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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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.

The Devil’s Rain 1976 ***

Not quite as much fun as the poster art suggest, Robert Fuest’s shambolic horror film is likely to confuse and repulse the unwary in its new life on Amazon. William Shatner brings all his acting talent to bear in the role of Mark Foster, who arrives at a small, deserted town on a mission to take on Corbis (Ernest Borngnine), a devil worshipper who may be the devil himself; a few shots of Borgnine with horns do little to blur the issue. A battle of wits ensue, with Ida Lupino, John Travolta, Edward Albert, Keenan Wynn and a number of other randoms looking unsure of their material before obliterated in a shower of special effects as the Devils Rain of the title causes everyone to melt. Fuest was a genre specialist (The Final Programme, two Dr Phibes films) but he was out of his depth with a variety of aging Hollywood stars slumming it in a C-grade movie. For cult completists, it is a lot of fun, and the mask used of Shatners face is the one later used for the killer in Halloween.

Love Type D 2019 ****

‘Being unlucky in love is genetic’ runs the tag-line for Love Type D, a classy film from writer/director Sasha Collington. Her anti-rom-com tells the story of Frankie (Mauve Dermody), a young woman who is unlucky in love, or so she thinks. But an encounter with Dr Elsa Blomgren (Tovah Feldshuh) suggests otherwise; the tv specialist suggests that whether you are dumped or the dumper is a matter of genetic make-up, and with this fresh info, Frankie manages to convince the others who have been regularly dumped within her office to rise up and shake off the stigma of their genetic lottery by contacting their exes and dumping them en masse. Love Type D has the kind of simple high-concept that would suit a platform like Netflix; while not exactly probable, the light fantasy of the idea is enough to see the film through, with a few genuine laughs and none of the cringe-factor associated with low-budget rom-coms. By keeping her targets specific, and refusing to give into lazy genre clichés, Collington marks herself out as a talent to watch here.

Sahara 2005 ***

Big-budget flops are par of the course of any cinematic season, but Sahara feels like something of a watershed moment; it might have been the franchise opener for a series of blockbusters featuring Clive Cussler’s character Dirk Pitt, played here with swashbuckling elan by Matthew McConaughey. But Breck Eisner’s film didn’t float many boats in 2015, which is a pity because it’s a fun is preposterous yarn. Presumably the books have less of the cheesy plotting here; watching Pitt rescue a damsel in distress via the World Health Organisation’s  Penelope Cruz, then spar with William H Macy over rescuing Africa from toxic waster spill, there’s a sense of white-saviour overdrive that never takes a break. But Sahara’s big action set pieces, great locations, rousing score and general old-school professionalism make it a nice alternative to the computer-generated murk that followed. If it’s the comedy relief that drags it down (Steve Zahn), Sahara has weathered the years far better than much of 2005 other offerings (Stealth, V for Vendetta, XXX State of the Union, Aeon Flux)

Venom 2018 ***

Ruben Fleischer’s comic-book thriller didn’t thrill critics, but audiences didn’t seem to care; the package was right for Venom, even if the film falls somewhat short. Tom Hardy is an ideal lead; often disguised in pivotal supporting roles, he’s an actor who hasn’t yet been fully exposed to the public, and has a certain mystique. That mystique vanishes quickly in venom, where he’s required to play an ordinary Joe called Eddie Brock, then forces him to mug like jerry Lewis once he shares his body with a alien creature. Venom takes almost an hour to get into gear, and the long slow burn does have some interest. Once the title character appears, Hardy steps out of the limelight to allow the CGI to perform, and Fleischer’s film is a straight-up superhero product.  It’s never a good sign when the trailer shows the film’s final scene in detail; wasting talent like Jenny Slate and Michelle Williams, Venom is a silly, childish film that’s kind of endearing for it’s daftness. While not a good film, it’s easy to see why popcorn-fanatics would still dig this kind of nonsense.

Upgrade 2018 ****

Leigh Whannell’s work on the Saw and Insidious franchise gave him a cult appeal; with Upgrade, he proved that he can mix it with the big boys, making over $50 million Stateside on a tiny budget. Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, who is involved in an accident with a driverless car and gets an upgrade on his body; Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), an eccentric tech-billionaire, persuades Grey to test out an innovative augmented body which gives him incredible strength, and sets him on a path to revenge those who he believes caused the accident.  The nature of the Upgrade of the title is fun to watch, as Grey nimbly skips from his wheelchair to literally rip thugs apart; it’s a vigilante fantasy, but it’s done with wit and verve, and the twists and turns are fun to follow. Whannell has been one to watch for a while; Upgrade in a hard-core proof of concept that indicates he’s an A-List film-maker from now on.