Frame 2: Another Psalm 12

As I recently read, ruminated upon, and prayed Psalm 12 aloud, I found that oh-so-predictable Bible magic happening again: The scripture proved itself a living word. The words seemed to revise themselves upon their canvas. That is to say, they applied almost too perfectly to the world I'm living in, the troubles happening all around me... and within me.

Here is how this particular psalm, as I read it in the ESV, sang itself like a new song. The italicized words here are those that seemed to revise themselves as I read.

Save the world, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful — yes, those who are truly faithful to the Gospel of "love your neighbor" —  have vanished from among the children of man. Well, it certainly seems like they're vanishing, anyway.

Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. (And by the way, Save me, Lord, for I know you know that I do this, too.)

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips (and all flattering tweets), and cut off the tongue that makes great boasts — whether they be about himself or his self-interested supporters — those who say, “With our slogans and our red hats we will prevail, our nationalist propaganda is with us; who is master over us?”

"Because the 99%, the immigrants, and the refugees are plundered, because the needy groan — especially those African Americans still waiting to experience equality, and those children who are suffering inside American cages, stolen from their parents, traumatized for life, sick without their medication — I will now arise,” says the Lord; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

Remember, then, your promises, O Lord! You told us that these we have treated as 'the least' and 'the last,' they shall be first, and no white-supremacist agenda will go unnoticed by your omniscience or escape your justice.

You, O Lord, will keep them — all my neighbors, brown and black, Jew and Muslim, Mexican and South American — you will guard them from this [hateful, cruel, hard-hearted, "Christian"] generation forever. Even if they die under this oppression, you will be ever faithful to them, and they will not fall beyond the reach of your grace.

On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted — on the news, in the White House, and beyond.

God, do bless America ... but bless America just as America blesses those who come to it for help. If such suffering is what it will take to wake up American hearts, let it be.

And to those with eyes to see, those with ears to hear, Lord, send comfort, hope, and swift relief from this fear-poisoned nation, this hypocrite, Anti-Christ church.

Let this present darkness only amplify my exaltation of your love, O Lord. Let it not darken my heart into any loss of compassion or grace.

[This personal revision is based on the English Standard Version of Psalm 12.]

Of course, the Psalms give us examples of all of the thoughts and feelings that God allows us, even invites us, to raise up to him. In praying words like these, we are not guaranteed that God will act as we would wish him to. It's more likely that, in the act of praying, we might discover our own weaknesses and blindspots. And so I offer this as a sincere prayer, but also expecting that I will, in time, see the flaws within my own fervor, my own heart.

And I am finding other psalms, more contemporary laments, that suit these circumstances beautifully as well. Consider this, my favorite song about America, my own National Anthem, composed and sung by Joe Henry:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cflReZ1nZDA


[Comments are welcome. I will read them. But I will only post the comments I'm grateful to have read. Mean-spirited comments will not only be rejected — the senders will be blocked.] 


My 'Nai Nai' ... and why I don't care for The Farewell

What I am about to say about The Farewell, which is currently enjoying an almost 100% positive showing on Rotten Tomatoes, is likely to make me sound callous, hard-hearted, and mysteriously immune to whatever has touched so many critics so deeply. It's a "perfect movie," they've said. It "delivers powerful emotional blows"; it's "poignant and funny"; and is, for one Rolling Stone critic, "one of the most genuinely moving films I've ever seen at Sundance."

It may also sound dismissive toward a film that carries particular significance for American immigrants, particularly Chinese-American immigrants who have family on the other side of the globe.

To moviegoers deeply moved by the film's adoring portrait of a charismatic grandmother, and by how it reminds them of the grandparents they have loved and lost, my response might seem downright heartless.

My response may be most surprising and disappointing of all... to me. As a Chinese cinema enthusiast, and as a teacher who seeks every opportunity to introduce American students to movies depicting cultures beyond their borders, I was eager to see this film even before that Tomato-meter heated up.

In The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina, center) can't understand why her parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) have decided to lie to her grandmother.

So, let me preface my comments by encouraging you to go see The Farewell for yourself. You're unlikely to experience the movie the way I did. It's inspiring a rare moment of near-unanimous praise. What's more, it's easy to feel, as the movie unfolds, just how personal the story is for director Lulu Wang. (You can read about that in David Fear's Rolling Stone interview.) The cast is a gifted ensemble, all of whom show remarkable restraint where so many actors would have aimed for big Oscar moments. It illustrates a scenario that will inspire many to recall some of their family's most poignant and painful experiences. If you see The Farewell, I think you'll find your time at the movies well-spent. And if you go with friends or family you will have much to talk about afterward.

I recommend it.

My description of the film in the upcoming paragraphs describe only my experience of it, and my best assessment of why I found myself unmoved.

And, lest you you mistakenly assume from my experience of The Farewell that I must have never loved a grandmother, let me tell you: Elizabeth Rydman, "Mama," my grandmother, was an American ideal in the role.


When I think of her, I breathe in aromatic memories. I remember Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter — all of the holidays that mattered — as waves of smells both savory and sweet, as she, in the house that her husband had built, hosted lavish multi-course meals. She'd scoff when we called for her to join us at the table; it was her choice to remain busy in the kitchen, setting an example that my mother would follow, so committed to serving, and so highly praised for doing so, that she could not rest even for a moment to join the conversation at the table. (I felt guilty for sitting and eating in her absence, and I absorbed at a very young age the idea that total self-denial was godliness. It troubled me. The fellowship at the table seemed important.)

As she always aimed to look her best, her bathroom's Aquanet hairspray haze stung my eyes, overpowering the perfumes of decorative soaps. How I feared the chemical tang that meant Mama, my mother, and my aunt were "getting permanents" (they rarely said perms).

In which my grandmother presents me with two hand puppets for Christmas.

I loved her. She always greeted my brother Jason and me with hugs. Whenever my parents announced that Jason and I would be staying with Mama and Papa for a weekend, I received this as a gift; I never understood that this was a convenient excuse for my parents to break free from the burdens of parenthood. I took it as an opportunity to play in the wonderland of her backyard, with its berry vines, fruit trees (plum, pear, and apple), and surprisingly successful rows of Portland-grown corn.

My family was quiet about the details when she was dying. Even though I was in my late teens, I did not know what exactly was happening. But I did grieve. I still do, for I lost not only the grandmother I loved but the world that she made possible. Living at the intersection of strictly conservative Republican politics and legalistic evangelical Christianity, fully inhabiting the role prescribed for her there, Mama somehow moved with grace and generosity. In spite of the not-so-Christian values of that time and place, I still remember her as a saint.


And so, I am ready to be moved by great films about grandmothers.

Not just American grandmothers, mind you — there is something about the benevolent warmth of a grandmother that transcends culture, country, and era. In fact, when I think of movies that have gripped me with grief at the loss of a grandmother, the first that springs to mind is Yi-Yi, Edward Yang's last and greatest film, which showed us a family taking turns at the bedside of their matriarch and speaking to her in hopes of awakening her from a coma. Yi-Yi is a rich, complex portrait of a Taiwanese family at a crossroads. And I thought about it a lot while watching The Farewell.

The PR synopsis describes a film in which Billi, a Chinese-American who has been striving in New York to win a Guggenheim fellowship, rushes back to Changchun to "fellowship" with her family as they assemble around Billi's dying grandmother. There, the press release tells us, she has "a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child."

Billi (Awkwafina) really, really loves her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), and can't bear the thought of losing her.

I don't see much about Billi's cultural "rediscovery" here. Sure, she's back in China. And she's baffled by the Chinese inclination to conceal terminal diagnoses from dying patients. But she is focused almost entirely on that one thing in every scene: her family's troubling determination to hide from Nai Nai (Mandarin for “grandmother”) the doctor's belief that lung cancer will take her life in matter of days. This decision is common, we're told, so that the family can "carry the emotional burden" and allow Nai Nai to enjoy her last days in blissful ignorance. Billi, influenced by her American upbringing, spends almost every scene emoting despondence and frustration, too busy sulking and angsting to concern herself much with a reawakening to the wonders of her country of origin.

The closest thing to suspense in this movie comes from what we've been conditioned to expect by more conventionally dramatic films: we're constantly teased with the possibility that Billi might violate the charade and blurt out the truth. Most sequences attend to her struggle to hold back, or her family members' crises of conscience under the burden of their decision.

While the family suffers from the doctor's diagnosis, Nai Nai would rather play matchmaker between a handsome bachelor and her granddaughter. (Thank goodness that idea doesn't become a major plot point.)

This simple but dominant narrative focus fails to engage me for the simple reason that this family is terrible at concealing their dread, and even worse at staging an extravagant event as a distraction.

In rushing Billi's young cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) into a wedding that he and his fiancee Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) are clearly unprepared for, simply to have an excuse for assembling the scattered relatives and surrounding Nai Nai, they ask the audience to believe that such a ruse could work. I spent the movie feeling sorry for the anxious and unromantic couple whose tenuous connection is being exploited for the sake of protecting an old woman's feelings. In a broad comedy — and, strangely, some of the reviews seem to think it is a broad comedy, when the film, for most of its running time plays somber and even sullen notes — we could have laughed the family's strategy off as absurd. But that's just the thing: The movie struck me as too serious to shrug off the scheming. It's unbalanced, occasionally overplaying some of its one-note characters for laughs while also asking us to experience it as a somber meditation on cultural differences between East and West on the subject of death.

I laughed out loud only once. Mostly, I just sat quietly waiting for surprises or complexities that never came; the movie unfolded for me as a progression of obvious chords, played repetitively and softly. I'm grateful that for Wang's inclinations toward quietness; I'd rather a movie like this whisper than shout. (I find many Korean melodramas difficult in their tendency toward emotional hysterics.) But there's a difference between artful subtlety and dullness.

Nai Nai — isn't she too bright to be fooled by her family's conspiracy?

If I'm to consider whether The Farewell is an observant commentary on cultural differences, sure — Billi wrestles with how the West's focus on individualism and independence clashes with China's focus on the family. And that's a subject well worth exploring. But I felt this film only scratched the surface, never offering more than its own trailer had offered on the subject, and allowing characters to point out the obvious at almost every turn. And I certainly didn't learn anything about China.

Nor did I ever experience the admiration for Nai Nai herself that many critics are celebrating. Sure, as played by the spirited Shuzhen Zhou, this grandmother has some gumption. But she also seemed confoundingly oblivious in the midst of her family's unpersuasive charade. The ad copy promises a film about how Billi realizes "her grandmother's wondrous spirit." Hmm. A scene in which this two of them move through some exercises, breathing and rejoicing, and asserting life, is not enough to earn that description. And Billi doesn't seem surprised by how her grandmother is taking the family reunion.

At times, I began to think the movie could take an interesting turn if we began to believe that Nai Nai knew all along, and was choosing to feign ignorance for the sake of saving her family from the discomfort they would experience if they knew that she knew. Some may argue that the film is doing just that, but I never saw enough evidence. The film is too preoccupied with Billi, whose whole purpose in this film seems to be to worry about Nai Nai. As the protagonist, and one through whose eyes we are supposed to experience everything, Billi never becomes a three-dimensional character; her life outside of this crisis, outside of these feelings about her grandmother, don't have enough presence for me to find her interesting.

In a rare moment, Billi shakes off her doldrums to join her grandmother's workout.

And this brings me to Awkwafina's celebrated performance. As a comic actress, Awkwafina nearly stole Crazy Rich Asians right out from under its own extravagance. On the way out of that movie, she was the one most moviegoers were talking about. Flamboyant, quick-witted, bouncing around the screen, she was hilarious. It made me resent Ocean's Eight in retrospect for neglecting her. In The Farewell, she gives one of those performances that critics celebrate for how they prove an actor's range. And yes, she proves here that she's just fine in a dramatic role. But this performance didn't strike me as particularly complicated or nuanced, probably because the screenplay ties her down; I think a lot of people are mistaking contrast (with her Crazy Rich Asians performance) for complexity.

I'm pleasantly surprised to find A.O. Scott (with whom I often disagree) voicing some of the same frustrations in his New York Times review:

... [T]here is also something hesitant about the way Wang turns this beguiling family story into a film, an unwillingness to push too hard into potentially painful emotional territory, which also keeps the comedy in check. ... Aside from the irrepressible Nai Nai, who gets all of the good lines and most of the best camera angles, the other family members are thinly drawn.

That includes Billi herself, whose life outside the family is barely sketched in and whose inner life rarely emerges into view. Awkwafina ... vanishes into Billi’s moods rather than illuminating them. Her performance seems cautious and defended in a way that characterizes “The Farewell” as a whole. Its affection for its characters feels protective; the film is reluctant to spill any secrets or cause any embarrassment.

But finally, it's the film lack of complexity as a motion picture, above all, that leaves me unmoved. One of the measures of a great filmmaker is the extent to which they treat the screen as a canvas and tell a story with pictures, rather than merely filming people as they talk or emote. Imagery in The Farewell is almost entirely matter-of-fact, offering very few flourishes that I'd consider to be suggestive or poetic in any way. Its lack of close-ups is an effective method for underlining the story's emphasis on community. But the only flourish of visual poetry that I noticed arrived abruptly at the end, which seemed strikingly out of step with the style established in the preceding — was it only 90 minutes? With its redundancy and lack of surprises, the movie felt so much longer than that.

I spent my time looking for nuances that would make me believe. But in the end, I didn't believe in this family any more than I believed in Billi's big moment, when she's supposed to be channeling all of her frustration and passion into a spirited performance at the piano, and Wang blocks the image to conceal Awkwafina's forearms and hands, utterly failing to hide the fact that she's not actually playing at all.

As I departed the theater, feeling out of place in a crowd of sniffling and exuberant moviegoers, all I could think about was how eager I was to watch Yi Yi again.

Maybe this movie's reception has more to do with the intensity of the memories it stirs up in its audience than it has to do with the quality of the movie itself.

Or maybe my soul is dead.

I don't know. Go see it.


Frame 1: Intersection

Journal pages.

July 24, 2019

The sun has bent down to peer beneath the heavy blanket of a cloud-shadowed day. We cannot see her face — the drama breaks behind a stand of evergreens just west of the house — but we know by the luminous evidence, by how the clouds are warmed to gold by her surprise.

As if feeling relief and permission now to rest, our windows begin to forget their concerns about the screaming fire station next door to the east, our immigrant neighbors' newly painted home (strangely empty) to the west. The day's dramas begin to fade from the large front window above my antique writing desk — the rumble of traffic and the murmur of pedestrians down our street, still busy behind the permeable barrier of branches, our lethargic Japanese maple, our stealthy ivies (a large-leafed "Crimson Glory" intimately entwined with a grapevine that is already exploding with firm green clusters of promises).

We are quiet together, Anne and I. We are weary. Everything feels like an echo, distant, in this new hollow of a recent harrowing: a father whose sudden departure we have only begun to grieve.

We've raised a few of the old vintage panes in their rickety wooden frames so we can hear the evening breathing through this house. But we pull the shades now, drape a string of white sparks — Christmas lights — across our western window above the dinner table, and turn on two tower lamps in the living room whose warm glow recalls the sunset's fleeting flare.

Our focus turns to what's indoors, a space that is, itself, streaming with currents.

Anne is on the burgundy couch, the pink veins of her earbuds heartbeating her music from the laptop that shines like a bright morning window beside her. I can't see what she is seeing in that frame, but she is smiling.

Behind the screen, framed by stacks of freshly folded underwear and socks, the large black cat, Mardukas, all muscle and twitching, is deeply in dreams.

I'm in high-backed red chair, the one that might feel like a throne if I did not still vividly remember the humiliating spectacle I became for the whole neighborhood as I awkwardly wrestled it home from an estate sale a few blocks away. Slumped in its forgiving arms, I write with my back to the writing desk and the front window. I am trying to bring something to the page, and it, too, is unwieldy — I won't know what it is until I set it down.

Between the chair and the desk waits our long blue suitcase, its canvas frame already half-packed with clothes in stacks, books, pill bottles, a zipper case full of blu-rays and DVDs for our upcoming trip to Santa Fe — only four days from now.

On the big screen, the film 24 Frames is playing, a sequence of still photographs teased into subtle life by imaginative digital artists: views of landscapes, weather, and animals as captured, imagined, enhanced, and dreamed by Abbas Kiarostami, who recently passed. Each view, for almost five minutes, is blessedly free of talk, opening and closing uncertainly, like a prayer. We have traded our windows for someone else's.

A breeze from the Pacific has come up the hill to cool us, while wind from our TV's sound bar testifies of past storms in Iran, while we dream of sipping smoked sage margaritas and savoring the Santa Fe monsoons to come.

I pick up the new collection of Scott Cairns poetry and read of a memory of a boy who, standing at the Pacific Ocean's edge, looks into the distance with a sense of something yet to be revealed.

"Ave Maria," sung in a soprano's reverie, fills up the open space like wine.

Zooey, our lean and anxious tortoise-shell cat, skulks into the room, springs onto Anne's lap, settles, perches, hunches on her knee, and scowls at me. In all of these crisscrossing currents of light and air and sound and thought and memory and dream and attention, she is fixed on the one thing that angers her: the sense that we are leaning — slow, quiet, intent — toward departure.


Why I need Terry Gilliam's Quixotica

Here it is — at last! It’s 2019, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available for rent on Amazon Prime and elsewhere.

I admit, I felt a little guilty paying only four bucks to watch it, knowing how much the movie cost its maker. I was also nervous.

Would it be any good?

Would Gilliam, bruised and beleaguered, deliver a satisfying motion picture based on inspiration that was more than three decades old?

*

And the answer is…

... published at Good Letters over at Image.


Georgia O'Keeffe and others review The Lion King (2019)

This observation from Georgia O'Keeffe may be all I need to explain why I'm not particularly interested in director Jon Favreau's new version of The Lion King.

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

I agree.

If an artist's primary goal is to make something "lifelike" — that is, if they're just trying to produce something that matches what we see in the "real world" — they are reducing art to a paint-by-numbers game, a chance to show off their ability to duplicate the details that they perceive.

That's not art. Art is an interpretation. As the great novelist Chaim Potok said in a Mars Hill Review interview, art is “a relational experience. Art happens somewhere along a relational arc, between what you are and the object of creation."

That is to say — art is made up of imaginative decisions, decisions that reveal the artist's human experience of something, and that goes beyond the mere facts of the information registering in the device of the eye.

The Lion King, if is to be remade, opens up an opportunity for a thoughtful new experience of ideas we've encountered before.

Like Simba stepping into Mufasa's footprint, this remake reportedly has a long way to go to equal the impact of the original.

The original Lion King is not a film I particularly like. I find its storyline to be made of some of myth-making's most familiar and basic beats, and I don't find a lot to admire in the distinctive details of its story — especially in its uninspiring "hero," who are are led to root for primarily because he has been harmed, not for any remarkable aspects of his character or convictions. However, there is some beauty and artistry in some of its animation, some personality in its voice work, and some catchy (but also blandly commercial) characteristics in its Broadway-boilerplate songs.

So, no — I'm not hurrying out to see this new Lion King. I invite you to challenge me, to change my mind. Tell me what I'm missing that was worth the $15 ticket. Otherwise, I'm going to save my time and money for more interesting cinema.

To borrow a word from one of my favorite critics, the greatest threat against little Simba isn't a predator. It's "taxidermy."

And I really am open to having my mind changed.

After all, I wasn't particularly interested in seeing Jon Favreau's remake of The Jungle Book, and I ended up enjoying it very much — as did Steven Greydanus of The National Catholic Register, who ventures to explain why that remake is so much better than Favreau's new Lion King movie. (See the link below.)


If you're looking for a more detailed review from someone who's seen it, I recommend the following:

Steven D. Greydanus at Decent Films:

[T]he programmatic decision to follow the original virtually shot for shot and line for line — more slavishly even than Beauty and the Beast or this spring’s Aladdin — forces us to constantly gauge the diminished emotional impact of each line and moment, if we know it well, against the original.

...

The melancholy thing is that, of the three Renaissance cartoons adapted to date, The Lion King was the one I felt had the most room for improvement — and, after The Jungle Book, Favreau was the one guy I would have liked to see take a shot at it.

...

Alas, the mission wasn’t to improve The Lion King, only to mount it as realistically as possible. Favreau wasn’t hired as a creative, but as a taxidermist.

Justin Chang at NPR (listen below):

The [movie] plays like a Hollywood blockbuster disguised as a National Geographic documentary, or perhaps the world's most expensive safari-themed karaoke video. The movie feels both overwhelmed by its technical virtuosity and shackled by its fidelity to the source material.

...

I've never been the biggest fan of the original Lion King, which beneath its brightly entertaining surface has always struck me as too emotionally calculated by half. But that film feels like a triumph of form and content next to this movie, because its story about a fictional animal kingdom feels so vividly and gloriously cartoonish in every detail. The new Lion King is so realistic-looking that, paradoxically, you can't believe a moment of it. And although it was directed by Jon Favreau, who previously shepherded a wild menagerie in his recent remake of The Jungle Book, it has none of the imagination that made that movie more than just a high-tech retread.

And then there's David Ehrlich at indieWire:

... [T]he animation is just bland in a way that saps the characters of their personalities. Scar used to be a Shakespearian villain brimming with catty rage and closeted frustration; now, he’s just a lion who sounds like Chiwetel Ejiofor. Simba used to be a sleek upstart whose regal heritage was tempered by youthful insecurity; now he’s just a lion who sounds like Donald Glover. Watching them come to blows against a realistic-but-dull background suggests that Favreau was so busy trying to figure out if he could, that he never stopped to consider if he should.

On a conceptual level, “The Lion King” betrays the power of the hand-drawn artwork that once put the wonder into Disney animation from its earliest features. Favreau’s movie fails to grapple with how the unreality of the studio’s lush 2D artwork unlocked kids’ imagination and made it so much fun to suspend disbelief; the digital wizardry denies our minds the permission they need to dream. Julie Taymor’s award-winning Broadway adaptation is so transportive because it celebrates its artifice, not in spite of it.

Sean Burns at WBUR writes,

Even the vocal performances are strangely subdued, as if everyone were trying to keep from sounding too much like they’re in a cartoon. The wild oranges and purples from the original film are replaced by gloomy shades of beige. (I could be heard loudly complaining in the lobby afterwards that at the climax you’ve got two beige cats fighting in front of an oatmeal rock with some brown grass on the ground.) Every aesthetic choice here has been made to tone down the material, making it less vivid, less expressive, less animated.

I didn't go looking for four harmonious complaints. I just read the first four reviews that I could find by critics I regularly consult.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TavVZMewpY


Toy Story 4 and the Gabby Gabby problem

In Part One of my (yes, long-winded) response to Toy Story 4, I wrote about how much I'd dreaded this film — and then about how it surprised and impressed me.

In Part Two, I wrote about one major storyline — the introduction and redemption of Forky — and how it substantially expands the Toy Story franchise's exploration of childhood, imagination, and the meaning of life.

But now, in Part Three, I need to address that other major Toy Story 4 storyline: the one about Gabby Gabby, the movie's antique pull-string antagonist, and her ventriloquist-dummy henchmen (all named Benson). Alas, I cannot write about this without without revealing certain knots that complicate this narrative thread.

So, in other words, I'm going to get into details best categorized as

Major End-of-the-Movie Spoilers.

If you haven't seen Toy Story 4, I advise you to abandon this post and preserve the surprises.


As Woody tries to save the day when Bonnie (the child to whom Woody and the gang belong) and Forky (Bonnie's first homemade toy) are separated, he stumbles onto an old flame: Bo Peep, with her sheep—Billy, Goat, and Gruff—in tow.

It turns out that the flirtatious Bo (voiced here by Annie Potts) was given away earlier in the saga; she didn't end up in Bonnie's toy box with the rest of the familiar heroes.

Still, she's remained in Woody's heart. And when he rediscovers her in an antique shop during his far-from-home adventure with Forky, he enlists her help in reuniting Bonnie with her prized plastic invention. But then Woody and the rest of us discover that we're dealing with Bo Peep 2.0: a strong-willed, independent hero obviously inspired by Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road.

This isn't the Bo you think you know, Woody.

Woody doesn't anticipate just how this reunion will complicate matters. Long story short, Forky is taken hostage by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who, stuck in an antique store for years and longing to be loved by a child, spends her days being treated like royalty by her voiceless dummy henchmen. Don't worry about Forky: he's too oblivious to understand that Gabby is using him to bait Woody into a trap. It's Woody we need to worry about.

Why is Woody in danger? Gabby has rather unsettling ambitions here: She was defective "right out of the box," and she knows that Woody contains the piece she needs: an old-fashioned pull-string voice box.

And so Toy Story 4 also becomes a movie about how we cope with the many and varied ways in which we are "broken"—or, at least, how we perceive brokenness.

In this sense, Gabby Gabby's narrative reminds me of the classic children's story Corduroy, about a department store teddy bear who loses a button and spends the night searching the store to get it back. Remember that story? Corduroy  tries too hard, seizes upon the wrong solution, and ends up back on the shelf—unsold, unloved, and despairing.

But Corduroy does find wholeness—not from finding a button, but from realizing that there is a love in the world big enough to embrace us for who we are... in spite of our missing pieces. He is eventually repaired, but only as a gesture of kindness after learning that Love doesn't count our pieces and find us lacking.

Gabby doesn't have the patience to learn that lesson. Not yet anyway. She's determined to take what she wants, even if she has to dismember a stranger to get it.

Don't let those baby-doll eyes deceive you: Gabby Gabby wants to tear Woody apart.

If it sounds upsetting, it is.

In fact, my friend and my favorite film critic Steven "SDG" Greydanus of The National Catholic Register and Decent Films—whose area of expertise is the realm of art and entertainment intended for all-ages—is particularly upset with how Gabby's part in this story plays out. The fact that Gabby wants "wants to forcibly steal an organ from Woody" and that she finds "kidnapping and hostage-taking ... acceptable means to that end" create, in SDG's mind, certain obligations on the part of the storytellers.

In his review for The National Catholic Register, Greydanus laments that after Gabby's selfish agenda is made clear, "the movie seamlessly transitions into quasi-redemption for poor Gabby, who has never been loved by a child and blames her defective voice box. And Woody, moved to pity despite himself, but still under duress, surrenders his voice box to get Forky back."

He finds it "horrifying" that, after this disturbing deed is done, "[Gabby's] story ends happily—all with no sign of real contrition or making amends to Forky or Woody."

I confess that I read Greydanus's review before seeing the movie (and suffered some spoilers as a result). So I was prepared, going in, to agree with him—as I almost always do. I was ready to be distraught and perhaps even a bit, um, furiosa.

I understand Greydanus's objections. And I do think the film would have been stronger if it had given this particular twist a bit more attention. But as I watched the film, I experienced this sequence of events somewhat differently.

I found Gabby Gabby's initial violence in trying to steal the voice box alarming—no doubt about it. And, in the back-and-forth, the push and the pull, Woody rightly resists her. But then (bless his cotton-stuffing heart!), Woody finds compassion for Gabby. He determines to treat her not as an enemy, but as a potential blessing for a needy child. He finds empathy for her. Just as he has counseled Forky that he can become more than trash, he sees the same potential in Gabby Gabby. The only difference is that she, unlike Forky, has always aspired to be loved.

Woody dissolves the conflict between them. He listens. And then, in an act of astonishing grace, he willingly and generously gives her the voice box.

This is significant for all kinds of reasons. Here are two:

Woody's fears come out of the antique-store woodwork: These dummies want to take the stuffing out of him.

First, Woody's sacrifice affirms what others have observed about Woody's virtues. Bo herself defends his character, declaring, "He's always trying to do right by his kid." Bo's tiny sidekick Giggle McDimples (who looks and sounds a lot like Peanuts' Lucy in Angry Mode) responds, "That kinda crazy loyalty?" Bo, who seems likely to scoff, instead answers with deep admiration, and maybe even a bit of a crush: "You gotta love him for it."

Second, Woody's sacrifice reveals that he is turning a corner. He is beginning to accept that he is no longer the Top Toy. Andy doesn't need him, and Bonnie seems almost indifferent to him in view of her new love of making toys. Woody has already learned to do what he can with whatever is in front of him to "do right by his kid." But Woody doesn't really have a kid anymore — not really. Bonnie doesn't seem likely to notice if he's gone. He realizes that the thing to do at this moment is to donate — to contribute a missing piece that only he can provide — so that another toy can have an experience he's already had, and so that another child can find her perfect imaginary friend.

Greydanus argues,

The only way Gabby’s redemption could possibly have worked would be if she had a change of heart before taking Woody’s voice box, unconditionally liberated Forky, and perhaps made some effort to help reunite them with Bonnie, leaving Woody free to voluntarily donate his voice box without duress.

The idea that we’re meant to root for Gabby’s happiness with a child after her unconscionable actions, with no actual redemption on her part, is just bizarre.... especially given Pixar’s stellar track record on flawed characters taking responsibility for their actions.

But that's just it: Gabby's actions end up as something different than the theft that she endeavored, at first, to perform. The conversation changes. A contract is reached. Gabby isn't dismembering a stranger and stealing from him. Instead, she makes a desperate plea — a plea that, while still brusque and self-centered, comes from a place of genuine longing. Woody, while uncomfortable, agrees. He makes the sacrifice. And he does it with the belief that it will be good for both a kid and for Gabby Gabby. It's a revelation of his heart expanding, an increase in his understanding of the shapes that love can take.

Then what happens? As if to emphasize that this exchange is no longer coercion but consensual, Gabby Gabby thanks Woody. Repeatedly.

And Woody, smarting from the surgery, replies, "You're welcome."

What follows is a stroke of Pixar genius: Forky encourages Woody to stay and watch the big moment when the sacrifice is rewarded and the fully-functional Gabby is recognized as worthy of a child's love. But instead of seeing Gabby, now technically "repaired," receiving the love she's always wanted, Forky and Woody are witness to a painful rejection. The child (her name, Harmony, turns out to be ironic) isn't interested in Gabby. And Gabby learns that no self-alteration, no surgery, makes her any more worthy of love. (After all, if material perfection is what makes us lovable, how do we explain Forky?)

Woody could seize this moment and get loudly and rightfully righteous. He could demand his voice box back. He could launch into a sermon and seize this "teachable moment." But he doesn't. He sees the more immediate and urgent need. He sees Gabby in her desolation. Sure — we might all feel a surge of smug piety if this became a moment of reprimand. But that wouldn't help anybody. When Gabby insists that Harmony was her "only chance" at, well, harmony, Woody assures her that it wasn't. "A friend once told me, 'There are plenty of kids out there.'"

And he's right. While the whole ordeal seems to have been for naught, there is, in fact, a little girl nearby who needs to cope with her own dismaying experience of family separation by loving someone else.

All things, even the mistakes, end up working together for good. Gabby is shown mercy. And Woody sacrifice is blessed.


I'm reminded of another Disney story: "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," an animated featurette included in the film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Do you remember this story? When a windstorm blows Owl's house down from its tree, the Hundred-Acre Wood gang is distraught. Eeyore, however, happens upon a house that he announces as a solution. Everyone follows him and discovers that that gloomy donkey has mistaken Piglet's house for an unclaimed domicile.

What to do? Should Eeyore be reprimanded for not paying attention? Should his mistake be announced? Should he learn a lesson about knowing what he's talking about before creating a situation that's awkward for everybody?

That's not what this story is about. The community is careful not to embarrass or punish Eeyore for his ignorance. The real lesson here is in what comes next: Piglet, in an extravagant act of generosity, decides to congratulate Eeyore, give up his house to Owl (who really does need one, after all), and to move in with his friend Pooh. Pooh consents, and the Hundred-Acre Wood becomes a better place altogether for the remarkable exhibition of generosity on Piglet's part.

Granted, Gabby Gabby's behavior early in Toy Story 4 are selfish and wicked, where Eeyore's are merely block-headed. But the folly of her disordered priorities becomes clear. And the moment becomes, like Eeyore's mistake, an occasion that reveals another character's large-heartedness.

Woody, having already known the ideal joy of a perfect child-and-toy relationship, accepts that those days are over, and invests in an opportunity for a neglected toy to become what she was meant to be. He sacrifices for someone else's joy.


As we learn at the end, Woody's decision was just a prelude to an even bigger decision indicating a shift happening in his heart: He's determining not to go on as just another toy in a toy box. He knows he can do better than to sit forgotten in a closet longing to be Someone's Special Someone again.

He sees that Bonnie's engagement with toys is different than Andy's. Forky is her #1, and the gang doesn't really need Woody's leadership the way that they did. He has to acknowledge, and wisely so, that he has better options than being the toy left in the toy cabinet (although that experience did inspire his capacity to feel for Gabby Gabby, who's been left in a cabinet for many years).

Choosing to go with Bo, for whom he is a Special Someone, and too experience new adventures with her — adventures that are, in fact, shaped by her care for other toys and for children — strikes me as a brilliant new frontier for this ex-Sheriff. Like a father who realizes that his life won't always be primarily about parenting, Woody is taking steps toward an adventurous retirement... with Bo.

And thank goodness that Woody isn't rewarded for his heroics with the trophy of a female toy who can't be complete without him. Woody doesn't need a romantic accessory or an assistant, and neither does Bo. They choose an equal (and, yes, romantic) partnership that will increase the joy of their experiences beyond the parent/child... I mean, toy/child relationship.

Listening to Bo Peep, I'm reminded of how many women I admire who have escaped the ridiculous but prevalent notion that their value is determined by their attractiveness to men, by their capacity for motherhood, or other meaningful but limited avenues of identity. I'm also reminded of young people find the confidence to overcome feeble notions of inadequacy they've been taught by unloving families.

As Jessica Chastain's character taught her children in The Tree of Life, "If you do not love, your life will pass you by." How we interpret this wisdom depends on the largeness and versatility of our definition of love. In this surprising story of Bo Peep's influence in Woody's life, we see that love can take all kinds of shapes.

And maybe our favorite Sheriff is more versatile, more flexible, than he knew. At the end, he's reaching for the sky.


Why complain if The Greatest Trilogy of All Time can expand to become a Tetralogy, one that, in taking some impressive risks, leaves characters in a place that you prefer to the place they end up at the end of Chapter Three?

What if it expands and deepens the poetic vocabulary of what the relationships between the toys and the kids who love them into life can really mean?

What if it's the funniest chapter of the franchise so far, and—animation-wise—the most visually impressive?

I've come around. I've changed my mind. I'm willing to take more chances now with sequels, so long as storytellers know what they're doing, and so long as they respect the integrity of the giants whose shoulders they're standing upon.

But wait... what's this?

There's a new TV series coming that adds all-new chapters to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings? And it's being run by the guy who made Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom?!

No! This is too much! Make it stop! Why would anyone be so foolish as to mess with perfection? I'm against it. Don't do this. Please. Nothing good can come from it at all.


Let's talk trash: Toy Story... 4-ky!

This is Part Two of Looking Closer's review of Toy Story 4.
Part One was posted previously. Note: Part Three concerns the ending of the film, and includes spoilers.


Forky might have just become another piece of plastic polluting a park or an ocean.

He began as a spork, after all—that most disposable of utensils. But then Bonnie, during her first day of kindergarten, asked that most dangerous question—"What if...?"—and gave him an extreme makeover. Thanks to her creative genius, Forky was born. He's not the handsomest toy in the world—he looks like a cross between the flabbergasted fellow in Edvard Munch's The Scream and a high-anxiety spoon critic in an apocalyptic Todd Herzfeldt cartoon. That doesn't matter. What matters is this: He's alive... he's alive! 

But will Forky stay alive?

In the early stages of Toy Story 4, this seems to be the plot's primary question. Forky, believing he's nothing but a spork, believes he's destined for nothing but the trash. But Bonnie loves him and needs him. And Sheriff Woody, who knows a thing or two about bonds between children and toys, and who values nothing more than a child's happiness, is determined to make this work. Whatever magic brought Forky and Bonnie together, well... Woody won't let anything tear them asunder.

And so, these Pixar storytellers have discovered an inspiring redemption story. In their gamble to enhance the already miraculous Toy Story world, they've stumbled onto one of its greatest inventions. Voiced perfectly (and with remarkable restraint) by Tony Hale, Forky spends much of the movie wrestling with his existential crisis — and in doing so, he becomes the funniest member of Woody's community yet.

And what a relief that is!

Watching trailers for Toy Story 4, which made Forky look like the movie's main character, I feared two likely outcomes: that he'd become for Pixar what Jar-Jar Binks was for Star Wars, or that he'd end up serving as little more than a prompt to talk about identity politics. (Being unclassifiable by the binary categories of fork or spoon, Forky looked custom-made to serve an LGBTQ spokesperson.)

Note: If you're bothered by what I've just said, check the Footnote at the end of this post.

Forky, thank goodness, is not the propaganda I feared he would be. He's an honest-to-goodness Toy Story character who earns his place in good company.

This scene about Woody and Forky ends up resembling a music video for U2's "One": "We've got to carry each other...."

Moreover, Forky expands this franchise's vocabulary about the nature of creativity and play.

Assembled from a spork, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes, Forky's been loved into life by a child who can envision unlikely possibilities. Suddenly self-aware, he panics, knowing only that sporks are meant to be disposable. He doesn't understand what he has become: a new creature, designed to delight his Maker, capable of more than he knows. "I'm trash!" he repeatedly and smilingly asserts—and he'll amount to nothing more than that if he refuses to consider larger possibilities than he's known. To become his "best self," Forky needs to slow down, pay attention, and discover that he is loved.  

When I laugh as Forky lunges madly, again and again, for any nearby trash can, I'm laughing in recognition. If you're feeling down about yourself, self-destruction can become a compulsion. I suspect that most of us have experienced this to some degree. When I'm feeling low about myself, I'm prone to wasting time with mindless distractions. For others, it might be more drastic forms of self-harm or even suicidal impulses, demonstrations that suggest we believe the worst things that have been said about us. Perhaps Forky can remind us of the absurdity of our baser impulses and the possibility that we might have more potential and value than we ever dreamed.

I encounter an alarming number of students whose insecurities are the result of conditioning—they've been taught, through neglect, abuse, and other love deficiencies, to perceive themselves as trash. (If I'm meeting this many of them in college, imagine how many more, believing themselves to be trash, see the possibility of education as a waste of time and resources.) As hilariously absurd as this combination of plastic and pipe cleaners appears, Forky gives us an outstanding opportunity to talk about a person's confidence and self-knowledge can be transformed by love.

But even this meaningful metaphor does not sum up what I love most about Forky. Above all, I love him because he's a plastic utensil glued to popsicle sticks, wrapped in pipe cleaners, and decorated with googly eyes.

To explain, I have to tell you a story:

When I was a kid, I coveted Star Wars figures, and spent most of my allowance on Star Wars figures. In the early 2000s, as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films arrived, I had a second childhood and bought Middle-Earth action figures with enthusiasm. But the action figure that means the most to me—the one that I've kept within reach from early childhood to this very day—is a cheap Fisher Price figure of a scuba diver.

Here's why: One afternoon in the early 80s, as I was playing with two neighbor kids—a ten-year-old named Lauren and her younger brother Scott—we decided to round up all of our action figures and stuffed animals and dream up a story that would involve all of them. (This was a decade before the first Toy Story.) Right away we decided that these toys needed a leader, a captain, a boss. Since our priority in everything was to make each other laugh, I announced that the leader should be this arbitrary, fish-out-of-water character: this blue-suited scuba diver, whose features had been so cheaply painted on that they had rubbed off years earlier, leaving him faceless.

Here's an image from Collectors.com of the same simple toy that changed my childhood.

"Why should they follow him?" asked Lauren. I answered, "Because he survives anything. Watch." I grabbed a baseball bat, tossed this meaningless toy in the air, and struck him like a slugger. Pieces of this action figure soared and scattered over the roof of the house. Laughing, we dashed from the backyard around the house to the street. And, by sheer luck, we retrieved his pieces, one by one—all except a tiny chunk of his shoulder. Believe it or not—we reassembled him. And we realized that he was, now, more than just a leader for our community of toys. He had been destroyed, and yet he lived again! He was a legend! A mythical hero! A god-man!

"What shall we call him?" I asked. Scott, the youngest (and also the funniest), did not hesitate with his answer: "Jim!" he announced.

And thus, a legend was born. We told stories about Jim. We sang songs about Jim. We illustrated homemade comic books about Jim. Jim became an icon for us. And though I may not have fully understood it at the time, he became more valuable to me than any and all of my Star Wars figures: He represented inspiration. Just as a sock puppet came to life as Kermit the Frog in the hands of Jim Henson, and thus the Muppets were born, so I learned that a whole lot of something can come from almost nothing—that entire worlds can be spoken into existence, even with only a few ridiculous words.

That's why I felt tears sting my eyes more than once during Toy Story 4. I was reminded again of how one crazy little question—"What if...?"—can not only change the world, but it can also create new worlds.

Jim the Scuba Diver is the incarnation, for me, of the power of the imagination. Bonnie doesn't know it yet, but Forky is that for her.

I predict that, by the end of Toy Story 4, you're going to find that Forky an essential new star in the Toy Story galaxy.

But Toy Story 4 isn't just about Forky, as the trailers led me to believe. No—this movie's meditation on the connection between love and identity goes so much farther.

I'll look at that tomorrow, in Part Three. But before you move on to that post, know this: There will be SPOILERS.


Move on now to Part Three, but only if you've seen the movie, as it includes spoilers about the end of the movie.


Footnote:

Regarding my note about fearing that Forky was a prompt to discuss identity politics... don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to addressing questions about sexual identity in art.

We need art that challenges us to move beyond simplistic and harmful binaries that have been naively established and cruelly enforced for much of human history. As someone who ignorantly and arrogantly endorsed a destructive prejudice well into adulthood, I'm grateful that experience has taught me otherwise. Human beings are much more complicated and fluid in their nature than I was conditioned to believe when I was growing up, and the Gospel's summons to love has taught me to favor grace over legalism. As a teacher (and thus, reluctantly, a counselor), I find myself frequently hearing testimonies from students about the harm they've suffered from the prejudice and presumption in their communities, churches, and families. They reject the rigid categories into which so many, for their own comfort and convenience, seem eager to force them. We need stories that lead all of us into a more nuanced, empathetic, and loving understanding.

Having said that, we don't need sermonizing or propaganda about anything from our art — especially from movies made by Pixar, a studio that has wisely avoided any proselytizing so far. As the novelist Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia) once said in a Books and Culture interview,

“Propaganda occurs when a writer is directly trying to persuade, and in that sense, propaganda is not bad. … But persuasion is not story, and when you try to make a story out of persuasion then you’ve done something wrong to the story. You’ve violated the essence of what a story is.”

So, again, I'm relieved that Forky turned out to be so much more than the Toy Story 4 trailers suggested.


Well played, Pixar! Thoughts on Toy Story 4

This is Part One of a three-part series. Don't forget to read Part Two and Part Three.


Early in Toy Story 4, Little Bo Peep, returning to the screen for the first time since Toy Story 2, mentions her faithful sheep — Billy, Goat, and Gruff — and Woody gasps, "They have names?!" She laughs and replies, "You never asked."

It turns out that there's a lot that Woody still doesn't know about his own Toy Story world. There's quite a bit that we still don't know, too.

And that's fine with me. I like unknowns. I like stories that haven't filled in all the blanks, that leave room for me to wonder. (I wish Star Wars  had remained a single trilogy — Episodes 4, 5, and 6 — for the ways in which the limitations of that story inspired imaginations and made that galaxy far, far away seem full of boundless possibilities. Prequels and sequels have reduced that universe to a cosmic round of "It's a Small World.")

Bo Peep has a lot to teach Woody in Toy Story 4. (Disney)

For that very reason, I didn't want Toy Story 4.

I didn't want Toy Story 4 like I didn't want Blade Runner 2049.

Two very different stories, sure. Two entirely different genres. But my objection to the announcement of both sequels was based on the same principle: The Toy Story trilogy (1995, 1999, 2010) and the original Blade Runner (1982) have that rare status of having classic status by satisfying their audiences with something close to perfect storytelling. By fulfilling the promise of their ambitious concepts, by developing compelling characters and meaningful narratives, and by achieving a brilliant balance of closed story arcs and promising loose ends, these movies left almost all moviegoers saying "Let's watch that again!" instead of "Make more!" Both were the fruit of ideal collaborations of innovative imaginations. Adding another chapter to either world, screenwriters would probably propose answers to questions that were a strength of the originals.

Buzz Lightyear and Woody in “Toy Story.” Disney — Pixar, 1995.

It happens several times a year: I find film critics arguing over which franchises are the greatest, and what the proper ranking of the episodes might be. The Toy Story trilogy almost always places near the top of the list, and critics seem to separate almost evenly into camps in choosing which of the three is best.

The secret to the trilogy's consistent quality? Curious, I signed up for a Pixar "Masterclass" in storytelling several years ago, and I was impressed. They know what they're doing, and I bring a lot of their strategies into my own fiction-writing classes.  Their three-film Toy Story series, imagined by an innovative dream team of storytellers, is Exhibit A when it comes to gold-standard all-ages entertainment. In concept, context, and characters, it's a perfect three-part progression.

But for all of their talk about architecture, I'm being serious when I say that it was love. Pixar's best artists lavished attention on every detail of these stories, slow-cooking them over fifteen years to near perfection. (That's a longer calendar than the original Star Wars trilogy!) They took their sweet time, and that time yielded sweetness. Together, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3 cohere into one epic story about cultivating a faithful and inclusive community; about finding purpose in being who you were made to be; and, about the meaningfulness of dedication to serving someone else.

You remember it well, I'm sure: The floppy-limbed Sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) served his child Andy loyally and kept his toy-box community focused on their people-pleasing priorities. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) learned to be a team player. The supporting cast—Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Rex, and the rest—learned how to use their distinctive talents in complementary ways; how to make meaningful memories for the children who played with them; how to resist the temptations of becoming collectors' commodities; and how to overcome their fears—even their fears of annihilation by incinerator!

In an unexpected and deeply moving denouement, Toy Story 3 concludes with a vision of a perfect future for the toys beyond Andy, the boy whose love had given them life. We watched Woody and the gang find a new home with a new child—Bonnie—where they would be preserved, loved, and well-played-with. The band would stay together... forever, or something close to that.

The life-and-death stakes of Toy Story 3 made a successful sequel difficult to imagine. What could top that?

Why press your luck and go further, Pixar? Why start a new story when the first three form an ambitious arc that satisfies so completely?

And why not learn from the mistakes of other Pixar series? Remember how Cars 2 and Cars 3 seemed to make a lesser thing of the original? Or how Finding Dory and Monsters University became shrug-worthy footnotes to the classic status of Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc?

So, that's why I responded with dismay to the announcement of Toy Story 4's development. The teaser trailer didn't encourage me—in fact, it upset me. (More on that later.) In short, I've been dreading this movie's arrival.

But then came Blade Runner 2049.

Ryan Gosling dares to follow in Harrison Ford's footsteps in Blade Runner 2049.

Surprise, surprise — somebody figured out how to do this well.

Our return to the world of Philip K. Dick's dystopia and the renegade Replicants turned out to be a strong standalone experience. While I do feel that the original Ridley Scott masterpiece, arguably the pinnacle of '80s sci-fi cinema, is somewhat diminished now that we cannot talk about it without talking about its lesser sequel (I especially cringe at how the humble heroes I loved in Blade Runner returned as icons of religious significance in the sequel), I'm surprised to find myself grateful for director Denis Villeneuve's vision of a larger Blade Runner world. His narrative wisely focuses on new characters, new locations, new and upsettingly relevant questions about a frightfully plausible future.

Best of all, Blade Runner 2049 doesn't do anything that forces us to re-interpret the original or experience it any differently when revisiting it. I watched Blade Runner: The Director's Cut again recently, and if anything it seemed even more enthralling, its hand-crafted special effects proving even more astounding in view of the extravagant digital animation that was used in the sequel to recreate that world. The two films don't really feel like a series—they're separate stories set in the same world: more like The LEGO Batman Movie is to The LEGO Movie than Avengers: Endgame to Avengers: Infinity War.

The strengths of Blade Runner 2049 have made me second-guess my anti-sequel inclinations. Still, I resisted the idea of bringing new imaginations, new ideas, and new risks into the Toy Story series—the only Disney animated series in which three episodes stand shoulder to shoulder among the greatest animated films ever made for anybody.

Now, after a lot of hand-wringing and lament among film critics, here's Toy Story 4.

And, lo... it seems to have shut down cynics like me and given us yet another reason to rejoice that Pixar still has some genius in the house.

"Yes we Canada!" The triumphs of stunt motorcyclist Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) are just a few of this movie's many flashes of good old-fashioned Pixar genius.

Toy Story 4 is, like Blade Runner 2049, an adventure that takes place adjacent to, rather than within, the world of the first three stories. Sure, Sheriff Woody is the leading man, but his role as Community Organizer is no longer the central point of conflict. In fact, the original trilogy's community is almost sidelined in this episode—Buzz Lightyear has surprisingly short screen time, making room for a fantastic new cast characters, all of them matched with an inspired supporting cast of voice actors—including Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Ally Maki, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele.

What's more—this is the funniest Toy Story yet. And it launches us in a whole new narrative direction, suggesting that this could turn out to be the beginning of a new trilogy. I end up reassured that there are still plenty of meaningful stories to tell in the Toy Story universe... so long as the writers don't circle back to revise our understanding of the original trilogy.

Pixar's achievement here is even more impressive when you look at how many cooks were working in that kitchen. The final screenplay was composed by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, but the story was pieced together by no less than eight collaborators: Stanton and Folsom with John Lasseter, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones (!!), Will McCormack, Martin Hynes, and Josh Cooley, who has moved up from Pixar storyboard artist to directing this episode.

A writer list that long is usually a bad sign.

But there's a sense in Toy Story 4 that the whole team was well aware of the stakes.

In fact, there's something clever going on in the opening scene, when Woody and the gang work together to rescue a toy car from drowning in the rushing muck of a storm gutter. It's as if they're admitting up front that, thanks to their talking cars, they're going to have to pull their reputation for sequel-making out of the mud.

And they do. I hope Andrew Stanton, in particular, feels great about this movie. After being unfairly punished for the record-setting box-office failure of John Carter—which was a failure of marketing, not a failure of filmmaking—he's more deserving of a substantial "comeback" than any filmmaker I know. And with the help of an inspired team, he completes a stunt here that few would have thought possible (not unlike one of the jumps completed by Duke Kaboom, the stunt motorcyclist perfectly played by Keanu Reeves in this episode). Can we restore Stanton now to his rightful place in the pantheon of Great Family Filmmakers?

Instead of focusing on Woody's community and their chemistry, Toy Story 4 is the first story in this world to focus on the children as much as the toys. And in this, it finds three important new questions to explore:

First: What happens in this world when a child goes beyond loving the toys she's been given and applies her imagination to making toys of her own?

Introducing... Forky!

It's surprising to realize how little attention was given, in the original trilogy, to what a child brings to imaginative engagement with toys. In the first three movies, Andy and Bonnie played with what they were given. But my memory of childhood was all about improvisation,  repurposing what I was given into crazy new inventions. With the introduction of Forky, Bonnie's first homemade toy, the Toy Story universe has exciting new questions to consider.

And that leads us directly to this story's second important question: Can someone who has been taught they are trash be redeemed and given a sense of their true value by someone else's love?

Third: Is a person's value ultimately defined by having found someone who loves them, or is their value defined by finding a way of showing love?

In Part Two, we'll dig into some trash-talking.

And then, in Part Three, I'll consider a major complaint against Toy Story 4 that's been voiced by my favorite film critic.

Stay tuned...


I Am Not a Witch (2018)

What would you do if you discovered a girl kept on a leash?

If you're troubled by that imaginary image, you'll be ensnared as I was by  I Am Not a Witch, a film that most moviegoers overlooked in 2018. But you'll also be enchanted and impressed by this feature from Zambian writer/director Rungano Nyoni.

(You can rent it for a couple of bucks on Amazon and other streaming platforms.)

In what some critics are calling "an absurdist comedy" (but is it absurd?), you'll see not one but many Zambian women who, convicted — on hearsay, not evidence — of practicing witchcraft, have been sentenced to communal imprisonment in a camp, each one bound by a long white ribbon to a large spool. The ribbons are tethers, lines that will prevent them (we learn from a tour guide addressing wide-eyed tourists) from flying around over Zambia and casting curses down on the locals.

But that's just a whimsical hook. The bright light that shines at the center of this movie is the mute 9-year-old orphan who, much to the dismay of the longtime spool-bound prisoners, is the latest to bear this cruel sentence.

Her name is Shula. Played by the radiant Maggie Mulubwa, Shula gives us no clues about her origin, unless her name is one of them: it means "uprooted," and it's likely that she comes to this town because she has survived some kind of trauma or abandonment elsewhere.

Photo: Film Movement

At the beginning, we see her making her way into a village, startling and upsetting a woman who is carrying water, which prompts a wildly unnecessary accusation that she must be a witch. The trial is a joke, with a local policewoman begrudgingly honoring local traditions and listening to others invent crazy stories about how they saw Shula flying overhead and disrupting them. (You may find yourself recalling the famous "Burn the Witch" scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

Shula's conviction makes no sense. It's maddening. But then it gets worse in a way that makes all kinds of sense: Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), a local who knows a good moneymaking ploy when he sees one, takes this convicted orphan on the road as an attraction. Shula, decorated in outrageous costumes, is forced to pick criminals out of lineups and even appear on a talk show, where a few in the audience dig for the truth only to be deftly deflected by Mr. Banda's dismissals. All the while, she stays bound to a spool, and often finds herself jerked violently backward out of a conversation and dragged a long distance on her back.

Photo: Film Movement

Yes, the leashes that bind these women are imaginary. But they're tied to real-world suffering: Nyoni prepared to make this movie by dwelling among "witches" kept in camps in Zambia and Ghana.

Is there anything here for American moviegoers? Or is this fictional Zambia — this strange world of wild costumes, bizarre traditions, and superstition — just an exotic spectacle?

Well, yes — let's begin with aesthetics: This is a beautiful movie. I watched it on a laptop screen, and I was enthralled by the performances, the beauty of the faces, the rich colors of the cinematography (by David Gallego, who filmed Embrace of the Serpent), and the stirring musical score. I wish I'd seen it on a big screen.

But I was also gripped by a sense of urgency. Will we Western moviegoers see ourselves represented by the foreigners in the opening scene who visit the prisoners the way they'd visit an exhibit in a zoo, and who treat Zambia as an exotic tourist destination?

Photo: Film Movement

I'd argue that there's a great deal for us to consider. You will find relevance here in your own ways, I'm sure. You might find that it's not really fantasy — not much, anyway. You'll remember the reality that many women in the world are still denied an education. You'll remember that many — even those a short road trip from your home — are fleeing persecution and violence only to find greater violence and injustice here, in "the land of liberty and justice for all."

Me, I laughed in bitter recognition at the darkly comic moments in Shula's story of being exploited by her patriarchal culture — and, specifically, by a political con man. Women are exploited, abused, oppressed, and trafficked all over the world, and America has more in common with Zambia in this than our current administration would ever admit — especially in these days when a Republican-led Congress excuses — yea, enables — an unrepentant sexual predator in his relentless attacks against women.

Photo: Film Movement

And remember, there's a young woman named Reality Winner held in solitary confinement for the crime of trying to warn the American people about efforts to corrupt our democracy: She told the truth, and Republicans sentenced her to prison for exposing their corruption. She's still there, on a leash, branded as a witch, even after everything she sought to reveal was proven true. Liars go free while a young truth-tellers suffers, with even her Bible taken from her for punishment.

Am I off on a political tangent? Or am I responding to art exactly the way I should — by considering how it illuminates fundamental truths of the world around me, and by finding in this experience the motivation to do what I can about what's in front of me? I can't save Shula, and I'm unlikely to influence what's happening in Zambia. But what can I do about those being branded here at home? What can I do about those criminals who cry "Witch hunt!" even as their crimes against humanity are exposed?

Despite the drastic differences between Shula's experience and my life of white male American privilege, I find that the more I think about this movie the more I feel its call for me to make a difference where I am. This is not a fantasy. It's not even a foreign film. It's about here and now — you and me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_0NUA0aEpg


Booksmart (2019)

The praise party thrown for Booksmart had me wondering if Olivia Wilde's directorial debut might be the first high-school sex comedy to earn a Best Picture nod.

Then came the second wave: cries for critics to settle down, peppered with a few dubious complaints that Wilde's idea of high school was "unrealistic," especially in its idea that maybe we can all get along.

That sparked some snarky comebacks, but I'm not sure "the backlash to the backlash" ever became a thing.

So, the joint is almost empty now. Argumentative cinephiles have moved on, getting worked up about whether Jim Jarmusch's zombie movie is a work of genius or inexcusable laziness. And here I am, conflict-averse, and taking an hour-long break from grading finals for college freshmen. Why not step up to the Booksmart mic, long after the opening-weekend professionals have moved on, and share my thoughts with anybody who might still be listening?

I'm not here to stir up excitement: I won't hail Booksmart as a game-changer in its genre, nor will I dismiss it as derivative. But since I'm in grading mode, I'll go ahead and turn in a report card on several points: the movie's strengths and weaknesses and its most distinctive contribution to the genre.


Booksmart's Box-Office Blues

First, for the record: a few thoughts on Booksmart's box-office sufferings. I don't think this is "wilde" speculation:

Streaming media has made so much accessible — and free — that it takes a lot to get kids to leave their rooms (or their campus) and buy big-screen tickets. They smile at me politely when I serve up details about opening weekends, streaming options, and rental fees. "We know how to find it," they say. "We have our ways." And that, of course, is their way of saying they can find the movie for free on illegal back channels.

Few of my freshman undergrads buy good-old-fashioned movie tickets more than once a month, and when they do they're unlikely to see anything that doesn't have a big star in the lead. I asked 80 undergrads this quarter how many of them have seen Lady Bird, and only seven raised their hands. Many said they'd never heard of it.

What does inspire them? The promise of screaming at jump-scares with their friends. (A Quiet Place did huge opening-weekend business with my students.) The promise of revelations in a big-budget, special-effects-saturated franchise that they really care about, like Marvel or Hogwarts. (They buzzed about Endgame on a daily basis during the months before it opened, then went surprisingly quiet as soon as it arrived.)

So even though Booksmart seems custom-made to become their new favorite comedy, I don't expect to see many hands raised when I ask about it in September.

And that's a shame. It's better than so many movies they will see. It's about them and the things that matter to them most. And it would give us all so much to discuss.


Disclaimer: I'm Not Booksmart's Target Audience — and I Know It

I don't dislike teen comedies. I was a huge Better Off Dead fan in the '80s; I saw Heathers enough times in 1989 to be able to quote the dialogue as it played; I became an Emma Stone fan when Easy A arrived; Sing Street strikes me as very nearly perfect, a film I recommend to everybody all the time; and The Edge of Seventeen — while more of a drama than a comedy — is just outstanding.

Nevertheless, I approached Booksmart as I approached any teen comedy that advertises a focus on sex: with extreme caution.

I was hopeful. Nothing gives me more hope for the future of cinema than the increasing leadership of women in filmmaking and the increasing representation of neglected perspectives across culture, ethnicity, and gender. I was intrigued by the praise for Wilde's direction and by notes on Beanie Feldstein, who memorably made so much of a minor role in Lady Bird.

But I was also deeply skeptical. I'll talk about why, so stay tuned.

Here's my report...


What Works...

I was impressed from the opening scene by this endearingly enthusiastic duo. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Bernie Feldstein) are naive and bookworm-ish, but they're not boring: they're irresistibly charismatic besties, and we want to see their bright lights get caught up in the swirl of their senior-class kaleidoscope. That's the premise: They're discovering, just before graduation, that they've made a terrible mistake. By focusing solely (and, perhaps, snobbishly) on academic excellence, they've missed out on fun.

And I'm rooting for them. My high school and college experiences were both joyously unpredictable adventures, full of academic rewards and the hijinks of hilarious relationships. I spoke at graduation and I planned my graduating class's irreverent and unsupervised talent show. I obsessed over my grades and I cornered my impossible crush in a moment of wild ambition to declare my undying love (to disastrous results). I want Amy and Molly to learn about more than earning good grades. I want them to laugh themselves sick at parties, to improvise their way out of trouble, to take risks and make moves on their first fierce crushes, to cast off their inhibitions and seize the karaoke microphone.

It's rare enough to see a female friendship in such sharp cinematic focus. It's even rarer for lead characters to be more interesting themselves than their supporting cast. Don't get me wrong — in Booksmart, we're witnessing the introduction of a whole new menu of young talents who will show up in great movies for years to come. The whole cast here is outstanding. But usually it's secondary characters and villains that make the strongest impressions in movies like this; they get to go to extremes, while heroes have to be stable and, um, "relatable."

As Amy and Molly, Dever and Feldstein could carry a franchise. They're dynamite.

Wilde celebrates all of it with consistently compelling cinematography and a perfectly pitched, carefully curated pop-music soundtrack. This movie is a fireworks show for the eyes and ears. As Amy and Molly pinball from one point in Los Angeles to another, we navigate their various vehicles, parties, disorientations, erotic entanglements, and awkward encounters with teachers and law enforcement without ever losing our place or struggling to sort out the large cast of characters. Each one arrives fully-formed, with a distinctive personality and amusing idiosyncrasies. While the highly praised pool party scene isn't nearly as affecting as the one in Eighth Grade, it's captured and choreographed with a gorgeous and delirious grace.


What Doesn't...

Here's where I'm uncomfortable with the film's fundamental premise:

It seems to suggest that the fun Amy and Molly have been missing equals sexual adventurism and very little else.

Yes, there's a karaoke scene about casting off inhibitions. Yes, there are encounters in which the girls and their classmates discover how much they've underestimated each other. But Amy and Molly's determination to find the biggest most popular party in town is quickly revealed to be a quest for sexual rites of passage. And, whether that was typical of your high school experience or not, that seems like an unfortunately simplistic aspiration for this otherwise extravagant and imaginative motion picture.

I've never had patience for films that take sex lightly — especially films pitched as entertainment for young people who (like adults, let's face it) too easily confuse their hormones and their heart. (And then there's wisdom, which neither hormones nor the heart are inclined to embrace without first making mistakes.) I saw too many young people who scoffed at the idea of restraint end up learning hard and even life-altering lessons. Socially awkward as I was, I wasn't dating in high school — not yet. Nevertheless, because of strong examples in my family, ideals illustrated in literature and art, and convictions cultivated by faith, I had come to hope for something more substantial, generous, and holistic than hasty carnal engagement. And I hated to see any of my close friends in high school treated as trophies or conquests, just as I hated seeing those who exercised restraint mocked as cowards or snobs.

Fortunately, I don't have many memories, good or bad, about sex being a major priority or a major problem among my classmates.  Most movies about romance, sex, and love that were marketed to my generation seemed to have been imagined by writers who didn't know what they were talking about. Perhaps Booksmart's characters will seem familiar to you, perhaps not. I remember that my close friends and I were aware of that sex-obsessed-teen stereotype and made fun of it; we were just as interested (if not more so) in movies, music, and sports. And if were obsessed with anything it was a particular variety of comedy-one-upsmanship.

Whatever — it's one thing to represent typical teenage appetites; it's another thing to confuse those appetites with a moral compass. Insofar as that goes, there are aspects of this movie's conclusion that I can tell I'm supposed to celebrate, but instead I end up disappointed and less-than hopeful about these characters' future happiness.

Worst of all, the film's preoccupation with sex crosses a line when it draws teachers into its tale-spinning. I'm always happy to see Jessica Williams, and she's perfectly cast as Miss Fine, a Cool Teacher, here. At first she gives the film an admirable adult anchor: she seems wise, stable, and insightful about her students (much more so than the awkward but affable principal played by Jason Sudekis). But I'm not so happy to see Miss Fine become a punchline by giving in to the sexual proposition of a smitten male student.

Do I have to point out how audiences would have righteously rioted if the teacher had been male (and played by Kevin Spacey)? Maybe you'll find this particular twist amusing. I did not. But even if it makes us laugh, we need to note that we're being goaded into taking lightly a dynamic that, in the real world, leads to serious consequences.


Realistic? "Relatable"?

Don't get me wrong: I laughed a lot at Booksmart — more than I expected to. No, I can't join the hallelujah chorus: It doesn't have anything that inspired me as much as the non-conformist rage of Heathers or the contagious joy of Sing Street. But I don't find much cause for complaint, either: I enjoyed the company of Booksmart's characters, and I especially appreciate how generous and gracious it is with all of them. It has a refreshing lack of villains and a smart avoidance of scapegoats and stereotypes. (I've never seen Superbad, so I have no opinion about how this film measures up to it.)

Did I find it relatable? That's a word being thrown around by some of its critics, and it's also a word that my students use more than any other term to explain why they like something. The fact is, I don't care: I don't go to the movies to find something relatable. I go to the movie to experience other perspectives, other contexts, other ways of being in the world.

If the audience reaction I witnessed at my matinee of Booksmart is any indication, this is obviously familiar ground for most, and my high school experience qualifies me as a visitor from another planet. The only moments in high-school comedies that have ever felt even fleetingly familiar have come from the awkward social bonds formed between outsiders in Napoleon Dynamite; the joy of extracurricular creativity cultivated by the young musicians of Sing Street; and the struggle for spiritual authenticity in a context of self-righteousness and hypocrisy in Saved! So, no — I don't relate much to the characters in Booksmart. They're too cliquish, too sex-obsessed, and — in most cases — too wealthy for me to recognize their world.

But I do relate to it in another way. I love the way this movie loves its community.

Me, I loved high school, I loved my classes, my classmates, my curricular and extracurricular activity. I enjoyed the company of almost everybody in my (very small) class (of about 60). And when I graduated, I didn't want to say goodbye to anybody. In the video of our final moments, we are celebrating in the hallways with wild abandon. But we are also in tears, our arms around each other, distraught at the thought of going our separate ways.

So I guess that I'm grateful that, for all of these characters' preoccupations with getting laid as if it's the Meaning of Life, Booksmart plays with such heart, such an inclination toward empathy, and such a determination to liberate each and every teen character from the constraints of typical categories and stereotypes. Like Napoleon Dynamite, this is a movie full of individuals, of human beings, not types.

And while the movie prioritizes delivering a kind of sexual "graduation" for its characters so highly that I found myself getting impatient, I'm glad that it ultimately ends up caring most about its central friendship — much the way that Lady Bird (which I find much more rewarding than Booksmart) ends up caring most about its central mother/daughter bond.

I can only hope this movie will inspire this kind of inclusivity, welcome, and grace — not only in future stories told in this genre, but in its target audience, the one growing up in a world that is increasingly dividing into judgmental, vindictive camps. After all, I learned to value grace by burying my nose in books. I hope more movies will make it possible for upcoming generations who show an alarming disinterest in reading.


 

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