Toy Story 4 2019 ***

Toy Story 4 brought in a lot less than was expected at the US box office; $118 million is a huge haul, but the relative failure of the animation to draw crowds will be something of a talking point, given that Pixar’s brand is considered to be so powerful, and the franchise one of the best loved in cinema. Josh Cooley’s film is extremely well done, and doesn’t let down the series, but it is inessential; the previous trilogy wrapped up the characters, took them to the edge of extinction, and brought them back for a happy ending, with life lessons learned in time for bedtime. Toy Story 4 sets up the idea that Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Beep (Annie Potts) have an unrequired love, and that their separation is due to Woody’s loyalty to his owner, who doesn’t play with him so much. A new, home-made toy called Forky gets all the attention, and Woody and the other toys embark on various familiar heist scenarios to united the little girl with her toy. New elements, like Keanu Reeves as a Evel Knievel-style motorcycle jumper called Duke Kaboom, are great fun, and the animation is wonderful, but the bottom line is that Toy Story 4 attempts to spin out beloved characters once too many; it’s a trip to the well that wasn’t required, and the classic Toy Story characters are tarnished as a result.

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Always Be My Maybe 2019 ****

It’s not a matter for debate; Netflix have brought back the rom-com, even if it’s a slightly different beast on streaming. Always Be My Maybe is pretty much everything that’s required from the genre; two personable leads in Ali Wong and Randall Park, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Golamco, plus a well-caught San Francisco vibe, plus a scene-hogging cameo from Keanu Reeves that rocks the film for a couple of extended scenes. Always Be My Maybe is the story of two kids who grow into adults without ever properly evaluating their bond; even when they’re going out with other people, Sasha and Marcus are more able to be themselves when they’re together, and Nahnatchka Khan’s film makes the most of the unrequited confusion. There’s plenty of funny lines including ‘Famous people are different; I once saw Glenn Close eat a pineapple sandwich…’ and an ingenious scene making fun of the fancy food that hipsters eat. Seeing normal people doing relatable things in increasingly rare in cinema; Netflix’s streaming service is well served by appealingly light fare such as Always Be My Maybe.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80202874?source=35

The Gift 2015 ***

Joel Edgerton’s first film as writer/director is an accomplished psychological thriller that owes some of its dramatic heft to Michael Hanke’s Hidden, but has a deliberately off-kilter momentum of its own. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play Robyn and Simon, who move into a big house in LA. Their domestic bliss is short-lived; a chance meeting with an old friend of Simon Gordo (Edgerton) leads to a few unexpected visits, and leads Simon to the conclusion that Gordo is stalking him. The result is one of the more restrained entries in the Blumhouse canon, and better for it; Edgerton touches on issues about bullying , homosexuality and  repression while keeping a tight, believable narrative on track. The ending is a little hokey, but the slow-burn route to the climax is worth taking, with Bateman’s usual suave cool being blown and Edgerton relishing the chance to play a sinister and threatening stranger.

Wonderstruck 2017 ****

Todd Haynes is something of a mercurial talent; Wonderstruck may be one of his least seen films, but is something of a wonder. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own YA novel, Wonderstruck has twin narratives; in the first, set in the silent film era. Millicent Simmonds plays Rose, a young girl who runs away from home to spend time in the city, specifically searching for her mother (Julianne Moore) who is a successful stage and screen actress. In the second, parallel story, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 1970’s teenager who is hit by lightning and runs away from home to search for his father. He’s swiftly mugged for his cash, and ends up visiting the same museum that Rose visited decades earlier. There’s no time travel or fanciful narrative devices in Wonderstruck, but the whole picture is suffused by magic, and it’s an ideal transitory text for young people looking for something beyond fantasy. The 1920’s and 70’s eras are beautifully evoked, and the pay-off is lyrical and worthwhile. For such a good movie, it’s a shame that Wonderstuck wasn’t more widely seen, but hopefully streaming will connect it to the audience it deserves.

My Cousin Rachel 2017 ****

Rachel Weisz is the obvious and perfect candidate for the subject of Daphne du Maurier’s classic story, she’s perfected her wicked fairly god-mother routine in a number of films, and Roger Michell’s adaptation puts her centre stage. Phillip (Sam Clafin) has been raised by his older cousin, but when Ambrose dies overseas, his new wife Rachel returns to his country mansion. There’s ambiguity about Rachel’s’ intentions, does she desire Phillip, the estate, or both?  Clafin does a great job here as Phillip, managing to pin down the various stages of desire and denial as her wrestles with his feelings for his cousin, while Weisz delights in subverting expectations of who Rachel is and how she will act; the whole premise demands she maintains her ambiguity until the tragic ending,  and Weisz makes it stick. The production is suitable handsome but also atmospheric and deliberately dank; as Rachel’s scheme unwinds, the walls seem to close in on the innocent Phillip, and Michell milks the situation for every drop of cold-blooded drama.

Second Act 2018 ***

The trailer for Peter Segal’s comedy drama features Jennifer Lopez being told she’s probably too old to find gainful employment; it’s a detail that seem to run contrary to the impossibly glamorous appearance of the star here.  Maya Vargas (Lopez) is a humble Queens super-market worker who loses her job; when her nephew bigs her Linkedin profile up, Maya gets interviewed for a choice Manhattan job, and her street-smarts impress her boss (Treat Williams). Cue various adventures in marketing as Maya builds and wins a team, invents a new face-cream product, and tries to conceal her lack of academic skills from her bosses. Second Act feels like a sequel to 1988’s Working Girl, mixing you-can-do-it sentiment and a wonderfully airbrushed New York so bracingly clean you could eat your dinner off it. Second Act just about washed its face at the box office, but it’s a ripe slice of cheese, with silly pratfalls for a star who can still carry a film even at such an advanced an elderly age.

The Mule 2018 ***

Clint Eastwood’s illustrious career deserves several swan-songs; both Gran Torino and Trouble With The Curve purported to be goodbyes, but The Mule, which sees Eastwood produce, direct and star at the age of 88, gets the job done. It’s astonishing to think that the actor seen in 1955’s Revenge of the Creature is till going strong enough in 2019 to pull a project like this together, and make $100 million Stateside to boot. The Mule cannily plays off the Eastwood legend; there is violence here, but not instigated by Eastwood’s character Leo Sharp, a widower with a penchant for gardening and flowers, and need of a few bucks for his family. Nick Shrenk (Gran Torino) turns in a spry script that plays down the morality of a WWII vet running drugs, and plays up the ‘can-you-believe-this?’ angle, with Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena ideal as the incredulous lawmen on Sharp’s trail.  Throw in a couple of threesomes into the mix, plus having his camera ogle some of the female characters feel unnecessary, but at his age, it’s hard not to indulge Eastwood such grace notes; The Mule is quite a way to go.