This month, film critic Peter Rainer’s top picks were dark horses. Who knew that the fourth installment in the “Toy Story” franchise would shine? Or that the arc of an opera singer’s career could be so engaging in “Pavarotti”?
‘Toy Story 4’: A satisfying return for Woody and Buzz
For many of us, the big question coming into “Toy Story 4” was, of course, “Why?” From every standpoint except commercial expediency, there was scant reason for Pixar to sequelize the glorious “Toy Story 3,” which nine years ago capped the franchise with a perfect denouement. How many movie trilogies can you name where the third entry was the best? Creating a fourth anywhere as good would appear to be an impossibility.
Unlike “Toy Story 3,” “Toy Story 4” is not a masterpiece, but I was almost relieved about that. It doesn’t put you through the emotional wringer the way its predecessor did, but it’s consistently inventive, funny, witty, and heartfelt. In other words, it’s a lot better than it has any right to be. It’s more than good enough to justify its existence.
The new film picks up with college-bound Andy’s toys now the playmates of little Bonnie. Woody (voiced, feelingly as always, by Tom Hanks) oversees the assemblage, but he’s no longer a favorite toy. What gave “Toy Story 3” its deep poignancy was the crushing realization that even favorite toys are eventually discarded. More so than ever, Woody has to face up to this fact in “Toy Story 4.” If a toy exists to be loved by a child, what then is its reason for being if it is no longer loved?
It should be past debate that wonderful children’s movies, almost by definition, are also wonderful for adults. The glowing subtext of “Toy Story 4” has resonance for everybody: What happens to us when we no longer feel useful? If the “Toy Story” franchise were to end right here I would be more than happy, but then again, I felt this way nine years ago with “Toy Story 3.” Never say never. Grade: A- (Rated G.)
‘American Woman’ offers a new take on the missing-teen story
Tour de force acting doesn’t always show up in great movies. Case in point: Sienna Miller’s career-high performance in “American Woman.” But the film is just good enough to do her acting justice. She plays Deb Callahan, a working-class single mother from Pennsylvania who confronts the unthinkable when her teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. The police have no leads. With a void at the center of her ramshackle life, Deb is left to care for Bridget’s baby boy.
One of the best aspects of “American Woman,” directed by Jake Scott and written by Brad Ingelsby, is that it portrays its people without the usual special pleading that often accompanies movies about the working class.
Because Bridget’s disappearance hits early in the movie, I was initially expecting a whodunit. But the filmmakers soon make it clear that the movie is much more about how Deb moves through, rather than solves, the catastrophe. There is a resolution of sorts, but because the film covers more than a decade in Deb’s life, until baby Jesse (played as an adult by Aidan Fiske) is in high school, the wrapup has the effect of a sad, slow fade-out rather than a deafening finale. The harm, in a sense, has long since happened.
The role of Deb is not written with any great depth, but Miller gets into the character’s psychological complications in a way that almost compensates for the lack. She understands how this controlling woman could also choose to submit herself to controlling men. Although the movie could have filled in more fully her emotional progress through the years, we can see how she arrives at a kind of uneasy peace by the end. She refuses victimhood. Grade: B+ (Rated R.)
Ron Howard’s ‘Pavarotti’ offers a tenor for the masses
My favorite moment in Ron Howard’s documentary “Pavarotti” is when we see the great Italian tenor singing in the shower. For those of us who think we sound like Luciano Pavarotti while soaping up, this sequence is quite a comeuppance. Shower or no shower, only Pavarotti sounds like Pavarotti.
Howard’s engaging portrait of the great tenor occasionally verges on the hagiographic. But with singing like this, who can blame him? Although Howard doesn’t go in for a lot of musicological analysis of Pavarotti’s genius, which would have enriched the presentation, he compensates by giving us an ample dose of the singing.
It comes as something of a shock to discover that the “King of the High Cs,” on the surface so boundlessly joyous, endured terrible stage fright. Before venturing onstage he would regularly mutter to himself “I go to die.”
But maybe this fear is also a clue to his greatness: He never took his gifts for granted. Interviewed by Clive James on British TV, he is asked if he can ever be certain he will hit the notes, and his answer is a simple “No.” But we can spy in that uncertainty a rapturous reckoning. He knows that art is not something casually handed to him, that he must reach for it. When it all comes together, there is no greater ecstasy. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13.)
Espionage and curveballs: ‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’ has both
He was known as “the brainiest man in baseball,” but it was his exploits off the playing field that account for his one-of-a-kind life story. Morris “Moe” Berg, the subject of the creditable Aviva Kempner documentary “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” was a standout ballplayer at Princeton, going on to play in the big leagues for 15 years.
Somewhere in there he also found time to attend Columbia Law School and become fluent in at least 10 languages, including Sanskrit. Here’s the most amazing part: During World War II and the lead-up to it, he was a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. (His anti-Nazi spy-mastering overseas was particularly fraught, as he was Jewish.)
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it was also the basis for last year’s bland biopic “The Catcher Was a Spy,” starring Paul Rudd. Seeing the story played out with reams of interviews and archival footage is so much better. It makes the unbelievable believable. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)