How Are We Alive (Toy Story 4, 2019)

Toy_Story_4_PosterHonestly, the Toy Story films are something rare.  Never feeling like a cash grab when you actually watch them, they stand together in a way other animated franchises rarely do….even from Pixar.

Each film finds some new approach to its characters, new and thoughtful hopes and fears. And this time it is no different.  Though, the big questions are…well bigger.

Before the story begins proper, the film addresses why we did not see Bo Peep in the third film.  Granted, Bo is mentioned in a moment of that film as having been given to a new home, but here we get an action packed opener set several years ago, when the toys were still Andy’s.  Unlike the previous two films, which showed us Andy’s imagination, this sequence is the toys trying to save another toy in danger of being lost in a storm. This sets Bo up as being a bit more action oriented, since in earlier films, she is never given a lot to do, other than be the presumed love interest of Woody.

Everyone is shocked to find Bo is being given away, as Molly (Andy’s little sister) no longer is interested her. Bo tells Woody it will be okay and then the film picks up present time, with young Bonnie terrified of her first day at Kindergarten.  Against everyone’s recommendations, Woody stows away with Bonnie. At school, she creates a little friend she nicknames Forky.  When Woody sees how much joy he brings Bonnie, he becomes convinced he must protect Forky at all costs.

When the family takes a road trip, Woody and Forky become separated, they run into several obstacles when trying to get back to the family.

And honestly, the film works most of the time.  What happens to lost toys? Well, here we see a whole tribe under the loose care of Bo Peep.  I liked this adventuresome Bo Peep who represents a possibility that has never occurred to Woody.

There are also a lot of fun new characters, such as Duke Caboom and Giggle McDimples.

The biggest problem of the film is its central conflict character. Gabby Gabby is set up right away as a dark character.  We eventually learn the reasons why, and unlike Lotso in part three, she is offered a redemptive arc. Unfortunately, it is so rushed that it makes things very problematic.  I was not sure initially if it bothered me…but how it plays out could have been done in such a better way.

However, largely, this film is very entertaining and many times managed to tug at my heart strings more than once.  I liked the characters and had a good time overall.  This is not a quartet of near perfect films due to a few issues with Toy Story 4, but it is a pretty solid set of films. Toy Story 4 could have used another pass, but it is a strongly entertaining film.

Don’t Trust Yourself (Us, 2019)

But I care about love
I care about truth
And I care about trust
And I care about you
I care about us

~Michael Been, Us, On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, 1994

Us_PosterGet Out made people step back and reassess their perception of Jordan Peele.  Known for his comedy work, the biting horror thriller that took aim at white liberal racism, viewers took notice.  For a lot of this, that made us want to see what came next.  And the fact that he had more ideas in the realm of horror no longer seemed a question.

Going deeper down the horror rabbit hole, Us tells the story of young Adelaide. In the eighties, her parents take her to the Santa Cruz beach. She wanders away from her parents and enters a strange hall of mirrors. There, she meets a little girl who looks exactly like her. She is traumatized by the event.  The film picks up years later with Adelaide, now married to Gabe, on their way to the family cabin with her children. When they go to the beach, her son Jason disappears briefly, causing a dread in Adelaide.  And with good reason.  That night, they find themselves under siege by…themselves.  A warped set of duplicates seemingly full of malicious intent.

Saying much more just gives away the film.  Astute viewers will likely start to put things togethers fast and start seeing where the story is going. Others will be blindsided.  Unlike Get Out, Peele has formulated a far more… complex plot.  The twists and turns start coming fast after the initial frights of the home invasion.

Peele has a terrific eye, and the film is a visual feast.  There is, for instance, a really nice arial shot looking down on the family as they walk along the beach, attached to their shadows. He and his team of film makers use light and shadow masterfully to create discomfort and fear. In one scene, a person appears from the shadows of the background seamlessly.

You cannot ignore the performances here.  Everyone has a dual role…and pretty much everyone gets to shine. The doppelgängers are chilling in their simple outfits and creepy makeup. Lupita Nyong’o is especially compelling, with her dual role.  Red speaks in a disturbed creaky voice and moves in ways that are psychologically unnerving.

One of the things that makes the film so effective is how much I found myself liking the family.  They draw you into their world making it impossible not to become invested in their survival.

Some have suggested Us marks the reveal that the director Peele most reflects is M. Night Shyalaman.  And while I did not really see it in my viewings, I get what people are saying, mainly in the fact that this is a film with some big ideas that then throws a lot of twists and turns, yeah. But I am inclined to agree with the people who are saying this is a good thing, that this shares more in common with Shyalaman’s best work.

People who are bothered by smaller questions with struggle hard here.  The film aims big, but leaves some stuff off.  Because, honestly…where do the doppelgängers all get their matching red outfits is not important to the story.

Us is a terrific follow up to Get Out, and Jordan Peele has delivered a new an original vision.


Black Fears (Horror Noire, 2019)

Horror_Noir_PosterWhen you think of horror, it can often seem like people of color don’t exist. The Universal classics were devoid of black people. And even when they were present, they were violent savages (1933’s King Kong).

But Horror Noire looks deeper into the presence of the black community in horror films.  It is not really hard to find black horror fans today. And really, horror has a long history of popularity in the black community…but often with very different lessons.

The film opens by noting the most famous horror film of them all is a film a lot of white people do not often cite as a horror film.  But you can see why Birth of a Nation is truly horrific in its story and racist portrayals of black men.

Through interviews with writers, directors and many actors the decades of horror are explored.  Early on the documentary explores forgotten films from the 40’s such as Son of Ingagi by Spencer Williams (most remembered as Andy from Amos & Andy).

There is a heavy look at the 70’s with regard to films that came out during the height of blaxploitation films. While films like Blackenstein do not fare well, Blacula and Ganja and Hess transcend the genre.

There is a terrific statement in the film:

“We’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.”

The insights from actors in regards to their roles is key. Kelly Jo Minter, Ken Sagoes and Miguel A. Nùñez Jr all bristle at the notion that their roles were incidental. Of course, they were aware that in many cases they were the only people on the set of color…but as Sagoes notes, he was happy to have a check.

Horror Noire is a worthwhile documentary that I found fascinating and educational. I highly recommend sitting down for it.

As an aside…Jordan Peele…while you are changing the face of horror…please do not forget about Keith David, Ken Foree and Tony Todd.

UnderkKkover Brother (BlacKkKlansman, 2018)

blackkklansman_posterAccording to Jordan Peele, it took a bit of work to convince Spike Lee to take on the role of director for this film. Well, not to much… He sent Lee a copy of the memoir of Ron Stallworth, the Black Klansman.

It really is one of those stories that seems so insanely weird it almost cannot be true.  But Ron Stallworth is a real guy, the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police department. And in the 70’s, itching to advance his career and take down bad guys, he struck up a relationship with the local chapter of the KKK., eventually, this crawled up the ladder to include ongoing conversations with David Duke over the phone.

Of course, there was the little snag that Stallworth is a black man…and that might have stood out a little.  And so the dDepartment decides there is a worthwhile investigation here. So, a white officer, Flip Zimmerman, is recruited to play White Ron.

Lee sees how absurd and humorous this appears on the surface.  And he plays that up a lot. But Lee also saw something deeper at play…a notion that today, we are seeing some of the same evils bubbling to the surface in the present. And the film is not subtle about it.

John David Washington is terrific.  He is both real and performers.  What I mean is that his performance can be very personable and real, yet turn on a faithless charm when Ron is playing the Klan for fools. Adam Driver is more muted…there is no real over the top behavior called for here. Washington and Driver have a good chemistry as men who begin as simple co-workers, but develop a strong bond due to needing to…in a manner…share a life.

The supporting cast is excellent.  From Laura Harrier to Topher Grace, we get a certain tongue in cheek, but not mere cartoon characters.

Lee uses some real visual flair in the film, adding a bit of a larger than life feel in some scenes.  But never at the expense of storytelling.

The film certainly takes some liberties (for example, David Duke did not find out that Ron Stallworth was black until around 2013) and yet, it did not detract from the story overall. Flipp is not a Jewish man in real life, but it added a certain effective story point within the film and gave a bigger story arc for Zimmerman.

Admittedly, the film does seem play it safe.  There is only one racist cop, the rest are, at worst, race agnostic. So, the racism functions outside the institution. This has a side effect of making the black activists represented by Harrier’s Patrice Dumas as being to unfair in their perceptions of the law. It is one bad cop, not the whole department.

However, BlacKkKlansman is a very entertaining and thoughtful film, and its shortcomings do not prevent the film from having a real impact.

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