Friday, July 23, 2021

The Never-Ending (Toy) Story

 I generally avoid movies whose titles end with a number, like Jaws 2 or The Fast and the Furious 5. As I have good reason to know (having worked on Corman franchises like Bloodfist and Slumber Party Massacre), each movie that follows the original is a bit less clever, a bit more predictable. But the good folks at Pixar were not about to let their Toy Story sequels disappoint their loyal fan base. Remarkably, 2010’s Toy Story 3, which I just rewatched, may be the best of the lot. Sure, it still contains familiar characters like valiant Sheriff Woody, spacey Buzz Lightyear, the Potato Head pair, and a fearful Tyrannosaurus Rex, all of them loyal to “their” kid, Andy. But the thing is—Andy is now almost eighteen, and on his way to college. The toys haven’t changed over time, but Andy has. And time becomes film’s big (if hidden) subject.

 This makes it quite a different story from the previous two Toy Story films. The original dealt with such child-appropriate topics as jealousy and friendship. In that 1995 film, the arrival of Buzz—who becomes Andy’s new favorite—rocks Woody to the core. But when the chips are down, Woody and Buzz learn to work together and forge a solid friendship, as underscored by Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Their relationship continues in Toy Story 2 (1999), in which Buzz needs to come to the rescue of Woody, who’s been kidnapped (toynapped?) by a dastardly collector with plans to send him to Japan.

 But by 2010, the original film’s target audience was on the brink of adulthood, and largely leaving all things Disney behind. In a way, Toy Story 3 is directed at their parents, who have deeply mixed emotions about seeing their offspring fly away from the nest. Yes, Andy’s mom is eager to see him clear out his childhood toys before he goes off to college, but she is still feeling the loss of the little boy she once knew and loved. What happens to the toys that may be headed for the attic—or scrapped—is what this story is about.

 Since the Pixar team understands that young viewers prefer excitement to philosophy, there’s plenty of derring-do here, like some heroic flights from a garbage truck and from a childcare center that seems a paradise but is ruled over by a menacing pink stuffed bear who smells like strawberries (the late Ned Beatty, full of Southern charm and menace). A sequence at the city dump has an Inferno quality, but – of course – ends in a breathless escape. And I defy parents not to be moved when Andy decides what best to do with well-loved toys he’s outgrown.

 Pixar is good, too, at finding ways to tickle adult funny-bones. At the childcare center where the discarded toys briefly find a home, a vapid Barbie (in Jane Fonda-style leotard and leggings) finds the Ken of her dreams, then later tricks him into modeling his elaborate Sixties wardrobe (tie-dye! an astronaut suit!) when he needs to be distracted from the big escape attempt. And I suspect we Boomers remember many of the vintage toys in the film, like the Slinky-dog, the GI Joe action figures, and that talking telephone. The film has more serious matters on its mind, too, like our throwaway culture that decrees that anything out of date should simply be tossed, and that most of our once-cherished possessions ultimately belong in a landfill.

 All in all, it’s a beautiful film with a perfect ending. But then they made Toy Story 4.




Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Hold Still for “No Sudden Move”

When I was growing up, my family’s most spectacular automobile was a 1959 Buick, a sleek highway beast with tail fins and a metallic paintjob in a shade called “Lido Lavender.”  Traveling ‘cross-country in that remarkable car, each of us could feel like a king (or queen) of the road. I mention this now because Steven Soderbergh’s new crime drama, No Sudden Move, is similarly in love with cars, though from a slightly earlier vintage. His film is set in 1954 Detroit, which was then the auto capital of the world. But the vehicles featured in his convoluted story are not yet low and sleek. Instead they’re massive, bulbous muscle-cars, even when painted in fetching, feminine shades of aqua. It’s all fitting, because this tale of life in the Motor City hinges on cars—and muscle.

 Soderbergh started his rise in the film industry with a low-budget Sundance hit, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I think of this as a chamber-piece, focusing tightly on four intertwined characters: a young wife (Andie MacDowell), her faithless husband (Peter Gallagher), her good-time sister (Laura San Giacomo), and the mysterious stranger (James Spader) who breezes into town with strange quirks of his own. It’s a beautifully crafted little drama, both written and directed by Soderbergh, who used this as his ticket to much bigger, gaudier efforts. From the looks of his filmography, it seems Soderbergh likes Wagnerian symphonies better than chamber music. His hits have included epic fare like Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven as well as the recent The Laundromat: he seems to like nothing better than plunging into a hot-bed of criminal behavior and following wherever it leads.

 In the case of No Sudden Move, we’re first introduced to grifters who represent two different crime communities. Don Cheadle is an African-American with a checkered past; Benicio del Toro has Italian mob connections. Both are so desperate for work that they take on a strange job keeping a suburban family at gunpoint while the husband is carted off to open a safe belonging to his boss. Why’s the safe empty, and what do the missing documents represent? By the time this is sorted out, a lot of people are dead, others are badly bruised, and the auto industry continues to reign supreme. Yes, the auto industry—this is not merely a crime film but also an indictment of industrial collusion, loosely based on a genuine incident from America’s past. It all comes home to us in a key speech by a surprise (and unbilled) character, who —late in the film—looms somewhat in the way that Ned Beatty did in Network, delivering a monologue that brings Soderbergh’s bigger political and social point into focus.

 If the action in the film seems all about guys and guns, think again. The women in No Sudden Move may be housewives and secretaries, not gangsters and crooked gumshoes, but in the grand scheme of things most of them are equally culpable. They too know what they want (perhaps more clearly than most of the men do), and they’ll stop at nothing to make their dreams come true. Don’t let their aprons and bouncy curls fool you: these femmes are quite capable of being fatale.

 There’s hardboiled humor in the film, and almost no one you could call particularly nice. Heroes, let us say, are in short supply, though one teenage boy is sure trying hard to save his family. But maybe, after a year of quarantine (not to mention a political insurrection), we’ve become cynical enough to appreciate a story in which no one is much good at all.


Friday, July 16, 2021

Going Wide-Screen with “In the Heights”

Lin-Manuel Miranda seems one of those rare Americans who can do no wrong. He’s charming! He’s funny! He’s personally gracious and politically “woke”! Miranda took a serious political biography about one of our country’s founding fathers and turned it into a megahit Broadway musical, with himself in the leading role. (Now the video version of Hamilton – basically a well-crafted filmed play – is up for a remarkable 12 Emmy awards.) Naturally, Hollywood has taken an interest. Miranda has played a variety of roles and raked in an Oscar nomination for his anthem, “How Far I’ll Go,” which plays a key role in Disney’s Moana. And he’s turned to film directing as well, with the upcoming tick, tick . . . Boom! It’s a tribute of sorts to Broadway’s Jonathan Larson, who wrote an autographical play about a struggling young musical-theatre composer, then died on the eve of the triumphant debut of his 1996 play, Rent. So one apparent genius (yes, Miranda owns one of those MacArthur “genius” grants) pays homage to another.

 In 2008. seven years before Hamilton, Broadway playgoers saw another Miranda opus, In the Heights, one that reflected his own upbringing in Manhattan’s heavily Latino Washington Heights. The show, again with Miranda in a key role, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, in what admittedly was a sparse year for musical hits. (Ever hear of Passing Strange? Cry Baby? Xanadu?) I happened to see the original cast in action. While I loved the show’s Latin rhythms and couldn’t fault the performers, I found the story lackluster at best. Yes, it was interesting to see ethnic Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants to New York City reveal their challenges and their longings, but the specific characters on whom the plot focused seemed thinly drawn. In the stage version, In the Heights concentrates mostly on a Romeo and Juliet romance between the academically successful Nina and a young African-American named Benny, who works for Nina’s father’s car-service company. This schmaltzy clash of cultures as well as education-levels is complicated by Nina’s struggles as a homesick freshman at faraway dream-school Stanford.

 When it came time to make the movie,  Miranda and company smartly shifted the story’s chief focus from Nina and Benny’s forbidden (and not all that convincing) love to another of the play’s couples. On stage, Usnavi— the owner of a local bodega but one who longs to return to his native land -- was played by Miranda himself, mostly as a rap-happy narrator for the proceedings. Now, in his forties, he’s given himself a much smaller but still colorful role as a seller of piragua (shaved ice) who’s caught in a quiet battle with the local Mr. Softee vendor. (Don’t miss the Easter Egg at the very end of the credits, showing who is the victor in their long-term rivalry.) Meanwhile Usnavi, now played by the fresh-faced Anthony Ramos, becomes one of the film’s romantic leads, as he yearns for the affection of the ambitious, artistic Vanessa.

 It’s a smart re-think of the story, though the still-present Stanford subplot strikes me as sloppy and bogus once more. (Here’s a great take-down by an actual Stanford graduate from a background similar to Nina’s.) But I chose this film for my return to the cineplex because I wanted to see its musical numbers in all their glory. They are indeed glorious, if perhaps overwhelming after a while. Everyone sings and dances – young kids, abuelas – on the streets, in the public swimming pool, up and down the sides of tenement buildings. Perhaps this feel-good film is just what we need right now.