LIGHTYEAR (2022)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. At the beginning of the film we are informed that this is a movie about the story that made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first TOY STORY (1995). It’s fair to ask – is this a spin-off, a prequel, or an origin story? The answer is a dash of all the above, yet also not exactly any of those. As with all Pixar features, the pedigree is beyond reproach. Writer-director Angus MacLane was the co-director on FINDING DORY (2016), while his co-writer here was Jason Headley (ONWARD, 2020), and the story was developed by Matthew Aldrich (COCO, 2017).

Following the murkiness of the prologue … he looks like Buzz and acts like Buzz, but that’s Chris Evans (CAPTAIN AMERICA), not the familiar voice of Tim Allen, as Buzz Lightyear filing his Mission Log to Star Command. We adjust quickly enough, although it is a bit jarring at first. Buzz is headstrong and not always the best at following orders. It’s that mentality and an error in judgment that results in those on the mission becoming stranded on a distant planet. Time and space theories are likely to baffle the younger viewers, as the various test flights Buzz takes finds him basically maintaining his current age, while those from the original mission age and ultimately die. This includes his mentor and friend Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), whom, with each of his return flights, Buzz watches her age, marry a woman, have kids, and get sick. Again, it’s kind of jarring, but Pixar has never shied away from life’s tough moments, and that don’t do so here.

It’s on his return from one unexplained extra-long flight when Buzz encounters Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), granddaughter of Alisha. Izzy is trying to follow in her grandmother’s Space Ranger footsteps, and with her rag-tag band of misfits, Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steele (Dale Soules), they help Buzz avoid his first encounter with the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Completing this new group is SOX (Peter Sohn), the robot cat previously issued to Buzz for emotional comfort. SOX is the latest in a long line of scene-stealing Disney fur-baby sidekicks, even if SOX happens to be mechanical. SOX is also the best thing about the film, other than the spectacular visuals and the late-in-the-story appearance of Commander Burnside, whose instantly recognizable voice belongs to Isiah Whitlock Jr (and no, the colorful word Mr. Whitlock has made his own in so many roles does not appear here, to no one’s surprise).

No voice by John Ratzenberger (at least that I heard) and no Pizza Planet (at least that I spotted), but more importantly, the film simply lacks the charm and story-telling brilliance that Pixar has spoiled us with over the years. We never really connect with the characters, even Buzz, who seems quite aloof. Michael Giacchino does serve up another terrific score on the heels of his work on THE BATMAN and JURASSIC PARK DOMINION, and the visual effects really are top notch. Pixar films consistently deliver a message and here it seems to be that collaboration and friendship create strength in numbers. LIGHTYEAR doesn’t go to infinity and beyond, but even the lesser Pixar projects have something to offer.

***NOTE: TOY STORY is one of my all-time favorite movies

Opens in theaters on June 17, 2022

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THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN (2021)

October 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If you fancy yourself a cat lover, you’ve likely seen his drawings, or at least some of the many ‘copies’ that other artists have produced over the years. Louis Wain was a prolific British illustrator, best known for his anthropomorphic paintings and drawing of cats (think of the kitschy paintings of dogs playing poker). Writer-director Will Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson have delivered a biopic of Wain that focuses less on his art, and more on his gradual mental breakdown.

The film opens in 1881, and Louis Wain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a young man, whose life has just drastically changed. The death of his father has forced Wain into the role of breadwinner for his five younger sisters and their aging mother. Initially, we aren’t sure what to make of Wain. His stern and demanding sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) is unforgiving of his whims and demands that he find steady work to support the family. An interview with an editor/publisher played by Toby Jones allows us to see what a gifted illustrator Wain is … and his speed is substantially due to an incredible ability to draw with both hands simultaneously.

Wain’s eccentricities include a belief in the electrical currents that drive all life forms. The film doesn’t spend much time on this, but it seems to be a cog in his mental illness – deemed schizophrenia (though that’s been debated). Wain overcomes his insecurity around his cleft lip and marries Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), the governess to his sisters. For the times, this was quite a scandal, given the differences in age and social standing of Louis and Emily. However, it seems as though she was the only one who understood and encouraged him as an artist.

When tragedy strikes, Wain becomes inspired by their pet cat, Peter. In fact, Peter becomes Wain’s muse, and leads to thousands of drawings for publication in newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, and just about every other platform. Olivia Colman provides some lively narration, and Taika Waititi and Nick Cave both have brief cameos. Cumberbatch is a bit over-the-top with his tics in the first half of the film, but his talent is clear as he portrays a man whose mental health deteriorating, and one who must rely on his special skill to find purpose. Wain spent the last 15 years of his life in a hospital, illustrating right up until the end. While Wain’s legacy lives on in his work, there is also a message here – embrace your weirdness!

Amazon Studios will release THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN in theaters on October 22nd, 2021 and on Prime Video on November 5th, 2021

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BABY DONE (2021)

January 21, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I don’t want to not have a baby.” This is just one of the zingers Zoe rattles off during this charming, and often quite funny film from director Curtis Vowell and writer Sophie Henderson. Fellow New Zealander Taika Waititi is an Executive Producer, and his influences are apparent (and always welcome). In a light-hearted way, while still maintaining plenty of heart, the film explores the fear of losing or compromising one’s true self when parenthood strikes.

Rose Matafeo delivers a terrific performance as Zoe, a tree-climbing arborist by profession, and a thrill-seeking adventurer by choice. Her partner in life, and in the tree-trimming business and in the thrill seeking, is Tim (Matthew Lewis). They are the type of couple who go to a friend’s baby shower and peek into the gender reveal box before dominating the party games. Zoe is fed up with losing friends, and describes the life cycle as “Married, house, baby, done”, implying that people aren’t the same after having completing these steps and no longer want to hang out with free-wheelers and the unencumbered like her and Tim.

Denial. That’s the best description of how Zoe reacts to finding out she’s pregnant. Besides not telling Tim (a major relationship gaffe), she continues on with tree-trimming and pursues the “Tree Climbing Championship” she has qualified for (I still wonder if that’s really a thing). When Tim and her friend Molly (Emily Barclay) find out about the secret, feelings are hurt and emotions wreak havoc. Comedy is provided through the prenatal/antenatal class instructor, as well as through Zoe’s new acquaintance Brian (Nic Sampson) whom she connects with online. See, Nic … well, he, uh … has a thing for pregnant women. Not babies, mind you. But pregnant women – which by definition seems to limit the prospects of a long-term relationship.

The always-great Rachel House makes a brief appearance as the headmaster at a local school, and much of what we see is a mess created by pregnant Zoe as she attempts to stay focused on her “bucket list”. The film excels at presenting two versions of anxiety with Zoe and Tim, and it’s loaded with relatively small moments that are quite relatable – some funny, some more serious. Like it or not, parenthood creates life changes, and the topic benefits from New Zealand wit, and a cast that perfectly complements the sharp and insightful script.

In select theaters and VOD on January 22, 2021

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JOJO RABBIT (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the most divisive movie of the year. Some will scoff at the idea and deride the filmmaker without ever even seeing the movie. Some will relay disgust after seeing the movie. A few won’t appreciate the style or structure, and will fail to find the humor. Ah yes, but some of us will embrace Taika Waititi’s wacky adaptation of Christine Leunens’ 2018 novel “Caging Skies” as one of the funniest and most heart-warming films of the year … fully acknowledging that many won’t see it our way.

One wouldn’t be off base in asking why a successful filmmaker would tackle such a risky project: a coming-of-age comedy-drama-fantasy about a 10 year old Nazi fanatic who has as his imaginary friend, not a 6 foot rabbit, but the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. After all, writer-director Waititi is coming off a couple of brilliant indies (2014’s WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and 2016’s HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) and a major score with Marvel money on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), arguably the most entertaining superhero movie of the past few years. He certainly could have continued to cash in with ‘safer’ choices; however, Mr. Waititi sees the world differently than most of us. He finds humor in the drudgery, and humanity in malevolence. He’s also a bit goofy.

Playing over the opening credits is the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, as we see old clips of German citizens cheering for Adolph Hitler in a similar manner to how fans used to scream for The Beatles. World War II is nearing the end as we meet 10 year old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is fervent in his fanaticism towards the Nazi way, and buys into the belief that Jews are monsters with horns on their head. He’s such a believer that his imaginary friend is actually Hitler, well at least a bumbling boisterous version played by the filmmaker himself – enacted to extreme comedy effect (recalling a bit of Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR). Mel Brooks managed to play Hitler to a laughable extreme in “Springtime for Hitler” in THE PRODUCERS, but the only thing missing her from Waititi’s costume is an old timey dunce cap.

Jojo lives at home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), while dad is off fighting on the front line. Ms. Johansson’s performance is terrific (despite limited screen time) as she creates a believably warm bond with her son during horrific times. Soon, Jojo is off to a Nazi camp designed to teach the boys how to fight (and burn books), as the girls learn the virtues of having babies. The camp leaders are Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who is a bit of a joke on the surface, but more interesting the deeper we dig; Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who boasts of having 18 Aryan babies; and Finkel (Alfie Allen) a violent psychopath. At camp with Jojo is his best friend Yorki (newcomer and scene-stealer Archie Yates), and the two show what a genuine friendship can be as the movie progresses.

Things change quickly for Jojo when, by happenstance, he discovers a Jewish girl living in the walls of his home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE) shows none of the characteristics that Jojo has been brainwashed into believing all Jews possess. She has no horns, flashes a good sense of humor, and is actually very nice and knowledgeable. In other words, she’s no monster. As they get to know each other, Jojo realizes this “nice” Jewish girl contrasts starkly with his lunatic hero Adolph.

Waititi’s film is ingenious satire, and it likely won’t sit well with those who think not enough time has passed to justify making fun of Nazi atrocities. It’s funny and heavy, and deals with some thought-provoking matter in an unusual way. The “Heil Hitler” count approaches the ‘F-word’ frequency of most Tarantino movies, and there is a German Shepherd gag that caught the audience off-guard. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo search of Jojo’s house is comedy at its weirdest. The movie messes with your head as it’s some odd blend of SCHINDLER’S LIST, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and an extended Monty Python skit.

It’s rare for a film that borders on slapstick at times to have so many touching and emotional moments. The actors are really strong here, especially Ms. Johansson and Ms. McKenzie, who as gutsy Elsa, proves again she is quickly becoming a powerhouse young actor. Roman Griffin Davis carries a significant weight in the story despite being a first time actor, and I can’t emphasize enough how young Archie Yates will steal your heart while he’s stealing his scenes. Michael Giacchino’s score and Mihai Malaimaire Jr’s terrific cinematography work well with Waititi’s vision … a satirical vision that would never work outside of his unique filmmaking talent. The story is basically proof of the adage, ‘Kill ‘em with kindness’, when what we are really killing is hatred. At its core, this is a story of humanity and human nature, and how we grab hold of the wrong thing until the truth becomes evident. Now, please pass the unicorn.

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

October 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ultimate cinematic dilemma … how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only the required alien war scenes, but also a campy villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of the year.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, this one will be a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flash his comic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love-hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the Bruce Banner banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY than the previous movies for Avengers.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening (with a dash of camp) Goddess of Death, and long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a headdress that puts everyone at the Kentucky Derby to shame, Hela’s enormous powers are such that she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer with little effort – just to remind everyone that big sisters are renowned for messing up younger brother’s toys.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to previous versions (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that make it clear, big time laughter is here to stay. It’s fun to catch the reunions from such previous projects as Star Trek, JURASSIC PARK and Westworld.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for hilariously taking the comic book film world down a different path. He’s known for his comedic projects like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of my favs from 2016), WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”. It’s still very much a Marvel movie, with visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. So get ready to rock, roll and rollick in a film that is just about as much fun as you can have in a theatre.

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HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016)

July 7, 2016

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2016

hunt for Greetings again from the darkness. It just doesn’t seem very many movies are designed to be funny to a wide range of viewers. There are raunchy comedies for taboo lovers. There are comedies for young kids. There are even Nicolas Cage movies for unintentional laughs. But writer/director Taika Waititi actually delivers a thoroughly entertaining movie that will generate laughs across multiple generations … it’s quite simply, a fun time at the theatre.

Based on the 1986 book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump, who himself is a bit of a legendary figure in New Zealand, the film begins with Child Protective Services (or whatever it’s called in New Zealand) dropping off 12 year old Ricky Baker to his new foster family. Paula, the CPS agent, considers Ricky a lost cause and describes him as “a very bad egg” as she rattles off his list of previous rebellions to new foster mom Bella, who takes note of Ricky’s heft with a couple of wisecracks – delivered with a well-meaning smile.

In a terrific screen introduction, “Uncle” Hec slowly comes into frame flashing a world class scowl and a wild boar slung over his shoulder. Ricky continues his habit of running away at night, but Bella slowly wins him over with her kindness, understanding and breakfast offerings. A tragic occurrence and fear of being shipped back to the juvenile center, has Ricky disappearing into the New Zealand bush. Soon enough Hec catches up and the two begin a relationship that is the core of the film.

Rima Te Wiata plays Bella as a perpetually optimistic woman with a sincere drive to help Ricky adjust and find some joy in life. Sam Neill plays Hec in full grumpy curmudgeon mode … a nice compliment to the extraordinary presence of Julian Dennison (Paper Planes) as Ricky. Ricky and Hec together are a hoot to watch. It’s not simply the generational differences, but also a clash of one man who wants little more than to be left alone and a young boy who wants little more than to be noticed and cared about. It’s not so much the direction of their relationship that surprises, but rather the manner in which it develops.

Director Waititi’s next film is Thor: Ragnarok, so this makes us appreciate even more his pleasant little indie film that features not just colorful and interesting characters, but the beautiful landscape of the New Zealand bush … much of which we see during the humorous manhunt for Hec and Ricky. It’s a farcical comedy with a dose of profundity and loads of adventure for two social misfits. Rachel House is pretty funny as the obsessed CPS worker, and Rhys Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) is downright hilarious as Psycho Sam. Watching criminial-wannabe Ricky literally count off his Haiku, leaves little doubt as to why this one has been such an “audience favorite” at multiple film festivals.

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