Sunday, December 29, 2019

Movie Review: “Cats”


* out of 5
110 minutes
Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor
Universal Pictures

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The first trailer for Cats was a textbook example of nightmare fuel. A second trailer was released which didn’t look quite as bad and offered the hope of something possibly fun. Then the press screening came along and confirmed everyone’s fears: Cats is the worst film of the year. Filled to the brim with horribly staged, awkwardly shot/edited dance sequences, sketchy CGI, and absolutely no plot or characters. Try as co-writer/director Tom Hooper might, Cats is even worse than it looks.

The plot is surprisingly simple. Victoria (Francesca Hayward) has just been thrown out by her human and the surrounding Jellicle alley cats whisk her away on an adventure to find out who Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will grant access to the Heviside Layer to come back to a new life as a Jellicle cat.

Seriously, that’s it. Oh sure, Hooper — who also directed the ill-conceived Les Miserables and allowed Russell Crowe to “sing” — tries to flesh things out a little. There’s a new subplot involving the “Sphinx Theater” where auditions for a new 10th(?) life is held. But the film is so head-scratching it’s amazing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has been a thing for 40 years. Universal scrapped their intended Wicked adaptation for this?

I do love a good trainwreck, but to be so-bad-it’s-good has to be earned. This is just straight up bad from start to finish. Taylor Swift may show up to try and liven things up, but can’t keep her accent from line-to-line. Meanwhile, Rebel Wilson and James Corden are relegated to fat jokes, Idris Elba surprisingly can’t sing—despite his so-called rap career, and Ian McKellen simply mopes around when he’s not licking milk from a saucer. (And that’s not a euphemism for chewing scenery.)

It doesn’t help that Hooper can’t keep the film in perspective. What size are these cats? It seems to fluctuate from shot-to-shot and from set-to-set. There’s no scale whatsoever. Combined with the haphazard CGI — one characters face literally looks as if it’s floating — and frantic editing, you never get to grasp any sense of wonder into the feline world.

Universal has themselves a mighty huge cat-astrophe. It’s too boring to keep the target audience captivated and too unsightly for the uninitiated. The last musical number also comes off as condescending with Dench’s tone during “The Ad-dressing of Cats” and even Jennifer Hudson’s “Memory” is boring and by the numbers. The only sequence that passes for entertaining is “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” but you’ll forget it even happened once you suffer through the mundane repetitiveness of “Mr. Mistofelees.”

If you really wanna do yourself some mental harm, load up on “catnip,” sit back, and revel in the year’s biggest dumpster fire. After all, that’s pretty much the only way to describe such a horrific curiosity. Hopefully it won’t kill your holiday season.

Movie Review: “They Shall Not Grow Old”

They Shall Not Grow Old

***** out of 5
99 minutes
Rated R for disturbing war images
Warner Bros. Pictures

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Typical documentaries have a tendency to come with their own agendas. In the case of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson has set out to show us World War I as never before: in remastered, colorized, 3D. Never one to shy away from technical accomplishments, it’s an incredible sight to see. Adding in sound effects and enhancing the overlying interviews, Jackson skips the usual filmmaking narrative for an immersive experience about a war that still seems to have an air of mystery surrounding it.

Cutting down 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of interviews with 200 WWI vets — of which 120 made the cut — They Shall Not Grow Old feels like a behind-the-scenes exposé. Some of the footage looks so good you’d swear it was happening now. There are no dates, names, or locations throughout the entire film adding authenticity and anonymity. There’s also some surprising aspects when you hear how many lied about their age, at least one as young as 15.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a marvel of a technical achievement — Jackson didn’t even receive any payment for making the film. And it shows he put his heart and soul into shining a long overdue spotlight on the men of WWI and works as a loving tribute to his grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, to whom the film is dedicated.

Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

**** out of 5
142 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Walt Disney Pictures

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Most folks have all kinds of stories involving the Star Wars films. Mine is pretty simple. I was not the Star Wars fan I am now prior to my wife buying me the original trilogy on Blu-ray. She couldn’t believe I didn’t own them, and truth is, back then I didn’t love them. One one hand, these films are not as personal to me, but I at least came to realize what I’d been missing.

And while I may not be a fanboy — I know plenty — my life has become pretty steeped in its pop culture. As I write this, I’m wearing the fleece BB-8 jacket my mother-in-law made me. So as far as The Rise of Skywalker closing out a nine film story arc goes, it works extremely well at both providing some fun moments of fan service and trying to wrap  up a world that spans 42 years of Episodes and spin-offs, TV shows, holiday specials, video games, and comics.

A mysterious broadcast has been heard throughout the galaxy. The phantom Emperor — Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) — is scheming something big and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is tracking him down. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to piece together her training while confronting her past. Meanwhile, the Final Order is on the rise under the tyranny of Supreme Leader Ren, in spite of a mole feeding information to the Jedi resistance. A definite end is nigh for both camps as the ultimate duel inches closer.

Considering the amount of backlash unleashed upon Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, insurmountable expectations were placed upon co-writer/director J.J. Abrams’s shoulders. Returning to the helm without missing a beat, fans get more of that nostalgic Star Wars tone he brought to The Force Awakens, while trying to tie up all the loose ends brought on by TLJ. How you feel about The Rise of Skywalker comes down to one thing: how you felt about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

On one hand, it almost feels like TLJ barely exists. Skywalker continues to build upon both films, but at the same time, the tone is so much more Force Awakens, you would never be confused if you happened to skip TLJ. That’s no slight to Johnson, it just feels like Abrams — along with co-writer Chris Terrio and producer Kathleen Kennedy — took the high road and continued making the series their own. Whether some like it or not.

We’ll never get to see how George Lucas would have ended his own franchise, but that’s what he gets for selling out to Disney. Granted, we might have never seen any more Star Wars films had it not been for the media conglomerate.  At the end of the day, the cast and crew give it their all and that’s about all we can expect. I encourage everyone to head out to see it so they can make up their own minds.

The cast and crew swing for the fences. They know they’ll never be able to make everyone happy, but damn if they don’t try. From here on, there are no more Skywalker movies in the pipeline and we all should just be ecstatic that a finale even exists. The Rise of Skywalker is the culmination of most people’s entire cinematic lives so far. This is it, folks, it’s really over. You won’t find any spoilers here. I would never do that and neither should anyone else.

The Rise of Skywalker is probably the epitome of “critic proof.” So the best advice is to gather up your friends, head on out to the theater, buckle in tight, and bid farewell to one of the biggest franchises on the planet.

Movie Review: “Jumanji: The Next Level”

Jumanji: The Next Level

**** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Columbia Pictures

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Let’s be honest, no one was clamoring for a Jumanji reboot. Then, with its hilarious cast and director, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle became a huge hit in 2017. So it should come as no surprise that now we have Jumanji: The Next Level. Thankfully, almost everyone has returned — a couple of the first film’s writers have been replaced by director Jake Kasdan — to deliver a sequel that follows the two most important comedy adventure rules: bigger and funnier.

It’s Christmas break and the gang — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) — are headed home from college and other excursions. While they make plans to meet, Spencer regresses to his reclusive ways and takes another trip inside Jumanji to deal with his insecurities. Everyone bands together to head into the game to find Spencer, but little do they know that Jumanji has its own plans and the rules, and players, have changed. Now — along with Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito), and Eddie’s lifelong friend Milo (Danny Glover) — they’ll have to relearn everything from their first adventure if they want to get out alive.

No one should ever walk into a film like Jumanji expecting to find much meaning. It’s pure escapism from start to finish, just like the first one. As for characters, it doesn’t really do much in the way of deepening relationships, but it does offer some of the cast the opportunity to play new characters. Kasdan is having just as much fun with a few bigger set pieces — one feels like Jurassic Park meets Mad Max — and the screenplay moves things along at a clip. It definitely earns its two-hour runtime which sounded excessive. But with the cast’s rapport and ability to play off each other, Jumanji: The Next Level makes for a super fun two hours. And right now, that’s exactly the kind of entertainment we need most.

Movie Review: “Knives Out”

Knives Out

*** out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material

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With as much shade was thrown at The Phantom Menace, at least it wasn’t released in the age of social media. Poor Rian Johnson was sent through the ringer over The Last Jedi, and while that may not be the best Star Wars, it’s far from the worst. The man deserved a break and what better way than to make a safe, fluffy film that’s as far removed from a galaxy far far away as he could get.

Knives Out is not Johnson’s best film. He’s never made a horrible film, but to make it clear, this is The Brothers Bloom Johnson, not Brick/Looper Johnson. It’s simply Agatha-Christie via Wes Anderson-lite, playing fast and loose with a decent story with no warmth, heart, surprises, or laughs. While it’s an interesting endeavor to be sure, it’s far from the masterpiece it’s being heralded as.

Crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead. The day after his 85th birthday no less. With his wealth up for grabs, of course everyone is suspect. Could it be his embezzling daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)? Or Walt (Michael Shannon), his resentful son in charge of his publishing?

Maybe Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), his daughter who doesn’t know that her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), is having an affair? Possibly a grandson or two: the alt-right extremist Jacob (Jaeden Martell) or estranged Ransom (Chris Evans)? Or maybe, just maybe, his beloved caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas)? Fear not, viewers, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is here to crack the case by credits end!

With a seemingly never-ending list of stars, you’d expect Knives Out to be a lot more fun. Or at least as much as Lionsgate’s marketing team is trying to prove. While I’m never afraid to be arbitrary, unfortunately, Knives Out is all quirk with no bite. Johnson ensures every cast member — aside from a small few — chews scenery to their heart’s content. At least they’re having fun, maybe for someone else it will be more infectious. With a two hour plus runtime, the shenanigans start to wear very thin by the 90-minute mark.

At least Plummer, Craig, and de Armas are consistently watchable. And the big twist isn’t saved for the end. So it turns the whole whodunnit aspect in a new direction and becomes more of a will-they-get-away-with-it? For anyone who enjoys a good battle of the classes with a heavy dose of entitlement run amok, Knives Out features a dysfunctional family who are at least more enjoyable than your own may be.

Just check expectations going in and you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more than I did. Maybe I’m getting a case of the year-end screening bah humbugs, but it takes a lot more to make me laugh than just Captain America cussing and an overlong film filled with just two hours worth of smirks.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Movie Review: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

**** 1/2 out of 5
108 minutes
Sony Pictures
Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language

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The entire crux of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a stuffed animal. While we never see journalist Lloyd Vogel’s (Matthew Rhys) “old rabbit,” we don’t need to. It’s brought up during an interview between Vogel — a fictionalized version of Esquire writer Tom Junod, whose 1998 article, “Can You Say… Hero?” is the inspiration for the film — and Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks).

Yes, Mr. Rogers has found the way to a pessimist’s heart, and it’s bound to hit hard with audiences. Whether you grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, or didn’t — I did not — it still strikes a chord.

My now two-year-old loves her stuffed Dory, I had Kermit, and my wife, Tigger. While it never punched hard enough to make myself cry, based on the sniffs and whimpers heard at the screening — perfectly timed for the evening of World Kindness Day — spoke for themselves. Something made all the more surprising once you come to realize the film isn’t even actually about Mr. Rogers. It’s actually based on Junod’s article which is way more about himself than dear old Fred. It’s also from director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who clearly loves writers, warts and all.

Vogel has a chip on his shoulder and uses that to his advantage with his award-winning Esquire exposés. He’s estranged from his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), and just wants to keep his home life isolated to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and son Gavin (played by triplets Jordan, Naomi, and Zoey Harsh). But acceptance and understanding comes calling after his editor assigns him to a “fluff piece”: interviewing Mr. Rogers. Now, Vogel gets more than he was looking for as life lessons are learned and heart strings get pulled.

For anyone worried about Hanks performing a caricature, fear not. Once we jump into the first scene you’ll quickly realize that no one else could ever have brought such an icon to life. The film oozes sincerity and never tries to make you think Mr. Rogers may be more than a facade. A great exchange between Vogel and Joanna Rogers does let us in on him being more human than folks may believe. We learn he does have a temper and doesn’t mind banging it out on some piano keys when needed. And who can’t relate to that?

The film plays out like a feature length episode and works all the better for it. Heller isn’t scared to get a little surreal here and there. Transitional scenes are sets right out of the TV show and they come into play for more than just recreating the WQED world of imagination. The rest of the cast all perform admirably, and most will still be surprised to see Hanks in a supporting role. But it’s absolutely going to earn him an Oscar nomination regardless. And with how earnest the film is, prepare for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood‘s title called out for a Best Picture nomination, too. It could stand to get overshadowed, but it’s every bit worthy. This is a film worth being neighbors with and you’ll be glad you stopped by.

Movie Review: “Frozen II”

Frozen II

** 1/2 out of 5
103 minutes
Rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements
Walt Disney Pictures

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If you want to be “whelmed” by a movie, just go see Frozen II. It pains me to not speak highly of the sequel to such a classic. Six years ago, Frozen cemented Disney Animation Studios as more than just Pixar-lite. But with Frozen II, not all that glitters is gold.

The entire voice cast (Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, and Josh Gad), directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee — Lee also single-handedly wrote the screenplay again — may have returned, yet Frozen II falls prey to a Disney sequelitis cash cow. And just because it manages to squeeze out an ear worm — “Into the Unknown” — one good song is not enough.

We start with a flashback where young Anna and Elsa are being told a bedtime story by their father, Agnarr (voiced by Alfred Molina). He tells the girls that once upon a time there was a fight between Arendale and the tribe of Northuldra after a dam was built as part of a peace treaty. This enrages the spirits of earth, fire, air, and water causing a wall to encase the forest and their father barely escaped, but not without the help of an unknown savior.

Elsa is hearing strange callings and has to follow them, unintentionally awakening the elemental spirits, forcing Arendale to evacuate. Now, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven are off to find out how to save Arendale after the troll leader, Grand Pabbie (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), says that he sees no future for Arendale. Once again, Elsa winds up taking off on her own, leaving Anna behind to fend for herself while (film) history repeats itself.

After listening to the new Kristen Anderson-Lopez/Robert Lopez collection, I thought to myself, “This… is not great.” Hoping maybe the songs would be better in context, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. But no, these are the laziest, most unmemorable Disney songs in ages. Even Kristoff’s big ’80s power ballad should have left me rolling on the floor, but instead lands with an eye-rolling thud.

Unfortunately, all we get is a film that goes through the motions while heavily lacking any kind of emotion. Start with a plot where all the loose ends get tied up exactly as the opening scene implies they would, add a pinch of one new cute critter destined to sell toys, wrap it up with cloyingly unmemorable expository singalongs, and it’s clear that money is the only reason this film exists.

There was no need for Frozen II and it never earns its existence. Most fans obviously won’t care, but I do. The first Frozen finally put the final smash on Disney’s glass ceiling — and caused my wife and I to bond with new friends — but Frozen II is a super odd mix of too adult for some youngsters — no matter how hard Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad) tries to annoy us — and too clichéd and lazy for adults.

It also ends with what I’m sure Buck and Lee are hoping to be some kind of cliffhanger, but leaves you scratching your head instead. All Frozen II really manages to do is show how unnecessary sequels can be and in this case, they should have left well enough alone. One sequel was one too many and it’s time to let it go. I know the box office will make sure a third film happens, let’s just hope they can learn from this and figure out a better way to keep the next venture from being so middling.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Movie Review: “Ford v Ferrari”

Ford v Ferrari

***** out of 5
152 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language and peril
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

It doesn’t happen very often. The breathtaking feeling you get when walking out of a perfect film. Such was the case with James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari — the racing film I never knew I needed. While it definitely isn’t what you’d call an action movie, the racing scenes are top notch and leave your jaw on the floor at every, err, turn. It certainly helps to have two of the best performances of the year bringing larger-than-life personalities — Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby — to the big screen. Matt Damon (Shelby) and Christian Bale (Miles) may not sound like first choices for co-starring opposites, but they play so spectacularly off each other that I wouldn’t mind them in plenty more things together.

Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) has big plans for Ford Motor Company. He’s been informed by Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) that Ferrari has gone bankrupt and Ford wants to merge. Unfortunately, that means Enzo Ferarri (Remo Girone) would also be giving up his racing division, Scuderia Ferrari, in the deal. Ford wants to use this as a way for Ford to try and win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. When Enzo shuts Ford’s deal down, Ford turns to Shelby for help creating their first sports car. Problem is, Shelby needs Miles’ help and he’s “difficult, but good.” Sure enough, the two car conglomerates — along with Shelby and Miles — are in for the ride of their lives to come up with a car to win Le Mans and beat Ferrari at the race Ferrari has won five years running.

The last time I walked out of a screening so enthralled was The Departed. While this has a long way to go to the finish line — we’re only halfway through November — I can’t see too many more films coming together so precisely. Everything from the acting — Caitriona Balfe as Ken’s wife, Mollie nearly steals the show from Damon and Bale — to the screenplay, editing, cinematography, and sound design. Perfection. Mangold has an impressive history of making every film unique — maybe aside from The Wolverine and Logan. But you’d never guess this was from the man who directed Knight and Day, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Girl, Interrupted, and Cop Land.

With Oscar season upon us — and my own voting imminent with the Utah Film Critics Association — it’s nice to see a heavy hitter finally come out of the woodwork. It’s been a fun year, but it’s about time it got kicked into high gear. When blockbusters have been more memorable than artsies, something’s amiss. And while I may not have the chance to see all the artsies, it’s fantastic when a Hollywood film gets to play double duty and have it both ways. Ford v Ferrari should not be missed and make sure you see it on the loudest — if not the biggest — screen possible.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Movie Review: “Last Christmas”

Last Christmas

** 1/2 out of 5
102 minutes
Rated PG-13 for language and sexual content
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

To quote my review of Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor: “The heightened sense of reality plays like the funniest big budget Lifetime version of Gone Girl you could hope for.” With Last Christmas, Feig left nuance at the door and simply made a Lifetime/Hallmark movie. If there ever was a Feig film designed purely for Netflix, this is it. Light on laughs, sitcom in execution, and overloaded with George Michael earworms, Last Christmas proves it takes more than just a Christmas setting to provide a holly jolly spirit.

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is not living her London life to the fullest. Having recently recovered from being sick, she struggles to keep her job as an elf at a year-round Christmas store and bounces around friends for places to stay. Her boss, “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh), misses the old Kate and knows she’s capable of more.

Her family — sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), father Ivan (Boris Isakovic), and mother Petra (Emma Thompson) — wish she’d get her act together and make the most of their escape from Yugoslavia. And just when it seems like things can’t get any worse, Kate meets Tom (Henry Golding), who could be the man of her dreams. Now, Kate may have a reason to find a new lease on life, with Tom possibly being just the ticket to a new standard of living.

If that doesn’t sound overly schmaltzy, just wait till you see the movie. Even the most mediocre romantic-comedies can get by on the power of its stars. Unfortunately, Clarke and Golding have zero chemistry which indicates a big twist is coming. A twist you’ll be able to guess from a mile away if you watch any of the film’s trailers, which I had not. Another giveaway comes in the form of the title song, played ad nauseum throughout the film.

Sitcomy by nature, and never as charming as it thinks it is, Last Christmas isn’t one of the worst Christmas films ever, but boy is it one of the dumbest. It’s extremely boring, too. When you never care for your protagonists, it makes any film a huge chore to sit through. Thompson’s clichéd “Boris & Natasha” accent doesn’t help either, and that’s exactly the kind of comedy Feig falls back on here.

You’d never guess this is the same director who brought us Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters, and A Simple Favor. Hopefully, Last Christmas winds up as a mere blip on Feig’s record. Considering his next film involves a mashup of the classic Universal monsters — and comes from his own writing — hopefully that returns him to his usually brilliant brand of filmmaking.

Movie Review: “Doctor Sleep”

Doctor Sleep

***** out of 5
151 minutes
Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use
Warner Bros. Pictures

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As if crafting a sequel to The Shining wasn’t daunting enough for Stephen King, imagine being in writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan’s shoes with Doctor Sleep. Flanagan found himself creating not only a sequel to the Kubrick classic, but also had to deliver an adaptation of a book sequel that exists in its own universe which blatantly ignores Kubrick’s film.

Considering Flanagan’s track record — Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, The Haunting of Hill House, and another King adaptation, Gerald’s Game — I had faith the film was in good hands. And not only does Flanagan execute one of the best King adaptations ever, it’s a fantastic Dark Tower companion as well.

It’s been 39 years since the horrific events played out for Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) at the Overlook Hotel. But in the ultimate case of like-father-like-son, Danny is fighting his own demons brought on by his father’s alcoholism and the passing of his mother, Wendy (Alex Essoe).

Ka comes calling as Danny needs to shine again when Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) requests his help. Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), and the rest of the True Knot, are on the hunt, with members of the Knot able to feed on those who “shine.” With Abra being the strongest Rose has ever encountered. Now, the race is on to save Abra and Danny, leading to the ultimate showdown only Danny can stage.

Filled with fantastic performances — particularly Ferguson and Curran — spectacular cinematography, and the year’s creepiest soundtrack, Doctor Sleep is the King adaptation we’ve been waiting for. With a tall order of some admittedly perfect films to choose from — The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Misery, The Mist — this is officially my favorite and it’s absolutely one of the best.

Don’t let the 151-minute runtime worry you either, the film soars along to the climax at a breathless pace. A few Flanagan regulars make their way in, with Carel Struycken (Gerald’s Game’s “Moonlight Man”) and Henry Thomas filling in for Jack Nicholson. Ferguson stands out as a chilling King villain.

While the MCU may have a huge head start on cinematic universes, between Doctor Sleep and Pet Sematary, I’m left scratching my head as to how Sony wound up so haphazardly developing their Dark Tower film. So many references abound in Doctor Sleep. There was an opportunity for at least one that wasn’t taken advantage of. Not sure if Flanagan felt it would have been one too many, but at one point, I leaned over to my friend and whispered, “If that train is named ‘Charlie,’ I’m going to lose my mind.” Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

There’s honestly only so much gushing I can do here. Flanagan is a genre master and continues to get better, and even more ambitious with each outing. Considering he’s currently adapting a new Taming of the Shrew in the form of Netflix’s Haunting of Bly Manor (AKA the second season of Hill House), I can’t even imagine how fantastic it will be. For now, he’s got a long resume of creepfests under his belt, and I’ll definitely be showing Doctor Sleep some love come year end voting with the Utah Film Critics Association. As the marketing says, “Dare to go back,” you’ll be glad they did.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Movie Review: “Terminator: Dark Fate”

Terminator: Dark Fate

**** 1/2 out of 5
128 minutes
Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

It’s almost exasperating to think that Terminator: Dark Fate is the sixth entry of the franchise. But that’s really not too many considering the first film turned 35 this year. It’s also been 28 years since T2: Judgement Day blessed us with not only one of the best action films ever made, but also one of the best sequels.

With Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genisys not having James Cameron involved, it was about time he made his return — even if only credited with story/producer. And while director Tim Miller (the first Deadpool) may not quite have Cameron’s eye for action, Dark Fate is absolutely the best sequel since T2. An ironic statement considering they’ve scrapped the last three films from canon and, err, rebooted.

1998, Livingston, Guatemala. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her son John (Edward Furlong) are trying to live their lives knowing the future is safe after taking down Skynet’s Cyberdyne System and preventing Judgement Day. But just wouldn’t you know it, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarznegger) shows up to complete his mission and finally kills John.

Twenty-two years later, enhanced super soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) arrives in Mexico City from a new future in 2042. Grace is on the hunt for Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) to keep her safe from the a new liquid Terminator, Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). Grace and Dani head out on the run, but not before Sarah catches up with them. Now, the three are on the run to save Dani — and whatever new future is heading their way — with Grace informing them that a new machine war is still coming, in the form of “Legion,” as history begins to repeat itself.

Considering Dark Fate takes place in the present, it makes sense for the film to have a self-aware sense of humor. Screenwriters Davis S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray make sure Sarah and Dani understand the ridiculousness of their situation — especially with Sarah having already lived through it once.

They also add a heaping dose of girl power, with Hamilton, Davis, and Reyes performing spectacularly. All three are a powerhouse of badass, which I’m sure everyone knew was key, considering Schwarzenegger doesn’t even show up until the last half of the film.

But that’s exactly what makes Dark Fate work best: the humanity. Here we have three women being tracked down by a machine from the future, working together to save themselves. It brings us back to the original’s simplicity without getting too bogged down in time traveling shenanigans. It’s the biggest thing missing from the last three sequels and it’s about time they brought it back.

Say what you will about Cameron as a storyteller, but you do have to admit that he usually takes the time to build characters, no matter how much spectacle is being played out around them. Speaking of spectacle, don’t worry, there’s more than enough of that here too! The film charges right out of the gate at a breakneck speed and runs like a freight train toward the finale.

While squeezing in more than enough character arc for Dani, by the time we reach the end credits, you can’t help but wonder where this sequel has been all this time. The answer is obviously Cameron. This was always his story to tell, and it’s about time he got to continue.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Terminator franchise as a whole — yes, even 3, Salvation, and Genisys — but things will undoubtedly be far more interesting moving forward with Dani and Sarah prominently in the leads and it’ll be exciting if we get to see whatever Legion winds up being. Don’t expect any clues during the end credits, there are no stingers.

To feel like a broken record about the Terminator franchise: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it every time, I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

Movie Review: “Countdown”


*** out of 5
90 minutes
Rated PG-13 for terror, violence, bloody images, suggestive material, language and thematic elements
STX Entertainment

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Put enough jump scares in a horror movie and I’ll jump at least once. Surprisingly, writer/director Justin Dec doesn’t rely on them as much as you’d think. A good thing too, because Countdown has more going for it than the average horror flick. Sure it has dopey moments, but it also has plenty of spirit to keep the story interesting. Think Final Destination with an app — minus all the Rube Goldberg machinations. That description alone should make or break your decision. But with Countdown being the only horror movie released this month, it won’t be a waste of money for interested parties.

Like many horror movies, events kick off at a high school party where a group of drunk friends download the “Countdown” app which tells them exactly how long they have to live. For poor Courtney (Anne Winters), her time left shows just few hours which comes true in spite of breaking the user agreement after refusing a ride home from her drunk boyfriend, Evan (Dillon Lane).

Of course Courtney winds up dead and Evan gets in a car wreck with a tree branch sticking through the passenger seat. Before surgery, Evan meets newly-certified RN Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), who decides to download the app against her better judgement. Sure enough, she’s down to her final days and enlists the help of fellow app user Matt (Jordan Calloway), to find out what’s behind the app and save their — and Quinn’s sister Jordan’s (Talitha Eliana Bateman) — fates.

When a horror movie isn’t taking itself completely seriously it usually works best. Especially with slasher films. While there may not be an actual slasher on the loose, Countdown plays by the same rules. While Final Destination may be one of its biggest inspirations, it also owes a lot to Happy Death Day with a final girl not willing to play by the rules. Yes, the characters still do some pretty dumb stuff, but they also do some smart stuff. For every strange noise investigation there are also plenty of scenes like Quinn using Evan’s dead body to unlock his phone. Dec also gets a kick out of not skimping on some decent gross-out gags and going full steam ahead with his demonic ending.

With Halloween less than a week away, it’s always disheartening when studios fail audiences with only one offering. While It: Chapter 2 is still floating around in theaters — and families have The Addams Family — at least there’s Countdown. It may not reinvent the wheel, but it does have fun playing with conventions. Lail makes for a great final girl with girl power to spare —  and it’s nice to have a horror movie not filled with annoying fodder you want to see die — making Countdown just good enough for a weekend full of tricks and treats.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Movie Review: “The Addams Family”

The Addams Family

**** 1/2 out of 5
87 minutes
Rated PG for macabre and suggestive humor, and some action
United Artists Releasing

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Creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky, ooky, animated. While one of these things is not like the other, the new film from directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon (both directors of Shrek 2, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Sausage Party) prove The Addams Family work in any format. While they’ve been animated before on television, this is the first animated film to be released theatrically. For those keeping track, it’s been 26 years since the goth-like family was last on the big screen, and it’s fantastic to have them back!

I seem to be in a minority here — not one adult who attended the screening with me liked it — as it sounds like some audience members have a major misconception regarding the entire enterprise. Yes, the Matt Lieberman screenplay doesn’t exactly offer up anything new, but at least the characters remain the same.

Wedding bells are ringing for Gomez (voiced by Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (voiced by Charlize Theron). But just as they say “I do,” the townsfolk show up to wage war and drive them out. The newlyweds hit the road in search of the worst place they can settle down in, winding up in New Jersey — a nod to Charles Addams’ hometown. And while they find an abandoned haunted asylum to call all their own — after Thing runs down escaped mental patient Lurch (voiced by co-director Conrad Vernon) — 13 years later we catch up with the rest of the clan: Wednesday (voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

The rest of the family are soon on their way to join them for Pugsley’s Mazurka, including Uncle Fester (voiced by Nick Kroll), cousin It (voiced by Snoop Dogg), and Grandma (voiced by Better Midler). And wouldn’t you know it, the fog surrounding their home has lifted as the marsh is drained by reality TV host/interior designer Margaux Needler (voiced by Allison Janney). Now the Addams’ have to deal with the new town of “Assimilation” below. Things go from bad to worse when Wednesday enrolls in middle school and befriends Margaux’s estranged daughter Parker (voiced by Elsie Fisher), while Margaux hatches a diabolical plot of her own to turn the town against the Addams clan.

Growing up I loved the original TV series, and the Barry Sonnenfeld classics even more. While Addams Family Values may have been the epitome of what Charles Addams’ creation could be, this is a fantastic reboot, ushering the family back into the spotlight — even if straddled with a PG rating. Double entendres and twisted visuals reign supreme with the voice cast relishing every line. Raul Julia, Angelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, and Christina Ricci may have left their mark on their characters, but it’s easier to separate the new versions with this animated one.

Directors Tiernan and Vernon make sure they kick things off with a gag a minute, although things do start to slow down as the plot starts to take over in the third act. There was also a missed opportunity of truncating Wednesday’s time at middle school with too much attention focused on the Assimilation shenanigans. A film about The Addams Family should be about them, we didn’t come here to see what the neighbors were up to. Stillt, Addams fans will be snapping their fingers with glee by the time the end credits roll. And while this first entry may play things a little safer than expected, I can’t wait to see where it goes from here!

Movie Review: “Gemini Man”

Gemini Man

*** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language
Paramount Pictures

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There’s a lot to be said about nature vs. nurture. Unfortunately, for Ang Lee’s new action-thriller Gemini Man, its trio of writers — David “Game of Thrones” Benioff, Billy Ray, and Darren Lemke — are convinced that a clone will be exactly the same regardless of differences in upbringing and personal experiences. While it may work to beat out their been-there-done-that plot mechanics, it completely deflates the emotional impact of the finale.

These kinds of introspective character arcs may not be new to Lee’s films, it comes across as extra silly when the studio is trying to market the film as a “Will Smith vs. Will Smith” action spectacle. While it may feature some fantastic bursts of action, the pace is all over the map with too many monologues padding out the runtime. Which is a shame, because Smith has more chemistry with co-star Mary Elizabeth Winstead than himself.

Henry Brogan (Smith) is the best government assassin in the biz and all he wants to do is retire. But just wouldn’t you know it, he’s just been informed by his friend Jack (Douglas Hodge) that his last target was an innocent man. Now, his old handler Clay (Clive Owen) unleashes project “GEMINI” to bring him down leaving Henry on the lam with fellow agents Danny (Winstead) and Baron (Benedict Wong) helping to save all their rears. What they don’t know, is that GEMINI consists of Henry’s younger, far more lethal clone Junior (a deaged Smith), who will stop at nothing to take Henry down. At least so long as his feelings don’t manage to get in the way.

Gemini Man is reported to be a technological breakthrough, by those who happened to see it at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles premiere. Lee — and cinematographer Dion Beebe — have shot the film in 4K 3D at 120 frames per second (fps). And the marketing is pushing for audiences to experience it in what they’re calling “3D+” and I’m sure it looks amazing. Unfortunately for most, only 14 theaters in the entire country are equipped to come even close, but can only show it in 2K 3D at 120fps — as reported by And, if you’re lucky, you might be able to find it playing in 2D at 60fps, but don’t hold your breath.

Why studios continue to allow these blockbusters to be made when most of the world won’t even be able to see them as intended is beyond me. Until theaters can catch up, maybe it’s not quite time to be testing the boundaries of filmmaking. Plus, most moviegoers hate watching high frame rate (HFR). I was able to see the first two Hobbit films in HFR and loved every second of them in the format, but it is a very polarizing experience. To try to make something as mainstream as a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action spectacular makes even less sense. But if anyone happens to see it properly, feel free to comment back with any thoughts.

As for the film itself? It’s been great to have Smith back on screen again this year. He never fails to deliver with his endless charm and charisma whether he’s slathered in blue CGI or playing a 30 year younger version of himself. With Winstead kicking ass by his side, the two play off each other very well, and it’s nice to see them even crack wise about whether the two of them should/could wind up together in the end. (Spoiler alert: they don’t!) But that should be seen as a sigh of relief and not a true spoiler.

Unfortunately, they’re saddled with a lackluster screenplay that’s so very by-the-books-’90s — which makes sense since the screenplay has been in development hell since as far back as 1997. Considering it’s a product of the ’90s, it’s understandable to see Bruckheimer producing. The best advice is to check your brain at the door which leaves room for some fun to be had. Just never stop to think about the shenanigans for too long or it’ll ruin things faster than a 2D 24fps presentation.

Movie Review: “Abominable”


** 1/2 out of 5
97 minutes
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Universal Pictures

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It’s been a bumpy road for Dreamworks Animation since their inception. While their franchises may be a long list of highly-recognized titles, there’s been more than a few missteps. The last two Shrek films were atrocious, and even the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy capper came off as trite and never lived up to the first two.

When it comes to their new co-China production, Abominable, it manages to be both super sweet and super dumb. Writer/director Jill Culton — who ironically cut her teeth at Pixar working on Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters, Inc. at different levels — mines simplicity and convenience while adhering to clichéd family film character arcs and conventions.

Teenage Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet) does what she can to keep herself busy and away from her mom and grandma Nai Nai (voiced by Michelle Wong and Tsai Chin, respectively). One night, a chance encounter with an escaped Yeti on the roof of Yi’s Shanghai apartment building, gives her the chance to head off on the adventure of a lifetime.

Together with her neighbor friends Jin (voiced by Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Peng (Albert Tsai), the trio embark to take their new furry friend back home to Mount Everest with entrepreneur Burnish (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and his zoologist researcher Dr. Zara (voiced by Sarah Paulson) hot on their tails.

Abominable is prime kid fare. Not to slight youngsters, but there’s just no amount of nuance for adults to get beyond its simplistic nature. A few dumber bits include a villain’s big reveal as they whip off their glasses while shaking their hair out behind them while Peng gets stuck playing Captain Obvious for those not able to keep up with what’s happening onscreen.

And then there’s the Yeti’s magical powers which allow him to use nature to get them out of every tight spot. If they used these powers appropriately, the film wouldn’t even exist. He could have just simply whisked himself back to his mountain top home and the rest of us wouldn’t have had to sit through the movie.

At least Abominable mostly lives up to the visual quality we’ve come to expect from Dreamworks and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is quite good, when it’s not being overshadowed by some ridiculous soundtrack choices. Abominable is a harmless time waster that, thankfully, never lives up to its title.

Movie Review: “Ad Astra”

Ad Astra

** 1/2 out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
20th Century Fox

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I saw Ad Astra a week ago and have already forgotten about it. This Brad Pitt sci-fi “thriller” has all the ingredients to build hype: Oscar buzz for Pitt’s performance, titillating trailers, and positive word-of-mouth. But sometimes, as good as the ingredients may be, the end product just doesn’t turn out for the best. And aside from the emotionally hypocritical finale, there are some very odd subplots that indicate the original screenplay may have been very different.

In the near future, “The Surge” has been wreaking havoc on Earth causing worldwide devastation and catastrophic loss of life. Turns out, self destructive/compartmentalist astronaut Roy McBride’s (Pitt) father’s “Lima Project” — astronaut Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) — may be responsible. Now, Roy is on the mission of his life as he heads to Neptune — with some pit stops along the way (read: Mad Max space pirates and raging space monkeys). There he hopes to reunite with his father who went missing 16 years ago, save mankind, and put his daddy issues to rest.

The advertising for Ad Astra is quite misleading. The film itself jumps tones like the Fonz over a shark. It doesn’t help that director James Gray — who also cowrote with Ethan Gross — keeps the film plodding along at a glacial pace. Pitt is always a pleasure to watch, but coming off the heels of his amazing turn in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the Oscar buzz makes me fear it’s going to be another one of those years where the right actor gets nominated for the wrong film.

Rarely exciting, emotionally stunted, but at least occasionally interesting — a separate film centered around those out of place subplots would be most welcome — Ad Astra may feature a few beautifully shot sequences, but it never manages to live up to expectations.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Movie Review: “Ready or Not”

Ready or Not

**** 1/2 out of 5
95 minutes
Rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use
Fox Searchlight

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Sometimes going into a movie blind can be wonderful. When that movie finally manages to deliver on its ending, it makes it even better. Endings have been a very sore subject for modern horror. They leave on a sour note and never deliver the goods. Such is not the case with the new horror comedy, Ready or Not. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (aka Radio Silence, V/H/S) set up the scenario in the first scene, and carry through to the big finale. With a likeable cast, and an ending that’s best not spoiled, a new cult classic is on the rise.

Grace (Samara Weaving) is about to marry the love of her life, Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien). Heir to the Le Domas gaming empire, Alex is far more worried about their impending nuptials than Grace. He propositions her with an out, offering for them to run for the hills once they’ve wed, but Grace is all in. Little does she know, come midnight, the family will gather in the game room where Grace draws a card to play hide and seek. Now, she comes face-to-face with the realization that the Le Domas plan to hunt and kill her, in a time honored tradition of the utmost satanic superstition.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett make the most of Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy’s wicked screenplay. Even if the tone can sometimes feel a little scattershot. There are times where things are played completely straight and the film starts to take itself too seriously before jarringly coming back to the hilarious black comedy tone that works best. Weaving makes for a fantastic newlywed up to her neck in piling bodies, while everyone else — particularly Adam Brody and Andie McDowell as Alex’s brother and mother — get a few chances to try to steal the spotlight.

Blood and hilarity are par for the course — it’s particularly hilarious who the first few people to die are, and how. And the story keeps hinting at some pretty over-the-top plot mechanics. Lucky for us, as soon as it looks like the directors are about to pull their punches, the action kicks into hyperdrive and saves the day. There’s also a nail hit right on the head involving Nat Faxon as a customer service agent named Justin that could be used in many customer service training videos if it weren’t for the expletives.

At a scant 95 minutes, the film also doesn’t wear out its welcome. Here’s hoping Disney keeps allowing Fox Searchlight to deliver on the quality we’ve come to expect after 25 years. Ready or Not, this is one horror comedy that deserves to be seen in a theater full of fellow gorehounds that completely delivers on all counts. Just make sure to not ruin the ending.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Movie Review: “Good Boys”

Good Boys

**** 1/2 out of 5
89 minutes
Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout - all involving tweens
Universal Pictures

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Audiences love rambunctious kids. Perhaps it’s the waxing nostalgia of youth. With the 23rd season of South Park upon us — and Superbad released more than a decade ago — we were bound to find out what tweens were up these days. And while it doesn’t take the super realistic approach of Eighth Grade, co-writer/director Gene Stupnitsky — along with writing partner in crime Lee Eisenberg — still manage to hit quite a few nails on the head. With Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill are on board as producers, it should clue you in that the characters in Good Boys can only try to live up to the title. But it also should prepare you for the level of raunch and heart only they can serve.

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon), are the “bean bag boys.” Because they have bean bags, duh! The epitome of BFFs, the trio are soon up to their necks in misadventures. All they want to do is learn how to kiss a girl — after being invited to a party by the school’s most popular kid, Soren (Izaac Wang) — with Max having his eye on his schoolgirl crush Brixlee (Millie Davis). But soon enough, Max’s dad’s (Will Forte) drone is captured by Hannah (Molly Gordon) and Lily (Midori Francis) when they get caught spying on them. Now, the boys are holding Hannah’s bag hostage, but quickly learn there’s MDMA in it and the girls want to make a swap. Meanwhile our intrepid trio just want to get the drone home before Max’s dad gets back from his business trip. And make it to the party on time!

Stupnitsky and Eisenberg may be best known for their work on The Office, but they’ve more than made up for the amusing — but lackluster — Bad Teacher. The cast displays all the awkward idiosyncrasies that come with being tweens — they repeatedly tell everyone they’re not kids. And as hilarious as the youngsters may be, even the adults get plenty of chances to steal the spotlight. From Stephen Merchant as an is-he-or-isn’t-he pedophile, to Sam Richardson’s exhausted Officer Sacks.

But the real spotlight thieves are Lil Rey Howery and Retta as Lucas’ divorcing parents. An entire spin-off movie is more than welcome! Your capacity for debauchery will let you decide if Good Boys is for you, or not. It’s Superbad turned up to 11, but thankfully has way more heart than you’d expect, and never dives into American Pie territory. Max just wants to kiss a girl, and something as sweet and innocent as that may be wrapped up in hilarious filth, the message still comes through just fine.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Movie Review: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

**** out of 5
Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.
111 minutes
CBS Films

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When your movie is called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it better be is scary. With Guillermo del Toro shepherding the production, hopes were skyhigh. Then came the quick teasers scattered throughout the Super Bowl and it appeared they’d hit the nail on the head. At least it looked like a movie based on Alvin Schwartz’s beloved “children’s” books. Stephen Gammell’s creepy AF illustrations had come to life and looked scary as hell.

Unfortunately, the movie never completely lives up to its name. Creepy in moments, hilarious in others, but never shocking or unsettling. And while bumping the film up to an R rating wouldn’t have necessarily helped — there’s plenty of gruesomeness on display — Del Toro and director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Trollhunters) have at least delivered a slick, fast-paced exercise in ’80s “Steven Spielberg Presents” nostalgia.

It’s 1968 in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania and Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) head out for one last night of trick or treating before they’re officially too old. A prank on school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) goes south, interrupting Tommy’s “date” with Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn).

After seeking refuge in Ramón’s (Michael Garza) car at the drive in, they all wind up at the local haunted Bellows house. Things turn from bad to worse after Stella takes a book home — belonging to Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) — cursing them all to face fate as the stories and monsters in Sarah’s book become real and looking for all of them.

A sense of adventure and humor go a long way to keep the Scary Stories moving along. There are enough Scary Stories to tell, but at almost two hours, it’s maybe just a tad too long for its own good. Thankfully, the Spielberg vibe makes the film a lot of fun and the cast have great rapport and you feel for the kids safety, even if Dan and Kevin Hageman’s screenplay is a bit episodic.

Øvredal employs his monsters to great effect with plenty of practicality lending a physical sense of threat. Where Scary Stories could have been overstuffed with CGI — and I’m sure there’s still plenty — it’s used to enhance scenes, rather than the scenes rely on them. There’s also a surprising lack of big boo moments, which is a nice change of pace. This Scary Stories lends itself more to the suspense/thriller genre than outright horror. Something that’s not usually found with youth-geared horror movies.

An air of mystery gives a Scooby Doo atmosphere — even if the denouement has been played out a million times. But, hopefully the audience sets its anticipation correctly and doesn’t go in expecting a hardcore horror flick. The Spielberg touch keeps the film from taking itself too seriously, even if The Jangly Man will wind up being one of the creepiest visuals of the year.

From stew to chimneys, to corn fields and restrooms, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has plenty of fun up its sleeve and even ends with room for a sequel. Here’s to hoping the weekend proves the audience remains for Schwartz and Gammell’s twisted tales and can get even scarier from here. Hopefully it unites fans who read the books as kids since it gives us the ultimate opportunity to pass them along to scare a whole new generation.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Movie Review: “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

**** out of 5
135 minutes
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, suggestive material and some strong language
Universal Pictures

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When a franchise’s two biggest stars can’t get along, what do you do? Give one of them their own spinoff movie. And thus the ludicrously double ampersanded Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw was born. With directors now constantly shifting gears, it makes sense to bring in yet another new director for Hobbs & Shaw.

Thankfully, Universal knows what makes these films work and director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps the action as overblown as expected. Writer Chris Morgan — along with Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce — also loads stars Dwayne Johson and Jason Statham with hilarious banter to keep things moving along at a quick quip between set pieces.

MI:6 agent Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby) is on the lam in London after injecting herself with a programmable super virus. Self-described “bad guy” Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) is hot on her trail, bringing Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Statham) to find her. Together, they have 72 hours to keep the virus from going airborne and killing billions of people. That is, of course, if they can keep from killing each other first.

Hobbs & Shaw is ridiculous. If that’s not your cup of tea, well, why are you reading a review for a movie in the Fast & Furious world to begin with? Johnson and Statham continue to have the hilarious chemistry established throughout the seventh and eighth F&F entries. And Kirby adds a new level as Deckard’s sister, with good old mum (Helen Mirren) returning for more fun as well.

As absurd as it all is, there’s no denying these movies are fun. They’re not trying to be high art and never pretend to be anything more than the epitome of big dumb fun. To keep things fresh, Leitch has brought along some fun cameos. To spoil them would be criminal, but let’s just say one of them doesn’t rhyme with “Pulverine.” It’s also nice to see Leitch hasn’t lost his touch for crafting huge action scenes where you can always tell what’s happening. Even if he still can’t resist the cheapness of shaky cam during a few of them.

There are going to be haters who feel like this is just a way to milk the cow dry while the beef settles between Johnson and Vin Diesel. But for the rest of us, we can sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s big, bright, flashy, hilarious, action-packed, and even a little meta. It’s particularly hilarious seeing Brixton essentially being turned into a human jaeger like something right out of a bad Pacific Rim sequel. Hobbs & Shaw may not be much more than a way to keep the franchise idling, but it’s a damn fun ride from start to finish.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Movie Review: “The Farewell”

The Farewell

**** out of 5
100 minutes
Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking

Article first published at

When you skip the Sundance Film Festival you get stuck playing catch up the rest of the year. Thankfully, some of the best films wind up finding distribution and make their way to theaters. And writer/director Lulu Wang’s family dramedy, The Farewell, is about as Sundance-y as they come. Full of laughs and heart — along with a very specific worldview — her amazing cast help keep the film moving along, even if it beats to an all too familiar Sundance pace. It also provides a chance for Awkwafina to finally prove she can be more than just a snarky sidekick.

Billi (Awkwafina) loves her grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) very much. They spend lots of time talking on the phone while Nai Nai deals with her exhausting husband in China and Billi wanders the streets of New York. What Billi doesn’t know — and neither does Nai Nai — is that Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer. Now, the family plans a trip to China to visit Nai Nai before she’s gone, using the excuse of a wedding so they can all spend some time before their final goodbyes.

It’s hilarious watching Wang’s amazing cast walk extra lightly on eggshells with Billi being the one person they worry will ruin the whole thing. Nai Nai just shouldn’t be bothered with something that will upset her. The entire premise may seem absurd on the surface, but it’s driven home a few times that this is just how things are done in the East. Awkwafina walks a fine line providing plenty of laughs, but Wang also knows when to reel her in. There’s a big moment where Billi discusses the loss of her grandfather that particularly hits hard considering a recent personal loss.

The Farewell sails along with the help of one of the year’s best ensembles by offering plenty of insight into just how far a family is willing to go to keep a secret. And at least they go so far as to acknowledge that something like this would be illegal here in the U.S. There are just as many touching moments as there are laughs — it’s never too silly or too overdramatic. The Farewell is perfect counterprogramming to the summer onslaught offering adults something more than ’splosions and CGI. It’s also nice to see something that feels 100% authentic (and coincidentally 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) — most of the film is subtitled. So for those looking for something a little more real this summer, this is the perfect option.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Movie Review: “The Lion King”

The Lion King

*** out of 5
118 minutes
Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements
Walt Disney Pictures

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When it comes to Disney and their live action remakes, you’d think The (don’t call it live action) Lion King would reign supreme. Sadly, it’s almost as middling as the rest of them have been. While never succumbing to the same drivel as Maleficent or Dumbo, it still manages to fall flat in the long run. Not even the power of director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Jungle Book) can keep over-familiarity defeat the power of nostalgia. It doesn’t help that the first (almost) hour is more or less shot-for-shot and it’s not until Timon and Pumbaa (voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen) finally show up that the film finds its own flavor.

If any remake doesn’t need a synopsis, it’s The Lion King, but here we go. Young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) leaves his pack behind after the death of his father, King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones again) at the hands of Mufasa’s brother, Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor). The circle of life comes around when Nala (voiced by Beyoncé) discovers Simba (voiced as an adult by Donald Glover) living hakuna matata in paradise with Timon and Pumbaa. But Simba must now come to terms with his destiny and return to the pride lands to save everyone from the tyranny of Scar’s dictatorship.

I suppose the biggest hurdle Favreau had to encounter is that The Lion King was an original property to begin with. When it came to The Jungle Book, he had the opportunity to pull from both the original animated classic and Rudyard Kipling’s extended bibliography. So while he may have a whole new set of tools to embrace technologically, that’s about all the effort that went into adapting this photorealistic reenactment. The Lion King’s heart just doesn’t seem to be in it anymore, but it’s not for lack of trying.

The voice cast do what they can with the material, but considering how much of Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay is verbatim, he barely deserves a screenwriting credit — except for the amount of riffing Eichner and Rogen did. Which brings us to the best part of the movie: them. Can we please just have a new “live action” Timon and Pumbaa movie, please? Not necessarily a remake of The Lion King 1 ½, but definitely a film of their own. The two are hilarious together and completely reinvigorate the characters, making them all their own, while staying true to the hilarious spirit of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella.

Unfortunately, the story plays beat-for-beat of the original. However, Favreau has come up with some spectacular imagery. With not one single shot of actual live action footage, it’s quite a technological achievement. But, that always comes with a detriment. The laughs may be in tow, but as I said, the heart is severely lacking. Try as he might, Favreau just can’t get the same emotion as Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff did with their hand-drawn animation. Thankfully, Elton John and Tim Rice’s classic songs remain intact, even if Ejiofor simply sing speaks his way through the now underwhelming “Be Prepared” — and Rogen can barely carry a tune, but doesn’t necessarily need to and it just makes his performance funnier.

While visually stunning, I suppose it is nice to have a new option when you’re in the mood for The Lion King. But when The Lion King can’t even be as much fun as Aladdin, there’s something rotten in the state of Disney. There’s also quite a few moments that come off rather dopey in “live action,” mainly Mufasa falling to his death. When it’s shown again later in the film it actually becomes unintentionally hilarious. For interested parties, sit back and wait for Timon and Pumbaa to come to the rescue. As for the rest of The Lion King, this is even more of a case of been-there-seen-that than before. It may not be the worst of the current remakes, but it should have been a crowning achievement and head of the pack.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Movie Review: “Stuber”


*** out of 5
93 minutes
Rated R for violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief graphic nudity
20th Century Fox

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It’s always interesting when studios won’t screen a film for press. While Stuber has been screened multiple times, the alligator creature feature Crawl is getting a cold open. It speaks for itself to say that one of them is being far better received than the other. While both feature the types of mindless thrills we’ve come to expect from summer releases, Crawl has a handful of reviews (14), and stands at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile Stuber is being saddled with a middling 48%.

Stuber may be better than its online score, but it’s never as hilarious as it should be. At least stars Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista — with the help of ever-reliable indie favorite director Michael Dowse (What If, Goon, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Fubar) — get way more mileage out of Tripper Clancy’s screenwriting debut than you’d think. It may not be big, but it’s definitely dumb, and thankfully, fun.

Vic Manning (Bautista) is hot on the heels of drug peddling Oka Tedjo (The Raid’s Iko Uwais) with his partner, Sara Morris (Karen Gillan), in tow. After a hotel brawl winds up with Sara getting shot, six months later Vic is still trying to catch Oka if it’s the last thing he does. And just wouldn’t you know it, Vic winds up catching a hot lead that could lead him straight to Oka.

Unfortunately, it’s all going down the same day he gets Lasik and can’t see. Now, Vic calls upon poor Uber drive Stu (Nanjiani) to get him where he needs to be by shouting neighborhoods at him, rather than actual addresses. Together, the two must pair up to bring down the nefarious heroine dealer to keep the street’s kids, and Vic’s daughter safe. All the while Stu — nicknamed “Stuber” by his bullying boss Richie (Jimmy Tatro) — learning his own life lessons about love, and self esteem, along the way.

If there’s one thing that really helps Stuber, it’s a scant runtime. Never wearing out its welcome, the film roars along at a near breakneck speed, earning plenty of laughs — while squeezing in a tiny bit of heart — among some hit-and-miss action sequences. Surprisingly, the offbeat fisticuffs is where the action works best. There’s a one-on-one between Vic and Stu at Stu’s sporting goods workplace that is hysterical, and another shootout set in an animal clinic. Even a car chase between Oka and Stu’s electric Nissan Leaf features the film’s biggest laugh involving Jaws and a mini propane tank.

Unfortunately, it’s when the action needs to count that it completely falls flat. Full of disorienting choreography, Michael Bay-styled quick cut editing, and some horrendous shaky cam, you never know what’s actually happening any time Vic and Oka go head to head. And when you’ve got a down and dirty fight between Drax and Rama, Dowse should be pulling out the stops. But the best filmed fight sequence is the one at Stu’s work, causing the stakes to never feel real.

For interested parties, you’ll come for the laughs, and that’s exactly where the film succeeds the most. Nanjiani is as dryly facetious as ever and Bautista gets some fantastic off the cuff reactions to the shenanigans he gets the two of them into. So while the action may not live up to the best, at least the laughs fly fast and furious. Stuber never tries to raise the bar, but at least keeps sailing along to its own beat. Just know going in that Stuber is comedy first and it’ll make for a fun way to get out of the heat and turn your brain off without feeling bad about it.