Sweet Story Propels Pixar’s New Film ‘Onward’

OH BROTHERS – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left in the world. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian Lightfoot, and Chris Pratt as the voice of Ian’s older brother, Barley, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. ©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Although Pixar has developed a wildly successful formula, it is, nonetheless, a formula. You’ve got the quest, usually driven by someone’s emotional longings. You’ve got the frenetic action, you’ve got the vividly realistic (if not a bit exaggerated) characters and landscapes. You’ve got the laugh-out-loud jokes and sight gags. And you’ve got the big, “we dare you to not cry” resolution. And, with only the occasional misfire (Planes comes to mind), it always works. While the stories may share similar DNA, the Pixar movies live and die by the strength of their characters and quests. With Onward, they’ve hit the mark again. The story — two teenage elves who, thanks to a magical scepter, will be able to spend one day with their late father — is clearly a personal one for writer/director Dan Scanlon. He lost his own father at a young age, and that idea of wish fulfillment lovingly permeates the film.

Playing the two teens, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt — both young veterans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — share a boisterous, joyous camaraderie that’s tailor-made for the Pixar aesthetic. The actors are friends in real life, and that vibe definitely informs their performances in the movie.

As always, there are sight gags for viewers of all ages — older moviegoers will certainly get a kick out of the Weekend at Bernie’s homage — and the film’s decision to place its elves in a modern suburban setting will help it resonate with its tween and teen audience.Of course, by the end, the boys (and the viewers) realize the gift they’ve been given is not what they originally expected. In trying to discover the man their father was in the past, the brothers are really setting down a road to discover the men they’ll be in the future, and therein lies the true Pixar magic: in its characters fantasy worlds, we can learn more about our own reality.

The supporting cast, led by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer and Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is solid, and it wouldn’t be a Pixar film without breathtaking cinematography and music.

Though its elfin protagonists may not have quite as long a shelf life as Pixar’s more iconic characters, ultimately, the movie is another winning, worthy addition to the studio’s library.

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Eddie Murphy Gets It Right With ‘Dolemite’

There’s a classic scene in the TV show Taxi in which a young, strait-laced Jim Ignatowski takes his first bite of a marijuana-laced brownie; we immediately see him begin his transformation into the hilariously loopy character he would become. After watching Dolemite Is My Name, I could picture a young Eddie Murphy listening to Rudy Ray Moore’s comedy album for the first time. Within seconds, I saw that toothy Murphy smile appear. Mere moments later, I imagined him unleashing that iconic horse-like laugh we’ve grown to know so well.

It’s easy to draw a line from the bawdy, blue humor of Moore to the raucous, raunchy humor of Raw Murphy, and it’s even easier to view Moore as a hero of young Murphy’s.

It’s no wonder, then, to see Murphy throw himself whole-heartedly into the role of Moore in Dolemite Is My Name. It was clearly a labor of love, exactly what he needed to bring him out of his three-year acting exile. At age 58, Murphy has been rejuvenated by the opportunity to bring Moore’s story to the screen.

Granted, he didn’t have to be rejuvenated too much – Moore is no spring chicken when we first meet him. He’s not exactly a washed-up has-been; he’s more of a world-wearied almost-was. As a singer, he laments how he might have hit the big time, if only his record label hadn’t signed some guy named James Brown. As a comedian, he’s been reduced to getting a few precious seconds each night as an emcee at a local L.A. dive bar.

He spends his days as an assistant manager of a record store, and that’s where his fortunes change. There’s a vagrant (Ron Cephas Jones of This Is Us) who comes into the store, spouting outrageous stories about a dude named Dolemite. Where others see the alcohol-induced ramblings of an old, broken man, Moore sees buried treasure. Armed with a tape recorder and a wad of cash, Moore seeks out the old man and his stories. After polishing them into comedy routines, Moore breaks out his pimpiest-looking suit and creates the Dolemite character.

Before he knows it, Dolemite is a smash hit. After recording his new routine at the club, he sells enough self-produced records to get the attention of a record company, which sends him out on the road and helps make the album a hit.

But Moore wants more. He becomes convinced that Dolemite could be big-screen dynamite. After his Hollywood pitches go nowhere, though, he takes on a Dolemite film as the ultimate DIY project.

Recruiting a local playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to write it and a minor Hollywood star (Wesley Snipes) to direct, the Dolemite movie starts to come to life in a bumbling, stumbling, “how are they ever going to finish this?” kind of way.

Murphy clearly relished the opportunity to re-create some classic scenes from the real Dolemite film, throwing himself into them with unbridled glee and the requisite reckless abandon. Moore might have been making a train wreck, but he sure wanted to have fun doing it. After all, if he was having fun, wouldn’t a theater audience?

When the movie’s finished, it’s looking like theater audiences might never get that chance. Nobody in Hollywood wants to release the train wreck, and it looks like Moore’s signed away his life’s recording royalties for nothing.

But then, as the request of an Indianapolis DJ (Chris Rock), Moore books the movie into the late-night slot at a local theater, and with the DJ’s support, he fills the theater. Dolemite becomes a local sensation, attracting the eyes of a studio that had already turned the film down once. Moore signs a distribution deal with the studio, and the rest is history.

While the original Dolemite movie’s production might have been bare-bones, the same cannot be said about My Name Is Dolemite, which sits squarely in the “quality biopic” genre. Regard for Moore in the African-American community – especially among its entertainers – has attracted a first-rate cast, including Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, rappers Snoop Dogg and T.I., and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who overflows with sass as Moore’s comedic discovery, Lady Reed.

The quality of the cast helps make the directing job easy for director Craig Brewer, who manages the ebb and flow of the story nicely. It’s got an “underdog sports story” feel that serves the film better than a “rags to riches” approach would have. The crew re-creates the look of the ‘70s, from its gaudy clothing to its muted Earth-tone cinematography, with loving care.

But it’s Murphy – who is also one of the film’s producers – who provides the highest octane for the movie’s engine. While a younger, brasher Murphy may not have been able to handle the nuances of a character like Moore, the current incarnation – older, wiser, and all too familiar with the perils and pitfalls of stardom – has accumulated enough life experience to do the character justice.

Will Dolemite Is My Name reignite interest in Rudy Ray Moore and his work? It may, although the Dolemite clips that run during the credits do look hopelessly dated. Will it make fans happy that Eddie Murphy is back, with new movies and stand-up specials on the way? Absolutely.

Dolemite Is My Name is now streaming on Netflix.

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Posted Ari Coine

‘The Laundromat’ Plays One Shell Of A Game

THE LAUNDROMAT

What is The Laundromat? Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Is it a dramatized documentary? Is it a mystery? Is it a civics lesson? Is it a “how-to” video?

Actually, it’s all that, and then some. And if that sounds like a little too much for one movie to handle, well, perhaps it is. The Laundromat clocks in at 96 minutes but manages to feel like it’s closer to 150, even though director Steven Soderbergh uses every trick in the book to hasten and tidy up the affair. There’s narration, animation, summation, and fourth-wall breaks galore as Soderburgh tries to somehow simplify the tricky trickling of money through the complex world of offshore financial services.

So why does it feel so long? It’s a big story. It’s a complicated story. It’s a story that jumps from continent to continent, told in a series of vignettes about people — some real, some fictitious — whose lives were ensnared in a real-life scandal that has come to be known as the Panama Papers.

After an amusing prologue that explains the history of money through the eyes of the film’s on-screen narrators and real-life Panama Papers perpetrators Mossack and Fonseca (played in opulently over-the-top fashion by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas), we meet Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) on what will become the first of a series of worst days of her life. A tourist outing turns tragic when the boat capsizes, and her husband is among the 21 people killed. Then, after she’s led to believe she’ll be compensated with a sizeable insurance settlement, she discovers that — thanks to a little bit of cost-cutting by the boat operators (David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick) — the “insurance company” is nothing more than a shell game being played in foreign countries and tiny Caribbean islands.

While Martin’s story serves as the through line for the plot — after all, why would you waste an asset like Meryl Streep, who’s brilliant as usual — it’s at this point where the film starts to take several detours.

Each of these detours tries to explain another rule or two of how the shell game is played. Some are cruel, like the one in which a philandering California father tries to buy his daughter’s silence with bearer bonds that are supposedly worth $20 million. (Of course, before she can cash in, dear old Daddy moves all the money around, leaving her with $37.) Some are criminal, like the dramatization of British businessman Neil Heywood’s real-life poisoning in China.

In the end — as it did in real life — the film winds up in Panama, where the mighty financial firm of Mossack Fonseca is taken down by an anonymous leak of several million documents.

Well, until the film winds up on a soundstage, where Streep literally strips herself out of character and breaks the fourth wall to deliver a scathing indictment on the political system that has allowed these financial cons to flourish. It’s the kind of rant that won’t win the film any fans with the MAGA crowd, but is stunningly on point.

Was the story interesting? Yes. Was the acting fantastic? Yes. Was the film amusing? Yes. Was the message a strong one? Yes.

Then why do I sit here, writing this review, still feeling unsure whether I actually liked the movie?

I didn’t dislike The Laundromat, but it somehow doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts, and it’s hard to put a finger on why that is. Maybe it’s because so many of the story’s characters are pretty despicable humans. Maybe it’s because even when the bad guys lost, the good guys didn’t actually win. Maybe it’s because you’re left with the feeling that the outlook is still grim for the 99%. Or maybe all of the above is just a bit overwhelming.

So we’re left with a film that’s hard to dislike, yet hard to like. Just like the reality it portrays, it lives somewhere in a grey area.

The Laundromat is now streaming on Netflix.

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Posted by Ari Coine

 

El Camino’: Very Good, But Still Not ‘Bad’

The ghost of Walter White hangs heavy over El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

In the literal sense, it’s because – although six years have passed since the Breaking Bad finale – the action in El Camino picks up mere minutes after the climactic battle that left White among the ranks of the recently departed.

But White’s death also leaves the movie (for the most part) without Bryan Cranston, the force of nature whose award-winning performance escalated the show from a storm into a full-blown hurricane.

And though it’s Walter White who’s now a ghost, it’s Jesse Pinkman who wants to disappear. The film’s prologue is a newly shot flashback to better times, when Jesse and his old colleague Mike (White’s fixer) talk about what life will be like after White’s gone. When Mike warns Jesse that the one thing he can never do is “make things right,” we jump violently to the present, with Jesse desperately fleeing the scene of the finale’s carnage in a stolen El Camino.

The present-day Jesse is a badly broken man. Unkempt, unshaven, and seriously disheveled from his time spent captive in his tormentors’ cage, it’s tempting to say that he’s suffering a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it can’t be PTSD, because his trauma hasn’t ended yet. He may have been freed from his cage, but all of his inner demons left with him in that El Camino.

The film relies on Aaron Paul’s ability to carry the story almost completely on his own as Jesse, and he does an admirable job. Between the flashbacks to more prosperous times and the manic intensity driving him to find his freedom, Paul does great work in presenting several different shades of the heroic anti-hero.

But again, the elephant in the room is Walter’s ghost. On Breaking Bad, the acting partnership of Cranston and Paul created amazing chemistry (literally and figuratively). And while there’s nothing wrong with the performance Paul gives in El Camino, you can’t help but feel something’s missing without Cranston there.

Ultimately, El Camino is a caper movie, with Jesse trying to find the funds that will finance his disappearance. As in the prologue, the movie flits between past and present to expose Jesse’s motivations and mindset, revealing little glimpses of his Breaking Bad life unseen on the series. It’s not just a dramatic device – it also gives the film a chance to bring back some characters whose lack of a pulse would otherwise keep them out of a movie shot wholly in the present. (That’s how we get a poignant, but too brief, cameo from Cranston.)

Written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan, the film stays true to the show’s modus operandi of long, dramatic stretches of character introspection interspersed with heightened moments of tension, conflict and, of course, violence.

As a self-contained story, El Camino is a solid film worthy of the Breaking Bad connection it carries in its title, with excellent work on both sides of the camera. But just as Jesse finds it impossible to outrun his past, “El Camino” cannot ditch the ghost of Walter White. Perhaps that’s the way it should be – after all, Jesse is Walter’s Frankenstein, a creature molded and shaped by its creator, imbued with some of his best and worst qualities. Still, the movie misses the synergistic chemistry between Paul and Cranston that made the series sizzle, and though we’re given a good story and a satisfying sense of closure, we’re left with a feeling of wanting something more.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Posted Ari Coine

Meaningless Mayhem: Jim Gaffigan Gets Serious In ‘American Dreamer’

Surely, American Dreamer was meant to be an ironic title for this dark, bleak, violent crime drama. Unless, of course, your dream is to make a quick buck by turning the tables on a drug dealer and hoping you survive the night.

As a rideshare driver, Cam meets dozens of people every day, but never gets to interact with anybody. It’s a loneliness compounded by the breakup of his marriage, which is keeping him from seeing his son. Down on life and down on his luck, Cam supplements his meager wages by working as a driver-on-call for Mazz, a drug dealer who has everything Cam wants — access to his son and plenty of money.

When Cam’s financial and emotional problems drive him to the brink of despair, he devises a plan to make some money: He’s going to kidnap Mazz’s girlfriend and collect ransom money. But when she’s not there and their son is, Cam improvises.

After receiving Cam’s ransom demands, Mazz and his girlfriend go in search of their missing kid — with Cam, of course, at the wheel. Through the night, the body count grows, and Cam grows very, very worried for his own safety.

As the everyman with the plan, comedian Jim Gaffigan basically plays two notes: disturbed and disturbing. While it’s not a huge range, Gaffigan pulls it off. But overall, the acting in the movie is largely forgettable. Even after his son goes missing, you don’t really get emotionally involved with Mazz (Robbie Jones), and everyone in his orbit is written and acted straight outta every “drug dealers in the hood” movie we’ve ever seen.

It’s not only the characters that are written in one dimension. The plot is largely written that way, too, with very little in the way of subplots or character development. In fact, once the search for the child begins, the film plays out almost in real time, never cutting away from either Cam or Mazz.

American Dreamer is definitely not the feel-good movie of the year, and it doesn’t offer anything new in the genre. While it manages to hold your interest for its relatively short 93-minute run time, it doesn’t leave you with any lasting impressions. If mindless violence and a mindless diversion are what you crave, this movie will fit the bill. Just don’t expect any more from it than that.

American Dreamer is now playing in limited release and is also available on VOD.

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Posted by Ari Coine

‘Ode To Joy’: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Happy?

We all know somebody who’s happiest when they’re unhappy, and most of us wonder what makes them tick. Ode to Joy is about such a man, but his misery is literally written into his genetic code.

Charlie (Martin Freeman) suffers from a rare neurological disorder called cataplexy, a condition that causes his muscles to give out when he’s confronted with strong emotions. In his case, it manifests most often when he experiences joy, so he systematically tries to remove it from his life. He has an unchallenging, unsatisfying job at a New York library; he walks around town listening to funeral dirges on his iPod; he tries to calm himself with humorously depressing thoughts (“white guy in dreadlocks”) when he sees puppies, babies, or acts of kindness; and, most significantly, he has no love in his life. “I’ve mostly steered clear of girlfriends,” he explains at one point. “I can’t afford the insurance.”

Then he meets Francesca (Morena Baccarin). She’s gorgeous, newly single, and attracted to Charlie’s dry wit. Although he’s (almost literally) scared to death by the idea of falling for her, his co-workers convince him to take a chance on love.

Then, their first date ends in the emergency room.

Charlie’s faced with a dilemma: He’s attracted to Francesca and wants her in his life, but knows he can’t be happy around her unless he’s unhappy. His novel solution? He sets Francesca up with his shallow younger brother, Cooper (Jake Lacy). That way, he gets to see her on a regular basis, but is miserable because she’s unavailable.

Cooper returns the favor by fixing Charlie up with Francesca’s “boring” co-worker, Bethany (Melissa Rauch). Bethany would actually be perfect for Charlie … but his chemistry with Francesca — even as a friend — is undeniable.

This curious love parallelogram leads to all kinds of complications as the two couples spend a weekend together at a B&B out in the country. Will Charlie get his “happily ever after”? Or will his condition dictate that he needs an “unhappily ever after” instead?

The movie, based on a true story originally told on NPR’s This American Life, resolves things in somewhat predictable Hollywood fashion, but it’s still fun to watch.

As we’ve seen on Sherlock, Freeman excels at playing the dour, put-upon man who’s seemingly doomed to never get what he wants. Baccarin is effortlessly flirtatious as a woman with a history of bad boyfriend choices and a terminally ill aunt. And Rauch will be virtually unrecognizable to her Big Bang Theory fans (aside, possibly, from an amusing aside about how her character is sexually attracted to recurring BBT guest star Bob Newhart).

The movie’s conceit, of course, gives ample opportunity to ruminate on the fine balance between happiness and misery in all of our lives. Can we truly appreciate happiness without moments of despair in our lives? Is happiness simply a construct we create to brighten up our otherwise humdrum existences? Can we allow ourselves moments of happiness when we’re faced with sadness and loss?

As such, the film oscillates between light comedy and pathos, checking most of the standard romantic comedy boxes along the way. As the genre goes, it’s more of a light snack than a hearty meal, but it’s tasty and enjoyable nonetheless.

Ode to Joy is now available on VOD.

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Posted Ari Coine