Toy Story 4 – A Movie Review

Yesterday, I think you would have been justified to feel that Toy Story 4 is largely unnecessary.  After all, Toy Story 3 ended just about perfectly.

However, if you happened to watch the Toy Story Toons shorts, you know that Woody and the gang embarked upon a whole new set of adventures with young Bonnie.  These were five minute shorts, though, not a complete movie.  Could Disney and Pixar recreate the magic of the first three Toy Story movies after a nearly twenty-five year run?  Could they continue to hold our interest for two whole hours?

The answer is “yes.”  Most definitely.

Toy Story 4 is a fun, lighthearted adventure that wisely breaks convention with the first three films.

For example, there is no true villain in Toy Story 4, which I thought was really smart.  There are characters in opposition trying to achieve personal goals, but no one is truly “evil.”

Also, Toy Story 4 backed off of the emotional gut punches.  They tease a few of them, but then choose to play them for laughs.  Again, I found this decision very refreshing.

Adults will pick up on a story about finding purpose once you’ve raised your kids as well as the turmoil of finally living for yourself, but young children are unlikely to decipher all of that.  Kids will relate to the comforting power of toys, the way they help confront challenges, and how they ultimately serve as a coping mechanism when difficulty arrives.

Young and old will love new characters, especially Forky (perfectly voiced by Tony Hale).  Other new additions include Gabby Gabby played by Christina Hendricks, Ducky and Bunny given life by the hilarious Key and Peele, and an understated but lovable character called Duke Caboom, performed by Keanu Reeves.  (It’s taking every ounce of willpower not to go out and buy  a Duke Caboom toy right now.)  Annie Potts plays Bo Peep, who makes her triumphant return and is given a really cool, captivating story to explain her absence.

While Toy Story 4 didn’t have to be made, some very important developments occur that could open the door to future movies.  I’m not going to spoil anything, but I see great potential for some of these characters to spin off into their own adventures.  Perhaps not into the movies, but maybe through a certain streaming service arriving soon?

Toy Story 4 is a funny, enjoyable, appropriate movie for the entire family.  It’s not scary at all, there will be no tears, and you can look forward to some hearty laughs and charismatic new characters.

Like I said, Toy Story 4 didn’t have to be made, but I’m glad they made it.  I’ve enjoyed these characters for twenty-five years, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy them for twenty-five more.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

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Reza’s Edge Of Illusion: Branson, Baby! – Our 2019 Spring Break (Part 14)

When we researched our 2019 Spring Break trip to Branson, everything said Reza was a must.  I’ve never heard of the guy, so after exploring his website and reading a few reviews, I presented him as a possibility to the family.  My wife and kids really like magicians and illusionists, so we figured we’d give him a shot.

We paid him a visit on a weekday in the afternoon.  We could instantly tell that this would be a much different experience than Hamner’s Unbelievable Variety.  The theater seemed newer and there were far more people in the audience.

Reza’s warm-up act came out to get us fired up.  Do you like all the flame puns?  I’m using them because this guy swallowed fire.  He also told us to make a lot of noise–the more noise we made, the longer the show would go.  He said Reza loves a rocking audience.  Well, that got us going.

In fact, the beginning of this experience felt very much like a rock concert, which I think was the objective.

Reza soon appeared and he dazzled us from the start.  His illusions are unique, kinetic, and even felt a little bit dangerous.  He also took several moments to interact with the crowd by calling a few people up or taking questions.

Image seems very important to Reza.  Though he had a dry sense of humor, he was careful to maintain a “cool” persona.  He never got too excited, too loud, or too rushed.  In fact, after every illusion, he kept a blank, almost withdrawn expression upon his face.  After awhile, it got to be kind of funny to me.

Though his performance amazed us and we had a magnificent time watching him, I have to admit I was disappointed when the show ended right on time.  I felt like the audience showed him a lot of love, but apparently not enough to extend the act.

I also appreciated that he stood in the lobby afterward and signed autographs for every single person who wanted to wait in line.  He also allowed pictures on people’s personal cell phones.  (Yes, he also had a professional photographer if you wanted higher quality.)  My oldest, who was 10 at the time, was mesmerized by this man.  Unfortunately, she said he didn’t even make eye-contact with her, nor did he speak to her beyond a quick “hello.”  I realize Reza meets hundreds of people each week, but it would have meant a lot to her if she had gotten a warmer reception.  She still cherishes that autograph, though.

Reza’s Edge of Illusion is a really cool show that’s appropriate for all ages.  If you’re in Branson, I would consider him a must-see.  Enjoy!

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray – A Book Review

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice is a new book written by Claudia Gray.  It features Qui-Gon Jinn and his relatively recently appointed Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  As you’ve probably guessed, it takes place before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I looked forward to reading this book for two reasons.  The first is that Qui-Gon Jinn is a fairly enigmatic figure in the Star Wars mythology.  I haven’t seen much of him in other books, graphic novels, cartoons, or movies.  I felt excited not only to learn more about him as a person, but to also examine his dynamic with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The second reason is that I enjoy Cladia Gray’s Star Wars voice.  Her novel, Star Wars: Lost Stars, remains one of my all-time favorite Star Wars stories due not only to its unique characters but also because it connects seamlessly to major Star Wars events.  True, I didn’t find her two Princess Leia books as engaging, but I hoped Master & Apprentice would recapture the magic of Lost Stars.

Unfortunately, Master & Apprentice suffered the same fate as those other two Star Wars books featuring Princess Leia in that it gets far too bogged down in political complexities without any actual character growth or revelations occurring.

It started off on a good note.  Several references were made to Count Dooku which led us to believe he could make an appearance in this novel, especially because Dooku trained both Qui-Gon and a newly revealed Jedi named Rael Averross.  Rael is older than Qui-Gon, so it’s initially interesting to see that new side of Master Jinn.  There are also ample teases that Darth Maul could be working from the shadows.  This would make perfect sense as he’s later revealed to be the Phantom Menace.

Furthermore, early on in the book, Qui-Gon is invited to join the Jedi Council, which would mean he would have to relinquish his role as teacher to Obi-Wan.  Obi-Wan feels betrayed by this possibility, which further damages their already-strained relationship.  In this book, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon rarely see eye-to-eye on much of anything and are typically not on the same page.  I found this refreshing, though, to be honest, it is not especially innovative compared to other Master/Padawan duos that we’ve encountered.

So, as you can see, there is a great deal of rich character conflict available for exploration in Master & Apprentice.  Sadly, most of it falls by the wayside in favor of a political story pertaining to a child about to be named Queen and her connection to an intergalactic corporation hoping to gain control of a hyperspace corridor.

Frankly, I found the first two hundred pages of the novel a little uneventful.  Things started heating up for the last one hundred and thirty pages, but, in the end, nothing substantial happens to our favorite characters.  They are primed and ready for The Phantom Menace, but, other than improved communication skills, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are basically unchanged.

More often than not, this seems to be a theme in the Star Wars novels that I’ve read.  They delve far too much into political intrigue without any serious ramifications to the characters we care about.  Lost Stars proved special in that it created two brand new characters, made them important to us, mixed them in with major beats from the Star Wars movies, and then sent them through some serious character development.

Master & Apprentice had wonderful potential.  Acknowledging Dooku was really cool, but it went nowhere.  We really didn’t get that much of a better feel for Qui-Gon than we do in The Phantom Menace.  Obi-Wan is also virtually the same as he’s depicted in The Phantom Menace.  Rael seemed like an important addition, but even he remained unchanged by story’s end.  And those hints at Darth Maul?  Nothing came of them.  I hope that’s not a spoiler, but I don’t want you to be disappointed.

I really get the feeling that the authors of these books are being hamstrung by a corporate influence.  While they create complicated conflict, in the end, none of it really matters to the overall Star Wars story that we know and love.  Perhaps it’s just me, but if these books don’t somehow improve upon the characters or events that draw us to them, then what is the point of their existence?

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

X-Men: Dark Phoenix – A Movie Review

I just go out of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and I’ve got some good news for you – it’s not that bad!

Sure, that’s not a huge compliment, but, to be honest, I expected it to be terrible.  Why did I have such dire expectations?  First of all, the constant delays in release is never a good sign.  Furthermore, those delays were, in part, due to the Disney acquisition which makes Dark Phoenix something of a lame duck.  We all know Disney plans to reboot, recast, and generally redo the X-Men sometime in the near future, so Dark Phoenix had a little problem with making us care about it.  Finally, judging from the previews and posters, Dark Phoenix looked far too similar to the ironically titled X-Men: The Last Stand.  That was, for all intents and purposes, the Dark Phoenix story line mixed in with a lot of other … stuff.  In other words, we’ve basically seen this movie … sort of.

I’m happy to tell you that, really, there weren’t that many similarities to The Last Stand.  There are some, true, but those familiar beats are better fleshed out in Dark Phoenix than they were in The Last StandDark Phoenix is only concerned with the plight of Jean Grey.

Also, let’s face it: Dark Phoenix has star power.  Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain – these are big names!  Let’s not forget up-and-comers like Nicolaus Hout, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  These are fun people to watch, and in the case of McAvoy and Fassbender, there is some serious acting being executed.

Dark Phoenix has very strong special effects as well.  We get to see Magneto perform some impressive feats, as well as Jean Grey.  Cyclops’ optic blasts have never looked better, nor have Nightcrawler’s “bamfs.”  Beast looks fantastic even if his movement still feels a little awkward.

Of course, Dark Phoenix has some issues.  The biggest issue is that, well, to a fairly large degree, we’ve already experienced the major themes of this movie.  Jean’s struggle with the Dark Phoenix was dealt with in The Last Stand, and while I think this movie did it better, it’s still well-covered territory.

Furthermore, Dark Phoenix didn’t seem all that interested in explaining much.  I know from my misspent youth that the cosmic energy that Jean absorbs is called “The Phoenix Force,” but the movie barely touches upon it at all and never calls it by name.  If I’m a casual movie goer, I have no idea what that’s all about.  Consequently, we’re given no reason for the arrival of the cosmic force at all – it just kind of made its way to Earth.  The movie also skipped a pretty important step in telling us why Jean Grey is the only entity capable of utilizing this cosmic energy.  They constantly talk about how “strong” she is, but that’s a pretty lazy cop out.

Jessica Chastain is a movie star, no doubt, but she was given very little to work with.  Look, I’ll watch Jessica act no matter what movie she’s in, but her character was about as thin as you can get.  There’s ample tropes and cliches regarding her motivation, but it doesn’t amount to much.

Speaking of character, is anyone else tired of sad Jean Grey?  Jean Grey is a wonderful, multi-dimensional character, but the movies can’t seem to get past this whole “Dark Phoenix” thing, which was a seminal moment for her character, to be sure, but not her only moment.  It seems as though no one can do anything on film with her other than depict her as a tortured spirit, crying most of the time, and always on the verge of losing control.  Jean Grey is so much more than that.  I wish Sophie Turner got to show us Jean Grey the teacher, the leader, and the heart of the X-Men.

Another note about character – I love what they did with Professor Xavier.  They really made him interesting in a way I haven’t seen before.  Everyone else, though?  Not so much.  Cyclops is just kind of there, likewise with Storm.  Magneto is still Magneto doing Magneto things.  Quicksilver is barely in this film at all, which is a real tragedy.  And I hate what they did with Nightcrawler.  Hate it.  He’s one of my favorite characters and they really dropped the ball with him.

Best moment?  A brief, ever so brief, blink and you’ll miss it moment featuring a certain X-Men favorite.  I’m not sure how many people will know her when they see her, but it was great.  It was true to her character, fun, and – like I said – brief.

If you’ve enjoyed McAvoy and Fassbender’s X-Men movies, go ahead and see this.  It’s not as good as the first two but better than Apocalypse.  I wouldn’t consider this a “must-see” movie, but it’s probably better than you expect.

Oh, and don’t bother sitting through the credits.  There’s nothing there.

One last word of warning.  If you’re taking kids to this thing, there is an F-bomb dropped near the ending.  It’s completely unnecessary, but it’s there.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1

Aladdin (2019) – A Movie Review

I’m 42 years old, so I was in high school when the original Aladdin debuted.  I enjoyed it, especially the Robin Williams performance, but I didn’t consider it a masterpiece nor do I to this day.  Fun?  Absolutely?  Great music?  You bet.  A holy artifact that should remain untouched for the rest of time?  No.  Absolutely not.

When I heard they were remaking a “live-action” version of the film, I thought, “Yeah, okay.  That’s pretty consistent with what Disney is doing now.”  When I discovered that they cast Will Smith as the genie … well, I thought that was an odd choice not just for the movie, but for Will Smith himself.

So let’s get the most important thing out of the way right now: my ten-year-old and seven-year-old daughters loved this version.  They’ve seen the original, but they both said that they like this one more.  Will they feel as strongly about it in ten years?  Who knows.  But, this is a kids’ movie made for kids, and both of my kids adored it.  Bam.  Mission successful.

From a more critical view, or maybe I should say from a cynical adult perspective, Aladdin (2019) isn’t perfect.  First of all, it’s about thirty minutes too long.  Two hours and ten minutes is just a bit too much for this genre.  I definitely found myself looking at my watch.  Also, the CGI in the movie is just … weird.  There are times when it doesn’t look good at all, particularly in regards to the genie.  CGI blue Will Smith … never quite looked right.  I know this sound ludicrous, but he always appeared kind of fake … realistically fake.  You know?  They included rippling muscles and pores in the skin, yet he never seemed to be anchored to his surroundings.

However, there is quite a bit to like about this movie.  First of all, no one can deny Will Smith’s movie stardom.  He’s always fun to watch.  Will Smith gets to be regular human Will Smith for quite a bit of the movie, and that’s when he really shined.  Also, Mena Massoud, who plays Aladdin, has undeniable charisma.  His eyes and smile light up the screen every time he appears, and he also has a really interesting speaking voice.  Finally, though she doesn’t have the magnetism of her costar, Naomi Scott (Jasmine) has a fantastic voice.  When she sings–watch out!  This actress has one of those voices that just grabs you.  I actually wish they’d given her several more musical numbers.

I feel totally comfortable recommending this as a family movie.  If you all want to go out together and enjoy a fun time, Aladdin (2019) is a fine choice.  The kids will enjoy it, the parents will find things to like about it, and then everyone will forget about it by the next day, and that’s okay.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1