By Lynn Venhaus

Heading ‘to infinity and beyond” with a heroic Space Ranger, “Lightyear,” sounds like an exciting flight of fancy. However, the first spin-off from the beloved “Toy Story” franchise sputters with a not very kid-friendly storyline.

And not really any connection to the four “Toy Story” movies except in name only. Confused? Join the club. We’re in an intergalactic mission that involves time travel and space aeronautic snafus.

This is the movie that made Buzz Lightyear a coveted toy. While spending years trying to return home, marooned Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) encounters an army of ruthless robots commanded by Zurg (Josh Brolin), who are attempting to steal his fuel source.

They make it clear right away that “Lightyear” is the movie that introduced Buzz to the mass audience, and then made him an action figure. That likely was a factor in replacing sitcom actor Tim Allen, who voiced Buzz in four movies, with the known-as-hero Chris Evans, best known as Avengers’ Captain America.

But the marketing of this film hasn’t been so obvious.

For the Pixar Animation Studios, it’s a surprising stumble, for the animation is customary next level, with dazzling outer space panoramas and state-of-the-art tech know-how conveyed in intense detail.

The vision is ambitious, showcasing a far-away planet that the space cowboys colonize as their new home while still working on multiple projects.

But it’s not enough, even with a topnotch vocal cast — Chris Evans is the stand-up Space Ranger, Uzo Aduba is his respected supervisor Alicia Hawthorne, Keke Palmer is her granddaughter Izzy, Taika Waititi is comical crew member Mo Morrison and Efren Ramirez is Airman Diaz.

The diverse cast is a plus, and Alicia Hawthorne is in a same-sex marriage for a Pixar first.

Best is Peter Sohn as the robotic pet cat “Socks” – a delightful source of goofy humor, not unlike the welcome comic relief of break-out character Forky in “Toy Story 4” in 2019.

But most of the time, this origin story is very serious. And that’s disappointing, as this animated sci-fi fantasy never quit takes off because the story itself is underwhelming and bewildering.

The screenplay is by Jason Headley, who wrote one of the lesser Pixar films “Onward,” with story by director Angus MacLane (“The Incredibles”), Matthew Aldrich (“Coco”) and Headley.

It has more in common with Christopher Nolan’s dense and unwieldy “Interstellar” and even the Dreamworks’ animated film, “Over the Moon” in 2020, than it does with the toys that came to life in one of the most successful animated series ever. The original was the first Pixar/Disney film to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

Pixar genius Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft had created those beloved characters. In the 27 years since the original “Toy Story” – first completely computer-generated graphic images — opened a marvelous make-believe world of toys having their own lives outside their role-play duties with kid owners, there have been three sequels that expanded the toy-chest universe and broader heart-tugging themes that challenge and change them.

The third one in 2010 and the fourth one in 2019 both won the Oscar for feature animated film (the award wasn’t given out until 2001, therefore the first two, in 1995 and 1999, weren’t eligible).

With its track record of excellence, Pixar has collected 18 Academy Awards for its films. Sadly, “Lightyear” isn’t on the same level.

The youngsters at my screening seemed very restless, and its appeal to younger tykes is uncertain. However, those who are captivated by the film will want to stay through the entire credits, as there are three more scenes.

TEAMING UP – Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is a sci-fi action adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), the hero who inspired the toy. The all-new story follows the legendary Space Ranger on an intergalactic adventure alongside a group of ambitious recruits (voices of Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and Dale Soules), and their robot companion Sox (voice of Peter Sohn). Also joining the cast are Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Efren Ramirez and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), “Lightyear” releases June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“Lightyear” is a 2022 animated sci-fi fantasy feature film directed by Angus MacLane and featuring voices of Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, Josh Brolin, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taiki Waititi and Efren Ramirez. It is fated PG for action/peril and is 2 hour, 40 minutes long. It opened in theaters on June 17. Lynn’s Take: C+

By Lynn Venhaus
As far as big-budget cosmic spectacles go, “Dune” is impressive at filling the screen with wonder.

Directed by visionary Denis Villeneuve, who frames everything with meticulous care, as he did with “Arrival,” his only Oscar nomination, and “Blade Runner 2049” – the film is a technical marvel, with visually stunning panoramas and innovative flying machines.

A mythic hero’s journey, “Dune” is the big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 bestseller about a feudal interstellar society in a galaxy far, far away, which is set in a distant future.

It’s the story of Paul Atreides, a gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding. As part of the noble house of Atreides, he must travel to Arrakis, the most dangerous planet in the universe for the future of his family and people.

The desert wasteland planet has an exclusive supply of “mélange,” aka “the spice,” a drug that extends life and enhances mental abilities. As it is the most precious resource in existence, malevolent forces are at work to prevent this, and only those who can conquer their fear will survive.

Yet are these characters engaging enough? How much do we care about what happens to these political dynasties? They prefer to whisper in cavernous spaces, and while mesmerizing Zendaya’s narration helps, the project’s mythology on such an epic scale tends to weigh it down with “importance.”

Our hero’s journey is a very long one and we spend 2 hours and 35 minutes leading up to a next chapter. This is only Part One. We are warned at the end, when one character says to Paul: “You’re just getting started.” The payoff isn’t quite there – so when is Part Two?

We have just invested time on an extended prologue. Oh dear. Will only fans of the book be able to appreciate this saga? And isn’t that the true test? As is always the case, those not familiar with the source material will be at a disadvantage trying to keep up with the warring factions.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac and Stephen McKinley Henderson

Considered the best-selling science fiction novel of all-time, “Dune” is gigantic in scope, and the 1965 cult classic touches on themes involving politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, threading them all together in space.

The empire’s other planets want control of Arrakis for its spice, which is also necessary for space navigation because of its multidimensional awareness and foresight.

“Dune” is only the first in a series, followed by Herbert’s five sequels: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. After his death, others have kept the franchise going.

Its devoted fan base inspired filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to attempt a film adaptation in the 1970s but it was cancelled after three years in development. Along came David Lynch’s complex adaptation in 1984, which was a harshly received misguided mess, and there was a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in 2000.

While light years ahead of the 37-year-old film, “Dune” does seem to have the same problem about adapting something so unwieldy – that the character development suffers.

It’s difficult to figure out the planetary relationships and who’s who among the different groups, even with a strong cast that attempts to make everything as lucid as possible.

This one does attempt to over-correct in a tedious way, with a screenplay by director Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange,” “Prometheus”) and Eric Roth, Oscar winner for “Forrest Gump,” that still is lacking in explanations.

Paul is played with youthful elan by Timothee Chalamet, who seems to be working non-stop. His character, burdened by birthright, is actually the least interesting of the massive ensemble – but the camera loves him, and he looks good standing in many shots of wind and blowing sands, contemplating.

Chalamet has genuine interactions with his father, an authoritative but loving Duke Leto Atreides, well-played by the always captivating Oscar Isaac. With warm fatherly advice, Isaac tells him: “A great man doesn’t seek to lead; he’s called to it.”

It’s not his fault that Paul is a blank slate. He is being groomed to take over, and while at times reluctant and confused, he ultimately accepts his duties. His mother, all-serious Lady Jessica, is a tough taskmaster, and subtly played by Rebecca Ferguson, they have a protective relationship.

Far more compelling is Jason Momoa as the fierce warrior Duncan Idaho. He brings some oomph to the fighter’s bravado and his fists of fury are legitimate. Momoa and Chalamet warmly convey a loyal long standing friendship.

Not given much to do is Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, the duke’s right-hand man, and Dave Bautista as antagonist Beast Rabben Harkonnen – along with Momoa, they are the recognizable fighters.

A barely there Javier Bardem is Stilgar, a leader of a desert tribe. An unrecognizable Stellen Skarsgard appears, Jabba the Hut-like, as the disgusting despot Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The Harkonnens are the evil not-to-be-trusted bad guys.

The first hour is full of awe. But why do movies about the future tend to mix medieval and “Star Wars” knock offs in production design and costumes, similar to the “Game of Thrones”? The color palette is deary shades of gray, beige and black.

While that gets wearisome, the cinematography of Greig Fraser is dazzling. An Emmy winner for “The Mandalorian” and Oscar nominee for “Lion,” he expresses the grandeur of the planets’ landscapes as well as the more intimate moments in various degrees of light.

He worked on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the upcoming “The Batman,” so tackling sandworms and spaceships is natural for him. His majestic work is one of the pleasures of seeing this in IMAX.

Hans Zimmer’s score is a stirring mix projecting danger and derring-do in dissonant chords, setting an urgent tone for action.

Dune (2021).TIMOTHEE CHALAMET.Credit: Chia Bella James/Warner Bros.

Despite its storytelling flaws, “Dune” is such a monumental example of state-of-the-art filmmaking that its cinematic universe deserves to be seen on the big screen.

“Dune” is a 2021 science-fiction action adventure directed by Denis Villeneuve. It stars Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson
, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, and Javier Bardem. Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material, its run time is 2 hours, 35 minutes. It opened in theaters Oct. 22 and is streaming on HBO Max for 31 days. Lynn’s Grade: B.

By Lynn Venhaus
The title “Flag Day” is meant to be a metaphor about the American Dream. Who better to embody the flip side of that, with his usual white-hot intensity, than Sean Penn?

The two-time Oscar winner starred and directed this gut-wrenching character study and gets inside the head of a deeply flawed man, John Vogel, who scammed his way through adulthood. Vogel believed life was a grand adventure but was always seeking easy street — and felt he was owed la dolce vita.

Based on Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life,” a complicated father-daughter dynamic takes place from 1975 to 1992, mostly in Minnesota, as she learns dad is more of a train wreck than the larger-than-life figure she thought.

This father of two opted for reckless decisions instead of responsibility, which affected his wife, son and daughter.

The realities of his desperation slowly crept into young Jennifer’s psyche, whose mournful voice is heard over the narration. This is her story, of how she salvaged a broken life and became ‘someone who mattered,” pursuing a career as a journalist.

In a masterful debut, Dylan Penn embodies Jennifer with a yearning, an aching sense of loss, and a moral center. She finds the darkness inside the character as well as the light. Dylan, the 30-year-old daughter of Sean and former wife Robin Wright, is a striking, soulful beauty reminiscent of her mother.

The story, which we know won’t end well, is told in flashback. Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, who wrote “Fair Game” starring Penn and 2019’s smash hit “Ford vs. Ferrari,” have created an emotional connection that some viewers will relate to – because not everyone grew up in a “Leave It to Beaver” sitcom family household.

Golden-hued memories of idyllic summers at one of Minnesota’s lakes contrast family turmoil. After dad left a trail of unpaid bills and broken promises, he split. But mom, Patty (Katheryn Wittock) descended into a bottle, neglecting the kids.

Those who did not have a safe, secure childhood can relate, and identify with Jennifer finding her voice as she struggles to survive the past, but also of that inescapable bond between parent and child.

Jennifer and her brother Nick see-saw between parents and when teenagers, emerge as the brother-and-sister Penns – Dylan is a punk-goth teen by now. Nick is played by Dylan’s younger brother, Hopper Jack Penn.

In the flashbacks, sweet performances are delivered by Addison Tymec, at 6, and Jadyn Rylee, from 11 to 13, as young Jennifer, and Beckam Crawford as young Nick, age 9-11.

In his sixth directorial effort – and first one featuring him acting, Penn covers a lot of ground. While he is especially good in the interactions with his daughter, he also lapses into proud dad behind the director’s chair, perhaps a little too indulgent with camera time on Dylan. She is, though, destined for stardom.

This might not be in the same league as his best work, “Into the Wild” in 2007, but Penn is a smart storyteller.

One of the film’s drawbacks is the brief turns by accomplished actors. Josh Brolin is part of two scenes as Vogel’s brother Beck (he and Penn worked together on “Milk”) and you want more of him. Regina King is a federal agent and St. Louis’ own, two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, plays against type as mom’s creepy boyfriend who attempts to assault Jennifer.

When mom turns a blind eye, Jennifer takes off to live with dad, and while she tries to steer him to a normal routine, that ends with more lies, schemes and a prison sentence for armed robbery. He can no longer fool his daughter.

Jennifer’s redemption and John’s lack of is how the film crawls to its inevitable conclusion, as Vogel is targeted by U.S. Marshals after counterfeiting $22 million. He was the most notorious counterfeiter in U.S. history and the subject of an “Unsolved Mysteries” in May 1995.

Melancholy tinges nearly the entire production, but there are moments of love and joy, and some glimmers of hope.

Cinematographer Danny Moder excels at capturing the youthful nostalgia and the patriotic pageantry of American holidays celebrated by many municipalities across the land.

The music is a high point, from composer Joseph Vitarelli and featuring acoustic songs written by Cat Powers, Glen Hansard (“Once”) and Eddie Vedder.

But the main takeaway is a haunting father-daughter story made more poignant by the talent and skills of a real father and daughter.

“Flag Day” is a 2021 true crime drama directed by Sean Penn and starring Dylan Penn, Sean Penn, Katherine Wittock, Hopper Jack Penn, Regina King, Josh Brolin, Bailey Noble, Norbert Leo Butz and Eddie Marsan. Rated R for language, some drug use and violent content, with a run time of 1 hour, 49 minutes. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the film opens in theaters on Aug. 27. Lynn’s Grade: B+.