We take a look at the best that July could throw at us, at least in terms of films, and at least in terms of the subset of those we got to this month. Join us as we dissect Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Lukas, Men In Black: International, and Spider-man: Far From Home.
Toy Story 4
I’d like to begin by reading to you the first paragraph of an article published in The Atlantic entitled How Pixar Lost Its Way.
“A well-regarded Hollywood insider recently suggested that sequels can represent “a sort of creative bankruptcy.” He was discussing Pixar, the legendary animation studio, and its avowed distaste for cheap spin-offs. More pointedly, he argued that if Pixar were only to make sequels, it would “wither and die.” Now, all kinds of industry experts say all kinds of things. But it is surely relevant that these observations were made by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, in his best-selling 2014 business-leadership book.”
That article was published in 2017, shortly before the release of Cars 3, a sequel, and the year after the release of Finding Dory, a sequel. The next year saw the release of Incredibles 2, a sequel, and now we have Toy Story 4, a sequel. It was the fear of many when Disney bought Pixar that Disney’s own lack of regard for its creative output would sully the reputation of Pixar, but many were soothed by the widely reported “avowed distaste” for sequels within Pixar, and then-CEO John Lasseter’s statement that “If we have a great story, we’ll do a sequel”, which presaged sequels but suggested that at least they would be done with care.
Seven of Pixar’s twenty-one feature films to date, fully one third, have been sequels. Creative bankruptcy may be an extreme term, but it’s certainly not great, especially given how poor some of those sequels are. However, and despite much pessimism, Pixar’s Toy Story films have been excellent, but the biggest issue I have with Toy Story 4 is that it exists at all as Toy Story 3 had done such a fine, and touching, job of wrapping up its characters’ stories and sending them off into a happy future. It was a truly satisfying ending, a passing of the torch. But they just couldn’t resist going back to that well: the trailers for Toy Story 4 started appearing, and words like “lacklustre” and “underwhelming” found themselves floating through my mind, accompanying the persistent thought of “just leave it be, it was done!”
I should probably start actually talking about Toy Story 4, though. The toys are now firmly established as Bonnie’s, rather than Andy’s, though their day to day life is much as we have become familiar with over the years. However, Woody (Tom Hanks) is finding it difficult to adapt to not being the favoured plaything. Seeing an opportunity for an important role, Woody hides himself inside of Bonnie’s backpack as she attends her first day at kindergarten, and provides her with the materials with which she makes Forky (Veep’s Tony Hale), her new “toy”, which helps her through the experience.
Bonnie’s parents then decide to take a road trip in an RV for a week before kindergarten starts in earnest, and the toys go along for the ride, with a stressed Woody assuming all responsibility for protecting the confused, trash-loving Forky from himself. Things, naturally, go awry and Woody finds himself apart from the other toys in an antique shop, trying to save Forky. Along the way he encounters new toys, like the totally-not-Evel Knievel Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and the super creepy, creepy-doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her disturbing hench-dummies.
One thing that can definitely be said in Toy Story 4’s favour: it looks phenomenal. Pixar have always demonstrated supreme technical skill, and since starting the 3D animated feature genre they have remained the technical standard bearers. Another podcaster I listen to, a huge (but hypercritical) Pixar fan, tweeted after seeing this that “The parade of middle-of-the-road CG-animated film trailers in front of Toy Story 4 only served to emphasize the comically large gap in visual quality between Pixar and its rivals. A lot of it is art direction and shot design, but it’s also just plain technical brilliance”, and I couldn’t agree more: everything advertised before looked like hot garbage, whereas Toy Story 4 is beautiful, Pixar’s particular gift with lighting being again at the forefront.
Technical brilliance means little, of course, if the story isn’t any good, so we should probably address the elephant in the room, even if that will probably fall foul of postal regulations and be returned.
The screenplay, from Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom, is warm and sharp and, if not hugely original, consistently funny and entertaining, and likewise the direction from Josh Cooley, stepping up here from shorts to feature directing. It’s polished, high quality entertainment, but falls short of the other Toy Story films because it’s just not special. Very good, but not special. Do I begrudge its existence? Yes. Yes I do. But do I regret watching it? Absolutely not.
Yesterday sees singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finally give up on his dreams of success, after years of failing to make a splash on the local pub circuit, much to the disappointment of his manager, ex-school friend and now school teacher, Lily James’s Ellie Appleton. However, during a mysterious global blackout / glitch in the matrix, Jack is knocked off his bike by a bus and on recovering, finds that the world has, somehow, had all knowledge and evidence of The Beatles scrubbed from it.
In short, he goes about re-recording as much of their catalogue as he can remember, and while he’s still not an overnight success, eventually he turns enough heads to get a supporting gig on an Ed Sheeran tour, lighting a rocket that will propel him to fame and acclaim, and all the trappings that accompany being a massive star these days, but will take a toll on his personal life and his mental state.
There’s the odd moment where Yesterday looks like it’s going to veer into examining something interesting in its premise, and there is promise in that premise. Could presenting songs written 50 to 60 years ago achieve the same level of success in today’s very different cultural landscape? How would pop culture have changed, having removed one of the biggest influences on pop and rock? Can someone really connect to an audience recreating some songs fairly personal to Lennon and McCartney? Can you pluck songs from the very different eras of The Beatles career arc and present them together without sounding like you have multiple personality disorder? How has the nature of music creating, production and fandom changed since the 60s, and would that make a difference to how the work is received? Can you manage a more blatant product placement of Pepsi?
Tellingly for modern cinema, the only question out of those Yesterday seems interested in answering is about product placement. There’s a few half-hearted lunges at some of them, but they’re so under-developed that I rather wish they hadn’t bothered. Sure, as the brothers Gallacher admitted yonks ago, if there’s no Beatles, there’s no Oasis, but there’s apparently no other impact on other recording artists, or entire genres, or wider culture in general that’s worth exploring, or well, at least mentioning?
Now, I’m perhaps not as annoyed by the waste of the premise as I might have been, because I paid attention to the one part that mattered in the trailer, the part where it said “written by Richard Curtis”, and knew exactly what bill of goods I was being sold. A slight variation on the same trite romance he’s been rewriting since Four Weddings and A Funeral, hung from a slightly different scaffolding.
So, does that romance work? Eeh. The problem is that Jack Malik, or if we’re being less charitable, Himesh Patel, not only isn’t the most dynamic band frontman or screen presence, he’s barely a character at all, and quite what Ellie would see in this sack of unmixed concrete at any point, let alone years later, is entirely beyond me.
The other main axis his character is exploring is the toll taken by passing off someone else’s work as his own, and the perhaps warranted impostor syndrome that provokes. To be scrupulously fair Patel is much better at getting that across, culminating in a version of “Help!” that does actually sound like someone dealing with an existential crisis.
The film’s supporting characters don’t quite get the material they need to provide support, unfortunately, but through no fault of the actors. Lily James is likeable, but their pre-existing relationship isn’t all well explored enough to have much emotional impact when it changes as the story progresses, and as that’s the main string to this films bow, it can’t help but misfire.
The comic support fares a little better, with another spiky Kate McKinnon turn and Joel Fry’s gormless roadie Rocky raising a few laughs. It’s also great to see UK TV comic mainstays Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal on the big screen as Malik’s parents.
Now, for his faults Curtis still knows how to craft a funny line, and Danny Boyle has his best production hat on, and you’re never far away from a rendition of a great tune, so it’s not completely insufferable. In fact I enjoyed this more than I’d expected. But as I expected to loathe it, that’s not the most glowing recommendation, now, is it?
Sadly, a bit of a waste of the no-doubt millions it cost to license the songs.
Lukas, or The Bouncer as it is titled in English markets, is a French-Belgian co-production starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as Lukas, a nightclub bouncer in Brussels and sole parent of an eight year-old girl. It’s clear Lukas loves his daughter and that they have a good relationship, so it would be terrible if one, or numerous, persons were to use his daughter as a pawn to coerce him to do things.
Lukas is sacked after an aggressive customer of the nightclub is injured, through no fault of Lukas’s, and a police investigation opened. Thanks to a friend he quickly finds another security job, though he has to fight several other men to a standstill in order to obtain it. Shortly after, Lukas is approached by Maxim Zeroual (Sami Bouajila), a Europol detective who informs Lukas that his new employer is a major counterfeiter, and uses Lukas’s daughter as a pawn to coerce to work for him and spy on his boss.
Impressed by his performance in his “interview”, and short on manpower, the counterfeiter, Jan Dekker (Sam Louwyck), enlists Lukas’s help in the abduction of a drug manufacturer by kidnapping his daughter and using her as a pawn to coerce him. This and further impressive performances see Lukas brought further into Dekker’s trust, allowing him to gain the information the police need about his operation. There will be blood.
I watched Lukas as I was quite excited by this sort of post-JCVD work (the film, not the actor). Sadly, it’s not the knockout I was hoping for but it’s still an effective and low-key little thriller. The script, from Jérémie Guez and director Julien Leclercq, is quite light on dialogue, letting the action and, perhaps most importantly, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s face do much of the storytelling and character work. The Belgian looks weary and nigh-on haunted throughout, and it’s remarkably effective, creating pathos and sympathy with seemingly little effort, and the natural, unforced relationship with his daughter (Alice Verset) adds more.
Of course this is Jean-Claude Van Damme and Leclercq isn’t going to let one of his most valuable assets go to waste, but the action scenes, while reasonably intense, are sparing and believable. His try-out for the job particularly stands out: JCVD may be getting older, though he’s clearly still a specimen, but the fight is portrayed as awkward, dirty and brutal, and more “real” than many movie brawls, requiring minimal suspension of disbelief that he came out on top.
Grim JCVD plus grim Brussels equals a reasonably enjoyable experience, particularly if you’re a Van Damme fan.
__Men In Black: International
1997’s Men in Black was a pretty big hit, making nearly $600 million on a budget of $90 million. It was also reasonably entertaining and with a fairly interesting concept, but it didn’t feel at the time that it would become a franchise, rather it felt more of a one and done sort of thing. And it certainly didn’t feel like a film that, twenty-two years later, would be seeing its third sequel, particularly after the crapshow that was Men in Black II.
To be fair, four films in 22 years certainly isn’t overkill but it’s not exactly the most hotly anticipated thing ever, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in greeting its announcement with a shoulder shrug and a “meh?”
While I get into the setup I want you to keep that “meh” in mind: we’ll be coming back to that later. Verging on soft reboot territory, Men in Black: International sees Tessa Thompson’s Molly succeed after spending a lifetime trying to find a way into the MiB organisation after she sees them wipe the memories of her parents after an alien encounter. Training completed she is despatched by Emma Thompson’s Agent O (apparently a returning character, showing just how much of an impression Men in Black III made on me as I only realised this afterwards) to the London office where she meets Liam Neeson’s High T and Chris Hemsworth’s Agent H, who will be her partner.
Their first assignment together goes disastrously wrong, and culminates in her receiving a warning about trust, along with a highly sought-after weapon with, literally, the power of an entire star. The warning brings her to the conclusion that there is a mole in the MIB, and you will absolutely not have worked out who it is five minutes before you even knew there was a mole.
H and M are framed and must go on the run to clear their name and keep the deadly weapon safe. Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth then utterly fail to have any chemistry or charm at all for 90 minutes, Thor: Ragnarok apparently having starred their clones, after which the film ends.
Men in Black: International is very much (barest of) style over (absolutely no) substance, and demonstrates numerous examples of objects or ideas being introduced because someone thought it should be there or would look good, without anyone knowing what to do with it or why. A high speed train is disguised as a vandalised and beaten-up New York subway train, despite already being inside the MiB’s super-secret base. A lengthy sequence then plays out where the subway train is transformed into a sleek, silvery, futuristic bullet train, taking longer to do so than the subsequent journey to London actually takes for the passengers, and then in London it stays in its transformed state before moving on to another city. What’s the point?! It’s an egregious example of setpiece for the sake of setpiece, entirely divorced from narrative or character.
Matt Holloway and Art Marcum’s script also touches on the very masculine nature of the organisation’s name and… does nothing with it. Likewise, many aliens are initially framed here as immigrants or asylum seekers, and that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s not even tokenism. I can almost imagine the conversation: “Gender equality and immigration are big topics right now. We should put that in!” “Yeah!” “OK, we mentioned them, what next?” “Next? What do you mean? We mentioned them right?” “Yes.” “Well, isn’t that enough? It’s not like it has to have any throughline or impact on the story, right?” “Yeah, yeah, you make a good point. We should just write some more scenes with jokes about the size of guns. We are teh awesome!”
I very much want to call Men in Black: International Meh in Black, but apparently so does half the world. Obvious, clichéd, lazy, but also wholly accurate and descriptive. The film itself is also obvious, clichéd and lazy, but I can’t hate it: I don’t want to spend that much energy on it, it’s not worth it. Meh.
Spider-man: Far From Home
So, what exactly do you do with the MCU after the most ambitious crossover event in cinematic history TM Disney All Rights Reserved? Y’know, the one where you killed and then five years later unkilled half of the universe. Did you answer jokingly blow by it? Congratulations, you win a ticket to Spider-man: Far From Home, as you’d expect, the follow-up to Homecoming, and as, to be fair, you’d probably also expect, a film much more concerned with the Iron Man shaped hole in the MC universe.
Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, however, just wants a holiday. Fair enough. Being dematerialised and reconstituted five years later, an event now know as The Blip, and having your superhero mentor die is a lot to process, however thankfully / conveniently his supporting cast of friends and frenemies all blipped alongside him, almost as though that crossover event isn’t quite as ambitious as it thinks it was. Despite society by rights having been shattered entirely, the most pressing issue for these kids is a school summer trip to Europe, tourism still being a prime concern and I’m sorry, I won’t mention it again but it’s just super weird that the film completely glosses over what ought to have be a society shattering cataclysm as no real biggie in an attempt to rush back to normality, which I suppose has form in the comic book world, but I’d been hoping for better. I’d given Marvel some credit in Endgame for writing in that five year gap as opening up some interesting storytelling opportunities rather than the simple return to the status quo I’d been expecting, but if they’re going to treat it as a simple return to the status quo, consider this a finger snap for that praise.
Anyhow, back at the ranch, trouble follows Parker, really getting in the way of his plan to express his true feelings for Zendaya’s Mary Jane. Trouble, in this instance, being defined by huge, terrifying, city endangering elemental beasties straight out of a JRPG that an under-equipped Spider-man, having not packed his hi-tech supersuit, will have trouble banishing, but he’s helped by Jake Gyllenhall’s mysterious, er, Mysterio, with his lavish cape, smoky goldfish bowl helmet and sparkling green laser blasts. What a hero!
Before long he and Parker strike up a friendly relationship, and with Nick Fury and the remnants of SHIELD on board, Peter decides that, actually, the keys that Tony Stark left him to an AI buddy that controls an orbital strike platform would be better entrusted to Mysterio, a grown-ass man, a hero from an alternate dimension that’s not some punk kid struggling with the expectations being put on him. Without getting too deep into spoilers, lets just say that Mysterio is not what he seems and Parker will have cause to regret that decision and seek to undo it.
I’ve already, I trust, made clear my greatest bugbear with Far From Home, so I won’t repeat that. The rest of it, though, I’m on board with, mostly. Holland is again, really charming, and so are the interactions with Gyllenhall in both the film and in the press junkets they’ve been doing. The supporting cast are all pretty good, and while I suppose if this sort of thing annoys you maybe seeing tourist postcard hotspots being crushed will have you rolling your eyes, it’s undeniably more visually appealing than the action taking place in a supermarket carpark.
And, well, it does turn out that there’s a reasonable explanation for that plot wise, and that smoke and mirrors element does make a lot of the action more interesting in the final stretch, and directly attacks what was I think both of our concerns going into this, basically being that this would seek to have Peter Parker directly replace Tony Stark. I’m not sure I’m going to like the answer they’ve settled on, going by what’s so far the only mid-credits Marvel scene worth sticking around for, but at least they have explored it a bit. It’s a little reminiscent of Iron-Man 3 in that aspect, although I refer you to my earlier rant in so much as I’ve now got no real expectation of any sort of consistency or follow-through in that regard.
I’d still prefer a friendly neighbourhood spiderman, as opposed to the magic tech armoured drone commander spiderman he apparently must become, but there’s still hope that if seismic societal changes can be ignored, so can the push to Avengerise Spider-man, even if that further mocks the concept of a shared universe for these films in the first place, and frankly sets alarm bells for whatever Phase Whatever We’re On will hold. There’s an increasing number of corners Marvel have backed themselves into, to the point that it now looks like it’s entirely made of corners.
But that’s a wider concern. In this specific instance, I liked the film and think that it is fun and think that you should watch it and that is my review thank you very much.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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