problem is I’ve seen this a hundred times before in a hundred different movies. So this all makes for a most predictable and un-amusing excuse for the reunion. It also gives you the sense of a “been there, done that.”

What the movie tries to do to give it some “distance” from most romantic comedies is to show that Julia has some kind of psychological problems with marriage that remain the movie’s mystery. Too bad these problems are never fully looked at and when Richard Gere comes sweeping in and eventually takes away and wins over Julia, and all her problems are suddenly gone. Wait just a minute, it’s not that too easily wrapped.

The leads have good chemistry and there are some humorous moments, but this is a movie for people who like the paint-by-the-numbers romantic comedies. The ones that love the formula they can’t get enough of. The ones that just want to smile and be won over by the usual trappings. By all means go, this movie won’t disappoint because it never has the courage to try a different route.

Nate’s Grade: C

Arlington Road (1999)

Psychological thrillers are always much harder to pull off than the standard Hollywood action flicks. Bullets and explosions are replaced with taut mental games and psychological grips played with reluctant victims. Though harder to pull off, the spoils can be fruitful. Arlington Road tries to bridge the gap since the last great psychological movie (a little something called Silence of the Lambs) and has lofty intentions. But its efforts fall short.

The movie moves at a snail’s pace and has the feel of a novel instead of a screenplay. Mark Pellington, the director most known for the Pearl Jam video “Jeremy,” is completely wrong for this picture. His blurs, camera swirls, exaggerated close-ups and poor lighting makes you wonder if they forgot to take off the lens cap and seem entirely out of place. Scenes go on forever with no real connection to one other.

Sure, the movie has a boatload of stars. Tim Robbins wondrously pulls off the menacing feel that his creepy neighbor character needs to seem dangerous. Joan Cusack is the standout with her devilish take on suburban motherhood and her never-ending evil grin. But while the acting is good, the movie is devoid of suspense and tension for the most part.

The movie does pack suspense into the last ten minutes. The ending is haunting and will linger with you for some time after you exit the theater. But even a terrific ending doesn’t make up for what the audience has been made to suffer through to get to that point.

Arlington Road tries to reach for the sky with its idea that terror doesn’t come from overseas, but from our own backyards. The idea is ripe with potential, but Arlington Road never lives up to it. I guess the public will have to wait for the next great psychological thriller. But Arlington Road gives me hope for what the future may bring.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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