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

Article first published at

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

Article first published at

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

Article first published at

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

Article first published at

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.