Tony Hale

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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Love, Simon

25/04/18

We came rather late to this, deterred mostly by its trailer, which appeared to pitch a very different kind of film indeed, making it look like a lame, ‘ten years too late’ attempt at a coming-out movie. But after hearing very good word of mouth, we decide to give it a chance and, as it turns out, Greg Berlanti’s  Love, Simon, is actually a sprightly, wittily-scripted film, which (unusually for a teen vehicle) seems to really understand the characters it’s depicting. This isn’t the first film that’s suffered from an underwhelming trailer but I’ve rarely seen such a poor attempt to convey a movie’s evident strengths.

Simon (Nick Robinson – no, not that Nick Robinson!) is a handsome, likeable teenager, currently going through his final year at high school. He has a trio of close friends and is currently rehearsing for the school’s production of Cabaret. But he has a secret. He’s gay, something he’s known about for several years. He’s certainly not the only gay pupil at the school. For instance, there’s Ethan (Clark Moore), who is happily out of the closet and makes no secret of his sexual orientation, but Simon just can’t bring himself to tell anyone, particularly his liberal and totally open-minded parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel). He doesn’t want anything to change; he’s comfortable with his image and the way he fits in. It’s not that he thinks he will face any overt homophobia (well, maybe from a couple of ne-er-do-wells, but not from anyone who matters), just that he’s not ready to share this part of who he is.

Still, when he discovers some posts on school gossip blog, Craig’s Secrets, from another secretly gay boy calling himself ‘Blue,’ Simon responds enthusiastically, and the two of them begin to correspond regularly. But who is Blue? Will Simon ever meet him in real life? And will either of them ever come out into the open? In Simon’s case, the matter is taken out of his hands when a classmate chances upon his secret and threatens to expose him, unless he helps the blackmailer out with a certain situation. In the resulting scramble to keep a lid on things, Simon risks alienating himself from his closest friends…

Everything here is so deftly handled. There are engaging performances from all concerned (look out for Tony Hale as well-meaning, but totally hapless teacher, Mr Worth); there’s a fresh lively look to the cinematography, a zingy soundtrack and a couple of scenes that are genuinely affecting – I find myself welling up at two key points. Robinson is perfect in the title role and Logan Miller does a great job of depicting the nerdish and extremely needy Martin, the kid who all the others make an effort to avoid and who is handed the film’s most toe-curling scene.

Best of all, this doesn’t come across as some forty -year-old writer’s idea of what teenagers are all about. It nails them perfectly and manages to be effortlessly entertaining – and informative – in the process. Result.

So, the moral of this story is, I suppose, always take a trailer with a large pinch of salt, otherwise you could just end up missing a treat.

Love, Simon is just such a treat. Don’t miss it.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney