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Toy Story 3 seemed like a definitive end to the story of Woody (the voice of Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and company. That movie was, in a word, perfect in the way it tied up the story of Andy and his lifelong toy companions.

I’m someone who thought Toy Story 3 should’ve been the final chapter in the franchise. And I’m now someone who is fine with one more chapter, thanks to the totally satisfying Toy Story 4.

Pixar and director Josh Cooley (making his feature directorial debut with the studio’s most-precious franchise) chose to mess with perfection and extend the story of Woody and friends. The results are less than perfect, but still very worthy of Toy Story lore; this is a welcome breath of fresh air in a summer movie season that thus far has been a series of big franchise stink bombs (Godzilla: King of the Monsters; Men in Black: International; Dark Phoenix).

After a recap in which Andy appears, the action goes to the home of Bonnie, the little girl Andy handed his toys over to at the end of Toy Story 3. Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and is a little freaked out, so Woody jumps into her backpack as moral support.

Woody witnesses Bonnie creating what will be a fantastic new character for the franchise in Forky (Tony Hale), crafted out of a plastic spork, pipe cleaners and Play-Doh. Woody immediately sees the importance of this new toy friend, and has himself some new missions: Make sure Forky accepts his new role as a toy instead of trash, and help Bonnie adjust to the rigors of kindergarten.

Bonnie’s day at kindergarten was only an orientation session, and her parents decide to take her on that ever-familiar movie trope: the road trip—in the family RV, no less. The family gets diverted, and the toys wind up getting themselves into trouble at an antique shop inhabited by Gabby Gabby, a deceptively adorable talking doll (Christina Hendricks). Gabby, of course, seems friendly at first (just like Ned Beatty’s purple bear in Toy Story 3), but she has evil intentions regarding a part of Woody’s anatomy—and she has an army of ventriloquist dummies to carry out her plans. Toy Story 4 ends up being as scary as it is funny when the action involves the dummy army. Damn, they are creepy!

Along with Forky and Gabby Gabby, other newcomers include Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) and, most spectacularly, stunt motorcycle-rider Duke Caboom, voiced by cinematic darling Keanu Reeves. Caboom, obviously modeled after Evel Knievel, is having his own existential crisis—low self-esteem, due to his prior child owner not being impressed with his jumping abilities.

Woody’s sweetheart, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), gets a prominent role in the new adventure. Sadly, the budding romance between Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Buzz that we saw in Toy Story 3 is not further explored. In fact, Jessie and Buzz are relegated mostly to background duty.

It’s not surprising that Toy Story 4 is the most visually impressive of the films. The folks at Pixar have had nearly a decade to hone their skills since the last chapter, so the likes of Woody, Buzz and Jessie have a new, refined beauty.

The ending of Toy Story 4 will again have fans and critics proclaiming that this must be the end for the franchise. The film certainly feels like a closing chapter, but we all said that about the last movie. The premise is still ripe for spinoffs (a Duke Caboom movie!), prequels—whatever. Heck, maybe Disney will do a live-action remake of the original, since that seems to be the trend.

Toy Story 4 is now playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

For the second time within a year or so, a Gillian Flynn novel has been made into a movie. While David Fincher’s Gone Girl was a masterpiece, Dark Places, based on Flynn’s second novel, is bloody awful.

Even though Oscar-winner Charlize Theron is its star, Dark Places never rises above the level of a Lifetime movie. The storytelling is ham-fisted, and the stars, especially Theron, look absolutely lost. It also boasts shoddy production values that give off the vibe of a subpar episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit—and that’s a show I hate this much. (I have stopped typing, and I’m stretching out my arms, palms parallel, as far as possible.)

As with Gone Girl, Flynn’s story is inspired by real news events. Gone Girl was an obvious nod to wife-murderer Scott Peterson, while Dark Places draws its inspiration from ’80s and ’90s cases involving alleged Satan worshippers (including Ricky Kasso, as well as the Robin Hood Hills murders). Fincher took Gone Girl (with a screenplay penned by Flynn herself) and went for something darkly satirical and outrageous; meanwhile, director and screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner plays Dark Places straight, with a far-inferior script.

Theron is Libby Day, a bitter woman who witnessed the murder of her mother and sisters when she was a child in 1985. Her brother, Ben (played by Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life in 1985, and Corey Stoll of Ant-Man in the present), is sitting in prison for life, based on her testimony. It was suspected the murders were fueled by Ben’s love for all things Satan.

Libby has been living off the spoils of unwanted celebrity, having received money over the years from sympathetic check-senders. The book she wrote, however, did not sell all that well, and the checks are drying up, so she’s a bit desperate. She gets a weird letter from Lyle (Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road co-star Nicholas Hoult), offering her a few hundred bucks to appear at a weird meeting for some sort of “murder club.”

The “murder club” is a sort of miniature macabre comic-con at which people dress up as murderers (yes, the John Wayne Gacy clown is in attendance), and people involved in infamous cases make appearances. Libby thinks she’s just a guest of honor, but soon discovers the murder club also looks to solve murders—and they believe her brother is innocent: They think Libby lied in her testimony. After being initially pissed off at this accusation, she joins forces with the club to solve her family’s murders.

The film becomes two stories in two different times, with Libby and the murder club investigating the killings in the present, and the actual build-up to the murders in the past. The 1985 cast includes Sheridan; Chloë Grace Moretz as Ben’s Satan-worshipping, cow-slaughtering girlfriend; Christina Hendricks as Libby’s noble mother; and Sterling Jerins as young Libby.

Paquet-Brenner doesn’t navigate between the two periods well, as his film features sloppy editing to go with some bad acting. While Hendricks delivers a decent-enough performance, the normally reliable Moretz goes overboard in her bid to be bad. Sean Bridgers plays Libby’s dad in both periods, and is trying to do his best Charles Manson impersonation. A scene Theron shares with Bridgers—whose character is coughing from progressive arsenic poisoning—is unintentionally hilarious.

As for Theron, she often looks confused and frustrated, as if she regrets taking the role. It’s very difficult to make Theron hard to watch, yet that’s what happens here.

Flynn didn’t have a hand in the screenplay; perhaps that’s one of the reasons Dark Places is so flat and putrid. Or perhaps Flynn only has one great story suitable for the movies in her—because this one is an undercooked dud.

Dark Places is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430). It’s also available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

Ryan Gosling makes a wacky, strange directorial debut with Lost River, using his own bizarre script. He’s clearly influenced by David Lynch and, most notably, frequent collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn. Unfortunately, his movie has more in common with the awful Only God Forgives than the awesome Drive.

The story involves a woman named Billy (Christina Hendricks, a co-star of Gosling’s in Drive) who is trying to protect and raise her family in a fictional city that’s falling apart. Her oldest son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), scavenges old houses for copper, and finds himself in direct conflict with an area thug.

Billy takes a job in a club straight out of a David Lynch film, where the likes of Cat (Eva Mendes, Gosling’s girlfriend) stage bloody murders onstage. The club owner is Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, the best thing in the movie), who has some evil intentions with his new hire.

Various styles conflict and crash in the film, with little of it making sense. However, the individual performances are good; in fact, Hendricks and Mendelsohn are both quite good.

The movie also looks great, which is usually what happens when you hire Benoit Debie (Enter the Void) to shoot your movie. Gosling proved he can make a nice-looking movie.

Next time out, he should leave the scripting duties to somebody else and concentrate on directing. He has potential behind the camera, but his script leaves a lot to be desired.

Special Features: What? No extras? That’s OK, because I wasn’t interested in going any deeper into this film. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

In Ginger and Rosa, Elle Fanning delivers a stellar performance (with an excellent British accent!) as Ginger in this film about two teenagers in Cold War England in the 1960s.

Fanning runs the gamut, showing all of the joy, anguish and fears of a girl living in an age when the world seems to be falling apart. Alice Englert is also terrific as Rosa, Ginger’s more-depressed best friend, while Alessandro Nivola and Christina Hendricks are excellent as Ginger’s parents.

The film goes a little off the rails in its final scenes, but it’s solid and steady for most of its running time, with Fanning showing the world that she is an actress with whom to be reckoned. Written and directed by Sally Potter, Ginger and Rosa is a showcase for Fanning that should propel her into great future roles.

Ginger and Rosa opens Friday, April 5, at the Cinemas Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; 779-0730; www.thepalme.com.

Published in Reviews