Film

Toy Story 4

23/06/19

It’s hard to believe that the original Toy Story first graced cinema screens in 1995, back when my own daughter was a little girl. The film was a game-changer in so many ways, pioneering CG animation and launching the start of Pixar’s amazing run of superb features. Along the years, there were – inevitably – a couple of sequels. Toy Story 2 debuted in 1999, introducing a new character, Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the third instalment, which ambled onto screens in 2010, seemed to provide the perfect end to a consistently excellent trilogy.

Like most people, I wasn’t really overjoyed to learn that Pixar were returning to the well one more time. I mean, ask yourself, is there a fourth part of any film franchise that works? All things considered, then, it’s a credit to Pixar’s undoubted production skills that this is as enjoyable as it is.

Since the toys’ original owner, Andy, headed off to college and donated his collection to Bonnie, Woody (Tom Hanks) has come to terms with the fact that he is no longer top dog in the toy closet, often finding himself left in there with the older members of the team, while Bonnie plays with newer acquisitions. But, he’s well aware that toys must move on. After all, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) suffered that fate in the second film, sent to an unknown destination, and Woody often wonders what became of her. However, he still has the love of a child and that’s the most important thing in the world for any toy, right?

I’ll confess that these early stretches, though as skilfully rendered as ever, do not exactly inspire me. It feels as though we’re retracing old ground. However, when Bonnie is sent to her first day at kindergarten, things pick up a little. She fashions a toy of her own out of a plastic spork and  a length of pipe cleaner, naming her creation Forky and falling unconditionally in love with him. Forky (Tony Hale) struggles to accept his new role as a toy. He thinks of himself as trash and spends most of his time trying to throw himself into the nearest litter bin, but – for Bonnie’s sake – Woody takes on the role of Forky’s minder.

Then Bonnie’s parents decide to take her on a road trip and the whole gang get to go along. The family’s RV does a stop over at an amusement park and it’s here that Woody reconnects with Bo, who has been surviving out on her own for years and has become a plucky, independent adventurer with loftier ambitions than simply being a child’s plaything. From here, the film becomes much more interesting, unveiling a sinister side to proceedings with the appearance of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage doll with a broken voice box, trapped in a second hand store. She has her own entourage of minders (four incredibly creepy ventriloquist dolls) and, spotting that Woody has the kind of voice box she needs, sees an opportunity to ingratiate herself with the shop owner’s granddaughter, Harmony.

The film has one more trump card to play in the shape of Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) a Canadian stunt motorcyclist (clearly modelled on Evil Knievel), who has been haunted all his life by his inability to match up to the promises made in his advertising campaign. This feels like a role that Reeves was born to play and he does it with glee.

So yes, this is enjoyable enough, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to those illustrious predecessors. There are some problems with the story’s internal logic. I find myself  wondering why, despite their advanced years, the toys still manage to look pristine. Shouldn’t they be a bit scuffed and (whisper it!) damaged by now? Wouldn’t that have made for an interesting strand? And, since Woody is now considered a second level toy, how come he even gets to go on that fateful road trip in the first place?

Perhaps I’m just being picky. The scores of well-behaved youngsters at the afternoon screening I attend are proof that Toy Story 4 does exert considerable charms on its intended audience – and at the end of the day, I have to admit that I enjoy it along with them.

But please, Pixar, don’t be tempted to do a part 5! There’s only one direction to go from here and it’s the place where Forky longs to be!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Rolling Thunder Revue: a Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

22/06/19

True confession: I’ve never been one of Bob Dylan’s greatest fans.

There, I said it. Oh sure, I had a brief infatuation with Highway 61 Revisited back in the day, and I’d be the first to suggest that The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a strong contender for ‘greatest protest song ever written.’ But something in Dylan’s mannered drawling voice made me decide that I preferred his songs sung by other artists. Now along comes this unwieldily titled concert movie, and I find myself having to re-evaluate my position. Rolling Thunder portrays an artist at the very peak of his powers, casually throwing out solid-gold belters as though by some kind of involuntary reflex.

Of course, there’s nothing new about a lot of this footage. It’s been mostly salvaged from Dylan’s own attempt to film his 1975/6 tour under the title Renaldo and Clara, which died a quiet death at the box office more than forty years ago. And this isn’t exactly a straight concert film either, featuring – as it does – some fictional elements. There’s Martin Von Haselerg as ‘The Filmmaker,’ claiming to be the film’s true author. There’s Sharon Stone, telling us that she was taken on as a wardrobe assistant on the tour at the age of eighteen (she wasn’t). And there’s Michael Murphy as ‘The Politician,’ making comments about the bicentenary that was taking place as Dylan and his motley crew strutted their stuff around a series of intimate venues across America.

But there’s plenty here to enjoy, not least a pugnacious rendition of Hattie Carroll with Dylan contemptuously spitting out the lyrics at the crowd; the scene where Joan Baez and Dylan reveal that the two of them really should have married each other, instead of other people; and, of special interest to me, the sequence where a radiant Joni Mitchell knocks out an early draft of Coyote, while Dylan and Roger McGuinn meekly accompany her on guitars. (This song, of course, is about her brief affair with playwright Sam Shepard, who also appears in the film.)

With its hefty running time, this might not have found an audience at the cinema, so Netflix seems the ideal home for it. Dylan aficionados will have a field day – and those who, like me, have been sitting on the fence concerning Mr Zimmerman, may have something of an epiphany.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Yesterday

20/06/19

Welcome to Richard Curtis Land – a magical place where famous film stars can fall in love with meek bookshop owners; where smitten young men can write their declarations of love for recently married women on a series of cue cards; and where, in this latest iteration, the Beatles never existed. Yes, that’s right. Imagine if you will, a world where the names John, Paul, George and Ringo mean absolutely zilch.

Aspiring singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is scratching a precarious existence playing a series of dead-end bookings by night, and working at a cash and carry by day. His gigs are arranged for him by his ‘manager,’ Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who works days as a secondary school teacher and who quite clearly fancies the pants off Jack, something he appears to be entirely oblivious to. But, after his last disappointing show, Jack is about ready to give up his dreams and ‘go back to teaching…’

He is blissfully unaware that his career is about to take an unexpected leap in an upward direction. Riding home on his bike one evening, he is struck by a bus, at the same moment a sudden loss of electricity hits the entire world for a full twelve seconds. Once recovered from his accident, Jack discovers that there have been some baffling changes to the world he knows – and when he sings Paul McCartney’s Yesterday to a bunch of friends, they react very strangely. ‘When did you write that?’ asks Ellie, incredulously.

A bit of surfing on the internet reveals the incredible truth. In this new alternate reality, the Beatles have never existed – and yet Jack knows most of their songs! So he starts to perform and record them, passing them off as his own work and – perhaps not surprisingly – after a few false starts, his career shoots upwards into the stratosphere. But we know, don’t we, that there’s always a price to pay for such deceit? And what true happiness can ever be achieved through an act of plagiarism?

Yesterday is a typical Curtis vehicle, amiable, and eminently watchable – but the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who displays none of the distinctive, visual flourishes I’ve come to expect from him, leaving me with the conviction that this could have been directed by just about anybody. While the earlier stretches are surely the funniest (there’s some nice interplay between Jack and his parents, played by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar), later developments, where Jack falls under the influence of heartless record executive, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), are not quite as assured.

And… there’s something that this film has in common with Curtis’s earlier effort, About Time: the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. Occasionally, I find myself thinking ‘Really?’ as some new revelation comes lurching out of the woodwork. Am I supposed to believe, for instance, that Jack manages to walk around for months without ever noticing that cigarettes no longer exist?

Still, this isn’t meant to be high art. Curtis is a talented storyteller, and for the most part this affable mix of comedy and music is perfectly entertaining. And, naturally, it has a soundtrack to die for. A shame then that it doesn’t give Danny Boyle more of a chance to show off his skills.

That would have been something to make a song and dance about.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Brightburn

17/06/19

I have often lamented the over-preponderence of superhero movies currently dominating the multiplexes. Those who share my misgivings may take some solace in Brightburn, which, although an unashamed slice of shlock, at least gives this increasingly played-out genre a fresh coat of paint (even if the colour in question is undoubtedly a dark shade of crimson). Produced by James Gunn, written by his brother, Brian, and his cousin, Mark, Brightburn is founded upon a simple question. What if somebody with superpowers was actually a psychopath?

Tori and Kyle Brever (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are the long married couple living in the wilds of Kansas, who have been trying for years to have a baby, with zero success. The late night crash-landing of a vehicle from outer space gives them the unexpected opportunity to adopt its sole passenger, a newborn baby. If this sounds familiar, it should do. It’s a cheeky borrowing of the Superman origin story.

The child, whom they name Brandon (Jackson Dunne), is fairly ‘normal’ until he hits puberty, when he starts to experience anger issues. Quite typical of an adolescent, I’ll grant you, but Brandon also begins to discover that he has some pretty amazing super powers – and, as they develop, so do various unsavoury habits that would give Clark Kent an attack of the vapours – like wearing a seedy-looking costume, spying on any girl who is unlucky enough to pique his interest, unleashing bloody mayhem on those who are rash enough to cross him, and leaving his monicker at the scene of the crime. (Be warned. The film focuses unflinchingly on visceral injury detail. Anyone who is twitchy about eyes and broken glass may want to look away at a key moment in the story.)

So yes, this is shlock, but it’s better produced and acted than most of the films that occupy this genre and manages to generate enough suspense to keep you hooked throughout. There are jump-scares too for those who like that kind of thing. Whilst the storyline doesn’t stand up to an awful lot of scrutiny, you do at least identify with Tori and Kyle’s inner conflict. Coming to terms with the fact that your adopted son is a brutal killer is not the kind of thing anybody would want to have to deal with, but deal with it they must.

And, as the body count steadily rises, they realise it’s time to take a stand…

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Sometimes Always Never

16/06/19

Scrabble can be a hard lesson for people like me, who are in love with language. We initially approach it, don’t we, thinking it will be an exercise in showing off our vocabulary, a chance to demonstrate how erudite we are? But we quickly learn that it’s really a brutal game of mathematics and that those players who have memorised a series of obscure, high-scoring two letter words are going to wipe the floor with us.

It’s this condumdrum that lies at the heart of Sometimes Always Never, a quirky and bitter-sweet story, written by Frank Cotterall Boyce and directed by Frank Hunter. It’s set in and around Formby, where Anthony Gormley’s distinctive sculptures haunt the sands, looking for all the world like bit-part players waiting for a chance to step into the action.

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a fascinating character, a retired tailor (the film’s title refers to the three buttons on a jacket and how you should wear them). He’s also a part time Scrabble-hustler. In the film’s downbeat opening, he meets up with his estranged son, Peter (Sam Riley) and the two of them go to have a look at the body of a dead man. Alan’s other son, Michael, you see, went missing years ago, following a heated argument over a game of… Scrabble, and Alan’s life since then has been dominated by his absence. The dead man turns out to be the missing son of Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim Mcinnery),  and, relieved, Alan heads home. But a couple of days later,  he arrives unnanounced at Peter’s house, where he pretty much moves in, much to the bafflement of Peter’s affable wife, Sue (Alice Lowe), and her teenage son, Jack (Louis Healy), with whom Alan ends up sharing a room. As the days pass and there is no sign of Alan going home, he begins to exert a peculiar influence over the family…

This is a deliciously oddball concoction which finds plenty of fun in the strange rituals that people employ in order to rub through their days. Nighy is as terrific as ever, though it does take a little while to adjust to the shock of hearing him speak with a Merseyside accent. Mind you, that also goes for Jenny Agutter, who manages to hide her own painfully plummy tones in a similar manner. It’s apparent from their first meeting that Alan and Margaret  have some chemistry between them.

Despite its charms, the film suffers a little from an inconsistency of tone. For instance, an early scene where Alan and Peter appear to be driving in a cardboard cutout car is a delight, but this approach isn’t used anywhere else – and a scene featuring Alexi Sayle as a random fisherman doesn’t really add anything to the story. Furthermore, any film that’s lucky enough to have Alice Lowe in the cast really ought to find a little more for her to do but, these reservations aside, this is mostly a cleverly judged cocktail of wry chuckles and poignant observations.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, then, but – in its own way – a satisfying and rather unique cinematic experience.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Late Night

12/06/19

Mindy Kaling’s feature debut is a warm, witty and timely tale, a gentle rebuke to those who bemoan positive discrimination, blind to the privilege that underlines their own positions. To Kaling’s credit, the overt message in no way impedes the film’s humour or likability.

Kaling stars as Molly, an Indian-American woman, who’s been working as an admin assistant in a factory – sorry, chemical plant. An essay-writing competition affords her the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to write for her hero, late night TV host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). But, while Katherine is keen to improve  her show’s ratings by shaking up her all-white, all-male writing team, the men themselves are less accommodating, threatened by the presence of an outsider. It doesn’t help that one unfortunate latecomer is literally fired as Molly hovers near his seat.

Thompson is magnificent as the imperious, demanding Katherine. Our view of her is softened by the tenderness of her relationship with her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who is struggling to come to terms with the effects of Parkinson’s disease. This strand offers us an insight into Katherine’s psyche, and helps us to appreciate the sheer talent and drive that has led to her success, and the potential cost of failure. No wonder she is exacting and difficult.

It turns out Molly is exactly what Katherine needs. Not because she is a genius; not because she’s better than all the guys. But because she is as good as them, and she has something different to offer, a less comfortable, tried-and-tested approach. In her innocence, she questions their assumptions and, in time, makes them question themselves.

It’s not all one way though; Molly is not a one-woman saviour – she has lessons to learn too. Veteran writer, Burditt (Max Casella), and conceited ‘head of monologues’, Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), as well as Walter and Katherine themselves, all have sage advice to offer her. The lesson here is simple: we all benefit from inclusivity.

If this makes the film sound dull, then I’m doing it a disservice. It’s properly funny, with Kaling’s genial charm a perfect foil for Thompson’s acerbic wit. Molly’s quiet determination proves a force to be reckoned with, and provides plenty of laughs along the way.

Late Night is a cracking story – a political rom-com for our times.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Cabaret

02/06/19

Whenever I’m asked to name my favourite musical, Cabaret is always right up there at the top of the pile. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love lighter stuff like Singing in the Rain and Calamity Jane, but there’s something about this film that transcends the limitations of the genre. While it boasts a whole bunch of solid gold songs, courtesy of Kander and Ebb, the film deals with much weightier issues than your average singalong. Set in Berlin in the early thirties, it documents the decadent nightclub entertainment of the era, set against the rising prominence of Hitler and the Nazi party. I’ve seen it a few times since its UK release in 1972, but only on small screens – this Vintage Sunday screening at The Cameo Cinema gives me the opportunity to properly reasses it. I’m happy to say it hasn’t aged one bit – indeed, given recent political developments, it feels eerily prescient.

Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin where he intends to write fiction, whilst financing himself by giving English lessons. He books in at a once-genteel boarding house and finds himself rooming nextdoor to entertainer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), currently wowing audiences at the seedy Kit Kat Club, presided over by the creepy and salacious MC (Joel Grey). Brian and Sally become close friends and, as time goes on, lovers – but their relationship is developed through turbulent and changing times. The Nazi party members who hand out leaflets at the club are at first derided and openly laughed at by the customers but, gradually, they come to prominence until they are calling the shots – a situation perfectly captured in the scene at a biergarten, where an angelic-faced member of the Hitler youth croons a stirring rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me and the bar’s customers, one by one, begin to sing along with him.

There’s so much to enjoy here it’s hard to know quite where to begin. First of all, there’s Minnelli, positively incandescent, the sheer talent seeming to blaze off her as she sings and dances with absolute authority. Joel Grey too is deliciously dissolute, clearly relishing the role he was born to play. But it’s director/choreographer Bob Fosse who is the real revelation, his mercurial visual style unleashing a whole blitzkrieg of unforgettable scenes. As in all the best musicals, the songs comment on and add to the action and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is forever cutting away to Grey’s leering, winking countenance as he slips us a knowing smile. ‘Look what’s happening here,’ he seems to be saying. ‘And you’re doing nothing to stop it.’

The tragedy, of course, is that none of the major players here ever achieved anything of comparable excellence in their lifetimes. Minnelli’s subsequent screen career is distinctly underwhelming, Grey’s likewise and Bob Fosse directed only another three features before his untimely death in 1987. But Cabaret stands as a dazzling example of the screen musical, a film that never mocks the flamboyant characters it depicts, never goes for the cheap shot and, most important of all, never shies away from asking profoundly unsettling questions.

If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, grab it; if not, see it anyway, in whatever way you can. Few films have such an immense reputation and even fewer actually deserve the acclaim they receive.

Cabaret is, quite simply, a musical masterpiece.

5 stars

Philip Caveney