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Toyland Weekend at the Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden Toyland Weekend at the MoviesPhoto still from "Toy Story 4," via IMDb.
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Whether you’re more interested in Sheriff Woody’s existential crisis or Chucky’s needy bloodlust, your doll fetish is covered. I think the important thing to keep in mind is that one of these films is nearly perfect. Which one, I wonder?

Toy Story 4

by Hope Madden

Almost 25 years ago, Pixar staked its claim as animation god with the buddy picture masterpiece Toy Story, where Tom Hanks and writer/director John Lasseter taught the world how to create a fully developed, nuanced and heartbreaking animated hero.

Woody and Buzz returned twice more over the next 15 years, developing relationships, adding friends, enjoying adventures and life lessons all the while creating the single best trilogy in cinematic history.

And a lot of us wanted them to stop at 3. Is that partly because Toy Story 3 destroyed us? Yes! But also, it felt like a full story beautifully told and we didn’t want to see that completed arc tarnished for profit.

Toy Story 3 made an actual billion dollars.

Profit calls.

Right, so let’s drop in and see how the gang is doing. Woody (Tom Hanks in the role he was born to play) loves Bonnie, the youngster who inherited the ragtag group of toys when Andy left for college and we left the theater racked with sobs. But the cowboy just doesn’t feel the same sense of purpose.

Enter Forky (Tony Hale, who could not be better), a spork with googly eyes, hand-made and much-beloved friend to Bonnie. Forky longs for the trash, and Woody takes it upon himself to make sure Forky is always there for Bonnie. But when Bonnie’s family rents an RV for an end-of-summer road trip, Woody finds it tough to keep his eyes on the restless refuse — especially when a roadside carnival offers the chance to reconnect with old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

Will Woody cast aside Forky, bestie Buzz (Tim Allen) and gang to rekindle something lost and taste some freedom?

Josh Cooley (who co-wrote Inside Out) makes his feature directorial debut with this installment. He also contributes, along with a pool of eight, to a story finalized by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (his credits include the three previous Toy Story films) and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom.

The talents all gel, combining the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.

Between Forky’s confounded sense of self and Woody’s own existential crisis, TS4 swims some heady waters. These themes are brilliantly, quietly addressed in a number of conversations about loyalty, devotion and love.

This somewhat lonesome contemplation is more than balanced by the delightful hilarity of new characters Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, respectively).

And the creepy yet tender way villains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her posse of ventriloquist dolls are handled is as moving as it is funny.

Characteristic of this franchise, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious (keep an eye on those Combat Carls), and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films this summer. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.

Grade: A+

Child’s Play

by Hope Madden

You have to give it to the marketing team saddled with Lars Klevberg’s reboot of Child’s Play.

First came the trailers. You couldn’t see the doll, but you heard that old TV theme song, “People let me tell you ‘bout my best friend! He’s a warm boy, cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy…”

Creepy.

And then the posters. You know, still no Chucky doll in the frame, but a ripped-to-shreds cowboy doll splayed across the ground.

Well, pardner, Sheriff Woody’s got the last laugh because Child’s Play the film is not 1/10th as inspired as its marketing. It’s a tedious time waster uninterested in plumbing any of its possible themes — single parenthood, poverty, loneliness, tech — for terror. Instead it goes for the obvious prey and hopes star power will blind you to its ordinariness.

Discount those straight-to-video installments in the series if you will (and honestly, you probably should), but at least they each tried to do something different. At some point they embraced the ridiculousness of this itty, bitty freckle-faced problem and just ran with it.

Not this time. Nope, what we have here is one deadly serious and wildly unimaginative reboot. Hell, the doll doesn’t even look good!

And yet, Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry and Mark Hamill all signed on to star in what amounts to the 8th Chucky film.

Why?

It’s not the concept. The possessed doll conceit has been updated from the soul of a serial killer to modern technology. Imagine if google home required a super creepy doll in bib overalls to work. Admittedly, there are all sorts of Terminator/Maximum Overdrive/Demon Seed possibilities here, all of which are left entirely unmined.

Instead it’s just a defective AI doll (voiced by Hamill himself), birthday gift from a department store clerk (Plaza) to her lonely but clearly too old for the toy son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman, quite good, actually).

They’re all good, especially Henry. Too bad the film doesn’t deserve it. Aside from one kill inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (nice!), and performances that are all better than the material, the new Child’s Play is a pretty tedious affair.

Grade: D+

Anna

by George Wolf

After films such as La Femme Nikita and Lucy, writer/director Luc Besson is no stranger to the “beautiful killing machine” genre, but it seems the sexual treachery of Red Sparrow and the ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde have inspired him to get back in that familiar saddle.

His Anna is built on the same sexy Russian assassin blueprint, then adds layers of confusing time shifts, obvious fake outs, and misguided feminist ambitions, all wrapped in a constantly leering camera gaze.

Anna (Sasha Luss, back with Besson after Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) is plucked from Russian poverty by agent Alex (Luke Evans) and groomed for the spy game by the humorless Olga (Helen Mirren).

Anna’s cover is her job as a high fashion model, and guess what’s this season’s hottest accessory?

Big silencers, slowly screwed on big guns that are framed just so against Anna’s lingerie-clad pelvic region. Subtle.

Check that, it really is, next to the roommate (Lera Abova) whose only purpose is to ask Anna for girl on girl action, and the CIA agent (Cillian Murphy) whose codename must be Dog in Heat.

And yet through all the bad writing and contrivance, Anna’s true ambition never wavers. She asks only for a freedom she has never known, freedom from a world that only uses and objectifies her at every turn.

And then pot and kettle lived happily ever after.

Grade: D-

The Spy Behind Home Plate

by George Wolf

Two movies about Moe Berg in the last 12 months? What gives?

And who’s Moe Berg?

Decades before Austin Powers, Morris “Moe” Berg was an international man of mystery. A 15 year veteran of the Major Leagues, Berg was also a Princeton grad, a voracious reader with a photographic memory who clung to his privacy. He was a lawyer, a quiz show champion and an international spy who was once dispatched on a WWII kamikaze mission to assassinate the head of Germany’s nuclear research program.

Astounding stuff from a guy who, according to baseball legend Casey Stengel, “Could speak seven languages, but couldn’t hit in any of them!”

Just last summer, Paul Rudd played Berg in the enjoyable but underseen The Catcher Was a Spy. Now, documentarian Aviva Kempner brings a no-frills, uber-informative approach to uncovering the real Berg with The Spy Behind Home Plate.

Kempner (Rosenwald, The Life and Times of Hank Grennberg) unveils a succession of talking heads joined by wonderful archival stills and videos. Perhaps to mirror her subject, Aviva’s film is short on style, but its substance is extra innings worthy.

As unbelievable as Berg’s story is, the dry presentation doesn’t do much to entice the casually interested. But if you find these undertold slices of history fascinating, you’ll be hooked enough to want to seek out Rudd’s version next.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:

Agent Sai Srinivas Athreya (NR)
The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir (NR)
Ghost Fleet (NR)
Kabir Singh (NR)
Nightmare Cinema (R)
Sindhubaadh  (NR)
This One’s for the Ladies (NC-17)

Read more from Hope and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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