Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, is a beautiful film. It’s whimsical, sweet, complicated and full of warmth—just like that polite guy who used to put on his cardigan for children for many years on PBS.

Who plays Fred “Mister Rogers” Rogers in this movie? Why, Tom Hanks, of course. You don’t get more perfect casting than the world’s most likable actor playing one of history’s most likable guys. The recent reveal that Hanks is an actual sixth cousin of Rogers is no surprise.

Hanks plays Rogers in an honorable way. He doesn’t impersonate the man so much as adapt some of his mannerisms, his winning smile and that slow, concerned cadence in his voice. The performance stands as a terrific homage to a wonderful person.

Actually, Fred Rogers is a supporting player (albeit a mighty important and present one) in this heartfelt movie from director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). The main protagonist is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys of The Americans), a troubled journalist (loosely based on Junod) who grumbles upon getting an assignment to do a profile on the PBS icon—the guy with a “hokey” TV show—for Esquire.

The two at first talk on the phone, but Lloyd eventually journeys to WQED in Pittsburgh, home of the beloved TV show, to see the master in action. Rogers instantly starts interviewing the journalist as much as the journalist is interviewing him, and Lloyd bristles at first. But over the course of the film, Rogers and Lloyd become friends, and Rogers helps Lloyd in his dealings with a dying father (an excellent Chris Cooper); his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson of This Is Us); and his newborn son.

Heller brilliantly frames her film as an episode of the TV show, starting with Hanks delivering the famous welcome song, and then introducing Lloyd Vogel as a friend who needs help. As the characters travel to different cities, those cities are depicted like the train sets that had a presence throughout the TV show. It truly does give one the sense that an episode of Neighborhood is playing out.

Much of the film is indeed fiction; for starters, there is no evidence of the father-son relationship at the center of this film in Tom Junod’s original article, “Can You Say … Hero?” Fictional or not, the handling of the father-son relationship is heart-wrenchingly good, and Junod has acknowledged that the friendship Heller displays in her movie is much like the one he had with Rogers.

I have a new appreciation for Fred Rogers as an adult. He always weirded me out when I was a kid; I was more interested in being entertained by The Electric Company and Sesame Street than by the guy with the sweater. Still, I did watch a lot of his shows before and after my favorites. In retrospect, I realize that Mister Rogers taught me more about life and my fellow human beings than any of those other children’s shows ever did. There was a warmth to the show—a warmth that made a bullied, antisocial younger kid such as me a little uncomfortable, just like Lloyd Vogel in this movie. As I grew older, I lightened up a bit … just like Lloyd Vogel in this movie.

I think a lot of people will feel similarly after seeing this movie. It’s going to open up heads and hearts, and perhaps even make you cry a bit. It’s going to make you love Tom Hanks even more than you do now, if that’s possible. And it’s going to fortify your precious remembrance of Fred Rogers—the sweet guy in the sweater who talked right at you from the TV screen, be it with his haggard puppets or ever-present smile.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Cars franchise gets a nice boost with Cars 3, a much, much better movie than Cars 2, and a slightly better movie than the first Cars.

If you are keeping score—and, really, you shouldn’t be, for there are far more pressing matters in your life—Cars 3 is still one of the more mediocre offerings from Pixar/Disney. Still, a mediocre Pixar film is better than most animated movies.

Jettisoning the stupid spy-movie bullshit that made the last installment convoluted and useless, the folks at Pixar chose to take an earthier, more-emotional route with this one, and it works, for the most part. They also found a way to get the voice of the late Paul Newman into the mix, and hearing his beautiful growl again definitely warms the heart.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is getting on in years, and he’s facing fierce competition from newer-model cars like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a highly trained, superior-strength vehicle that is beating him on the racetrack. After a calamitous accident that renders his beautiful red sheen primer grey, McQueen is faced with either retirement—or a new training regime followed by a comeback, Rocky III-style.

McQueen chooses the comeback, and finds himself in a training facility owned by greedy businessman Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and being trained by Apollo Creed, I mean, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Race simulators, treadmills and drip racks replace good-old-fashioned racing around in Radiator Springs, which cramps Lightning’s style, so he hits the road and finds himself under the tutelage of Smokey (Chris Cooper). Smokey helped train the late Doc Hudson (Newman), McQueen’s mentor. He’s sort of the Mickey from Rocky of this movie.

Does the film get a little boring at times? Sure; I would’ve glanced at my watch had I been wearing one, but director Brian Fee and crew manage to keep everything pretty much on track in this outing, right up until a sweet finale that gives the franchise its first true emotional punch.

The movie plays around with the notions of retirement and rites of passage to the next generation—pretty heady stuff for a G-rated animated movie. Give the screenwriters credit for finally coming up with a story for Lightning McQueen that caters to adults as well as kids. Also, thanks to cameos, jargon and plenty of racing sequences, the movie should please NASCAR fans.

Another thing that makes this installment unique is that a good chunk of it takes place at night, on quiet highway roads. Yes, Cars 3 provides a good sense of what it’s like to be driving around at night when nobody’s around. The Pixar artists prove, yet again, that they can create precise vibes with their creative pixels. Sequences in which Lightning races through a dark forest and battles a pumped-up school bus in a dirt-track race are standouts.

Mater the tow truck, the Jar Jar Binks of the Cars franchise, only gets a few small scenes. He was the star of the last installment, which meant too much Larry the Cable Guy for those of us who can’t stand Larry the Cable Guy. Since I am the president of the Larry the Cable Gay Hater Fan Club, a club that exists only in the recesses of my own mind, I express gratitude to Disney and Pixar for relegating Mater to supporting status.

Cars 3 is pretty good, but nothing beats the Cars ride at Disneyland in sunny Anaheim. I just rode it multiple times a couple of weeks ago, and it’s a blast. Disneyland … the Happiest Place on Earth! I know that sounds like a commercial, but, hey, this movie is basically a decent commercial for the ride.

Where the Cars franchise goes from here is anybody’s guess. I would love it if Pixar leaves well enough alone and makes this the final chapter. Go out on a positive note, Lightning McQueen.

Cars 3 is now showing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

In my review of The Amazing Spider-Man two years ago, I suggested that director Marc Webb was not a good choice to helm a big-budget blockbuster.

After seeing The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which Webb also directed, I can say he’s a truly bad choice to direct a blockbuster.

Webb mucks it up big-time with this second film featuring Andrew Garfield cracking wise in Spandex. While Webb proves adept at drama and romance—Garfield and Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacey, are adorable—he botches the action elements and tries to juggle too many bad guys.

This movie features a goofy villain called Electro (Jamie Foxx), the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) and the robotic Rhino (Paul Giamatti). Electro gets the majority of the villain screen time—an unfortunate circumstance, given that he’s the most uninteresting of the three bad guys.

Electro starts off as Max Dillon, a geeky electrical engineer who gets transformed into a bluish, see-through monstrosity after electrocuting himself and falling into a tank of electric eels. He has the ability to move and stop things with electricity (which makes no sense), and disappear into wires and sockets (which also makes no sense). Yes, this is a comic-book movie in which impossible things are routine, but this stuff is just stupid.

Foxx is clearly trying to break out and do something memorable with this character. Given the sheer magnitude of characters vying for time in this mess, he’s winds up underdeveloped and uninteresting.

DeHaan, an actor I can’t stand at this point, makes me really, really miss James Franco as Harry Osborn. DeHaan speaks as if he just digs his own voice, even if it sounds like he has a sinus infection.

However, he is not completely to blame for this film’s mishandling of the Green Goblin. The blame mostly lies with Webb and his makeup folks, who come up with something tragically bad for Goblin’s looks. He basically has oily hair, like he hasn’t showered in a while, and a horrific skin problem.

Here’s something else that annoyed me: Harry, who has inherited Oscorp from his father Norman (Chris Cooper), is dying because he is slowly becoming a lizard, or something like that. He goes into some secret chamber at Oscorp to discover a possible cure using spider venom. He has a major reaction to the injection, and saves himself by crawling into the Goblin suit, which he is seeing for the very first time. Harry then takes to the skies, expertly, to battle Spider-Man, without reading a training manual or doing some practice flights. Again, I know I’m supposed to accept the outlandish with these movies, but come on!

Garfield and Stone annoyed me in the first movie, but I liked them this time out. Had the movie focused more on their relationship, and perhaps jettisoned a villain or two, this might’ve been something.

A big, dramatic occurrence happens deep in this film. That sequence is the best thing in the movie, and the film certainly should’ve ended directly after it. Instead, Webb and his writers forced a terrible, final battle with Rhino that destroyed any of the dramatic tension that was building. After a big shocker, Garfield just goes back to cracking jokes and fighting villains.

More bad news: Webb will be back as director of the next installment. All seems to be lost when it comes to Spider-Man for the foreseeable future.

Published in Reviews

Tracy Letts’ play came to the big screen with a big cast featuring Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and others.

After a family tragedy, a group of sisters and their husbands/boyfriends return home to Texas and their dying mother (the Oscar-nominated Streep). Mom was mean when they were growing up, and she remains mean in her dying days, much to the annoyance of daughter Barbara (Roberts, also Oscar-nominated); she is doing her best not to follow in mom’s footsteps.

The cast is strong, with most of them turning in great work, including Juliette Lewis, who does her first truly good acting in a long while. The lone exception would be Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the slow sibling. He’s just all wrong for the part.

Sam Shepard makes a brief but memorable appearance as the family patriarch. While his screen time is short, his character plays a large part in the film.

The movie is super-dark and ugly, and full of people acting like true jerks. While the story isn’t anything all that new, the cast makes the film worth seeing.

The ending feels a bit tacked on; in fact, it was tacked on: The studio didn’t find the original ending to be suitable, so they insisted on this new one.

Special Features: There’s a director’s commentary (something that’s been rare on recent Blu-ray releases), deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Tracy Letts’ play has come to the big screen with a big cast, including Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and others.

After a family tragedy, a group of sisters, accompanied by their husbands/boyfriends, return home to Texas and their dying mother (played by Streep). Mother was mean when they were growing up—and she remains mean in her dying days, much to the annoyance of daughter Barbara (Roberts), who is doing her best not to follow in mother’s footsteps.

The cast is strong, with most of them turning in great work—including Juliette Lewis, who turns in her first strong performance a long while. The lone exception: Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a slow member of the family. He’s just all wrong for the part.

The movie is super dark and ugly, and full of people acting like true jerks. While the story isn’t anything new, the cast makes it worth seeing, thanks to the power of their performances.

August: Osage County is playing at the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940); Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615).

Published in Reviews