Keanu Reeves

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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To the Bone

19/07/17

Honestly, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to watch this film, and might not have done had the weather been nicer, had I not already seen all Cineworld had to offer, and had I not imposed upon myself a ‘Dry July’ and thus removed the option of going to the pub. I’d read Hadley Freeman’s scathing review in The Guardian and feared it might be a misogynistic, voyeuristic old mess. But, actually, this Netflix Original well exceeded my expectations, and I think it merits a (cautiously) positive response.

To be clear, I have no personal experience of eating disorders, and am in no way dismissing Freeman’s more informed opinion. Hers is the insider’s view. But, from an outsider’s perspective, this film ain’t bad at all.

It tells the tale of Ellen (or Eli), played with frail intensity by Lily Collins (last seen as Red, an animal rights activist in Okja, looking a lot healthier than she does here). Ellen has suffered from anorexia for years; the film begins with her leaving a treatment centre, and moving in with her half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato) and stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston). It’s clearly an awkward fit: although Ellen and Kelly get on very well, Ellen finds Susan insensitive and unhelpful.  But she has little choice: her father, who ostensibly lives in the same house, is wholly absent from the film, and  her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), who has recently relocated to Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), is adamant that she “cannot deal” with Ellen’s problems in her life. In desperation, frightened by Ellen’s plummeting weight and left alone to cope with it, Susan makes a last-ditch attempt to find a solution, and settles on the in-patient therapy offered by unorthodox doctor, William Beckham (Keanu Reeves).

Actually, Dr Beckham doesn’t seem to do much at all. He talks honestly to Ellen without pulling any punches; he tells her that, if she continues as she is, it won’t be long before she dies. Beyond that, it’s hard to see what the actual treatment is. There’s an attempt to make mealtimes less stressful (the in-patients all have to sit at the dinner table, but they’re not compelled to eat), and a calm and caring atmosphere is created in the centre. Ellen makes friends there, most notably the intensely irritating Luke (Alex Sharp), whose know-it-all attitude is sickeningly patronising – although Ellen doesn’t seem to notice, so perhaps that’s just me – but still, it’s not made clear how this place and process help.

But I don’t think the film is really about that: it’s not a treatment manual. It’s more an exploration of the impact and effects of this terrible condition, both on the sufferers and on those around them. Characters that begin as almost comic caricatures (e.g. Susan) are revealed as complex and conflicted, struggling to deal with watching Ellen self-destruct. Judy’s anguish is made clear too, in a later scene, as is Ellen’s fear and her inability to stop.

Freeman condemns the film for glamourising anorexia (“it’s not all thigh gaps and eyeliner”), and there’s no denying that Collins looks beautiful most of the time. But I’m not sure that’s this film’s fault: as scarily skinny as she is in this, Collins looks exactly like a lot of film stars and fashion models; her big-eyed, sharp-jawed face is not alien at all. She’s the epitome of what we’re told is good. And maybe, just maybe, that’s an important point to make.

I don’t think this is a film that purports to have the answers. I think it’s just a story, a tragic tale of one girl’s life. Of course, that doesn’t let it off the hook. But it seems to be a tale well-told, even if there is no universal truth revealed.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

The Neon Demon

1*jUNDeTEvI8L-iWHG0NnPrA

12/07/16

The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are never less than thought-provoking. His thriller, Drive, had him teetering dangerously close to creating a mainstream hit, while the ‘mad-as-frogs-but-utterly watchable’ Only God Forgives offered a weird mash up of sex, violence and extreme karaoke. In The Neon Demon, Refn takes on the fashion industry and the result might be his most assured effort yet.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a naïve would-be model, newly arrived in the charnel house of Los Angeles haute couture, hoping to carve out some kind of career for herself. In her own estimation, she can’t write, sing or act, she has no talents at all but she is pretty and she can sell that. She is blessed (or possibly cursed) with an innate quality that makes casting directors look favourably upon her, much to the chagrin of others in the industry who only perceive her as a rival. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist who services top models in the daylight and attends to the look of the recently deceased by night. Jessie, meanwhile, lives in a sleazy motel operated by the world’s creepiest landlord (Keanu Reeves) but as her star begins to ascend, it looks as though she might just be on the verge of major success…

Refn’s cinematic influences are apparent at a glance. The ‘Gallo’ films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are referenced in the opulent use of colour and in the pulsing, electronic soundtrack, while the storyline has echoes of traditional fairy tales, particularly Snow White. (The Grimm brothers would surely have approved of the stomach-turning excesses displayed here – cannibalism, necrophilia and voyeurism all rear their unsavoury heads. Be warned, this is not for the faint-hearted.)

With so many potential pitfalls waiting to claim the film, it’s to Refn’s credit that he steers his story so expertly through the rapids. Yes, he seems to be saying, the fashion industry is a vile, sexist construct that feeds upon the objectivism of the female form and ultimately consumes and destroys those who dare to enter into it – and he’s not afraid to show exactly that; and yet, his film never feels gratuitous, never comes across as a case of the director having his cake and eating it. We are appalled by what we’re watching, which is just as it should be.

With its slow, languorous direction and eye-popping visuals, The Neon Demon is a stunning slice of contemporary cinema that will have you discussing its content long after you’ve left the cinema.

5 stars

Philip Caveney