Toy Story 4

Cast: (voiced by) Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack

Director: Josh Cooley

Writers: Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton


In the three films that made up its near-perfect trilogy, Toy Story told what was more or less a complete story about the life cycle of a sentient toy. What started off as a pretty cute idea (what if your toys came to life whenever you left the room?) grew into something richer and more compelling by virtue of having so many characters just teeming with personality, thoughts and feelings. Over the course of the years-long span of these three movies we’ve seen Woody and the gang confront such weighty themes as growth, identity, parenthood, trauma, abandonment, mortality and transient love. It concluded with a grown-up Andy passing the toys on to another child so that their calling in life, to belong to a child and be played with, may never come to an end. It is as moving and powerful an ending as any Pixar could have dreamed up and to say that it left me satisfied would be an understatement. Thus, when I heard that a fourth movie was on its way, my reaction was apprehension and dread. Why mess with something that already ended perfectly? Why not leave well enough alone? Where else can they even possibly go with the story? Perhaps it’s the desperate move of a once fresh and dynamic company that’s struggling to offer its audience something new (of the ten films Pixar has released since Toy Story 3, six have been sequels and prequels). If there is indeed some anxiety within Pixar about the fear of becoming obsolete, irrelevant and forgotten, they’ve baked it into the very DNA of this film.

After having spent three movies exploring the emotional challenges and harsh realities of life as a toy, an immortal life of child-like dependence and parent-like nurturing that inevitably ends in relinquishment, the fourth instalment takes things a step further by delving into the theme of their very existence. What does it actually mean to be a toy? Enter Forky, a plastic spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms and popsicle stick feet brought to life by Bonnie’s imagination and desire for a friend at her new school. Forky’s defining trait as a character is his existential crisis. He was created for the sole purpose of becoming trash and keeps trying to break away from Bonnie and make for the nearest bin so that his purpose might be fulfilled. Woody however thwarts him at every turn. Forky is a toy now; he has been endowed with a consciousness and a soul by a five-year-old girl’s desperate need for a companion during a scary time in her life and Woody tries his darndest to press onto the panicky spork that it is now his duty to be there for her. Throughout this whole series all the toys we have met, both good and bad, have shared a single motivation compelling their actions at every point, the desire for a child’s love. Through Forky we are given the greatest illustration yet of how that love isn’t just what these toys yearn and strive for, it is essentially what gives them life.

That desire to be loved carries with it a desire to be needed and since being given away by Andy to Bonnie, Woody has found himself relegated to the sidelines. He clearly cares for the kid and is as determined as ever to look out for his friends, but his heroics and leadership aren’t really called for in this safe, cushy gig that they’ve landed and he’s no longer the playtime favourite. Jessie is now Bonnie’s sheriff of choice; the old cowboy tends to be left stranded in the closet most days. When Woody elects himself to join the shy, nervous Bonnie on her first day at kindergarten, it’s like he’s a grandparent intervening in his granddaughter’s life in some minor, nominal way because he misses having a small child depend on him. He means well, but it’s still more about making himself feel useful than it is about helping Bonnie. Woody is essentially a weathered old hand on the verge of retirement and he’s simply not ready to be discarded and forgotten (a fate that befalls every toy sooner or later). For an immortal being, this is as close to death as it gets short of being incinerated (as they all very nearly were in Toy Story 3). Thus, with Forky’s creation, Woody finds some purpose for himself as the self-appointed guardian of Bonnie’s new favourite but even that can only keep him busy for so long. When Woody is later reunited with Bo Peep, whose departure we see in the opening scene, and learns of the life she’s built for herself since, it’s then that he starts to wonder whether there is more to being a toy than having a kid’s name written on the sole of your foot.

It’s a tough question that Woody struggles to answer because he and so many of the other toys he’s encountered over the years have been conditioned to believe that a toy’s existence is meaningless without the love of a child. The dark side of this desire is presented in Gabby Gabby, a 1950s pullstring doll hidden away in an antiques shop. Her voicebox is broken, a manufacturing defect, and so she was rejected and stored away, left to sit and gather dust for all these decades. It’s a cruel lesson that the Toy Story films taught us before back when Woody tore his arm in the second film, that the adolescent love and adoration these toys all crave is conditional. Since no child wants to play with a pullstring doll that cannot speak, Gabby sets her sights on Woody’s voicebox when he Forky happen to wander into the shop in search of a friend. What makes Gabby a great antagonist (apart from being voiced by Christina Hendricks) is that she isn’t an outright villain in the way that Sid and Lotso were. She isn’t in herself a bad person but the years of neglect she’s suffered and the harsh belief that only true perfection will make her worthy of the affection she so despondently pines for compels her to act out in harmful ways. In meeting her Woody is treated to a dark reflection, a warning of who he might become if he allows his desire to be needed to consume him.

All of this talk about existential crises, moral dilemmas and empty futures makes Toy Story 4 sound like it could have been directed by David Lynch or Werner Herzog (either of which, incidentally, I would absolutely love to see happen). I should therefore take this chance to stress that the movie is in fact a delight to watch in all the ways Toy Story has always been. The movie is a visual splendour from beginning to end, not only in the wonderful designs it conjures up from the dark, sinister antiques shop that Gabby dominates with her ventriloquist dummy stooges (the scariest things in the film) to the colourfully resplendent fairground just across the road or in the seamless fluidity of the movements and action but also in the character animation. So many of the film’s most touching moments hit all the harder because the animators always know the exact right expression to go for to complement the performance, just as writers Stanton and Folsom and director Cooley know when to stop for a moment so that the audience has some time to take it in. Pixar remains one of the modern masters of visual storytelling and Toy Story 4 is yet another testament to them. The movie is also incredibly funny, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of such new characters as a pair of conjoined plush dolls voiced by Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele and a Canadian Evel Knievel knock-off as voiced by Keanu Reeves.

It shouldn’t be possible for a movie to be this funny and entertaining while still being this loaded with philosophy and metaphor and yet Toy Story makes it look almost childishly simple. Part of the reason it works as well as it does is due to how freely flexible so much of the subtext is. The movie is loaded with images and ideas that can be a hundred different things to a hundred different people, all of whom can impart their own feelings onto the text of the film and read it all of their subtly different ways without the movie ever seeming like it’s at odds with itself. Woody is a character so rich in personality, history and mythology that he can be whichever character the individual viewer needs him to be. When Toy Story 3 came along nine years ago and delivered not only the perfect ending to its own story but also the ending that my seventeen-year-old self needed to see at that age, I was adamant that Pixar had no business revisiting this franchise and tarnishing its legacy. Having now watched Toy Story 4 I still believe that this is a movie that didn’t need to exist, but I’m glad that it does all the same. That the 1995 animated classic grew into such a magnificent blockbuster series and has against all odds proven itself capable of evolving and reinventing itself across generations is a feat worthy of celebration. Now please Pixar, for the love of God and all that is holy, stop making these films!

★★★★★

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The Post

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer


Although it tells the story of an event that occurred over four decades ago, The Post was made very much with today’s political climate in mind. In this day and age where the President of the United States has embarked on a campaign to undermine and antagonise the media and to render the very concept of ‘truth’ irrelevant, Spielberg set out to make this film in order to illustrate the vital role that a free press plays in a democratic society. Through this story, The Post champions journalistic integrity and free speech and demonstrates the necessity of a free press to hold those in public office accountable for their actions. Its weakness is that it can feel a little on-the-nose and self-important at times. The pressure and perhaps even obligation the crew felt to make a statement is very apparent, and as a result the movie often feels more like a commentary then it does a movie. It says the right things, but not with as much feeling as I would have liked.

The Post tells the story behind the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, a collection of documents detailing the government’s secret intention to enter what they knew would be an unwinnable war in Vietnam and the truth of the disastrous progress made in the years since. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a disillusioned military analyst, leaks these documents to The New York Times who immediately begin reporting on the contents. When the courts rule that the Times must cease their reporting, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) of The Washington Post tracks down Ellsberg and gains access to the Papers. His editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to run the story despite the court ruling, but the Post’s publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is worried that doing so will lead the company to ruin. It also doesn’t help that one of the figures revealed as one of the perpetrators of the great deception is her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defence under the Johnson administration. It is up to Kay to decide whether to back down and ensure the safety of her paper and employees, or to stand up for the freedom of the press and publish the government’s secrets.

For the roles of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, Spielberg could not have picked two more beloved stars if he tried. Both Streep and Hanks are paragons of liberal Hollywood and are the perfect pair to deliver an idealistic appeal for truth, duty, and liberty. Streep comes into her own as the beleaguered Kay, the publisher of the Post who struggles to reconcile her concern for her friends and her company with her responsibility to the readers of the paper and who faces pressure from the patriarchal board that doesn’t believe her capable of doing a man’s job. She brings a quiet dignity to the character as she tries to make her critical choice pragmatically, knowing full well what others expect from her and what the consequences will be should things go badly. As far as Bradlee is concerned there is no question about publishing and Hanks plays him with grit and gravity. He believes more strongly than anyone that what they do is vital to the country whatever the price, but the film grounds him just enough so that his ideals don’t come across as naiveté. He understands full well the ramifications of what they have discovered and it takes as much of a toll on him as it does anybody, but nonetheless it is still too important to be kept secret from the public.

The Post can be a chore to sit through at times. The film is sometimes so self-indulgent in the way that Aaron Sorkin can sometimes be, so certain in its own rightness and in the absolute truth of its rhetoric, that some scenes almost feel preachy and pretentious. However, whenever the movie feels like it will become too ostentatious, it is saved by the talent of the cast and crew. Spielberg has a talent for storytelling that few other directors possess and the fluidity and focus he displays here is on par with All the President’s Men and Spotlight. His expertise in creating engaging narratives comes through and he is able to make the story feel cinematic in a non-distracting way through subtle uses of the camera and sound. The long take during Streep and Hanks’ first scene together, for example, invites us to pay more attention to the dynamic between the two than a simple back-and-forth would have done. He is aided in his tight storytelling by a superb ensemble, including the likes of Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who make every second count in their strong, concise performances.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that the attention The Post has received can be credited more to the timeliness of its message than to its individual merits, but that doesn’t mean the attention is undeserved. Although it’ll be interesting to see whether the film will remain relevant or even regarded ten years from now, that’s not for anybody to say today. We can only judge a film as it stands in the present and, at this time, The Post demands a place in the public conversation. The story it tells was made to reflect on this modern age of ‘Fake News’ and it is intended as a direct response to the attacks on the American news media over the past year. The fact that the story it tells reflects so strongly on the world as it is today nearly fifty years afters its occurrence shows that the questions it raises are far from settled. Personally I would have liked this film to speak of the world today with a little more force and bite and to have left a more lasting impression, but if The Post is fated to be remembered as a film of its moment, then it certainly chose the right moment.

★★★★

Sully

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Todd Komarnicki


In his work Clint Eastwood has shown great admiration for the everyday hero, the ones who are motivated not by glory but by duty and who go beyond what is expected of them. In his last feature, American Sniper, he dramatized the life of a Navy SEAL who served four tours abroad and amassed the greatest body count of any marksman in U.S. military history but was traumatised not by the lives he claimed but by the lives he failed to save. Here he tells the tale of a figure who performs an extraordinary feat and is then similarly haunted by how badly it all could have gone if things had happened only slightly differently. Like Chris Kyle, Sully rejects the label of ‘hero’, insisting that he was simply doing his job, as was everyone else involved in the landing and rescue that took place. In Captain Sully Eastwood has found a champion for the traits he admires (professionalism, selflessness and humility) and he uses this film to celebrate those qualities.

On January 15 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) stunned the world when, upon losing both engines on his plane immediately after take off, made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Later, after Sully has been hailed as a hero by the world, an inquiry is made looking into his actions. When preliminary data reveals that the port engine may have still been active, and thus would have allowed the plane to reach either of the two nearby airports, Sully’s judgement is brought into question. Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully’s co-pilot, staunchly defends his colleague’s actions every step of the way as the committee led by Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) contend that Sully’s actions may very well have placed over a hundred people’s lives needlessly at risk. Also lending support to Sully through this inquisition is his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney). Despite what the data and findings seem to suggest, Sully maintains that, after 40 years of flying airliners, every instinct in his body told him that landing in the Hudson was the only option available to him and seeks to prove that.

Tom Hanks is the natural choice for the role of a heroic everyman and delivers a worthy performance. The film’s version of Sully is plain-spoken, straightforward, and is able to maintain a calm composure at the critical moment of the story. Hanks plays him with conviction and dignity as a man who takes immense pride in his work and who treats the responsibility of his job with the seriousness that it deserves. When his decision is brought into question, he conveys his clear disapproval at the Safety Board’s reliance on preliminary data and computerised simulations over his decades of experience and highly-practiced instinct. Eastwood places much emphasis on the critical 208 seconds when Sully and Skiles had to assess what exactly had happened and how to respond with the lives of 155 people at stake. No type of training or simulation, Eastwood concludes, can ever account or compensate for human instinct, especially that of a veteran pilot with a long and distinguished career.

The film’s weakness is that, upon deciding that it couldn’t build its drama around an event where the audience already knew the happy outcome, tries to build its drama around the inquiry that took place afterwards instead. The central conflict thus ends up being pretty black and white with the suits of the NTSB taking a clearly antagonistic role against the idealistically heroic Captain Sully. It’s compelling, to be sure, but it doesn’t make for great drama. A point the film does convey very well is how the Miracle on the Hudson was not the accomplishment of one man but rather of everyone involved doing their jobs at the moment when it mattered most. We see the incident from many different perspectives: the co-pilot, the stewardesses, the passengers, the airline control, the coastguard, and through these varying viewpoints we see the truly miraculous part of this astonishing episode. In their moment of peril, a situation that no airline had ever anticipated before, everyone did exactly what they had to do and they all got out safely in the 24-minute rescue that followed.

Sully is an idealistic film, overly so at some points. The characters that the film wants us to like, like the passengers for instance, are a little too benevolent to come across as real people. Some of the admirations that Sully receives are also a little too on-the-nose, as with the taxi driver who saw Sully as a symbol of hope against all the other bad stuff that happened in the past few months (which he was considerate enough to list). Still, it would be difficult not to be idealistic when faced with such an extraordinary story about such an ordinary man. The film is a celebration of the men and women who perform heroic feats every day in the course of doing their jobs. Sully contemplates at one point how, after such a long and successful career, this is the flight that the world would judge him for, as if 40 years of safely transporting millions of people all over the world should count for nothing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t see himself as a hero, he is a simply a man who did his duty just like he’s always done. Sully did his job, and so have Eastwood and Hanks by making a decent film that succeeds in showcasing exactly what this story means to them.

★★★★

Inferno

Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: David Koepp


He’s at it again. For the third time Robert Langdon is drawn into a crisis with global ramifications and only by solving a trail of riddles can he save the day. SSDD. That the Dan Brown thrillers have an allure to them is beyond doubt. I was so drawn in by the historical mysteries and artistic secrets featured in his stories as a teenager that I didn’t really notice that he wasn’t a particularly good writer. There is just something so utterly fascinating about discovering that an ancient, secretive organisation like the Opus Dei or the Illuminati could have these great secrets hidden in all of these iconic buildings and works of art. Even when I began to catch on to the absurd and convoluted nature of these stories, the Ron Howard films still did a pretty decent job of making those absurdities and convolutions entertaining. With Inferno though (based on the novel that I didn’t bother to read) it got tiring. I wasn’t thrilled or mystified this time; I was bored and confused.

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), the Harvard professor of Symbology, wakes up in a hospital room with apocalyptic visions and no memory of the last few days. He discovers that the hospital is in Florence and Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) reveals that he is suffering from amnesia due to a bullet wound in the head. When the assassin Vayentha (Ana Ularu) enters guns blazing, the pair make their escape and try to work out what is happening. Among Langdon’s belongings is a small pointer that projects the image of Botticelli’s ‘Map of Hell’, based on Dante’s Inferno. This, they discover, is a clue left by Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a billionaire geneticist who believes the Earth’s growing population spells humanity’s doom. Before committing suicide, Zobrist created a lethal virus called Inferno that could decimate the world’s population. Langon and Brooks decide that they must follow Zobrist’s trail and prevent the virus from being released. On their trail is Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy), an agent of the World Health Organisation, Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), the head of an organisation that is helping Zobrist with his mission, and Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the head of WHO and an old flame of Langdon’s.

That was a convoluted summary to write. The film is just so relentless with the amount of information it dumps and the number of overlapping stories involved. Recounting the plot is a little like listening to a History professor as he drones on and on through an inexorable sequence of “and then… and then… and then…” No “but…” or “therefore…”, just “and then…” There is seldom a moment where a character isn’t running or explaining something or explaining something while running. This is true of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons as well, but those movies at least had a sense of pacing and suspense about them. Also the second movie had a skydiving Pope, so there’s that. Here everything happens at such dizzying speed that nothing is allowed time to sink in. Before your mind has the time to work out what the Horses of Saint Mark have to do with anything, a big plot twist is revealed and then the characters are on their way to Istanbul. Who knew that a confused, anxious, amnesiac Langdon with a great big pain in his head could be such an appropriate surrogate for the audience?

Hanks (minus the mullet this time) does what he does with the usual amount of wit and charm. As Langdon he is simultaneously the smartest man in the room and the approachable everyman, a balance he pulls off like no one else can. Jones is the movie’s highlight though as she plays a plucky foil to Hanks while also matching him on an intellectual level. Her character follows a wholly ridiculous arc in this film but boy does she sell it. Foster, an actor who is usually excellent at disappearing into his roles, isn’t given enough screen-time or character to put his talents to use. All he does is spout ominous lines about the disease of humanity and the end times, the sort of lines that sound great in a trailer. Irrfan Khan however might be the only member of the cast who actually understands what a ridiculous movie he’s in. Playing the prim and proper leader of a secretive organisation who may or may not be the bad guy, he’s having the time of his life.

The film is dense and insane, but then so are the two previous films. This time however it’s just too much. The complicated puzzles, the leaps in logic, the haphazard twists and turns along the way; to quote a clueless emperor in his appraisal of a genius’ masterpiece, “there are simply too many notes”. Worst of all is the climax, an entirely incoherent mess both intellectually and visually. In the struggle that ensued I resigned myself to indifference, as I had no discernable way of telling who was who or who was winning. The production is pretty great, allowing us to see some neat sights including Il Duomo, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Hagia Sophia, so audiences looking to see more of Langdon’s trademark explorations of artworks and buildings will get their fill. What they won’t get is the gripping suspense of The Da Vinci Code or the enjoyable outlandishness of Angels & Demons. What they’ll get instead is two hours of excessive running and explanation, and they will exit the film knowing less than when they entered.

★★

Bridge of Spies

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


In a year that has seen the release of many spy thrillers from Kingsman to Mission: Impossible to Spectre, Spielberg has created one of a very different kind. Instead of gadgets, stunts and explosions this film opts for an altogether more subtle, ambiguous and ominous tone as it builds its tension and suspense. The Cold War marks a frighteningly uncertain time in history when the threat of a nuclear war between two colossal nations was all too real and all it would take to set it off was a single mistake. Spielberg taps into this prospect by depicting a negotiation for an exchange between the Soviets and the USA where a single misstep could result in the deaths of the negotiators or of the subjects being negotiated. The history of war, diplomacy and espionage is Spielberg’s bread and butter and so what he crafts here is a suspenseful thriller in the way that only he could have made it.

When the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is caught by the American government, the task of representing him in a court of law falls onto James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan is a principled man with strong morals and so he feels compelled to give this man the defence to which he is entitled despite the backlash it inspires. As this is happening Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) an American U2 spy plane pilot, is shot down and captured by the Soviets. It then becomes Donovan’s job to travel to Berlin and negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. These negotiations prove difficult and dangerous for Donovan especially when he takes it upon himself to include an American student who was arrested by the East Germans in the deal. Tensions rise and grow more palpable as the three parties involved continue to dispute each other over a deal that could blow up at any second and could even escalate into something much more serious.

As opposed to the Second World War which inspired mass destruction, chaotic battles and brutal deaths, the Cold War inspired a different sort of terror. The fear, from the American viewpoint, came from the uncertain nature of the enemy, the ever-present threat of a weapon that could cause global destruction and the oppressive state of such places as East Germany. This wasn’t a world where people died, it was a world where people disappeared and were never heard from again. It is no easy task to convey that sort of dread and despair in a film but it is one at which Spielberg masterfully succeeds. Through the use of expert cinematography, production design and music, the film is able to portray a cold and harsh world where the situation of any given person is consistently uncertain and where everyone’s actions are driven by a foreboding and constant tension that has yet to yield. Spielberg however, being who he is, allows hope and valour to break in at certain points and to ultimately triumph in the film’s conclusion. Bridge of Spies is rich in its atmosphere and tone and allows for an exhilarating viewing experience.

The task of carrying this film falls onto Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Tom Hanks who shines in a role tailor-made for him. Donovan is driven by a strong conviction for justice and fairness and refuses to compromise as much as an inch. He is asked to defend a man the entire country wants to send to the electric chair and resolutely stands up for his client’s liberty and rights. He comes to Berlin to negotiate the freedom of one man and instead fights adamantly for two. At the end of the film when we are given a post-script on what happened to Donovan following his time in Berlin, the story that is provided is one that summarises this character perfectly. My favourite performance in the film however was provided by Mark Rylance who stole every single scene he was in. His simple and unassuming manner made for a wonderfully understated performance that spoke volumes in surprisingly little screen time. Abel faces a disheartening prospect where the number of possible positive outcomes in severely limited. Nevertheless he faces it in such a calm and unperturbed way that I found myself rooting for him.

There is no doubt that Spielberg is a master director but, in his post-Saving Private Ryan career, I always felt that his work as a director suffered from a lack of innovation and inspiration and thought that he ought to consider retiring in order to preserve his legacy. With this film however, and Lincoln before it, I am glad to have been proven wrong. Bridge of Spies is a moody and fascinating film with ominous undertones and masterful performances and direction. There are times when I think Spielberg’s tropes are perhaps a bit too heavy-handed and occasions when the film gets a bit preachy and idealistic for my liking but these are little more than nit-picks. Bridge of Spies is an excellent drama that delivers its suspense and thrills in a way unlike any other spy film released this year and is a fine addition to Spielberg’s filmography.

★★★★★