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Friday, 21 June 2019

Toy Story 4

(G) ★★★★½

Director: Josh Cooley.

Cast: (voices of) Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, Emily Davis, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris.

"Yes, grab on to me. Just there. Yes. Hold my chest."
Where do the Toy Story films rank in the ultimate Pixar film ranking list?

When arguments were had about the best film trilogies of all time, Toy Story featured prominently. So why has Pixar decided to potentially ruin a perfect record by going for film #4? It's like a boxer on an undefeated streak deciding to defend the title one last time. Why risk smudging an unblemished scorecard when you could retire an untouchable champ?

Pixar used to say they wouldn't do a sequel without a truly great idea, although the diminishing returns of the Cars series suggests that wasn't always true. So it's nerve-wracking sitting ringside and watching Pixar's knockout franchise heading back into the ring one more time, especially given Toy Story 3 boasted the ideal end to a series if ever there was one.

As much as this feels like an unnecessary sequel, Pixar has done the impossible. They've turned the perfect trilogy into the perfect quadrilogy.

After a brief but important flashback, the fourth Toy Story picks up shortly after the third. Now in the possession of preschooler Bonnie (McGraw), Woody (Hanks) and his fellow toys are adjusting to their new lives. When Bonnie makes her own toy Forky (Hale), Woody realises how important Forky is to Bonnie, and takes it upon himself to help Forky fit in, despite the spork-turned-figurine craving the sweet oblivion of a trash can.

So when Forky throws himself out of a moving RV on a roadtrip, Woody decides to risk it all to rescue him - a decision that will lead Woody to question his place in the world.


The storytelling and directorial powers behind the first three films are again brought to bear here. The main characters are given strong arcs, key among them being Woody, who has always been a wonderfully written and often beautifully flawed protagonist. Here, his single-mindedness masks great depths and triggers the issues driving the film. Similarly, the return of Bo Peep (Potts), whose absence from Toy Story 3 is explained, transforms not only her previously one-dimensional character into something much more interesting, but also shapes Woody, the whole story, and its underlying themes.

Also intriguing is the nominal villain of the piece (no spoilers here). Much like Lotso in Toy Story 3, the Big Bad is given a proper arc to reflect their motivations, to the point where you will actually empathise with them, despite your initial misgivings.

As for the directing, so much stands out, but one moment deserves special mention. It comes in the flashback, which features a tricky farewell between two characters. There's a shot of two hands gripping the edge of a box, and there is so much power and meaning in that one close-up that it's referenced later in the film in similar circumstances.

It's beautiful directing in any film, let alone a "kids" film. To say so much with one tiny moment is great film-making, and it's moments like these that have set Toy Story above the rest. Think of the hand-holding in the furnace in Toy Story 3, or the wordless recollection of Jessie's past in Toy Story 2, or Buzz seeing the Buzz Lightyear commercial in Toy Story. These powerful moments of storytelling have become more and more refined as the films have progressed, but go a long way toward demonstrating what makes these movies so special as slices of great cinema.

All of this means jack to kids, at least until they get older and dig back into these films to discover new layers (which is a big part of what makes the Toy Story and other Pixar films so great). What will be important to them is the humour, pace and action, and Toy Story 4 excels in these departments.

While many of the previous comic relief characters (Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog etc) are relegated to a handful of lines and given minimal to do, newcomers voiced by Hale, Key, Peele, Maki and Reeves more than fill the void. Meanwhile the story moves at a good clip, splitting into its subplots and tangents well, and all the while introducing innovative action sequences.

Although Toy Story 4 still comes with its emotional punch, it's not quite on the level of Toy Story 3. #4's final moments (before some great mid-credits scenes) come with weight, but comparatively it's not the same. There is a lingering feeling that this mars what was a perfectly encapsulated trilogy, and while thoroughly enjoyable and masterfully made, in the broad scheme of things #4 is a weird add-on.

But that's being picky. Any film-maker or CG animation house executive would give their first-born child for a film this good. Toy Story 4 is another remarkable Pixar achievement that examines the role toys play in a child's life, the power of difficult choices, the importance of doing what's right, finding our place in the world, following our heart, and making sacrifices.

It must be tempting for Pixar to make Toy Story 5, and on the strength of this one, I kinda hope they don't, but secretly, after four home runs, I would expect them to hit it out of the park again if they had another innings.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Why Faith No More's Epic is one of the most important songs of the past 30 years


On June 20, 1989, Californian rock band Faith No More released their third album, The Real Thing. The band had been together for 10 years and built a growing-yet-still-small fanbase, but the five-piece was undergoing a rebuild. They had dropped erratic frontman Chuck Mosley the year before and replaced him with a long-haired livewire named Mike Patton from largely unknown band Mr Bungle. The sound behind the vocals was the same unique blend of funk, metal and rock, but the introduction of the flexibly voiced Patton meant a seismic change was coming.

There was little fanfare when The Real Thing came out. Much like first single From Out Of Nowhere, the album was barely a blip on the Billboard charts. But that all changed with the release of second single, Epic, in January 1990. It not only pushed Faith No More into a new level of recognition, it also dragged The Real Thing slowly but surely up the US charts, eventually taking it to #11 sixteen months after its release. On the back of Epic, they became a Grammy-winning, MTV-approved, platinum-selling act.


But more importantly, Epic would help change the musical landscape forever. At the very least, Epic would prove to be the first major leak in the dam wall that kept alternative music from the mainstream.

It’s it. What is it?


The impact of Epic begins with its music, which is perhaps best described by its title.

“It was called Epic as a kind of code word,” bassist Billy Gould said in a 1997 interview.

“It was kind of like the parting of the Red Sea. It was a preposterous grandiose thing.”

Opening with a blare of synthesized trumpets and full-blooded major chords, the song only takes about a dozen seconds to reveal itself as something far removed from the hard rock of the time. Gould’s slap-bass pulse, in perfect lock-step with Mike “Puffy” Bordin’s thumping gated drums, comes to the fore.

And then in comes Patton, aggressively rapping about some unnamed trend you feel you really need to know about, before busting out a soaring nasal melody in the chorus. As the song progresses Jim Martin’s guitar rolls through funk chords, palm-muted thrash chugging, metal arpeggio licks, and a doubled guitar-god solo that’s suitably, well, epic. And at the end, some pseudo-classical piano from Roddy Bottum, because why the hell not.


The result is a mass of styles but never a mess. It’s metal, rap, funk, hardcore, punk and rock - it was the sound Faith No More had been perfecting in the underground scene, alongside other (mostly Californian) progenitors of what was loosely labelled “funk metal” such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, Living Colour, Jane’s Addiction, and Fishbone. But out of this burgeoning alternative scene, Faith No More were the first to break on through to the otherside.

Can you feel it, see it, hear it today?


Of course, rap and rock had been combined before - Patton admitted in a 2005 interview Epic was his “best attempt at impersonating Blondie's Rapture”. Innovators Run DMC and The Beastie Boys had blown up the charts by rapping over riffs, but Epic was different. It felt less like two disparate pieces stuck together in a (Rick Rubin) studio, but more like an organic, alternative thing that had grown fully formed in a rehearsal space.


In Entertain Us!, Craig Schuftan’s book dissecting the rise and fall of alt-rock in the ‘90s, he calls Epic “one of the new music’s first real success stories, a proper fusion of hip-hop and hard rock which seemed to combine all the best elements of both genres and more besides”.

“No-one, in 1990, had ever heard anything quite like it,” Schuftan wrote.

It was raw yet radio-ready, and it was hooky yet it was unlike anything heard before. As a result the song inadvertently became the vanguard for alternative music, presaging the wave of the underground that would crash into the mainstream in the months and years to come.

Over the course of seven months from its release as a single in January 1990, Epic did the then-unthinkable in Australia - it moved from underground radio and onto the playlists of commercial stations and eventually the upper reaches of the ARIA charts. And in late August 1990, it reached the top of the Aussie pops, becoming the first alternative song to go to #1 in Australia.

By way of comparison, the other #1 artists on the singles chart prior to Epic’s three week run at #1 were MC Hammer, Roxette, Heart, Madonna, Paula Abdul (and an animated cat), Sinead O’Connor, and Aerosmith. Faith No More stood out like a goldfish flapping around on the floor (a part of their film clip which helped in no small way to push Epic up the charts).

It knocks you off your feet


That film clip would be a valuable asset in Faith No More’s accidental assault on the top of the charts. As director Ralph Ziman recalled, there were no expectations on the video, which would go on to have high rotation on MTV.

"I remember, the band had one day off from touring and they were in London,” Ziman said in a 2010 interview.

“The record company had phoned us on very short notice and asked us to do a music video. They made it sound like a really low priority. I think it was being done for Warner Bros at the time. I just made a list of things I thought we could do. Exploding piano. A fish flopping around. We literally had one day to pre-produce it.”

While Faith No More were indeed signed to major label Warner Bros at the time, that was an accident of sorts. They had signed to Slash Records, which started as a punk label in 1978 that quickly fell under the auspices of Warner. It was only when the interest in The Real Thing, and specifically Epic, grew that Warner’s interest in FNM grew, especially given opening single From Out Of Nowhere had no impact in the US (interestingly, From Out Of Nowhere charted better in the UK than Epic).


It’s magic, it’s tragic


These days, the delineation between alternative rock and the mainstream seems laughable, but back then it was a Grand Canyon-sized gulf with the likes of Fugazi, Pixies and The Replacements on one side, and Michael Bolton, Madonna, and Bryan Adams on the other. Epic was the first track to bridge that gulf.

A year later, REM would bust out of the college circuit and hit the top of the Billboard charts, followed by Metallica. In January 1992, Nirvana would do the unthinkable and unseat the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, from the #1 position for one glorious barnstorming week. Around the world, bands and sounds once dismissed by commercial radio were everywhere in the wake of Epic’s success. 

The Real Thing would be in the 40 biggest selling albums of 1990 in Australia (wedged bizarrely between Paul Simon’s The Rhythm Of The Saints and Rita MacNeil’s Reason To Believe) - the only alt-rock album in the chart. It’s a similar story in the end-of-year singles chart, with Epic at #22 (and the UK’s own alternative trailblazers The Stone Roses at #93 with Fool’s Gold).

Epic was a sign of things to come. They not only helped break down walls between genres, but led the underdog charge out of college radio and indie venues, and into commercial radio and arenas. The following year, REM, Ratcat, Hoodoo Gurus, Metallica and The Screaming Jets all made the best-selling albums list in Australia. In 1992, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers shine in the albums list, with Pearl Jam and Frente also hitting the singles best-sellers. The likes of Rage Against The Machine, Ween, Blind Melon, Radiohead, Lenny Kravitz, Soundgarden, The Cranberries, The Smashing Pumpkins, Silverchair, Crash Test Dummies, The Offspring, Beck, and Nine Inch Nails would soon follow into the ARIA charts - all very different bands with very different sounds, but all emblematic of what would be called ‘alt-rock’ or ‘alternative music’.

And Faith No More’s Epic broke that ground first. It would be their biggest hit in the US and see them unfairly regarded in some quarters as a one-hit wonder. In Australia, they would reach #1 again with their cover of The Commodores’ Easy, and crack the top 10 again with Ashes To Ashes. In the UK, they would finally sneak into the top 10 with the awesome Midlife Crisis.


Like most breakthrough hits, Faith No More would tire of Epic and stopped playing it within a few years of its release. It was also seen as sparking the love-it-or-hate-it funk-metal/nu-metal wave that gave us Korn and Limp Bizkit. But no matter how you slice it, Epic’s influence is indeed epic, and one that deserves recognition in the rock annals. Nothing quite like it had come before, and a lot that followed owed it a debt.



Sources:
Entertain Us! by Craig Schuftan





Sunday, 16 June 2019

Men In Black: International

(M) ★★

Director: F. Gary Gray.

Cast:  Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson.

"I really shouldn't have had so much acid before driving."
After almost squishing the series with the dire Men In Black II, the brains behind this comedic sci-fi franchise bounced back with the good-enough MIB3 - a time-travelling saga that saw Will Smith's Agent J teaming with two versions of Agent K (played by Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin) to save the earth from the scum of the universe yet again.

But there is no Agent J or K to be seen in this spin-off, which is obviously aimed at pitting a new crew of mono-initialled besuited spooks against a new rogue's gallery of intergalactic scum.

With Neeson overseeing Hemsworth and Thompson (who shared screen time in Thor: Ragnarok) in the sunnies and suits, the series would seem to be in goods hands. But if there was a four-word phrase to sum up MIB: International, it's "should be, but isn't".

Our heroes this time are agents H (Hemsworth) and M (Thompson). He's the cocky hotshot still cruising on past triumphs; she's the rookie so determined to join the secret MIB organisation that she manages to infiltrate it and get herself a job interview.

Their first assignment together is looking after a hard-partying alien royal visiting Earth, which ends badly, leading to H and M being pursued by two dimension-warping twins. But it seems there is a mole in MIB, so who can H and M turn to for help?


So back to those four words: "should be, but isn't". With the charismatic pairing of Thompson and Hemsworth, MIB: International should be funny, but it isn't. Its Big Bads of two acrobatic space-bending twins and a three-armed Rebecca Ferguson should be imposing, but they're not. Its plot of intergalactic intrigue and internal imbroglios should be exciting but isn't. Its set pieces should be exhilarating but they're not. A tiny alien sidekick named Pawny (voiced by Nanjiani) should be funny, but isn't.

This level of disappointment is weird considering the cast isn't terrible and the plot itself is okay. Thompson and Hemsworth have charisma and chemistry to burn, which prevents it from being a total waste of time, but they bounce from one humdrum sequence to another. There's none of the vibrant spirit or humour or originality of the '97 original. Having said that, you won't find yourself actively hating the film, but afterwards, you'll struggle to remember much about it that's in any way impressive.

The lack of a formidable villain really lets it down. Ferguson's appearance as supposedly infamous intergalactic arms dealer Riza is too fleeting and unimpressive, while the Bourgeois twins aren't imposing at all. Compare this to Vincent D'Onofrio as Edgar the Bug, or Jemaine Clement as Boris the Animal in parts I and III respectively, and the inadequacies of these antagonists here are all the more apparent.

It's not that MIB: International is bad per se, it's just really plain. It's possible the series can limp on from this, but it's hard to see how or why it will. Despite the potential of its playground, this spin-off is weirdly unambitious, unadventurous and unexciting.

I doubt this is the last we've heard of the MIB, but it will take the return of Will Smith to breath life back into a franchise that is otherwise drifting in dead space.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

(M) ★★

Director: Simon Kinberg.

Cast: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Jessica Chastain.

Dropping the hottest indie rock album of 2019: these guys.
Partway through production of Dark Phoenix, it became increasingly likely that Disney would acquire 20th Century Fox's intellectual properties, thus returning the X-Men to the Marvel fold, and making this the final chapter of the X-Men Cinematic Universe.

Across 12 films, the XCU (no one calls it that, but I'm going to) has had more good films than bad. Along the way, we've met (at least) two versions of pretty much every merry mutant, thanks in part to some clever time travel-aided rebooting in Days Of Future Past.

With this kind of tricky rehashing (mutating?) going on, it's perhaps fitting we're getting a second version of the Dark Phoenix saga, which is considered one of the most important comic book stories of all time. Previously botched badly in X-Men: The Last Stand, this version had the opportunity to right past wrongs and send the series out on celebratory victory lap.

It was not to be. They've messed it up again, which makes it doubly bad. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, fuck you Simon Kinberg.

Dark Phoenix follows mutant superhero Jean Grey (Turner), a psychic mutant hit by a massively powerful force during a daring space rescue with her fellow X-Men. This powerful force dramatically changes Jean, shifting her moral compass and making her stronger than any mutant ever before. This sets her on a collision course with her mutant colleagues. Do they dare stand against their friend?


The problem is not so much the story but the way it's told. In Last Stand (which was co-written by Kinberg), the Jean Grey part was given very short-shrift by wedging it in with a version of Joss Whedon's "mutant cure" narrative from the Gifted comicbook storyline. This could have worked if told better; the stories are reasonably complimentary.

In Dark Phoenix, Jean Grey's arc is front and centre, but it's still so unsatisfying. Perhaps we've been spoilt by the MCU's ability to tweak the superhero genre to repeatedly find new angles, but XCU #12 feels cliched and boring. It's bland and emotionless, which is baffling - they do what should be a very dramatic thing to a much-loved character and it feels not only expected, but lacklustre and, to quote Lisa Simpson, "meh".

The film's inability to summon any pathos, passion or heart is best exemplified by this scene, but it's a common feeling throughout, even right from the opening sequence (which bears a resemblance to the recent DCEU film Shazam). And if they can't get us to feel for any of the characters, particularly Jean Grey, then there is no real hope for the film because it's trying so hard to tug on our heartstrings.

The only silver lining comes from some great set pieces where the mutant abilities are on full display, most notably in the train-bound conclusion and in a free-for-all in a New York street. These sequences, while not as memorable as the best of the series, are still excellent, well thought-out and exciting.

(For the record, those best scenes are basically Nightcrawler's White House attack in X2 and Quicksilver's kitchen scene in Days Of Future Past.)

The only other ray of sunshine in this otherwise turgid mess is the veteran cast. Fassbender, McAvoy, Hoult and Lawrence give their all, for little return. They at least lend gravitas to a film that would have been far worse without their presence.

The same can't be said for Turner and Sheridan. As the theoretical lead couple, they are a disappointment and not up to the challenge, but they're done a grave disservice by an insipid script that fails to build empathy for the characters of Jean Grey and Cyclops before throwing them into a cataclysmic disruption that is devoid of heart. Meanwhile Chastain does her best with an average role, and Shipp and Smit-McPhee are good in drastically underwritten roles.

Kinberg has to shoulder the blame for this disappointing farewell to the XCU, not least because he's the writer and director. But having co-written the mess of X-Men: Last Stand, and then redeeming himself by finding a way through the potentially convoluted mess of Days Of Future Past, Dark Phoenix makes it look like he hasn't learnt from either his failures or his successes. The reality is though that maybe this was too much for him to bite off as his directorial debut.

Whatever the reason, this is not the finale the XCU deserved.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Rocketman

(M) ★★★★½

Director: Dexter Fletcher.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Kit Connor, Matthew Illesley, Stephen Graham, Charlie Rowe, Jason Pennycooke, Gemma Jones.

The Yankees' new uniforms were fabulous.
From the way many people raved about Bohemian Rhapsody, you'd think it was the first time someone had made a movie about a musician. And while it was very entertaining and worthy of many accolades, it was also fairly stock-standard.

Given its recent dominance of the box office (it's the highest grossing biopic of all time at present), it's not surprising that people are using it as the measuring stick when talking about Rocketman. The comparisons also stem from sharing a director (Fletcher stepped in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer went AWOL/faced sex scandals/proved impossible to work with), and both films focus on a homosexual hitmaker with a penchant for debauchery whose back catalogue spanned decades and contains some of the greatest songs ever written.

But if you really want to line these two up against each other, it's no contest - Rocketman is far and away the better film. It doesn't hold back in its quest to tell an inventive, garish and decadent story about a man who was inventive, garish and decadent himself.

In case you didn't know, Rocketman is the story of Elton John (Egerton), as told through song-and-dance versions of some of the greatest tracks he and his lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin (Bell) ever wrote. Encompassing John's early tough home life, his international successes and the depths of his drug-taking, the whole story is framed through a group therapy session as John struggles to figure out where it all went wrong.


Right from the get-go, Rocketman warns you it's not going to be a by-the-numbers biopic, despite its story being a fairly formulaic version of the classic rock 'n' rollercoaster of sex, drugs and piano power ballads. Perhaps realising the Icarus-like story is much like other rock stars, the film-makers have used elaborately-staged musical numbers and the poignant application of John's songs to stand out. And it works, much like John's cocaine-fuelled peacockery did in differentiating himself from the other piano-thumping balladeers of the time. Rocketman leaps out at you, demanding to be noticed.

It's novel approach to the music and subject matter would count for nothing if not for two factors - Taron Egerton and the incredible back catalogue the film-makers have to work with. Egerton is remarkable in what will be his career-defining role. In both the acting and singing stakes he is a wonder, hitting every dramatic and melodic high and low along the way. His voice is not a perfect imitation of John's, but it's often pretty close, and when it's not, it captures the necessary emotion and broadly emulates the film's subject, much like Joaquin Phoenix did with Johnny Cash.

As for the songs, well, they're incredible. Much like Bohemian Rhapsody served as both a greatest hits and a reminder of greatness, Rocketman does the same for the John-Taupin oeuvre. Some people may get miffed at the way some songs are treated - characters other than John sometimes sing, some songs great radical reinterpretations, and some tunes are greatly abridged. But there's a beauty in the way the songs are used, particularly Your Song, Tiny DancerDon't Let The Sun Go Down On Me and the title track.

If anything, there's too much music. Around the halfway mark, hit after hit rolls by, leaving a lot of story to be dealt with via conveniently condensed interludes that sometimes reduce characters to cliches. But, to be fair, this is stock-in-trade for musical biopics, so at least Rocketman has some pizzazz on either side of its truisms. It also does the typical history-rewriting, realigning facts and timelines to suit the story, but to be honest people need to get over this kind of stuff. It's not a documentary - it's a fictionalised account that aims to entertain more than inform.

It's refreshing though that there's little in the way of sugarcoating the kind of stuff that Bohemian Rhapsody merely flirted with or hinted at. Rocketman pulls no punches in showing that Elton John is indeed a gay man who used to take a lot of drugs. Where Bohemian Rhapsody seemingly struggled with this material, Rocketman is out and proud.

A solid cast led by a career-making turn from Egerton help give Elton John's Herculean back catalogue and life story the love they deserve, making this not only one of the best musical biopics you're likely to see, but one of the best films of the year. There couldn't possibly be a more fitting way to sum up the career of Elton John.