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‘Toy Story 4’ is a Fitting Farewell to the Series

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Considering the depths of Hollywood greed, it shouldn’t be surprising that Disney and Pixar would feel the need to squeeze one more guaranteed success out of the Toy Story franchise. Of course, Toy Story 3 already ended on the most emotional note in the entire series, but that’s not enough to forestall a sequel. With Toy Story 4, it seems that Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the other toys have finally reached the end of their journey together. Like the entry that preceded it, the film divides neatly into an uninspired first half and a moving second half — but the movie’s best parts allow it to stand among Pixar’s greatest achievements.

Following the conclusion of the third film, Andy’s toys have found a new home, this time with a little girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). With their new home comes a new social order based on Bonnie’s toy preferences. Every day she pulls most of her toys out of her closet to play with and scatter over the floor, but Woody has found himself left behind in the closet day after day, while Buzz and Jessie (Joan Cusack) are among the lucky. Woody, though obviously disappointed, doesn’t seem to mind his daily exile too much. His place as the leader of the gang has been replaced by Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), who has been dubbed by Bonnie as “The Mayor.” She does her best approximation of the unelected office, trying to corral the other toys so that they don’t get caught.

Toy Story 4 Woody

Though Bonnie is not interested in playing with him, Woody still feels a strong devotion to her; when she experiences a bout of separation anxiety before her kindergarten orientation, he hides in her backpack to provide moral support. When she’s abandoned by the other kids during an arts and crafts session, he rescues some crayons, a red pipe cleaner, and a spork from the trash, which she crafts into a new buddy called Forky. In the world of Toy Story 4, all it takes is two googly eyes to become a sentient toy, but Forky (played impeccably by Arrested Development’s Tony Hale) can’t separate his new consciousness from his life as assorted waste. He has an overwhelming desire to jump into the nearest trash can, requiring Woody to shepherd him and fish him out whenever he goes dumpster diving. Though Hale is able to have some deeper existential discussions with Woody later in the film, at first he’s a simple (and comic) product of millennial memes about our desire for death.

When Bonnie and her family go on a road trip in a rented RV for the final week before school starts, Woody is tasked with rescuing her beloved Forky after he jumps out. He saves the former utensil, and the two even bond a bit before they make it back to the family’s next stop — a small town built around a carnival-style amusement park. But Woody is distracted by a local antique shop, which features a lamp that was once paired with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a toy he was infatuated with before she was given away years earlier. There’s no sight of her in the store, which turns out to be more sinister than Woody initially realized. It’s patrolled by a squad of creepy ventriloquist’s dummies led by Gabby Gabby, a little girl doll from the 1950s who has been exiled to the antique shop because her voice box was defective. The doll, played by Christina Hendricks, is charming at first, but a darker side emerges when she realizes that Woody dates from the same era and still has a perfectly functioning voice box.

The early sections of Toy Story 4 are almost embarrassing in their lazy nonchalance. After a brief flashback to Bo Peep’s departure that tries to ring emotion out of a relationship that was never developed (Annie Potts wasn’t featured in Toy Story 3, despite being in the first two films), the true opening doesn’t bother to tell us much about the toys or their struggles and experiences living with their new child. It’s as if the first portion of the film were just the opening to a TV sitcom; everyone in the audience knows the characters, so they can just pick up on a new adventure that will have no consequences and will be forgotten when the following installment arrives.

These early moments also get uncomfortably close to the real-life illness that has plagued Pixar since its founding. Woody’s banishment to the closet brings to mind the fate of John Lasseter, the head of Pixar who executive produced most of its biggest film successes, and directed the first two Toy Story movies. In November 2017, he went on a six-month “sabbatical” from the studio after allegations emerged of a decades-long history of sexual harassment and assault while at Pixar. During his time away, he served as a consultant before his contract was allowed to expire at the end of last year, and Toy Story 4 is his final credit with the company (original story).

It’s likely that Woody’s plight was envisioned before Lasseter was put to pasture (although it may have originated in later drafts of the screenplay), but it’s hard not to think of a powerful man finally held accountable for his actions complaining about his treatment. To make matters worse, Woody has been replaced by a capable woman (Dolly) who seems to be a more conscientious and safe leader of the toys than the fun-yet-reckless cowboy. Lasseter wasn’t replaced by a woman — though for the first time in the franchise, three women are also credited with the movie’s story (The Office’s Rashida Jones, Valerie LaPointe, and Stephany Folsom, who’s also credited with the screenplay). The years-long rollout of the film makes it unlikely that Woody’s early fate was intended as a parallel to Lasseter’s, but it still sours these early parts.

Once the film is done feeling sorry for Woody, however, it takes off. Hale brings the comedic talents he’s displayed on Arrested Development and Veep to great effect, and his delivery is matched by the pleasantly bizarre character design. Buzz Lightyear is mostly sidelined in the film, and whether that’s a result of Tim Allen’s off-screen persona over the last few years or simply a storytelling necessity, it works just fine. His own existential crisis was neatly wrapped up in the first film, and his bumbling hubris has never been as intriguing as Woody’s unabashed earnestness. Yet amid all the film’s great voice talent, the most astounding performance belongs to Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby. It’s not a spoiler to say that her warm and inviting doll becomes the Toy Story 4 villain, but she’s a surprisingly complex character who is subtler and more compelling than any previous antagonist.

Toy Story 4 Review

Aiding the performances are Pixar’s usual unimpeachable visuals. There are a number of landscapes in the film that one wouldn’t even know were computer generated if seen in isolation. And cinematographers Jean-Claude Kalache and Patrick Lin, credited with “lighting” and “camera,” respectively, create gorgeous textures out of sunbeams in the dusty antique store and the kaleidoscopic lights of the fairground.

Toy Story 4 doesn’t hold up to the first two films in the series, and it’s not quite as tear-inducing as the third entry, but it’s a fitting ending (although plenty of people thought that about the last one). However, this time feels like it really is the end, and any future entry would require some heavy lifting to get all the toys back together again. Hopefully Pixar can quit while they’re ahead and focus on whatever their next success will be. Woody has earned this ending, and attempting to retroactively change that would only be a betrayal.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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