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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – A Movie Review


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220px-A_Beautiful_Day_in_the_NeighborhoodIn the realm of “roles born to play,” it is difficult to come up with a better match than Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. As A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was opening, it was reported that Hanks and Fred Rogers are actually distantly related.

Color me not shocked.

Following on the heels of last year’s delightful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had a challenge ahead of it: to live up to the real story of Fred Rogers and his life and philosophy. The documentary was touching, heartwarming and affirming. Hanks’ project needed to stake out its own space or suffer by comparison.

Clearly the filmmakers understood and embraced the challenge because, rather than offer a Fred Rogers biopic, this movie focuses instead on a different protagonist: Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel, a slightly disaffected, all business, prickly magazine writer who, at a low point in his personal and professional life, is assigned a profile of an American hero: that hero is Fred Rogers.

Vogel takes the profile assignment promising his editor that he may not turn in the story she’s seeking.

He does not. 
 
What he does turn in is something far more real and far more beautiful.

Rhys is terrific as Vogel, a character who does not come loaded with redemptive qualities. Angry and frustrated, Vogel is a new father, but not at all sure he wants the role, a tortured son whose own father – played with hard-scrabble grit by the ever enjoyable Chris Cooper – left Lloyd and his mother in a terrible situation and a difficult husband, perhaps not as much in love with the radiant Susan Kelechi Watson as he wants to be.

It is into this crossroads that Hanks’ Mr. Rogers walks. Vogel accepts his profile assignment quite reluctantly and writing the feature, perhaps predictably, changes his life. Through a series of conversations and coincidences Mr. Rogers and Vogel become friends and the influence that the famously friendly and philosophical Mr. Rogers has on Vogel is the gear on which the movie turns. Buy it and you buy the movie.

To be clear: it’s all but impossible not to buy Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. He does an amazing job embodying the iconic character. He does not slip into parody and makes Mr. Rogers his own while also evoking the spirit of the man who came into so many living rooms for so many years. Hanks seems to understand the gravity of playing the man and gives a performance that may be nominated. He’s simply that good.

Rhys is wonderful, too, and it is the interactions between him and Hanks that carry the movie. The two actors have a timing and a chemistry that works very well and it is very easy to watch them weave this story. When the movie does not feature them together, the audience is aware that it wants more of that interaction. They are terrific.

Equally wonderful are the loving recreations of Mr. Rogers’ set and puppets, of his wardrobe and sweaters, of the world he inhabited. Director Marielle Heller is more than up to the task of lionizing Mr. Rogers and even stages amazing location shots and travel sequences that are right out of the Neighborhood. She directs a lovely movie.

While perhaps not as stunningly good as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is well worth a viewing. Hanks shines, Rhys engages and the story inspires. 

We could use more of these kinds of days…

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD receives FOUR RED SWEATERS out of a possible FIVE

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Joker – A Movie Review


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MV5BNGVjNWI4ZGUtNzE0MS00YTJmLWE0ZDctN2ZiYTk2YmI3NTYyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTkxNjUyNQ@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Joker is a very, very well made movie. It would not have received a standing ovations at the Vienna Film Festival if it was not. Joaquin Phoenix is immediately a Best Actor contender for February’s Academy Awards with his lead performance. Both mesmerizing and repulsive, Phoenix’s Joker is quite a creation and the actor absolutely carries a movie that has far more in common with street-tough fare from the 1970s than it does with today’s comic book films. 

The publicity surrounding the movie as it was awaiting its US release was that it was a glorification of violence and that it romanticized its title character. I did not find either of those concerns founded. Phoenix’s creation might elicit some early sympathy in the film but, as events play out and as Arthur, his character, makes the choices that inevitably lead to him becoming the Joker, those moments are fleeting. The overall impression is that this is an evil, damaged character – one who is aware of what he is doing and is doing these things of his own volition, not because an uncaring society pushed him over the edge. The Joker is cruel and unhinged and those who worry that this movie makes him into some kind of anti-hero for the modern age are missing the point.

Assuming there is a point to be missed. On reflection, I don’t know that there is a broad point here.

I liked this movie and I know it is good. It evokes a gritty time and place and a movie making style years in the past. It borrows from Scorsese and Freidken. It involves the audience in a bleak and dark existence. It leaves nothing to chance as it does so. 

Joker is an accomplishment. 

Director Todd Phillips stated over-and-over that he did not base his movie on any existing comic book material (a statement which seemed to me to belittle the very source material from which he was lifting) and, while I can say there is no direct adaptation of a Joker story line, this movie owes everything it is to the Bob Kane and Bill Finger creation. While Phillips’ movie impresses, he has not impressed so much in dealing with controversy and in trying to somehow suggest his film is somehow better than its origins. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it, too. 

By the end of the movie, Phillips is telling a story the audience has seen before. He is trying to put his own spin on it, yes (because everyone wants to put their own spin on Hamlet), but he finds himself pulled inexorably back to the center of a universe that can support an evil like the Joker.

We all know what is at that center or, rather, who. And, while Joker is impressive and attempts to center itself in a world without a Batman, it cannot quite pull it off. 

Evocative. Exciting. Compelling. Joker  is one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while, if not the most original.

JOKER receives FOUR HARD BOILED HOMAGES out of a possible FIVE

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Ad Astra – A Movie Review


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MV5BZTllZTdlOGEtZTBmMi00MGQ5LWFjN2MtOGEyZTliNGY1MzFiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODk4OTc3MTY@._V1_I was talking to a friend about Ad Astra and we agreed: some movies make you mad when you see them and, in the case of Ad Astra, it is not because they are trying to do so. A day after we had seen the movie, my wife said “the more I think about Ad Astra, the more I don’t like it.”

The real surprise here is that she was thinking about it at all.

A nice looking movie with a nice looking lead that is, I think, supposed to leave the audience thinking nice thoughts about the nature of humanity and our shared connections with one another, Ad Astra is a jumbled and, in some cases, mumbled misfire on almost every level.

Brad Pitt stars and his company produces the film so one would think that he has a high level of investment in the material. And he acts as though he does. Very convincing as Roy McBride, an astronaut whose bravery has, perhaps, blinded him to his connections to people in his life, Pitt is excellent, as always.

He’s simply not given very much with which to work here.

The supporting cast is made up of wonderful actors the totality of which does not amount to much. Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland seem like they all could have shot their scenes in a day and none of them feel very pivotal to the plot, such as it is. In fact, their casting – collectively – feels very odd indeed. Tyler is, of course, well known for her turn in Armageddon, a movie I would rather have watched again compared to struggling to stay awake though Ad Astra. Throw consummate supporting actor Loren Dean in with Jones and Sutherland and one has a very bizarre Space Cowboys reunion. Again, the wrong thing to do in a movie like Ad Astra is to remind the audience of a different and, perhaps, better movie dealing with the same subject matter.

But here lies the challenge: I am not sure with what subject matter Ad Astra is trying to deal. Clearly writer director James Gray feels there is something important going on here and the film has all he trappings of “important movie,” but I am a reasonably intelligent fellow. My wife is very, very smart. My friend is a terrific critic of art.

None of us have any clue what was supposed to be going on here.

That is a problem.

And it made me mad.

AD ASTRA receives TWO METAPHYSICAL MOLEHILLS out of a possible FIVE

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Downton Abbey – A Movie Review


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What a welcome feeling to return to Downton Abbey and what a welcome movie Downton Abbey is.

A lovely continuation of almost everything that made the television series great, Downton Abbey is a terrific movie with performances that are what we’ve come to expect, plot lines that are (for the most part) comfortable and enjoyable and a feeling that evokes all the best of the modern classic show.

The entire cast returns for this movie and, for the most part, they are used remarkably well. This is saying quite a lot when the cast is as strong and has as many mouths to feed as this one does. Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows returns to the show he wrote and attempts to tie up the stories of the Crowley family and their servants in one two hour spectacle and darn it if he doesn’t come very, very close.

In the midst of a royal visit, the intertwined, upstairs/downstairs lives of this group of characters play out in a most satisfying fashion. Here is the Dowager Countess sharing more incredible quips. Here is Mr. Carson returning to the house he loves. Here is Mary still struggling with her destiny. Here are the Bates finally receiving some peace. And on and on. Each of the story lines that Fellows constructs for his creations works and each has a lovely payoff.

Particularly involving was the arc featuring the character who showed the most growth throughout the series and into the film: Thomas Barrow. Transformed over the course of the show and the movie from unrepentant villain to sympathetic hero, Robert James-Collier’s Barrow is one of the best things going in Downton Abbey and was ever one of the most interesting characters to watch. If this is the last outing for the franchise, he is, perhaps, the best served by it.

Less involving a feeling just a little off center and a bit out of place was the subplot primarily featuring Allen Leach’s Tom Branson. Without divulging too much of the story line, suffice it to say that this is the only place in the movie where it seemed as though Fellows felt he had to do something BIG to justify the existence of the movie. It’s not enough to ruin the film by any means, but this plot is a distraction from what Downton Abbey has typically been.

The pace of the movie is light and quick. The look of the movie is gorgeous and the feel of the movie is like coming home.

And the movie was rated PG… In this day and age, that is very much worth noting.

DOWNTON ABBEY receives FOUR ROYAL VISITS out of a possible FIVE

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The Lion King – A Movie Review


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MV5BMjIwMjE1Nzc4NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg4OTA1NzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_The voice cast is amazing. The music remains some of the best ever composed for an animated film. The story continues to be compelling.

Why are many so worked up about The Lion King.

After hearing the mantra of “who was asking for this movie” on Solo: A Star Wars Story, I wondered why many care so much. My theory: if you do not want to see a movie, do not see it. Why some seem to get personally offended by this kind of thing is very, very far beyond me.

2019’s The Lion King is a perfectly charming return to the 1994 original. While it is not a beat-for-beat recreation of the classic, it hews very closely to the source material which results in a comfortable, easy experience. The movie is not a revelation. It doesn’t uncover a ton of new ground. Rather it puts one at ease as it entertains. That seems just fine to me.

The cast (no one save James Earl Jones is a holdover from the original) brings gravitas and star power to their work. Billy Eichner and John Oliver are particularly good in their roles as Zazu and Timon, respectively and, while Chiwetel Ejiofor cannot sing a lick, his Scar is an impressive creation. Beyonce and Donald Glover are wonderful as the adult Nala and Simba and the new song Beyonce composed for the film fits seamlessly into the narrative.

Some of the themes are a bit updated and the circle of life gets a visual shout out in a new scene that illustrates the power of the life cycle. Director Jon Favreau knows what he is going for and he pulls it off.   

Much more appealing, to this viewer anyway, than a re-release of the original would have been, The Lion King took me back to a place and time in my life decades past while charming me with new images and energy and a new interpretation of the story.

I am still trying to figure out what is wrong with that. 

THE LION KING receives THREE PASSING CRAZES out of a possible FIVE

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Movie Review


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MV5BOTg4ZTNkZmUtMzNlZi00YmFjLTk1MmUtNWQwNTM0YjcyNTNkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_I cannot think of a movie I have recently seen that left me with one immediate impression upon leaving the theater that morphed into a different impression within a few days. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the strangest, weirdest most self-indulgent movies I have ever seen. I defy anyone who has seen it to describe the plot of the movie in one sentence. 

First, let me state that I understand having a discernible and clear plot is not the point of the movie. I do get that. There were, however, multiple times – especially during the first two acts of the movie – where I wondered just what in the hell was going on. And, upon reflection, I understand, too, that that is part of Quentin Tarantino’s point.

I am not a Tarantino aficionado. No expert in his movies (I’ve not seen his classics), I came to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not knowing what to expect but excited by the story (I am interested in the Manson story), by the director’s renown for brilliant use of music (and the soundtrack is so very well composed and evocative) and by actors assembled for the movie. What a shockingly stocked set of performers Tarantino had with which to play. 

The cast does not let one done. Leonardo DiCaprio has been labeled the last real movie star in America for all kinds of reasons – from his acting choices to his image to his talent. He is a towering presence in the movie in a role that requires far more bravery from him than one might gather watching the previews. Paired with Brad Pitt, whose Cliff Booth is just as an indelible creation as the actor’s Rick Dalton, DiCaprio shines even as his character is supposed to be fading into the background. His friendship with Pitt’s Booth – the character I loved best in the film – is the through line of the picture, and it’s a good one. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is at its best when the two are on screen together, although Pitt’s solo scenes – especially as tension mounts as he tours the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch – is commanding.

Rounding out the trio of mega stars is the ubiquitous Margot Robbie. Playing the ill-fated actress Sharon Tate with a light, comedic and blissful air, Robbie is captivating. As pressures mount towards the end of the movie, the mind juxtaposes this beautiful creation of Robbie’s with the end that is coming. Robbie’s work here is a love letter not only to the actress, but to a time in Hollywood that has passed by and will never return.

And this, clearly, is one of the themes on which Tarantino built the movie. In 1969, Hollywood was being blown apart by forces within and without and actors like Rick Dalton were discovering they no longer had a clear role to play. One wonders if Tarantino in this age of CGI and superhero franchises and re-cycled concept after sequel films wonders if his time is almost up.

I believed this was on his mind right up until the last act of the movie. In that last act, Tarantino through his 3 lead characters issues a most visual and visceral middle finger to the idea that his time is up. And the last act is simply stunning. 

The more time that passes the more I want to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood again. It is a lyrical sledgehammer that remains with the viewer far after the brilliant closing credits wrap.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD receives THREE AND A HALF SPAGHETTI WESTERNS out of a possible FIVE

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Yesterday – A Movie Review


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No movie is perfect but, for my taste, Yesterday comes very, very close. It is the most fun, most feel good, most fulfilled time I have had at the movies this summer. Without question.

Hamish Patel, delightful and charming, plays frustrated singer/guitarist Jack Malik. After a decade of playing D-List gigs at dumps and to empty rooms, he has all but given up his hope of becoming a professional singer when something strange happens. Hit by a bus during a strange, world-wide event, Jack awakens to discover that he is the only person on Earth who remembers the Beatles and their music. He begins to share their songs as if they were his own and rockets to stardom as a result.

In the process, he leaves behind his old friend and manager Ellie Appleton, played by the ubiquitous and delightful Lily James. Jack and Ellie have been working on his career ever since they were kids and knew each other in school and, as things finally take off for Jack, Ellie – a school teacher – has no choice but to stay behind and watch him from afar. The movie manages, however, to keep them onscreen together quite a lot, and this is a good thing. The two have great chemistry.

One cannot discuss the movie without a brief mention of the scenery chewing turn by Kate McKinnon. She is wonderfully terrible as Jack’s new manager and injects friendly venom in every line reading. And Ed Sheeran should be saluted, too, for his persona mocking work as himself.

Yesterday is a movie that is pure fantasy and knows it. It does not try to explain why people have forgotten the Fab Four (and forgotten other, amusing things, too) or what the global event was. It does not need to do so. It asks the audience to go along for the ride and quite a pleasant ride it is.

Richard Curtis, the writer of Love Actually is behind this movie and there are more than a few pleasant resonances from that film in this one. He has a knack for romantic comedy and a love of high concepts (as evidenced by his criminally underrated About Time). He imbues his characters with a sweetness that never crosses into cloying. He also is a lover of coincidence and that plot element is on display in Yesterday.

Directed with much style and a sure hand by Danny Boyle, the movie is a rollicking romp. It only asks for a suspension of disbelief and a desire to get caught up in a little magic. If you cannot do that, Yesterday is not the film for you. But, if you want some joy, want some romance and want some great music, this is the film for you. Yesterday knows exactly what it is. It also knows exactly what it wants to do: it wants to take its audience down to Strawberry Fields, where nothing is real, but everything is wonderful.

YESTERDAY receives FOUR AND A HALF YELLOW SUBMARINES out of a possible FIVE

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Spider-Man Far From Home – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review


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Once the full trailer for Spider-Man Far From Home was released and it became clear that the post-Avengers | Endgame setting was critical to the story, my expectations were altered. I went in to Far From Home feeling I was about to see an extension of Endgame that would clear up some ambiguities (like Spider-Man’s entire class was snapped out of existence?) and answer some questions (like how is the world coping with all the returning people?). The movie supplies some of those answers but flips the script and the tone from the Wagnerian epic that was Infinity War and Endgame so readily that I was caught off guard.

I shouldn’t have been. It is clear that these Spider-Man movies are meant to be, first-and-foremost, high school comedies. That the main character has super powers and is involved in a wider narrative is secondary to the story. Settling in to that perspective and watching Far From Home in that mindset changes my reactions to the movie.

In a bit of meta-casting, Jake Gyllenhaal, who was once rumored as the replacement for Tobey Maguire for Spider-Man 2, plays Mysterio, a superhero from a newly discovered alternate dimension. He has come to Spider-Man’s earth to warn of a new cosmic threat and to pitch in in defeating it. Gyllenhaal is game for the role and somehow seem at home in what is – without a doubt – the most silly Marvel costume yet. Dude is wearing a fishbowl on his head and he makes it work. He also shares a very nice chemistry with Tom Holland, who remains absolutely spot-on as Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

In this film, Peter is dealing with the events and the deaths of Avengers | Endgame and not even the quirky and engaging Aunt May (Marisa Tomei is ideal and having a great time in the part) and the suddenly gruffly lovable father figure Happy Hogan (played by Jon Favreau in increasingly and amusingly “I’m too old for this S%^& manner) can help. Peter is questioning his place in the superheroing world, the demands of an oddly out-of-character Nick Fury (always perfectly embodied by Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (once again realized by Cobie Smulders) notwithstanding. Rather than join Fury for superheroics, Peter dedicates himself to his fun group of classmates (Zendaya as MJ and Jacob Batalon as Ned are standouts) and to their summer trip to Europe. Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man no more!

It’s in Europe that things get complicated – really, really complicated – and Peter realizes, as any audience buying a ticket for a Spider-Man movie knew he must – that with great power comes…

The movie is breezily directed by Jon Watts and he clearly loves the material. Packed full of Easter eggs, Marvel comics references and clever dialogue, this is the most family friendly of the Marvel movies and the most action figure friendly, too. Spider-Man wears no fewer than four different costumes and faces more than a handful of adversaries in the course of the movie. Let’s mold plastic!

The drawback of the film might be a problem that challenges all Marvel movies going forward. Spider-Man Far From Home is the mind-boggling twenty-third film in the series and the baggage it carries is significant. With each passing installment, the pressure to amaze and thrill the audience while staying true to a broader tapestry is building and it makes this movie too clever by half. Many of the things that seem odd or out of place or shoehorned into the narrative only make any kind of sense when the after the credits sequences rolls (and I do mean AFTER the credits – stick around!). Don’t get me wrong. I love these movies and I love the interlocked nature of them. I am so impressed by the scope. It is simply that, for the first time in a long time, I felt the overall story of the main character was compromised by the needs of the franchise.

That does not mean I won’t be seeing Spider-Man Far From Home again, however!

SPIDER-MAN FAR FROM HOME receives THREE AND A HALF TINGLES out of a possible FIVE

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Late Night – A Movie Review


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Jumbled, simplistic and disappointing, Late Night is a significant let down for anyone who enjoys the typically sharp humor of Mindy Kaling and the usual engaging acting of Emma Thompson. The plot of the film is paper-napkin thin, the chemistry between the main characters is implausible at best and the themes of the movie (such as they are) are ham-handed to the point of ridiculousness.

Thompson sleepwalks through the movie as Katherine Newbury, a long reigning late night talk show host who cares little about her staff and less about her audience. Much is made of the face that the character hates women (though the film goes out of its way to mention that many of the guests she books are, in fact, women) so, in the kind of plot requirement that only movies as bad as this one employs, a diversity hire is made. A woman is added to her all male writing room – any woman as it turns out, even one with no experience and no credentials.

Enter the usually charming Mindy Kaling (who also wrote the movie). To call her Molly Patel 2 dimensional is too kind a description. Unconvincing and uninvolving, Molly never connects with the audience and each attempt at adding depth to her comes off poorly.

The movie wants to be a cross between the excellent The Devil Wears Prada and the very good Morning Glory. Instead it comes off as a high schooler’s interpretation of what writing for and producing a late night talk show is. Throw in some overly simplistic ideas about the role of women in society and sexual politics and you have the makings of a disastrous misfire.

This is a shame. Not only are Thompson and Kaling wasted but a broader impact is made here. Society could use more movies written and directed by women with women in lead roles. Movies like Late Night are not going to aid in that cause.

LATE NIGHT receives ONE FAKE EMMY AWARD out of a possible FIVE

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Toy Story 4 – A Movie Review


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While Toy Story 3 was an almost perfect swansong for Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the gang from Andy’s room, Toy Story 4 is not simply a nostalgic cash grab. The movie has a story to tell that is actually worth telling and, if the themes seem slightly revisited from previous installments, no one will be complaining when the lights come up.

As the movie begins, the gang is settled in with a new child and is fulfilling their life’s work of keeping her happy. Within a few moments, though, the audience comes to realize that Woody is in an existential crisis over his purpose as he has been left in the closet for a series of consecutive days. Looking for a way to remain relevant in a changing world, Woody discovers it in a very unlikely place: the new character called Forky.

Forky, an anthropomorphized piece of, well, garbage, is one of the least visually appealing characters ever introduced in the Toy Story films. Colorless, odd looking and weird, this spork is a strange choice around which to build a film but the minds behind Toy Story 4 make the character work and, further, make him the crux of a new story featuring some of the most beloved animated creations of all time.

Bonnie loves Forky and Woody decides that his life’s work is now ensuring that nothing happens to Forky.

Spoiler alert: something happens to Forky. Many somethings happen to Forky.

One of the subversive elements of the Toy Story movies has been the fact that most of the primary motivations of the characters are edgy and Woody’s actions in Toy Story 4 are no exception. As he goes to great lengths to save Forky from various impending dooms, it is never clear whether these actions are purely altruistic or if they come solely from a place of self preservation. The complexity of this dynamic has set these movies apart from other animated fare and the audience can expect no less than this kind of layered story-telling in Toy Story 4.

This is a very good movie. It is visually stunning, actually hewing closer to amazing in many scenes. The rendering is light years ahead of where it was when the original movie hit theaters some 24 years ago (a longer interval than between Star Wars and The Phantom Menace, by-the-way) and it should be. The characters are all the more charming, though, and the action all the more out-of-this-world. That the entire living voice cast returned speaks to the love they have for this world and Pixar does not waste their or the audience’s good will.

Toy Story 4 is a worthy addition to the franchise and the best family summer movie of 2019. While it does not plumb the emotional depths of prior installments, it is far better than most of the movies in theaters today. Provided they are always treated with the kinds of respect this movie affords them, Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the toy box gang will always been welcome on our screens.

TOY STORY 4 receives FOUR PLASTIC SPORKS out of a possible FIVE

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