Wednesday, December 4, 2019
“The Aeronauts” has a great, rousing aerial adventure story to tell and a pair of engaging characters to carry it. It’s a thrilling piece of white-knuckle historical entertainment.
But there’s a big “but.”
It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film, but it’s worth talking about. More on that in a bit.
Eddie Redmayne plays James Glaisher, a noted scientist and “aeronaut,” which was the term for people who flew in hot-air balloons before there were airplanes. He was a pioneer of meteorology, arguing mankind had the ability to predict the weather.
As played skillfully by Redmayne, Glaisher is a bookworm with an obstinate streak, a hardscrabble young striver determined to show up his scientist elders who scoff at his crackpot theories. What he lacks in charisma he makes up for in mettle.
The uppity yin to his sour yang is Felicity Jones as Amelia Rennes. She is a celebrated aeronaut pilot who shows up to her launches in pure carnival mode -- including somersaults, doggie sidekick and crowd-pleasing boasts. Rennes understands that balloon flight is as much showbiz as science, and without an audience and financial backers, nobody goes up.
She’s a brash proto-feminist who knows how to please the masses while brusquely pushing aside the all-male power structures that would limit her achievements.
Jones’ is by far the more delightful and proactive character, and the bulk of the death-defiance is performed by Rennes. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, directed by Tom Harper from a script by Jack Thorne, you already know about the scenes where she clambers up the side of the balloon while thousands of feet in the icy air.
Clearly, this film will prove a special challenge for those with acrophobia. I can’t even get up on a 6-foot ladder without getting the willies, so you can imagine how I felt during all the yawning shots of the ground staring at us from far below.
Trust me, the CGI special effects are very convincing.
The story centers on an attempt by the British to set a new height record in 1862, after the dastardly French had taken the crown. Aeronauts would plunge into the open skies without oxygen tanks, braving frigid temperatures, howling winds and mind-twisting atmospheric conditions. More than a few died.
It was a historic achievement by Glaisher, though not terribly well remembered today. So “The Aeronauts” gives us the pleasure of rediscovering a bit of forgotten lore.
You will notice I just mentioned Glaisher and did not write “and Rennes.” Here comes the “but.”
Rennes is a completely invented figure. Glaisher did not have a female partner during his ascent.
That’s fine as far as it goes – movies are wont to change history all over the place if it serves their storytelling purpose. (For example, the real Glaisher was an established scientist in his 50s in 1862, not a boyish Redmayne lookalike.)
And it’s good to recognize the overlooked role women have played in the advancement of science and discovery over the centuries. Rennes is based on some notable real-life women aeronauts, especially Sophie Blanchard. In the movie, Rennes lost her husband in an earlier ballooning tragedy, as did Blanchard.
Except Glaisher did have an actual partner for the flight, named Henry Coxwell. And he gets written out of the story entirely.
Coxwell was also middle-aged and a dentist to boot, so not nearly as exciting as a woman daredevil performing showstopper stunts.
I’m not sure how I feel about the switcheroo. Historians should be affronted – imagine doing a movie about Lewis & Clark and they swap out Clark for a nonexistent female explorer. Certainly if I was one of Clark’s descendants, I’d be pretty irked.
But I’m here to review movies, not get all intersectional on ya.
I say “The Aeronauts” is a terrific piece of entertainment, even if it treats the historical record as dead weight, like a sand bag to be untied so the balloon can soar higher.
Monday, December 2, 2019
Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a brief golden period for fantasy filmmaking. It arrived just I was coming of age, playing Dungeons & Dragons and delving into movies, novels and comic books.
It was a great time to be a kid with an imagination bent toward orcs and magic chainmail armor.
(I mean, wasn't every 8-year-old checking out books on Norse mythology from the adult section of the library?)
The content of these movies straddled the line between fluffy fantasies geared toward kids and hard-R adult adventures -- with "Conan the Barbarian," "Excalibur" and "Highlander" representing the apotheosis of the mature fare in terms of budget and ambition.
A lot of the kiddie stuff was just dreadful, which I think ended up dooming the genre as popular entertainment for a good long while. Parents were uncomfortable with small children watching movies replete with death and magic, and teens and young adults were turned off by the rigorously family-friendly nature of stuff like "The NeverEnding Story."
Straddling the line between these polar ends with the perfect mix of whimsy and terror was "Dragonslayer."
A terrible commercial flop when it came out, it was a Disney film at a time when they were branded entirely as a production house for children's movies. So despite its tame PG rating -- prior to the advent of PG-13 three years later -- the healthy servings of violence, blood, vaguely anti-religious themes, fearsome special effects creatures and even a little gore and nudity came as a shock to parents who brought their families expecting another "Herbie Goes Bananas."
It's largely remembered now for its pre-CGI dragon special effects, which still look amazing despite the occasional herky-jerkiness of stop-motion animation. Fully one-quarter of the film's $14 million budget went toward the dragon, designed by David Bunnett and a notable early achievement by George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic work on a non-Star Wars film.
The dragon was even given its own name: Vermithrax Pejorative, which roughly translates from Latin as "the worm of Thrace who makes things worse." Director Matthew Robbins, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hal Barwood, expertly teases out our early glimpses of the black beast, much as Steven Spielberg did with "Jaws," only revealing bits at a time till near the end.
It's hard to look at more recent depictions of dragons such as in "Game of Thrones" or "The Hobbit" without seeing the snaky, horned influence of Vermithrax. Cinematically speaking, he is the godfather of flying wyrms.
The story has a theme common to old-school fantasy fiction: the idea that the innate magic of the world is fading, and we are passing from colorful mythology into staid history. There are no hobbits or elves in this story, and all the great sorcerers have died save Ralph Richardson's Ulrich of Cragganmore. The robed priests of the "new" religion, aka Christianity, are becoming commonplace.
One thing I had never noticed before this most recent viewing is that actor Ian McDiarmid, aka Emperor Palpatine himself, plays the arrogant priest who defies the dragon in an early scene and is burnt to a crisp for his efforts. His growl when he curses Vermithrax as a "foul beast" gave him away.
The star of the show is Peter MacNicol playing Galen Bradwarden, the young apprentice to Ulrich. MacNicol had that look very popular for sensitive male movie characters of the time: high-voiced, effeminate features, meek stature and a nimbus of light-brown-to-dark-blond curls -- a sort of golden halo/afro. See Christopher Makepeace, Chris Atkins or Dennis Christopher from "Breaking Away."
MacNicol actually auditioned for the latter role, but ended up making his film debut in "Dragonslayer." He's been a busy actor in film and television ever since.
I like his mix of brash confidence and crippling sense of self-doubt, using one to hide the other. Galen is utterly subservient to Ulrich, but when the master is killed the apprentice becomes a case study in unearned courage.
The story is pretty straightforward: a delegation of peasants from the kingdom of Urland travel to Cragganmore to enlist the aid of Ulrich to kill the dragon, which has plagued their land for generations.
After multiple failures at killing the beast failed, the calculating current king, Casiodorus (Peter Eyre), has implemented a lottery system in which virgin girls are sacrificed to the dragon twice a year. The common people have grown fed up with this arrangement -- especially as none of the royal or rich folks' daughters have ever been picked over the ensuing decades.
Vermithrax is never depicted speaking, but appears to have at least a base level of intelligence above that of a simple beast. It apparently abides by the lottery, refraining from raiding the countryside as long as regular meals show up.
I say "it" because the dragon's gender is never clearly defined. It's eventually revealed to have a trio of young offspring, so Vermithrax could be female -- raising the question of when it mated with a male -- or dragons reproduce asexually. It seems the dragon is cagey enough to accept the lottery arrangement to mitigate any threats while raising its brood to maturity.
Examining scales and a tooth collected from the mouth of the lair by the leader of the peasants, the willful boy Valerian, Ulrich deduces that the dragon is quite ancient:
"When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit, crippled, pitiful... spiteful!"
This would seem to set up an epic clash: the last of the great wizards versus the last of the mighty dragons.
Of course, things change when the king's malevolent general, Tyrian -- played by John Hallam, with a creased, dark visage made for cinematic villainy -- shows up to nip this little insurgency in the bud. He challenges Ulrich's bonafides, prompting the old magic user to cast a spell on a dagger and invite Tyrian to plunge it into his breast.
Ulrich falls dead, his body is cremated in a sorcerous green fire, and Galen decides to take up the crusade for himself. The villagers are contemptuous of the young upstart, but are impressed when he manages to cause a rockslide to bury the solitary opening to the dragon's lair, trapping it. (Though not for long, as we shall see.)
I'm always intrigued how the logistics of magic use are depicted in various works of fantasy fiction. In some, such as Middle-Earth, there seem to be no specific limits on a wizard's abilities, other than what the storytelling situation demands. Others, like the Harry Potter series, establish a lot of rules and then ignore or break them as needed.
The spellcasters of "Dragonslayer" lie somewhere in the middle. They effect their magic through Latin incantations and hand-waving prestidigitations. Through this they can do simple things like telekinesis, lighting or snuffing out fires, etc. For more complex divinations, they employ chemical reagents, staves and the like.
The single "magic item" in this universe is Ulrich's amulet, which appears as an unassuming whitish hexahedron jewel with a dragon's claw setting and a leather loop to be worn as a necklace. Before allowing himself to be slain, Ulrich hands the amulet over to Galen. When the youngster assumes the quest, he uses the artifact to focus and/or magnify his own nascent powers.
There are no spoiler warnings after nearly 40 years, so I'll cut to the chase to talk about how Ulrich is resurrected through the power of the amulet, and its destruction results in the magnificent explosion of his body, dealing the killing blow to Vermithrax. It turns out Ulrich's entire enlistment of Galen was a ruse, as he knew his aging body could not make the long journey to Urland.
When you think about it, he used Galen quite badly, leveraging the boy's ambitions to be the inheritor of Ulrich's power in service to his own methods. Galen ends the movie dispossessed, his dreams snuffed... though he garners other rewards.
I wonder if this is what Ulrich planned all along, or if the appearance of Tyrian unexpectedly presented an elegant mode to transport his form from here to there.
Ulrich is shown having a certain amount of foresight -- he knows who the villagers are and what their mission is before they can say more than a handful of words -- so my guess is he had been planning for these events for some time. I would bet he created the amulet not too long before in order to temporarily house his essence.
The other big reveal of the movie is that Valerian, played by stage actress Caitlin Clarke, is actually a young woman. Her widower father, the blacksmith Simon (Emrys James), disguised her at birth as a boy in order to avoid the virgin lottery. It's an arguably passable depiction with Clarke's lovely, slightly androgynous features, paigeboy haircut and deep, resonant voice.
Once the ruse is abandoned, during the brief time the dragon is believed dead, many other Urlanders comment upon the cleverness of Simon's trick. But my guess is there would've been dozens or even hundreds of such cross-gender imposters.
It's left fuzzy why only females are chosen for sacrifice -- I doubt Vermithrax would be so choosy about its twice-annual meals. Certainly it would not care if they're virgins -- speaking of which, how in the world is that standard held to account?
This ingenious lottery system would seem to have the effect of prompting girls to cross-dress, marry quickly, have sex at an early age or lie about it.
It's a fairly small cast of characters for a movie with a relatively epic scale. The only other three notable ones are Sydney Bromley as Hodge, Ulrich's equally ancient, cantankerous serving man; Albert Salmi as Greil, a testy, doubting Thomas villager who ends up taking on the mantle of the local priest with greater success than his predecessor; and Chloe Salaman as Princess Elspeth, Casiodorus' surprisingly idealistic daughter.
The depiction of women in the movie is a mix of progressive and reactionary values indicative of the early 1980s. In their own ways Valerian and Elspeth are quite headstrong and contemptuous of the traditional power structures of men.
Elspeth acts with her own agency, freeing Galen from her father's dungeon upon learning the lottery is rigged. She also sacrifices herself to the dragon in the name of equanimity, conspiring to put her name on all the tiles of the lottery to make up for having been held off it for so long.
Valerian retains a certain glum charm, although the character loses a lot of steam after "converting" to womanhood. She grows resentful of Galen's admiration of Elspeth's virtue, exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior toward the boy she likes until he finally gives in.
The penultimate battle between Galen and Vermithrax, and the final one with Ulrich tagging in, retain every ounce of the power and glory they had in 1981. Stripped of the amulet, Galen uses a heavy metal spear forged long ago by Simon -- which he dubs Sicarius Dracorum, thus providing the film's title -- and a shield of dragon scales made by Valerian.
There's quite a healthy disgorgement of the dragon's blood after Galen stabs it in the back of the head and neck, which along with the earlier revelation of Elspeth's dismembered body, heartily test the limits of that PG rating.
Ulrich, revived from his ashes in the lake of burning water where Vermithrax resides, does battle from atop a high mountain, calling forth lightning to wound the creature and even resisting its fiery breath. Of course, he's just trying to goad the beast into carrying him away in its talons, presumably for a savored meal.
A lot of movies age poorly -- like Ulrich and Vermithrax, their power fades with time and the advent of the latest usurpers. But for my money "Dragonslayer" is every bit the thrilling piece of imagination it was almost four decades past.
It may be too gruesome to deserve the label of "family entertainment." But like the best fantasy it plucks at our dreams of what could be.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
Maybe you, like me, have been scratching your head over the antics of Shia LaBeouf the past few years. The arrests, the publicity stunts-slash-performance art, the public drunkenness, the lawsuit alleging plagiarism, the questionable choices of roles. For the rare child actor who successfully transitioned to adult movie stardom, he seemed to be taking great pains to screw it all up.
I’d noticed he was doing more interesting work more recently with nicely layered performances in small indies like “American Honey” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon” -- in supporting parts, no less.
His comeback, if you want to call it that, reaches a higher plane with “Honey Boy,” which LaBeouf again stars in as a supporting role, but for which he also wrote the screenplay. With parallel storylines set in 1995 and 20005, it’s about a 12-year-old actor breaking into Hollywood on a kiddie TV show and then breaking down in alcoholism and arrests as young star on the verge of flaming out.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is indeed an autobiographical tale about LaBeouf’s own youth, particularly his troubled relationship with his father. The names and some details are switched around, but it’s indisputably LaBeouf casting a critical lens at his own life and mistakes.
Rather than feeling like another cloying act of narcissism -- like when LaBeouf attended one of his premieres wearing paper bag that said “I’m not famous anymore” -- “Honey Boy” has the flavor of an authentic self-exploration that’s also artistically vibrant and alive. It would make for an interesting story even if it were invented out of whole cloth.
In a daring act, LaBeouf -- even though he’s youthful-looking enough to play himself in the adult section -- casts himself as his father, here called James. This is not a “Mommie Dearest” sort of takedown of a parental figure, though the film does not try to obviate James’ failings as a parent, which range from emotional domineering to criminal neglect and occasional physical abuse.
Instead, it shows a willingness to embrace his father in all his fractured complexity. A war veteran and itinerant rodeo clown whose blackout drinking binges led to hard time in prison, James is now a lonely, somewhat pathetic figure whose “job” is to act as chaperone and acting coach to his son, who is a featured player on a Disney-esque TV show.
Despite the glamor of working on a studio lot every day, Otis (Noah Jupe) and James have anything but a hifalutin home life. They tool around on an old motorcycle to a dilapidated motel populated by people living on the trashier edge of Tinseltown.
James brusquely slaps away Otis’ attempts at holding hands or leaning a head on a shoulder while riding the motorcycle. With thinning long hair and owl-like glasses, LaBeouf as James resembles a hippie-turned-hardcase, who sprinkles his exhortations liberally with f-words and put-downs, like making disparaging comparisons about the size of their genitalia.
In the adult sequences, Lucas Hedges takes over the role of Otis. We first meet him dangling from some stunt ropes after a movie set filled with explosions in a very “Transformers” sort of way. He quickly gets drunk and crashes his car, leading to court-ordered rehab.
A solid supporting cast includes Laura San Giacomo as Otis’ therapist; Byron Bowers as his rehab roommate; and Martin Starr as one of the counselors. In the boyhood storyline FKA Twigs plays a shy older girl who lives in the motel room across the way. As James’ abuse reaches its zenith, Otis seeks out a mostly unspoken romance with her. Clifton Collins Jr. has a nice, small part as Otis’ ultra-cool Big Brother, Tom.
“Honey Boy” is directed by Alma Har’el, who’s made some notable documentaries (“Bombay Beach”) and makes her feature film debut here, as does LaBeouf as a screenwriter. It’s a fruitful partnership with a compelling narrative that sometimes wanders into and out of Otis’ dreams, or wishes.
People, including me, tend to mock millionaire showbiz types who seem incapable of dealing with lifestyles most of us would regard as a cakewalk. I don’t think LaBeouf made this movie to explain or justify his behavior, but simply to relate his own truth in an honest, empathetic way. This he does.
Sunday, November 24, 2019
More than anyone else working in Hollywood today, Quentin Tarantino makes movies strictly for himself. The audience’s reaction is a mere afterthought.
His latest, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” falls about in the middle of his oeuvre. It's a big, sprawling, unfocused mess that nonetheless contains moments of Tarantino-esque intensity and entertainingly unhinged moods.
The story more or less centers on the duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a fading actor clutching to the last scraps of fame from a long-canceled cowboy TV show, and Pitt is Cliff Booth, a laconic stuntman who is his stunt double, driver and gofer.
Dalton is outwardly McQueen-esque bravado but is inwardly Woody Allen-ish neuroticism. Booth lives in a scrap-heap trailer and has just a dog for companionship. Their relationship is part boss/flunky, part drinking buddies, part nanny/child.
DiCaprio has the showier part, swinging through wild moods while being spectacularly unappreciative of a career that's superior to that 99.99% actors enjoy. But ultimately I felt drawn to Pitt's character, an aging cowboy tooling around in a Champion spark plug T and Hawaiian shirt slip-on, never seeming to worry about what tomorrow will bring.
The movie never really seems to focus on either character, trading back and forth on their solo movements while occasionally bringing them back together. I yearned for the latter sections and mostly suffered through the former.
The tie-in with the Manson murders seems concocted just to have something to bounce the boys off of, or give the piece a semblance of a narrative. Margot Robbie barely has any speaking lines as Sharon Tate, who lives in the house up the hill from Rick along with her husband, Roman Polanski. She is sometimes seen and barely heard.
Like "Inglorious Basterds," the historical record is used as a mere springboard for Tarantino’s fevered imagineering.
The writer/director/noted amateur podiatrist flies his foot fetish flag freely this go-round, with lots of close-ups of filthy hippie hooves. I wonder why at some point these big-name actors don't say, "Hey dude, sorry but I don't want to do this scene with some girl's feet in my face."
Hey, ya like tootsies, that's fine by me. I just find it distracting and icky to have a scene where half the screen is Margot Robbie's face reacting to stuff and the other half is her soles. And the fact that nearly every woman who appears in the movie has a scene like this.
There are certainly some entertaining parts to it, but my guess is the person who will most enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie is Tarantino himself.
Bonus features are rooted in additional scenes that pad another 20 minutes onto the film’s already ample run time, bringing it to a full three hours. There ae also five making-of documentary featurettes:
- “Quentin Tarantino’s Love Letter to Hollywood”
- “Bob Richardson – For the Love of Film”
- “Shop Talk – The Cars of 1969”
- “Restoring Hollywood – The Production Design of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”
- “The Fashion of 1969”
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
It may not hold a candle to the original, but "Frozen 2" is a bright and energetic romp through familiar frozen tundras. It's also got some fairly dark and dramatic patches, so fair warning that wee ones may clamber into your lap halfway through the movie.
(Full feeling has almost returned to my thighs.)
Elsa, Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and all the rest are back for another magical tale that's, well, just not quite as magical. I was trying think about what made "Frozen" so transcendentally good, and what element is missing here.
Let's start with the music. Robin Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez again provide the songs, and sadly not one of them is as catchy or memorable as from the first movie. Certainly nothing as instantly recognizable and iconic as "Let It Go."
The moment you heard that, you knew the contest for the Best Song Oscar was over.
Probably the tune that comes closest to matching those thrills is "Into the Unknown," another high-soaring Broadway-style showstopper ballad sung by Idina Menzell, who does the voice of Queen Elsa. It's about her daring to risk the relative peace and calm her kingdom, Arendelle, has found in the six years that have passed -- in real time and in the film's universe -- in order to seek out the answers to nagging questions that haven't even been asked.
But more so than just the quality of the songs, it's the way they're used in the movie that feels like a downgrade.
Some films are musicals, and some are just movies interrupted by songs. "Frozen" was definitely in the first category, as each tune propelled the story forward and revealed the characters' traits and emotions. Think of Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Hans falling for each over the course of "Love Is An Open Door."
In the sequel, the songs feel like interruptions carefully timed every 10 minutes or so. They don't really add anything that we didn't already know. As soon as the dialogue starts to taper off, you know a musical cue is coming.
Perhaps the most egregious is the solo by Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the unsophisticated woodsman who is Anna's gentleman love, in which he essentially announces that he's going to disappear from the movie for awhile. It's appropriately titled, "Lost in the Woods."
Conjured snowman/comic relief Olaf (Josh Gad) gets another bouncy upbeat tune, "When I Am Older," in which he shows some emerging maturity but also the enduring naivete that makes him so lovable.
He also continues to rearrange his parts humorously, which makes him wicked sharp at charades. The omnipresent snow flurry given to Olaf by Elsa is replaced by some vague "permafrost" spell, mostly I'm guessing to release the animators from having to keep a distracting cloud over his head for the whole movie.
The story is a fairly typical "a new threat emerges" plot. Elsa finds herself called by a mysterious voice from the far north, hinting at secrets about the death and first meeting of her parents -- not to mention the source of her magical abilities with ice.
Family legends say their grandfather, King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto), built a huge dam as a gift to the Northuldra, the native people who live there, but were betrayed and attacked. Since then the forest has been enshrouded in an impenetrable mist. The four elements -- earth, wind, fire and water -- seem to be punishing the humans for their transgressions.
I really liked the massive stone giants who tromp around the northland like mountains on the move, without even visible eyes or discernible facial features. Made me think of the Iron Giant, and anything that does is a good thing.
Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Mattias, a loyal guard of Arrendelle, while Martha Plimpton is the Northuldra chief, Yelana. Alfred Molina takes over the voice of Elsa and Anna's father, and Evan Rachel Wood does the same for their mother.
Jennifer Lee wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Chris Buck, so the creative team is largely intact. Lack of continuity is often the biggest challenge in making a successful sequel, not to mention trying to rush it out too soon.
Neither mistake was made here. It's just really hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
Kids will probably treasure "Frozen 2" as much as they did the first one. Their parents will love that their children love it, while understanding that we should appreciate greatness for the very reason that it happens so rarely.
If you’re expecting a biopic of Fred Rogers, then “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not it.
You will leave the theater not knowing much more about Rogers than you did going in, assuming you watched the iconic “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” show as a child, or even just saw the solid documentary about him from last year, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
No, this is more movie-making as therapy. Director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster are aiming to summon Rogers’ spirit and spread his ethos, that each and every person is precious, across the globe.
Tom Hanks gives a superlative performance that makes a conscious choice not to do an impersonation of Rogers. Physically there’s not much resemblance, and Hanks eschews that reedy little country priest voice Rogers used to speak to generations of children over the decades his show was on PBS.
Rogers isn’t even the protagonist in his own movie, that role being delegated to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), the journalist charged with profiling him circa 1998. It’s a fairly common trope for modern movies to include a storyteller character as a stand-in for the audience, asking the questions they’d like to ask and acting as an avatar for their emotional reactions.
But in this case, Lloyd isn’t just telling Rogers’ story; he’s the receptacle of his ministrations. This is a movie about a writer who had his life changed by the person he was writing about. If this film were a sentence, Lloyd is the subject and Rogers is the object.
Essentially, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is an extended cinematic group session. We are collectively blessed by Mr. Rogers to accept his wisdom, go forth and be neighborly.
This isn’t necessarily meant as criticism, though I suspect I didn’t love “Neighborhood” as much as most people will. This is the ultimate laughter-and-tears sort of filmmaking that tends to be very successful at the box office and during the awards season.
It’s just that this is the kind of movie that sets out to do a certain thing, and it does that thing very well, and people will leave it grateful for the thing they were expecting it to do. I felt fulfilled and utterly unsurprised.
Lloyd works at Esquire magazine as an investigative reporter. Professionally he’s riding high but has earned a reputation as a hard-to-get-along jerk; personally he is married and recently became a father late in life. Susan Kelechi Watson plays his wife, Andrea, who deeply loves Lloyd but also recognizes in him fault lines, a physical and emotional absence, that could threaten their nascent family’s stability.
Lloyd is assigned to write a 400-word piece on Rogers for the magazine’s issue on heroes, which is the sort of thing a newspaper reporter would be expected to crank out in half a day but here becomes a weeks-long odyssey with multiple trips to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers.
Rogers instantly treats him with kindness and familiarity, turning the conversation around to focus on the journalist rather than the interviewee. It seems most of Lloyd’s trauma involves Jerry (Chris Cooper), his father, though Lloyd stubbornly refuses to use this label. Jerry ran out on the family a long time ago and now seeks some kind of reconciliation.
The background is filled with many lovely bit parts. I especially liked Christine Lahti as Lloyd’s supportive-yet-demanding editor; Wendy Makkena as Dorothy, Jerry’s girlfriend who helped him put the pieces back together; and Enrico Colantoni as Bill, the right-hand man who’s always at Rogers’ side, part gofer and part watchdog.
I found interesting the film’s depiction of the production of Rogers’ show, which is like a carefully oiled machine of well-worn parts. The Pittsburgh crew is old-timers who love Fred while also being slightly exasperated by his ambling, schedule-be-damned ways. They know they’re not breaking any new ground but are focused on doing what they do as well as it can be done.
Much the same can be said of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
I admit part of my reaction may be colored by the TV show itself, which ran from 1968 to 2001 (with a short, unremembered break in the ‘70s.) Though it’s now sacrilege to say such things, the truth is that, even as a small child who most needed to hear the message of self-love that Mr. Rogers spun so earnestly, I found his show terribly boring.
I know, I know…
A Generation X-er saying you didn’t like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” is like being a Baby Boomer who found Woodstock to be just a concert, or the Beatles a great band but a trifle overrated. (Stage whisper: both are true.)
So you can hate me, and love this movie, but I will remain deeply in like with you both.
Imagine a 3½-hour travelogue of Martin Scorsese’s gangster filmography. There isn’t really anything new, just riding over familiar themes he’s tread on in his other movies, over and over again. You appreciate the nostalgia tour, but in the end that’s all it is.
That’s “The Irishman.”
Heck, I thought the whole goombah thing was played out back in the days of “Casino.” But here we are a quarter century on, reuniting Robert De Niro with Joe Pesci, who was lured out of virtual retirement, and throwing Al Pacino into the mix.
Although their films share a lot of DNA, Pacino has never been in a Scorsese movie before. All four men are in their 70s now, and “The Irishman” very much as the feeling of ‘one last ride with the old gang, while they still can.’
It’s the story of Frank Sheeran, known by that titular nickname for being the only non-Italian high up in the Bufalino crime family centered around Philadelphia. Frank, played by De Niro, was a war hero who became a Teamsters truck driver and later a local chapter president with the backing of Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the mob boss who had pull in most everything, including the union.
The story, written by Steven Zallian (“Schindler’s List”) based on a book by Charles Brandt, follows Frank from the 1950s to the 1970s, with flashbacks to his World War II days and a framing story when he is an elderly man in a nursing home recalling his life -- seemingly to nobody.
There’s also a framing device within the larger one, in which Frank travels with Russ and their wives on a languid road trip to Detroit in 1975, ostensibly to attend a wedding but really to do a little business along the way, including hashing things out with a troublesome ally, former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).
If you know anything about how or when Hoffa died, it’s not too hard to put together the real import of their trip. The subject of Brandt’s book is also well-known, but for those who aren’t familiar I’ll refrain from revealing any spoilers, even if they are glaringly obvious.
The film uses CGI to “de-age” the actors during the earlier sequences, and for the most part it’s effective enough that you don’t notice it after a while. Russ refers to Franks as “the kid” during the 1950s scenes, though even with digital help De Niro looks more like he’s in his 50s than his 30s. Only the World War II stuff looks cringingly fake.
Frank is a very passive guy for a main character; he’s mostly reacting to other people. Pacino gets the limelight as the charismatic, neurotic Hoffa, constantly blustering and schmoozing. Pesci plays the calm guy, quiet guy you have to watch out for.
Essentially, the three legendary actors switched around their stereotypical roles.
There’s some wonderfully rough dialogue, including aphorisms substituted for dark deeds. For instance, Frank first gains his reputation as an assassin, which is known as “painting houses.” (A home’s wall splattered with blood provides the visual cue.) A final judgment on a guy becomes, “It’s what it is.”
But spread out over 209 minutes, when you put it all together the result is a lot of run-on scenes of guys riding around in cars, sitting in bars, having tangential conversations.
"We gotta talk about that thing. I'm a little concerned."
"What thing, that thing?"
"No, the other thing, the one with Tony."
"No, the other Tony."
"No, the other other Tony."
"Oh, so we gotta go paint his house."
"No. Not that."
There’s lots of other characters who flit in and out of the story, too many to name them all. A short list would include Harvey Keitel and Bobby Cannavale as big guys in Russ’ orbit; Sebastian Maniscalco as Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo, an upstart who likes clam sauce; Ray Romano as the obligatory mob lawyer; and Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano, aka “Tony Pro,” aka “the little guy,” who clashes repeatedly with Hoffa.
The female characters are used more poorly than any other mainstream film of recent vintage I can recall. They’re literally mannequins in the background, seen but rarely heard. Certainly they do not say or do anything pivotal. They do not even age like the men do, though who knows if that’s an aesthetic choice by Scorsese or simply a cutback on the film’s famously sprawling budget.
Scorsese casts Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter, Peggy, and then gives her nothing to do. She stands witness to Frank’s crimes, but is not gifted with the ability to speak about them. We wait for the final confrontation that never arrives. What a waste of a fine actress.
“The Irishman” isn’t a bad movie -- it’s great-looking and Pacino gives a peppy performance as Hoffa. But it’s an overlong elegy for a time gone by, when mobsters were important figures and people made movies glamorizing them. Expiration dates for both are overdue.