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Toy Story 4 (2019)

The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.

Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box.  It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.

In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.

Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.

The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.

If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.

It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.

As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.

Nate’s Grade: A

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The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

Coming ten years too late, the inane sequel to The Strangers is a home invasion thriller that was so bad that I had to stop it five separate times to collect myself. It’s about a boring family that takes a vacation (?) to a trailer park (?) and is terrorized by mask-wearing strangers who insist on killing set to diegetic 80s pop music (?). Seriously, the music is part of the scene and these imbecilic killers almost have an OCD-level compulsion to have to listen to their kickin’ tunes when they’re kicking in heads. One killer literally won’t leave a car radio until he gets that exact right soundtrack. This is the only aspect of note in what is otherwise a thoroughly rote slasher film. At one point one of the killers is going to be unmasked and the film plays it up as great reveal? Who could it be? Oh, it’s nobody, because the anonymity is the point but the movie forgot. I paused this movie to give myself a break and only 20 minutes had passed! Here’s another example of the bad plotting: we have a teen girl kicked out of school for some rebellious, disciplinary action. Surely, you would assume, that in the final act, she will make use of this same skill to save herself, you know attaching a payoff to a setup. This never happens. It’s just one poorly executed attack sequence after another with nothing to offer but forced irony. It feels like random scenes that just stretch and stretch and it’s hard to even bother paying attention. The kills are lame, the suspense set pieces are dumb, and the attackers are boring. How the hell do these people get the jump on everybody? It’s like they can choose to make sound or not. Listen for the looming 80s soundtrack as a giveaway, people. The Strangers: Prey at Night is worth burying in the past.

Grade: D-

Drive (2011)

Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt driver who has a lucrative side-project. For the right price, he can be hired as a personal driver. He gives the client a five-minute window. Whatever happens in that window, he’s their driver no matter what. Miss it and he’s gone. As you can imagine, this kind of job offer is mostly filled with getaway driving duties. Driver takes an interest in his apartment neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother. Her husband (Oscar Isaac) has just been released from prison and already feeling heat to pay his debts. He gets winds of a pawnshop holding a million in cash. Driver offers his services to square the guy’s debt and to keep Irene and her son safe. But of course things go wrong, as they tend to in these sorts of pictures, and Driver is left with a sack of money and two very angry gangsters. Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks) would like the money back and to eliminate the number of people that know about their involvement in this scheme.

Drive is being sold as one kind of movie, a high-octane action thriller with plenty of car chases, when it’s really a European art-thriller paying fawning homage to those kinds of movies. That means that Drive plays out much more placidly and contemplatively with sudden bursts of gruesome violence. My audience seemed to grow restless with the purposely plaintive pacing so when the violence exploded they would laugh or cheer, happy that something of conventional entertainment value was finally occurring. I was growing restless myself, not with the infrequent appearances of genre action or the artistic flourishes, but just with the prevalent pauses. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) will have his camera hold onto a scene for several seconds longer than what feels necessary, or he’ll shoot dialogue between actors and Gosling will pause a full 20 seconds before answering. I understand that Refn is establishing a stoic loner akin to Clint Eastwood’s celebrated stable of strong silent types, a modern American cowboy. I’m sure that you could cut 10 minutes of out the film just from snipping these extended pauses and overlong shots, moments that seem to be filling time and giving the audience an opportunity to step outside the movie. I doubt that was ever the intent but it’s certainly the effect. When a scene or camera shot holds on longer than it should, we can feel it, and when it keeps going we start to wonder why, and when an answer is absent then we start to snicker or second-guess the artistic choices. I’m sure audiences that watched Drive will probably be scratching their heads wondering why there isn’t more, well, driving.

The action that does appear onscreen is extremely well choreographed. The car chases thrill and the edits allow for full audience orientation. You know what’s happening and you know what’s at stake. And we care. A car chase after a botched robbery is particularly exciting when Driver starts driving backwards to block his opponent’s view of the road. The opening chase sequence is notably almost an anti-car chase. Driver is listening to a police radio and choosing when to duck around side streets and wait out the patrolling cop cars. The tension isn’t watching one car chase another, it’s watching one car idly sneak away. What I’ve described, however, is about all the movie offers for car action, though Driver does ram one motorist off a ravine later.

You can tell Refn is a fan of Hollywood genre films, and Drive takes typical thriller tropes and puts them through an art-house prism, bringing a near Kubrickian level of beauty to the violence. Drive is a gorgeous movie to watch; the shot selections, the chiaroscuro lighting, the use of the 80s style Euro-synth score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Contagion), it all coalesces into a near hypnotic blend of visual and sound. It’s a beatific landscape even when horrible things are going on. There’s a sequence where Driver, Irene, and one of Nino’s thugs are in an elevator together. Driver notes the imminent danger and slowly motions Irene behind him. He then turns and kisses her, and while he does this the elevator lighting seems to brighten and darken, like it too is being charged through the power of a kiss. And then Driver sharply pivots, blocking the thug’s attack, knocks the guy to the ground and stomps on his head until it bursts. The looming violence is teased through slow motion, and then it hits with the power of a crescendo. The violence is always looming, always seeming to be just on the cusp of an explosion. But under Refn’s direction, the movie fulfills that audience bloodlust in unexpected ways. Instead of a big fight, Driver casually drowns one of the toughs in the surf of a beach. Instead of a brutal elimination, Bernie dispatches someone with what can almost be described as compassion, slitting a major artery and whispering, “It’s done. It’s all over. There’s no pain. Just let it happen.” Even the big showdown between Driver and Bernie plays out with flash-forward edits, giving the meeting an extra level of gravitas knowing what awaits when they leave the table.

Refn has created a beautiful movie, it’s just that it has so much empty space pretending to be nuance. And that’s the rub. I appreciate an art-house sensibilities elevating and celebrating classic American genre pictures. I though Joe Wright did an excellent job of this with Hanna earlier this year. However, Refn shortchanges his actors. The script by Hossein Amini (The Four Feathers) is light when it comes to character detail. Again, this might be because Refn wishes to make a statement on genre films by having his movie populated with genre types and sticking to this limited route of characterization. Whatever the rationale, it makes for some pretty elusive one-note characters. Irene is less a character than a symbol of innocence. It doesn’t help matters that Mulligan has little chemistry with Gosling. Nino and Bernie are interesting characters who have such unspoken histories. They’re mid-level criminals stationed out of a cheap pizza joint in a strip mall. Nino is tired of the criminal higher-ups always disrespecting him. Bernie used to be a movie producer in the 80s, and may have bankrolled something like Drive. He hates getting his hands dirty but he shows an eerie talent for violence. These small glimpses are hints at something more, but that is all Hossein and Refn leave us with.

Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) has very little to say in the film. He probably only ever speaks 80 words, but brevity does not mean he’s just sitting around. Gosling goes for understated in a genre known for histrionics. He plays things very close, a taciturn mystery man. The existential drifter. Gosling sure knows how to hone his flinty stares. Mulligan (An Education) gets very little to do in the film, so it’s another round of her crinkling her pretty face and blinking those glassy eyes. Christina Hendricks (TV’s Mad Men) also appears as a third wheel on the pawnshop scam. The real surprise is Brooks (The Muse). The famous comedian is shockingly believable as somebody you don’t want to cross. Even when he’s trying to be cordial there’s a veil of menace. If only there was more to his role. I would have loved to see him regrettably step back into his past, taking care of business with ruthless yet disdainful efficiency.

Drive is an action thriller that’s more a Euro-infused commentary on the genre. Fans of Hollywood action will likely be put off by the elusive characters, the sluggish pacing with numerous pauses, and the overall art-house nature of the finished product. Refn’s movie is beautiful to watch, with intricate precision taken to making the imagery and sound design mesmerize. If only that same level of care was paid to character and plot. We’re dropped into this criminal scenario and left to flesh out the characters given the hints and nods we accumulate in 100 minutes. I don’t need to be spoon-fed but I’d like my movie to have better attention to character than ambiance. Drive is a beautiful looking vehicle that just doesn’t have any particular place to go.

Nate’s Grade: B

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