Toy Story 4 (2019) review

Besides ‘we have no cheese’ and ‘live action remake‘ there are few words that fill me with such dread as ‘Toy Story 4.’ A trilogy that is unanimously agreed to be as close to animated cinematic perfection as possible really didn’t require a fourth entry, and the list of good third sequels could barely fit on a sentient spork. Alas, here we are. But, in a ray of optimism, Toy Story 4 is not bad. Far from it, in fact. Does it live up to the immense standards of its predecessors, though? Well, no.

There’s a lot to like in Toy Story 4 (it still feels weird to type that). From the fun new players like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, to the mercifully fresh narrative, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as the credibility of the franchise remains intact. In what will come as a surprise to nobody, leading man Tom Hanks is still likeable and compelling as Woody, a role he’s been played with affable joy for nearly thirty years. Let that one sink in. Everyone (except Bonnie’s) favourite Sheriff’s arc is undoubtedly intended as a metaphor for Fathers of children who’ve left home, as he struggles to find purpose in an Andy-light world, where he’s no longer the number one toy at play time. Hanks slips back into the role with ease, delivering on both the comedy and the mushy moments through the warm gravitas that only his voice can bring.

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Sadly, besides a near unrecognisable Bo Peep, Woody is the only member of the OG gang to get much of any focus. Fan favourites like Slinky, Jessie, Rex, and my beloved Bullseye are afforded almost no screen time, and are hastily left out of the action in favour of new players. Even once co lead Buzz Lightyear feels not only sidelined, but also dumbed down, to the point that he feels a shell of his former, heroic self. As a big fan of Buzz, this was a shame to see, especially as the initial draft of the script was reportedly Buzz-centric, an element that hasn’t reappeared since the first film.

Nostalgic gripes aside, the new players are mostly welcome. Christina Hendricks’ Gabby is a suitable evolution of the bitter-toy-villain stereotype, and despite her frankly horrific organ harvesting plan, she does garner a suitable level of audience empathy. A big shout out must also go to the ventriloquist dummies; a genius concept for henchman that are as hilarious as they are nightmare inducing.

So, about Bo. She’s great here, though entirely unrecognisable from her original appearance, even sporting a new voice. Her former damsel in distress / weirdly sexy voice persona has all but evaporated, as she (somehow) trades in her porcelain dress in favour of a badass cloak and bandage combo. She leads an underlying motif of girl power than runs throughout the film, as Jessie, Dolly, Gabby, and Bo all either lead the gang or take the reigns of power from the male leads. You could take an academic feminist reading and say they’re taking back power from the patriarchy. Hell, Woody even literally loses his voice to a woman. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into it and they’re just better written characters.

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In terms of the technical stuff, this is Pixar working with all engines running. The visuals are fantastically realised, with smooth animation that reminds you how refined the medium has become since the gang first broke ground in 1995. The Antique store’s cat in particular looks amazingly lifelike, especially when compared to the very polygonic dog guarding Sid’s back garden in the original. The colour palette is equally lovely, with far less murky blacks and greens than its darker predecessor. The carnival setting allows for vibrant and varied technicolour machinations at every turn.

The traditional Randy Newman score also makes a somewhat triumphant return, with a wonderfully nostalgic montage song near the beginning, harkening back to the days of ‘Strange Things’ and ‘I Will Go Sailing No More.’ It would also be a lie to say that the reprise of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ didn’t put a big smile on my face. The orchestral score however, does seem entirely phoned in. Character leitmotif is one thing (and one thing I’m VERY passionate about), but entire musical cues are seemingly ripped in their entirety from previous entries, which is just lazy.

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It is the script that is ultimately the film’s greatest strength, yet its biggest weakness. In many ways the plot is a breath of fresh air, and many jokes and emotional moments do indeed stick (or rather crash – you’ll get it when you watch it), the landing. However, there’s just something absent, that makes the experience ring hollow. Perhaps it comes down to the MIA main cast, or the bittersweet ending that’ll undoubtedly be a divisive topic. Personally though, I feel the pacing drags, far more than in its predecessors. There was just more of a sense of urgency in those films, that left you genuinely tense. Here however, through the admirable exploration adult topics like life purpose and existential crisis (!), the film loses a bit of what made Toy Story so great. The camaraderie and simplistic storytelling is lost, but what replaces it isn’t bad, just different.

I ultimately feel warmer about Toy Story 4 the more I think about it. It remains in my mind, unnecessary in its existence, when the third and at the time, ‘final instalment’ had a sense of finality that will always be unmatched. However, Toy Story 4 justifies itself by taking the characters (well, two of them) in bold new directions, touching on important, difficult aspects of life in a sugar coated, comedic skin that stop things getting too real. If a Buzz focused Toy Story 5 is in the future, then so be it. If it’s this good, then we have little cause for concern.

★★★★

My series ranking, if you’re interested:

Toy Story 2 (1999)

★★★★★

Toy Story (1995)

★★★★★

Toy Story 3 (2010)

★★★★★

Toy Story 4 (2019)

★★★★

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) review

A pretty common criticism of phase one of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe for all you casuals) was that formulaic nature of each of the films. As they were all origin stories, it was a clear pattern: hero discovers/gains their power, love interest, friend who turns into an evil variation of the hero defeated, cue post credits Sam Jackson foreshadowing the hell out of the future team up; Boom, done. If there is anything that ‘Thor Ragnarok’ isn’t, it’s being bound by the common tropes of existing Marvel films. The third instalment of the ‘Thor’ franchises is so far removed from its decent first instalment and bland sequel, that it almost seems like a different IP altogether.

   In many ways, things are familiar; the core cast of characters has many familiar faces, with the addition of a one or two new ones including Cate Blanchett’s wonderfully hammy Goddess of death, Hera. It’s no secret that Mark Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner also returning are Thor’s brother and father, Loki and Odin, played by British national treasures Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins respectively. However, the names of these characters are where the similarities with previous films end. Every single character here seems like a weird, alternate reality version of themselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an odd choice. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor for example is now silly, arrogant and partial cracking one liners, killing tension at the drop of a hammer. Bruce Banner, one of Marvel’s most tragic, complex and tortured characters is now a jittery, spaced out oddball more reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from that terrible DC film we don’t talk about. I suppose the argument can be made that he’s shock and prolonged Hulk transformation have this effect, but the script seems to turn the two leads into a petty, arguing married couple rather than allow for the weight that a story like ‘Ragnarok’ should bring.

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   However, if there’s one thing that director Taika Waititi excels at, its pace. The film is nonstop excitement, which is often, it must be said, at the expense of the plot. While certainly not dull, the story being told here is quite frankly, a mess. The inclusion of the Hulk is welcome and there are certainly some excellent elements, but the lean on comedy makes it a disorganised and clustered collection of ideas, with only some of them landing. However, visually, it’s a Marvel. (See what I did there?). From an Asgard under attack to the new, dusty, junk planet of Sakaar, it’s a feast to the eyes. It’s also refreshing to see these heroes away from Earth for once for almost the entire run. As ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ looks to be centred around Earth, it was nice to get another cosmic adventure before everyone ends up back on our home turf. Speaking of space, I would be remiss to not mention the clear influence of James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies present here. While a winning formula for the Guardians, a focus on humour doesn’t land quite as well here, probably because the focus on the funny means that we don’t recognise our leads from their appearances in previous Avenger based romps. Some jokes are indeed excellent and had me laughing out loud, but Marvel in general needs to learn when to take itself seriously and this film is a prime example of not doing that.

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   From everything I’ve said, you probably think I didn’t enjoy ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ but I was thoroughly entertained by it. Putting aside that we were clearly watching ‘Bizzzaro’ versions of Thor, Hulk and Loki, the film does work in its own weird, surreal world. The action, as you’d expect from Marvel, is sensational and it looks the closest to reality that the studio has yet come. The tone is all around fun and if you just take it at face value, it is a lot of fun.It’s clear that everyone involved clearly had a blast making this one and that comes through in the actors performances. Ruffalo and Hemsworth have excellent chemistry and the addition of Tessa Thompson to the cast is welcome and adds a nice new dynamic that boring old Natalie Portman never did. The film also succeeds in presenting a decent villain, another struggle that the studio has fought with for years. Hera has wonderful menace and is presented as a threat on a completely different level to anything we’ve seen yet. Hell, even a living planet wasn’t able to accomplish the things she did, so kudos to the writing staff for that. As said, she does come off pretty hammy and Blanchett is clearly loving the chance to channel her inner Saturday morning cartoon villain. la-et-hc-thor-ragnarok-trailer-20170722-970x545-1

   Finally a mention of the score. In a similar vein to that Netflix tv show I’ve been so obsessed with lately, the film takes an 80’s synth approach to the score. Channeling its cheesy influences, it works well, and the use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ is awesome and succeeds at pumping up the audience even further for key action scenes.

   All in all, if there was a word to describe ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, it’d be unconventional. It’s a surreal, exhilarating and fast paced thrill ride with stunning visuals and mostly solid humour and action. While MCU purists might be disgruntled by the odd characterisations presented in these strange versions of beloved existing characters, the charming script, strong score and consistently good acting, is enough to keep you invested. Waititi clearly understands Thor and doesn’t fall into the trap of previous instalments of feeling the need to dislodge Thor from his cosmic roots and instead create a ‘fish out of water’ story on Earth. Instead, he allows his title character to fully embrace the goofy side of Marvel’s cosmic universe and without giving anything away, actually ends up changing quite a bit of the mythos ahead of ‘Avengers; Infinity War’ next year. With the Russo brothers directing, I’m sure that the third ‘Avengers’ film will take a grittier and more dramatic tone than this movie and it will be interesting to see if the Hulk and Thor keep the new personality traits introduced. All in all, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ breaks the mold; the most entertaining Thor by far.

★★★★

My top 10 favourite films (October 2018 edition)

  1. Hot Fuzz (2007, Edgar Wright)

Though some may prefer Wright’s first major hit, Shaun of the Dead or his great, later hit Baby Driver, nothing is more timeless and quotable for me than Hot Fuzz. It’s both a satire of police drama and a genius comedy within its own right. The fast-paced editing is a trademark of Wright, working beautifully here to keep a fast pace that builds to an thrilling climax simultaneously referencing foreshadowed jokes and it’s just fantastic. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost obviously put their usual great work in here, but are just the icing on the cake for an all-star British cast.

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  1. The Disaster Artist (2017, James Franco)

The newest film on my list is an example of one of my favourite genres: the biopic. Adapting the equally incredible book of the same name by Greg Sestero, Franco tells the strange tale of Tommy Wiseau himself with equal parts respect and mockery. While liberties may be taken with the plot, the spirit of the novel is portrayed fantastically and it soars above being the tale of ‘the worst movie ever made,’ becoming instead an inspiring work that urges the audience to follow their dreams with passion and tenacity, no matter how bizarre and unrealistic they seem.

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  1. The Wonderboys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

I only saw this picture for the first time a few weeks ago, but have since fallen in love, watching it several more times and reading the novel on which it’s based. Many of my favourite flics revolve around filmmaking or creative writing (go figure), so I connected with this movie. The style, the acting, the pace, all works perfectly together. Michael Douglas is likeable and empathetic as the burnt out and depressed writer and Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr, both early into their careers provide a stellar supporting cast. It leaves you with an uplifting feeling and demonstrates themes of the worry of stagnation, misunderstanding and rejection of help, perfectly.

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  1. Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding-Refn)

Though I’m not such a fan of Winding-Refn’s other work, in particular the ultra-stylised, Only God Forgives, Drive perfectly balances style and substance. Don’t let the deceptive marketing of the film fool you; it’s no action summer blockbuster. The narrative may seem slow at first, but it builds tension with a combination of phenomenal cinematography and sound editing that netted it an Oscar. Pair this with a ‘show, don’t tell’ attitude to filmmaking and an understated lead performance from Ryan Gosling and you have one of the best films ever made. The soundtrack is also awesome. Check it out.

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  1. Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

There is so much I love about Back to the Future, that it’s difficult to explain it succinctly. The Alan Silvestri soundtrack, the performances from Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd and the iconic moments including supporting characters are all highlights. But if there’s one thing that works best; it’s the script. The juggling of time travel alongside tight dialogue with quick witted jokes and memorable lines make it funny as well as dramatic. As the situation becomes increasingly stressful for Marty, we too feel the tension build as everything that can go wrong, goes wrong. Then, just as we all breathe a sigh of relief with him, we’re left with one of the best cliff-hangers in modern cinema. Sensational.

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  1. Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)

I watched this for the first time with a dreadful hangover and it still managed to keep me thoroughly engaged and invested. At first glance it seems low-stakes. A story of a music student who wants to impress an overbearing conductor with his jazz drum proficiency, battling his obscene temper and need for perfection within his pupils. The investment into character and incredible use of cinematography to build tension is what makes this film a winner, paired with a sensational lead performance from J.K Simmons who is simply electrifying in this role.

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  1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes)

Hands down, the definitive teen coming-of-age story, ever put to film. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can only be described in one word: fun. It’s a thrill ride that takes the audience on the same journey as the reluctant friend, Cameron and keeps getting crazier and crazier as the plot moves on. The ‘voice of God’ narration style, the tight humour and the incredibly iconic and memorable scenes make this the absolute definitive comedy from the 80s. For me, anyway. It’s not all just comedy though, as its exploration of the themes of growing up, confronting parents and finding your own identity are all explored beautifully here.

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  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001, Peter Jackson)

Easily the best of the trilogy in my opinion. The Return of the King is sensational, obviously, but it was clear by then that Jackson was already showing his newfound preference for CGI, becoming reliant on it. Part of what makes Fellowship so incredible for me is the amazing blend of CGI and practical effects. The use of forced perspective, the extreme close ups and slow motion in action scenes are all very indicative of Jackson’s early horror work and are used wonderfully here. Other than that, I doubt I need to explain why this film is so incredible. A flawless adaption of the source material that actually trims the fat where necessary, a truly moving soundtrack and the absolute best casting for an ensemble cast, ever. Fight me on that if you like.

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  1. Ed Wood (1995, Tim Burton)

Before Burton was intent on senselessly remaking childhood classics with an overabundance of computer effects, he created some great lower budget films in the early 90s. Ed Wood is one of these and my is my absolute favourite. A pre-fame Johnny Depp is the lead (shocker) and is, for my money, acting at his absolute best here. The story tells the tale of Edward. D Wood Jr, who you might consider the ‘Tommy Wiseau of the 50s.’ He’s infamous for crafting some of the worst movies ever made, but in the same vein as ‘The Disaster Artist’, Burton makes every character so likeable, relatable or sympathetic that you can’t help but get on board with this band of miscreants. It also has a similar message about following your passion and never letting someone corrupt your ideas. As Orson Wells tells Ed; ‘visions are worth fighting for.’ Inspiring stuff not only for filmmakers, but for anyone who wants to pursue a creative endeavour.

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  1. The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Predictable and commercial? Perhaps. But I adored this film the first time I watched it and it has only become more compelling with each viewing. In my humble opinion, it’s not only the best superhero film ever made, but is one of the greatest films ever made, period. Everything here is working simultaneously to bring the character of Batman, to a mature, mainstream audience. The themes of heroism, madness, good vs evil, tragedy and vigilante justice are presented in a film that takes a gritty, yet realistic approach to Gotham City. The action is a thousand times more coherent without the choppy editing of Batman Begins and the pace is much more methodical. The returning cast are sensational, in particular Gary Oldman and Michael Caine. But everybody knows what truly elevates this picture to legendary status; Heath Ledger as The Joker. Never had there been such a disturbed yet fresh interpretation of the character and I doubt there ever will be again. Ledger’s performance was jaw dropping and deserving of his posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. I’ve seen this movie near a hundred times and I’ll never get bored of it. For me, it is cinematic perfection.

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The Lego Batman movie (2017) review

As a 24-year-old man-child, I love Lego. I also love Batman and am a massive fan of almost all interpretations, yes, I can even tolerate ‘Batfleck’. Thus, I was excited to see what the team behind the surprisingly deep and hilarious ‘Lego Movie’ could do with the caped crusader. I was not disappointed. I haven’t laughed so hard at a film in a long time and whether you’re a long time Batman fan like me, or a casual viewer, there is plenty of enjoyment to be found for kids and adults alike in this clever, fast paced adventure-comedy.

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This movie loves to bask in self-referential humour at the expense of both properties, pulling off almost all of its jokes seamlessly. Jokes about being made of Lego, satire of wider pop culture and most amazingly of all; in jokes relating to Batman’s history on the big screen. In no world should a Batman movie with both the serious, gritty Tom Hardy interpretation of Bane and the shark repellent bat spray from the 60’s be allowed to exist. And yet ‘The Lego Batman movie’ makes it happen by creating an atmosphere that is driven purely by fun and sheer escapism. In a genius move, it also reinvigorates a tired, traditional Batman plot involving the inability to accept support and translate it in a way that is far more emotionally affective than most prior interpretations on the big screen (I’m looking at you, Joel Schumacher).

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The voice cast is extensive, eclectic and random but totally works for this kind of film. There are far too many to name, but clear frontrunners are Will Arnett, who hilariously and overtly parodies the Christian Bale style voice, a common criticism of the newer versions of the Dark Knight. I also never knew how much I needed Michael Cera as Robin. The dude is just side splittingly hilarious in every scene he’s in. Zach Galifianakis is passable as the Joker, but doesn’t give quite the large enough presence to play the crown prince of crime, coming off a little too subdued. ‘Subdued’ is not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe Zach Galifianakis. The wider supporting cast is also tremendous, though I’m hasty to comment on anything due to it drifting into spoiler territory. Just remember how many franchises Lego have available to them and imagine the most insane plot. It’s probably not as mental, yet hilarious, as this movie’s.

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Though it worked within the context of the picture, the soundtrack isn’t to my taste and mainly consists of cheesy current pop songs, or cheesy covers of older pop songs. However, they are consistent with the equally cheesy and ridiculous tone of the movie, so the soundtrack gets a pass. As a Bat-fan, I would’ve liked some orchestral allusions to the work of Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer or Shirley Walker as well as the iconic 1966 tv show theme, though I’m probably just being greedy at this point.

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In review, ‘The Lego Batman movie’ achieves what it sets out to do in spades. It’s a celebration of the entire history of the caped crusader acknowledging even the most obscure elements of the Dark Knight’s past. It perfectly satirises the darker renaissance of the post-Burton world, while also paying tribute to it. Perhaps the funniest film of last year, it relies on a sharp wit, a bright, colourful visual style that is a feast to the eyes and a brilliant use of the various intellectual properties available to Lego. It’s highly recommended to viewers of any age, but in particular to long time Batman fans who aren’t above poking fun at the sillier elements of their favourite hero.

★★★★

 

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