Lightyear stays strong, Cha Cha misses the beat, Spiderhead hooks viewers

Pixar formula remains strong in Lightyear

An important distinction is made at the outset of Lightyear as we're told, "In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie." Focusing on the character, not the specific toy featured in the Toy Story films, explains why the titular hero is voiced by Chris Evans rather than Tim Allen. It also points to the movie's clever postmodern take on art and commerce.

The film is standard Pixar fare, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Well-worn but still vital lessons are dispensed as the titular hero must learn to trust others in doing battle with the evil robot Zurg (Josh Brolin), while letting go of his painful past. It's all standard stuff, but fortunately, Pixar has high standards, this adventure delivering plenty of spectacle and cuteness for the kids – that toy of the robotic cat SOX will sell in the millions, which is the point - while appealing to adult themes as well. The light-hearted, yet earnest tone helps these lessons go down easy and while it all may seem familiar, you won't mind thanks to the sincerity with which its rendered. In theaters.

Cha Cha trips over adolescent approach

Hoping to duplicate the success they had with CODA, Apple TV returned to the Sundance Film Festival in search of what they hope will be their next feel-good, Oscar-bait acquisition. They settled on Cha Cha Real Smooth, a feature that will likely be an audience favorite, but lacks the depth and poise of Sian Heder's Academy-Award winning movie.

Much like Benjamin Braddock, Andrew (Cooper Raiff) is a college graduate with little direction. Knowing how to have a good time, he decides to become a Bar Mitzvah host. At one such party, he meets single mom Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), helping the young woman deal with some teen bullies, earning her mother's undying respect.

Raiff pulls an Orson Welles here, directing, writing and producing the film as well as starring in it. As a result, the buck for this simplistic adolescent boy's fantasy stops with him. The characters are idealized versions of people, while the situations they're placed in are contrived, set up so that Andrew – or rather Raiff – can be the knight in shining armor in all situations. Though Cha Cha longs to be moving, it settles for being trite. Streaming on Apple TV.

Spiderhead survives botched dnding

Echoing The Stanford Prison Experiment, Joseph Kosinski's Spiderhead deals with a behavioral study conducted in a penitentiary that goes awry. Chris Hemsworth is Steve Abnesti, a manipulative scientist who runs an offshore prison where the inmates are given an unusual amount of freedom and autonomy...or so it seems. Though they think they have a certain amount of free will while being locked up, they're actually nothing more than lab rats being pumped full of experimental drugs which radically alter their behavior.

While Jeff (a very good Miles Teller) is locked up on a manslaughter charge, it's his guilt that keeps him prisoner. It also makes him vulnerable, especially once Abnesti discovers his attraction to fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), a situation he uses to bend Jeff to his will. While Kosinski botches the ending, resorting to a standard action-filled third act, the film keeps us hooked thanks to the intriguing moral dilemmas the characters are forced to deal with, each Catch-22 situations that lead to ruin. While the premise is outlandish, the frailties on display are all too human and, regrettably, recognizable. Streaming on Netflix.

About The Author

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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