ONWARD (animated, 2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. No studio has ever had a 25 year run like Pixar. This is their 22nd feature film over that span and every single one lands somewhere in the range of brilliant/instant classic to watchable/re-watchable. Though this latest may not reach instant classic level, it does stick to the Pixar standard template of highly entertaining while delivering a life lesson. This is the first time in the Pixar director’s chair for Dan Scanlon since MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). It’s also the first original Pixar since COCO (2017) … and note, it’s rated PG.

The film opens with a “history” lesson detailing how the world was once populated by enchanted creatures like elves, unicorns, wizards, mermaids, fairies and sprites. Science and technology created shortcuts and soon the world’s “magic” had disappeared, relegating these creatures to life in the suburbs. We pick up the story on Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Ian is part of an elf family that includes his older brother Barley and their widowed mother Laurel. While Barley is a loud and rambunctious type who is obsessed with the Quest of Yore game and mythology (think Dungeons & Dragons), Ian is a more pensive type who still mourns the late father he never met. Both brothers are surprised when their mother presents a “gift” from their dad – one he left instructions to be held until Ian turned 16. The gift is a magical wizard staff that, with the included precious stone, can bring dad back to life for 24 hours.

Barley’s knowledge of the magical spells combined with Ian’s lack of self-confidence ends up botching things to the point that only half of dad is brought back – the bottom half. Under a tight deadline and in need of a replacement gem to bring dad back for a much desired final conversation, the brothers take off on an adventure that turns pretty wild. Their quest leads them to cross paths with many of the previously enchanted creatures, including the fabulous Manticore, and mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco.

We have come to expect ‘magic’ from Pixar with every movie, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as some of their best work, but it’s still a terrific suburban fantasy adventure filled with comedy and life lessons … the most crucial of which is: being happy with what you have is more crucial to your inner-peace than getting what you hope for.

As always, the voice acting is top notch. Tom Holland (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) delivers the goods as Ian, and Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) brings the necessary wonder and excitement to brother Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus never really gets to shine as their mother, but then this story is focused on the boys. Octavia Spencer has fun as Manticore (we needed more Manticore!), Mel Rodriguez is a hoot as Officer Colt Bronco, and yes of course, John Ratzenberger sneaks in – he’s now voiced a character in all 22 Pixar films.

This is the first Pixar film to be totally free of input from ousted President John Lasseter, and it’s one of the very few to be released outside of the summer or awards season. The likely reason is that the studio has a second original film being released this June. SOUL will be directed by Pete Docter and is viewed as a companion piece to the already classic INSIDE OUT (2015). Given the time of year, it could be easy to overlook ONWARD, but it nails the Pixar trademark emotional finale … delivering a sentimental scene likely to stick with you. I have praised Pixar many times over the years as their creative teams really seem to “get it”. Regardless of the month, ONWARD will cast a spell.

watch the trailer:


DOWNHILL (2020)

February 13, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Overwhelming apprehension. That’s the feeling I had walking into the theatre for the Americanized re-make of one of my top 10 favorite movies from 2014 … FORCE MAJEURE. Sure, it’s common practice for U.S. filmmakers to farm international cinema for “new” projects, but when they mess with the really good ones, I can’t help but feel nervous to the point of dread. A sliver of hope existed since this new version was co-written (along with Jesse Armstrong, creator of “Succession”, and Oscar nominated for IN THE LOOP) and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the creative forces behind THE WAY WAY BACK (2013).

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star as married couple Billie and Pete. Along with their two teenage sons, they are on an Austrian ski trip meant to help Pete get through grieving his father’s death, and bring the family closer together. If you have seen the original or the trailer, you know what happens next. Pete’s reaction to a near catastrophic event creates a divide between him and the family … especially Billie, who is left shaken. This part is all quite similar to the original film, yet this version is different in so many ways.

Casting two brilliant comedic performers in the lead sends a strong signal that humor will play a role, and that the exceptional gravitas from filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s FORCE MAJEURE will be softened somewhat. Both of those points hold true. However, surprisingly, this re-make manages to still generate some of the shaken-to-the-core emotions that come from having trust broken in such a startling manner. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus is especially strong here, and carries a much heavier load than Mr. Ferrell. As she is balancing her shock, frustration, and anger, while still attending to their equally shaken boys, Mr. Ferrell is relegated to spending much of the film wearing a wounded puppy look as he attempts to move on without addressing the issue.

Adding to the comedy elements are Zoe Chao (“The Comeback”) and Zach Woods (“The Office”) as Pete’s friends who get drawn into the fracas. Miranda Otto takes a break from her usually dramatic roles to play Charlotte, a wacky resort employee whose personality is a bit out of step with normalcy; although her zaniness succeeds in preventing the weight of the event from crushing Billie. Fans of the original will recognize Kristofer Hivju, who plays a resort security advisor this time. Another difference is that the kids (Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford) play a bigger role in the family dynamics and fallout.

It’s clear that filmmakers Faxon and Rash set out to purposefully make a more mainstream, accessible movie than the Swedish version. The film remains effective at generating conversation about survival instinct and protecting one’s loved ones. It should be mentioned that this is not a typical Will Ferrell movie, and anyone expecting Frank the Tank, may only be pleased with one brief scene. Instead, this is about a man coming to grips with how his actions affected his family, and even his view of himself.

watch the trailer:


ENOUGH SAID (2013)

September 29, 2013

enough said Greetings again from the darkness. A Rom-Com for the 50-ish crowd is pretty darn rare. But then, writer/director Nicole Holofcener doesn’t deliver the typical rom-com filled with lame punchlines and actors with perfectly scultped bodies. Instead, James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus come across as real people with the expected defense mode and vulnerabilities as they try to find intimacy and a personal connection.

Albert (Gandolfini) and Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) meet at a party and subtle sparks fly as both claim they aren’t attracted to anyone at the party. While at the party, Eva, a massage therapist, also meets Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), a charming poet who wants to hire Eva to help ease her shoulder pain. Albert and Eva begin dating, and Eva slowly comes around on Albert’s grounded and funny personality. Sure he’s a bit overweight and somewhat slobby, but he treats her well and adores her. Meanwhile, Eva’s massage work on Marianne exposes her to Marianne’s incessant complaining about her overweight and somewhat slobby ex-husband. Yep. This causes quite the dilemma for Eva because she likes Albert and she envies Marianne’s cool lifestyle. Oh and both Eva and Albert have teenage daughters getting ready to go off to college, so the couple also share parent-child separation anxiety.

enough said2 The story clearly centers around Eva, and it’s nice to see Louis-Dreyfus throttle back a little and avoid some of her sitcom standard moves. We are able to relate to Eva and though we see the corner she is backing herself in to, we also understand how quickly a little bit of poor judgment can spin out of control. Although this is Eva’s story, the real heart of the film is delivered by Gandolfini’s performance. This is no Tony Soprano … this is a real guy … a nice guy … yes, even a sweet guy.

Ms. Holofcener has set her precedent with snippy banter from intelligent characters with her previous films Please Give (2010) and Friends With Money (2006), the former I liked very much and the latter I cared little for. This time, all of her characters and their dialogue ring true and are relatable. Eva’s married friends are played by Toni Collette and Ben Falcone (married in real life to Melissa McCarthy) and they have the only hollow sub-plot with their “should we or should we not fire the maid” dilemma. The two teenage daughters are played by Tracey Fairaway and Eve Hewson (Bono‘s enough said3daughter) and both have scenes that really strike a chord and ring true.

Mr. Gandolfini passed away earlier this year and there was the thought that this would be his final released film. However, it’s been decided that Animal Rescue will be finalized and released in 2014. It’s difficult to watch him and not think what could have been over the next few years, though his legacy is quite secure. His range was much greater than many give him credit for, and I would recommend watching him in both True Romance (1993) and Welcome to the Rileys (2010).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a well made rom-com featuring those around 50 instead of those pushing 30 OR you want further proof of just how talented James Gandolfini was

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your rom-coms to be filled with mindless slapstick and cast with actors who could model for Abercrombie

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEEJaIjF_Lo