In nearly every church staging of the nativity story, some beatific, well-behaved little girl is cast as Mary, some lucky boy as her Joseph, and then about 30 of their friends as various sheep and camels and goats and whatnot (in Love Actually, Emma Thompson is surprised to learn there was not just one lobster but several, plus an octopus and a Spider-Man) – the point is, there are lots of kids and very few roles, so they’ve always been padded out with the animal brethren likely to be hanging around a manger.
In this particular retelling of the nativity story, the humans take a back seat to the animals; for once, they’re the stars, especially a brave young miniature donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun). Bo dreams about being in the royal caravan but in fact is locked up in a mill grinding grain all day. His buddy Dave, a dove (Keegan-Michael Key), eggs him on.
Meanwhile, Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) are celebrating their wedding feast and about to have a VERY awkward conversation. Boy is she relieved when a wayward runaway donkey crashes the party and gives her a few minutes’ reprieve. Anyway, eventually she and Joseph start their trek to Bethlehem and Bo and Dave find a helpful sheep named Ruth (Aidy Bryant) to lead the way and help Bo with a Lassie moment.
Meanwhile, a trio camels (Tyler Perry, Oprah, Tracy Morgan) belonging to the three wisemen are also having a moment trying to get their human cargo to a baby foretold by the stars.
Every nativity scene you’ve ever seen has a donkey. Now you’ll actually appreciate him.
The Star is actually a charming little movie full of big voice talent and quirky little moments to make your season bright.
Rudy Ray Moore is a real-life man who made something of himself. He started from the bottom, begging people just to notice him, but eventually finds his niche, creating a character named Dolemite and telling jokes on stage and on comedy albums to very appreciative (mostly black) audiences. He’s a success by any measure, but after a lifetime of being told no, he sets his sights even higher, wanting to take his character to the big screen even though the studio system refuses to make room for him.
This is the role Eddie Murphy was born to play; he is truly at his very best here, more alive and in his skin than I’ve seen him in a long time. His joy is infectious. A long time passion project for Murphy, it’s clear all the cast has caught the bug as well. It truly feels as though everyone is proud to help bring this story to the screen, and to a new generation’s attention. The exceptional ensemble cast, including Keegan-Michael Key, Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Mike Epps, and the lovely Da’Vine Joy Randolph, has a shared energy and passion making for a veritable party on the screen. It’s easy to join in and feel part of the fun.
Dolemite was a character just waiting to be born from years worth of cultural stories and jokes passed down generationally in the African-American community. Moore tapped into this consciousness, giving Dolemite back to his people, and director Craig Brewer ensures that he will not be forgotten. Watching Murphy as Moore find the groove of this Dolemite character is pure magic, a privilege to see. Moore achieved fame as a blaxploitation star in his own right and on is own terms, and he reached back, creating opportunities for others as well as himself, recognizing and picking up spare talent along the way. It’s a remarkable story and kind of an inspiration – in a weird way, a lot like Tommy Wiseau and The Disaster Artist.
But Dolemite is such a unique character and Murphy such a massive talent that this film is simply undeniable. Also rude, crude, and vulgar – not fit for a dog to see, as they say. The best kind of dirty. Dolemite is his name. Fucking up mother fuckers is his game. And for a time, it can be yours.
I’m still unconvinced by all these Disney remakes, and I’m particularly skeptical about “live action” remakes that aren’t actually live action at all, but just fancier animation. That said, I didn’t hate The Lion King (2019), and that’s head and shoulders (or can I say mane and tails) ahead of where I thought we’d be. I was fully prepared to hate this but instead the CGI animation’s beauty and realism swept me away. But while that sounds like a strength, it’s also the movie’s weakness.
The thing about traditional animation, like the original The Lion King (1994), is that literally ANYTHING can happen in a cartoon. They’re not constrained by any limitations. Your heart can awooooooga out of your chest when you’re in love, your feet can pedal a car, you can literally levitate off the ground in sheer happiness. And yes, a cross section of jungle animals can come together in perfect harmony.
The problem with this gorgeous, accurate, and photo-real animation is that these lions, who look exactly like the ones you see on National Geographic (minus the buttholes and genitals, Sean wants you to know), are still being made to talk. And sing. But not dance. That would be crazy. So director Jon Favreau and company are asking you to embrace the realism of Scar, who has none of his cartoony presence, but suspend your disbelief enough to invests in his sibling rivalry and Hamlet-style ambition, but then not be too disappointed when they drastically cut his big musical number.
Recently, while reviewing the earlier Toy Story movies, I noted, with some wonder, that Woody has 229 animation points of movement in his face. But while The Lion King’s animation WILL astonish you down to the dew drops in a spider’s web, the animals’ faces remain nearly blank. Their mouths move minimally, to indicate that they are speaking, but there’s not a lot of expression going on there, and I can’t help but feel that this gets in the way of my investing in them emotionally. The original Simba cried when his father died. He was a mere cartoon character, but I felt for him. When I re-screened the movie recently, that scene nearly broke me, reminding me of my nephew and his relationship with his dad. The new movie just couldn’t move me in the same ways.
And it’s not just the emotion that’s lacking, it’s the joy. I Just Can’t Wait To Be King is one of my all-time favourite Disney songs, but it’s not quite the same because in “real life,” ostriches don’t allow lions to ride them. So I’ve heard. And it’s hard to get zebras and giraffes and hippos to agree on choreography. So the song still sounds great, but there’s a little less pizzazz to the musical number.
Speaking of songs: you may have heard Beyonce is on board, voicing the grown-up Nala, and contributing an Oscar-eligible brand new song to the film’s soundtrack. I sort of thought I might miss some the iconic voice work from the original film: Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Jeremy Irons. But in fact, the 2019 film does an excellent job of filling those roles. It’s different, but it works. Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner: it’s a tall list, packed with talent, and everyone’s working at peak capacity. But I will say: it’s actually really great to have James Earl Jones return in his role as Mufasa. First, it seems impossible to replace him, and harder still to find someone with balls enough to try those step into those paws. But mostly it feels like he is passing the baton; he’s a link from the old to the new (it’s been 25 years!) and it is comforting as heck to hear that voice again.
Most of The Lion King 2019 edition is a toned-down recreation of the original, but there are a few new scenes, expanded roles for Timon & Pumbaa, and especially for some of the female members of the pride, drawing inspiration from the Broadway musical where Nala and Sarabi are featured more prominently. I mean, if you get Beyonce, you use her, ya know?
I suppose if you’ve never known another Lion King, this one has a lot to recommend it. For fans of the original, this one won’t really compare. But if you’ve got room in your heart for two Lion Kings, you might just feel the love (tonight).
Toy Story movies have always been darker than people give them credit for. In the first film, Buzz believes himself to be a hero stranded in a hostile environment. Turns out, he’s just a toy – everything he thought was real is a lie. He exists to be someone’s plaything, and Woody and the gang convince him that there’s dignity and even nobility in this fate, even if it strikes you and I as a kind of slavery, to exist merely at someone else’s whim, until you’re all used up, and then you’re disposed of. What a dizzying and disorienting concept; it’s no wonder Buzz literally gets depressed when he learns his true nature. In the second film, Woody literally contemplates his own mortality. His benevolent master Andy will one day tire of him, and worthless, he’ll be discarded. His friend Jessie really hammers this home with a heart-wrenching flashback of being abandoned at the side of a road by someone who once claimed to love her. Ultimately, Woody chooses to live as a toy rather than achieving a sort of immortality as a collector’s item; he’ll have a short but meaningful life rather than a long but insignificant one. What a choice. In the third film, Woody and the gang face the consequence of this choice: Andy goes off to college, and eventual abandonment becomes actual abandonment. Not only that, but the best friends are being separated, with Woody being doomed to spend his twilight years alone on Andy’s shelf, no longer a useful, loved plaything, but a mere relic of his past. Meanwhile, his friends are going to molder up in the dark oblivion of an attic. What cold comfort. Luckily, the toys are instead given to a little girl named Bonnie to live out a happy afterlife. Cue the fourth film.
Woody (Tom Hanks) and pals are having a grand old time being played with by Bonnie. Sure, the little girl prefers cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) over cowboy Woody just a tad, but still, it’s a good life, no complaints. Bonnie is starting kindergarten soon, and at an orientation session, she shows some initiative (fancy term for not following instructions) and makes herself a toy out of trash rather than a pencil cup out of art supplies. She brings her cherished new friend home and gives him a place of honour among toys. “Forky” is no more than a spork, some googly eyes, a pipe cleaner, and a broken popsicle stick, but he’s Bonnie’s new best friend, so Woody vows to keep them together at all costs. That’s going to be a problematic promise because a) Bonnie’s family is embarking on an RV roadtrip and b) Forky has some suicidal tendencies. Forky was never supposed to be a toy, you see. He’s trash. He knows he’s trash. Rather simple-minded and fairly spooked, all he wants more than anything in the world is to be trash once again, which is where he keeps launching himself. Woody keeps dutifully fishing him out, but one of these times he’s bound to get thrown out for good. It’s on one such rescue mission that Woody encounters an antique store where he thinks he may find an old friend/lost toy/love interest, Bo Peep (Annie Potts). We haven’t seen Bo Peep since the second movie, which was 20 years ago. Where has she been this whole time?
Bo’s been living free and wild as a toy with no owner. That’s essentially Woody’s worst nightmare but she makes it sound rather grand. Besides, Woody has a new worst nightmare: another antique store occupant, vintage doll Gabby Gabby wants his voicebox and she’s prepared to rip the stuffing out of his chest to get it. Yikes!
Structurallly, this fourth installment plays out a lot like those that came before it. There’s always some kind of separation, and then some kind of secondary rescue mission when the first one fails. These toys sure do get themselves into some high-stakes situations on an alarming basis!
It’s wonderful to see the cast of old friends: Bo looks shinier than ever, and Jessie’s hair has never looked yarnier. The animation on these films started out innovative and has only improved. And new friends are a hoot and a half: Forky (Tony Hale) is a walking, talking existential crisis, but the rendering of his pipe cleaner is photo realistic. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) was a dollie defective right out of the box, and her resulting failure to bond has really warped her. Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) is a Canadian daredevil who never lived up to his promise; he is haunted by his past, and by the kid who resoundingly rejected him. Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) are two brightly-coloured stuffed animals attached at the hands. They’ve been unredeemed carnival prizes for far too long, and are a little unhinged. Officer Giggle McDimples, Giggs for short (Ally Maki), may look precious and pocket-sized, but she’s a force to be reckoned with, and fiercely protective of her road warrior partner, Bo Peep. All these new toys will come together in surprising ways to give our pal Woody one last big adventure.
Coming full circle with the original film in the franchise which was released 24 years ago, Toy Story 4 has Woody once again paired with a toy who does not believe himself to be a toy. Woody’s experiences with Andy, and now with Bonnie, position him to a real advocate for finding and fulfilling one’s purpose and embracing one’s destiny. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure (I cried twice before the opening credits were over, and then alllllll the way home), Toy Story 4 more than justifies its existence. But after the perfect send-off in #3, is #4 a necessary or worthy addition? As much as I looked forward to connecting with these characters again, I surprise myself by saying no. Toy Story 4 is a good movie, an entertaining one, a very sweet one, but I can’t help but wish they’d left it at a trilogy so that we could have one perfect, shiny thing in our lives.
In light of recent events, I feel obligated to point out that the title of this film refers to the fictional species of intergalactic trophy hunters, not director Shane Black’s real-life registered sex offender pal who was somehow cast in a bit role here (whose scene was then removed from the final cut when his sex offender status came to light). With that major misstep remedied, though not forgotten, the latest entry in the Predator franchise arrives with the theme of evolution underlying the on-screen battles between humans and giant fang-faced aliens.
The ever-evolving Predator crash lands on earth and interrupts a U.S. sniper’s top secret Mexican mission. After ejecting from its ship, the Predator kills the sniper’s support team but the sniper (Boyd Holbrook) manages to escape, mailing a few pieces of the Predator’s gear home as evidence of the encounter. The gear finds its way to the sniper’s son (Room‘s Jacob Tremblay), who figures out how to activate it and in doing so becomes the Predator’s target. The army is no help in containing the Predator so the only ones standing between the Predator and the rest of the world are the sniper, a biologist (Olivia Munn) and a misfit group of soldiers. And the fight is on!
In addition to being a key plot point, the concept of evolution looms large for me as I reflect on this film, because the Predator series has definitely evolved. It’s so much different than the cheesy action/horror nostalgia trip I expected to see. The Predator is a gleeful, self-referential comedy that takes more pleasure in delivering quick, clever banter than it does in splattering the screen with gore.
Make no mistake, though. The Predator is an exceedingly gory film. Faces will be ripped off. Bodies will be sliced into pieces. Internal organs will ooze out of gaping wounds. That, more than anything, illustrates how consistently funny the Predator manages to be, because comedy is the film’s dominant element even in the presence of buckets and buckets of gore.
Black is known for his action-comedies, and his script for Lethal Weapon is rightly recognized as a standout in the genre. An evolution, even. Thirty years later, Black is still rolling along. A bit player in the original Predator (his character lasted all of seven minutes), Black now directs and co-writes (with Fred Dekker) the 2018 version, which is not a reboot of the original. Instead, it revisits what has come before to tell a new story and, by the end, sets a whole new course for the franchise that is as intriguing as it is ridiculous.
Of course, ridiculousness is a Black staple and while Predator does not quite measure up to Black’s best (namely, the amazing Lethal Weapon), it is a wonderfully entertaining film thanks to Black and the extremely solid cast. The standouts of the teriffic ensemble are Tremblay as the protagonist’s code-cracking son and This Is Us’s Sterling K. Brown as a scenery-devouring special agent whose motives are never clear but always nefarious. The Predator keeps up a steady stream of action and laughs from start to finish, and as a result, I’m now waiting eagerly for the even-more-ridiculous sequel that the Predator blatantly and shamelessly promises.
In my opinion, the Hotel Transylvania franchise is completely devoid of charm, wit, imagination, or life. It’s the barest of bare minimums. It treats children like nitwits and may actually be worsening their little attention spans by assuming they have none.
But if your kids are already attached to this hotel full of monsters, chances are you’re going to have to sit through this one too, so here’s what you’re dealing with: Drac (a vampire voiced by Adam Sandler) manages a hotel for monsters. His daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) shocked the monster community by marrying a human, Johnny (Andy Samberg) and producing a half-human, half-dracula child they inexplicably named Dennis. So that’s basically the first two movies, distilled into two sentences, and let’s face it, with some clever punctuation, it could have been just the one. Anyway. The hotel is populated by various monsters such as Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his lovely wife Eunice (Fran Drescher), Mr & Mrs Werewolf (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon), the invisible man (David Spade), and a mummy called Murray (Keegan-Michael Key). And in this third installment, Mavis gets it in her head that her dad has devoted his life to perfecting other people’s vacations and deserves one of his own. So somehow the whole gang schleps off to a monster cruise, helmed by the beautiful captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). Only problem is: Drac has already “zinged” once (“zing” being the monster version of love at first sight, and true love forever, and love being once in a lifetime). So he’s nervous about it, and Mavis is unexpected not that cool with it. But even more worryingly, Drac’s old nemesis Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) might still be after him after decades of cat and mouse. So that’s disappointing.
Spelling it out like this actually makes it seem like this movie has a plot, and I guess it does in the very vaguest of terms. But plot in this case is just filler in between out of the blue musical numbers \ dance sequences where it is clear that a) Sony isn’t shelling out for good or current music and b) the animators are super duper lazy and praying we won’t notice.
Anyway, Hotel Transylvania is as big a snore as the first and second. The only thing it has going for it is a giant puppy named Tinkles, even though he’s criminally and surprisingly effectively disguised by a small hat for most of the movie (which manages to confound all of the grown-ups until it falls off and his true identity is revealed). I was never in danger of laughing. I had low expectations for this movie and it met them – good thing it was the only thing playing at the drive-in.
Amazon tempted me into this one with the promise of some pretty funny dudes: Keegan-Michael Key, and the Sklar Brothers, who I didn’t even know acted. Turns out, they don’t. But they do do their stand-up act in front of a camera in “character” as a couple of funny brothers. Actually they play high school counselors – their job is to help kids get into college and they are spectacularly bad at it. Keegan-Michael Key plays the principal and he’s pretty darn at that too. But Matt Letscher plays the titular “Teacher of the Year” and though his character has the bonafide ribbon, you kind of have to take their word for it that he’s good at his job. Although we see quite a lot of him in the classroom, he rarely seems to be more than competent, and sometimes quite a bit less. Even so, this Teacher of the Year is being lured out of teacher. And if this is the best they have, they cannot afford to lose him. The rest of the school seems to be populated by teachers who are either oblivious or crazy with jealousy. It’s a sad state of affairs.
Anyway, as I should have guessed from a movie that’s hired stand-up comedians rather than actors, it’s hella-funny in some very small, contained parts, and mostly not at all funny in all the others. It’s sort of a mockumentary and sort of just a failed movie.