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.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Invitation

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, an unsettling affair that reopens old wounds and creates new tensions.

Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Mike Doyle, John Carroll Lynch

Director: Karyn Kusama

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It was right about the time director Karyn Kusama’s debut feature film premiered when I was starting to get keyed into independent cinema.  I’d worn out my multiplex and its weekly mainstream fare and now that I was able to make more informed movie choices for myself I became a regular at our local art house theaters that had a rotation of the latest buzzed about films as well as titles I’ve literally never heard anything about since.  I remember reading in 2000 how Kusama’s Girlfight made a splash at Cannes and won her the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival so you bet I was there on opening weekend to see that powerhouse arrival of both her and star Michelle Rodriguez (Widows).

In the years that followed, Kusama had a tough road with two failed projects (Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body) that may have looked good on paper but didn’t pan out for whatever reason, be it audience appetite or problems inherent with the movies themselves.  I certainly don’t think it was due to Kusama’s efforts as the director because she’s always maintained a unique voice at the table, very much in the vein of a Kathryn Bigelow.  However, in Hollywood, if a movie doesn’t take off it’s often the director that shoulders the blame and especially if you’re a female you’re put into a director’s jail even faster.  So Kusama lingered in limbo for a bit before coming back in a big way with The Invitation.

Kusama’s modern horror film is set in the Hollywood hills in the home of Eden and David.  They’re hosting a dinner party for their close friends they haven’t seen in two years.  After meeting in a grief support group, they’ve been away in Mexico and have returned renewed in spirit and eager to share their newfound peace.  Eden (Tammy Blanchard, Into the Woods) has invited her ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Will, still struggling with his painful history with Eden has accepted the invite more out of curiosity than anything else.  Even so, he knows the house holds troubling memories of their life together and a tragedy that occurred that drove them apart…so he’s feeling out of sorts even before he pulls in the driveway.  With strong support from Kira, they enter the party.  Guests arrive, pleasantries are exchanged, and then things get…weird.

Part of what has helped Eden and David (Michiel Huisman, World War Z) get through these past two years was the Invitation, a spiritual philosophy led by Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss, Halloween) and it’s a practice they have come to believe in and follow with their whole selves.  Of course, their friends have trouble accepting what sounds like a cult and while the night moves forward, it’s not without a little discomfort from all involved. When quirky houseguest Sadie and the hulking Pruitt, both followers of Dr. Joseph, are introduced to the guests and further elements of the group’s history are revealed, Will begins to suspect they’ve all been asked over for something more than a reunion.

Like that one party guest that doesn’t read social signals, The Invitation overstays its welcome a bit with the film getting a bit too cerebral in its mid-section finding Will repeating the same paranoid conversation, albeit with different people, several times.  While the camera work by Bobby Shore makes good use of the mouse-trap design of Eden’s Los Angeles bungalow, there’s a lot of slow moving shots of the friends eating and drinking (or walking upstairs) that seem redundant.  The one great use of slow motion coupled with excellent sound design happens near the end but its centers on a key moment I wouldn’t spoil for you.

Working off a script co-written by her husband, Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi (the trio also worked on 2018’s Nicole Kidman vehicle Destroyer), Kusama’s  film is all atmosphere from the first frame and it’s a nerve jangling experience.  It’s an uncomfortable watch and that’s the point.  Like Will, the audience is supposed to feel slightly out-of-place and trapped – it aids in Will’s growing paranoia and in the dread we feel as a viewer.  Is Will reading too much into Eden and David’s overly friendly demeanor and their pushy insistence on group harmony or does he truly have something to be concerned about? The answers to all the questions posed throughout are held back for a long time, with the script turning you in one direction before leading you down another path.  It’s not as simple a solution as it appears to be…or is it?  It could be…but then again…

I’ve seen The Invitation twice now and both times I was on the edge of my seat, even on the second watch knowing how everything was going to snap into place. The performances are quietly guarded, perfect for the characters that emerge during the course of the film. The horror elements are carefully doled out and it should please those who enjoy a little sophistication in their screams. While not everyone will be glad they accepted The Invitation, it’s the kind of sturdy film that digs itself under your skin like a rogue splinter.  It will definitely make you appreciate your next dinner party that goes off without a hitch…

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though some have turned their noses up at Stephen Sondheim’s musical being given the big screen treatment by Walt Disney Studios, this final trailer for Into the Woods looks positively charming. Considering the budget was “only” 40 million dollars, I’m happy to see that a lot of that money was seemingly spent on actual sets and not some CGI created world for the impressive roster of actors to play out Sondheim and James Lapine’s sly take on the fairy tales we all grew up with. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) sounds like a perfect Witch and while I’m not too keen on the notion of Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) as Cinderella or Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) as a zoot-suit wearing Wolf, I’ve got a feeling director Rob Marshall will wrangle this into one enchanting evening.

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: The anticipation is certainly building for the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods, with Disney carefully releasing nice bits and pieces in recent days.  After dropping some dreamy looking pictures earlier this week of the star heavy ensemble all fairy-tale-d up, the first preview is finally at hand and it’s a nifty little teaser that pleasantly keeps some of the bigger names in shadows while  predictably avoiding any musical cues hinting that the film is largely sung.  No matter, with Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Chris Pine (People Like Us) leading the cast the stage is set for a lovely transition from stage to screen.