TOY STORY 4**** To Infinity…


AS IF TO prove definitively just how relative time is, Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel a day older than the original Toy Story that was debuted waaay back in 1995.

This final version of the trilogy (only in Hollywood do trilogies come in four’s) feels as fresh, as delightful, as startlingly original, as magically well crafted as the original. From the moment that bouncing Pixar lamp stamps down on the “I”, you sit back and wallow in the 100 minute treat that follows.

The story deals (as usual) with our need to be loved in order to feel complete, via various detours that explore ideas of loss, loneliness and, what with a spork that thinks it’s no more than trash, identity. It follows Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang’s adventures as they try to find and rescue, Forky, the spork (Tony Hale from Veep). This toy that thinks it’s just trash, belongs to their owner, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) a lonely, similarly lost kid. It’s during her first traumatic day at school that she manages (with the secret helping hand of a paternal Woody) to create Forky. He’s a cock-eyed, ugly concoction of a spork and some pipe cleaners. Ugly he may be, but to Bonnie, Forky’s a warm, comforting BFF and companion…which naturally comes as alive, along with all the others, once she’s out of sight.

Woody’s rescue heroics takes him on a journey where he meets a few wonderful new creations – Duke Caboom, a Canadian stunt rider hiding his insecurities under slapstick braggadocio (Keanu Reeves in spirited form), a crazed doll desperate for love (Bonnie Hunt) and her henchmen, several (kids close your eyes now) demon puppets – and a joyous reunion with Bo-Peep (Annie Potts). This long lost flame of Woody’s is pure take-charge action gal. With her as his new companion, we know he’s in safe hands.

Writers Andrew Stanton (Finding Dory) and Stephany Folsom along with production designer Bob Pauley (Cars) and the CGI magicians at Pixar who’ve visualized these enduring characters, have, over the multiple iterations of the tale, consistently upped their game. Woody and the gang pull off the impossible balance of being quite clearly toys but also very identifiably real people. And director Josh Cooley’s visual pyrotechnics are unmatched; there are a number of breathtaking action scenes as exciting as any Marvel extravaganza. And it’s all delivered in a spirit of good humoured, often laugh out loud joyfulness.

What a marvellous antidote to these dark days of climate breakdown and Trump.

 

TOY STORY 4. Dir: Josh Cooley. Writers: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom from an original story by John Lasseter, Valerie LPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack and Martin Hynes. With: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Bonnie Hunt. Production Designer: Bob Pauley. Art Director: Laura Phillips

 

LATE NIGHT***Satire + Treacle


LATE NIGHT TELLS the story of Katherine Newbury, an English female late night TV host (Emma Thompson) whose ten year slide in ratings threaten her show, her job, and for that matter, her (haughty, self-obsessed) sense of self. The Katherine Newbury show is accused of hosting boring guests, with a dull lead-in joke routine and, worse, she’s accused of hating women. The heart of the problem is that Katherine and her program have lost touch with its audience. She has simply not moved with her audience’s times.

High drama for an often sharp comedy!

And because it’s a comedy (written by the increasingly popular Mindy Kaling), it’s allowed the plot device of introducing Molly Patel (Kaling) into the all-male, generally misogynistic, sycophantic writers bull-pen.

The introduction of a woman of colour (and an inexperienced one at that) into an all white, male writer’s team, is almost as fanciful as the idea of a female late night host on American TV. No matter, it allows the writer a wonderful opportunity to skewer the status quo (that’s killing the show): that of the entitled White male, their casual racism and their outright hostility toward any woman taking a ‘man’s job’… led by a management style (Katherine’s) based on insult and intimidation (see The Devil Wears Prada for a primer)

These are the attitudes that feed and form the show’s (or for that, read, ‘any company that resembles this profile’) increasing irrelevance.

Nothing a little “diversity” can’t solve. Apart from a healthy dollop of naïveté and chutzpah, it’s Molly’s common touch that helps re-acquaint Katherine and the writers with the daring and the authenticity that once honed their relevance and wooed their audience.

Emma Thompson is, as usual, superb. With minimum words and with the barest of expressions, she allows us in to her character’s vulnerability despite the hard protective shell of her cold-hearted bitchiness. John Lithgow is compelling as her quiet, ailing husband. He’s the solid anchor, the forgiving counterpoint to help steady his younger wife’s hard edges and career implosion.

It’s often a well-written, enjoyable movie; often funny; often sharply insightful and snappily directed by TV director Nisha Ganatra (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dear White People).

But about half-way through, in a need to tie things up neatly, the movie looses its self confidence. The writer shies away from the truth of her, cynical, insights, to force a Hollywood gloss on things. The introductory scenes of hard-edged satire veers into emotional mawkishness. There’s a treacly rom-com-esque silliness that suggests a writer as desperate as her lead character to do anything for the approbation of her audience.

And that’s a pity. Mindy Kaling (writer: The Office; actor: Oceans Eight) is a fine up-and-coming talent. She needs a few more lessons from the likes of Armando Iannucci or even Neil Simon to add a little spicy pepper to neutralize the cloying sweetness.

 

LATE NIGHT. Dir: Nisha Ganatra. Written by: Mindy Kaling. With: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgoe, Reid Scott (Veep), Dennis O’Hare (The Good Fight). Cinematographer: Matthew Clark

 

ROCKETMAN*** From sinner to saint in two hours


ROCKETMAN IS A well-made, delightfully enjoyable minor movie. After all, how bad can any movie be that features so many tunes that were the sound tracks of so many lives. Elton John’s music, like that of Bohemian Rhapsody’s (another movie buoyed up by the music) remains brilliantly evergreen.

The movie, that genuflects at every turn to Mr. John, veers maddeningly from the brilliant to the boorish, as it tracks the singer’s journey from unloved child through years of drug and alcohol abuse to glorious redemption.

We first meet Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed as a glittering rhinestone devil. And we leave his story with the unambiguously hagiographic worship of his philanthropic generosity, his limitless love for David Furnish his partner and Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and of course his beautiful blonde kids.

The sinner has turned saint.

When it’s not in the puppet-master hands of the Elton John PR machine, director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) pulls of the remarkable feat of cleverly balancing campy melodrama with an old fashioned song and dance musical (Some of the numbers seem directly lifted from The West Side Story) made with a stage version squarely in mind.

And, at this level of mindless entertainment, it works.

Elton John’s ability to conjure music out of nowhere (with Bernie Taupin’s extraordinary lyrics as the catalyst) remains a joy. And I wish more were made of the sheer magic of these moments of creation. The music, and especially Taupin’s lyrics, drives the story forward. They underline and interpret the ever-varying phases of John’s emotional pulse (And now I finally understand what “Yellow Brick Road” is all about). Apart from a plot-structuring device, Taupin’s lyrics are an intelligent way of showcasing how you can never really separate the artist from his creation. (Though I missed the pleasure of simply sinking into the music…allowing it to breath and live its own life without the need to peg it to a storyline)

The story itself is woven around the theme of the life enhancing centrality of love (Having been denied the love from his parents as a child, Elton must (re) learn how to love himself before he can find the true love of others. The fabricated persona, Elton John, must embrace the real person, Reginald Kenneth Dwight as part of his healing process).

We learn of the singer’s life-journey through a series of extended flashbacks during his AA sessions (after he’d finally hit his drug addled, alcohol deranged bottom)

As the singer, Taron Egerton (Robin Hood, Kingsman), who did his own singing, is, like his imitation of John’s voice, credible. But (since the comparison must be made) he has none of that X-factor magnetism that Rami Malek brought to his interpretation of Freddie Mercury. In that story, producer Brian May wanted a feel good movie that celebrated the self destructive tragedy of Freddie Mercury…by avoiding too many of the gay, nasty bits. Rocketman wallows in the nasty bits in order to deliver its feel good value with the reassurance that “It all ends happily after”

I’m not sure I quite believe either.

The movie pretends to be a psychological study of the singer…how his demons and his fears shaped his descent into ‘madness’. It’s not. The use of John’s confessions during his AA sessions is a lovely structural device. But it’s not much more than that: a device.

The stand out presence on the film though, is that of Richard Madden (Bodyguard, GOT) who up until now has been pretty much no more than a handsome one-note star. However Madden’s John Reid (Elton John’s manager and lover) is seductive, charming, devious, underhand and Machiavellian. It feels as though with him (and what seems like real bad blood with Elton John) the writer (Lee Hall: Billy Elliot) was given a much freer hand.

So, in summary. Rocketman is a mixed bag. This is a movie with none of the five star gravitas of some of those great movies about musicians (Jamie Foxx’ Ray for instance). But it’s a well done, reasonably serious, joyous romp.

 

ROCKETMAN. Dir: Dexter Fletcher. With: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Stephen Graham. Writer: Lee Hall. Costume Designer: Julian Day (Bohemian Rhapsody. Robin Hood). Cinematographer: George Richmond (Tomb Raider, Kingsman)