TOY STORY 4: 4 STARS
"Toy Story 3" seemed like the end of the line for Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Company. Andy, the young boy who loved and cared for them (just as much as they loved and cared for him) put away childish things and headed off for college, leaving his toys on the curb. As it turns out, the end of their time with Andy was the beginning of a new life with spunky five-year-old Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).
These days, Woody (Tom Hanks), the gangly pull-string cowboy doll who was Andy's favourite, sits unloved and unused in Bonnie's closet. He may be gathering dust bunnies but he takes his job very seriously. Woody passionately believes that he and the other toys play a crucial part in the upbringing of their child, so when it comes time for Bonnie to go to orientation day at kindergarten he tags along. When a boy bullies her, taking away her arts-and-craft supplies, Woody leaps into action, rescuing some crayons and odds and ends from the garbage for her. Brushing aside her tears she makes a toy out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, some googly eyes and a wooden ice cream spoon. She names it Forky (Tony Hale) and soon they are inseparable. Trouble is, Forky is in the midst of an existential crisis. "I am not a toy," he says, "I belong in the trash." When Forky gets loose during a family road trip, Woody sees it as his duty to track him down and return him to Bonnie. With the help of pals Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), goofy T-Rex (Wallace Shawn) and others including a doll with a broken voice box (Christina Hendricks), Woody goes on an adventure and learns what it really means to be a toy.
Like the other entries in the "Toy Story" franchise, "4" doubles down on themes that other recent kid's films have taken pains to avoid. Loss, moving on, unrequited love (yup, toys can fall in love) and good vs evil sit alongside the more traditional leitmotifs of friendship and loyalty. The movie can't really be described as dark, although the ventriloquist dummies are the stuff of nightmares, but it has a level of emotional maturity that is part of Pixar's trademark.
Part of that is likely due to the investment we have in these characters. Adult members of the audience have been watching these films for twenty-five years, literally growing up with Woody and Buzz and the kindly voicework that comes along with them, particularly from Hanks whose voice has the same effect as a cuddly warm blanket. As animated characters they are free to explore deeper emotional troughs, I think, because they look like toys. If this wasn't animated, if the characters weren't made of rubber and plastic, their travails may not be lessened but they might be less palatable for kids.
The main story focuses on Woody and his self-realization but he's supported by a raft of new characters. Keanu Reeves plays Duke Caboom, a small plastic motorcycle daredevil from Canada (Who's the Canuck with all the luck? Who's the greatest of the Great White North?). He's heroic in his own way, a wannabe champion with a funny and (here's that word again) poignant backstory.
Forky's journey is McGuffin that drives the plot forward. The story isn't really about him but his search for purpose is a good fit for the "Toy Story" universe. Hale's voicework brings a fun sense of confusion — Forky is a Frankenstein character, a child discovering the world — that keeps his character interesting and amusing.
Best of all is Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, the vintage doll who was "defective out of the box." She has the widest arc of any of the characters, (MILD SPOILER) from villainous to sympathetic, and the tone of Hendricks' voice is both menacing and doll-like.
"Toy Story 4" doesn't feel like a classic in the same way the original did (and still does) but the laughs and the heart-tugging moments feel earned because Pixar place story and character ahead of the frenetic action so often showcased in other films for children. It is essentially an action/adventure movie, less complex than "1," "2" and "3," but there is an undeniable poignancy and yes, adult fans may even shed a tear or two as the long running story comes to a conclusion.
CHILD'S PLAY: 3 ½ STARS
"Something is wrong with Chucky," says 13-year-old Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) in the new horror movie "Child's Play." Anyone who grew up in the ten-year Classic Chucky era — 1988 to 1998, from "Child's Play" to "Bride of Chucky" — knows exactly what is wrong with the cute red-haired Chucky "Good Guys" doll; that he is actually a murderous piece of plastic containing the soul of a serial killer. Seven movies, a television series, comic books and video games later comes a new Chucky menace, starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Hamill as the voice of the killer doll.
Plaza is Karen Barclay, a widower and mother of Andy. Looking to make a new start in a new town they relocate. "I know this move has been really tough," she says to him, "but you said you were going to try and make new friends." To help smooth the transition Karen buys Andy a new toy, a robotic Buddi doll that can connect to and control everything. "Remember, it's refurbished," she says, "so it may not work perfectly."
The two become BFFs but playtime comes to an end when strange, deadly things start happening. As the bodies pile up Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry) believes the boy and not the toy may be behind all the trouble.
"Toy Story" this ain't.
"Child's Play" takes liberties with the ideas from the original Chucky movies but retains the silly slasher fun that made this franchise so much fun in the first place. By cleverly updating the Chucky's possessed scenario to involve technology gone amok, it's a clever, blood-splattered commentary on our reliance on social media to fill a gap left by personal relationships. Add to that some 80s gore-inspired effects and a "Goonies" style cast of supporting characters and you're left with a film that rides the line between retro and completely up to date.
WILD ROSE: 4 STARS
Playing an aspiring country-and-western singer in "Wild Rose," "Chernobyl's" Jessie Buckley embodies the elements that lay at the core of the music. It's a breakout performance that delivers sincerity, heartache and most of all authenticity.
Set in Glasgow, the coming-of-age story focuses on Rose-Lynn (Buckley), a young mom with dreams of going to Nashville to become a country singer. "There's nothing for me here," she says of her hometown. "There I can hone my craft. I want to use my talent." She's so devoted to country music she even has a "three chords and the truth" tattoo on her arm.
But her life contains as much struggle and bad luck as the country-and-western lyrics she loves so much. As an ex-con, she also has an electronic ankle bracelet and can't leave her apartment after dark, making booking gigs next to impossible. Her two kids barely remember her and only speak to her when forced, they're being raised by Rose-Lynn's mother Marion (Julie Walters), who scolds her daughter, "You don't stick at things."
During the day Rose-Lynn works, cleaning the house of Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), a rich woman who is very taken with her employee's spunky attitude and beautiful singing voice. With her help Rose-Lynn may finally see her dreams come true and begin a journey of true self-discovery.
Part "A Star is Born" and part family drama, "Wild Rose" is a low-key story of over-coming adversity. Rose-Lynn may be her own worst enemy, refusing to take responsibility for her lot in life, but ultimately, she aspires to improvement for herself and her family. Without that this kitchen sink drama of musical boot strapping would be too downbeat. Instead we meet someone, beautifully played by Buckley, taking the hard road to personal success.
The movie is a showcase for Buckley, who impresses both when she's singing and when she's not. First, the voice. She can belt it out with the best of them but it's the moments where she brings it down, gracefully and emotionally delivering Wynonna's "Peace in this House" ballad, that she reveals the depth of her talent. It's a heartbreaker and she breathes life into it; no frills, just raw emotion.
She manages to make Rose-Lynn compelling, flaws and all. Impulsive, she puts her wants and musical ambition ahead of everyone, including her kids but in her self-aware moments Buckley allows us to understand that it's not simply irresponsible behavior that landed Rose-Lynn in her current situation but her inability to balance her dreams with her reality, desire with duty. She's messy and often gets in her own way but despite all that Buckley's charisma makes us root for her.
"Wild Rose" is very specific in its Glasgow setting — the accents may be a bit daunting for the uninitiated — but like the songs Rose-Lynn loves so much, it deals with universal themes of regret, love, family and redemption. You don't have to be a country fan to like the movie, it wouldn't hurt, just a fan of raw, emotional storytelling.
ANNA: 1 ½ STARS
In a summer packed with sequels comes a movie that isn't a sequel but feels like one. "Anna," the new action-adventure from writer-director Luc Besson, is a new story but breathes the same air as fist-in-the-air Luc Besson thrillers like "La Femme Nikita" and "Lucy."
Here's the barest of outlines. Anna (Sasha Luss) is a former prostitute saved from a life on the streets when she's recruited by the KGB. Her handler Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) admires her calm under pressure, smarts and the way she uses her anger. She's also, he says, "a blank key that can open many doors." In other words she's a beautiful unknown who is not in the radar of their enemies.
She signs on, becomes a killing machine and, in one elaborate mission, is scouted as a high fashion model by a prestigious Paris agency. Cue the modelling, mayhem and murder. When a job goes wrong she finds herself caught between the KGB and the CIA. Working one against the other she attempts to get the one thing she's never had, freedom. "Is this my life," she wonders aloud, "waiting to take a bullet between my eyes?"
"Anna" plays with time. The presentation of the story can't rightly be called a broken timeline as much as a shattered, twisted and torn timeline. Besson loves his "Five Years Earlier," "Six Months Later" and "Three Years Earlier" title cards to the point of distraction. H. G. Wells didn't tinker with time as much as Besson does here. "Memento" seems linear by comparison. What is meant to be a playful storytelling device bogs the movie down to point of narrative puzzlement.
Besson, who was accused of sexual misconduct in 2018 (BTW he "categorically denies these fantasist accusations."), has clearly tried (and failed) to address the #metoo movement in "Anna." Anna gets violent with a fashion photographer who bears a striking resemblance to Terry Richardson and one of her KGB handlers tells her, "Never put your faith in men Anna. Put faith in yourself." It would even likely the pass the Bechdel Test—does a film feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?—but despite cursory acknowledgements it still manages to wring the misogyny out of what should have been a female empowerment tale.
Besson has a habit of making films about female assassins — see "La Femme Nikita," "The Professional and "Lucy" — but "Anna" suggests he has nothing left to say on the topic.