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Reviews for June 21st, 2019

Documentary Round-Up

      There are two documentary portraits opening this weekend about fascinating subjects one of whom is more widely known than the other. The Quiet One, opening at IFC Center via Sundance Selects, is directed Oliver Murray. It's about Bill Wyman, lesser known bassist of the Rolling Stones nicknamed the "quiet one" because he wasn't the famous among his fellow Rolling Stones band mates such as Mick Jagger. Wyman talks about his childhood, his relationship with his father, and his experiences with the Rolling Stones from 1962 until he left the band to form his very own band, Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings. Murray blend archival footage with contemporary interviews which are quite candid, but they don't cut very deep. The Quiet One is a well-edited doc that serves as a solid introduction to an extraordinary individual, Bill Wyman, but there's nothing extraordinary nor profound about the film itself. Fans of the Rolling Stones will appreciate The Quiet One the most while wishing that the filmmaker had found more ways for the film to touch one's heart, mind and soul more. A film that does precisely that happens to also open this weekend is Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am about the iconic and infinitely talented writer, Toni Morrison. Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders does an impeccable job of combining interviews with Toni Morrison herself along with archival footage. You'll learn about Morrison's childhood and how she rose to fame as an author while working as an editor for a book publisher. She's not only articulate throughout her interviews, but also a warm, funny, blunt, intelligent and perceptive human being. This is the kind of doc where the details are just as engaging as the provocative, broader topics that the film raises, i.e. racism. Did you know that she preferred to write her novels during the early hours of the morning before the sun rose while her children were sleeping? Did you know that Oprah wanted to speak to Morrison so desperately that she called her town's fire and police department to ask for her number? Did you know about the negative reviews of Morrison's novels and what made them so controversial? Prepare to be enlightened. Not only is this doc very insightful, but it's just as equally moving, particularly as you watch Morrison opening up emotionally about her struggles and, later on, as you see footage of her accepting the Nobel Prize. The film does clock at 119 minutes which might seem quite long for doc, but a topic such as Toni Morrison is worthy of every single one of those minutes. Fortunately, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am feels more like 90 minutes. It deserves to be a sleeper hit like last year's Won't You Be My Neighbor?. Magnolia Pictures opens it at Film Forum, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and Walter Reade Theater.

Endzeit: Ever After

Directed by Carolina Hellsgård

      In post-apocalyptic Germany, only the cities of Weimar and Jena haven't been taken over by zombies. Vivi (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) flees Weimar in hopes of reaching Jena. She meets Eva (Maja Lehrer) along her journey through the Black Forest, and the two of them gradually befriend each other as they come to terms with their traumatic past.

      There have been many zombie films throughout film history ranging from Night of the Living Dead to Shaun of the Dead to Dawn of the Dead and, most recently, The Dead Don't Die. There have also been quite a number of films set in the post-apocalypse, i.e. Mad Max. Endzeit is nothing like any of those films. As Jean Luc Godard once observed, it's more important where you take ideas to than where you take ideas from. Director Carolina Hellsgård and screenwriter Olivia Vieweg start out with a familiar concept, but take it to unpredictable and surprising places which won't be spoiled here. It's not your typical zombie or post-apocalypse film, so to classify it in either of those genres wouldn't be entirely fair nor accurate. Essentially, this is a story about two women who become friends and try to persevere during a time of crisis while struggling with their own emotional battles. Nature itself serves as a provocative metaphor and, in many ways, is a character in itself. Endzeit might even be one the most picturesque zombie apocalypse film ever made. The serenity of nature feels even more palpable juxtaposed with the horrors that Vivi and Eva experience as they do they best to stay alive.

      There are, indeed, some scary moments throughout the film as Vivi and Eva encounter zombies, but those scenes are far and few between. Hellsgård and Vieweg don't rely on gore as a means of entertaining the audience. They do a great job of keeping the tone serious without going over-the-top nor veering too far off course into outrageous or elliptical territory. The pace remains leisurely throughout sans the use of shaky cam---fortunately, Endzeit isn't a "found footage" film. The performances Gro Swantje Kohlhof and Maja Lehrer feel natural, raw and convincingly moving which makes it easier to care about their characters as human beings even with the little exposition that you do get about their past. The fact that the filmmakers keep the running time down to 90 minutes instead of dragging it past the 2 hour mark like too many directors tend to do (I'm looking at you, Ari Aster!) is another strength because Endzeit never overstays its welcome. Ultimately, this is the kind of film that the less you know about its plot, the better because by the time the end credits roll, you'll feel like you've seen a unique, extraordinary and poetic film that transcends genre, plot and even words. It's not as powerful or haunting as the underrated Testament, but it comes close and rises far above the dull and tedious The Dead Don't Die.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Juno Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

Toy Story 4

Directed by Josh Cooley

      Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) is among the many toys belonging to Bonnie (voice of Madeleine McGraw), a kindergartner. At school, Bonnie constructs a new toy, Forky (voice of Tony Hale), made out of a spork, pipe-cleaner and a popsicle stick, items that she found in the trash. When she takes her toys along with her in her family's RV to an RV park, she loses Forky. Woody and his fellow toymates including Buzz (voice Tim Allen), Rex (voice of Wallace Shawn), Jessie (voice of Joan Cusack), Hamm (voice of John Ratzenberger), and Slinky (voice of Blake Clark), among others they meet at a carnival, help Bonnie to find her beloved new toy.

      Toy Story 4, the fourth and final installment of the Toy Story series, blends action adventure, drama and comedy with a splash of romance that makes for an enormously entertaining ride. The plot may seem thin on the surface, but beneath its surface it has plenty of heart along and inspiring message about listening to your inner voice. What makes this film so exceptional, though, are the characters each of whom are delightful, unique and memorable in their own way. Forky is the most endearing character of them all, and many people, young and old, will probably be able to relate to him. Bravo to the screenwriters, Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, for understanding that comedy derives from tragedy much like Charlie Chaplin grasped in his tragicomic classics. Chaplin's films are zany and hilarious, but they're also a bit sad at times. The same can be said for Toy Story 4 and other Disney animated classics.

      There are indeed some tragic elements to the film, especially when it comes to the beginning when Woody adjusts to his new life as Bonnie's toy after being Andy's toy for so long. Duke Kaboom (voice of Keanu Reeves) has a tragic backstory. Then there's Forky who believes that he's trash and keeps jumping into a trash can. Those darker elements, which every film needs, even animated ones, are handled with a light touch that remains palatable for little kids. The journey that Woody goes through and the friendships that be makes and rebuilds along the way makes the journey not only a physical one but an emotional one as well. For every scene that's poignant, though, there's one that's very funny and witty. The humor is a mixture of slapstick, physical humor and even some screwball comedy, but the jokes land more often than not. As with all the great Pixar films, both adults and children will find something to laugh at and be moved by.

      On a technical level, Toy Story 4 also impresses. The CGI animation looks extraordinary with so much photorealism that you'll often forget that you're watching an animated film. It's hard to take your eyes off the screen because of all of the eye candy. Most importantly, though, the CGI animators should be commended for creating characters that look like they have a heart, mind and soul intact. Who knew that a toy made out of a spork could be so warm and charismatic? To find the humanism in technology is a feat unto itself. To top it all off, the musical score by Randy Newman is very effective and compliments the film without being distracting. The paces moves along briskly enough, although there are a few scenes that drag in the second act, but the lulls are far and few between. Equal parts style and substance, Toy Story 4 is one of the best animated films of the year. It's an exhilarating journey brimming with warmth, humor and humanism. It also has one of the most profound and funny final lines to end a film since the classic final line in Some Like it Hot.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar.
Opens nationwide.
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