JULY 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

TOY STORY 4 (G)
***1/2
You don't see The Simpsons or Law & Order: SVU suffering from "franchise fatigue" while coming up with dozens of new episodes each year. Their creators could teach something to the people at major studios who think a few familiar characters and a $100 million or two will automatically attract crowds every few years. Or the studios could learn from the Pixar folk behind Toy Story, which is as great as ever - if not greater - in its fourth installment in 24 years. Andy is grown up and out of the picture. His toys have been passed on to Bonnie, who makes one of her own, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), on the first day of kindergarten. Except for Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), most of the old toys stay pretty much in the background to make room for new characters. The family goes on a road trip, where Woody runs into Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who's been out in the world for seven years without a kid. Also out there are plush toys Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), evil-ish Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks); and Canada's greatest toy stunt cyclist, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves - and if you think it's unintentional that he's not disguising his voice, check his dialogue in the closing credit sequence). You won't believe the all-star cast list, some of whom only say a word or two. Director Josh Cooley pays amazing attention to detail as the story combines action, humor and sentiment - perhaps a bit too much of the last, but it's all good. Anyone else would have Toy Story 5 in production already, but we'll have to wait a long time - perhaps forever - so savor this edition because Pixar's not playing around.

CHILD'S PLAY (R)
**1/2
That the reboot (or remake, or regurgitation) of Child's Play opened the same day as Toy Story 4 and a week before Annabelle Comes Home proves there are no coincidences. Unlike Pixar's benevolent playthings, Chucky is the rotten apple that spoils the toy barrel. Maybe he and Annabelle should hook up and leave human kids alone. Voiced by Mark Hamill, the new doll - he names himself Chucky - is much higher-tech than the old one. He's a household assistant - think Alexa on steroids - who's programmed to become "best friends" with his owner; but this particular doll has some extra programming. His new friend is Andy (Gabriel Bateman) - another Toy Story "coincidence"? - who lives with his single mom (Aubrey Plaza), who's often visited by her boyfriend (David Lewis); and their cat. Down the hall is the old mother of a cop (Brian Tyree Henry) who visits her frequently. It's fun for a time as Chucky misreads Andy's casual remarks as kill commands, but your patience may expire before his last victim does. With a new name and face on its antagonist, the technical aspects would have made this movie as original as most new horror films. The way things are going this year, piggybacking on an old franchise was probably not a good idea.

ECHO IN THE CANYON (PG-13)
***
If your knowledge of pop music begins and ends with Taylor Swift, chances are you'll have no interest in this ancient history lesson, though maybe you should. If you were alive in the mid-'60s you'll appreciate not only the nostalgia but also trivia that connects some dots you were probably never aware of. Lawyers will want to see it for possible plagiarism suits as band members reveal how they were inspired by each other's work. The Beatles gave Roger McGuinn the idea of combining folk music and rock and roll with the Byrds. The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" inspired the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper..." and so on. The film is rooted in a 2015 concert of songs that debuted from 1965 to 1967. It features Jakob Dylan and other artists who hadn't been born then. The role of Dylan's father (Bob is never mentioned by name) in the music's evolution is ignored because the focus is on musicians who lived near L.A. in Laurel Canyon; hence the title. Dylan draws reminiscences from McGuinn, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr and the late Tom Petty. Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas proudly slut-shames herself and Crosby reveals why the Byrds sent him flying. Snippets of original recordings sound better than the cover versions, but the artists' memories alone should earn Andrew Slater's film a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE (R)
***
I don't have a great fondness for intelligent movies. I prefer mindless entertainment made by intelligent people. When they go deeply into financial matters they make my head explode. Here's a rare exception with enough entertainment value that you can ignore the thinking parts and still have a good time. Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand hasn't had a major release in America since his 2003 Oscar winner The Barbarian Invasions, and we should have missed him. Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) has a Ph.D. in Philosophy but works for a courier company because "Deliverymen earn more than teachers." Already generous with what little he has, he stumbles on a robbery in progress and winds up with two bags of cash belonging to the West End Gang, Montreal's most powerful mob; so the gang and the police are looking for him. Pierre-Paul seeks financial advice from people who understand how to hold onto ill-gotten (or ill-kept) gains. Though he knows better than to call attention to himself with extravagant spending, he can't resist the philosophical references on the escort site of a woman who calls herself Aspasie; and of course he falls in love with her. You should too, as actress Maripier Morin makes the best first impression since Charlize Theron as a combination of beauty and talent. There's sex, violence, Montreal scenery and such subtle humor that you don't realize you're watching a comedy until a rare laugh line ("I'm not a lawyer. I'm a crook. I'm honest") occurs. "Intelligence is a handicap," Pierre-Paul says. Maybe so, but in this case it doesn't hurt.

MAIDEN (PG)
**1/2
Here's one for the "better late than never" crowd, or those who missed Rosie the Riveter and haven't heard that women can do the same jobs as men. It's a documentary about the first all-female crew to compete in what was then the Whitbread Round the World Race but yielded naming rights to Volvo in 2001. Tracy Edwards, whose dark side is discussed but never shown, put a crew together for the 1989-90 edition and bought a "scruffy-looking" used boat, refurbished it and dubbed it the Maiden. Her first mate, the most experienced sailor of the lot, quit a few days before the race, leaving the unqualified Edwards in sole charge. Nevertheless, she persisted. Reporters who covered the race recall thinking the "girls" would never complete the first leg, let alone all six. Some rival skippers also contribute memories, as do Edwards and most of her crew; but the most surprising revelation is of the dual role played by Jordan's King Hussein in encouraging and sponsoring the Maiden's entry. Despite a concerted effort to make the story relevant and empowering to women today, the film's time has come and long gone. Home movies from Edwards' childhood are the kind you hate when friends make you watch them. Films taken at sea during the race are better because you understand the conditions under which they were made. Most ironic is that Maiden was directed by (Mr.) Alex Holmes, because - What? Women can't make documentaries?

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (PG-13)
**1/2
For most of the length of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' documentary I was thinking it must be a two-hour infomercial, because it was certainly selling me on Toni Morrison, an African American author I didn't know much about. I don't know if she writes like she talks, but her running commentary assured me I like the way she thinks. Others, most notably Oprah Winfrey, who starred in the screen version of her novel Beloved, provide anecdotes and remarks as the well-organized film details Morrison's life. She was born in 1931 in a small, integrated Ohio town, but heard stories from her ancestors about less amenable days down South. She majored in English at Howard, where she later taught, as she did at Princeton and Yale. She worked as an editor for Random House, where she persuaded Angela Davis, then 28, to write her autobiography. Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, introduced a pattern of writing about black people, especially women, without explaining them to whites. A few more novels in, a group of writers protested because she hadn't won a National Book Award; but the film ends on a high note after she receives the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. Why, I wondered, was there no mention of the Pulitzer Prize she had won in 1988? And why, except for flashing book covers a few times, was there nothing about the six novels she published since 1993, or all but one of her non-fiction works? With a little Googling I learned all kinds of things that had been left out; and while an "and then she wrote..." biography would have been boring, too many salient facts are omitted. And are they saving the last 25 years for a sequel? I really liked what's here until I realized what's missing.

MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE
**1/2
If, like me, you saw the title and immediately started hearing Leonard Cohen singing "So Long, Marianne" in your head, you're in the target audience for Nick Broomfield's documentary. Thousands of you were with me at the Fox when Leonard performed there almost a decade ago. For me at least, Broomfield often misses the target here. As much as I love Cohen's songs, I guess I don't care that much about the details of his private life - except maybe the night with Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel. It seems Cohen was one of many artistic types who were drawn to the Greek island of Hydra around 1960. Marianne Ihlen, a young, about-to-be-divorced mother from Norway, wasn't an artist but she came too. She hooked up with Leonard and became his muse. They spent less and less time together as the years went by. Eventually he became famous and lived in New York and Montreal, then she moved back to Norway and lived a "normal" life; but they stayed in touch until they died three months apart in 2016. Cohen started visiting a Buddhist monastery in 1973 and lived there for six years in the '90s. The legendary D.A. Pennebaker contributes a lot of footage from Hydra in the '60s. Broomfield arrived there in '68 and supplies some voiceover information without identifying himself, so it's sometimes hard to tell who's speaking. There are brief fragments of several songs but this isn't a concert film. What there is will be of varying degrees of interest to various Cohen fans, but I doubt that many will give it an outright "Hallelujah!"

BABYLON (NR)
**1/2
Snowflakes beware! Babylon was not released in the U.S. in 1980 because, they say, it was "too controversial, and likely to incite racial tension." Now that it's been restored and we can finally see it, we can get an idea of how much our sensibilities - though not the things that provoke them - have changed in two generations. There's little here that couldn't be shown on network television - and certainly cable - any night of the week. Think "Atlanta" with reggae instead of rap. From the beginning this story of a group of Jamaican friends living in South London builds toward a Sunday night Battle of the Sounds that proves to be anticlimactic - in terms of our expectations, at least - when it arrives. The champion, Jah Shaka, is being challenged by "our" team, Ital Lion, and their DJ, Blue (Brinsley Forde). Over a few days we see the difficulties they face - economic, romantic and in terms of racial prejudice from bigoted individuals, the police, and the neo-Nazis (or are they the old Nazis?) of the National Front. The obstacles are tremendous and our heroes' responses sometimes less than honorable. In other words, nothing has changed in 40 years except our comfort level in viewing stories about what for some people are everyday events. The music is the most nostalgic aspect of Babylon.

BETTER DAYS (NR)
***
Imagine Booksmart reconfigured as a serious drama set in China, made with the same skill if a somewhat different skillset. Like the heroines in Booksmart, Chen-Nian (Zhou Dongyu) has spent her high school years studying instead of having a social life. It seems about to pay off, with the annual gaokao (National College Entrance Examination) just weeks away; but then a classmate, the only one ahead of Chen-Nian on the bullies' and mean girls' target list, commits suicide. With bullying really fierce there and the rich kids' parents protecting them from the police, poor Chen-Nian needs protection from everyone. She hooks up with Liu Bei-Shan (Jackson Yee) - someone calls them "a good student and a small-time punk" - in an eventual romance that develops painfully slowly. She also arouses sympathy - and perhaps more - in a young police officer. So many other things happen along the way to keep up the film's action and mystery quotients, it's a wonder how Chen-Nian can prepare for the gaokao amid more distractions than a presidential press conference. The ending doesn't make the outcome entirely clear, but overall director Derek Kwok-Cheung Tsang has done a splendid job of blending the story's diverse elements and proving himself filmsmart.

THE QUIET ONE (NR)
***
Some people write memoirs. Others let filmmakers into their lives and let them do the work. Bill Wyman, the Rolling Stones' bass player for 31 years, took the latter route, and made plenty of work for director Oliver Murray. It seems Wyman (born William Perks) has never discarded anything (except his first two wives). That would make most of us hoarders, but when you have a house big enough to hold all these things, you're an archivist. Murray is also credited as writer, but since most of the spoken words are Wyman's first-person narration, he was probably more of an editor. Anyone who's ever been a fan of the Stones should enjoy this combination of nostalgia and revelation. Wyman, now 82, was the oldest member of the band and something of a square peg. He didn't do drugs or call attention to himself, and he liked rock-and-roll while the others started out as a "blues band." The highs and lows are all summarized here, with perhaps a bit too much effort to make you feel sorry for Wyman when he was lonely, bored or mobbed by fans. Most of us would have sold our souls to be in his position. He made his first solo album in the '70s, followed a few years later by a single that was an international (except the U.S.) hit. He left the Stones in the early '90s to have a "normal" life, married his third wife and started a new band, the Rhythm Kings. Bits of most of the hit songs are here but don't expect a concert film, just a portrait of a simple guy who became a cog in one of the biggest (steel) wheels in rock history.

THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE (NR)
**1/2
The documentary usually precedes the dramatization (e.g., RBG/On the Basis of Sex, The Brandon Teena Story/Boys Don't Cry). In this case, The Catcher Was a Spy told the tale of Morris "Moe" Berg a year before Aviva Kempner's documentary reached the screen. Either way, it's quite a story. Berg, a son of Ukrainian immigrants, was one of the first Jewish major league baseball players. He earned a law degree to placate his father, though he never practiced, and he spoke more languages than Pete Buttigieg. During World War II Berg worked for the OSS, his celebrity giving him access to people and places that were off limits to ordinary Americans. Kempner enthusiastically collected factoids about Berg and film clips - real and fictional - to illustrate them, then couldn't bear to leave any out of her film. The result is a rapid-fire hodgepodge. When text appears onscreen you'll want to have a pause button ready, and in WWII-era footage FDR and Churchill almost interact with Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd. Without enough "experts" to testify, despite authors being allowed to advertise their works shamelessly, Kempner and fellow filmmakers sometimes deliver the exposition themselves. Watching the "Hollywood version" afterward made me appreciate the additional information Kempner furnishes, but I wish it had been better assembled.

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