In Review: 'Lightyear,' 'Spiderhead,' 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'
A Pixar hero returns to theaters in a spin-off of 'Toy Story' (sort of... it's complicated) while streaming sees Chris Hemsworth taking a villainous turn and the debut of a 2022 Sundance favorite.
Dir. Angus MacLane
Lightyear has been a puzzling movie ever since it was announced, and attempts to clarify it have only made it more puzzling. These include a now famous tweet from star Chris Evans stating, “And just to be clear, this isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy. This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.” The clarifying extends to the opening of Lightyear itself, which notes that in 1995 Toy Story’s central kid, Andy, went to see a movie called Lightyear and that what follows was the movie he saw (which became his favorite and inspired him to ask for a Buzz Lightyear toy).
That would make more sense if Lightyear looked or played like a kid-friendly 1990s blockbuster, but it’s a plausible-enough justification for dragging the Buzz IP out of the toybox. What's truly puzzling is that Lightyear ultimately plays like the sort of medium-ambition, straight-down-the-middle Pixar effort it looked like from the start. Anyone hoping for more, particularly given the recent run of winning, inventive Pixar films that’s included Turning Red, Luca, Soul, and the underrated Onward will walk away disappointed (though the younger among them might want to pick up an action figure anyway).
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But, hey, even a medium-ambition, straight-down-the-middle Pixar movie has its charms. Here Evans provides the voice of (the human) Buzz Lightyear, a Space Ranger working aboard a ship filled with colonists who find themselves stranded on a hostile planet. Their only hope of escape: a daring, never-before-achieved, time- and space-bending flight that only Buzz can accomplish. Only he fails. Then he tries again, and again, and again, each attempt putting him further and further out of sync with the other colonists who continue to age while his faster-than-light flights keep him the same age. As the others, including his best friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba), start new lives on the planet, and as one generation gives way to the next, Buzz pigheadedly keeps trying to complete a mission that only he seems to care about.
That intriguing set-up eventually gives way to a more conventional underdogs-fighting-against-the-odds story when Buzz, his faithful feline AI companion Sox (charmingly voiced by Pixar director Peter Sohn), and a ragtag bunch of would-be Space Rangers that includes Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) team up to defend the colony from a bunch of robotic invaders commanded by the fearsome Zurg (James Brolin). Apart from Sox—a dry delight of a character—and a warm depiction of a same-sex marriage that’s welcome after Disney and Pixar’s history of tiptoeing around that sort of inclusiveness, there’s little that’s remarkable about Lightyear. Buzz learns a valuable lesson about living with failure and adapting to changing times. The scenes of daring space adventure are perfectly solid. But it’s likely to leave viewers with a lingering puzzle even once they get past the premise: given the talent involved and the initial promise of the time-bending premise, couldn’t this have been extraordinary? —Keith Phipps
Lightyear is in theaters tomorrow.
Dir. Joseph Kosinski
Early in Spiderhead, a sleek and offbeat adaptation of George Saunders’ short story “Escape From Spiderhead,” an inmate at a state-of-the-art experimental penitentiary is taken outside the prison for a test. He’s administered a drug through a MobiPak, a surgically attached port in the small of his back that can be controlled through a phone app. After the injection, he’s asked to give his impressions of the landscape he sees, which leaves him so awed by its transcendent beauty that he needs a second drug, “Verbaluce,” to describe it. Then we in the audience see the landscape for what it actually is, a nasty piece of urban blight with industrial smokestacks pumping pollutants into the atmosphere.
Science fiction films have imagined such futures before, like The Matrix, which suggested that the world we know is merely a simulation, covering up a grimmer and more diabolical reality. But Spiderhead considers what might happen as we refine the mind-altering pharmaceuticals we already use to ease depression, say, or keep anxiety at bay. What if two people could be chemically persuaded to fall in love with each other? What if we could find virtually everything funny, as if we were breathing in laughing gas? And, more broadly, what if the dystopia mankind has created for itself could be made to seem like a utopia? Any responsibility we might feel as stewards of the planet would go out the window.
Director Joseph Kosinski, who made this entertaining bauble after his COVID-delayed Top Gun: Maverick, keeps the tone as disconcertingly breezy as the head of this operation, Steve Abnesti, played with a sinister can-do spirit by Chris Hemsworth. Steve presents himself as the ultimate bro, doing all the inmates at his “Spiderhead” facility a solid by giving them freedom of movement, minimal security, a lounge for socializing and game-playing, and plenty of gourmet appetizers circulating from the kitchen. In exchange for these perks, the prisoners have to consent to various MobiPak experiments, like “Luvactin,” which amplifies romantic attraction, or “Phobica,” which manipulates fear–witness a subject cowering before a stapler.
Within this quirky glimpse into our chemically enhanced future lies a more banal story of guilt and redemption, centered on Miles Teller as Jeff, an inmate who can’t forgive himself for his role in a drunk driving accident that killed his friend and girlfriend. Inmates have to apply for this carceral paradise, and for Jeff, the drugs are an opportunity to liberate himself from a past that will haunt him forever, though his conscience starts to trouble him here for other reasons. As Steve mucks around with more dangerous injections, like the dreaded “Darkenfloxx,” Jeff starts to question the project and poke around to discover its true purpose.
In his rangiest and wittiest performance to date, Hemsworth uses his A-list charisma as a lethal snow job in its own right, deployed like a MobiPak injection to elicit a synthetic euphoria. Kosinski isn’t always as certain what feelings he wants his film to evince, as it toggles between science fiction and satire, with awkward lurches into melodrama and techno-thriller. At worst, it feels like a short story that bursts a few seams in expansion. Yet there’s an irresistible pull to chemical living: Jamming the soundtrack with easy listening standards—The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes,” Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” George Benson’s “Breezin’”—Kosinski teases a future where our minds are like the waiting room at a dentist’s office, as harmlessly anesthetized as one of Mangione’s smooth jazz runs. The apocalypse will go down easy. — Scott Tobias
Spiderhead starts streaming for Netflix subscribers on Friday.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Dir. Cooper Raiff
Andrew wants people to like him. He needs people to like him. Stuck in that post-grad limbo where his bachelor’s degree has earned him his old room back home and a gig schlepping corn dogs at a mall stand called Meat Sticks, Andrew stumbles into a job as a party host for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs simply by persuading awkward Jewish kids to hit the dance floor. He’s ingratiating that way. And when an autistic girl hides herself away from her classmates, he encourages her, too. He also gives attention to the girl’s mother, because he gets a whiff of the melancholy that emanates from her like perfume. Then his younger brother needs some romantic advice. And so on.
Cooper Raiff, the writer/director/producer/editor of Cha Cha Real Smooth, needs people to like him, too. Casting himself as Andrew, Raiff has made a film that doubles as a dating profile: SWM, handsome, sensitive, funny, giving, family-oriented, good with children and probably dogs. Seeking restless older woman. Imagine The Graduate if Benjamin Braddock was attracted to Mrs. Robinson, but didn’t want to take advantage. Though Andrew is not without flaws—Raiff is blessedly self-aware enough to come up with a couple of them—Cha Cha Real Smooth is like the nice independent film you can take home to mom without her having to worry it’ll get out of line.
In this follow-up to his SXSW-winning DIY debut Shithouse, Raiff attempts to capture the difficult transitional phase of being an educated person in your early ‘20s and having no idea what comes next or how to get there. (The Worst Person in the World follows that phase for years, with abundant insight and wit, but I digress.) With his sort-of girlfriend jetting off to Barcelona as a Fulbright scholar, Andrew has vague plans to raise enough money to get there himself, but his mother (Leslie Mann) is skeptical and even he seems to know that the expiration date on their relationship is already elapsing. While at a Bar Mitzvah with his brother, Andrew takes it upon himself to get the other kids partying, and the Jewish mothers take notice, wondering if he could liven up their Bar Mitzvahs for cash. It may not be a career, but it beats the corn dog job.
One such mother is Domino (Dakota Johnson), who’s been Andrew’s type since his own Bar Mitzvah, where he tried to sweet-talk a woman twice his age. Domino had her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), when she was too young and she’s been raising her on her own ever since, though now there’s a fiancé, Joseph (Raúl Castillo), in the picture but often out of town. Andrew connects with Lola and Domino as few do, and a babysitting gig inevitably leads to emotional complications.
Though a notch or two finer than a product of the Zach Braff/Josh Radnor school of indie filmmaking, Cha Cha Real Smooth has a similar attachment to overwritten banter and make-me-a-mixtape needle drops, all in service of a work seemingly crafted to burnish its maker’s image. Raiff does give Andrew a secret drinking problem that humbles him a little, and his flirtations with Domino put him on the verge of being a home-wrecker. But these are like scars in fine leather, proof of authenticity. Andrew, and Raiff, seems like a real catch. — Scott Tobias
Cha Cha Real Smooth will play select theaters and begin streaming for Apple TV+ subscribers on Friday.