Movie Review ~ A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood


The Facts
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Synopsis: A cynical journalist begrudgingly accepts an assignment to write a profile piece on the beloved icon Mr. Rogers and finds his perspective on life transformed.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Wendy Makkena, Enrico Colantoni, Tammy Blanchard

Director: Marielle Heller

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There’s a scene early in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood when the wife of the main character has just found out her husband is going to be doing an article on the cherished children’s television host, Mr. Rogers.  She knows her husband has a reputation for being a hard-edged journalist that prides himself on showing a different side to the people he covers, often writing a warts and all exposé on their life.  In the nicest, most sincere way she says to him, “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”  I’m trying to think of you, reader, in the same way and will consider that you’ve been looking forward to seeing this drama since the first trailer dropped several months back and people lost their minds seeing Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers.

At the same time, I have to be forthright and honest (just as Mr. Rogers would want) and say that I found it difficult to connect with A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, almost entirely, and I’m still not quite sure why.  It’s not that I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers.  I was a child of PBS and lived for the days when he opened that closet door and picked out the red sweater because it is my favorite color so I knew it was obviously being chosen just for me.  His delicate delivery made the life lessons being taught feel less like education and more like imagination being put into daily practice and I’ve carried on so much of what I learned watching his show, most of it almost subconsciously.

Maybe it’s the Tom Hanks of it all that did it.  Hanks is probably the closest thing we have right now to a modern Mr. Rogers (the actor recently found out they are related, curiously great timing to coincide with the release, hmm?) and while the actor would eschew the comparison, he’s consistently as the top of the most trustworthy of celebrity lists.  Why not get the actor everyone feels most comfortable with to portray the television personality so much of the country grew up watching? It’s not a far reach in the least…but for me the final product never could get over the fact that it was Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and never was I able to put that aside.  And that was a problem…a big one.

Inspired by an article written by Tom Junod that ran in Esquire magazine in November 1998, this isn’t a biopic of Mr. Rogers but more of a story of how a friendship with Fred Rogers made an impact on the life of a journalist struggling with personal issues.  Creating a fictionalized version of Junod named Lloyd Vogel, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and Noah Harpster (who also has a small supporting role) have bookended the film like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, complete with an opening credit montage which cleverly introduces the use of miniature sets as we travel from location to location.  A new father awkwardly more drawn to his work than his newborn, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys, The Post) doesn’t appear to derive pleasure from much and what does interest him he’s more apt to pick apart.

At the insistence of his editor (Christine Lahti, The Doctor), Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to the set of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood to interview Fred Rogers (Hanks, A League of Their Own) for a special “Heroes” edition of the magazine he works for.  Unconvinced Rogers is as wholesome as he makes himself out to be, Lloyd tries over the course of several interviews to find a crack in the vanilla veneer, only to find himself becoming frustrated when his subject continues to turn the tables on him.  Using his special way with putting people at ease, Rogers is able to coax certain pent up emotions out of the tightly-wound, fiercely guarded Lloyd, feelings he’s tamped down for his own protection and finding them rise up again isn’t a comfortable place for him to be. When Lloyd’s long-absent father (Chris Cooper, Live by Night) returns, it creates a perfect storm for Lloyd to let go of long held anger and come to an acceptance with the man he has become.  With that comes a choice on how he wants to move forward.

For a movie that’s so deeply about the male psyche and how men are apt to hide their feelings instead of expressing them freely, it’s so interesting the film was directed by a female.  In 2018, Marielle Heller did wonders exploring a dark side of alienation in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and she mines similar territory here by making sure the script and actors allow those raw emotional patches to show.  For me, though, Lloyd’s cynicism and buried resentment for his father cut too deep and went on too long…so that by the time Rogers ray of light appeared to guide him out of his dark place, I couldn’t quite find room at my table for his complete redemption.  Whereas in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller let her central character dupe unsuspecting people in a scam a fair amount, it didn’t come with such a harsh bite to it.  Lloyd’s so damaged (and also, it must be said, not written with as many dimensions as Rhys tries to give him) that I found myself more uninterested with him in the beginning than anything else.

Though the marketing for the film centers on Hanks, he’s practically a supporting character in the film.  Especially in the latter half, Hanks takes a backseat for Rhys to have his familial drama with his wife (a solid Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us) and his dad play out which does lead to a moving emotional climax.  That this finale is set into motion by Fred Rogers isn’t a coincidence, the script seems to have him be behind every emotional turnpike in Lloyd’s feelings freeway.  I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention a rather breathtaking moment shared between Lloyd and Rogers in a café that is played in total silence.  These unique interludes are so powerful and reach right to the heart of you that it made me wish there were tenfold more of them scattered throughout the rest of the movie.

I suppose I should mention I had a similar detached feeling when I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the popular documentary solely focusing on Mr. Rogers, a few years back.  With that one, though, I went in with different expectations because I felt like I was going to connect more with the man himself and was confused why that movie felt so flat at the end.  The doc was certainly well made and informative…but was it anything more than that really?  Mr. Rogers is an adjacent piece of the story being told in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood and some may find, like I did, that main story less inviting and the experience as a whole suffers as a result.  I know I’ll be in the minority of viewers that don’t give it an enthusiastic rave (as we seem to be required to when it comes to anything Mr. Rogers related) and while it’s a film I’m sure will please many, this wasn’t a Neighborhood I could see myself revisiting.

Movie Review ~ Live by Night

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A group of Boston-bred gangsters set up shop in balmy Florida during the Prohibition era, facing off against the completion and the Klu Klux Klan.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Ben Affleck

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not going to go into the strange vitriol directed at March’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice but will say that had Live by Night received a larger release in 2016, it would have been the second most mis-understood Ben Affleck film of the year.

There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t like this movie and maybe for good reason.  It’s an uneven throwback picture that feels comfortable in its gangster era trappings and broadly drawn characters several tiny degrees removed from Dick Tracy-esque caricatures.  It has about twelve endings with only the first three being the least bit satisfying and its director/star traipses around in an array of unintentionally humorous XXL zoot suits and wide brimmed fedoras locking lips with two very different broads.  Pushing the limits of two hours, it’s slow (but steady) and a far cry from the slow burn films Affleck has directed previously.

So why the moderately high score, you may ask?  Gosh…I just liked it…flaws and all.  I’m a big believer in just going with your gut and not letting films like these stew too long in the brain.  My advice would be to catch Live by Night when you’re in a forgiving mood and aren’t looking to have your socks totally knocked off.  Had Affleck (Gone Girl) not directed as well as starred in this and had it arrived three or four years ago this might have gone down a bit better because the expectations wouldn’t be quite so high.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (an author Affleck has adapted before in Gone Baby Gone), it’s a relatively straight-forward tale of a Depression era small-time crook lured by love into a war between an Irish gangster and an Italian Mafioso.  Overseeing a rum-running business during Prohibition, Affleck balances making his boss a mountain of cash while plotting revenge on his enemy for a betrayal years earlier.  Oh…and there’s a minor subplot involving the KKK that feels judiciously lifted from another Lehane tome.

With its big budget and handsome production, there’s little question the movie should have been better but what’s there isn’t anything to cry over, either.  Affleck doesn’t quite have the emotional well the role calls for but he gives it, as usual, his best effort.  It’s Chris Messina (Cake), with fuzzy eyebrows and gnarled up teeth as Affleck’s short fused sidekick, that kept me wondering how the movie would have been had Messina been given the chance to star.  Alas, from all accounts this was Affleck’s passion project and we’re too far along into the picture when we realize the casting snafu.

The supporting cast fares better than our leading man, though.  Brendan Gleeson (Edge of Tomorrow) finds several nice moments as Affleck’s law enforcing father and as Affleck’s love interest, Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furance) feels like an equal match to her partner.  Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep) and Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) are father and daughter, and while both eventually find some focus they struggle mightily with the tone of the picture for most of the film.  Surprisingly, it’s Sienna Miller (Foxcatcher) that leaves the most lasting impact…but I’m not totally convinced it wasn’t her robust Irish brogue or her unnerving porcelain doll make-up in her final scene that caused her to remain so prominent in my memory.

Bound to come and go with so many other films for grown-ups building on the strong word of mouth this one isn’t destined to gather, Live by Night may be a minor infraction on Affleck’s so far so good resume but it’s not a totally wasted effort.

The Silver Bullet ~ Demolition

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Synopsis: A successful investment banker struggles after losing his wife in a tragic car crash.

Release Date: April 8, 2016

Review:  With his last two movies bringing two Oscar wins (Dallas Buyers Club) and two nominations (Wild), it’s no wonder that many A-List movie stars and studios are making director Jean-Marc Vallée a much sought-after commodity in Hollywood.  While he readies a starry television adaptation of popular novel Big Little Lies for HBO, his latest film is flying uncomfortably under the radar.  Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners) and Naomi Watts (The Impossible), the little buzz being generated from Demolition isn’t a great sign.  And it’s too bad because Gyllenhaal makes for a fascinating anti-hero and he’s one of the best at approaching the haunted “come undone” character.  Releasing in April, the film could have positioned itself for the Oscar season but opted for an early release…another ominous sign.  No matter, the stars and the director are enough to get me inside the theater, we’ll wait and see if it’s built on less than solid ground.

Movie Review ~ August: Osage County

5

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham

Director: John Wells

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By the time the stage version August: Osage County premiered to thunderous acclaim on Broadway in 2007, it wasn’t hard to see the possibilities of Tracy Letts’ play making the move from the Great White Way to Hollywood.  I mean, just think of the rich casting potential for the wonderfully complex and flawed characters that Letts created…it was an actor’s feast.  And when Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Hope Springs) was announced as playing the matriarch of the Weston clan the only thing I could think was ‘Of course.’.  It made perfect sense for Streep to be attracted to such a whopper of a role and even more sense for producers George Clooney (Gravity) and Grant Heslov (Argo) to lock her in as the star on top of the twisted Christmas tree that is August: Osage County.

Over the next months as more cast members like Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Mirror, Mirror), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep), Abigail Breslin (The Call), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear),  Margo Martindale (…first do no harm),  Dermot Mulroney (Stoker),  and Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Steel Magnolias, Mud) were announced the stakes just kept getting higher and higher and the expectations soared through the roof.  After all, with a multi-award winning cast gathered together for some good old fashioned family dysfunction there was no way this could miss, right?

Well…

I’ll say that if you’ve never seen a production of August: Osage County on stage you may like this a little bit more than I did.  Though I enjoyed the film overall based mostly on several key performances/scenes I was more underwhelmed than I thought I’d be because the film version was missing that lightening rod indefinable IT factor that made the stage version pulsate with life.  Whatever magic happened when you saw the dark secrets of this family exposed in the darkness of live theater just didn’t transfer over the same way to film.

Not to give the impression that this cast doesn’t toss themselves whole hog into trying, though.  Streep (sporting an appropriately ratty brown wig and huge sunglasses that make her look like Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gets down and dirty with her eldest daughter played by a refreshingly earthy Roberts who wasn’t vain enough to hide her faded graying roots.  Gathered together in the days following the disappearance of the patriarch of the family (Shepard, who interestingly enough played Roberts boyfriend in The Pelican Brief), the Weston brood return to their dusty hometown toting all kinds of baggage.

While they eat, drink, and avoid being merry, pretty much every kind of family squabble breaks out and usually during a large family meal.  These dining room scenes were quite effective on stage and they work nearly as well on screen with arguments that start small erupting into knockdown, drag out fights.  Audience members that avoided recent holiday arguments with their own families will get their quota of bickering when they sit down to dine with the Westons.

Adapted by Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, the author finds acceptable ways to open up the cinematic interpretation of his work that allow the characters time away from home.  That’s all well and good but part of why the stage version felt so claustrophobic was the fact that the action took place entirely in the house…so we were as trapped as the family was.  Giving the actors on screen some breathing room winds up taking air out of the tension that Letts attempts to build.

It doesn’t help things that television director John Wells is behind the camera for only his second feature film.  His direction is exceedingly pedestrian, though I can’t imagine these actors needed much help from him.  Still, one wonders what a more seasoned director (like Gus van Sant, for instance) could have done to shape the film better.

I saw the film at a screening back in October and at that time the ending wasn’t set in stone.  I know that two endings exist, one that stays closer to the stage play and another that adds a coda many feel unnecessary.  I saw the second ending and agree totally that the film didn’t need it…it’s only there to placate audiences that need resolution, lessening the overall impact of all the maladies that came before it.  From what I’m hearing the ending I saw is the one that stuck so take stock of when you think the movie should have ended and see if it aligns.

It’s likely that Streep and Roberts will be Oscar nominated for their work here and it wouldn’t be off the mark to say they’ve earned their spot in their categories.  It’s extremely doubtful they’ll win with the quality of the other actresses they’d be competing against but the work here is demonstrative of Streep’s good instincts and that Roberts is more than just America’s sweetheart.  The two make the film worth seeing and the source material itself is brilliant…if you can’t see it onstage then the film version of August: Osage County will have to do.

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The Silver Bullet ~ August: Osage County

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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: An all-star cast has been assembled for the big screen version of August: Osage County, based on the searing Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Seeing the play, I was riveted and while I’m not sure a film version can create that same immediacy there’s a wealth of strength in the material from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts.  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) is an interesting choice for the boozy matriarch of the troubled Weston family but knowing Streep she’s going to knock this one out of the park and wind up with another Oscar nomination or win for her troubles.  When they announced Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) was to play opposite Streep some turned up their noses but our first look at Roberts in action suggests that the A-List star is readying for a powerhouse performance.  The rest of the cast is top-notch too with some spot-on casting to look forward to.  Unless something goes majorly wrong, this is a film that will factor heavily into the next Academy Awards…I can’t wait to see it.