FILMS: A spin-off of Toy Story, effervescent music in New Orleans and the story of Peter Pan reinvented

You would never know that COVID has made movies suffer. Blockbusters are once again drawing crowds (one of today’s new ones may as well) and the stream of early titles continues to arrive in all these different formats.

Like these…

Lightyear: 3 stars

Jazz Fest a New Orleans Story: 3 ½

The Lost Girls: 2 ½

Spider head: 2 ½

Guidance: 3

The Phantom of the Open: 2 ½

Brian and Charles: 3 ½

LIGHT YEAR: Pixar’s best movies all have great animation, great storytelling, and a big bonus: emotional content. But there’s almost none of that in this movie. It’s a simple space adventure, with a main emphasis on duty and self-transcendence. It’s like feeling Superior gun on time. What it does have though, is a smart device to create an add-on to a beloved series. Recall that in the first toy story movie Andy received a Buzz Lightyear action figure/doll as a birthday present because he loved the movie it came from and presumably a TV cartoon series that followed. This movie is said to be the movie he watched at the time. It is directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Angus MacLane.

Courtesy of Pixar and Disney

Buzz is an “I’m gonna do it my way” kind of space ranger (voiced by Chris Evans) who crashes into a planet and then struggles to get back. Insects and snake-like vines threaten his crew, who struggle to create a new power source. When they finally return to earth, a temporal paradox has arisen. Buzz has hardly aged, the people he comes back to are much older. A friend’s granddaughter (Keke Palmer) is now grown and married (to a woman, a fact that isn’t important to the story but gets the film banned in many countries). Buzz joins her and a new group of rookie space rangers to battle the dark Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). The story is familiar, the time travel elements are obscure, and the humor and emotion are meager. (In theaters everywhere) 3 out of 5

JAZZ FEST: A NEW ORLEANS HISTORY: He already plays in Toronto (2 weeks) and in Montreal (one week), starts Monday at the VIFF center in Vancouver and then expands. If you’re a music lover, don’t miss it, although I have some reservations about it. The biggest? Give me more music. (Full disclosure: I’ve been to New Orleans and the music there is among my favorites).

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In this movie co-directed by Frank Marshall, you get a good sampling of the main popular strains out there. It is the birthplace of jazz, and in this context the film refers to New Orleans as sacred ground. There is also a rich blues tradition that has evolved into rhythm and blues and added a unique rolling beat. From out of town, there’s Cajun and Zydeco. You get archival film with Professor Longhair and live songs from perennial stars like The Preservation Hall Band, Irma Thomas and Al Green. There are newcomers and also several groups from Africa, which draw even more from the roots. They were all filmed at 50e New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival the year before COVID shut it down for a year. Bruce Springsteen and Katy Perry performed and, surprisingly, felt out of place. The music scene there is accommodating. It’s said more than once in the film, the festival and the city bring together people with different tastes. It’s a nice movie. 3 ½ out of 5

LOST GIRLS: The story of Peter Pan has been interpreted once again, this time with a feminist bias. Too bad it’s so dark and winding. I can’t believe he’s really trying to say it. Not sure anyway. This is from a young adult novel in which three generations of Wendys of the Darling family are elated by Peter and the free life he espoused there in Neverland. Allegorical? Intended to solve the problems that young women face growing up? Better. That’s all I can do with it.

The original Wendy (now very old and played by Vanessa Redgrave) loves telling stories about her trip to Neverland. She also tells any other Wendy, that Peter will come get her too? Young love happens to young women, it seems. But she has a caveat: he will be so nice and plaintively ask for help. He will want you to cook and take care of him. One of the Wendys (played by Joely Richardson) didn’t want that and left.

Courtesy of Photon Films

Peter is indeed handsome, as Louis Partridge describes him, and the two frolic in the lavender fields. His great offense seems to tell Wendy never to grow up. It’s serious, but it annoys him. At the same time, Hook (Iain Glen) arrives, leering and trying to make out. Being wary of this lustful kind makes sense. The other male, not so much. Wendy, played in a setup by Livia De Paolis, who also directed, may or may not be imagining the whole thing. Part of growing up, I guess. But why Neverland affected these women so much, and what the advice really is, escapes me. (VOD available) 2 ½ out of 5

SPIDER HEAD: This is a sci-fi thriller about the drug industry. Big pharma, if you will, which we see raises high hopes but can just as well be a threat. At least that’s the situation in this film based on a fictional story that appeared in the New Yorker. Prisoners get a reduced sentence if they agree to try psychotropic drugs. One, being tested, can reduce violent tendencies and induce feelings of love. You can imagine it could come to this, judging by the drug advertisements you see on American television.

Courtesy of Netflix

Chris Hemsworth plays the drug researcher. He administers the drug via a phone-like gadget that activates a device strapped to a convict’s back, just above the waistband. Different intensities can be sent of different types with codenames like N-40, leading to an ultimate called I-16, or Darkenfloxx. Miles Teller plays a convict who vociferously opposes this one because he got nice to an inmate ((Jurnee Smollett) and wants to protect her. The movie raises issues like free will but gets way too over the top to be a healthy discussion of the issues, although they are valid. Good anecdote though: the director is Joseph Kosinski, who also directed the new Superior gun film, in which Miles Teller also has a key role. And Chris Hemsworth has his next big one Thor movie ready to be released. It’s a side concert for all of them. (Netflix) 2 ½ out of 5

TIPS: Surprise. Here’s another one this week on what drugs can do for us. Or to us. Imagine a pill that can prevent lying. How? By warning everyone when you’re lying. They can call you on it; you will soon discover that it is not worth lying. A fantasy, of course, though some people are so good at reading your body and face signals that they know you’re not telling the truth. Maybe a pill could boost that ability for everyone.

Courtesy of EG PR

In this Chinese film, a young couple spend a relaxing weekend in a rural hotel. Shortly after a great war, which a drug tycoon says was caused by lies, like all wars. He developed a drug he calls Guidance to prevent this and thus create better people. The couple take him and rather than smooth their relationship with him, embark on extreme bouts of jealousy and arguments. Did he cheat on her? She spent six hours alone with a man and tries to say that nothing happened? The pills give them internal voices to talk to them, but why did he give his voice the same name as a former girlfriend. And so on, the arguments swell as they can in real life without pills. A shock of a revelation comes out and the film concludes its examination of human nature with this: “We are a ruthless species”. Neysan Sobhani’s film is elegant, dreamy and pious in its thesis. (Streaming on many platforms like Shaw, Apple TV and Google Play). 3 out of 5

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN: The great Mark Rylance is in one of his lesser movies with this one. Yet the Briton makes a good showing of it as an incompetent golfer who dares to try to reach the top, or as he says ‘Aim for the stars’. It’s a true story. He signed up for the British Open Golf Tournament, was accepted through a clerical error because he put ‘professional’ on his entry form and was amazed by his terrible play.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Weekend golfers will appreciate all the things that go wrong. He forgets his best iron in the car. Tees his first shot very high, and short. Hits water and sand traps. And more. But on TV, he watches closely. People in UK pubs are cheering him on. The newspapers call him the worst golfer in the world and “the ghost of the ocean”. But that’s about as far as it goes. Nothing deeper. He regrets nothing. His wife (Sally Hawkins) backs him up and the tournament bosses eject him, though they don’t recognize him when he returns in disguise. Apparently he entered three more times under false names. It could have been explored. As it is, the film is lighthearted, mildly funny, and best when it has to deal with the sneers and condescension of sports organizers. (Selected cinemas in Toronto and Vancouver) 2 ½ out of 5

BRIAN AND CHARLES: Here’s another British comedy, this time set in Wales and with a sci-fi theme. A small-town inventor and discarded object scavenger goes beyond his usual level (“egg belt” or “flying cuckoo clock”) and builds a robot out of a washing machine. It sounds silly, but Charles, as he calls him, comes to life. He speaks and recites everything he learns about his environment.

Courtesy of Focus Features

He is smart, demanding and has ideas about how things should be at home and in the garden. For the loner Brian, who is always optimistic (“One door closes, another opens”), he is an authoritative companion. He wants what he sees on TV (“Can you teach me to water ski?”). Their interactions and a short trip to the village store are entertaining. Then the film engages in a familiar story. A bully with two thieving girls is interested and wants to buy the robot (for no reason, we’ll find out soon). Charles, who is bored, wants to fight. He is robbed, however, forced to work, and begs to return home. A large, raucous crowd event ensues. The film, which is an extension of a short film, is structured like a documentary and offers a fun and quirky approach to free will. (In select theaters, such as Vancouver’s 5e Edmonton Avenue and Landmark) 3 ½ out of 5

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