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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

The gun opera that is the John Wick franchise keeps on rolling with gory gust—and some great dogs to boot—in John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum.

When we last saw Keanu Reeves as John Wick, he had gotten kicked out of his assassination group, losing all of the perks. His killing a fellow assassin within the walls of the Continental Hotel means no more room service or dog-sitting. He’s got a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head, and no place to kick his feet up.

John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum picks up right where the last one left off, with a battle-wary Wick running in the streets, putting distance between himself and the hotel, and trying to figure out his next big move. As for the level of action in this chapter, it makes the fun Chapter 2 look like a sleepy intermission.

I’ll just say this right up front: John Wick gets no time for rest here, and he seriously gets his ass kicked while kicking ass. Credit Reeves for playing this part perfectly, on a level where we can believe that this dude, who keeps getting stabbed and shot, can turn on his afterburners and keep shooting people in the face.

Wick basically runs from one action set piece to another, with returning director and former stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski making each something to behold. A gun battle inside a weapons museum counts as a franchise highlight, as does Wick’s gunfight atop a motorcycle.

Yes, dogs play a major role in the shenanigans, which makes this dog person very happy. Wick’s travels take him to fellow assassin Sofia (Halle Berry), looking for assistance. Sofia has two German shepherds who get into the action during a gun battle, and they add an interesting element of violence to the proceedings. Stahelski isn’t just a master of human stunts; he’s capable of getting bad-ass performances out of canines, too. Wick’s beautiful pit bull does have a place in the film, so those of you who have missed that pup will be pleased.

As for Berry, she may’ve been missing her calling all these years. She’s beyond awesome in this movie—a veritable action star who actually outshines Reeves during her major battle scene. I’m calling for a Sofia spinoff right now!

As good as Berry is, the best supporting player in the film is Mark Dacascos as Zero, a sushi-chef/assassin who goes up against Wick while dealing with feelings of hero worship for him. He’s the funniest thing in the entire franchise.

Another stop along the way has Reeves sharing screen time with Anjelica Huston as The Director, a stern Russian who talks dirty business while punishing ballerinas. Huston hasn’t been this much fun onscreen in years. Laurence Fishburne returns as the Bowery King, so the coolness of that Matrix connection continues.

Asia Kate Dillon is the film’s weak link as the Adjudicator, a representative of the High Table sent to set matters straight with the Continental, Wick and the Continental’s manager, Winston (an always growly Ian McShane). Dillon is dull, basically killing all the scenes in which the character shows up. There’s just something off in her line deliveries.

As for Parabellum’s place in the series, it’s the best in the franchise after the original. It’s got the largest scope, and Stahelski and Reeves continuously top themselves with each action feat and gun ballet. Stahelski is making a serious run at becoming one of cinema’s best action directors. You really feel every shot, every hit and every fall in this movie. The action scenes have a major clarity to them, with crisp and concise editing that makes it very easy to follow the mayhem. It’s insanely beautiful.

This chapter, like those before it, ends with a big cliffhanger, so it’s a safe bet the story will continue. Like the character himself, this money train won’t be bleeding out anytime soon.

John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour follows up her notable feature debut, the authentic vampire story A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, with another horror story, The Bad Batch. This time out, she focuses on cannibals.

Suki Waterhouse plays Arlen, newly exiled to a desert landscape—where she is quickly captured by cannibals, watching as her arm and leg are cut off and devoured. After escaping, she wanders around a bit, eventually stopping by a safe haven run by The Dream (Keanu Reeves).

Some business involving the daughter of Miami Man (Jason Momoa, aka Aquaman), one of her captors, represents the only thing that passes for a conventional subplot in this purposefully rambling, meandering affair. Amirpour’s sophomore effort is a mixed bag, but it looks amazing, boasts a great soundtrack and has a few creepy passages in it.

But if a cohesive story is what you seek, you won’t find it here. You will, however, find Jim Carrey in a strange extended cameo as the Hermit, a dude who literally eats crow.

The movie never really comes together, but it’s worth watching if you like post-apocalyptic cannibal movies and Culture Club.

The Bad Batch is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

A whole lot of people get shot in the face in John Wick: Chapter 2, a worthy sequel to the 2014 breakout hit.

A totally bummed-out Keanu Reeves returns as the lone assassin, originally brought out of retirement after somebody killed his dog and stole his car. Many deaths later, Wick is back in his stylish home, with a new (and unnamed) dog, intent upon burying his guns and taking a long break. No such luck: A man from the past shows up with a marker, giving him a killing assignment that will take him to Italy and have him face off with Common. (It turns out Common is built like The Terminator and makes a good villain. Oh, wait … he’s sort of the good guy. Wick is actually a villain.) Balletic violence begins—and never ends.

This time out, Wick is wearing some sort of bulletproof lining under his suit. He was unstoppable before, but now he can take a bullet!

Reeves is the perfect guy for this role, physically believable as an aging yet unstoppable assassin, and great with the stoic line deliveries. He’s in one mode for this movie, and that mode is badass.

Reeves has himself a brand new franchise, and this one is very ripe for the next story. It also has another Reeves franchise guy, Laurence Fishburne, aka Morpheus from The Matrix. Thankfully, this sequel is much better than The Matrix sequels.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

After the misstep that was Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn gets things back on track with The Neon Demon, perhaps the nastiest film ever made about the modeling industry.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles to become a model. She’s underage, naïve and lost, but finds a helping hand in Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who knows what it’s like to be the new girl in town.

As her career begins to take off, Jesse begins to gain confidence—to a fault—and a couple of other models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) develop sinister intentions along with their envy of Jesse’s spectacular looks.

Refn memorizes yet again (his Drive remains one of the best films of this decade), combining stunning visuals and an excellent soundtrack to go with the outstanding performances from Fanning, Malone, Heathcote and Lee.

Keanu Reeves has a small but memorable role as a sleazy hotel manager, while Alessandro Nivola is most memorable as a fashion designer who must have Jesse for his show.

Refn has produced a fine piece of dark, cynical satire here—with elements of horror mixed in for good measure. This establishes Fanning as one of this generation’s best actresses. Hers is one of the year’s best performances so far.

The Neon Demon is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Just a couple of weeks after the release of one of his worst movies, writer-director Eli Roth is at it again with Knock Knock— a far-better offering.

Keanu Reeves stars as Evan, a loving husband with two children who is left alone for a couple of days while the wife and kids go on a trip. Just as Evan is about to light the old pot pipe, there’s a knock at the door. Two of the most beautiful women in the world, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), are soaking wet and in need of assistance.

Evan innocently lets them in to use the phone, dry their clothes and, as things eventually turn out, have mad sex. Unfortunately for Evan, he winds up being part of a nasty torture game in which he will pay for his infidelities in horrible, gut-churning ways.

While Roth never really reveals why the girls are acting so terribly, there are hints—and that’s all the film really needs. Reeves does a nice job of acting scared shitless and out-of-his-mind angry. He has a rant near the end of the film, when he is tied in a chair, that might be the best moment of acting he’s ever produced. Izzo—who was the only good thing about Roth’s recently released The Green Inferno, besides some of the eating scenes—is great as the ringleader, while de Armas makes for a fun, wildly sadistic sidekick.

The movie has restored my faith in the directing chops of Roth, and it gives Reeves another good movie after last year’s John Wick.

Knock Knock is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The latest Keanu Reeves vehicle is a stunner. John Wick boasts a high body count—and offers cinematic proof that you shouldn’t mess with a man’s best friend.

In the film’s opening moments, we learn that the title character (played by Reeves) has lost his wife, and he’s taking it understandably hard. Shortly after her death, a little pet carrier arrives at his door with an adorable beagle inside: His wife has given him a gift of companionship from the beyond, and it’s a very sweet moment. The scenes of Wick and the dog bonding help make him a likable character.

While John Wick is putting some gas in his sweet Mustang, a young Russian man (Alfie Allen) asks if he can buy the car. Wick groans that it is not for sale. His unwillingness to part with the car results in tragedy, as the Russian mob comes to his house, beats him to within inches of death, kills the dog and takes the car.

They’ve messed with the wrong guy. Wick is a former hired assassin with a bunch of weaponry and gold buried in his floor. We learn that Wick is known around town as the Boogeyman, and the asshole who stole his car has a father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who once employed Wick. Viggo lived in confidence that Wick was retired and out of the game. Now, his son has killed the Boogeyman’s dog, and all involved, voluntarily or not, are going to face his wrath.

That wrath consists of some of the greatest choreographed carnage in recent movie memory. Wick shoots bad guys with a precision that protects the innocent—but anybody around with a criminal background is going to die.

A couple of stunt guys—David Leitch and Chad Stahelski—make their directorial debuts with John Wick. Stahelski has actually been a Reeves stunt double many times, in the Matrix films, Constantine and Point Break. Their familiarity pays off, because the stunt sequences and choreography are flawless. In the pantheon of action-movie directing debuts, this one stands tall.

Reeves is an actor who has taken a lot of shots over the years. True, he can be pretty darned terrible at times, but he has a strong command of himself in front of a camera. There’s a scene in this movie that may contain the best acting of his career. Wick is a character who doesn’t exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. He’s a simmering sort, but once pushed to a certain level, he shows some mighty powerful rage. Reeves is very much up to the task.

It’s also very clear that Reeves does much of his own stunt work in the film. There’s a lot of rolling around, and numerous gun dances. He’s always been a capable action star, and his physical outing here is as impressive as his work in The Matrix series. (OK, the first one. Screw the sequels.)

The screenplay adds some nice touches, including an exclusive hotel for assassins run by Ian McShane. The place is like an artists’ loft, except the inhabitants paint with blood and brains. When Wick gets his stay violently interrupted, the calm calls from the front desk and visuals of criminals sleepily sticking their heads out their doors to see what’s going on are quite funny.

Willem Dafoe makes a nice mark in a few scenes as a double-crossing hitman. Adrianne Palicki, the actress who was supposed to be TV’s Wonder Woman (until NBC saw the pilot and puked), shows action-movie chops as another gun-for-hire who can’t be trusted.

John Wick is a great-looking movie that mixes in some strong emotions with awesome set pieces. It’s nice to see Keanu Reeves back in the saddle. Now, with the success of this film, perhaps somebody will finally green-light Bill and Ted 3.

John Wick is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Keanu Reeves drones his way through this disgustingly bad samurai movie—an expensive exercise in excess that should result in some people over at Universal losing their jobs. Who green-lit this thing?

Reeves never seems to string more than five words together as Kai, a “half-breed” who is part human, and possibly part demon, or something like that. He can’t really hang with the samurai warriors, so he mopes about looking all sad and bowing to his masters—until somebody is being attacked by something or other, in which case he is compelled to fight for their honor … or something.

This is a meandering, listless mess—a clear sign that Keanu has worn out his welcome in blockbuster action films. It’s no wonder he’s pushing for a new Bill and Ted movie; the dude is no longer fun when he’s springing into action.

This film is funny for all of the wrong reasons—and it’s one of the worst-looking $200 million movies you will ever see. 

47 Ronin is playing in regular and 3-D formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews