Thirty years ago (more or less), Disney released a family friendly seasonal comedy that underperformed and was forgotten. Forgotten, except by every 8-year-old who watched Hocus Pocus then or would go on to rewatch it annually during spooky season.
The entertainment behemoth finally realized what it had and commissioned a sequel. Hocus Pocus 2 reunites willful witches Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) with Salem, the town that hates them.
What is it that reawakens the evil Sanderson sisters? A somewhat convoluted storyline, actually, but it involves female empowerment and community and it’s charmingly, inoffensively told.
Halloween’s here, and with it, Becca’s (Whitney Peak) 16th birthday. She’ll celebrate this year as every year by sharing a little spookiness in the woods with her bestie, Izzy (Belissa Escobedo). It’ll be the first year that the third in their trio, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), doesn’t join because she’s hanging out with her boyfriend. Meh!
Anyhoo, the Sandersons are accidentally conjured. Somehow the local crystals and essential oils purveyor (Sam Richardson, likable as ever) is mixed up in things. And Cassie’s dad – kindly Mayor Traske (Tony Hale) – is in mortal danger!
Director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) hits enough nostalgic notes that adult fans of the original will feel seen. Its contemporary story allows for brand new witch-out-of-water scenarios to explore, and, of course, the sisters are always up for a musical number. But this is definitely a kids’ film.
The original was a kind of sibling to Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s 1987 family film Monster Squad. Both showed poorly at the box office and went on to become beloved seasonal fixtures. Hocus Pocus brought the sensibilities into the nineties by, for one thing, recognizing that boys can also be virgins. HP2 modernizes further.
To begin with, not every citizen of Salem is white. And though it’s impossible to entirely redeem three characters looking to eat children, at least the sequel skims the ideas of systemic misogyny. But mainly it offers campy, scrappy, bland but amiable fun.
Midler, Najimy and Parker reinhabit the old trio well enough to remind us why so many kids loved the original. Whether HP2 can strike the same chord with today’s youth is tough to tell, but at least there’s a Halloween flick everyone can watch together.
Nicole Kidman does not look like Lucille Ball. Javier Bardem does not look like Desi Arnaz. You’ll forget that not long into Being the Ricardos, a change of pace for writer/director Aaron Sorkin.
Sorkin’s biopic shadows the couple through one particularly tumultuous week in their lives as a married couple as well as TV superstars.
Kidman has the voice, the attitude, and the wearied wit to bring Lucille Ball to life. Her brittle, believable turn grapples with the pressures of being Hollywood’s most bankable comic genius. Lucille Ball was the biggest TV star on earth, a massive moneymaking machine whose eye for physical comedy and ear for lazy comic riffs elevated content and deflated co-stars and co-workers. Kidman plays a boss pretending not to be the boss and bristling at the compromise.
Those populating the soundstage and writers room around her — Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and a bland Jake Lacy — create a fractured work dynamic looking to collapse under this particular week’s unprecedented pressure due to a leaked news story about Lucy.
Besides Kidman, the two big standouts are not surprising. JK Simmons, who’s never turned in an unremarkable performance in his life, wrestles with a character who would be easy to dismiss or despise. In the veteran’s hands, though, William Frawley (I Love Lucy’s Fred Mertz) is the tender, well-meaning if wrong-headed voice of the times.
Bardem oozes charm, charisma and aptitude as Ball’s under-regarded husband. Vanity and vulnerability roil quietly, almost out of sight, and Bardem’s chemistry with Kidman sparkles.
Being the Ricardos is not funny, and it’s hard to fathom a film about Ball that isn’t at least incidentally funny. But let’s be honest, comedy is not really Sorkin’s bag. The way he looks at success, particularly for a woman at this time period, is as smart as anything he’s done.
Sorkin reins in his characteristic rat-a-tat-tat hyper-intellectual dialog just enough to let characters be human. Their on-screen personas meet their off-screen realities in a way that allows a firmly remarkable cast to deliver twice the goods.
Will (Winston Duke) is a selector. Inside a modest home situated in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by nothing but flatland, he monitors the progress of his past selections while he carefully prepares to fill a new vacancy.
At the end of nine days, Will must choose wisely. His one selection among a new group of unborn souls will move on the “real world” and experience human life. The rest will not.
In his feature debut, writer/director Edson Oda presents an impressively assured vision of transfixing beauty and gentle poignancy. While the current run on “appreciate every day” films is hardly surprising in today’s climate, Oda brings an organic originality to the mantra of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
Will does exactly that, via the television monitors (and VHS tapes) that allow him to view the world as his past selections are living it. The monitors also play a role in the selection process, as Will gives his candidates (including Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård) daily assignments to write down their reactions to the world views they see.
Duke (Us, Black Panther) is phenomenal as a “cog in the wheel” who becomes caught between the clinical completion of his duties and the emotional weight of his responsibilities.
Unlike many in this otherworld – including his assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong) – Will actually spent time living in the real one. And while he won’t discuss details of his life experience, his charming reliance on VCRs and Polaroid cameras gives us a clue about the timeframe. Duke brings touching authenticity to the barrier Will has put up around his past, while also letting us glimpse how Will is haunted by the fate of a past selection, and by the chance he may have chosen poorly.
Oda’s writing and direction exhibit solid craftsmanship. His framing and use of light often work wonders together, conjuring an existential outpost full of strangely comfortable trappings.
The screenplay is finely tuned for each distinct applicant in the process, allowing a standout Beetz and the terrific ensemble to find intimate resonance in the alternately joyous and heartbreaking moments of a life.
Yes, Nine Days often has a lilting air of pretension, but with such a philosophical anchor, it would be more surprising if it did not. Give Oda credit for being unafraid of the moment. He’s taking some big swings at mighty heavy concepts here, with an originality of voice and attention to craft that is welcome any day.
Almost 25 years ago, Pixar staked its claim as animation god with the buddy picture masterpiece Toy Story, where Tom Hanks and writer/director John Lasseter taught the world how to create a fully developed, nuanced and heartbreaking animated hero.
Woody and Buzz returned twice more over the next fifteen years, developing relationships, adding friends, enjoying adventures and life lessons all the while creating the single best trilogy in cinematic history.
And a lot of us wanted them to stop at 3. Is that partly because Toy Story 3 destroyed us? Yes! But also, it felt like a full story beautifully told and we didn’t want to see that completed arc tarnished for profit.
Toy Story 3 made an actual billion dollars.
Right, so let’s drop in and see how the gang is doing. Woody (Tom Hanks in the role he was born to play) loves Bonnie, the youngster who inherited the ragtag group of toys when Andy left for college and we left the theater racked with sobs. But the cowboy just doesn’t feel the same sense of purpose.
Enter Forky (Tony Hale, who could not be better), a spork with googly eyes, hand-made and much-beloved friend to Bonnie. Forky longs for the trash, and Woody takes it upon himself to make sure Forky is always there for Bonnie. But when Bonnie’s family rents an RV for an end-of-summer road trip, Woody finds it tough to keep his eyes on the restless refuse—especially when a roadside carnival offers the chance to reconnect with old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts).
Will Woody cast aside Forky, bestie Buzz (Tim Allen) and gang to rekindle something lost and taste some freedom?
Josh Cooley (who co-wrote Inside Out) makes his feature directorial debut with this installment. He also contributes, along with a pool of eight, to a story finalized by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (his credits include the three previous Toy Story films) and relative newcomer Stephany Folsom.
The talents all gel, combining the history and character so beautifully articulated over a quarter century with some really fresh and very funny ideas. Toy Story 4 offers more bust-a-gut laughs than the last three combined, and while it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of TS3 (what does?!), it hits more of those notes than you might expect.
Between Forky’s confounded sense of self and Woody’s own existential crisis, TS4 swims some heady waters. These themes are brilliantly, quietly addressed in a number of conversations about loyalty, devotion and love.
This somewhat lonesome contemplation is more than balanced by the delightful hilarity of new characters Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, respectively).
And the creepy yet tender way villains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her posse of ventriloquist dolls are handled is as moving as it is funny.
Characteristic of this franchise, the peril is thrilling, the visuals glorious, the sight gags hilarious (keep an eye on those Combat Carls), and the life lessons far more emotionally compelling than what you’ll find in most films this summer. To its endless credit, TS4 finds new ideas to explore and fresh but organic ways to break our hearts.