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.


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 Old Man & the Gun 2018 ***

Robert Redford is a beloved actor who deserves a rousing send-off; director David Lowrey already have Redford a warm goodbye in the charming reboot of Pete’s Dragon, but crafts a more specific farewell with The Old Man & the Gun. Based on a true story, it’s the story of a ageing, mild-mannered bank-robber named Forrest Tucker, who just keeps on returning to the well, even though the cops (in the form of Casey Affleck) are on his trail. This is one of these films that treat beating the system as a triumph of the human spirit, and Tuckers’ exploits are presenting as a near harmless pursuit. Tom Waits and Danny Glover contribute some minor portraiture as two of the gang, and Redford has a  nice romantic line with Sissy Spacek. The Old Man & the Gun feels like it was deliberately constructed to remind audiences of Redford’s best work, from The Sting to Three Days of the Condor, and even though it ended up being overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s The Mule at the Christmas box-office of 2018, it’s a fitting farewell to one of cinema’s titans.

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.

School for Scoundrels 1960 ***

While fairly tame even for 1960, School for Scoundrels is an interesting time-capsule that reveals quite a bit about British comedy and Britain before the swinging sixties got into full swing. Ian Carmichael plays Henry Palfrey, a decent chap who finishes last; Terry Thomas is ideal as Raymond Delaunay, the kind of bounder who always finishes first. Our hero attempts to learn the tricks of the trade by enrolling in the College of Lifemanship, where Alastair Sim is on hand to deal out lessons.  The contest between the men is on strictly misogynist lines; having the best car, winning at tennis and getting clothes off girls (namely Janet Scott) are the main objectives, and aside from a late and decidedly half-hearted climb-down, there’s no real analysis of whether cheating is acceptable or not. All the players are excellent, and Dennis Price has a great bit as a car salesman; if you can look past the cursory treatment of women, there’s a revealing picture of just how square a self-centred male culture could be.

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.

When They See Us 2019 ****

The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome.  This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives.  White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.