‘Toy Story 4’ is Yet Another Animated Masterpiece from Pixar

Toy Story 4 movie poster

Did the world really need another “Toy Story” movie, especially after the third one wrapped everything up with a beautiful ribbon? Well, it turns out we did. The news of a “Toy Story 4” sounded like a cash grab, and it’s not like Pixar is lacking in money or funds even after the box office failure of “The Good Dinosaur.” But to my surprise, the fourth movie in this ever so popular franchise quickly proves there is indeed another highly entertaining adventure involving the group of toys led by Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

Unlike other Pixar movies, “Toy Story 4” does not start off with an animated short, but this is because the opening sequence more or less serves as one. We go back several years before the previous sequel as we watch Woody (Tom Hanks) and the others work feverishly to save a remote-controlled car which is about to be washed away into the sewer. With the aid of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody drags the car away from certain destruction, but then things take a sharp left turn when Molly, Andy’s sister, suddenly takes Bo Peep away from the window and donates her to a man eager to share this doll with his own daughter. Woody tries to rescue Bo Peep, but she assures him it is time for her to be someone else’s toy. Still, the deeply heartbreaking moment from “Toy Story 2” in which Jessie (Joan Cusack) is discarded by her owner to the tune of a Sarah McLachlan song immediately quickly comes to mind as this scene proves to be almost as painful.

Moving ahead years later, these toys are now in the care of Bonnie, and we catch up with her when she is about to make a big transition in her life: start going to school. Her kindergarten orientation marks the first time she is separated from her parents and her toys, and she is understandably crippled by separation anxiety like any other kid would be. Woody, having been neglected by Bonnie recently, sneaks himself into her backpack and throws some craft materials onto her table, and with them she creates a new toy out of a spork whom she names Forky (voiced by Tony Hale). This toy quickly becomes her most beloved, and Woody encourages the other toys to make Forky feel welcome in his new environment.

Forky, however, experiences an existential crisis as he feels he was never meant to be someone’s toy, but instead destined for the nearest trash can. Sporks are meant to be used once and then thrown away, but Woody desperately tries to make Forky see how important he is to Bonnie’s well-being. Still, it’s hard to think of another character in animation or family entertainment other than Oscar the Grouch who has had such a passionate love affair with a trash can, or any trash receptacle for that matter.

The “Toy Story” movies all have the same kind of story as the toys, for one reason or another, become separated from their owner and do whatever they can to return to them before it’s too late. Still, each one deals with very intriguing questions about what it means to be a toy and of the importance they play in anyone’s life. What I love about these questions is how deeply they involve the viewer to where you are as caught as the characters as they stress over the right move to make. Either that, or watching these movies really messes with my anxiety.

As always, Pixar provides us with brilliantly animated images, and “Toy Story 4” is full of them throughout. Our gang of toys ends up at a carnival while Bonnie and her parents are on a road trip, and Woody ends up in antique store which is filled with one easter egg after another. Some I recognized like the soda bottle cap from “Up,” but a second viewing is definitely required as there are many more I have yet to discover in this sequel. Just when I thought Pixar could not wow me anymore than they already had, they do.

The big news in this sequel is Woody ends up running into Bo Peep again for the first time in years. She appears to revel in being a free toy after her latest owner gave her away, and now she spends her days with her sheep. Billy, Goat and Gruff, traveling in a remote-controlled skunk in sequences I want to believe were inspired by similar ones in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Woody reuniting with Bo Peep is a wonderful moment as those who have followed this franchise from the beginning know how affectionate these two toys were with one another, and we spend a good deal of this sequel’s running time wondering if these two can possibly stay together or suffer yet another sudden goodbye.

With any new “Toy Story” movie, there are always new characters to be found, and this was one has several. In the antique store, we meet a beautiful doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who looks friendly enough at first, but who quickly reveals herself to be a bit devious as she attempts to obtain Woody’s voice box for her own uses. There is also Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), friendly Canadian daredevil who suffers from low self-esteem as his owner ditched him when he could not perform the same stunt he performed on a television commercial. Oh the pitfalls of advertising,

But when it comes to my favorite new toys, they are Ducky and Bunny, a pair who resent playing second fiddle to Buzz Lightyear in a carnival game. They are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the comedic duo we all know and love as Key & Peele, and it is great fun to see them reunited here. These two toys come to aid our heroes, and their methods prove to be hilariously unorthodox as they are quick to attack others in a way they mistakenly believe will be ever so effective.

When “Toy Story 4” comes to its conclusion, I found myself choked up even more than I was with the climax of “Toy Story 3.” With the previous sequel, we saw the end of one era, and with this one has us witnessing the end of another. It’s a deeply emotional finale to where it’s impossible not to feel like you are on the verge of crying as these toys have now been with us for over 20 years. They are like family, and they are now taking another big step into the unknown.

Could there be a “Toy Story 5?” Well, this sequel reminds us of how anything is possible. But if this is to be the final one, it certainly ends things on a tremendously high note. All the voice actors are excellent as they each find the depth in their characters to where not a single one is unforgettable. Josh Cooley makes a tremendous feature film directorial debut with this sequel, Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton have given it an excellent screenplay, and the great Randy Newman provides us yet again with another great score and songs this franchise has thrived upon.

2019 has not been a great year for sequels thus far, but along with “John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum,” “Toy Story 4” proves you at the very least need Keanu Reeves to make your sequel the least bit successful in an overcrowded market. Seriously, you cannot deny this fact after what this summer has given us so far.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘BlackkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s Best Joint in Years

BlackkKlansman movie poster

Those who read my reviews know how much I despise the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me. However, Hollywood has been looking for ways to provide variations on this phrase in recent years in an attempt to give it back the value it once had. One of my favorites was “Argo” which was advertised as being based on a “declassified” true story which made it worth seeing all the more. Still, every other movie these days is “based on a true story,” and pointing this out should make you wonder which ones were not. Besides, aren’t all movies based on or inspired by things we have experienced in real life?

BlackkKlansman,” a Spike Lee joint, is the latest movie to be “based on a true story,” but its poster has advertised as being “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” Personally, I prefer the phrase Lee uses in the movie itself which says it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” This description feels far more honest as it would have seemed unbelievable were this movie released a few years ago. What results is the best joint Lee has made in years, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman,” it stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth who, when we first meet him, is on his way to apply at the Colorado Springs police department and become its first ever black detective. This distinction, however, doesn’t do much for him in the beginning as his fellow officers, particularly the slimy Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) who does little to hide his racist attitudes, and he is eager to rise up in the ranks.

Following a boring stint in the records room, Stallworth gets transferred to intelligence where he comes across an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan which looks to find new members. It is great fun watching Washington talk on the phone with Ryan Eggold who plays Walter Breachway, President of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs, as he effortlessly convinces him he is as white as they come. This act quickly grabs the attention of Detective Flip Zimmerman who is played by Adam Driver, and it is a gas watching Driver slowly turn around in his chair once he realizes what Stallworth is up to.

Of course, Stallworth does make a critical mistake during this phone call; he uses his real name. As a result, he is forced to turn to Zimmerman who has to pretend to be Stallworth in person as they further infiltrate the KKK. This infiltration becomes a delicate balancing act as Stallworth continues to fool the racist organization over the phone while Zimmerman is forced to fool them in person. In the process, we come to discover how much easier it is for a black man to pretend to be white than it is for a white man to pretend to be black.

“BlackkKlansman” couldn’t be timelier as it digs deep into a past which has a frightening resemblance to America’s present. The KKK is shown here to be as violent and racist as they are today as they keep chanting “America first” and plot acts of violence designed to eliminate those in their way and instill fear in the general public. One of the most disturbing scenes comes as we watch them cheer unabashedly at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed the KKK as heroic and African-Americans as being unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Lee does nothing to hide the racist caricatures Griffith put onto the silver screen back in 1915, and they are as infuriating to take in today as they were a hundred years ago.

It’s very ironic how “BlackkKlansman” was released in theaters around the same time Dinesh D’Souza’s latest propaganda piece, “Death of a Nation,” came out. Both movies deal with “Birth of a Nation” in different ways and acknowledge how it was the first American motion picture ever to be shown inside the White House. D’Souza portrays President Woodrow Wilson as getting a liberal erection from watching Griffith’s movie, and he took this a step further in “Hillary’s America” by having a KKK member on horseback leap out of the screen to where Wilson is shown as being completely hypnotized by this image. D’Souza, however, leaves out “Birth of a Nation’s” more inflammatory segments which include deeply offensive depictions of blacks, something Lee does not shy away from showing here.

As is the case with movies “based on a true story,” “BlackkKlansman” does take numerous liberties with the source material. The events of this story took place in 1979, but Lee has moved the timeline back to 1972 which allows him to acknowledge certain Blaxploitation classics as well as the re-election efforts of President Richard Nixon. It is also said how David Duke never realized Stallworth was a black man until 2006, but the change here was worth it as leads to one of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. With movies like these, it is more important to be true to the spirit of the facts than anything else, and those who have a problem with that can always read Stallworth’s memoir instead.

There’s some additional irony here with “BlackkKlansman’s” release as it is coming out not long after the “Superfly” remake. One scene has Stallworth talking with his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), about which movie was cooler, “Super Fly” or “Shaft.” Patrice replies how “Super Fly” unfairly stereotypes black men as criminals, but it also showed a realistic grittiness to life in the city which was complemented by the brilliant soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield. It would be interesting to see how Patrice would have felt about this summer’s remake which threatened to glamorize gangster life more than ever before, and it made me wonder why anyone bothered remaking this blaxploitation classic in the first place.

Then there is former President Nixon whom D’Souza tried to convince us was a true progressive like any other Republican in “Death of a Nation.” We do not see much of Nixon in “BlackkKlansman,” but we do see his re-election posters displayed prominently in KKK hangouts as they were supposedly big supporters of his. Seeing this makes me think of the old Vulcan proverb Spock spoke of in “Star Trek VI” which said “only Nixon could go to China.”

“BlackkKlansman” is designed to make us mad at how history is repeating itself as white supremacist groups have flourished under the Donald Trump administration, but it is also insanely funny at times as it is almost impossible to believe anyone could have gotten away with what Stallworth and Zimmerman did here. Then again, in a time where John Melendez, a.k.a. Stuttering John of the Howard Stern Show, managed to trick Trump into believing he was Senator Bob Menedez in a phone conversation, perhaps it doesn’t seem unbelievable in the slightest

Honestly, it has been some time since I last saw a Spike Lee joint. His movies get overwhelmed at times by his camera tricks and flourishes and overly bombastic music scores which make me want to turn the volume. But with “BlackkKlansman,” Lee has crafted a film where everything feels perfect and spot on, and what results is highly entertaining and deeply visceral. Even as the “Do the Right Thing” director wants you to see how the past never left us, he invites us to revel in Stallworth’s successful infiltration even as those in power want to bury his victories.

There is not a single weak performance to be found here. Both Washington and Driver dig deep into their characters’ complexities as they try to remain professional in an increasingly volatile situation, but their own personal beliefs threaten to get in the way. Jasper Pääkkönen proves to be a fiery presence as Felix Kendrickson, the white supremacist who looks like a grenade primed to explode at any given moment. Corey Hawkins is magnetic as Kwame Ture when he rouses his followers at a civil rights rally. And Topher Grace proves to be an inspired choice to play a young David Duke who is shown to be aloof as to who Stallworth really is, and that’s even when Stallworth is assigned to be his security detail while in Colorado Springs.

It is no mistake Lee concludes “BlackkKlansman” with footage from the Unite the Right rally which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia as the movie is being released on its first anniversary. We see white supremacists marching the streets with tiki torches saying they will not be replaced, we see the real David Duke talk about how Trump is making “America great again,” we see Trump respond to the rally by saying how there were good people on both sides, and we see the car attack perpetrated by a white supremacist which injured many and killed Heather Heyer. While we look at the past as if it is barely visible in our rearview mirrors, it is real events like these which remind us how these same mirrors have the message of how things we see in them are much closer than they appear.

The image of an upside-down American flag which fades into black and white is the perfect image to end “BlackkKlansman” on as we are truly living in “The Twilight Zone” with everything that’s going on. It also reminds me of the final image of that same flag in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” which ended with the word “unlearn” being typed out over it. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and history continues to repeat itself again and again and again. The fight for justice has never ceased, and the progress we all thought Americans had made is not as great as it seemed. Lee has made an overtly political movie which could not have come out at a more appropriate time, and it is his best one in years.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ is Wonderfully Entertaining

Captain Underpants movie poster

Sooner or later, we were bound to have a superhero, animated or live action, wearing just underwear. The main characters of “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” tell the audience how superheroes typically look like they are in their pajamas, so they have created one who is wearing little to nothing. Most of the time, superheroes are wearing things we would never wear to the office, and there are others who look like they are barely dressed as it is. With Captain Underpants, we now have a heroic character who wears underwear as well as a cape, and he shows no shame in his appearance. Why should he anyway? He’s a superhero, and one look at him will confirm whether he prefers boxers or briefs.

“Captain Underpants” is a series of children’s novels written by Dav Pilkey who channeled his class clown behavior and learning disabilities into them, and now it has been adapted to the big screen by Dreamworks Animation. I had no idea what to expect from this “First Epic Movie” as I am unfamiliar with these books, but I am delighted to say the filmmakers have created an animated film which appeals to both kids and adults. While kids can revel in the adventures these characters have, the adults will get a kick out of the subversive comic elements which remind us of the problems we Americans experience with our malfunctioning education system. Just keep in mind, a lot of these problems began occurring before Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education.

Anyway, we are quickly introduced to the main characters, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), a pair of fourth-graders and best friends who revel in entertaining their classmates with pranks and creating comic books in their treehouse which they have branded as the headquarters for their company, Treehouse Comix Inc. Their friendship, however, is threatened by the evil Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), the elementary school principal. After one prank too many, Mr. Krupp, decides to tear them apart by putting them into separate classrooms. But our young heroes quickly turn the tables by hypnotizing him with a 3D Hypno Ring they got out of a cereal box, and this allows them to turn Mr. Krupp into their most popular comic book creation, Captain Underpants.

I loved how this movie touches on a child’s view of elementary school to where I was reminded of the years I spent there. The thought of being in a separate classroom from your best friend was a real fear as recess time never seemed long enough to hang out together. And yes, school did seem like a prison at times where the teachers, the bad ones anyway, look determined to suck the fun out of anything and everything while making us learn facts and dates, some of which will escape our minds in the distant future. Heck, the teachers need textbooks to be reminded of these same things.

But moreover, “Captain Underpants” reminds us of how powerful our imaginations were at that age. We had such vivid fantasy worlds playing in our heads, and we went to places and experienced adventures where we were always the hero. Seeing George and Harold bring these adventures to life in comic books should make you remember when your imaginary worlds were infinite in what they promised. While the forces of schoolwork and conformity loom large in their lives, and they will loom even larger as they get older, we root for these two kids to persevere as we are reminded of how children need time to play and create. I feels like, in this day and age, the fun of childhood has given way to preparing kids for those damned SATs even before they graduate from pre-school.

Okay, maybe I’m making “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” sound more serious than it has any right to be. In the end, this movie is all about fun as George and Harold try their best to keep their hypnotized principal in check even as his alter-ego of the Captain keeps him bouncing all over the place as he attempts to save those who don’t necessarily need saving. Seeing these two kids switch Mr. Krupp into Captain Underpants and vice versa makes for one of this movie’s funniest moments.

Of course, there proves to be an even bigger threat than Mr. Krupp here as the movie’s main villain, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), comes to the elementary school as the new science teacher. His plan? To eradicate laughter from the planet as he has long become impatient with everybody not taking him seriously. Then again, how can anyone be taken seriously with a name like Poopypants? Just wait until you hear his full name.

Directed David Soren (“Turbo”) and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) have given us a tale of good versus evil which is largely predictable, but they keep throwing left turns at us which keeps this movie feeling less so even when the climax is never in doubt. Not all the jokes work, but there are some which are priceless, and Professor Poppypants statement on the state of education is dead on. And yes, there are some fart jokes, but the ones here are far more creative than any which begged for your laughter in the abysmal “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.

Both Hart and Middleditch have loads of playing the two fourth graders, and they remind you of the benefits of doing voiceovers in animated movies: you can get away with playing children even when you’re in your 30’s! As for Helms, you can always count on him to make a superhero sound so confident even as said superhero has yet to learn of his limits, of which there are many. Kroll has fun playing around with supervillain clichés as Professor Poopypants as he exploits the bad guy conventions which come with crazy hair and an all too thick accent. Jordan Peele, riding high on the success of “Get Out,” has a blast voicing the tattle tale we all love to hate, Melvin Sneedly. Kristen Schaal also co-stars as Edith, the school lunch lady whose shyness and closeted affections for Mr. Krupp she makes all the more palpable.

“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” may not go down as an animated classic, and its animation does pale in comparison to what Pixar typically comes up with, but it is filled with an abundance of imagination and cleverness which I did not expect to find. The filmmakers clearly have a great affection for the books of Dav Pilkey, and if this is to become Dreamworks’ next big animated franchise, it will be lots of fun to see where it goes from here.

By the way, does it really make sense that Principal Krupp would just turn right into the hero George and Harold created from their imaginations? Oh wait, it’s an animated movie. Who cares?

* * * out of * * * *

Get Out

Get Out movie poster

You know the main characters of this movie are in trouble once they hit a deer. Of this, I speak from my own experience as my dad drove me to the airport one time and ran over a deer which walked into his traffic lane. It was not his fault as the deer came out of nowhere, and there wasn’t any time to hit the brakes to avoid an animal oblivious to the Volvo station wagon heading straight at him (or her). Nevertheless, a week later I got laid off from my job. Looking back, hitting the deer proved to be an omen of bad things to come, and losing my job was one of them.

I was reminded of this as I watched the opening minutes of “Get Out,” an insidiously clever horror movie with the occasional dose of humor thrown in. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are driving up an empty stretch of road to meet her parents when they slam into a deer. There’s nothing they can do to help the animal, and the police officer who arrives at the scene asks for Chris’ license even though he wasn’t driving. Rose encourages the officer to let Chris be, and he eventually leaves the scene while advising her to fix her broken rearview mirror. But as the movie goes on, this turns out to be the least of their problems.

I should probably point out that Chris and Rose are an interracial couple, and Chris is concerned Rose’s parents have no idea her daughter is dating a black man. His nervousness is understandable, and it is elevated further when Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) try to make him feel welcome by telling him they would have voted President Barack Obama for a third time if it were possible. Basically, the Armitages are well-meaning white folks who support the fight against racism, but they have yet to understand the damage, however unintentional, they are doing to African-Americans.

Things get even weirder when Chris meets two other black people who work for the Armitages, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson). Both act very strangely and in a manner which threatens to redefine passive-aggressive, and the way they stare at Chris is unnerving as they look like snakes ready to strike at their pray without much notice. It doesn’t take long for Chris to realize something is terribly wrong, but his attempts to escape the Armitage household are not exactly successful.

There is a lot of racial tension burning right underneath the surface in “Get Out,” and this is on purpose. The movie plays on the stereotypes whites have of blacks and vice-versa. Everyone is trying to be polite, but you can sense what’s really going on by looking into the eyes of each character as they project darker intentions or sheer terror, and sometimes both. We are left in suspense as we constantly wonder what the Armitages truly have in store for the helpless Chris, and when their intentions are revealed, it makes a scary, and an oddly amusing, amount of sense.

“Get Out” marks the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, one-half of the famous comedy duo “Key & Peele,” who also wrote the screenplay. It’s a very strong debut as he takes satirical elements and places them into a story which ratchets up the intensity throughout and keeps it up to the end. But Peele doesn’t just give us a flat-out satire as he never set out to play everything just for laughs. He digs deep and touches at our own preconceptions of race in America and plays around with the unintentional ways we reveal ourselves to be more prejudice than we ever realized.

Daniel Kaluuya, whom you might remember from “Sicario” and “Kick-Ass 2,” is excellent as Chris, a young man caught up in a situation we hope he fully comprehends before it is too late. He also has good chemistry with Allison Williams to where you can’t doubt they are believable as a couple. “Get Out” also has the benefit of having two terrific actors playing Rose’s parents, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Both have a warm presence here which eventually turns into something more sinister before you even know it.

I especially have to single out Keener as she remains one of the most underrated actors working today, and the scene where she hypnotizes Chris is a huge reminder of that inescapable fact. She doesn’t have to do too much to get our attention, and as Missy, she seduces us to a place we didn’t plan on going to, and it’s a place where we fear we will never rise up from.

There’s also a terrific scene-stealing performance from Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ best friend, Rod Williams, a TSA agent who has seen it all. In any other movie, Rod would be the one to overact in the most annoying way possible, but Howery turns the character into a welcome form of comic-relief the movie needs to ease the at times unbearable tension, and he is hilarious.

In many ways, “Get Out” is a clever riff on movies of the past like “The Stepford Wives” which dealt with the unusual behavior of female residents in a little Connecticut town, and Peel takes risks with the material you wish other filmmakers would take on a more regular basis. What results is a motion picture which is not perfect, but still a very good one which will stay with and unsettle you in the way a good horror movie should. It also plays with the ways white people try to show how non-racist they are and yet fall into an inescapable pit of hypocrisy before they even know it.

And for the record, I’m a white guy and I would definitely have voted for Barrack Obama for a third term as President. Think what you will of that statement. I’m just going to leave it here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *