Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 Poster

Director: Josh Cooley

Screenwriters: Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves, and Christina Hendricks

When Toy Story 4 was announced, I was one of the first voices to express that this will be the sequel that nobody needed. I will now eat those words, as Toy Story 4 is as creative, delightful, and enjoyable as its predecessors, perhaps even a top 3 Toy Story film.

Toy Story 4 starts out in full awareness of its arrival nine years after the previous installment. Clearly, there is no expectation that a children’s film will have deep complex call backs to its previous franchise entries, but a series is a series. The film opens with a flashback from nine years ago that answers the burning question from Toy Story 3, “What happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts)?” This flashback serves as both a frame of reference for where this story is going as well as assurance that this is really the only thing you need to know about any of the previous films in order to move forward. That being said, we are then treated to a beautiful montage of events from the three previous films set to Randy Newman’s classic song “You Got a Friend in Me,” which is a nice touch.

We then move to modern day where Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang are now the property of soon-to-be-Kindergartner, Molly. Woody has fond memories of his days with Andy, but he is now in full Molly-mode working with Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) to run playtime with all the toys. Things get a little weird when Molly brings home a toy she made at school out of glue, googly eyes, a pipe cleaner, and a spork, whom she has named Forky (Tony Hale). This is the first time the Toy Story films have really ever delved into the mythology of what makes a toy anthropomorphic, but the movie does more to confuse that question than answer it. Anyway, Forky, assembled from trash more or less, believes he is just that, trash, and while Molly loves him, Forky wants nothing more than to find the nearest garbage can and jump in. These scenes are hilarious by the way, and casting Tony Hale was ideal! During a road trip with Molly’s family, Forky escapes prompting Woody to chase him down and bring him back to Molly.

What follows is an adventure much different from any of the previous films. For the first time, the toys are out in the world away from the familiarity of toy stores, playgrounds, and childhood bedrooms. This change of scenery is refreshing and revitalizing for the characters and the story in general. The Toy Story films are far from stale, but opening up the environment to the world at large offers a breath of fresh air that could keep this franchise going for years to come.

In their exploits we visit carnivals, antique stores, campgrounds, and the open road, all of which offer their own flavor of fun, humor, and heart.

Toy Story 4 does fall into this curious trend Disney and Pixar have perpetuated involving adding really creepy stuff in the midst of otherwise very palatable family fare. This time in the form of super creepy ventriloquist dummies. These things look like Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy doll mixed with Jimmy Nelson’s Danny O’Day and with a dash of the killer dummy from the 2007 film Dead Silence. Bottom line, to quote Forky, “They are terrifying.” I mentioned in my review of Aladdin from earlier this year that there’s a strange fixation by Disney for including brief unnecessary moments of nightmare quality imagery. WTF?

Image of the Benson dolls in Toy Story 4.
The new stars of your nightmares!

Anyway, thankfully, the creep-factor is easily mitigated by highly effective comedic relief. The best of which comes from the reunion of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as two sewn together carnival prizes with less than delicate plans of action.

Speaking of new characters, there are quite a few, which does impact the screen time given to old favorites dramatically. Most of the familiar characters including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to an extent take a backseat to Woody and the new crew. Fortunately the newbies are a blast, but that doesn’t take the sting out of seeing so many other characters on screen for such a short time.

All in all, Toy Story 4 is a surprisingly solid entry in the series. The change of atmosphere along with the addition of some really fun new characters gives it some edge. And while you won’t be a blubbering, bawling, wailing mess like so many of us were at the end of Toy Story 3, you will still want to grab a tissue or two for the inevitably sentimental final act that pulls hard at the voice box and heart strings. B+

Toy Story 4 is rated G and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.

John Wick: Chapter 2

jw2Director: Chad Stahelski

Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, and Laurence Fishburne

So the fact that there’s a John Wick 2 is like a surprise Christmas gift for me. I watched the original John Wick in 2014 in the same way one would watch say, any Jean Claude Van Damme movie; which is to say, with limited expectations. I was surprised, as many others were, with the craft, choreography, and cleverness that went into it and I was content with that. However, I never expected a second “chapter,” nor did I expect it to be the best movie of 2017 so far!

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a true sequel. It moves the plot forward, it introduces new characters, it broadens the world from the original, and it ups the body count…like way ups the body count. We start right where you want to start, if you recall the conclusion of the previous film, with John (Keanu Reeves) getting his car back. Still wanting, “out,” John reburies his recently resurrected hitman persona along with his small armory of tactical weaponry. He gets a new dog and is ready to return to retirement. That is until an unwelcomed caller, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives at Chez Wick with a request to hire him for a job. Of course, Wick refuses, but it turns out D’Antonio has a curious little item known in the underground hitman community as a marker. This marker was given to D’Antonio by Wick in exchange for assistance in his “impossible task” that earned him his previous retirement, and the holder has the right to demand anything from whoever granted the marker with no risk of refusal. But Wick refuses. And D’Antonio blows up his house. Thems the breaks in the hitman world.

Wick reluctantly decides to revisit D’Antonio’s request, which is a big one – go to Rome, and kill Santino’s sister Gianna to make room for him at the “table,” which is to say, the global underground hitman governing body. When things go afoul, Wick discovers a price has been put on his head, and Wick now must now search for redemption while thousands of the world’s greatest hidden assassins are around every turn looking to take him out.

What follows is a garishly fun and sadistic ride through a more realized hitman underworld. We get a deeper glimpse at the rules, regulations, and inner-workings of the ancient society. We also have almost no down time in this movie. It is action packed and fast-paced at every turn. The fighting choreography is outstanding, and even though there are numerous long-play fight scenes, none of them seem stale, each of them have tangible stakes attached to them, and they all have a creative twist that makes them unique. Take the worst action sequel in the last 5 years, A Good Day to Die Hard, and notice how spending the time to make the action work, makes the movie work! Wick’s scenes with friend turned nemesis, Cassian (Common) are especially enjoyable.

Of course with action as revved up as this, character development is the biggest casualty. There is no time for exploration of previously developed characters like Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), who make glorified cameos in this film. We get a little more of Winston (Ian McShane), but otherwise we are making way for newbies, most notably the reteaming of Reeves with fellow Matrix-er, Laurence Fishburne, who plays the local underworld Kingpin of the New York area, and who has also had some past run-ins with Wick in the old days. Also, the ancient Greek/Roman thematic motif furthered by characters named Ares, Charon, Winston, and Cassian is not lost on me, but it is a little silly.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is the blueprint for action sequels. It ups the action, and it ups the game, but it stays true to what made the original succeed. I daresay this film accomplishes its own “impossible task” of outshining its original. I am excited to see stunt coordinator turned director Chad Stahelski continue his work with creator and screenwriter, Derek Kolstad in future chapters because this teaming was flawless. I have heard rumblings of a prequel John Wick TV series, which would showcase Wick’s impossible task, and while this excites me, it also worries me. However, in this day of mixed media and the entertainment models followed by the Marvel universe, there is certainly potential for this world to continue to expand and dominate in multiple mediums! A-

John Wick is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.