Thursday, November 21, 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Tom Hanks     Matthew Rhys     Susan Kelechi Watson     Chris Cooper     Christine Lahti


     In this film, “Mr. Rogers”, the television personality is portrayed as someone who will change the life of a reluctant expository journalist sent to interview him for a “hero” piece in a magazine.  Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is shown to be absolutely myopic and abrasive in human interactions (and in his writings), even with his wife Andrea (Watson) and their infant child.  But after his abbreviated times with Rogers, he makes a miraculous transformation.  
     I think I understand what the filmmakers had in mind in making A Beautiful Day, which is to show how effective Mr. Rogers as a television personality could be in the real world with a grown-up.  But having had some personal interactions with the real Fred Rogers, and from my experience of the show when my daughter as a young child was transfixed by it, I came away from the movie rather taken aback.  This is a completely fanciful account of Mr. Rogers and the way in which he related to people outside his show.
     To be specific, when I was a psychologist in Pediatrics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, we invited Fred Rogers to our annual Mental Health Conference1.  He came and gave a moving presentation about how he worked with kids. During his stay, we had a number of conversations with him.  I want to say that at no time when he talked with us as adults, did he use the same tone as he did on his show with children or use a style of probing someone's psyche, as is shown in this film particularly when talking to the journalist Lloyd Vogel. 
     My misgivings with the film have mostly to do with the dialog.  Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have written dialog that sounds artificial, as if someone who isn’t Mr. Rogers is trying to sound just like him, and then applying it unrealistically.  The real Rogers—or anyone with psychological sensitivity—would not ask probing questions of a journalist as if he were the man’s therapist.  Fred Rogers was much more sophisticated and psychologically informed than that.
     As far as the acting, Tom Hanks does a marvelous rendition of Fred Rogers’ manner, voice, and demonstrative concern.  Even his singing is engaging.  It was especially provocative to see Matthew Rhys (such an astute, insightful character in “The Americans”) come across as an acerbic, obtuse character who seems completely ignorant of everyday niceties and needs of others.  The rest of the cast including the always effective Chris Cooper as Lloyd’s father and Susan Kelechi Watson as his wife are top-notch.
     In my way of thinking, the writers and director Marielle Heller should have gotten more consultation about the essence of Fred Rogers and his “Neighborhood” show before embarking on the project.  Their backgrounds in Can You Ever Forgive Me, Maleficent, and A Walk among the Tombstones are not adequate preparation and experience for a movie about a master of subtlety and guidance of children.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not likely to encourage reminiscences about Mr. Rogers or his show for children.

Grade:  D                         By Donna R. Copeland

1Rogers, Fred.  Growing with Children.  In Donna R. Copeland, Betty Pfefferbaum, Allison Stovall (Ed.) The Mind of the Child Who Is Said To Be Sick.  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.  1983, pp. 5-12.  


FROZEN II

Voices of:  Kristen Bell     Jonathan Groff     Evan Rachel Wood     Jason Ritter
Idina Menzel     Sterling K. Brown     Josh Gad     Alfred Molina


     Frozen II is enchanting in the way fairytales are supposed to be, with thrilling visual effects, inspiring story, and imaginative characters—some endearing, some fearful, and some odious.  The film jumps back to when Elsa and Anna are children, and their father tells them the story of Arendelle and his role in it. Arendelle was friendly to another group in the Enchanted Forest and things were peaceful, until something happened to put them at war with each other.  This caused the four spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth to create an impenetrable mist to descend on the forest, so that neither group could live there any more.
     Jump forward to the present when sisters Elsa (Menzel) and Anna (Bell) are grown up and thriving in their beloved Arendelle.  But Elsa, who has special powers with ice and snow, starts hearing voices in song calling to her.  She eventually feels it so strongly, that she is determined to enter the Enchanted Forest (described to her by her father) now covered in mist. Anna begs to go with her, and she finally relents, but suddenly, Kristoff (Groff)—trying desperately to protect Anna—riding on Sven the reindeer, and Olaf (Gad) the snowman are in the entourage.  
     On the treacherous journey, they’ll encounter numerous obstacles that will test their courage and strength.  Right off the bat, when a few try to penetrate the mist, they are abruptly thrown back on their rears.  They will have to go through the spirits of air, water, fire, and earth and use them to their advantage in order to get the answer they’re seeking and return home.
     At one point, Elsa decides she has to persist on her own, and takes off, leaving the others behind.  After forging through harrowing obstacles, she encounters family members of the past, learns crucial information about what happened, and solves the problem.  Not without her sister, however; one point of the story is the importance of working together and communicating to one another.  
     I imagine that most children will love this story, and it has many gems for them about the importance of history, human needs for family and friends and their communication and cooperation in achieving tasks, and the value of hope. 
     Frozen II, like the previous Frozen, is a musical, with characters breaking out into song, always expressing the character’s experience and furthering the story.  Christophe Beck, composer, has played an essential role in this, which is one of the eloquent aspects of the story.  All the writers (directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Allison Schroeder, and Marc Smith) deserve artistic credit for weaving a captivating story with heart and soul.

Do take your children/grandchildren to see Frozen II to delight, inspire, and thrill them.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

HONEY BOY

Shia Le Beouf     Lucas Hedges     Noah Jupe


     The poster of a boy after getting pie thrown in his face is eloquent in captivating the story behind Honey Boy.  In reality, the picture was made during a filming sequence when the child actor, Shia LeBeouf, was hit in the face with a pie. Metaphorically, it could denote LeBeouf’s childhood when he was living with his father and all kinds of things landed on his head.  At the time, he is a successful child actor who actually pays his father to be his chaperone [his parents are divorced, and with a criminal record, James Lort (LeBeouf) has difficulty finding a job].  
     Honey Boy is a largely autobiographical account written by LeBeouf about his childhood.  He plays the role of his father, whereas Noah Jupe plays “Otis” when he is 12, with Lucas Hedges taking on the role as an adolescent. All three actors give praiseworthy performances.
     It’s a heartfelt rendition, showing the pain of discovery in the young Shia and his agony around the consequences later on.  James Lort is an unorthodox parent, to say the least.  It’s clear he has no inkling about how to be a father or how to guide his son either through role modeling or sage advice. It’s clear he has his own issues that spill over onto his son.  Although he’s desperate and is forced in some ways to have his son support him financially, it is humiliating for him.  
     As happens in such cases, the child takes on a parental role in comforting his father, reasoning with him, soothing his fears and unrest, and trying to coach him on how to be a better parent.  But, of course, this falls on deaf ears and escalates Lort’s discomfort and shame.  It’s so sad to see a child being so direct and clear about his needs and know that the parent cannot possibly understand because he himself has not experienced good parenting.
     Honey Boy represents an honest effort to relate what transpired in Shia LeBeouf’s early life that led to his desperation as a young adult to come to terms with it and work through the consequences. It’s interesting to see elements in the father’s personality that have been transmitted to the son, such that his way of coping resembles his father’s—but only partially.  He gets help (that was likely inaccessible to his father), which appears to get him on track for recovery.  As good as the film is, directed by Alma Har’el, I wish she and LeBeouf had given us more information about the mother.  We only overhear her in phone calls. 
     LeBeouf’s performance as his father has almost an eerie quality to it in its perceptiveness and emotional understanding.  There is nothing like real experience to inform an actor about a role, and nothing like a talented actor capturing a real experience.  Lucas Hedges consistently gets praise for his varied roles, and here he conveys so well the “waking up” of a person beginning to probe his early life and relationships and being horrified at the enormity of the task.  Noah Jupe shows great promise and will surely always be remembered for his graphic portrayal of a young boy trying desperately to understand a parent continually giving him mixed messages.  He manages to show in his face all the turmoil that is going on inside him, and the agony that follows when there seems to be no way out.

Delving into one’s extraordinary past as a child movie star living with an abusive father takes courage and Shia LeBeouf shows he has that courage and willingness to share it with others as catharsis and possibly as a model for others from similar circumstances.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland


KNIVES OUT

Ana de Armas     Jamie Lee Curtis     Toni Collette     Chris Evans     Don Johnson    Katherine Langford
Daniel Craig     Michael Shannon     LaKeith Stanfield     Jayden Martell    Christopher Plummer     Frank Oz


     This elegant pastiche fulfills its intention of laying out an ingenious plot with all the usual motifs of detective stories, tossing in blocks of humor and human foibles to keep you thoroughly entertained.  Writer/director/producer Rion Johnson (known for awarded works like Star Wars VIII:  the Last Jedi, Looper, and Brick) outdoes himself here, not only in his own efforts, but in assembling a formidable cast as well, most notable being Daniel Craig as private detective Benoit Blanc with a Texas twang.
     The set-up is Marta Cabrera (Armas) working as a nurse for aging Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) a wealthy book publisher.  Thrombey has numerous family members he is supporting, some of whom live in his mansion.  Tragically, one night after his 80-something birthday celebration, he is dead the next morning, apparently from a suicide.
     Enter Lieutenant Ellliott (Stanfield) and his trooper, along with a mysterious figure who sits to the side, Benoit Blanc.  As they question family members (paying homage to all the detective stories you’ve ever seen), we become acquainted with the motley group. Eldest daughter Linda (Curtis) is married to Richard Drysdale (Johnson) and they have a son Jacob (Martell). Son Walt (Shannon) thinks he is next in line to manage his father’s company, and is given something else to manage in the meantime.  Then there is the youngest son Ransom (Evans) who has a reputation for not working and hasn’t even appeared for the funeral.  Finally, there is daughter-in-law Joni (Collette), who is still part of the family in widowhood, and her daughter Meg (Langford), who is attending college, paid for by Harlan.  All of these actors shine in portraying their eccentric characters.
     Marta, the nurse who will be at the center of the drama, has a mother and sister from another country (humorously, family members always forget exactly which country), and much is made of their origins, and these facts are even used in threatening ways at times.         The crux of the story involves medications Marta administers to Harlan, his penchant for developing published fictions, and a major investigation, with everyone suspect.  Armas is a delight in her wide-eyed innocence and showing in her face her struggles to be a good person in a context of potential exploitation.
     Knives Out is likely to appeal to everyone who likes a good detective story.  This one delivers while still spoofing all those that have come before.  

Knives Out is a smart, entertaining look at deviousness, innocence, and human nature that can go either way.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, November 14, 2019

WAVES

Taylor Russell     Kelvin Harrison, Jr.    Alexa Demie
Bill Wise     lucas Hedges     Renee Elise Goldsberry    Sterling K. Brown


     Trey Edward Shults is considered one of the up-and-coming writer-directors whose two previous features (Krisha and It Comes at Night) were well received, the former about a family dealing with one of its mentally disturbed members, and the latter about two families dealing with an alien invasion. Now, with Waves, Shults has chosen to portray family relationships in a middle class black family trying its best to achieve aspirations primarily defined by the father.  “We cannot afford to be average”, he admonishes his son when he is encouraging him to work harder.
     The story is complex, reflecting Shults’ keen observations of family dynamics in ordinary as well as stressful situations.  
     Ronald (Brown) drives his son hard in his chosen sport of wrestling, coaching and working out with him and playfully competing.  Tyler (Harrison) is a sensitive young man who is attentive to his mother and plays the piano.  But he is also a fierce wrestling competitor with a future, it seems. This will all be made more complicated by his romantic attachment to Alexis (Russell).  When they have a major disagreement about an important decision, she breaks up with him, throwing him for a loop.
     This is not Tyler’s only stress; he has developed a shoulder injury that threatens to end his hopes in wrestling.  The seriousness of the injury is explained to him by the doctor, but Tyler, in the family mode of keeping worries to himself says nothing to his parents.  Neither—interestingly—does the doctor call and talk to them about it.  (It’s unclear in the film whether Tyler is yet 18.)
     And this is a place where I get on my bandstand about filmmakers repeatedly telling stories in which people don’t talk to one another about major events in their lives.  I realize this is not uncommon in real life, but films have a chance to model for their viewers the miraculous effects of open communication.  For instance, the tragedy that takes place in Waves could have been avoided had Tyler discussed what he was going through with his parents.  In the beginning scenes of the film, we have been set up to think that this closely-knit, affectionate family with good communication would have supported him emotionally and helped him in problem solving.  
     In a similar vein, it was unbelievable to me that this particular family would not have discussed birth control with their children.  When even vomiting is graphically portrayed, why would we not hear of birth control discussed with either adolescent in the family? Not much is said in the beginning about Tyler’s sister Emily (Russell), but after the tragedy, she becomes the focus in her relationship with Luke (Hedges).  Their friendship is portrayed as much healthier (although still no evidence of birth control), starkly contrasting with the one between Tyler and Alexis.
     The actors are really fine in this film, some noteworthy for their previous accomplishments.  Sterling K. Brown (most notable for his award-winning performances in the TV series “This is Us” and “American Crime Story”) is convincing as a father wanting his family elevated to their true potential.  Renee Elise Goldsberry (known primarily for her Tony Award winning performance in Broadway’s “Hamilton”) plays the devoted mother and wife who takes loss so hard, she almost loses everything.  Lucas Hedges (nominated for supporting roles in Manchester by the Sea and Ladybird) brings a kind of peace and understanding to the story in his portrayal of a male who is sensitive, kind, and unbiased.  
     The two main characters in the first part of the movie are portrayed by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and Alexa Demie, with Taylor Russell highlighted in the latter part. All of these actors, who are supposed to be in high school, are 25 years old.  There are enough talented teenagers to play these parts in movies, so I don’t understand why filmmakers consistently cast older actors to play their roles.  When the discrepancy is so obvious, it’s highly distracting.  
     Another distracting (and irritating) element in this film is the assault on the senses with sudden bursts of sound coming from whistles, voices, music, horns, and the quick cuts between scenes that have nothing to do with one another. Cinematographer Drew Daniels has inserted beautiful pure color scenes that enhance the mood of the film. These should be the guiding light for the editors (Isaac Hagy and Shults himself) in future endeavors.
     Like many interested others, I will be following Trey Edward Shults in his future endeavors.

A gripping drama that highlights a black family’s struggle to achieve their aspirations.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE REPORT

Adam Driver     Annette Bening     Corey Stoll     Jon Hamm     Linda Powell     Maura Tierney
Douglas Hodge     T. Ryder Smith     Joanne Tucker     Michael C. Hall     Matthew Rhys


     The dramatization of the U.S. Government’s reaction to 9-1-1 is outlined in Scott Burns’ movie, The Report, which focuses on the report prepared by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee, delegated to David Jones, one of her aides.  It shows the dogged five-year efforts of Jones to wrest documents from the CIA related to its practice of detention and enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) to get information about when/where the next attack would be.
     Gathering data for the report was impeded from the very beginning by CIA officials who refused to share most of their files. Adam Driver embodies the Jones character, eloquently expressing his patience, his diligence, and his intelligence in reading and interpreting reams of material amidst all kinds of setbacks.  Setbacks that never came from his boss, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), however; as deliberate and politically aware as she was she was also clearly aware of Jones’ honesty and capabilities, so protects him and guides him in negotiating shark-infested waters.
     The film charts Jones’ journey, highlighting his findings despite obstructions, the strategic use of subterfuge to make sure the report was seen and circulated, and the horrifying examples (some presented graphically) of what he found, including clear-cut examples of torture. The two psychologists hired as consultants—James Mitchell (Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (Smith)—had no experience in interrogation, at a time when the country had teams of FBI agents who were experts and should have been in charge of the program.  But, instead, Mitchell and Jessen were put in charge, implementing their unproven methods with virtually no checks or oversight.
     It’s sadly ironic to learn that as early as 1978, the CIA had concluded that brutal tactics are not effective in getting detainees to talk; moreover, they typically result in false answers. The report showed that in their desperation following the 9-1-1 attacks, leaders in the CIA willfully ignored its own earlier findings. 
     I think this documentary is valuable in illuminating a part of our government’s history in which major miscalculations were made, hundreds were made to suffer—some to die—and there were proven injustices committed.  It’s pertinent to present-day situations, and one hopes we will be mindful of and remember what we learned previously.
     My difficulty with the film’s presentation is the rapidity with which major players in the drama are introduced (without clearly identifying who they are).  Moreover, some subtitles meant to give the viewer context fly by so quickly, its difficult to see them and simultaneously follow conversations that are ongoing.  Although I think the film is basically a good one, director Scott Burns and editor Greg O’Bryant should have picked up on this during postproduction.  
     Adam Driver is consistently admired for his acting skills in many different kinds of roles including this one.  He conveys the carefulness shown by Jones, as well as his agony when he is being blocked and questioned.  Annette Bening is likewise highly skilled, but not as often recognized for it as she deserves.  Here, as Senator Dianne Feinstein, she captures the politically astute Congresswoman’s quiet, confident demeanor and decisiveness in tense situations, despite trying to navigate successfully through the sensitive politics of the situation.  These two leads are backed up by a strong cast including Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Linda Powell, Corey Stoll, Ted Levine, and others.

A real-life drama depicting the reactions of Washington’s politicos to the 9-1-1 disaster. 

Grade: B                                                By Donna R. Copeland

THE IRISHMAN

Robert De Niro     Al Pacino     Joe Pesci     Anna Paquin     Bobby Cannavale
Harvey Keitel     Ray Romano     Jack Huston     Jesse Plemons


     Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian used Charles Brandt’s book as the primary source for the movie.  Typical of Scorsese, the story takes 3½ hours to tell.  I was surprised that it held my interest the entire time, which is a testament to the fine storytelling and acting.  I have not read the book, which Brandt wrote [I Heard You Paint Houses, 2004, after he interviewed Frank Sheeran (played by De Niro) at the end of his life]; but the film is convincing in describing the different groups and characters involved in the whole Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino) mystery and intrigue.
     In the film, Frank delivers meat to restaurants for a living.  When he is accused of stealing some of it, his lawyer, who has connections with a mob, gets him off, and thus begins Frank’s budding career in doing favors for crime bosses Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Keitel).  Then, Russell tells Frank that Hoffa is interested in him, and Hoffa uses him as his right-hand man for years, sometimes putting Frank between him and Russell.  Frank’s delicately stepping through these waters is something to see and admire.
     Al Pacino as Hoffa stands out as a highly complex figure whose strength is in reading people; this puts him in a slightly paranoid stance at times, but he is often right; and this is a fine line for an actor to pull off.  Robert De Niro shines as the star of the film, showing his sincere loyalties, his ambivalences, and his measured approach to any difficult situation.  His character’s face is impassive, revealing little of what he is thinking, which makes it a somewhat easier role, perhaps.  Joe Pesci is able to show the power of persuasion that Russell has in getting so many people to do his bidding, including Sheeran, involving him in fundamental betrayals.
     The movie goes into details about the struggles between the unions at the time and big business and government, a time when the unions have been victorious, but whose leaders are now in bed with the mob and cavalierly using workers’ pension money in their own games of roulette.  A schism develops between Hoffa and Russell specifically around their differing views of the Kennedys, particularly toward the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, who is bringing cases against them both of them and the Teamsters, which ultimately triangulates Frank and tests his loyalties.
     Scorsese lives up to his reputation for composing and orchestrating a major production with precision, excellent casting, and editing.  Music by Robbie Robertson and production design by Bob Shaw help create the essentials in mood and look of the 1950’s. Spanning a period of 40 years, using aging techniques for the actors’ appearance is impressive.
     That being said, I personally would have preferred a more abbreviated version of the story, as noted by others.  In my opinion, the 3½-hour length could have been reduced without sacrificing the quality of filmmaking.  

Unless you’re a diehard crime story enthusiast who much prefers a big screen, I suggest you wait for the Netflix edition of The Irishman premiering on November 15.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland