Movie Review (A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD)

Having recently seen last year’s documentary on Fred Rogers, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, I was primed to view more about this American icon who lovingly affirmed me during my often troubled childhood. I had some initial reservations about Tom Hanks playing the main character in the movie A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. During the opening scene, he seemed like an impostor– for about five minutes. This sense soon melted away as I witnessed the skilled actor so effectively relay the mannerisms and facial expressions of someone I felt I’ve known since I was three or four years old, when I regularly watched MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD.

Inspired by actual events, the movie takes place in 1998, during which cynical investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is assigned to interview Fred Rogers for his employer, the magazine ESQUIRE. Preoccupied with estrangement from his alcohol-abusing father and used to writing sensational exposes, Lloyd reluctantly accepts what he feels is a “fluff” project on a modern “hero.” What follows is nothing short of life-changing and poignant for Lloyd and those around him. He experiences being the subject as much as the interviewer. A deep relationship develops between him and Rogers.

Through Fred Rogers’s trademark soft-spoken voice, steady eye contact, small silences, and genuine interest in whoever he was talking with, Tom Hanks embodies this perpetually open-hearted man who touched so many lives. I felt myself buoyed along in an encompassing calm warmth, which often brought tears to my eyes. As I suspected there would be, an accompanying wistfulness arose as I recalled feeling this warm calm each time while watching Mister Rogers’s half hour show so long ago. One particularly succinct and powerful scene (among many) in the movie evoked these nuanced emotions so palpably. After dealing poorly with a family crisis, Lloyd goes with Mister Rogers to a restaurant for lunch. Fred asks the journalist to sit in silence with him for one minute while thinking of those who have “loved you into being.” The other patrons stop eating and talking, joining the two men in this quiet moment. The camera pans across the room, showing contemplative faces, including that of Joanne Rogers, Fred’s widow, who apparently was glad to lend her approving presence in this project. I also participated, thinking of my parents, grandmother, sister, and husband until the minute was up. I was willing to go longer.

The truth for me is that I often felt wistful at the end of an episode of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Undivided, loving attention paired with music and creative, always understandable, imaginings (such as talking puppets) are a heady, soothing mix. Every time he was on-screen, Tom Hanks tapped right into that unique, genuine soothing presence of Fred Rogers, leaving me wanting it to never end, or at least not for a good while.

I think anyone who grew up watching Mister Rogers’s wonderful children’s show will likely come away feeling moved, possibly even inspired, after viewing A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Personally, I’m now inspired to be more attentive to the moment, such as the one I’ll happen to be sharing with the next client sitting in my office. But, also, I am now more aware of the priceless moments with members of my family, blood and chosen. It is rare for me that a feature film is so positively affecting. Perhaps it will even be so for those who did not watch Fred Rogers in their childhood and are introduced to him through this screen drama, which comes across as nothing short of a labor of love.

Movie Review (KNIVES OUT)

KNIVES OUT was a fun diversion for me from dealing further with a cold, snow-filled day. A mystery and comedy hybrid movie, its ensemble cast delivered both laughs and intrigue, greatly assisted by a well-written script and some interesting cinematography, specifically of the mansion and its surrounding property, where much of the story transpires. The opening scene displays the ominous house, itself a main character, with two large dogs running along the grounds. This set-up is akin to imagery on DARK SHADOWS, a supernatural soap opera TV show produced from 1966 to 1971. From this exterior shot, we’re drawn inside to abrupt, melodramatic activity of its occupants. The screen narrative’s overall tone is set.

August Canadian actor Christopher Plummer plays murder victim Harlan Thrombey, a wealthy, set-in-his-ways, old writer of mystery novels. Not surprisingly, his grown children and in-laws resent him yet rely on his financial largesse, resulting in a handful of suspects upon Thrombey’s sudden death.

The author’s mansion is filled with what looked to me like papier-mache caricature figures posed in assorted dramatic tableaux. Additionally, books and other memorabilia abound, including a web-like, circular hanging display of knives. I found the overall aesthetic harkening me back to the Mystery section of any number of dusty used bookstores, their shelves filled with faded, descriptive paperbacks from the 1960s and ’70s. Such places evoke for me feelings of wistfulness, gloom, intrigue, and amusement. This nuanced reaction is what the movie seems to pull for, with extra fun added in for good measure.

Cuban actress Ana de Armas plays the ingenue Marta Cabrera, Thrombey’s private nurse, who finds herself caught up in the middle of the family and crime drama.
She is believably earnest and honest compared to Thrombey’s daughter, son, in-laws, and grandchildren. These all chew the scenery to varying degrees, in part determined by on-screen time each is allowed. I had difficulty deciding who my favorite drama queen was amongst the lot. However, Toni Collette as a New-Age, health-minded daughter-in-law and Jamie Lee Curtis as a dry, sarcastic, bullish daughter stood out for me among the crowd. I laughed at each of the two’s delivery right away. Coming in as a close second to these would be K Callan, who portrays Thrombey’s very elderly mother Greatnana Wanetta. She hardly has any lines, but her shifting facial expressions indicating an inner vacancy to jadedness and back again are amusingly impressive, their timing perfect.

British actor Daniel Craig as private investigator Benoit Blanc goes over-the-top with his thick Southern accent throughout the movie. Clearly, he’s enjoying himself in the role, I’m sure a nice break from playing an over-pumped, testosterone-filled James Bond.

Writer and director Rian Johnson surely had a lot to draw from for inspiration, Agatha Christie being a main source, no doubt. He self-consciously includes clips of an old TV show (MURDER SHE WROTE) and some on-line/streaming mystery series to remind the audience this is very much a murder drama unfolding on screen. A reference to old visual technology (VHS) paired with an aged security guard (character actor M. Emmet Walsh, especially prominent in the 1970s and ’80s) who attempts to show others its usefulness among the gathering clues is a clever plot device. This is also yet another display of old media mixing with new, leading to a film that’s both recycled yet tweaked, updated. The sense of ongoing insider fun and humor, coupled with a steady honoring of an old genre, was not missed on me. Factoring all this in with ornate sets and much scene-stealing, the end result is a movie of thoughtful, high camp.

I found the plot sufficiently intriguing but admittedly secondary to all the colorful characters and snappy dialogue. The script deftly manages to balance between a very contemporary sensibility and an older one from the 1960s, early ’70s, and ’80s. For example, on one hand, there is much cell phone texting and the very current, thorny political discourse about Latinx immigrants is explored. On the other, the main setting, past media references, and long-established genre lend a very retro look and feel to the production overall.

The age-range of the characters in KNIVES OUT is about sixteen to over a hundred years old. Clearly, this movie tries to capture a wide audience as much as possible. How successful it is in actually doing so remains to be seen.  My local theater has reported a “pretty good” box office draw for its first weekend. I’m not sure if there is enough there for Millennials to connect with, though one particularly mindful and well-educated associate of mine, aged twenty-seven, did enjoy the movie. In any case, I certainly did.

Movie Review (WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?)

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (released in 2018) is a documentary about the power of unconditional love. The vehicle of this precious attribute was the multi-talented Fred Rogers. I am so grateful I got to watch Mr. Rogers on public television through much of my childhood, but especially from ages three/four to five-and-a-half. I realized while watching this movie last night that his loving presence combined with that of my maternal grandmother are what kept me going with a sense of hope and feeling loved through hard times, namely my parents divorcing and the fall-out of that over a period of years.

The movie is comprised of footage from the long-running television show MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, alternating with interview moments of him, his wife, and a handful of associates who worked with Fred on the series, which ran a record 31 seasons, ending in December of 2000. His son, a sister-in-law, and some of the show’s former guests (or proxies for them) are interviewed as well, such as the parents of a severely physically challenged boy who starred in an episode. The way everyone spoke of Mr. Rogers affirmed his genuineness of being warm, loving, and astute about the human condition. An ordained Presbyterian minister also educated in child development by training, Fred Rogers lived his Christianity the way I understand that particular faith should be lived: love everyone as they are, always. Even his own son, who appears in the film, speaks kindly about the man.

There is some exposition about Fred Rogers’s upbringing and background, which was wealthy and privileged but lonely. A heavy-set, soft-spoken, and often sickly child, he was bullied yet left alone with his grief. While often sick in bed with an ailment, such as scarlet fever, Fred’s imagination made his bed covers a landscape of characters, his legs mountains or hills. Some simple but lovely animation created expressly for the movie fills in this part of the narrative.

The wealth of creative imagination Fred Rogers expressed made his core message of love and let live vibrant and relatable. His Neighborhood of Make Believe, a room of puppets mostly voiced and hand-held by Mr. Rogers, was basically a microcosm of the world at large. There, he allegorically grappled with social and personal issues, such as resistance to socio-economic change, the pain of war, racism, divorce, low self esteem, etc.

He also addressed these challenging concerns as himself in his studio “home.”  The episode of Mr. Rogers cooling his feet off in a plastic wading pool along with Officer Clemmons, an African American policeman (played by singer and actor Francois Clemmons), still moves me to this day. At the time of filming this scene in early 1969, black people were continuing to be discriminated against for using swimming pools shared by whites. The actual Francois looks into the camera and tearfully explains how Fred was a surrogate father for him, his own dad and stepfather being unavailable/unconnected while he was growing up. Like me, Francois Clemmons is an out gay man, which Fred knew about and accepted. My child intuition was affirmed; he truly did like me just the way I am.

I am heartened that this documentary was made and that a dramatization (A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD) about Fred Rogers has soon followed. His legacy is invaluable, a tenderly expressed candor, understanding of, and caring for children and overall humanity that rises to the level of evolvedness many would equate with sainthood or that of a bodhisattva. His ever-gentle voice– spoken and in song– and frequent piano playing relayed love rarely heard and felt so deeply and broadly from one person. I know because I myself directly benefitted from them.

Since Fred Rogers’s death in 2003, I am not aware of a person who has stepped into his shoes on television or online, someone to mitigate for children, especially, the onslaught of over-stimulating imagery and cacophony of words in the media. He was a grounding, soothing voice of calm and inherent goodness that the world continues to so badly need. At least there are ongoing moving images of Mister Rogers to watch, listen to, and pass on to today’s children. And therein lies some comfort.

Movie Review (THE GOOD LIAR)

Veteran British thespians Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are their usual charming and talented selves in the generally predictable, formulaic deception and revenge movie THE GOOD LIAR. The only reason I went to see this new release is because I’m a fan of the two stars. I have no idea what McKellen and Mirren were each thinking when they signed onto being in this pedestrian screenplay, other than they’d have fun working together for old time’s sake. I suspect the two are good friends in real life.

I admit to somewhat enjoying watching the cat and mouse dynamic between an elderly con man with a shady past (McKellen) and his latest target (Mirren), a recent widow left with a modest yet substantial fortune. However, I kept waiting for the intrigue to build more, have more twists and turns, instead of plateauing by mid-story and then heavily relying on narrated flashback by the end. And going back to Nazi Germany as a main source of evil in the film reminded me of campy TV shows from the 1960s, such as MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, etc.– so old hat/formulaic. I wonder if this production would have felt fresher if it were made at least forty years ago?

Perhaps I am simply jaded with age whereby I’ve seen so many of the same plots played out in movies and TV shows over the years. But, I can’t shake the sense that the drama lacked emotional intensity, even though McKellen and Mirren brought their natural talents to such a lackluster script. There is only so much one can do with blase material no matter how skilled you are.

Movie Review (VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS)

Easy access to free movies leads to some serious indulging for me. Last night, I watched VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (from 2017), a monster budget sci-fi movie independently produced via private funds and crowd sourcing by a French husband and wife team, Luc Besson and Virginie Besson-Silla. I found a lot of the visuals to be what a dear friend of mine calls “chop suey,” i.e., a big, busy mess. Put another way, much of the overly-bright and frenetic CGI imagery made me think of wads of multi-hued Day-Glo bubblegum getting spat out simultaneously from the mouths of hundreds of small children.

The movie’s script and character development left a lot to be desired. Taking place just over four hundred years in the future, the narrative focuses on a rather two-dimensional pair of government agents serving the United Human Federation. The Federation’s base is a massive city in space, Alpha (originally the much smaller International Space Station), populated with millions of sentient, interdependent species from thousands of planets.

Engaging in a cliche-loaded back-and-forth, an annoyingly cocky Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) spends seemingly every spare moment trying to convince his partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), to marry him. The two are assigned to protect Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) as part of a plan to investigate and solve the problem of a mysterious, toxic force inhabiting the core of Alpha. Frankly, the plot often felt secondary, drowned out by so much visual cacophony. I can’t remember the last time I saw something so over-produced as this screen drama is– although AQUAMAN came very close.

That all said, I found the race of peace-loving Pearl people interesting and beautiful, even if they did seem a bit copied from James Cameron’s 2009 movie AVATAR. Whenever any of them were on-screen, there were actually characters for me to like and care about. And Barbados born singer Rihanna creatively danced as a shape-changing, out-fit switching alien in a particularly entertaining scene.

The movie’s ultimate message of peace and reconciliation is a good one. This is semi-believably played out between a villainous Commander Filitt (Owen), who made me think of any number of corrupt Republican politicians in DC, and the sympathetic Pearl people, with perpetual adolescents Valerian and Laureline serving as mediators and saviors. Obviously, these two are meant to appeal to video gaming viewers under twenty-five (or even younger), the primary target demographic for this production. As a middle-aged non-video gamer, I was left to connect with whoever and whatever else showed up along the way in this big piece of junk food cinema, if you can accurately call this “cinema.” And that’s fine with me. I shamelessly admit to not completely outgrowing such trashy fun now and then, particularly since I can see it for free.