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Schultz reviews: "Child's Play," "The Dead Don't Die" and "Toy Story 4"

Schultz reviews: "Child's Play," "The Dead Don't Die" and "Toy Story 4"

Carl Schultz

“Child’s Play” Distributed by United Artists Releasing, 90 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 21:

Seeking a birthday gift for her isolated teenage son, a financially-strapped single mother rescues a popular new high-tech doll from the recycle bin while working at a local retail outlet. Mom’s unaware that the toy’s circuitry was sabotaged on the assembly line by a disgruntled sweatshop employee overseas just prior to his suicide. The doll soon begins to create mayhem and murder in the family’s already turbulent day-to-day existence.

A streamlined and updated version of the original 1988 horror film (which spawned six increasingly-ludicrous sequels), the new “Child’s Play” has seemingly been produced — and marketed — for audiences seeking an alternative to the reliable sweetness of the latest “Toy Story” chapter being released simultaneously.

Benefitting from an intelligent script by Tyler Burton Smith and concise direction from Norwegian filmmaker Lars Klevberg, “Child’s Play” also features insightful performances from the under-appreciated Aubrey Plaza as the mother, the warm and funny Brian Tyree Henry as a sympathetic police detective, and 14-year-old Gabriel Bateman as the sensitive and intelligent teenage recipient of the defective doll.

Although predictably gruesome, especially during the frenetic finale, the new “Child’s Play” picture contains a refreshing dose of satire and abundant in-jokes aimed squarely at film buffs. Providing the doll’s voice is “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill, who’s crafted a secondary career as a versatile and prolific voiceover artist for animated pictures. When prompted in the movie, the child attempts to name his computerized doll “Han Solo.” The doll pauses, and then insists on being named “Chucky” instead.

“Child’s Play” is receiving mixed but respectable grades from the critics, including an approval rating of 58% from Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 47% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture an average grade of C-plus.

No members of the creative staff of the original 1988 film were involved with the production of the new “Child’s Play.” With his cold, indifferent eyes and vacant facial expression, the Chucky doll in the new version resembles actor Christopher Walken.

“Child’s Play” is rated R for gore and horror movie violence, and for language concerns throughout.

“The Dead Don’t Die” Distributed by Focus Features, 103 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 14:

Fans of independent film pioneer Jim Jarmusch will likely appreciate the new “The Dead Don’t Die” more than others, or at least have a head start on understanding it. For others, whether you’re expecting a comedy or a horror picture, you’re likely to be surprised ... and not necessarily in a pleasant way.

Told from the perspective of the citizens of tiny Centerville, USA (the town motto: “A Real Nice Place”), when an energy-harvesting procedure with the ominous description “polar fracking” knocks the Earth off its axis, a number of significant changes occur in the environment, including a difference in the duration of a day ... and the beginning of a zombie apocalypse.

With similarities to Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” from 2009, writer and director Jarmusch assembles an all-star cast of independent film icons and veterans of his previous films — Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez, and Tom Waits — in a picture that often seems a real attempt by the minimalist Jarmusch to penetrate the world of mainstream filmmaking.

The picture’s major problem is its episodic construction, and Jarmusch’s seemingly seeking to straddle several different genres simultaneously, with mixed success: Lawmen Murray and Driver inhabit a knockabout comedy, redneck farmer Buscemi appears in a political satire, visiting hipster Gomez and police deputy Sevigny seem to be in a legitimate horror picture, and Tom Waits as a backwoods hermit acts as a sort of Greek Chorus, tying it all together.

But the picture never establishes a consistent tone. When the characters from the various segments interact with each other, there’s a palpable sense of confusion, as if nobody’s quite sure what they’re doing. The inevitable result is a sense of disquiet in the viewer ... which might or might not be Jarmusch’s intention.

“The Dead Don’t Die” is also more self-indulgent than other Jarmusch pictures, right down to the silly spoonerisms used by the filmmaker for some of the characters’ names — Rosie Perez plays TV reporter Posie Juarez, and Tilda Swinton is mortician Zelda Winston. It’s as if Jarmusch the writer couldn’t be bothered to come with persuasive fictional names ... or, worse, that he included the characters in the screenplay at the last-minute, based on the performers’ availability and drawing power at the box office.

“The Dead Don’t Die” probably works best as a not-always-affectionate parody of small-town life. For those viewers unaccustomed to Jim Jarmusch, it might help to imagine how Andy and Barney and folks of Mayberry might react to a zombie invasion, in a place where the undead not only invade the local diner to munch on the living, but also smile at each other and enjoy a cup of coffee together afterwards.

Underplayed and subdued to the point of somnambulism, quirky rather than funny, frequently disquieting, and filled to the brim with in-jokes and references to Jarmusch’s filmography, “The Dead Don’t Die” is worth seeing. But your enjoyment of the picture might depend on the fine-tuning of your funny bone ... and your sense of patience.

Filmed in and near Fleischmann, New York but seemingly set in George Romero-vintage Pennsylvania (local references abound), ”The Dead Don’t Die” is receiving mixed reviews, including an approval rating of 53% from Rotten Tomatoes and 55% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes note that the picture “dabbles with tones and themes to varying degrees of success, but sharp wit and a strong cast make this a zom-com with enough brains to consume.”

Opening on June 14 in a limited release to 613 theaters in the United States — a fairly large number for a Jarmusch picture — “The Dead Don’t Die” earned a little over $3 million in box office receipts during its first week of release, against a reported production budget of $5 million. The picture is rated R for gore and zombie violence, and for language concerns.

“Toy Story 4” Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 100 Minutes, Rated G, Released June 21:

You might feel a strong impulse to applaud at the end of the superb new “Toy Story 4.” Go right ahead and do it. Plenty of other people are.

The 21st movie in the partnership between Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios and the fourth picture in the series which began in 1996, in “Toy Story 4” the friends have been passed down from original owner Andy to his youngest sister, Bonnie, a preschooler who’s just about to begin kindergarten.

On her first day of school, little Bonnie is overwhelmed with shyness, and for companionship crafts a toy friend from a discarded spork — a combination plastic spoon and fork used as a table utensil. Naming her new toy friend Forky, Bonnie places the utensil into her backpack at the end of the day so he can join her other toys at home.

In the company of Woody and Buzz and the other toys, the inanimate Forky comes to life ... but quickly suffers an identity crisis. Believing he was made to be trash and not a toy, Forky attempts to return to the trash can, and needs to be restrained by Woody and the others from throwing himself away. But during a cross-country road trip with Bonnie and her parents, Forky manages to reach a window in their moving motorhome, and jumps out into the countryside to join the roadside litter.

Knowing little Bonnie will be heartbroken by her new toy friend’s absence, Woody selflessly follows Forky out the window and into a nearby town, where he attempts to recover and retrieve the converted spork and return him to the company of Bonnie and her other toys. In the process, Woody receives help from an unexpected source — his former crush Bo Peep, who was sold from the company of the other toys two years earlier, and now lives in a consignment store nearby.

“Toy Story 4” again uses a central conceit from the previous films in the series (and borrowed by the recent animated “UglyDolls,” released in May) that toys come alive in the absence of people watching, and are primarily made to act as support personnel for children, desiring nothing more complicated than to be adopted into loving homes. It’s an attractive notion, a very human idea, and plucks at the self-same heartstrings we feel when we pass a pet store and see the eager eyes of a puppy wistfully following us along.

Directed by former Pixar storyboard artist Josh Cooley from a screenplay by “Finding Nemo” writers Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton (and based on a story by themselves and six other writers, including actress Rashida Jones and former Pixar CEO John Lasseter), “Toy Story 4” benefits as always from its superstar cast of voice talents, including the returning Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as the toy sheriff Woody and spaceman Buzz Lightyear, as well as Annie Potts as Bo Peep.

“Toy Story 4” also widens the series’ scope to brilliantly embrace a class of toys which hold a special place indeed in the hearts of many former children--the action figures that never quite worked as well as they did in the ubiquitous Christmastime television advertisements. To inhabit those memories, actor Keanu Reeves is added to the cast of regulars as the outrageously funny Duke Caboom, an Evel Knievel-like toy motorcycle daredevil who never manages to land where he’s supposed to ... dude.

The new picture contains some darker ideas, images, and themes than in previous “Toy Story” chapters: There are some sinister “Annabelle”-like ventriloquist’s dummies among the toys in the consignment store, and Forky’s repeated attempts to throw himself in the trash are suggestive of self-destruction. Still, like its predecessors, “Toy Story 4” is a brilliant combination of storytelling, animation, humor and emotion, as enjoyable to parents as it is to children. You’ll probably want to have plenty of Kleenex on hand during the picture’s closing moments.

During an era when the nation’s box office seems dominated by intergalactic laser blasts, prehistoric mutant lizards, and comic book sequels, it’s refreshing to see a movie whose popularity is unabashedly rooted in its message of love, friendship, and loyalty. Enjoy this picture while it’s here.

Opening on some 4,575 theater screens across the United States and Canada, “Toy Story 4” has earned an approval rating of 98% from Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 84% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes observes note that the picture “manages the unlikely feat of extending, and perhaps concluding, a practically perfect animated saga.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture an average grade of A.

The voice of the late Don Rickles as again heard as the character Mr. Potato Head — the actor’s family requested that outtakes from his previous voice performances as the character be used in the picture to include the late actor in one final appearance in the role. Viewers will also want to listen closely for the voices of veteran comic actors Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett, and Betty White in small roles ... as well as Carl Weathers, Laurie Metcalf, Bill Hader, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, and Timothy Dalton.

The first picture in the series to not include an animated short subject prior to the feature, “Toy Story 4” is rated G, and is acceptable for audiences of all ages.

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