Movies: Point Break, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Toy Story 4
This is Kathryn Bigelow's 1992 actioner about an FBI agent who infiltrates a band of bank-robbing surfers.
Maybe there's not much to talk about here: the story you imagine from the logline is basically the story you get. Patrick Swayze is Bodhi, the zen surfer who funds his crew's endless summer with a series of perfectly-executed bank robberies. Keanu Reeves is Johnny Utah, the young hotshot FBI agent who investigates the crazy theory that this band of masked thieves might be surfers. Along the way he falls in love with Tyler (Lori Petty), who's involved in the surfing but not the robberies.
It's straightforward and nicely executed. Underneath his bluster, Johnny is young, confused, and unmoored. He cleverly works his way into Bodhi's circle of surfers, and then finds that surfing, and Bodhi's meditative take on surfing, gives him a sense of calm and purpose. You can sense how betrayed he feels when he gets the proof that Bodhi is robbing banks, and how frustrated he feels about having to bring the criminal in.
All the action is over-the-top and shouty. The film seems keenly aware of how men posture at each other. It's almost like you're supposed to take a couple steps back and observe all these men characters performing their masculinity, or finding outlets for all their anger and energy and horniness — contrasted against Bodhi, who remains centered and deliberate.
The story is surprisingly elegant: Johnny infiltrates the gang; Johnny interrupts one of their heists while on duty; now Bodhi knows who Johnny is; Bodhi takes Tyler hostage and tells Johnny they'll kill Tyler if he (Johnny) doesn't help the team on one last job. He goes along with it, the job goes wrong, Johnny catches up with Bodhi in Australia, but lets Bodhi die surfing the waves of a fatal 'perfect storm' blowing through. Johnny couldn't bring the criminal to justice, but he found love and purpose, and he quits the FBI. It's simple; it's hard to make stories that are that simple.
There's not much beyond that, but do you really need much beyond that? The action sequences are quick and engaging. Being of a certain age, I love (/hate) the fact that Johnny always has to worry about triggering on old knee injury. The acting is perfect for the movie: Swayze plays another great 'zen violent' type, a la Road House; and Reeves is already a great movie star. Thank god we've gotten beyond the days of lazy comedians ragging on Keanu Reeves for delivering unrealistic performances¹ and (somehow) having an easy-to-parody California-vowel-shifted accent.² In Point Break, he's an intense, young kid, talented at his job, but emotionally lost. It's exactly what the film needs.
All that said, apart from some lovingly-shot surfing sequences, this isn't a movie to go out of your way to see. It's a fun, three-star actioner — solid, fun, worth watching if it shows up on cable. (Do people still watch cable?) You definitely come away from it wanting to know what Ms. Bigelow will do next.
Toy Story 4
This is the 2019 entry in Pixar's 25-year-old flagship franchise. This time, the toys accompany their new owner, Bonnie, to a traveling carnival.
We can all agree that, on paper, this is a staggeringly unnecessary sequel, right? Toy Story 3 finished perfectly, cycling from their time with Andy to their time with Bonnie, with the film's closing shot matching the opening shot of Toy Story. And so the cycle is complete.
The saving grace of Toy Story 4 is that it doesn't ignore how superfluous it feels — instead, it leans into that feeling, and tells a story *about* letting something stretch out for too long. Making Woody slowly come around to realizing he's done being a child's toy, and having him finally strike out on his own — that might be the only direction left to take with this franchise. "I like being part of this particular setting, and it's meant a lot to me for a long time, but... aren't we kind of done here?" feels shockingly relatable to the Toy Story audience.
Side note: meanwhile, I'm gearing up to move away from Austin, where I've lived for over twenty years — so I was an absolute sobbing mess by the end. It's as if when I talked about finding Monsters University unrelatable, a finger curled shut on a monkey's paw somewhere.
The other best thing about the story, Forky, feels like a great extension of this theme: in classic work-seniority fashion, Woody has moved on from doing the job to training newcomers to do the job. And at the end, he'll move on to bringing new toys into having children and homes — 'hiring', essentially.
Everything else felt kind of superfluous. I've grown weirdly tired of the action sequences in the Toy Story franchise. They're gorgeous and well-constructed set pieces, but they often feel like stepping away from the story so we can watch a plot Rube Goldberg machine run for a few scenes. The "inner voice" runner for Buzz feels like a tired sitcom joke, a sweaty way to give a (wisely) sidelined character something to do.
It was delightful that they brought in Key & Peele as carnie-game-prize toys, and honestly they were so irrelevant to the story that their ham-handed addition was funny in and of itself. Every time they got focus, you again felt the story stop: "Okay, let's pause the film and let these improvisors 'riff' on what you've seen so far."
I honestly don't know where I come down on Toy Story 4. It's fun, it's well-constructed, it's gorgeously-designed. It's a miracle that it found something to say. But still, if you're going to watch the Toy Story films, just watch the trilogy: that's the arc. That's the experience. Then, if you love those movies dearly, watch this as an interesting little appendix to the volume.
Ralph Breaks the Internet
This is the 2018 sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, a CGI-animated adventure about a retro video-game villain who learns to make friends. In this chapter, Ralph and Vanellope explore the arcade's new "Internet" connection to find a way to save the latter's racing game.
This was an interesting movie to watch right after Toy Story 4: another CGI-animated sequel, another story about saying goodbye to old friends and moving on, another magic trick of continuing a story that wasn't screaming for another installment.
In this case, I dare say this movie does the stronger narrative choice: it takes us six years past the end of Wreck-It Ralph and concludes, sensibly, that at this point Ralph would be content with being a valuable member of a community, and Vanellope would have gotten sick of Sugar Rush. As Blank Check has pointed out, there are several cheap ways to resolve that story: Vanellope realizes that Sugar Rush was great all along, or they find some narrative cheat that makes Sugar Rush new and exciting again for her. Instead, they do the logical, tear-jerking endpoint: Vanellope leaves the arcade.
It's all dirt-simple, but that's kind of the point: it's *hard* to make narrative choices that are that straightforward, and it's rare to see movies opt for the simplest, most natural plot moves. There's a lot of noise and business to Ralph Breaks the Internet, but everything at the center, in that core storyline, is sound. They have to do some convolutions to make the final battle a literal showdown between Ralph and his own personified insecurity about losing a friend, but once they get there, it makes sense, and it sets up a heart-breaking good-bye at the Slaughter Race entrance.
On top of that, they do a great job portraying a realistic and positive friendship between the two characters. There are a lot of opportunities for crazy misunderstandings and invented conflicts — instead, they keep on liking each other, and only get mad when there's a genuine conflict to get genuinely mad about. You don't get mired in the sitcom-y bickering that makes you think they are idiots who shouldn't hang out with each other or, perhaps, anyone.
That said, there's a lot of noise and business to this movie. This isn't a bad thing — it's more like you're watching a good, solid story that has a thick layer of sketch comedy on top of it. Ralph is effectively a road movie, where they wind up in little vignettes like "what if the ultimate bad guys in GTA were actually supportive and positive?" or "what if a modern girl chatted with all the Disney princesses at once?" It makes the runtime bloaty and the storyline a little wearying, but each little scene works in and of itself.
It's hard not to feel grossed out by the wall-to-wall product placement. I suppose it's better than making the whole movie a sort of film-a-clef with knockoff-sounding names for all of the Internet businesses³, but 'edgy' jokes about product placement are a bit like 'edgy' jokes about tolerating Nazis: when you make a joke about the behavior, you are doing the behavior itself. Yes, some films finesse product-placement jokes nicely — Josie and the Pussycats comes to mind — but as soon as the instantly-dated "Oh My Disney" reference appears, your stomach turns a bit.
All in all, it adds up a sort of "knockoff Lord and Miller feel: a simple, heartfelt story, one told with surprising skill, which supports a mountain of pop-culture sketch comedy.
*shrug* I had fun.
For next week: on the backlog, we've got netflix's The Taco Chronicles. Right now I'm watching The Intern, Pan's Labyrinth, plus I need to finish off the Headspace Guide to Meditation. I'm reading Judy Greer's memoir and (finally) reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original Spanish (so so many trips to the dictionary). I'm listening to Blank Check's miniseries about Tim Burton.
¹ In many art forms, realism is often what you think you want, but rarely what you really want.
² ... though, fun fact, it's actually the Canadian shift, which is structurally identical.
³ ... that said, The Middleman's MyFaceInATube.com is a goddamn delight.