Movie Review ~ What Happens Later

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two ex-lovers get snowed in at a regional airport overnight. Indefinitely delayed, Willa, a magical thinker, and Bill, a catastrophic one, find themselves just as attracted to and annoyed by one another as they did decades earlier.
Stars: Meg Ryan & David Duchovny
Director: Meg Ryan
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: With all the love and respect I can offer to Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, the undisputed queen of the romantic comedy in the ‘90s was Meg Ryan. Through a run of rewatchable hits that started with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally through 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, Ryan was a guaranteed good time at the movies. Unfortunately, her silver streak hit the skids when her personal life crisscrossed with her professional persona on the set of the 2000 stinker Proof of Life. While she had a few near misses in the years since (2001’s Kate & Leopold and an underappreciated remake of The Women in 2008), her career has gone mostly silent.

Ryan stepped behind the camera in 2015, making a modest debut with the period-set drama Ithaca. Surrounding herself with the comfort of longtime costar Tom Hanks and son Jack Quaid, Ryan took a small role but immersed herself in the technical side of the process, and her years in the industry helped her turn in a respectable, if flawed, debut. Eight years later, Ryan returns to her dual roles in front of and behind the camera with What Happens Later. It shows both the growth of an artist stretching in new directions and the sparkle of the charming actress who has been a frequent sick/rainy/snow day companion on-screen to audiences around the world.

Based on Steven Dietz’s 2008 play Shooting Star, Ryan helps adapt the two-hander, opening it up (slightly) to take up more space as it follows a former couple reunited by fate in an airport during a snowstorm. At first, I was nervous that Ryan had worked with Dietz and co-adapter Kirk Lynn and took things too far into fantasy. Changing the names of the characters from Elena and Reed to Willa (Ryan, Joe Versus the Volcano) and Bill (David Duchovny, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines), who cross paths as they are trying to board planes going to the same destinations the other has just come from felt too on the nose. The viewer is already working to decipher if this is straight-up fantasy or a genuine coincidence, but the opening stretch leans hard into wanting you to think it’s operating in some alternate reality where exes with similar-sounding names can meet and hash out their unresolved issues.

Even if I wasn’t aware this was based on a play, the presentational banter and monologuing contained in the script for What Happens Later is a dead giveaway. Still, Ryan and editor Jason Gourson edit the scenes together in a way that breaks up what could be a monotonous conversation that stretches into the echoing darkness of a never-ending night. Filming in an actual airport, cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek has his work cut over for him, especially when it appears there is a mixture of paid background extras and real passengers trying to catch their flight. Look closely in the background (which at times is crudely blurred), and you’ll see people staring directly at Ryan and Duchovny as they walk by or, in one strange instance, filming them on their Smartphones. 

For her part, Ryan slips easily into the carefree Willa. You can see what attracted her to the role in What Happens Later, though, because Willa carries an emotional burden she wasn’t expecting to hold on to for longer than a quick plane ride across the country. The effervescent aura that made Ryan so dang charismatic twenty years ago is still present, and she’s matched nicely with Duchovny, who is operating in a far more relaxed mode than he has in years. The two have a natural chemistry, and if the script gives them a few clunkers to spit out, they’re talented enough to massage them into something meaningful. There’s a third character thrown in the mix, an omnipresent voice of the airline terminal announcer. The credits attribute the voice to Hal Ligget, but let’s say that Ryan hasn’t come to her second movie as a director without bringing a close friend with her.

More than anything, What Happens Later further indicates that Ryan is comfortable returning to her rom-com roots but able to blend the more dramatic flourishes she sought before taking a break from Hollywood. Is the movie destined to be an enduring classic? Hardly, it’s too woo-woo in tone and trips over some production and editing flaws that reveal Ryan’s still gaining her footing in the directing arena. We want her to stick around, so tossing support her way now means we will hopefully see more of her later. 

Movie Review ~ Asteroid City

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: World-changing events spectacularly disrupt the itinerary of a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention in an American desert town circa 1955.
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Wes Anderson
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: A few years ago, I was elbowing my way through an estate sale when I came across a pristine oversize coffee table book on the American West. If you’ve been to one of these sales before, you know that there’s often little time to consider your options, so after flipping through a few pages and seeing some exquisite photography, I decided on a purchase for the easy asking price of $10. Later that day, I lounged around casually looking at the fantastic pictures documenting the people, places, and things that were too vibrant to fade into the history of legend. I couldn’t believe what a find I found; clearly, this was something the owner had treasured, and I was shocked it was still around when I arrived. It was fate.

Then I looked closer at the text.

All the text in the book, all of it, was that nonsense typography that was used as a placeholder for the actual writing of the author. No captions, identifying descriptions, or illustrative prose took you to the same place the whimsical photographs had done so visually. It was a misprinted copy sold for cheap. Of course, the book was left for some chump like me, but at least I had the pictures to keep me company.

Watching Wes Anderson’s new film Asteroid City was like paging through this crisp tome. It’s a superb exercise in production design and a feast for the eyes (the nicest thing you can do for them, aside from sleep), but it makes absolutely no sense when it comes time to need to understand it. Sure, you can squint and try to force it to make sense, but you’re connecting the dots the filmmaker hasn’t bothered to put into any workable order in the first place. That makes for a mighty frustrating experience, especially for those equipped with an Anderson decoder ring already tuned to his frequency.

Legendary playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton, Glass Onion) wrote a play, Asteroid City, that is being broadcast on national television in the mid-1950s. As the black-and-white program progresses, it transitions to a full-fledged color presentation (or is it real life?) following the events that transpired in a small town over an increasingly strange few weeks. Centered around a Junior Stargazer convention and the kooky families and scientists that converge to celebrate, the arrival of an unexpected visitor throws things further out of whack. Now, as everyone is quarantined and forced to make do with a new normal, how will they adjust to the possibility of global change?

It’s not hard to decipher that Anderson has made a COVID-adjacent movie and wants to make a semi-statement about the bubble we’ve all been gradually emerging from. That’s all well and good, but even that message starts to get lost amid the falderol of its twee-ness run amuck. No one in Asteroid City (the place, the movie, or its “real” life interstitials) can have a straight conversation, preferring to talk in a broken code that even Alan Turing would have trouble deciphering. I longed for good actors like Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), as a widowed father denying himself his grief, and Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), playing a starlet so bored with her life she considers changing which shoulder she slumps onto be a highlight of her day, to get a chance for their characters to go somewhere, rather than be stuck in Anderson’s nonsensical dialogue.

Though Robert Yeoman’s (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) cinematography, Adam Stockhausen’s (West Side Story) production design, and Milena Canonero’s (Carnage) costume design guarantee you the kind of jaw-dropping visuals you’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson flight of fancy (all should clear their award season schedules so they can attend every ceremony), they are the candy-colored icing on top of a russet potato of a script. Anderson attracts such extraordinary talent, and wow, this cast (Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Steve Carrell, Margot Robie) is tops, but zowie, does this film crater out as one of the more oversized duds Anderson has been responsible for. 

Reaching his zenith with Moonrise Kingdom, still the best balance of the outlandish while balancing heart, Anderson almost touched Oscar glory with The Grand Budapest Hotel and has also found some success with animated projects The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. His last film, The French Dispatch in 2021, was a costly fiasco, and even if Asteroid City is being embraced more by his critics, I can’t ever imagine revisiting it. Maybe on mute. Only on mute.

Movie Review ~ Pinocchio (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: With the help of a cricket as his conscience, a living puppet must prove himself worthy of becoming a real boy.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Keegan-Michael Key, Lorraine Bracco, Cynthia Erivo, Luke Evans
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rated: PG
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  We all have our individual Disney origin stories. While I have fond memories of seeing The Jungle Book countless times during its numerous re-releases as I grew up and was a fervent devotee of The Sword in the Stone, the one Disney animated film I vividly remember watching more than any other was Pinocchio. The second animated feature Walt Disney Productions made after 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the 1940 release of Pinocchio won two Oscars but surprisingly was a dud at the box office thanks to the Second World War limiting international distribution. Eventually, it became a worldwide hit when it was re-released later and during the Regan years it became a staple in my household.

Looking back, I’m wondering if it wasn’t pushed a bit on me because I was an only child, and there are many gentle lessons to be learned from the adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel. They’ve been Disney-fied, of course, but instructions on being “good” and “letting your conscience be your guide” were essential words for impressionable minds (especially a precocious one like mine) to hear on repeat. Seeing the consequences of disobeying your parents or putting your trust in the wrong people was enough to encourage me to stay on the straight and narrow and trust my instinct. In actuality, it’s pretty frightening in places, and dark like many of these early Disney films were. Still, it easily earns its place in the canon of Disney classics.

Over time, it seems filmmakers can’t get enough of Pinocchio. Multiple iterations of the tale have been told throughout media. Operas have been written, TV shows produced, too many movies to count (including Italian Roberto Benigni starring in TWO versions seventeen years apart), and now Disney’s live-action remake of its property. Brought to life by celebrated Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who revised the script with the help of Chris Weitz (A Better Life), this is a tweaked version of the perennial classic more than it is a complete overhaul. Some of this is good news for film fans, and some is not so great. Mostly, it’s just kind of head-scratching as to why this talented group has kept things so decidedly wooden when given a chance to bring this story to literal life.

The Walt Disney Studios logo has been accompanied by the Oscar-winning tune “When You Wish Upon a Star” for some time, so it’s no surprise the narrator of the story, Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper), makes an early entrance before the famous castle fades from view. He’s dropped in to introduce his reflection of the night he hopped into a small village and took respite in the shop/home of a widowed woodworker putting the finishing touches on his latest creation. Known for his intricate cuckoo clocks, Geppetto (Tom Hanks, Toy Story 4) has turned his attention to a marionette of a young boy he’s modeled after his late son. Before turning out the light, he notices the brightest star in the sky has appeared and makes a silent wish. 

Later that evening, a stream of blue light radiates out from the night sky and connects with the lifeless puppet, bringing it magically to life. Soon after, the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo, Chaos Walking) appears and lets Pinocchio know he must prove himself to be unselfish, brave, and truthful if she can grant Geppetto’s full wish for him to become a real boy. Naming Jiminy as his conscience, the Blue Fairy vanishes, but not before singing a full-throated version of the film’s most famous song. Once Geppetto learns of the magic, he treats Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, The Haunting of Bly Manor) as his son and prepares to send him to school.

Pinocchio’s adventures outside of the safety of home take up the rest of the film, passages that will slowly wiggle away from the original narrative. Pinocchio is still sidetracked by sly fox Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) and dopey sidekick Gideon the Cat, but there are a few more wrinkles to their interaction. The little wooden boy still appears as a featured attraction at Stromboli’s puppet show. However, now there’s a young female apprentice with a leg malady who dreams of ballet stardom and naturally works the lithe ballerina puppet Pinocchio takes a shine to. 

The downward spiral begins with the arrival of Luke Evans as The Coachman. Transporting a gaggle of unruly children to Pleasure Island, The Coachman and lackey Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd, Judy) pick up Pinocchio and, when he wavers on going for the ride or not, sing a grotesque song newly written for the movie. One of several contributed by the film’s composer Alan Silvestri and musician Glen Ballard, it’s all about being a “real” boy and has cringe-y lines like “Real Boys Always Want More and Real Girls Always Like the Real Boys More.” Shivers. Evans (Midway) excels at playing these ghoulishly monstrous characters, so it’s hard to fault him entirely, but yeesh, the entire Pleasure Island sequence is a true hellscape of poor CGI and misguided decisions.

On misguided decisions, Zemeckis and Weitz make a rather significant change to how Pinocchio solves his various problems in the film and the resolution at the end. I didn’t mind the end because I think the message it conveys is worthwhile. Those other “outs” Pinocchio gets bothered me because of what they wind up omitting in the overall narrative. I won’t spoil it here, but it feels like a poor decision from an optics perspective. Adding more/new characters isn’t the solution (though I did get a chuckle out of Lorraine Bracco’s Brooklyn accented seagull), and sidelining one essential character didn’t feel right.

I know that Hanks and Zemeckis have a long history together, but in much the same way I felt that Hanks wasn’t right for the Elvis movie, I’m not sure if Geppetto was the role for him either. Admittedly, Hanks wears the part naturally and warmly. Yet, at the same time, I think there’s a safety net that Hollywood could remove from these live-action remakes to free up the studio heads to take more creative-minded swings. If you’re going to remake these movies and set them apart from the animated classic, don’t do it halfway. Casting Erivo was a thoughtful choice, but that’s about where it ends. Written like an extension of the Fairy Godmother Helena Bonham-Carter played in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of Disney’s Cinderella, I would have liked to see the Blue Fairy be more knowing, less showy. Someone must have all the answers in the movie, and it should be her.

The enjoyment of this take on Pinocchio comes in the details. Zemeckis (The Witches) has gone all out with the animation. Save for that aforementioned Pleasure Island sequence which will make even the gamiest gamer’s eyes cross, the more intimate scenes between Pinocchio and the people he meets along the way are often quite beautiful. For Disney fans, there’s a wealth of Easter Eggs to be found in Geppetto’s shop and Pleasure Island. Keep your eyes on the cuckoo clocks for several familiar characters; some flash by so quickly if you’re watching at home, you’ll be glad for the pause button. If this Pinocchio doesn’t float your boat, Netflix has Guillermo del Toro’s long-in-the-works vision of the piece coming before the end of the year as well.

Movie Review ~ Elvis (2022)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A biopic of Elvis Presley, from his childhood to becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s while maintaining a complex relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
Stars: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 169 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Since his death at the age of 42 in 1977, the story of Elvis Presley has been told multiple times across countless media sources. Like The Beatles, who seem to come out with a new documentary (or documentary about a documentary about The Beatles), every few years, the fascination with Elvis hasn’t waned since the King of Rock and Roll left the building. A popular TV movie from 1979 directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell is still pointed to as an honest look into Presley’s life growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, before skyrocketing to fame, eventually cementing himself as a legend as a top Vegas headliner. In 2018, the 3.5-hour Elvis Presley: The Searcher debuted on HBO and was regarded as a respected final deep dive into the creative career of the performer. 

Yet here we are in 2022 talking about Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, another biopic of the superstar, and you may be wondering why Luhrmann would spend his creative time and energy on a story ‘oft-told. Indeed, the director, known for his eye-popping dazzling visuals and talent for producing movies on an epic scale, could focus on an original project that would benefit more from the full force of artists he brings along with him. Right? That might all be well and true (and Baz, please follow this up with an original film again…please!), but then audiences would have been deprived of a rarity in biopics of this nature, a proper star performance.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all seen an Elvis impersonator once or twice in our lives or, shudder, curled our lips, swung our hips at some point in our misspent youth, and tried Presley’s croon and wiggle on for size. Yet there’s no mistaking the real deal, and once you’ve seen Elvis in old TV clips or movies, you recognize that the man had a talent nearly impossible to duplicate. Luhrmann miraculously found an actor who channeled Presley in shake, rattle, and roll, and it’s why Austin Butler’s performance is one for the record books.

The anticipation for Butler (The Dead Don’t Die) to make his first appearance as the singer is properly teased for some time by the narrator of Elvis, his former manager Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips). Though neither a Colonel nor even named Tom Parker, as we come to learn later, our tricky narrator with a hard-to-pin-down European accent introduces himself as the supposed villain of the piece…and then spends the next nearly three hours explaining how that perception is wrong (by showing how it’s really right). As Parker manages a dusty sideshow act, he’s tipped off to a young man raised among blacks with a voice that seems to be divinely given. Then he sees him perform…and the rest is history.

We also see that first history-making performance, and Luhrmann recreates that tense expectation with an expert hand. By the time Butler’s Elvis blasts out his first note and starts his famous dancing legs shaking, you as an audience member might be tempted to scream out as the crowd does uncontrollably. It’s that effective of an introduction, and while that’s partly a directing/editing accomplishment, you have to give proper credit to how Butler presents Presley in this early stage of his career to viewers for the first time. That understanding of Presley at each stage of his career is what cements Butler’s performance as a record-setting one, there’s an authenticity and almost heartbreaking dedication to the energy that’s coming out of the young actor, and I’d be shocked if Butler doesn’t just get nominated for an Oscar this year but easily sweep in and win it. Like Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy back in 2019, this is far more than an “impression” of Presley…it’s an almost mystical channeling of his spirit.

I wish I could say the same good news for Hanks. Stuck with a mound of prosthetics that make him look like the Penguin, his alpine slope nose and bulbous double chin only make his villainy that much more comically arch. In that way, he comes off like a Looney Tunes version of the bad guy instead of merely the dishonest businessman. The latter profited off of Presley to the extent that he had to continue working with Parker and his calvary of shady doctors so Parker could pay off his gambling debts. As is everything with Hanks, the performance is well-intentioned but rings false…perhaps too much of a stretch for the proto-nice guy in films.

Primarily, Elvis is a two-hander between Butler and Hanks, but a few other cast members manage to make some impression along the way. Often erased from Presley’s overall narrative, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge, The Visit) comes off very well here. DeJonge gives her an air of sophistication and strength in this limited time, leaving a lasting impression. As Presley’s parents, I liked seeing Richard Roxburgh (the Duke in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) playing with imperfection and weakness, especially alongside an unrecognizable Helen Thomson, who knocks it out of the park as Elvis’s beloved mama. 

Almost like he can’t help himself, Luhrmann often gives himself over to excess along the way, but for this film, much of it set in the bright lights of Vegas, it works. The opening stretch can be a bit overwhelming as it quickly hops through multiple periods, however. Once the timeline slows down and stops jumping, Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) also start to calm down – though production designers Karen Murphy (A Star is Born) and Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby, who also did the costumes) never stop producing stunning period looks. Focusing more on the career part of Presley’s life leaves little room for the more personal moments, so adjusting your expectations for Elvis being a quick journey through highlights (and dang good ones) is necessary.

I’m jealous of those that were able to see Elvis Presly live onstage. I was born after The King passed away, and it’s why I take every opportunity to see a legend when I get the chance. You never know when time will take a talent like that away. I’m grateful to Luhrmann’s Elvis for recreating some key moments with Butler standing in for the late singer. You get the feeling you’re seeing a good idea of what that experience of seeing Presley must have been for the public who adored and understood him. Priscilla and his daughter Lisa Marie wholeheartedly endorsing the film is another sign that Luhrmann and Butler made The King proud.

Movie Review ~ News of the World

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Fred Hechinger, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Paul Greengrass

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  As I sit here writing this in the second week of December, I realize that News of the World might just have been the last big potential Oscar nominee I would have had to see in theaters had they still been open.  While this grand scale western starring one of the most trusted men in America had always been targeted for a Christmas release, a number of other titles that have been mentioned as awards contenders were slated to come out over the past eight months and who knows where we’d be right now if they’d all made their original dates.  Would a film like News of the World, with its simple pleasures and old-fashioned storytelling feel as touching or impactful if we’d been inundated already with dozens of “prestige” pictures all vying for our votes?

Then again, there’s one thing all of those movies didn’t have: Tom Hanks.  That good-natured, dependable force of good who can turn your frown upside down has a way with a role that makes it uniquely his.  You may be able to imagine several other equally valid stars that could play the part and serve the material with grace but what Hanks can offer in terms of sincerity and core can’t be replicated by any ‘ole matinee idol or aging ‘80s action hunk.  There’s a line near the end of News of the World that Hanks speaks, it’s an important line but not a gussied up one (nothing in the screenplay from director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies overreaches by much), and they way he pitches it and has it land found a way right into the center of my heart.  That’s talent.  It’s also why a movie like this, which is lighter on plot than a two-hour film out to be and overly episodic, even by normal page-to-screen adaptations go, lingers in the mind long after the final credits have faded.

Based on the 2016 bestseller by Paulette Jiles, the film is set in the Old West of 1870 and opens on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks, Sully) who travels from town to town reading the newspapers aloud for anyone willing to pay a dime.  Choosing his articles based on the crowd and territory, he’s part showman, part newsman, but a good man in sum and total.  In his latest journey between towns, he arrives at the scene of a deplorable crime and the one young survivor (Helena Zengel) who remains.  Rescued from a Kiowa tribe after being taken from her immigrant family as a small child, she was being transported to her only living relatives when another tragedy struck.  Realizing the only guarantee of her safe return is if he takes her, Captain Kidd agrees to accompany her on the journey home.  Speaking no English, the girl longs for the tribe that she was wrenched from, making her an orphan for the second time in her short life.  Yet the two disparate travelers set off on a harrowing journey, encountering dangers in each town they enter and every new territorial line they cross.  His advanced age and her lack of communication initially prove to be a hinderance, especially early on when they are cornered by a trio of violent thugs, but eventually they use these as tools to bring them together the closer they come to being separated forever.

Reteaming with his Captain Phillips director, Hanks revives a few of those same silently reflective scenes that made that earlier performance so effective (and, amazingly, not recognized by the Academy) yet he pitches them with the knowledge of a longer life lived and an entire war behind him.  Kidd has served his country and now serves the people by traveling around and bringing them information to make the world seem less small and their daily lives less routine.  Of course, all that keeping busy is hiding a pain within himself he can’t face, not until later on in the movie, at least.  Hanks has a way with achieving an almost instant audience buy-in whenever he shows up in a movie.  You just sort of instantly buy him in the role.  While his performance as Fred Rogers was lauded in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last year, the movie didn’t 100% work for me but I totally bought him completely the minute he appeared onscreen.  It’s probably the confidence he exudes that brings us all under his spell…but it works every time all the same.

It was important for Greengrass and, I suppose Hanks, to find the right co-star and German-born Zengel is a real discovery.  Perfectly believable in a complicated role of a child stuck between two different worlds and three different languages, most of Zengel’s performance comes through in her expressive face and wide eyes, which cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World) captures as beautifully as he does the pristine sights of expanse from the Old West long forgotten.  It would have been easy for Zengel to tip her acting slightly more one way and lose her balancing act, making the child unbearable but she has a strong scene partner with Hanks and she encourages him to be better as well.  Holding your own against such a force couldn’t have been easy but it all adds to the emotional complexity the role requires.

The supporting players are a strong mix of familiar character actors, with Elizabeth Marvel (Inheritance) being the standout among many greats as a proprietor friend of Hanks that offers some sage advice for her sometime companion.  Marvel is one of those actresses that, when she shows up, you know that however long she’s on screen it’s going to be something you’ll be interested in watching and that’s completely true here.  I suppose Thomas Francis Murphy’s (12 Years a Slave) grotesque manager of law and order in a civilian led town that Kidd and the girl have the misfortune of riding through could be dialed down a bit, if anything this is the sequence that has the most squirm factor.  Maybe it’s because it feels like it’s out of some ghastly American take on a Dickensian Western, but then again it’s another of those episodic entries the film has which is why it may seem like it could be sliced out and removed with no one being the wiser.

A handsome production on all levels, from the visuals to the unobtrusive editing from Oscar-winner William Goldenberg (Argo), News of the World has the gleam of polish to it and deserves to look so pretty.  Accompanied by another rousing score from eight-time Oscar nominee James Newtown Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) that extends through the closing credits, this is full-scale entertainment at a high level – exactly what we’re almost owed at the end of this year.  Hanks knows what I mean.  As one of the first celebrities to experience this terrible virus, he’s been through a rough patch in 2020 but should be able to rest his head easy once the reviews for News arrive.  Read all about it and see it when it arrives on Christmas Day.

Movie Review ~ A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

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The Facts
:

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 ~ Toy Story 4


The Facts
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Synopsis: When a new toy called “Forky” joins Woody and the gang, a road trip alongside old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack, Lori Alan, Blake Clark, Estelle Harris

Director: Josh Cooley

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I’m pretty sure most audiences, like me, thought this toy box was closed for good. After changing the face of computer animation with the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar followed their original story up with two sequels that managed to improve exponentially on their predecessors. Culminating in 2010 with the beloved, three-hanky Toy Story 3, favorite toys Woody and Buzz Lightyear had a fantastic send-off that was just about the most perfect ending to a story you could ask for. At the time, everyone involved said three films was the limit and they were done with the Toy Story franchise…but a few box office duds and less successful sequels to other popular titles ‘inspired’ the animators at Pixar to come up Toy Story 4.

Usually, in these seemingly desperate situations no good can come of the product that’s created and I braced myself going into Toy Story 4 for a sequel that didn’t measure up. The news at the outset is that no, Toy Story 4 is not as winning as the previous film nor does it have the same complexities that made that last chapter mean so much to adults as well as kids. However, the moment I stopped trying to compare this film to the one that came before I sort of released any tension I had going in and was easily won over. This relatively uncomplicated, but very entertaining, entry gives audiences everything they want. From the characters major and minor we love, to the dizzying hijinks that have become a staple of the prime Pixar pictures, Toy Story 4 works like gangbusters when the gang is all together.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy left his prized toys with toddler Bonnie when he went off to college and as this film opens the toys are enjoying their rebooted life with a new child. True, not all of them get the same play time as others, namely Woody (Tom Hanks, Sully) who nicely abdicates his sheriff duties to Jessie (Joan Cusack, Working Girl) because Bonnie prefers her. With Bonnie set to begin Kindergarten, Woody steals away in her backpack to keep an eye on her should she need any comfort and bears witness to the creation of a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale, American Ultra). A crude construction from a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks, he becomes Bonnie’s new favorite though the recently born toy keeps trying to pitch himself into any available waste paper bin because he only thinks of himself as “trash”.

With Woody busy trying to keep Forky from going out with the garbage, the rest of the toys take a minor backseat to the action until Bonnie and her parents take a small road trip before school officially begins. It’s here the movie really begins after a half hour of funny, if a tad bit staid, sequences with Woody and the group. Though I’m sure Forky will become a popular toy with fans and the deeper meaning to his metaphysical questioning of life will inspire numerous think pieces, I found this first act of the movie a wee bit ungainly.  To me, Forky and his desperate attemps to run away became an annoyance…and I wondered why all the toys just didn’t let him be on his merry way.  Again, while on the early stages of the road trip, Forky makes a run for it and Woody follows, eventually winding up in an second-hand antique store lorded over by a Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks, The Neon Demon) and her ventriloquist dummy minions (scary!) with designs on Woody’s voicebox.

The antique shop and the traveling carnival that sits right outside the store provides Pixar people ample space to let their imaginations run wild and they have a ball creating a host of new toys and gadgets for our stalwarts to interact with. I had forgotten that Bo Peep (Annie Potts, Ghostbusters) hadn’t been in the last film and it was nice to see her move into a leading role as the female foil to Woody. Having been given away by her previous owner, Bo Peep (and her sheep) have been living as lost toys for seven years and show Woody the ways of the wild and help him break into the antique shop to look for Forky. These movies have always been quite targeted to boys and though the introduction of Jessie in the second film was meant to balance things out it never truly felt like an equal distribution of material. That error seems to have been nicely righted here by fleshing out Bo Peep as an independent toy capable of more than just tending sheep.

In addition to Gabby Gabby who is perhaps more than just merely a villain but a toy aching for feeling the same love and belonging the others have felt, there’s a Canadian stunt toy (Keanu Reeves, Parenthood) with an inferiority complex, and a set of plush animals (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland and Jordan Peele, Us) stitched together at the hand to provide some fine comedic support. The plush toys especially get in some howlingly funny bits, as much as the film made kids in my screening laugh I don’t think I’ve heard adults laugh louder or longer in a movie in quite some time. If there’s one toy that gets short shrift, it’s Buzz (Tim Allen) who has some late-breaking action but is sidelined in the memorable moments field for much of the film.

Watching the movie, I was reminded again at just how incredible the advancements Pixar has made. The animation here is photo-realistic at times and quite stunning to behold. Some animals look real and most vistas appear as if they have been snapped right from a postcard. If you look at the original Toy Story now you can see where the animation has room to grow but comparing that to this is showing how a company has evolved fantastically over the years.  Couple that with action sequences crafted with clockwork precision that best any number of live-action summer blockbusters and you have a movie that has laser eye for detail down to the most minuscule of properties.

I’m hearing again this will be the last Toy Story film and the creators have definitely given us another ending that feels like it…but never count out another adventure if the story is right. It took nine years for this fourth film to be made and the release date comes almost five years after it was originally announced. So, it’s obvious the studio took its time in creating the film and releasing it only when it was perfected. Let’s hope if there is another tale to be told, the same care is taken when Woody, Buzz, and Bo Peep ride again.

31 Days to Scare ~ He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young bride-to-be is being stalked by a serial killer.

Stars: Don Scardino, Caitlin O’Heaney, Patsy Pease, Elizabeth Kemp, Tom Rolfing, James Rebhorn, Dana Barron, Tom Hanks

Director: Armand Mastroianni

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For years all I had heard about He Knows You’re Alone was the tiny trivia factoid that it was the screen debut of Tom Hanks.  Over the years it’s become a footnote to his resume and not much else, falling into the forgotten pit of early slasher films.  Usually, these movies earned their place on the bottom of the heap so when I finally caught this one I was pleasantly surprised to find He Knows You’re Alone to be a competent, if not outright totally entertaining, bit of ‘80s nostalgia.

It’s almost impossible to watch the movie now and try to bear in mind just how early it arrived on the scene.  Released in August of 1980, it came out three months after Friday the 13th and two years after Halloween.  Sequels to both these lasting franchises hadn’t been released and the clones and copycats hadn’t reared their low-budget heads yet so He Knows You’re Alone was still a newcomer to audiences looking for some scares.  Also, the focus on guts and gore hadn’t become de rigueur yet which is why the film is curiously absent of grotesque make-up and buckets of blood.

Leading with a strong opening that’s meta before it became a cliché, we quickly get down to business as a killer dispatches of a young lass at a movie theater.  This killer (creepily played by Tom Rolfing) doesn’t wear a mask so we always know who’s behind it all, but screenwriter Scott Parker has fleshed out the maniac and through flashbacks shows him to be a jilted lover triggered by any female ready to walk down the aisle.  While heading out of town, the killer happens upon a woman (Caitlin O’Heaney) saying goodbye to her fiancé as he departs for his bachelor weekend.  She’ll be spending time with her bridal party so they’re all vulnerable to the killer stalking them over the next few days.

While it draws comparisons in hindsight to Friday the 13th (even though it was filming at the same time) the movie obviously follows the rough outline set out by Halloween, the granddaddy of all slasher films.  The three women each have their own agenda for the weekend; one is going to get some (the delightfully slutty Patsy Pease romping around with her married professor lover played by the late, great James Rebhorn, I Love Trouble) one wants to get some (Elizabeth Kemp, looking to hook-up with a jogger played by Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks), and our bride still isn’t sure her fiancé is the man for her and entertains leaving him for a former flame (Don Scardino).

Director Armand Mastroianni plays it relatively cool for the first hour or so, peppering the film with the occasional suspense sequence but focusing a large amount of time on character development. They might be one-dimensional creations but they sure do get time to talk!  With a lack of blood and gore the film can feel a bit “soft” for the genre but I for one appreciated not seeing every last person disemboweled or sliced up.  I’m sure budget had everything to do with it but the restraint shown here is admirable.

Performances are strong and O’Heaney is a steely lead.  With her beady eyes and pointed features she comes off as an ordinary woman caught in an extraordinary circumstance.  I appreciated that when she starts running from the killer she doesn’t stick around the house to be picked off but instead runs as fast as she can into town and, admittedly, into the protective arms of her ex.  Kicking into high gear for a finale set inside a cavernous mortuary that stretches ever so slightly longer than it should, there is a nice wrap-up that allows our final girl to get up close and personal with her stalker.  For what it’s worth, Hanks is nice enough to have around even though he doesn’t play much of a part in the grand scheme of things.  Not making an appearance until the film is more than half over, rumor has it his character was supposed to be killed off but producers felt like the audience would find him too likable to be killed so he just kind of disappears near the end.

This is one that’s too good to be totally forgotten.  Though other movies would come around that would be scarier and gorier, there’s some fun stuff going on.  It may be too slow for audiences weaned on numerous jump scares and too tame for those with a bloodlust but I feel the film holds up nicely even when you do compare it to other films in the genre.  It may sit alone on a shelf during this time of year as more intense films are dusted off, but give this one a go if you have the chance.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Post

 

Synopsis: A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between journalist and government. Inspired by true events.

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (limited) January 12, 2018 (wide)

Thoughts: At the Oscars last year, buzz began to build around a rumored collaboration between Hollywood’s most favorite people. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), & Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) would team up to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers.  Over the next weeks and months, we would get a tidbit here and there but The Post has flown quietly under the radar.  Until now.  I’m sure a number of Oscar hopefuls woke up this morning to see the new trailer for The Post and felt their hearts sink a little bit because it looks like this obvious Oscar bait is going to snag quite a lot of attention.  With an honest-to-goodness all-star cast of A-Listers and well-respected character actors in supporting roles, this looks like a slam-dunk.  If Spielberg can keep this one trucking along (please let it come in under 2.25 hours!) there’s a chance The Post will be headline news during Award Season.

Movie Review ~ Sully

sully_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Chelsey Sullengerger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of the airplane flights 155 crew and passengers.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Holt McCallany, Jamey Sheridan, Katie Couric

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: While I love to travel and have been fortunate enough to visit destinations near and far there’s one nagging thing that always hampers my trip…flying. I wouldn’t say I hate it, I just strongly dislike it and would prefer to road-trip my way across the U.S. and cruise my way over to European destinations. The irony is that I have a particular fondness for movies where airplanes are the central focus. So while I get a sheen of panicked sweat when the plane door closes and I’m locked in for the long haul, I get a nice little rush when I fire up a flick where the stewardess has to fly the plane or Wesley Snipes kicks terrorist butt.

I let you in on this little secret of mine because after seeing Sully, my biggest take-away is that I’d like to have a captain/crew just like the one from U.S. Airways Flight 155 on all my flights moving forward. Showing how captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, first officer Jeff Skiles, and the flight crew kept calm in the face of clear and present danger is one of the many things that director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, American Sniper) and company gets right…even if the overall film winds up being more economy than first class.

Adapted by screenwriter Todd Komarnicki from “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, Eastwood’s film is a straightforward by-the-numbers affair and that’s likely where it lost a little spark for me. Sure, it would have been easy to overdramatize things and that wouldn’t have been right either…but instead of a smooth ascent Eastwood reaches his cruising altitude and goes on auto-pilot. (I think that’s the end of my flight-related metaphors/puns…maybe)

In a trim 95 minutes, Komarnicki and Eastwood take us through the events of that day in January 2009 when shortly after take-off Flight 155 hit a patch of birds that caused both of its engines to fail, leaving the plane gliding without power. Drawing on forty years of service, Sully (Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks) navigates the plane to a miraculous water landing on the Hudson River, saving everyone on board. Over the course of the film this incident is replayed several times to heart-pounding effect and largely without a booming score to tell you how to feel.

It’s the investigation after the landing as the NTSB/ insurance companies search for someone to blame that disappoints, waffling between holding Sully and Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, London Has Fallen) accountable and vindicating them as the heroes they certainly were/are. Hearings with the NTSB, headed by Mike O’Malley (Concussion), Jamey Sheridan (Spotlight), and Anna Gunn feel like acting exercises to see which of the three can glare, grimace, and judge all at the same time. For the record, O’Malley wins but only because Gunn never bothers to raise her voice (or her pulse) past a stage whisper.

Komarnicki puts in some awkward encounters Sully has with a public that wants to thank him but doesn’t know quite how to put that into words. So we have uncomfortable scenes where he’s kissed on the cheek by a make-up artist, hugged by a hotel manager, and lauded at a pub by local NYC bar huggers. Katie Couric pops up as herself recreating her exclusive sit down with Sully and the flight crew appearance on Letterman is shown with less than seamless integration between archive footage of the host and the Hollywood actors.

On the acting side of things, Hanks scores with his understated delivery and inherent dignity. Admittedly, it isn’t a big stretch for Hanks but in his own Hanks-ian way, he gives a powerful performance that’s more than a little reminiscent of 2013’s Captain Phillips. Hanks has an easy rapport with Eckhart…even when Eckhart’s Swedish Chef moustache threatens to take over the scene. Perhaps stymied by her scenes being entirely comprised of phone conversations, Laura Linney (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) is particularly bad as Sully’s wife. Holding down the homefront while Sully deals with the NTSB, Linney’s character could be excised all together and nothing would be lost. In fact, Komarnicki’s barely-there rough sketches of Linney and a handful of other minor players/passengers is so poor you begin to fault the acting when it’s actually the writing that’s a failure.

Though some of the performances and directorial choices kept the film grounded (yeesh…why is Eastwood still composing those dirge-like scores, ahem, themes for his movies?), it’s Hanks that will make you want to check your luggage and hop on board. The recreations of the events of that day gave me that thrill I was looking forward to, I just wish everything else was as tight as those sections.