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IR Film Review: TOY STORY 4 [Pixar/Disney]

The trepidation in doing a “Toy Story” sequel is why mess up or challenge a good thing. Money is usually the answer in these scenarios. “Toy Story 3” was such a fitting end with its undeniable odes to “Star Wars” lore and just essential drama that magnified and personified the essence of the journey of Woody & Buzz. “Toy Story 4” is a good movie through and through but one that didn’t necessarily need to be. Nonetheless, it works well all the same. This installment works more in all seriousness as an epilogue on existence of Woody. It is not about the kid’s room or the nursery anymore. It is set again the bigger world asking the question”Do I want more?” and “Who am I?” Wonderfully enough this theme tends to innately move the motivations of every single one of the characters here. By not having to give all the focus to each of the nursery toys, there almost seems to be broadening of character.

Annie Potts as Bo Peep definitely ups here game and the essence of a lost toy in the world does take on new meaning while essentially reflecting the mentality of a new age. The way she hangs and runs with Giggle McDimples just feels organic. Woody is struggling to catch up…which is part of the point of the exercise. The addition of Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, a doll with a flaw in an antique store feels misdirected at first but then, especially with the help of her Henchmen (sort of like Howdy Doody on steroids) there is definitely a sense of darkness but in a way misplaced enlightenment. The fact that some of the ending music from “The Shining” plays at one point just was undeniably elating. The different elements of existentialism moving through the story including the Id, hubris and the inner voice are all incredibly deep despite it being able to play very simple on the surface.

Even the introduction of Forky, a toy made out of trash by their kid Bonnie, evolves from that aspect. He just wants to be trash until he realizes his need to be but his first question is “Why am I alive?” On retrospect thinking, it can be quite filtered and intense in what the movie is talking about. That is a question that Gabby comes to terms with. Even Duke Kaboom, a racing toy played by Keanu Reeves, has a similar existential crisis. Rumor was that Keanu pushed the writers to build his character out more. And while that might be true, Duke’s journey has the same path and texture of needing to be as the other main characters. He was thrown out by his kid because he didn’t do what the commercial said he would. The irony and paradox of that statement both as an actor and as a character is, in ways, profound. Not wanting to give away any of the spoilers, this progression serves all the characters even Buzz with his basic thinking.

Towards the end of the film however which was interesting, there was a buzzy moment that very few films get when it hits the right notes finding heart and connection without being schmaltzy…and it wasn’t even with the main character. That said, though there is an almost subtle texture of “Forrest Gump” in the final moments. Not the same perception but it just about got there. “Toy Story 4” didn’t need to be but in that that it is, it is welcome as it is both a crowd pleaser but also an existential epilogue on the nature of a toy that is Woody. And Key & Peele are pretty good in it too.

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By Tim Wassberg

Perceptive Comedy & Identifiable Motivation: The 2018 NBC Network TCA Winter Press Tour

The essence of comedy is making the balance between heart and sarcasm, reality and fantasy a texture of perception. The different structures and ideas within NBC’s new series point to interesting and conscious form of diversification both in stories and in casting while still playing to its strengths. During the main NBC presentations at TCA Winter Press Tour, the rhythm of the ideas rings true.

Good Girls This crime comedy about 3 women pulling a heist for each of their own personal reasons speaks to the different kinds of chemistry and dynamics between the characters. Creator Jenna Bans explains “It definitely leans into the fun and chemistry of these 3 women. These character need to say what they are doing is for good so they will be able to cross the line. They are definitely breaking rules and laws.” Christina Hendricks, known for her role on “Mad Men”, plays Beth. She explains: “We have carved out our own little space. That blend of desperation and comedy. The tone is tricky and we play every moment as real. Sometimes they are over the top, hysterical and bizarre. [When these characters] experience crazy things, you can be funny. I feel like Beth in this situation is making decisions to protect her family. But unlike Joan [in “Mad Men”], she enjoys it. Beth is selfish. She likes adrenaline. She likes power.” Mae Whitman who plays Christina’s younger sister Annie also explains: “In every episode there comes up an element of moral justification. The fun thing is to see how far into that we go. Is what they are doing right or wrong and who is getting hurt in the process. To me one thing is that Jenna creates a whole world without it being preachy. I felt like I knew the people.” Bans also comments on the style of performance needed: “I am a hug fan of improv in these shows. The best are when [these girls] are shooting the shit.” Retta, best known from “Parks & Recreation, plays Beth’s best friend Ruby, speaks about what interested her: “It is rare I read a pilot and I cry and I get into it.” Hendricks had her own reservations: “I was worried about being on network. It was so edgy and dark. We have many discussions. I said you have to promise you won’t back down from this and it was going to be what it was going to be. I could also feel myself [as a person] in the role.” Whitman’s approach was slightly different: “I feel like I am always the weird girl. One thing I loved about this show is that it is 3 interesting people in the leads and they happen to be bad ass women. And so much of the comedy of it comes from the absurdity of it.” Bans concludes her perception of the show itself: “This show becomes about these characters balancing their personal lives. They are trying to keep going with life as normal…but they are in a buttload of trouble.

Rise By comparison, the musical/drama examines the texture of a drama department within the high school and the struggles therein. Jason Katim, exec producer who also worked on “Friday Night Lights”, explains: “Having a show like “This Is Us” has cleared the path. Shows that are very character driven, are the shows that appeal to me as a viewer but also those I like to tell. [But] I also wanted it to be a show where you were amazed to see the singing but that you connected into the singers with what was going on in their lives so it would weigh on another level.” Damon J. Gillespie, who plays Robbie Thorne, one of the students who is between the two worlds of football and the theater program in the show, talks about his approach to the role: “I kind of changed my lifestyle. My uncle is a personal trainer so I wanted to get physically fit. However when you are a dancer you already do those things. That aspect felt at home but relearning how to do a blocking rehearsal.” Katim continues about how to balance the perceptions of the different areas within the school in terms of the story but also the challenges of telling certain aspects (like which musical that could be performed): “I really felt that I needed to make it my own story. In terms of the football angle, what I love about the show is that as much it is about high school theater, it is about the football team. I like the idea of striking a balance. When I took on the show, they happened to be doing “Spring Awakening” at Pacific Palisades High School. I talked to the director afterwards and she told me about the challenges like the school wanting to censure certain parts.” Gillespie continues on the parallels in his education but also the differences in showing theater on stage versus shooting it for television: “In theater, you have 2 ½ half hours to get to the aspect of the story while with TV you are doing it sporadically. So it becomes…what makes me cry…what makes me happy. It was very layered. My cousin went to public high school. It was the normal every day high school student. For me at an arts school, it was completely opposite. There was only 40 in my graduating class. So I only know the arts school but it shaped who I am and how I think.

A.P. Bio This show from Mike O’Brien who wrote for “Saturday Night” would seem to come from a more sardonic point of view especially with its casting of Glenn Howerton (known for “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” as a Harvard philosophy professor turned interim science teacher. Howerton talks about the challenges with having a successful show but also creating a new character: “I did officially leave “Sunny”. The hard thing about people seeing you in the same thing is that they have a hard time seeing you in about everything else. I think there is some real heart [this character which is] key. I don’t think he is as hardened as Dennis [his character in “Philadelphia”. I am compartmentalizing. There is a little more tenderness to this guy although he doesn’t want people to realize it. [But] I am always looking for some sort of truth. This is about a man who is a grieving but doesn’t believe that he is grieving. I like to think that he is a guy who has big feelings who has to play it like he just doesn’t care. Because it stop serving you to feel things so openly. That’s funny right?” O’Brien speaks to the design of the character to match Howerton: “I was very excited about the idea of having a fun silly playful show that has an extremely intelligent lead. Not that it hasn’t been done before. I have many character [integrated] in the size and shape that Jack does. You friends that abandoned you when you were stalling out.” To the idea of philosophy as a construct within the character, Howerton continues: “You can use a philosophy to justify almost any behavior…if I am ever called out on it. What I love is that Mike wrote a character that is intellectually smart but emotionally immature.

Super Bowl LII The greatest show on earth at times always can have the essence of Al Michael’s voice. Like John Madden, his calls have become synonymous with the NFL. Michaels reflects on the many years he has called the fields his home: “I have always said the NFL is the greatest unscripted show out there. I think back to the first one we did where James Harrison ran back the interception 100 yards [in Super Bowl XLIII]. In a way the Super Bowl is the easiest game to do. [You] just let the game break. I am a production junkie too. We all work hand and glove. [But] at the end of the day, I am a fan like anyone else. I like to watch games myself.” However, he explains the difference when he is with friends and family watching a game: “If you go to a party, there is always a guy who thinks he knows more than you do.” He also speaks of some of the more challenging games he has called: “There was a Skycam game when we had the fog in New England. And, at that point, we couldn’t see the field from our upper field camera. We had to watch from the point of view of the quarterback. It really gives you a different perspective but you couldn’t do the whole game that way. However, that night in Foxboro was cool.

The Voice In this upcoming season, Kelly Clarkson, famously known as the main breakout from the original “American Idol” show, adds her perception moving to the reverse side as a judge. Clarkson speaks on the irony and competition in this new role: “It is definitely awesome to fight the three other coaches. I still feel like the same kid that entered this industry. [But] I can’t hide excitement. My favorite part [so far is] to be a coach. I hate to be a judge. I feel shitty afterwards. When I started singing I started by singing opera music. But, at the core, people like talent over aesthetics.” She continues about her interaction with the other judges, obviously all music stars in their own right: “It is hilarious how much we grovel. They constantly remind me they all won.” But she then explains her own rise to stardom: “I don’t fit the pop star image that people have had in their mind. [But] it is a different world now. Success is rated differently with streaming. What happened in my life was incredible. People dream for that moment and not everybody gets to achieve it.

By Tim Wassberg

Puppets, Sharks & Regular People: The 2009 TCA Cable Summer Press Tour – Feature – Part I

The essence of cable is based between the aspects of reality, scripted essence and the angle of creative paradoxes. The key is pushing the envelopes in more ways the one and not creating the aspect of nitch as much as the angle of the now. The Cable Portion of the Summer 2009 TCA Summer Press Tour speaks to the angle of the voice versus the perception of the idea.

AMC/Mad Men Cocktail Party Entering in off the terrace into the grasp of sunset, the essence of the smoothness continues to build. Sitting on a posh chair swishing around a Manhattan inundated with a cherry as the scotch continues to flow, Christina Hendricks who plays Joan, the sly and in-control office manager on the series, twirls the men with equal precision around her finger working the terrace in a form fitting green dress, both retro and modern. Most of the cast seem to highlight much of their personas from wardrobe which was obviously highlighted from the costume department for this event. Jon Hamm positioned by the door was holding a gaggle of people rapt within his tales as the bar continued pouring. While traversing the party in the company of a younger and compelling 22 year old woman, the interaction came to  Rich Sommer, who plays Harry Crane, a rising star within the Madison Avenue office who always tries to find the balance but also the edge of the moral code prevalent in his work. The actor and his wife moved from New York when he got the gig and have been here for the compelling three years since. Our discussion turned to theater in NY which he has not done yet but would be interesting for him during the haitus. He reflected that it is in fact 7 months between shooting of the seasons to adhere to AMC’s specific airing schedule so there is much time down. As the cigarette smoke drifted in silky rhythm as cast member looking off the Roman essence of the terrace into the sunset, the characteristic element of the Emmy Award winning drama lushily made itself known.

TV Land The early morning essence of the shows began in earnest as the introductions began in earnest. Joan Rivers took the podium with gusto talking about her new series “How Did You Get So Rich”. When Rivers gets going, she is like a freight train with a lot of blue stops along the way. She spoke of Dustin Hoffman who lives next door to Barbara Streisand. His dog gets massages. She says why do you have to get any more relaxed when you can already lick your own balls? The people she interviews on her new show don’t promote envy because most of them came from nothing. However some of the objects they buy sometimes seem to defy description. She says that one guy opened his safe filled with money and she had an orgasm which she peppers with the follow up that it was the first time she had one since Melissa was born. She chuckles and even admits that this early morning joke might have crossed the line. She also enters her thought on the looming Jay Leno Show at 10pm since she herself used to have her own late night show. Her opinion is that people will get bored more easily and go to bed earlier. The crops will all be greener. The woman doesn’t pull the punches for sure.

Nickelodeon With the success of “The Penguins Of Madagacar”, the pursuit of the intention of more animation seems like a natural fit. With his long standing success as head of multiple studios, Michael Eisner would be one to know the landscape. With his new stop motion show “Glenn Martin DDS”, the irony is a bit closer. Unlike “Happy Days” which he shepherded in the 70s, this new show is more about a modern family being torn apart. Eisner says that the show is both “opposite and the same”. It is about family but this is not the 50s. Eisner explains that this outlay is no different from what he has done in his whole career. At Disney, it was a matter of more people in the process. He remembers when he came up with “Happy Days” when he was snowbound at Newark Airport. He further represents that the aspect of “Beverly Hills Cop” came about when he was stopped in Beverly Hills coming from Paramount. The “puppet animation”, as he puts it, is a natural extension. When he was at ABC in the 60s, he gave the go-ahead for the “Frosty” special, followed soon after by “Rudolph”. The laugh tracks present in “Martin DDS” are derived from his enjoyment of the laugh tracks on “The Jetsons”. He believes this new show will bring stop motion back to the forefront (which of course is a tall order). He reflects that with “Barney Miller”, he had trouble getting it on the air. “Cheers” had a brisk to it which also could be considered difficult. But all of these shows, in his mind, had an aspect of social commentary. By comparison, at Disney, he said they had the aspect that “the family that plays together stays together”. Star Kevin Nealon, formerly of SNL, says that his favorite shows were “Gilligan’s Island” and “Wild Wild West”. He sarcastically remarks that they were looking for a “voice” and he had one but it was difficult since he was being offered so many shows at the time.

Comedy Central Making a show with less than socially correct puppets has always been a mine for comedy. It is just a matter of hitting the right marks. Jeff Dunham has been working and doing his schtick as a ventriloquist for years. His routine with his crochety old compatriot Walter works precisely for the fact that the marionette can say things that he simply can’t. Dunham says he wants to give a real edge to the show. One of the first things that came to his mind was to have his Middle Eastern puppet Ahkmed do a sketch at the airport. The aspect that still fascinates him is that people still forget that the dolls are not real. His associates, when making the pieces, simply tell the interviewees to “pay no attention to Jeff”. Walter, his most famous creation, is inspired by one of his friend’s fathers from college. He says that when you would carry on a conversation with him and stare him straight in the eye, the man would seem frightened. Combine that, he says, with aspects of Bette Davis’ last appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” where the actress simply said whatever she wanted. At this point, he brings out Walter, who simply says that “we have peaked” and that it feels “like it was in Chris Brown’s car”. Walter then proceeds to offer different headlines that go along with his pessimistic demise of this said show including “Dunham Show Dolls Out Cheap Laughs”, “Dunham Show Funny as Fucking Wood” and “Dunham Show Needs Helping Hands” (which elicits some groans from the background). Dunham goes onto say that they will be introducing a new character called Melvin The Superhero who doesn’t have any powers to speak of. He does admit that if he has a couple drinks, Walter is the character that will come out as it did on the second taping on one of his DVDs. He did a tequila shot just with a friend before the show and it hit him a little harder than he would have expected. Walter materialized in vigor. In terms of ventriloquism, as an art form, he does say that it is a dying art. He speaks of the annual ventriloquist convention which draws about 400 attendees, 8 of which work professionally. Of course the stigma tends to be always there.

History Channel With a show addressing social consciousness, the trick is not to make it too preachy in the overall scheme of its progression. With the new show “The People Speak”, the History Channel is attempting to highlight some very real perceptions of how ordinary people make a different. Matt Damon and Chris Moore who were involved with “Project Greenlight” believed in the project enough to propel it. Damon speaks that “People” shows how everyday citizens change the course of history calling it, for him, “a very empowering experience”. The aspect that drew him was simply the material. He says people have a relationship with the book and that it relays itself perfectly into this format. He admits that he put money to the piece but that the main thrust of the “locomotive” was done by the other involved parties. He says that the History Channel was the exact right outlet because he says, it has “exploded” buoyed by the fact that “there is an appetite for history” and that “people in general seem to be more interested in politics now”. He admits that in many big Hollywood films that there is a lot of waste but that “different films have different catering budgets”. He brings the focus back to “People” saying that “things have not worked out well for any citizens who have conceded to the bandwagon”. The real work is about “being pushed by regular people”

Chris Moore, long a collaborator with Damon, says ultimately what it comes down to, in terms of motivating a show like this, is manpower. On projects like this, people come on to help because they want to do it, not because of a paycheck. The whole design of this series, he adds, is to go into the schools and connect with the kids. He entices that Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam did a cover of “No More War”, Bob Dylan did Woody Guthrie and John Legend did a slave spiritual along with “What’s Going On” which gives the program pop culture as well as historical relevance. Howard Zinn, who wrote the book on which the series is based, notes the question of how many people who struggle for an 8-hour day. When people in schools sometimes speak of “the history collective” as he puts it, one tends to get a lecture on the masters of the freedom trail. The point, Zinn says, is “to teach qualitatively and not quantatively, to not just celebrate but to make people think” because “all citizens have the power of demanding”.

National Geographic Looking into the teeth of a Great White Shark might be a compelling moment even for the star of “The Fast & The Furious” franchise. Paul Walker, long an avid surfer with a love of the ocean (his black muscle car outside is strapped for his surfboard), was invited along for the ride by one of his friends who offered him the job as a deckhand to take the unprecedented task of bringing one of the massive sharks onboard. Paul, whom this reporter has met many times over the years, smiles saying that Jacques Cousteau is his idol. He mentions that he is on the board of the Billfish Foundation and when he got a call from exec producer Chris McKay on 4 days notice, he jumped at the chance to see the “awesomeness” of this animal up close although he admits “it hurt my surfing career”. McKay says that the progression in the field of microbiology allows these kind of studies to be part of the science agenda specifically in many ways in how it relates to astrobiology. The shark they captured nicknamed “Bruce” in an ode to the “Jaws” movies ate the outboard and props so it wasn’t the easiest capture.

Another more terran series in poise at Nat Geo is “Rescue Ink Unleashed” which follows the plight of some very tough guys (Eric, Joe Panz, Big Ant and Johnny O) who fight for the plight of abused and abandoned animals. They come in when the cops have done their part and things must be taken a step further. Joe speaks for the group saying that they stay on point until the situation gets resolved. The question becomes, if they show up, does it make a difference? His response is that they get the animal out of a bad situation. After they do the rescue, the vet gets involved and once it is determined there is no agression, the animals are placed into a better home. Otherwise, they come to the Ink Sanctuary called “The Clubhouse”. The process by which the cases are investigated is that a call goes to their girl Mary at the office. They then send in their guy, a former homicide investigator, that dispatches them to the situation if it warrants their attention. Then business is taken care of.

ESPN Having pop culture and media savvy filmmakers highlight what their sport icons mean to them makes for very interesting voices in a saturated market. “30 for 30” takes this approach by bringing some of these people together to create this kind of mosaic. For example, Ice Cube, filmmaker, actor and music star, takes on the iconography of the Los Angeles Raiders and what they meant to him. He says that his story is really the parallel between the Raiders image and what it did to the city of LA. He relates the fact that NWA (the rap group he was part of) took on part of that persona. He admits that Los Angeles, by rote, is owned by the Dodgers and the Lakers. The Raiders, as he puts it, were “the bad cousins that come to visit you”. He experienced that culture by being knee deep in that era of gansgta rap. It is at this point that, he says, the LA Kings hockey team changed their colors. Cube believes that this story is one that hasn’t been explored (and truly he is the person suited to bring it to light). He does this by interviewing many of the people interrelated at different points in this perspective from Eric Dickerson to Ice T to Marcus Allen to John Singleton. His piece he relates is more indicative of the community itself. Cube also opinionates himself on the lack of a current NFL franchise in the LA area saying “Los Angeles does not support NFL franchises unless they win” citing the Clippers as an example.

John Singleton, who worked with Cube on his seminal work “Boyz In The Hood”, thought that these stories across the board needed to be told not as they were in the media but by these respective filmmakers. The key here is to create a filter with something different. Fellow director Peter Berg, best known for action films “The Rundown” and “Hancock”, speaks of his segment on hockey player Wayne Gretsky whom he describes as a “very humble and shy person who was interested [in the idea] but not chomping at the bit”. He says he was most surprised to see the man becoming more enthusiastic as he came closer to the emotions. Berg speaks of being a Canadian and remembering how horrible the LA Kings were before Gretsky. He said that growing up in Edmonton Alberta where the athlete was originally based was an exercise in identity since the whole thought of the city was wrapped around this one individual. When Gretsky left for LA, it almost became a national issue which is what intrigued him about the story.

BBC The perception of British programming is the balance between the aspect of drama and the conceptual ideals that sometimes are able to traverse oceans. A good example is the passing of the baton for a show like “Dr. Who” which has enjoyed an exceptionally good run with its star David Tennant whom they are phasing out at the top of his popularity to maintain the brand. Creator/writer Russell Davies says that he and David were lucky to have worked together since they did “Casanova” originally for the BBC where he saw the essence of the Doctor. Davies says that there was a humor and comedy whereas most other actors who had taken on the part were playing it so seriously. He adds that there will be no massive distances between the doctors because it all has to do with experiences. One can’t depend on character hooks too much. The doctor maybe an alien and a timelord but ultimately for the most part he is human. That is the key.

Tennant, for his part, relates that, in view of his recent Comic Con experience, he admits that the doctor likes being “this doctor”. He says that the character, as well as himself, is reaching against the “dying of the light” where “the bell is tolling for him and he doesn’t want to go quietly”. Tennant agrees that it is exciting handing over the show in good health but that keeping it on with him, in the long term, was uncertain. With a future including two films and “Hamlet” for the BBC, his plate is hardly empty.

“Occupation”, another BBC series [this one shot in Morocco] takes into the strike zone the aspect of the war in the Middle East from the British perspective. Pete Bowker, the writer, says that the way the characters approach the war is key. Having a pint or a coffee becomes a major event. He relates a moment when a soldier told him that the only way his family would let him become a nurse is if he did it in the army. Another anecote came from another soldier telling him how they would clear a building. The humor came from the aspect of sticking your head around the corner and seeing if someone blows it off.

“Being Human”, by comparison, takes a middle ground between the two series, because of its inherent supernatural elements. Toby Whithouse, creator of the series, emphasizes the fact that, in reality, we don’t live in a genre. A person can have a normal conversation but it doesn’t mean that something tragic isn’t going on. In a matter of perspective, sometimes the relativity gives you more free range to work in because you can tell a massive and a personal story at the same time which allows you to look at the community in a distinctly different way. He says the stablizing factor is to maintain order in the house which he jokingly says he does by constantly making tea.

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