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2 ½ (out of 4)
This is B-team Pixar joint if I’ve ever seen one. But Onward is not so minor or emotionally predisposed as the studio’s brand-dismantling turns for the mediocre (the Cars movies, to a lesser extent The Good Dinosaur) and it especially doesn’t reek of creative confusion that led to mildly watchable yet painfully nostalgic detours like Monsters University and Finding Dory. That said I’d rather watch Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2 for another time any day than take a spin through this Dungeons and Dragons Daddy Issues concept that could have easily found its way on the desk of the less daring Disney’s Animation Studio.
Translating the absence of magic in the new world – one of a few Tolkien carryovers – to a suburban setting, the film tries to balance the domestic and quest-like concerns as any “fun” Pixar movie should. But this is really just Zootopia with some Narnian paint overtop – still at least the story and sequences have enough ingenuity to outweigh references and generic world-building. MCU brothers Tom Holland and Chris Pratt lend acceptable, fraternal voice work although Holland is channeling the same manic, high-pitched inflections he did in Spies in Disguise.
All in all, I’m keen to take an original Pixar over a sequel, even when recent years include films as underwhelming as Brave and Coco. These alright films do not remotely live up the instant classic status that once made Pixar the undisputed king of a now muddled subset of feature filmmaking. The basic emotions and cheap, obligatory dead parent angle keeps Onward from pushing itself into the realm of Pixar’s recent best. Yet those same tricks to take your tears are what makes this, Coco and especially last year’s Toy Story 4 somewhat impactful.
With yet another original Pixar film (Soul) out in just three months (ya know, should the world not enter self-destruct mode between March and June of 2020), maybe this will be the lesser of efforts that balances out a new favorite – I’m pretty sure Good Dinosaur and Inside Out came out within the same year. It may not possess the gusto of a bold, unflappable Pixar gem but it is, regardless, a work of playful pastiche and careful enough consideration for a collective audience.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Kelly Reichardt thought she’d make it official that she stands at the forefront of essential contemporary female filmmakers. There are your Sofia Coppola’s, Kathryn Bigelow's and Claire Denis’ but Reichardt has never taken a false step or failed to improve upon her reserved neorealism through portraits of companionship of all kinds. Without her go-to girl Michelle Williams, who led Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff and was a major player her last film Certain Women – the closest comparison of First Cow would be the existential road trip of Old Joy, although the pioneer times of this new film just as thoroughly real as Meek's revisionist western touches only more so.
In all frankness this may be her dramatic masterpiece and one of her strongest attempts to communicate life lived without pretensions, airs or anything at odds with the rough, tactile naturalism of North American terrains and candid performances. The film’s opening quote points to themes of friendship while the opening scene (a haunting, nearly dialogue-free modern day prologue) imposes lurking tragedy upon a story of a traveling cook and a wandering Chinese man who form a bond before pilfering milk from the only cow in Oregon, all part of a plan to sell some delicious buttermilk biscuits, make some coin (and some snake fangs?) and hit the road to greener pastures.
It feels like an elegy on capitalism and an unsentimental, tender snapshot of friendship. Few period movies this year or even this decade bother trying to convey the utter humility of reflecting on one’s place in time and the paradoxical, melancholy of the movement from the old world to the new. Even when it functions most closely to entertainment, Reichardt's proffers pressing questions like, how do you make good on a world that has everything to offer but nothing’s free? How do you live honestly as you forage for your next meal?
The performances are incredibly composed (John Magaro and Orion Lee up front and support largely from Toby Jones) and the black humor and dramatic irony is a welcome adjustment to a filmography built on stoic, meditative mundanity. It’s a charming, ultimately tense, thoroughly gorgeous fable with visual, tangible authenticity rivaling the historical works of Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson or even the fresh mise-en-scene mastery of Robert Eggers. Reichardt's latest does nothing more than cement an uncompromising filmmaker's patient, calm and often critical view of humanity's place, past or present.
3 (out of 4)
I’ve read Pride & Prejudice and I’ve seen damn near every major adaptation except the one with zombies. At this point Austen’s legacy is so recognizable it’s just a relief that her prose and pointed commentary still prods and stabs as surely as it did 200 years ago.
Emma, next to P&P, is what one might call a defining work, characterized by a headstrong protagonist lacking self-awareness and populated with one of her vintage webs of romantic politics, social hurdles and feckless families. Between 1995 and 1996 we got Clueless and a Weinstein-funded direct adaptation of the tale starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The timeless, teen-sophisticated cult charm of Clueless exceeds the routine realization, which has nothing on the performances and direction of something like Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility.
The question remains whether incoming director Autumn de Wilde’s imposing talents radiate through the groundwork laid down by Austen. As much as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride bears more unironic feeling and Whit Stilman’s elegant Love & Friendship is a more ample act of reverberating the author’s poisonous comedy, this Emma has all the parodic, ironic, supple shimmer of something like Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite. Despite its aesthetic peerlessness, Emma has modern, fortunately restrained bite, fair casting and a strong recognition of the text's vivid characters.
De Wilde has been a music photographer and videographer for ages, creating the album covers for alternative favorites like Elliott Smith, The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Beck, Wilco and a host of others. Her practiced portraiture envisions Emma with appropriate artiface and splendor while author and fresh screenwriter Eleanor Catton communicates Austen's best assets – verbosity, dry, searing humor and the social ironies and trivialities of courtship within the upper-class lifestyle of the Regency era.
Anya-Taylor Joy is one of the few greats of her generation and enchanting to behold, radiating every facet of Ms. Woodhouse's inconspicuous hubris. Bill Nighy as her tempermental, hypochondriac, all but absent father is an amusing choice and musician Johnny Flynn suits George Knightly's childhood friend turned unassuming lover quite well. Stillman came closest to imparting Austen's lucid, trenchant subtleties in 2016 but Emma might have had the upper hand if not for a handful of concessions to those unfamiliar with her shrewd inclinations.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
On the Rocks
I'm Thinking of
and many more
"So what've you been up to?"
and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice