Friday, June 21, 2019

Inside the Box: TOY STORY 4

Pixar isn’t quite what it used to be, at least not consistently. Its latest feature, Toy Story 4, is clarifying both about what’s missing and about what the folks there still do better than anyone else. It may not be the tightly wound story its predecessors are; there’s little of the exuberantly relentless clockwork plotting with intricate emotional and comedic and thematic setups and payoffs woven seamlessly together. It's a bit of a jumble: hyperfocused in some areas and wearing thin in others. But it does have the warmest voice performances in the business — the direction coaxes the actors to feel so close and emotionally present in the scenes that it’s like they’re speaking directly to one’s heart. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this sequel inherently features some of the most heartfelt and heartwarming animated creations of all time. Why, they’re so culturally omnipresent and yet so carefully maintained and lovingly dolled out — just four films in twenty five years — they’re like returning old friends. It’s fun to spend time with them in a movie that’s lovingly animated and, though stretching, doesn’t betray the spirit of the series. What a relief it's not embarrassing, even if it never feels essential or vital, either.

Once more we’re taken into the world of toys that come to life when we’re not looking, a vantage point we’re granted through the eyes of Woody the cowboy doll (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear the spaceman (Tim Allen), and friends (like Joan Cusack’s cowgirl, John Ratzenberger’s piggy bank, and Wallace Shawn’s dinosaur) now living in the little girl Bonnie’s room after original owner Andy passed them on in the last film’s tearfully bittersweet final moments. These toys’ evolving relationship to their boy formed the original’s bolt of high concept invention into a trilogy about growing older and putting aside childish things — a bold (or something like it) gambit for a franchise built, at least in part, on branding and merchandising. And yet there was a sense of completeness there; one can enjoy the idea of these toys, even forming deep attachments to them, while growing up and moving on. It could’ve stayed that way.

Still, Pixar has spent the past decade reviving their old hits in sequel after sequel to great financial gain and fair to good artistic success. They’ve stepped away from the surprising emotional throughlines and vivid imagination to retread and doodle in the margins—a creeping sense of "been there done that," whether retrofitting a clever prequel (Monsters University) or retelling a previous film’s character arc with a new lead (Cars 3, Finding Dory). (Only Incredibles 2’s slam-bang comic book second issue escaped this inessential feeling.) Yet even when the movies are good, as they mostly are, they have a ceiling the company doesn’t when they instead are heading off with a clear fresh purpose and emotional high concept hook — hence Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Coco shine with the best of them. Alas, the feeling of constraint is the case here. The fourth toy story opens up a tightly closed loop and dangles more adventure and more emotive experiences. We didn’t need it, and it’s never as transportive or original, but it’s loose, clever, and fine.

The filmmakers are evolving the theme of growing older by making Woody an empty nester of sorts, relegated to the back of the closet gathering dust bunnies since Bonnie rarely plays with him. Besides, loyalty and love for a new generation aside, his kid was Andy. With him off to college, Woody is feeling without purpose. Good thing he must jump into action for the typical lost toy plotting, running hither and yon to save the girl’s missing craft project (googly-eyed Forky (Tony Hale) who steals every scene until fading into the background) who is being left behind at a vacation stop. It’s all high-spirited and well intentioned, if a little undercooked, a gripping enough chase with a blessedly kind heart and gentle spirit with some chills, spills, and giggles. (Also charming are new characters like a plush bunny and ducky (Key and Peele) and a Canadian daredevil action figure (Keanu Reeves) who get more screentime than some old favorites.) It's more of the same, visually more expansive, smaller in scope, and, though I'm unconvinced it builds a persuasive case for its conclusion, a fine entertainment. Where the picture really soars is the beautifully sincere performances, and in the stunningly beautiful animation. I may not have been as entirely involved in the story as in the early entries, or found the motivation as convincing, but I definitely did sit dazzled at the best-in-the-business CG animation. The light scatters through glass and twinkles in carnival colors off shiny porcelain. You can count the divots and scratches, the wear and tear, in every surface. Movement is mesmerizingly rendered—a stiff snap of a plastic hinge; a loose limping flop of a puppet’s legs; a weird wobble of a pipe cleaner arm that looks like the real deal in close up. It’s a dazzlement. The film is a heartfelt and enjoyable experience technically expertly assembled. If we had to have another one of these, they could’ve done much worse. But now I can’t wait for Pixar to put its exceptional technical achievements into a new Toy Story instead of another Toy Story.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Artist as an Old Man: ALL IS TRUE

“Cursed be he that moves my bones,” reads William Shakespeare’s grave site. And yet here we are, once again digging up and extrapolating upon what we know of his life to dramatize for our amusement and edification. The culprit this time is Kenneth Branagh, a fine Shakespearean actor and adaptor when he’s in the mood for it. His All is True — cheeky title, that — loosely adapts what can be surmised of the Bard’s retirement into a slow, stately, shallow portrait of the writer as an old man. Branagh, his face and hair sculpted into a rough approximation of Shakespeare’s portrait, looks appropriately tired. The colorful foliage at the Stratford-upon-Avon estate is in a constant state of rustling and fading. The sunlight always glimmers through the trees and windows with an auburn autumn glow. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the classy, boisterous, rumpy-pumpy rom-com Shakespeare in Love, the other relatively recent (alas, has it been over twenty years?) exploration — ahem, wild extrapolation and fictionalization, that is — of Will’s life. Its tone made clear it was a lark, a charmer, a swooning imaginary tribute inspired by the man’s youthful creative vigor. At least that film had great playwright Tom Stoppard pulling out all the witty stops. Branagh has screenwriter Ben Elton on a more wistful, sentimental, downbeat celebratory, soft and aged tack, conjecturing mournful familial strife and assorted matters of business and reputation that we’re meant to scan as perhaps true to life or at least the spirit of it. 

It’s a movie about a man who has been away in the big city and returns to a family he’s not used to living with, a man whose works are more beloved than he is. And so here we have Judi Dench (Shakespeare’s Oscar-winning Queen in the aforementioned earlier film, come to think of it), marvelously affecting as somewhat neglected, and poignantly illiterate wife Anne. Kathryn Wilder and Lydia Wilson play two grown daughters — one a spinster and the other in a cold marriage. (But for brief glimmers, that’s the extent of their characters.) The family is haunted by the death, some years earlier, of young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis), seen in ghostly flashback to bookend the film, climatically reciting some choice soothing lines from Midsummer Night’s Dream that are a direct route to misty eyes. The movie is mostly quiet and repetitive, sometimes unconvincing in its circling surface-level conversations. The flat, shallow observation is elevated only by the terrific performances and deepened by Branagh’s occasionally lovely theatrical blocking in uncommonly patient locked-off shots with characters artfully posed and moved in depth and space within the frame. Even so, it’s at its best when springing forth with familiar words from Shakespeare’s quill in a few, key scenes of richly upholstered language and sensitive framing—the boy’s final beyond-the-grave message; a close-up of Nonso Anozie in a cameo performing a speech from Titus Andronicus; a dialogue that melts into mellifluous sonnet recitation between Will and the Earl he admired (Ian McKellen). But that’s the problem with making a new drama out of Shakespeare’s life. No matter one’s good intentions, the writing won’t be as good as his. It stands out brilliantly — a burst of light throwing unflattering attention to the middling quality of every modest line and scene — flat, simple, obvious — around it.

Friday, June 7, 2019


If Dark Phoenix is really the end of the X-Men movies as we know them — before they are pulled into the homogenizing force of the MCU by Disney’s Fox acquisition, as widely assumed — then I’ll miss them. Not because this one’s a good movie, though it has its moments, but because the series, ongoing since 2000, still has potential. It came out as the first in the wave of 21st-century superhero movies and, through its ups and downs, has endured as the most authentically comic-booky: a tangled web of retcons, and widely divergent tones and levels of quality depending on the writers brought on and the whims of its owners’ corporate culture. When it comes to quality control, the series has a much lower floor than much of its superhero competition , but also a much higher ceiling. The story of superpowered mutants struggling to find acceptance, even as they save the world from itself and themselves remains a potent force. X2 and Logan and Apocalypse, the best of the best, find poignant character attributes and personal stakes in the midst of pleasurable team-building melodrama and hurtling high-impact action sequences. At worst — Origins: Wolverine, for one — the ideas and iconography are jumbled and exploited for no clear organizing creative purpose other than keeping the cash flowing. Still, the constants — mankind’s fear of the other, the marginalized finding hope and family in community, debates about acceptance and activism, all wrapped up in sleek adventure, effects, and suspense — remain a palpable thrill when done right, and hit some fine nostalgic notes by this point, too. 

Ah, but it appears I’m eulogizing the series more than I’m responding to this new feature. Alas, it’s because it’s slipping from my brain faster than I can type. I was reasonably diverted for a while, and enjoyed a few sequences and the overall mood of the picture, but when the credits rolled I was already struggling to figure how the scant plot details filled a full two hours. Veteran X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg, making his directorial debut, too, picks up the story. Now a few features out from the Days of Future Past time-travel scramble, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is once again on the verge of a high-powered meltdown. Unlike Last Stand, which already loosely handled this plot as one of many it juggled in its cluttered cataclysms, this time it’s simpler, a matter of alien intervention. The completely uncharacterized aliens (led by a rarely glimpsed and mostly monotone Jessica Chastain) did some outer space mumbo-jumbo to Jean and hope to have her, I dunno, destroy the world or something. While we wait for Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) et al to figure out the source of the problem, Jean’s uncontrollable power surges lead her to run away from the Mutant School, increasingly, episodically isolated as they, and the world at large, grow frightened of her danger. That’s it.

This leads to an unconventional paucity of action. Although effects sequences are a regular, they’re small, and used more for punctuation and emphasis for a good chunk of runtime. A bit of a push one way and it could be The Fury; push it the other way and it could be Cronenberg. You wish. It’d be a decent place to sit, making for a tone of unease, confusion, psychic pain. But unlike the best X-movies, this one doesn’t dig deep, moves laboriously from one autopilot confrontation or conflagration to the next, and rather tediously repeats moves other films in the series have done before and better. I found myself sinking when I realized we were already at the end of it all, in the climactic battle, and found myself wishing the filmmakers could’ve found something more creative and fulfilling for its tremendous cast (Michael Fassbender! Jennifer Lawrence! Nicolas Hoult! And so on!) to accomplish, especially if this is to be their curtain call. This movie begins in a rousing space shuttle rescue and continues to vein-popping psychic tug-of-war, but loses early promise through limp drama, then ends in a dispiritingly mismanaged finale. It’s an endless sludgy CG shooting gallery — a deafening, deadening, hyper-violent sequence of anonymous shredded bodies pushing against (and occasionally crossing past, by my estimation) the upper limit of the PG-13. And for that trouble, the movie is oddly scaled, with potentially apocalyptic personal and universal stakes whittled down to a neon storm cloud and a cast of some of our finest actors scowling at it. Sheesh. What a way to go.