A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Featured

2020 #195
Marielle Heller | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Thanks to the ubiquity of their films and television programmes, American culture permeates the world. Even if something isn’t directly exported, there are enough references to it in other media that we all get to know it by osmosis. (If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s one example: there are many documented cases of people trying to “plead the fifth” when being interviewed by law enforcement in countries where the fifth amendment to their constitution has nothing to do with criminal procedure.) So, it’s all the more unusual that Mr Rogers is apparently an influential part of American childhoods, but he wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) widely known outside of the US until a couple of years ago. That was thanks to the acclaim garnered by documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As these things often go, that was followed by a biopic — which is this.

However, rather than try to tell Mr Rogers’ whole life story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a reference to the fictional land in his TV series, which is presumably why the US spelling was retained even for the UK release (except on DVD covers, etc)) focuses on one man’s encounter with Rogers. That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist with familial problems aplenty. He’s assigned to write a puff piece on Rogers — a couple of hundred words for a magazine issue about “heroes”. The pair seem an ill fit, but that’s the point — it’s basically a punishment from his long-suffering, usually-indulgent editor. Lloyd is initially reluctant, then sceptical — surely the whole “Mr Rogers” thing is a persona; an act? But as he spends more time with the man, it begins to change his view on the world too.

Okay, it probably takes a while for the film to get to that point, exactly, but I’m not spoiling anything — you know that’s where it’s going. “I met this guy whose world view was so much more positive and optimistic than mine… and it didn’t affect me at all, I’m still a grumpy bastard.” That’s not a story Hollywood’s going to tell, is it? Heck, that’s not even a story. So, yeah, of course Mr Rogers’ fundamentally decent and kindly nature is going to have an impact on Lloyd.

A beautiful lunch in the neighbourhood

Despite Mr Rogers being the focal point, then, the film is really more about Lloyd’s personal journey. But that journey is instigated and facilitated by Mr Rogers, so his “supporting character” part is vital. And who better to portray the very embodiment of decency than Tom Hanks? Rogers’ widow has said that Hanks was the perfect actor to play her husband; for his part, he’s said taking the role was “terrifying” due to the cultural significance. Hanks is as accomplished in the role as you’d expect, and it deservedly earnt his sixth acting Oscar nomination (his first in almost 20 years, and long overdue, I think).

If it all sounds a bit predictable, director Marielle Heller dodges that with some indie-movie-esque flourishes. There’s a touch of Wes Anderson to how she uses Mr Rogers’ TV show, switching into Academy ratio to demarcate us entering a different ‘world’ — not just literally clips from the show, but bookend narration, dream sequences, location transitions, and so on. IMDb lists the 1.33:1 ratio as just being used for “TV scenes”, but I think that undersells its use and effectiveness, which is more comparable to (say) how Anderson used three different ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Its those kind of inescapable but well-considered flourishes — plus the believable transition in Lloyd’s character, which is more grounded in reality than the “slightly unlikeable guy becomes super positive” cliché — that elevate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out of the predictable or twee, and into being a genuinely heartwarming kinda film.

4 out of 5

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Greyhound (2020)

2020 #164
Aaron Schneider | 92 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Canada & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Greyhound

In the early days of the US joining World War 2, ageing Navy Captain Ernie Krause (Tom Hanks) is finally given his first command, as captain of the lead escort for a convoy of Allied supply and troop ships crossing the Atlantic. As they enter the treacherous part of the ocean too far from land for air support, a pack of German U-boats begins stalking the convoy…

Perhaps the key word to describe Greyhound would be “efficient”. It spends about as much time setting up its premise as I did in the previous paragraph. There are no drawn-out scenes of Krause meeting with the higher-ups to be given his command; no introductions to a motley cast of crewmen before they board; no scene-setting stuff of the convoy sailing out from port… We first meet these boats in the middle of the ocean, their air support signalling “good luck” via Morse code as it turns to head home. There’s a brief flashback to the previous Christmas, when Krause informs his girlfriend (an age-appropriate Elisabeth Shue) of his new station, and then we’re off to the races: a radar contact suggests an enemy submarine, and a game of cat and mouse begins.

What follows over the next 70-or-so minutes is a lean, no-nonsense series of combat sequences. Character development is limited to expressions and glances, or incidental details. For the former, we know Krause is inexperienced, so as we watch his face we can read his silent internal battles about the best course of action; or we see that the eyes of the crew are always watching him, in shots that are held maybe just a little too long, implying the men’s uncertainty about their commander. For the latter, the ship’s cook regularly brings Krause meals that he never eats — he’s too busy being on guard to spend time on food. The rest of the crew are mostly faceless, just bodies to relay orders and information back and forth, or to man machinery. One man or another might get focus for a bit (the sonar operator is significant during the first encounter, for example), but the film doesn’t expend effort to unnecessarily bring individuals back later. Consequently, the feel is realistic: the crew hasn’t been streamlined for the sake of a movie narrative; a ship is staffed by dozens of men, sharing jobs so others can rest, the only constant being the very top men, namely Krause and his XO, played by Stephen Graham.

You sunk my battleship!

The impression of realism extends to the dialogue, the vast majority of which is naval jargon. I didn’t have a bloody clue what most of it actually meant (it’s all bearings and ranges and orders about direction and speed and whatnot), but you don’t need to because the visuals are telling the story. The film is adapted from a novel, The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, and if it’s at all faithful then I have no desire to read the book, because I don’t think I’d have a clue what was happening. But it works magnificently in the visual medium of film, where what the barked words signify is conveyed succinctly by the accompanying images. New sonar information leads to men with maps and rulers rushing to work out new courses; the ship turning this way and that in response to relayed commands; Krause rushing from one side to the other, binoculars always in hand, trying to spot any sign of their underwater foe amid the choppy mid-Atlantic waves. I have no idea how faithful it is to the reality of WW2 naval combat, but it feels genuine.

Some reviewers have found this unrelenting focus on the business of sea combat to be dull. I felt exactly the opposite. The threat of the U-boats is ever present, a constant danger that leaves our men pinging from one crisis to the next. The intensity is underlined by Blake Neely’s ominous, percussive score, which shrieks when the enemy is near and thuds throughout combat, in a good way. Combined with the brief running time, it feels like the film doesn’t let up. This isn’t some stately drama about men at sea who are occasionally forced to take potshots at an unseen enemy, but an action movie; only instead of men clashing with kung fu or guns, it’s boats and subs fighting with torpedoes and, um, trigonometry. The result is tight, tense, and thrilling.

4 out of 5

Greyhound is available on Apple TV+ now.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

2019 #101
Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Toy Story 4

Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

In search of a new story

Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

4 out of 5

Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

The Post (2017)

2018 #125
Steven Spielberg | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Post

Perhaps the timeliest historical movie ever made, The Post is, in its plot, about the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, a leaked report that examined decades of US government decisions about the Vietnam war; but, thematically, it’s about press oversight of a government lying to its people to cover up their own wrongdoing, including trying to forcibly stop the press from performing that role — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not to mention that it also concerns itself with matters like whether sources who leak classified information are whistleblowers or traitors, and attitudes towards women in positions of power in the workplace.

For various reasons related to these elements, it’s attracted a lot of comparisons and accusations. For example, some have criticised it for being about a case in the ’70s rather than one in the present day. I guess allegory is tricky for some people to understand… Or, alternatively, that any such parallels were accidental, as if experienced director Steven Spielberg wasn’t aware of them. I think the film went from script to screen in just nine months for a reason…

Then there’s the inevitable comparison to Spotlight, another recent newspaper journalism-themed true-story movie, and a Best Picture winner to boot. Those who thought Spotlight was exceptional tend to think The Post doesn’t measure up. Personally, I thought Spotlight was good, but I didn’t love it as much as some others. I would hesitate to say The Post is better than it, but I would be equally as hesitant to say it isn’t as good. Arguably Spotlight is a better movie about journalism, focusing as it does on the everyday legwork and procedure that go into putting together a major story, whereas The Post has more on its mind than just the facts of how reporting works. There are also many comparisons to All the President’s Men, but I’ve still not seen that so can’t comment fairly (there is this rather excellent trivia/connection, though).

Reading the papers

Relatedly, some people think this film should’ve been about the New York Times, as they were the paper that first broke the Pentagon Papers story and initiated the legal case it all led to (and, later, they were the only paper awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the publication). There’s certainly an argument for that being the real story, but, conversely, that would be to assume the focus of this movie is solely the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, The Post is the story of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, and how the Pentagon Papers changed them both. It’s the story of an underdog-like local paper making an (inter)national mark by doing something at odds with a legal ruling — the fact they chose to back-up the Times by publishing too (even if the action was instigated as much by friendly rivalry/jealousy as it was by “freedom of the press” ethics) is an important point in itself.

It’s also the story of a woman — a business owner at a time when women didn’t hold such roles; and not a woman who confidently elbowed her way in either, but one who found this position thrust upon her — going from meek and overpowered to confident in her own mind and running the show. I’ve read reviews that think this latter element is somehow forced on the film, as if the makers didn’t notice it until halfway through and only decided to draw it out when they reached a shot near the end where Streep walks past a crowd of other women with admiring expressions. That’s not the case, obviously — that’s simply not how movies are made — and that arc is clearly in mind from the very first scene where we meet Graham. Meryl Streep is excellent in the role, which is easily the film’s most fully-realised character. Everyone else is certain of themselves and what they believe is the right thing to do, but over the course of the film she goes from quiet, uncertain, and reliant on her trusted advisor, to believing in her own instincts and standing up for them. It’s a clearly-charted but believable journey.

A man's world

Nonetheless, it’s somewhat hard to divorce The Post from the context of when it was made — the way it reflects the current climate in American politics and the news coverage thereof. But then, is that a problem? Are works of art not as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they’re set? I guess that’s a whole other debate. That said, it carries a message that would be important in any era, about the need for reasoned, responsible, independent oversight of those who govern us.

4 out of 5

The Post is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

Inferno (2016)

2017 #93
Ron Howard | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Hungary / English, French, Italian & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

Inferno

Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s symboligist-cum-crime-solver (that’s the main character from The Da Vinci Code, for everyone who’s forgotten in the decade-ish since that book was at the top of the cultural zeitgeist) for his third adventure (they made a second, remember?) based on the fourth novel, after the first film was based on the second novel and the second film was based on the first novel (not that that matters, it’s just kinda funny).

This time, Langdon wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence, with a gunshot wound to his temple that has caused him to both forget the last two days and have terrifying hallucinations of Hell. When an assassin turns up trying to kill him, he escapes with Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). Still unable to recall how he ended up in this predicament, Langdon discovers a small projector in his pocket, which contains what will be the first clue to another scavenger hunt of famous old artworks and the like. At the end of the trail: a man-made pathogen that could wipe out 95% of humanity. Pursued by several groups who want the virus for their own nefarious (or not) ends, Langdon and Sienna race against time to save the world.

If you haven’t guessed yet, Inferno is a bit silly. Not utterly silly, but silly in the kind of way the previous Dan Brown movies have been silly — pretending they’re taking place in a plausible real world, when they’re not. The kind of silly where a villain leaves a trail of clues for someone to follow and make sure his scheme is executed, rather than, I dunno, putting a timer on it. (Incidentally, this is a change from the novel, where (based on what I read on Wikipedia) his plan makes marginally more sense.) The kind of silly where apparently the World Health Organisation is some international enforcement agency with gun-toting special ops units and the power to override local police. (I don’t know much about the real WHO, but I find this version very hard to believe.)

Brooks and Langdon

On the bright side, Inferno is not nearly so po-faced as the previous Langdon movies. If you suspend your disbelief, it’s a reasonably compelling mystery (or set of mysteries), where for once the ultimate solution doesn’t feel obvious from the get-go. The same goes for the issue of who to trust. As you’d expect from a race-against-time thriller with an everyman hero, there are multiple different forces in pursuit of Langdon, and you know that one of those groups will turn out to actually be on his side, because that’s how these things always go — but which? Well, I thought it was less blatantly obvious than normal, anyway; though I did guess one other huge twist almost from the start (and I’m sure most viewers who are reasonably versed in this genre of movie will too).

That’s another point that’s been tweaked from the novel, it turns out. In spite of being a film that is considered pretty faithful to its source, they do seem to have shaved off any detail or plot development that was a little outside the norm of a Hollywood blockbuster thriller, which is rather disappointing in a way. It was the ghost of 82’s review that alerted me to these changes, through the fact that the novel even has a different ending. I looked it up and it sounds much better. It’s totally unHollywood, and I bet the studio vetoed it as soon as they heard it, but it’s more interesting and complex than the standard fight-over-the-MacGuffin climax used here.

A clue!

The whole style of the film is similarly standardised. The use of a 1.85:1 ratio and Ron Howard’s unremarkable direction make it all feel very televisual, the only giveaways to its big-screen budget being the stunning locations and the presence of Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, et al. There are also hand-holding flashbacks and intercuts to things we saw five minutes ago, just like you get on TV dramas that feel uncertain about whether you’re paying full attention or have perhaps tuned in halfway through. Langdon’s gory visions lend a bit of visual spice, but that’s also what they feel like — an attempt to liven things up.

For all these faults, I actually enjoyed Inferno a fair bit. It’s a decent, pacy thriller; completely implausible, both in its overwrought story and frequently leaden dialogue, but as a race-against-time mystery in beautiful locations, it’s an entertaining 120 minutes. I’d give it 3½, but I don’t do half-stars, so let’s be generous and round it up.

4 out of 5

Inferno is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

aka Sully

2017 #58
Clint Eastwood | 96 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson

You remember that time someone landed a passenger plane on New York City’s Hudson River, right? This is about that. At the time the pilot was widely hailed as a hero… or so we thought! Turns out that, behind closed doors, some investigators seemed keen to put the blame on his poor decision-making (or they did in movieland, anyway — the real world may’ve been a bit different). So rather than just an exciting drama about a guy landing a plane (which does sound like a thin story for an entire movie), Sully is almost a legal drama: was the heroic captain actually heroic, or did he make a stupid decision that lucked out? (I’m sure you can guess which wins.)

Tom Hanks is perfect for the lead role: he’s the exact right mix of everyman and hero; the unassuming guy who knows the right thing to do, and does it. He even doubts himself after the fact, just so we can be even more sure that he’s a genuinely good guy. The rest of the supporting cast fade into the background a little, with Aaron Eckhart solid as his supportive co-pilot (I assumed he’d turn on Sully, for some reason, so that was nice) and Laura Linney as his wife on the other end of the phone, in a subplot that I suppose is meant to help humanise the hero pilot but really goes nowhere. The same is true for a scattering of flashbacks to Sully’s previous adventures in flight. Even having expanded the film out to the post-landing investigation, it still struggles to find enough material to fill its short 96 minutes.

Landin', landin', landin' on the river

I liked Sully a lot while it was on. It’s well made (though sadly not available in its IMAX format for home viewing), Hanks is always watchable, the supporting cast are good too, and the headline incident is effectively staged, including the post-landing rescues. It’s a heartwarming story of real-life drama and heroism, with a punch-the-air-type moment when Sully is vindicated. But as that outcome never seems in doubt, and the film sometimes twiddles its thumbs in getting there, it’s not all it could be. Or, actually, maybe it is all it could be — and that’s fine.

3 out of 5

I could tenuously link this review to American Independence Day by talking about Sully being an American hero or somesuch, but… oh wait, I just did.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #93

The toys are back!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 24th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th February 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code)
Tim Allen (Jungle 2 Jungle, Wild Hogs)
Joan Cusack (Addams Family Values, School of Rock)
Kelsey Grammer (Anastasia, X-Men: The Last Stand)

Director
John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars 2)

Co-directors
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)

Screenwriters
Andrew Stanton (Monsters, Inc., WALL·E)
Rita Hsiao (Mulan, My Little Pony: The Movie)
Doug Chamberlin (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)
Chris Webb (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)

Story by
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy)
Pete Docter (Toy Story, Inside Out)
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Dory)

The Story
After Woody is stolen by a nefarious toy collector, the rest of the toys set out to rescue him — but, tempted by the idea of spending eternity in a museum with friends from his TV show, does Woody want to be saved?

Our Heroes
Buzz and Woody are back, and now the best of friends. This time, Woody is confronted with his past when he meets a gang of other toys from the TV series he starred in, but will he stay with them or return to Andy? Meanwhile, Buzz sets out to rescue Woody, but has issues of his own to tackle when he comes face to face with his nemesis, Emperor Zurg.

Our Villain
Al McWhiggin, the owner of Al’s Toy Barn and serious toy collector, who steals Woody when he’s accidentally put in a yard sale box.

Best Supporting Character
Jessie, a cowgirl from Woody’s TV show. Fundamentally an excitable and chipper character, she was left distraught after being abandoned by her owner, and is now scared of being put back in storage — which will happen if Woody isn’t part of Al’s collection.

Memorable Quote
“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.” — Jessie

Memorable Scene
On their hunt for Woody, the other toys explore a giant toy emporium, in which Buzz comes across an aisle filled with fellow Buzzes. Spotting one with a new utility belt, he tries to acquire the accessory, only to awaken his double…

Making of
Toy Story 2 was originally commissioned by Disney as a direct-to-video sequel, because they did that a lot back then, and went into production without Pixar’s primary staff, who were already busy creating A Bug’s Life. When early work looked promising, Disney bumped the project’s status up to a full theatrical release. Conversely, Pixar were unhappy with the quality of what they were seeing. The main team took charge, redeveloping the film’s entire story in a single weekend, but still had to meet the release date Disney had already set. Although most Pixar films take years to produce, the production of Toy Story 2 was compressed into just nine months. The pressure got to people: at one point someone accidentally deleted 90% of the film’s files, representing two years work. Fortunately, another crew member working at home had back-ups of all but the last few days’ work.

Previously on…
The original Toy Story was the first computer-animated feature film.

Next time…
Toy Story 3 followed 11 years later, with Toy Story 4 set to come 9 years after that. Also shorts, TV specials, and the Buzz Lightyear spin-off (see last time).

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Song)
7 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Female Voice Acting (Joan Cusack), Male Voice Acting (Tim Allen), Music, Storyboarding)
2 Annie Awards nominations (Character Animation, Production Design)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Music)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit)

What the Critics Said
Toy Story 2 is a brilliant example of that rarest of Hollywood phenomena — a sequel to a major hit film that’s as good, if not better, than the original. This is mainly the result of a perfect mixture of two essential elements. First, there’s an excellent script by Andrew Stanton and his team of writers […] Second, there’s the remarkable technology developed by Pixar for the film A Bug’s Life. It’s this approach they’ve now taken to even greater heights […] These filmmakers have taken the 1995 characters and given them more depth, creating a new story that lets the toys interact in a larger world. It all comes down to amazing visuals and basic storytelling — and this is one heck of a good tale.” — Paul Clinton, CNN

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
Toy Story 2 is considered, by most, to be a perfect film. The characters are amazing. The stakes are higher than the first film. And the emotional beats hit harder than before. With two successes under their belt, it’s hard to believe that Pixar could not only be consistent with that quality, but somehow also manage to pull off something even more amazing than we thought possible. Expanding the mythology of this world and really making us feel for the toys that we forgot as children, Toy Story 2 is, in the words of Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.” — Jaysen Headley, Jaysen Headley Writes

Verdict

Sequels are notorious for not being as good as their progenitor. I feel like this is a trend that is increasingly being bucked — with everything Hollywood makes designed to be a franchise, Film 1 is often about setup and Film 2 is where the makers are allowed to do what they really wanted to do in the first place. But when you strike gold first time out, it’s still hard to do it justice second time round. Pixar do that and more here, with a sequel that is slicker, funnier, more exciting, and more emotional than its forebear. Even if it’s happening more often now, good sequels are still hard to do — trust Pixar to have got there ahead of the pack.

#94 will be… transportive.

Toy Story (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #92

The toys are back in town.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: G

Original Release: 22nd November 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd March 1996
First Seen: cinema, 1996

Stars
Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, Catch Me If You Can)
Tim Allen (Galaxy Quest, The Shaggy Dog)

Director
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Cars)

Screenwriters
Joss Whedon (Alien Resurrection, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, John Carter)
Joel Cohen (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield)
Alec Sokolow (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties)

Story by
John Lasseter (Toy Story 2, Planes)
Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up)
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)
Joe Ranft (Beauty and the Beast, Cars)

The Story
In a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around, Woody is six-year-old Andy’s favourite doll… until he gets Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, for his birthday. An upset Woody clashes with Buzz, but when the bickering pair are left behind during a house move they must work together to get back to their kid.

Our Heroes
Woody is a cowboy doll, the favourite of his kid, Andy, and consequently the leader of all Andy’s toys. That is until Andy gets a shiny new Buzz Lightyear action figure, whose newness ingratiates him with all the other toys. Plus, to Woody’s continued annoyance, Buzz believes he really is a space ranger and has no idea he’s just a toy.

Our Villain
Sid, Andy’s nasty neighbour kid who does terrible, terrible things to toys…

Best Supporting Character
Mr Potato Head, whose various body parts are slotted on and therefore removable and interchangeable. Hilarity ensues. Also has a nice line in snarky comments.

Memorable Quote
“To infinity, and beyond!” — Buzz Lightyear

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” — Buzz Lightyear

Memorable Scene
One of Buzz’s claims as a real space ranger is that he can fly, so Woody challenges him to prove it. Buzz closes his eyes, dives off the bed… and, through a series of flukes, bounces and coasts his way around the room, landing back on the bed. “That wasn’t flying,” cries Woody, “that was falling with style!”

Memorable Song
The film’s themes are perfectly reflected in Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated and endlessly catchy song, You’ve Got a Friend in Me. Both Toy Story sequels have tried to emulate it, with… less success.

Technical Wizardry
Only the whole movie — it was the first feature-length wholly-computer-generated animated film. As such, we have it to thank/blame for the current entire state of popular Western animation.

Making of
The animators perfected the movement of the toy soldiers by nailing a pair of shoes to a wooden plank and trying to walk around in them.

Previously on…
Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film — there is, in that sense, literally nothing before it.

Next time…
Two feature film sequels, both of which are at least as artistically successful as this first, with a fourth set to follow in 2018. Also, three short films and two TV specials to date, plus direct-to-video spin-off movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the TV series that follows it. You could also argue the entirety of Pixar’s highly-praised output is a follow-up to the success of Toy Story, as well as American feature animation’s almost entire conversion from traditional cel animation to 3D CGI.

Awards
1 Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter for “the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film.”
3 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Song, Musical or Comedy Score)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Producing, Music, Production Design, Animation, Technical Achievement)
1 Annie Awards nomination (Voice Acting (Tom Hanks))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Writing)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Far from just a technological breakthrough, this hellzapoppin fairy tale […] is a magically witty and humane entertainment. It has the purity, the ecstatic freedom of imagination, that’s the hallmark of the greatest children’s films. It also has the kind of spring-loaded allusive prankishness that, at times, will tickle adults even more than it does kids. The moment Mr. Potato Head arranges his snap-on features into a Cubist mash and says, ”I’m Picasso,” it’s clear that director John Lasseter and his team of writer-technicians have taken their most anarchic impulses and run with them. […] In its techno-cool photo-realist way, though, this movie, too, invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic — for the synthetic gizmo culture of the modern mall brat. The film’s wit (and resonance) is that it brings toys to life exactly the way children do in their heads. It molds plastic into pure imagination.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“The Animation is superb. Given that this was one of the first ever feature length computer animated movies, those guys at Pixar really hit the nail on the head. The colours are vibrant and the characters are dynamic. An excellent use of Blues, Yellows and Reds really accentuate the ‘children’ and ‘toys’ feel. There are also beautiful realistic elements such as a scene where Woody and Buzz find themselves under a lorry in a petrol station. With this, I was simply amazed at the attention to detail with the stones, tarmac and oil stains on the textures. It really looks like you are close-up to the ground and I love it!” — Alexander Potter, Pottercraft’s Pictures

Verdict

Just because something’s the first to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good, but Pixar didn’t strike gold with Toy Story just because computer animation was New. It’s the likeable characters, how they develop and learn, the amusing situations they’re put in, plus some heartwarming messages about friendship. There’s more emotion and character development in these wooden-and-plastic toys generated with pixels in a computer than many a film can achieve with real human beings, and that’s why Pixar came to revolutionise and dominate the Western animation genre.

Some would say “the original is still the best”, and it is up there, but on Sunday I will beg to differ…

#93 will be… a superior sequel.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

2016 #135
Mike Nichols | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Germany / English & Russian | 15 / R

Charlie Wilson's WarUnlikely stories can make great movies, or at least fun ones, and if this isn’t the former then it’s largely the latter.

It’s about a hard-partying US congressman (Tom Hanks) who suddenly becomes interested in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, so increases support for the rebels by calling in the many favours he’s collected.

Boasting a typically witty script from Aaron Sorkin, and a cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) capable of delivering it, it makes a potentially grim topic surprisingly entertaining — which is presumably why acknowledgement of the aftereffects is reduced to one subtle, but chilling, nod to 9/11.

4 out of 5

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #79

The mission is a man.

Country: USA
Language: English, French, German & Czech
Runtime: 170 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 24th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th September 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Tom Hanks (Big, Cast Away)
Edward Burns (She’s the One, 15 Minutes)
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jason Bourne)
Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down)
(The lead cast includes since-famous people like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi, and the supporting cast even more recognisable faces, but, still, Edward Burns is second billed.)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, War Horse)

Screenwriter
Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, The Patriot)

The Story
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, a group of soldiers are tasked to locate and rescue just one man: Private Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, earning him a free pass home. As the squad trek across France, mindful of the waste of resources, they encounter first-hand the early days of the Allied invasion of Europe.

Our Heroes
Just a regular bunch of soldiers, co-opted into a PR mission that isn’t that easy. They’re commanded by Captain Miller, their respected leader with a secretive past… a past which is actually thoroughly mundane, and just highlights the bizarre, heightened world of the war.

Our Villains
Nazis!

Best Supporting Character
Matt Damon was cast as the eponymous soldier because Spielberg wanted an unknown with an all-American look. Unfortunately for that plan, before Private Ryan came out Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became famous overnight. It certainly changes the effect to have the team rescuing Movie Star Matt Damon rather than Some Unknown Actor, but, on the bright side, he’s good.

Memorable Quote
Reiben: “Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?”
Miller: “I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”
Reiben: “I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?”
Miller: “Well, in that case, I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you, Reiben — to ease her suffering.’”

Memorable Scene
The opening half-hour, which recreates the Normandy landings in shocking, brutal detail, and is supposedly very true to the actual experience. Surely the definitive modern combat sequence from any war movie.

Technical Wizardry
The heavily desaturated cinematography by Janusz Kaminski instantly lends the film a grim veracity, very appropriate to its tone. Such extreme colour palettes are commonplace nowadays, mainly thanks to digital grading, but when Private Ryan came to US TV providers had to deal with numerous complaints from viewers who thought there was a problem with their signal — which the broadcasters fixed by just upping the saturation of the film, of course.

Truly Special Effect
The involvement of ILM was downplayed so that the film didn’t come across as “an effects movie”, but they still had a key role — for instance, providing most of the bullet hits throughout the D-Day sequence. Not remarkable effects work in itself, maybe, but it’s appropriately invisible.

Making of
The D-Day sequence alone cost $11 million. It was filmed over four weeks (almost half the entire shoot), gradually moving up the beach to film the whole thing in chronological order. Spielberg personally operated the camera for many shots, none of which were storyboarded. The shoot involved up to 1,000 extras, 20 to 30 of whom were amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs to simulate them being blown off. Reportedly, many veterans have congratulated Spielberg on the sequence’s accuracy, including actor James Doohan, aka Star Trek’s Scotty, who participated in the Normandy landings.

Next time…
HBO’s Band of Brothers is basically Saving Private Ryan: The Series, taking the film’s visual style to tell the true story of a company of soldiers from their training, through the invasions of France and Germany, and right up to the end of the war. Often topping lists as the greatest TV series ever made, it certainly belongs in consideration.

Awards
5 Oscars (Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Makeup)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Special Effects)
8 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up/Hair)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Saturn nomination (Special Effects)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Action Sequence for the Normandy landings. It lost to Armageddon.)

What the Critics Said
“hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he’s also done something morally heroic in the process. Private Ryan clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war — the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies — is hell on earth. Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. […] He’s a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.” — Paul Tatara, CNN

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – where [Spielberg] thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in its construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic auteur is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but its only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal.” — Mark Walker, Marked Movies

Verdict

Is Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? Maybe. The relatively simple story allows it to explore the mindset of the soldiers making the first forays into Europe after D-Day, both their camaraderie as a group of men and the actions they took to function through the experience. It’s certainly the most influential World War 2 movie of modern times — nearly 20 years later, its desaturated colour palette remains de rigueur for films set in the war. So too its realistic depiction of combat, which is more plausible than some of the Boy’s Own adventures that came before, though not so ridiculously gruelling as some that have come in its wake. Personally, the only superior WW2 ‘film’ I can think of is Band of Brothers, and considering that has ten hours to explore its characters and situations, it’s not really a fair comparison.

#80 will be… a very different Spielberg/WW2 story.