Tag Archives: 4/5

Tenet

In writer/director Christopher Nolan’s excellent The Prestige, Nikola Tesla (memorably played by David Bowie) tell’s Hugh Jackman’s character “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” Thankfully for us, Nolan has quite a bit of nerve. For over 20 years, he’s been making some of the most narratively dense and visually ambitious films to come out of Hollywood. Perhaps the only big-budget auteur still around, Nolan is likely the only director working who could convince Warner Brothers to release his latest behemoth exclusively to theaters during a global pandemic. After all the false starts and delayed releases, Tenet is finally here and it’s another imaginative and immersive entertainment that will undoubtedly reward multiple viewings.

The quietly commanding John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, an unnamed CIA agent who is recruited by a secret organization known as “Tenet” after a test mission in Kiev. He meets with a fellow spy named Neil (Robert Pattinson) before pursuing his next, world-altering mission. Through a series of operatives, the Protagonist learns of “inverted material”, whose entropy has been reversed so that it can travel backwards through time. The distribution of said material leads him to Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his distant wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who are involved in a plot that could unspool the fabric of time itself.

Following the releases of Memento in 2000 and Inception in 2010, Nolan has continued his rich tradition of opening each new decade with a top-tier, mind-bending thriller whose title titillates with just a single word. Like those previous films, the time in Tenet unfolds in a profoundly unconventional manner and half the fun of watching is in trying to keep up with all of the plates that Nolan is spinning. He seamlessly marries the intricate plot structure of heady time travel fare like Primer with the jaw-dropping action setpieces one would expect from an entry in the Bond or Mission Impossible franchises. The intensely convoluted storyline is bound to leave some viewers frustrated and confused but personally left me eager to unpack its secrets and twists as I reflect on the experience in hindsight.

As one would expect from a Nolan action film at this point, Tenet is impeccably crafted on multiple technical levels. The larger-than-life musical score from Ludwig Göransson throbs with wall-to-wall synths that appropriately sound like they’re being ripped through the time-space continuum. The sharp camerawork from Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema beautifully frames the action with mesmerizing clarity — one shot in particular recalls one of the most iconic moments from The Wizard of Oz. But the real MVP behind the camera is Jennifer Lame, who should be a hands-down frontrunner for the Best Editing Oscar whenever the Academy Awards end up happening next year.

I had a great time watching Tenet, the first film I’ve seen in a theater in almost 6 months, but Nolan’s movies continue to have a lingering issue with sound mixing that renders too much of the dialogue unintelligible. Dunkirk gets a bit of a pass since it’s a war picture and the screenplay was light on characters conversing but the script this time around is loaded with metaphysical concepts that are imperative in order to decode the story. I’m looking forward to rewatching Tenet from the comfort and safety of my home, with subtitles active and the rewind button close within my grasp. Whether you choose to brave the theaters or wait for Tenet to become available to rent, it’s a first-rate brainteaser that’s well worth unraveling.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Opening in theaters is The Broken Hearts Gallery, a romantic comedy starring Geraldine Viswanathan and Dacre Montgomery about a heartbroken young woman who starts a gallery where people can leave mementos from past relationships.
Available to stream on Netflix is The Social Dilemma, a documentary that investigates the dangerous impact that social media platforms have had on our society.
Also debuting on Netflix is The Babysitter: Killer Queen, a horror comedy sequel starring Judah Lewis and Hana Mae Lee about a high school teen who has another run in with a satanic cult after he escaped one years ago.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

First Cow

In Kelly Reichardt’s gorgeous and stirring new Western First Cow, we learn nearly everything we need to know about the main character before he utters his first words. Set in 1820s Oregon during the frontier days, the film introduces us to Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) as he carefully scavenges for berries and mushrooms to feed his boisterous band of virile fur trappers. On his search, he happens upon a lizard writhing on its back and gently flips it back on its feet, a small gesture of grace that clearly sets him apart from his comparatively more gruff comrades. In an uncivilized land, even small acts of civility can go a long way.

During another outing in the woods, he encounters an on-the-run Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) and true to his character, Cookie offers to cook for him. Together, they find both friendship and a business opportunity, realized when King-Lu partakes in one of Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes” (think an old West version of a fried donut) and encourages him to set up a shop for them. It doesn’t take long for them to sell rapidly (like hotcakes, as the expression goes) and catch the tastebuds of the aristocrat Chief Factor (Toby Jones), whose wealth affords him the luxury of having the first cow in the Oregon territory. Little does Factor know, Cookie and King-Lu are actually using milk stolen from his prized cow to make their fast-selling confection.

Teaming up with frequent screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt has crafted yet another naturalistic and patiently-paced picture that solidifies her as a powerhouse of independent cinema. To watch one of her films is to inherit a new mindset of how movies can move within us and inspire us to see the world in a brand new way. As with almost all of her other work, Reichardt also serves as the editor and establishes a measured tempo from the outset. The present-day prologue opens with a tugboat moving slowly from one side of the 4:3 frame to the other, cutting just before the vessel entirely clears the shot. First Cow is filled with small choices like this that may seem insignificant but bear the mark of a meticulous artist with breathtaking control of her craft.

Reichardt’s vision is aided greatly by two fantastic lead performances by Magaro and Lee, whose on-screen chemistry is the heart and soul of the film. Magaro’s work as the soft-spoken Cookie reveals the vulnerability and open-heartedness of a gentle spirit who wants to make the world a better place, even if it’s just in small ways. The scenes in which Cookie makes small talk with the cow as he’s milking her are filled with a tenderness and reverence for animal life that I found to be incredibly moving. Lee brings a combination of entrepreneurial gumption and fugitive’s vigilance to his portrayal of the wise and slyly funny King-Lu.

Despite its relatively sparse narrative spread out over a 2-hour runtime, Reichardt packs the film with rich symbolism and subtext about American enterprise and the capitalistic forces that are constantly at play. A river-set scene around the film’s midpoint, during which Cookie and King-Lu debate on what it takes to get ahead in this still-developing land, lends fascinating insight into the decision-making process behind even the most modest of start-ups. First Cow is a delicate and quietly observed work from a filmmaker who continues to brilliantly blaze her own trail in the wild frontier of modern moviemaking.

Score – 4/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Available on demand is The Rental, a horror film starring Dan Stevens and Alison Brie about two couples who rent a vacation home and begin to suspect the owner of the home is spying on them.
Available on Netflix is The Kissing Booth 2, a teen romantic comedy starring Joey King and Joel Courtney about a high school senior who juggles a long-distance relationship with a new friendship with a classmate.
Available on Amazon Prime is Radioactive, a biopic starring Rosamund Pike and Anya Taylor-Joy about Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie and her discovery of the elements radium and polonium.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Da 5 Bloods

More than a visionary director or bold storyteller, I think of Spike Lee as a teacher. Not the boring high school instructor who drones on with the same prepared lectures year after year but the passionate educator who puts a fresh perspective on commonly accepted material. Each film of Lee’s is a re-education in American history and his new Netflix Joint Da 5 Bloods is no exception. This time, Lee takes aim at the Vietnam War and the inequalities leveled against the black community at a time when the civil rights movement suffered a huge setback in the loss of its defining leader, Martin Luther King Jr. But this isn’t just Lee’s commentary on the War; it’s a full-on war movie with thrilling action sequences and high entertainment value all around.

At the outset, in present day, we meet a group of Vietnam veterans who reunite in the country that made them brothers in arms. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) have returned, at least seemingly, to find the grave of their fallen captain Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). However, we learn through flashback that the squad recovered a case of gold bars in the cabin of a downed plane and buried the treasure throughout the hillside with the intention of digging it up someday. Aiding them in their decades-long pact are French exporters Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) and Desroche (Jean Reno), who offer to transport their vast fortune out of the country for a cut of the sum.

As a film historian, Lee can’t help but visually reference other well-known Vietnam War pictures from Apocalypse Now to Platoon, although his most clear influence is John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose most famous quote is cleverly reappropriated. Like that 1948 classic, the story is less about the titular prize and more about the collection of troubled personalities that pursue it. Each of the Bloods certainly have their issues but “troubled” doesn’t quite begin to cover Paul, a cantankerous and paranoid force of nature whose emotional wartime trauma has manifested into PTSD and an estrangement from his son David (Jonathan Majors).

Lindo has played smaller on-screen roles in the past (I’m embarrassed to say his work in Gone In 60 Seconds was previously my main point of reference for him) but he’s never been better than he is here. As the de-facto “leader” of the Bloods, he has a haunted acrimony to his demeanor that is at once repellent yet transfixing. His third-act monologues, delivered direct to camera with the fervor and ferocity of Colonel Kurtz, recall the “mirror” speech given by Edward Norton in Spike Lee’s post-9/11 opus 25th Hour. He delivers a searing and multi-faceted performance that is undoubtedly one of the year’s best.

Lee throws plenty at his audience during the staunch 155 minute runtime and while not every single concept or idea works entirely, there are more than enough successes to score a winning ratio. Among his better stylistic impulses is the inclusion of numerous Marvin Gaye tracks from dance hit “Got To Give It Up” to a stunning acapella rendition of “What’s Going On” that simply gave me goosebumps in its implementation. On a more surface level, the flashback firefights and present-day conflicts are both shot and edited with just the right amount of visual flourish for maximum impact. Urgent and unapologetic, Da 5 Bloods is another impressive statement from one of our most vital filmmakers.

Score – 4/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on demand is You Should Have Left, a psychological horror film starring Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried about a screenwriter who travels with his family to a remote cabin to pen his next script, only to suffer a severe case of writer’s block.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is 7500, an action thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a beleaguered airline pilot whose flight from Berlin to Paris is hijacked by a group of terrorists.
Available on Netflix is Wasp Network, a true story starring Penélope Cruz and Ana de Armas about five Cuban political prisoners who had been imprisoned by the United States since the late 1990s on charges of espionage and murder.

Rewritten by permission of Whatzup

The Way Back

“Little things add up; let’s do all the little things right.” So advises Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school basketball star who’s been tasked with coaching his alma mater’s failing basketball squad. It’s sound advice for a sports team and incidentally, valid advice for anyone battling through the depths of depression and grief. It just so happens that Jack, who is more deeply depressed than he even knows, isn’t doing either the little or big things right. Separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) for a year, Jack has isolated almost everyone from his life and drowns his loneliness with a constant supply of alcohol. When the opportunity to lead the aforementioned team presents itself, he rehearses his rejection speech intended for the head of the school while downing a 12-pack of his go-to lager before ultimately accepting the job.

As a redemption drama that could ostensibly be described as a “sports movie”, The Way Back is uncommonly insightful when it comes not only to addiction but how much strength it takes to overcome it, even temporarily. Jack thinks he’s hiding his alcoholism better than he really is, though he doesn’t have many people in his life to hide it from anyway. His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) chides him for being late for Thanksgiving dinner and even confronts him more directly later on, relaying gossip about him visiting the local watering hole Harold’s Place every night. “I’m fine. I appreciate it but it’s– I’m fine,” Jack grunts. As it’s said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one, even if Jack is still in denial when he accepts the coaching position that could set him on the right path.

I thought I knew what to expect going into The Way Back and you probably will too. As the director of other rousing sports films like Miracle and Warrior, Gavin O’Connor knows this and uses our knowledge of the genre to throw us off of the expected trajectory but not in a way that feels manipulative. Right up to the last frame, this film resonates with the stark authenticity that can only come from firsthand experience with the subject matter. Yes, there are training montages and yes, the team learns to overcome their interpersonal struggles in order to achieve success together as a team. The entire basketball angle, however, is always filtered through Jack’s perspective and O’Connor never loses sight of how much further he has to go to overcome his demons. Yes, coaching has given a reason for Jack to get out of bed in the morning but will that be enough for lasting change?

It feels strange to talk for this long about The Way Back and not discuss Affleck’s gut-wrenching and staggering lead performance, the finest of his 20+ year career. Rewatching 2000’s Boiler Room recently, I had in mind the cool and confident speeches he gave in that film and compared them to the impassioned words he shares with his team during timeouts here. This time, his voice cracks and he desperately shouts every word like it could be his last. Like his younger brother Casey’s Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea, Ben Affleck’s role is one marked by tremendous levels of personal pain which he both internalizes and externalizes brilliantly. It’s hard not to recall Nicolas Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas, where his character is either inebriated or hung over in every single scene. Affleck is even more nuanced in his portrayal of an aimless man searching for a way forward, despite the film’s slightly contradictory title.

Even if one goes into The Way Back simply looking for an inspiring sports movie, O’Connor and crew swish on the fundamentals that make for exciting basketball footage. The clear and concise editing from David Rosenbloom paired with the grounded cinematography by Eduard Grau will even have sports novices on the edges of their seats. Rob Simonsen’s music score begins with doleful stabs from dampened piano strings, gradually crescendoing to rousing heights with exultant percussion. Steeped in the messy realities of hard living, The Way Back is the kind of intimate and personal filmmaking that is sorely lacking from the major studio system.

Score – 4/5

Emma

Hot on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s awe-inspiring take on Little Women, we now have another iteration of a female-penned classic novel. Jane Austen’s Emma may be best known as the jumping off point for the mid-90s rom-com Clueless but in her directorial debut, Autumn de Wilde gives us a more traditional version of the tart tale. This is a sumptuous vision, filled with the lavish costume design and set decoration that we’d come to expect from a period piece like this, but also comes with flourishes that distinguish it from the genre. The film’s humor ranges from biting to whimsical and often within the same scene, which perfectly suits the flitting nature of the title character.

This time around, the haughty and posh matchmaker Emma Woodhouse is played by Glass star Anya Taylor-Joy. She cares for her father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) within their massive estate, though he largely stays removed from her affairs. To pass the time, she latches onto subjects around her and becomes interspersed with their romantic prospects, most notably the naive young orphan Harriet (Mia Goth). She has eyes for the plainspoken farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) but Emma maintains that she can do much better for herself and attempts to set her up instead with the obsequious Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Through all of this, Emma pursues a friendship with the fetching Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who sees past her conniving ways and into her true essence.

Emma has always been a bit of a tricky character, as she has to straddle that line of arrogance and amiability, and Taylor-Joy captures this dichotomy even better than Paltrow did in the 1996 film adaptation. From the way she blithely pushes open a carriage window with a flippant tap of her index finger to the way she violently fans herself upon being bested by a friend’s pianoforte performance, she has all the mannerisms that capture the self-assured yet insecure nature of her character. As Knightly, Flynn is a grounded and cunning foil to the more flighty Emma and the two performers have a winning chemistry from their initial scene together. After a heartbreaking scene in which Emma makes an impudent remark towards Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Knightley properly reproaches Emma and we’re reminded that this heroine is far from fault herself.

Set across a full year in the charming village of Highbury, with each season getting its own title card, we feel the passage of time ebb and flow as alliances are forged and broken. This movement is aided greatly by the enchanting and vivacious musical score by Isabel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, which is so spirited that you’d be forgiven for thinking the characters could break out in song at any moment. Adding to the opulent table setting is the diverse and vibrant costume design by Alexandra Byrne, which outfits the women with exquisite dresses that practically tell their own story and the men with pompous collars so high and stiff that it’s a wonder they can muster any breath at all.

As costume dramas go, Emma isn’t quite as subversive and biting as The Favourite or Love and Friendship but it’s certainly no stuffy affair either. There are plenty of laughs to be had at the periphery, especially from Bill Nighy’s Woodhouse character, who doesn’t speak often but effortlessly lands some of the film’s funniest quips. Whether he’s sniping at Mr. Elton’s pronunciation of “innocence” or hiding behind a fort of fire screens in his ornate parlor, his pouty patriarch is a welcome presence at every turn. Emma is yet another example of timeless literature finding its match with a promising young talent on the rise.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunt, starring Betty Gilpin and Emma Roberts, is a politically-charged thriller about a group of strangers who discover that they are being hunted for sport by wealthy members of a secret organization.
Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel and Eiza González, follows a slain marine as he is brought back to life with nanotechnology and turned into an impervious super soldier.
Opening at Cinema Center is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, about a a female painter commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman in 18th century France.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler disappears into another dominant dramatic role in Uncut Gems, a frenetic and fraught character study of a hopelessly degenerate gambler with his back perpetually against the wall. Benny and Josh Safdie, who also helmed 2017’s similarly frenzied Good Time, have perfected a brand of controlled chaos that’s designed to maintain an almost unbearable level of tension throughout. Playing out like a two-hour panic attack, the film captures a seedy subsection of New York where nothing ever seems to slow down and everyone is constantly grinding for the next big score. It’s unquestionably a stressful world to inhabit, so much so that audiences will likely have to catch their breath after they leave the theater.

We first meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy, a rare moment when he’s not in motion. To say that Howard has problems would be a massive understatement. He owes money to bookies all over the city, whose enforcers seem to lurk behind every corner. We see Howard make bets with money that he shouldn’t have in the first place and pawn merchandise from his jewelry store to cover his losses. His only saving grace comes in the form of an uncut Ethiopian opal that he smuggles into the country, which he intends to put to auction but makes the mistake of showing it to NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) first. This throws Howard’s plan completely out of orbit and sets off a chain of events that make his situation even more desperate than it already was.

Uncut Gems finds a totem that encapsulates its protagonist perfectly in an early scene when Howard shows off a blinged-out Furby necklace to Garnett and his entourage. With its creepy smile and manic shifty eyeballs, it perfectly symbolizes who Howard is and what gambling addiction has done to his life. And it’s not as if he’s unaware either; “I’m so stressed out,” he laments to his mistress as she offers a consolation cuddle. That he can’t see a way to rise above his problems is obviously tragic but the more we get to know Howard, the more we come to understand that he is likely the source of almost all of his misfortune. After all, he’s morally reprehensible, brazenly tactless and about as egomaniacal as one could be.

Despite this, we somehow still root for Howard in his escalating endeavors and almost all of that credit goes to Sandler in a role that may have been fully intolerable had another actor been involved instead. We’ve gotten tastes of his dramatic chops in Punch-Drunk Love and more recently in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) but here, he raises his game even higher than he has in the past. As we all know, Sandler has done loads of terrible comedies in the past and he will almost certainly commit to more in the future. My feeling is that if that’s what he needs to do for us to get a performance as revelatory as the one in this film, then it might all just be worth it.

The Safdies have proven yet again that no one makes films that are quite as propulsive and unnerving as their own. They push our expectations for just how stressful a situation can become and how much worse things can get for our protagonist. While there are brief moments of respite and release, anxiety permeates nearly every fiber of the film. Uncut Gems is like a domino set if the dominos were replaced with sticks of dynamite, where every interaction and obstacle is calibrated for maximum impact.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, starring Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, brings the nine-part “Skywalker saga” to a close as Rey and Kylo Ren battle for the fate of the universe.
Cats, starring James Corden and Taylor Swift, is a big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical from Tom Hooper, the director of 2012’s Les Misérables.
Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, centers around the true story of three female Fox News reporters and their allegations against its founder Roger Ailes.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Knives Out

Writer/director Rian Johnson follows up his divisive Star Wars entry The Last Jedi with Knives Out, a venomous and vivacious modern update on the classic whodunnit genre. Indebted equally to the work of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, this throwback murder-mystery is packed with just the right amount of twists and turns to keep audiences guessing while still keeping things relatively plausible. Not only does the film wield the most qualified cast of any movie this year but it provides each actor and actress a role suited perfectly to their capabilities and strengths as a performer. Add in bits of scathing humor and (mostly) incisive social commentary and you have one of the year’s most purely enjoyable spectacles.

The day after his 85th birthday party, the lifeless body of prolific mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in his labyrinthine mansion. While it initially appears to be a suicide, renown detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects there’s more to the story and calls back the guests from the previous evening for interrogation. That includes an eccentric ensemble of family members: Harlan’s sardonic eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), his meek youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) and free-spirited daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), among others. Also called for questioning is Harlan’s faithful caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas), whose perspective outside of the family may hold the key to solving the case.

The Thrombey clan, which also includes Harlan’s haughty grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) and his shifty son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), is filled with the fiendish motives and shaky alibis that we’ve come to expect from this type of story. Kicking off with a superbly edited sequence that introduces us to each of the players, Johnson uses subjective narration and conflicting claims to keep us on our toes as we try to keep track of the constantly moving pieces. His script, which crackles with sharp-tongued dialogue that suits each character perfectly, also includes enough red herrings to throw even the most astute viewers for a loop.

The performances from the excellent ensemble cast are consistently stellar, mainly because each performer seems to be have so much darn fun with their respective roles. Coming across as Hercule Poirot by way of Colonel Sanders, Craig’s peculiar PI postulates with a ridiculous Southern drawl that recalls his madcap character in 2017’s Logan Lucky. Now in the post-Captain America phase of his career, Evans is freed up to channel a devious energy that gives the film most of its biggest laughs. Even in a more straight-laced heroine role, Ana de Armas gives her protagonist the grace and soulfulness to make her sympathetic from the start.

If there’s disappointment in Knives Out, it’s that we don’t get to spend quite enough time with each of the sharply-drawn characters, especially in the third act as the web of lies and deceit becomes untangled. The stacked cast tends to shine brightest as they’re shuffled between questioning at the outset but their presence becomes more sparse as the clues start to narrow on just a few suspects. Still, each of the actors get their licks in as they vie for screen time; even Frank Oz shows up as Harlan’s beleaguered lawyer who heads up a spirited reading of the mogul’s will. Knives Out is yet another successful attempt of genre experimentation from one of our most earnestly passionate filmmakers.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, is a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde story about a couple who go on the run after a minor traffic violation leads to the shooting of a police officer.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend only is the cult classic Dial Code Santa Claus, a French thriller that came out a year before Home Alone but shares a similar plot about a child staving off a burglar on Christmas Eve.
Coming to Netflix is the long-awaited Martin Scorsese epic The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, about an aging mob hitman who recalls his possible involvement with the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Tom Hanks dons the famous hand-knit sweaters of Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, a tender-hearted and touching tribute to the television icon and the countless people that he inspired. Rather than go the traditional biopic route of covering the subject’s entire life and career, director Marielle Heller details the profound impact that Fred Rogers had on one person’s life to symbolize his larger cultural influence. As a companion to last year’s stellar documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this narrative feature further explores the philosophy and worldview of a man who did everything he could to heal the world and make humanity just a little bit kinder.

The film’s true story centers around Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a hard-hearted Esquire journalist who seems to have met his match when he’s tasked with profiling the altruistic TV star Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd’s wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is at first shocked by the news, then leaves him with one request as he jets off to Rogers’ hometown of Pittsburgh: “please don’t ruin my childhood.” From the moment he sets foot on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood set, Vogel seems committed to staying emotionally unattached while interviewing his subject but as he spends more time with the soft-spoken Rogers, his cynical exterior slowly begins to erode.

When it was announced early last year that Tom Hanks would be portraying the legendary television star, the news almost seemed too good to be true. The pitch-perfect casting pays off early and often; as soon as Hanks steps onto the TV set singing the spritely theme song, there is no doubt that he is Fred Rogers. Hanks continually threads the needle between impression and caricature, channeling Rogers’ calm and soothing cadence without overplaying things. Rhys is also terrific as the peevish counterpoint to the benevolent Rogers, unveiling years of pain and personal turmoil within each conversation.

If Hanks as Rogers is the film’s headline, then the comparatively underrated aspect of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is the imaginative and unconventional direction by Heller. Amid the film’s emotionally poignant tale, she adds playful touches like implementing miniature sets in the style of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to draw us closer to the fantastical world created by the film’s main character. Heller also works with editor Anne McCabe to recreate the patient and thoughtful pacing of Rogers’ landmark show. A quiet scene late in the film, a meditative and magical moment that I won’t dare spoil here, is one of the most captivating of the year.

With such a divine and seemingly infallible central figure at its core, there is a concern going into the film that it may try to uncover negative aspects of Rogers’ life. Those fears are allayed quickly as Heller certainly doesn’t seem interested in throwing mud on his legacy and instead, she humanizes him while bolstering his gracious persona at the same time. Above all, the movie seems utterly sincere in its depiction of both a hurting soul and the opposing force determined to heal it. Full of warmth and wisdom, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood showcases the simple power of human connection amid increasingly turbulent times.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Frozen II, starring Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, continues the journey of Elsa and Anna as they set out across an enchanted land to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.
21 Bridges, starring Chadwick Boseman and Sienna Miller, is a police drama about an NYPD detective who puts all of New York City on lockdown in order for him and the authorities to defeat a pair of cop killers.
Playing this weekend at Cinema Center is a documentary double feature of Pollinators, which follows migratory beekeepers and their truckloads of honey bees and Fantastic Fungi, which explores the burgeoning market of fungi-based products.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ad Astra

Brad Pitt gives a career-best performance as an unflappable astronaut pushing the boundaries of outer space in Ad Astra, a ruminative and rich examination of a seemingly impenetrable man. Those expecting a science-fiction adventure like Apollo 13 or Armageddon may want to recalibrate their expectations; this film’s philosophical and psychological streak puts it more in the company of films like Solaris and last year’s First Man. It asks us to consider the mindset of a person who willingly risks their life to push forward into dark void of space and also to consider how that unimaginable journey would inevitably change them.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, who, in a similar fashion to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, tells the audience in opening voiceover narration “I always wanted to be an astronaut.” He admits the biggest reason for this is his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), also a highly revered astronaut before he disappeared on his final mission called The Lima Project. After a harrowing early scene that showcases Roy’s expertise and resiliency, he’s brought in for a new mission to investigate cosmic pulses near Neptune that are causing worldwide electronics malfunctions on Earth in a catastrophe nicknamed “The Surge.”

As McBride travels from the Moon to Mars and ultimately to Neptune, we’re reminded each step of the way just how harsh and unforgiving the environment around him is. Once we leave the comparatively bright setting of Earth, McBride’s surroundings seem to only get more bleak and dangerous from there on out. At one point, he has to wade through pitch-black waters in order to catch a shuttle with only a precarious rope as his guide. In case he needed a reminder that space is not designed around comfort, the stewardess on his trip to the Moon nonchalantly relays that the cost for an in-flight blanket would be $125.

Director James Gray, who also examined the psyche of a fearless pioneer with his last film The Lost City Of Z, fashions his brand of stoic storytelling onto a fittingly stoic protagonist. As a profoundly withdrawn man whose cool exterior slows chips away, Pitt is excellent at conveying the subtle emotional changes within his character. With the film’s themes concerning fatherhood and parental neglect along with Pitt’s pensive voiceover throughout, I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, where Pitt played the father figure instead of the son as he does here. While I would argue Gray doesn’t quite have the writing chops to mirror the hushed narration of Malick’s best work, the technique works more often than it doesn’t.

With cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also shot Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, Gray paints a portrait of outer space marked by its stark isolation with touches of beauty along the way. His film is an anxious one, where stress and worry permeate through both the most battle-tested veterans and the most air-tight capsules alike. It can be a dispiriting and depressing ride at times, though not as much as High Life from earlier this year, but Gray leaves the door open for hope and reconciliation to carry his audience to the end. Ad Astra reminds us that regardless of the traveler, the journey is often more important than the destination.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Abominable, starring Chloe Bennet and Sarah Paulson, is an animated adventure tale about a magical Yeti who looks like reconnect with its family on the top of Mount Everest.
Judy, starring Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock, is an Oscar-aspiring biopic centered around the life and career of American icon Judy Garland, focusing specifically on a run of sell-out concerts she put on in 1969 London.
Opening at Cinema Center is Ay Mariposa, a documentary set along the US-Mexico border wall that follows a protester, a migrant worker and a symbolic butterfly as they adjust to the changing political climate.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

High Life

Opening at Cinema Center this weekend, the new Claire Denis film High Life stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, an astronaut who lives in an otherwise abandoned spaceship with his newborn daughter. Through flashbacks, we learn that Monte is actually one of several violent criminals serving life sentences on the ship undergoing a dangerous mission to extract energy from a distant black hole. As the story continues, we learn more about a creepy doctor named Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and a heinous experiment that she is secretly performing on the prisoners behind their backs.

In nearly every way, this film is designed to challenge, provoke and even disgust its audience. The aggressively non-linear storytelling that Denis uses to tell this troubling and distressing tale makes it difficult to even form a coherent storyline in one’s head. Piecing the story together during the film is difficult enough but even mentally re-arranging the scenes together after the fact can also prove to be strenuous. Even those who are comfortable with atypical chronology could still be turned off by its perverse and often shocking subject material; I would implore potential viewers to take the MPAA rating very seriously.

Having said all of that, High Life is an exceptionally well-crafted and almost overwhelmingly haunting blend of science-fiction and horror that lingers in the memory far after the end credits roll. Its deliberate pace and ruminative camera recalls the work of Tarkovsky, particularly Solaris, but some of the nightmarish imagery and visceral scares also reminded me of the 90s chiller Event Horizon. Even with those two relatively disparate films as touchstones, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to characterize this beguiling film but that may well be one of its greatest strengths.

If there’s a central theme to be mined from this enigmatic, puzzle box of a movie, it’s that hope and love can still found amidst the bleakest and desperate of circumstances. Onboard a dingy spaceship with flickering lights and sputtering AC units, the crew on board must fill out a status report to a computer just to continue the 24-hour cycle of functional support systems as they hurtle into the unknown. Even at the brink of oblivion, Denis treats us to quiet scenes of Monte doing his best to lovingly raise his daughter with as much grace and warmth as he can muster.

Driving these fatherly scenes home is Robert Pattinson, probably still best known for his lead role as a hunky vampire in the five incredibly lucrative Twilight films that concluded with Breaking Dawn – Part 2 in 2012. Since then, he has pushed himself with demanding roles in films like The Rover and Good Time which showcase a level of talent that would have been difficult to forecast from those YA adaptations. He may further alienate his fans if he continues to challenge himself with these kinds of roles but if it means we get films like High Life as a result, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Pokémon Detective Pikachu, starring Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith, adapts the popular video game phenomenon to a live-action/animated story about a talking creature who helps a young man search for his missing father.
The Hustle, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, is a gender-swapped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels about two scam artists who plan to take revenge on the men who wronged them.
Poms, starring Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver, follows a group of women from a retirement community looking to take one last shot at their dreams by forming a cheerleading squad.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup