Tom Hanks

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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The Post

21/01/18

In the era of fake news, here’s an interesting concept – a film about real news. More specifically, a film about a newspaper’s quest to tell the truth that doesn’t come across as some kind of hollow joke. There was a time, it seems, when newspapers were prepared to risk everything to fight for the right to free speech, and that time was 1971.

Stephen Spielberg’s The Post may be set in the past but its story couldn’t be more prescient. We’ve recently had the Paradise Papers, but back then it was The Pentagon Papers, a series of purloined documents that proved that President Nixon’s administration – and indeed, many others before it – had lied to the American public about the Vietnam war, insisting that it was a winnable cause even when they all knew full well it wasn’t. This secret sent untold numbers of young soldiers to their deaths.

When reporter Daniel Elisberg (Matthew Rhys) learns of this, he decides to turn whistleblower, stealing a bundle of secret government files and handing them over to the New York Times. They have every intention of publishing the story, but Tricky Dicky gets wind of their plans and serves them with an injunction, forbidding them to go to print. The files subsequently find their way onto the desk of a reporter for the Washington Post. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is eager to get the scoop, but first he must convince the Post’s owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to give him the green light. Graham is struggling to assert her authority at The Post just as it prepares itself to float on the stock market. Having inherited her position from her late husband, Kay finds herself continually marginalised, lectured and talked down to by her male employees – and, she’s all too aware that publishing the banned documents could land her and Bradlee in jail and finish off the newspaper once and for all…

The Post is a compelling piece of docudrama, helmed by a director at the peak of his powers – it’s sobering to note that Spielberg made this film largely because he had a few weeks to kill whilst waiting for the special effect shots in his upcoming Ready Player One to be processed. Given the quick turnaround, it’s astonishing that the film is as assured as it is. Furthermore, Spielberg has managed to pull in two of Hollywood’s major power players for his lead roles. Amazingly, Streep and Hanks have never made a film together until now.

What’s most fascinating here is to note how the publishing process has changed over the decades. Spielberg’s cameras linger almost voyeuristically over the process as the ‘hot metal’ printing presses are tortuously put together – and I love the scene where reporter Bob Bagdikien (Bob Odenkirk) attempts to make a covert call from a street pay phone, his nickels and dimes raining onto the pavement as he talks. Hanks is great as the news-hungry Bradlee and Streep gives an object lesson in understatement as Graham. The scene where she finally tells the men in suits what they can do is priceless. Make no mistake, this is also a feminist film in the truest sense of the word.

Having said all this, I don’t see The Post bothering Oscar too much this year – there are simply more exciting offerings to choose from. But – in its quiet, unassuming way – this is an important release that has plenty to say about the way government’s operate and how important it is to preserve the right to bring their actions to the public’s attention. Sadly, these are qualities that we are in danger of losing altogether. The events in this film eventually led to the impeachment of a President. What would it take, I wonder, to achieve a similar outcome now?

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson

16/11/16

For his previous cinematic outing (the indifferently reviewed Inferno) Tom Hanks broke out the Grecian 2000 and presented audiences with an airbrushed version of his real self, trying to pass for someone considerably younger. Here, he’s playing someone closer to his own age, veteran airline pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger,  who in 2009 managed to do the seemingly impossible, by crash-landing a stricken airliner in the Hudson River without incurring a single fatality. (Well, that’s 155 tickets sold, right there.)

Clint Eastwood’s retelling of the story is never less than compelling. Since we already know the outcome of the story, he can’t really hope to generate any real suspense; so he opts instead for a strange, circular narrative, opening with the moment that Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) realise that they are deep in the doo-doo after a catastrophic bird strike. From here, the story loops around like a plane looking for somewhere suitable to land, touching briefly on Sully’s early days in aviation, before finally revealing the workings of the crash landing itself.

The main tension in the story is generated when a team of crash investigators (including Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), assigned to examine the circumstances of the accident begin to look as though they might disagree with Sully’s account of the story, something which threatens to turn him from overnight hero to an absolute zero. A series of computer simulations have raised the distinct possibility that the plane might have been able to return safely to Laguardia airport, from where it had recently taken off. Hanks does his usual ‘Everyman’ persona with the understated dignity we’ve come to expect from him and he’s ably supported by Laura Linney as Sully’s unfortunate wife, stuck on the end of a telephone line, while her husband faces the hearing that could destroy his career.

It’s only in the film’s post credit sequences where Eastwood cannot quite resist tipping the project into cheesiness – we see the real Sully and the real survivors, making speeches at one of those celebrations the Americans love so much – and there’s an onscreen credit that pays tribute to the emergency services in New York who worked together to save so many lives. But ultimately you can’t help concluding that Sullenberger took a chance in a desperate situation and (luckily for him) it paid off.

Still, this is nonetheless an entertaining film, particularly when projected onto an IMAX screen, which makes the crash landing a startlingly immersive experience. Nervous fliers might want to give this one a miss.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Bridge of Spies

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29/11/15

Stephen Spielberg wears two hats. There’s the backwards baseball cap he wears when he’s directing superior popcorn entertainments like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park – and sometimes, he reaches into the back of the wardrobe and pulls out a sombre black homburg, which is his hatwear of choice when helming ‘darker’ material like Schindler’s List and Munich. Bridge of Spies is definitely a homburg movie, but in its quiet own way, its as gripping and involving as any of his other films. Spielberg has the uncanny ability to take the most complex story and tell it with effortless style, making it accessible and involving.

It’s 1957 and the ‘Cold War’ between America and Russia is at its height. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) an apparently innocuous amateur artist is arrested on a charge of spying for the USSR. He is, arguably, the most hated man in America. Veteran lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to defend him, mainly because the law must be observed and despite the fact that even the judge on the case openly declares that Abel should be found guilty. But Donovan is a liberal, who believes implicitly in the American constitution. He fights Abel’s case (unsuccessfully) through the courts and finds himself vilified for doing so – but he does manage to prevent him from going to the electric chair, pointing out that Abel might be a useful bargaining tool in the future.

Sure enough, shortly afterwards, American pilot, Francis Gary Powers is shot down whilst carrying out a spy mission over Russian territory. He’s taken prisoner and the CIA are terrified that he might be persuaded to leak the secrets of the U2 spy plane. A possible exchange of prisoners is mooted and once again, Donovan is recruited to head out to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange…

This is a beautifully made film, that brilliantly invokes the austere look of the era and provides a fresh perspective on the business of espionage. Hanks is perfectly cast as the American everyman, a role that would have been played by James Stewart back in the day, his chunky features emanating absolute integrity. Rylance, meanwhile, as the dry, sardonic Abel gives a masterclass in acting. Together, the two actors strike sparks off each other and they are aided and abetted by a razor sharp script, created by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers.

There’s little to dislike here and plenty to admire. It’s essentially a ‘small’ movie, which tells its story with skill and precision and never puts a foot wrong. As the story moves towards its conclusion, it bills up levels of suspense that will have you twitching in your seat.

Spielberg wears both his hats with equal success but I have to say, I do prefer him in the homburg.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney