Tag Archives: movies

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a proud portrait of Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers has meant so much to so many people that it’s hard to separate the man from his image. So to hear from his friends and family that the man asking us to be his neighbor was pretty much exactly as he appeared on TV for so many years is remarkable. And in today’s world, a Fred Rogers might really do some good, even if only in memory.

Directed by Morgan Neville, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” examines more Mr. Rogers’ philosophy more so than painting a portrait or biography. As the 1950s morph into the 60s and 70s and 80s, all the way up to 9/11, can Mr. Rogers’ simple message of accepting love from others and believing in yourself hold up as the times change? Utilizing interviews with his friends and family, clips from his show and semi-frequent animation, the film explores what Mr. Rogers stood for and how his positive view of life influenced his actions.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” uses the sour current national mood as a backdrop. Have we lost a bit of the kindness that Mr. Rogers preached of us? The cynic would say yes or that the optimism of the 1980s or 90s was overblown, but the film does a good job of framing today’s issues as lacking a sense of the idea of decency. Respect, love and kindness are universal themes that never go out of style, and it’s amazing how such a simple message can be so hard to convey and appreciate.

The arc of the documentary is Fred Rogers’ continuous struggle to show children and adults that simple peace and love are important, overcoming a national stage that values superfluousness, cynicism and moxie. Even Mr. Rogers himself struggled with a feeling that what he did was never enough, but the joy he instilled in others as demonstrated in the film stands as a testament to his work. It’s a powerful message that many need to remember and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a sterling work of love that Mr. Rogers himself would appreciate.

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“Like Father” a sweet but slightly bland drama

“Like Father” follows the story of Rachel (Kristen Bell), a career woman whose fiance, Owen (Jon Foster), leaves her at the altar. When her lost father, Harry (Kelsey Grammer), shows up out of the blue and tries to reunite with her, they delve into booze and wind up on the honeymoon cruise she was supposed to go on with Owen. Now trapped on a boat and with nowhere to go, both Rachel and Harry must try to mend the fences that pushed them apart.

The film is sweet nearly to the point of schmaltz, teetering right on the edge of soap opera, but just barely not going over it. Grammer and Bell are great and bring a hefty amount of regret, nervousness and acceptance to their roles. Their co-stars, a collage of honeymooners and newlyweds, are entertaining, but somewhat stereotypical and could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Sometimes feeling a bit like an ad for Carnival cruises, the film does a good job of using the trappings and corniness of the cruise to bolster the film’s message of feeling release and overcoming the persona we give to others.

What’s missing is a sense of comedy and build-up. Rachel is annoying, combative and high-strung. Harry is solemn, regretful and nervous. There are plenty of opportunities for them to butt heads on the cruise (“How did we get here?” “I don’t know where here is.” “It’s a boat.” “What kind of boat?” “Does it look like I know what kind of boat?”, etc.) and get some laughs out of the audience. There’s a few funny lines and instances, but neither really gets on the other’s nerves enough to generate comedy. The film feels like it’s trying to be a dramedy, but can’t quite get there.

And the film doesn’t have much arc. Harry and Rachel meet. They end up on the ship. They reconcile. The End. There’s a little bit of a secret Harry is hiding, but it’s resolved pretty easily and doesn’t contribute to a major falling out between the characters. It’s all rather ho-hum and the story could have gone further to build up obstacles that the characters need to overcome.

But it’s hard not to be overcome by the film’s charm. It wears its heart on its sleeve and Grammer and Bell work seamlessly as father and daughter, full of regret and hope. For a world of cinema so often focused on explosions and sequels, it’s nice to just watch a simple story that takes place over a week on a cruise ship.

“Last Flag Flying” a sterling portrait of duty

Directed by Richard Linklater and written by him and Darryl Ponicsan, “Last Flag Flying” tells the story of three Vietnam veterans, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a drunk bar owner, Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a reformed pastor, and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), whose son has just died in the Iraq war. As Doc reunites with his old army buddies, he asks for their help to bury his son.

The film follows a typical Linklater style where many plot points are understated and long moments are spent talking and thinking deeply about life. And like many Linklater films, there are moments where it is very sweet and moments where it is grating. But overall, the film is touching with just the right amount of schmaltz without tipping into sentimentalism.

The three principal actors are fantastic, each imbuing their character with conflict and depth. It’s a tribute to the writing that gives each actor a strong basis to connect with their performance. They’re stereotypes to a point, but unique enough to be memorable.

And there is a deep, festering anger burning at the heart of the film, an anger about the sacrifices the United States asks every generation to make, wars seemingly springing up again and again. When will it end? After how much we’ve already given up, how can our country ask for more? It’s an interesting perspective counter to the constant chest-beating patriotism so often seem in films.

At the end, there is only respect, for our country, despite its flaws, for the military and for our friends. For a nation so often weighed down by moral qualms, it’s a satisfying film.

“Solo” a mishmash of ideas and concepts

When you have too many cooks in the kitchen, the result can be a sloppy mess of mixmatched ingredients and half-baked concepts. Especially when you fire your cook when the meal’s almost done and hire another cook to try and salvage the dish.

“Solo” tells the beginnings of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a rebel on the planet Corellia trying to escape with his girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). A series of events leads him through the Empire, a band of new rebels and a group of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) as well as future companions Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

The film is now infamous for the firing of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller near the end of the film’s production. Ron Howard was brought on board and the result was a rushed schedule and costly reshoots. The final film is a conglomeration of different ideas and loose ends, some obviously Lord and Miller’s, some Howard’s and some the studio’s, specifically Kathleen Kennedy, whose reputation continues to take a beating with the constant behind-the-scenes drama that unfurls with each new Star Wars film.

The very idea of a Han Solo spinoff film seems uninspired, more like a safe excuse to make another Star Wars film; another franchise character, some small tidbits about his past and a whole new array of potential merchandise opportunities. Alden Ehrenreich is a serious step down from the charismatic Harrison Ford. Rumors of acting coaches being brought in during the shoot certainly must not have done well for his confidence and his chemistry with Emilia Clarke is lacking. He’s caught between trying to be the cocksure, charming Ford while being his own thing while adapting to modern day acting in contrast to the 1970s and 80s Ford style. It’d be difficult for any actor, and it just doesn’t work.

There are some fun moments to be sure. After a dismal first half, the film picks up with double-crosses, space battles and slave uprisings. There’s a few funny moments (probably delivered by Lord and Miller) and some of the action scenes are fun and interesting. But they’re surrounded by a production that feels mismanaged and lacking focus.

*SPOILERS*

If a Han Solo film needed to be made, a focus on Solo’s character was needed. How did he become who he becomes? The film does try to show how he gets the Millennium Falcon and how he meets Lando, but doesn’t show his character progression.

How did he become the burned-out, selfish renegade at the start of “A New Hope”? The natural progression would be from idealist to cynic. You can see during the film that’s where things were generally heading, but the character change is minimal at best, most likely because Disney was planning a sequel to complete the narrative (as evidenced by an open ending and an eyeball-inducing cameo from Darth Maul). For this to feel like an actual, complete story, Han’s character arc needs to be complete.

Imagine this: the film starts much as the film actually does; a young Han and his first love, Qi’ra, scrounge on Corellia, dreaming of getting out and being rich and happy. They make plans and try to ignore the destitution they live in. Then the Empire roars in and drafts all able-bodied men and women into the armed services. Han and Qi’ra are separated. He sees Qi’ra personally taken by an Imperial commander, a man who has a history with the couple and has always wanted Qi’ra for himself (let’s call him Zoran). Han eventually runs off from the Empire after he refuses to massacre the Wookies on an Imperial campaign, in the process saving Chewbacca. Chewbacca and Han connect over their lost loves, Han missing Qi’ra and Chewie, his life partner. They are recruited by Beckett who teaches them how to survive as smugglers (a la Oliver Twist), seeing in Han an innate gift for the job. Han is wary of compromising his morals, but Beckett promises that after their big score, which he’s been planning for years, he’ll personally take him to find Qi’ra. They gather a crew, including Lando, and, heist style, detail exactly how the operation is going to go down: a cosmic, fun, intergalactic scenario that barely succeeds, but ends in success. Beckett stays true to his word and takes Han to Qi’ra aboard an Imperial shuttle under the guise of an emissary to the Empire. There, he discovers Qi’ra has married the Imperial lieutenant, who is secretly working with crimelords on the side. Han tries to run with Qi’ra, but she is torn. She tries to convince him that she loves Zoran, but he doesn’t believe her. Then he is betrayed by Beckett as the old man makes a deal with the crimelords on Zoran’s side. Trapped and alone with just Chewbacca, Han becomes the bitter man we know. Chewie saves him by breaking him out and they escape. Qi’ra, realizing her love for Han, tries to abscond with him, but is held back by Zoran. Chewie and Han are trapped in an elevator shaft, but Qi’ra manages to make it to the control panel and release them, saving them as they blast off on a stolen ship into hyperspace. Qi’ra is detained by Zoran, her fate a mystery. We cut to a year later, Han a womanizer going from job to job with Chewie. They rendezvous with Beckett, cornering him in a bad deal with Lando’s help. The two men talk about their father-son relationship, talk about old times and how the world has led them to this place of eat-or-be-eaten. Han shoots Beckett before he can draw.

This sort of storyline would show a clear progression of Han’s character and a streamlined story, with more dramatic moments and actual sorrow, joy and tension. The new Star Wars films are too preoccupied with repeating the formulas of the past: shoot ’em ups, blasters firing, good and evil, etc. Branching out and trying something different would have gone a long way. The plot I outlined above includes some Dickens, some classic Western, some heist and some film noir. Not nearly enough thought beyond franchise building went into “Solo.”

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” continues franchise’s deeper morals

In its fifth outing, many find the “Jurassic” franchise lacking in originality and freshness. They’re tired of people running from through the jungle from blood-thirsty beasts. Evolve, change, they say. But the “Jurassic” franchise has never been coy about what it is: an action-adventure romp featuring dinosaurs. That’s what it always will be. No one criticizes James Bond or an Ocean’s movie for not evolving. Movies fit into their genres and reflect variations on a concept. So “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” in general succeeds because it doesn’t deviate from what works and yet it adds some new underlying themes about animal rights and mankind’s responsibility.

The movie picks up three years after the events of the previous film. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is spearing an effort to save the abandoned dinosaurs on Isla Nublar with an upcoming volcanic eruption promising to wipe them out. She gets help from a benefactor, Eli (Rafe Spall), who works on behalf of one of John Hammond’s old partners, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), to rescue the Velociraptor Blue. This leads her to reconcile with her old boyfriend and dinosaur trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, secrets about Eli and the Lockwood corporation begin to emerge, especially regarding Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon).

The film is sectioned off in two sections, one on the island to save the dinosaurs and then after the dinosaurs are captured. Unlike “The Lost World” which feels like two different films after a similar return to the mainland, the plot moves forward in a logical sequence to make a concentrated story. It builds off themes hinted at in “Jurassic World” about the rights of animals, corporate ownership and human responsibility. If an animal is created in a lab, does it have the rights afforded other creatures found in nature or is it the property of a company? What responsibility do Claire and Owen have in regards to their ambition overriding their judgment? Why do we have to keep relearning the same lesson about tampering with nature (with current connotations to global warming, warfare, etc.) before we stop doing it?

The film is far from perfect. The characters in general are still rather one-dimensional, especially in regards to the villains, who are cookie-cutter evil businessmen and hunters. Some depth (perhaps a character who changes his mind about his inhumanity a la Roland in “Lost World) would have gone a long way. Both Owen and Claire are given a wider role than in the previous film and their chemistry seems to have grown. Their previously forced-in romance feels natural here as does the weight of their past. Claire in particular is not the frigid damsel, but a fully-developed character who can get stuff done. If only Eli was given a little more development (though it is worth noting that previous films’ villains have also been giving little depth such as Hoskins in “Jurassic World” and Peter Ludlow in “Lost World”).

And the revelation involving Maisie is unnecessary and strange. The whole subplot involving the Lockwood corporation seems tacked on and not important to the overall story. It could have been just as easily any corporation and it would have served its purpose just fine.

The film is a popcorn-munching, high-octane thrill ride that’ll leave most viewers eager for a repeat viewing. The action set pieces are tense and interesting and the film sets up what should be another exciting chapter. Nostalgia still runs deep and drives the franchise too much, but as a solid action movie, it’s worth your money.

“Pitch Perfect 2” lacks harmony

Pitch Perfect (2011) is certainly not a great movie. It is a standard by the numbers film with some interesting, strong female characters. However, it seems fresh. There are independent women not reliant on male companions for success. The music and choreography are strong. There are funny moments and inside jokes that reward the audience. So there were strangely high expectations for the sequel. But comic sequels in general are hard nuts to crack, usually too dependent on the original, maintaining a joke’s original wit harder to pull off the second time around (just imagine creating a sequel for a joke you’ve already told). And so it is with Pitch Perfect 2, an all around bore of a film that succeeds at none of its predecessor’s strengths.

It’s been three years since the end of the last film. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is about to graduate and has taken an internship at a music producing studio. Her loyalties are split however by this new venture and her attachment to the Barden Bellas, a recent national disgrace who are competing for their survival at the world acapella championship. With the usual crew of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Chloe (Brittany Snow) and newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), they must band together to get through this latest challenge.

Movies need their protagonists front and center. They are the heart and soul of a film who enable an audience to channel their emotions. So it is strange that Beca has very little time in the film. What could have been a somewhat interesting dilemma (loyalty to one’s friends and confronting the future) is watered down by a continuous need to keep returning to less interesting characters such as Emily or Fat Amy (who is given far, far, far too much screentime- she works as comic relief in spare moments, not with her own storyline). Beca’s boyfriend, Jesse (Skylar Astin), is in but a handful of scenes, and they have practically no plotline together, their relationship one of the true rocks of the first film. In essence, the heart is ripped out of the film right from the get go, and we are given nothing to feel for.

Nothing in the film feels earned, creating more disinterest. We don’t see Beca really struggle with the decision of whether or not to stick with her internship or the Barton Bellas so when she does work things out at a retreat it feels hollow.

Perhaps the greatest flaw of the film is its reliance on the first movie. The filmmakers seem intent on revisiting every single element of the previous film. They revisit Bumper (Adam DeVine) and Fat Amy’s romance, make up a lame excuse for Chloe to still be at school (she’s flunked some course three times), bring back Aubrey (Anna Camp) for a pointless cameo, have Gail (Elizabeth Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins) making the same commentary jokes and even have the same structure of the first outing (a new girl enters the Bellas after an embarrassment leaves the team scrambling and that same young recruit makes a mistake at a sing off where the team needs to reconnect with their purpose in order to prove to the world at a singing competition how united they are).

Comedy sequels are so hard to pull off. Caddyshack II (1988), Fletch Lives (1989), Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) are all testament to that. Audiences have forgotten them and so too will they will probably forget Pitch Perfect 2.

 

“Ocean’s 8” hits most of the right notes

The new craze in Hollywood is taking old franchises and rebooting them with an all-female cast. Never mind that this is just another excuse to stay away from original ideas under the guise of inclusion. Or undervaluing the fact that there is just as much discrimination behind the camera as in front of it (“Ocean’s 8” was directed by a man, Gary Ross). Can you imagine a franchise helmed by creative women and men, starring women and men in equal, genre-bending roles and full of inventive, original concepts not based on old franchises or the latest book series? Apparently, Hollywood can’t.

Rant aside, looking solely at the quality of the most recent female-led film, “Ocean’s 8” manages to be a fun, is ultimately less-than-fruitful, ensemble and another interesting heist film.

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has just gotten out of jail, but over her five years in incarceration, she has developed a plan to steal the famed Toussaint necklace, valued at $150 million. She gathers together a team, including her old partner, Lou (Cate Blanchett), jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling), schemer Tammy (Sarah Paulson), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna) and costume designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter). Developing a plan to get noted actress, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), to wear the necklace at the famed New York Met gala, the team works to enact a tightrope scheme that will make them all rich.

The film follows the heist plot to the letter: hatch the plan, recruit the team, enact the plan, navigate the complications, get out, deal with the twist and savor the winnings. It’s fun yet so familiar as to be boring at times. We know what’s going to come before it happens and though we enjoy watching it, our suspense is placated. A change in routine, especially in comparison to the previous films, would serve the story so much better. Perhaps a mole in the group. Perhaps a gigantic twist in the course of the plan (an even bigger trophy presents itself and the crew changes course). Something that makes the film feel different other than a female cast.

Or perhaps, in true feminist form, the film plays with sexism inherent. There’s a bit where Debbie’s relationship to her ex plays a role in the plot of the film, but this could have been stretched even further. Perhaps we see the backgrounds of other characters as well, treated like dirt in a male-dominated world. The heist then serves as a rebuttal to all the chauvinism they’ve had to deal with, especially considering that what they’re stealing is a diamond necklace, a symbol of princess royalty. If films are going to utilize (some may say pander) to feminism, they should go all out and really drive home feminist ideals.

The other thing the film lacks is a strong heart at its core. We don’t really get to know the crew’s inner demons and personal motivations. Why does Debbie want to steal the Toussaint necklace? Because it’s what she’s good at, she says. That’s not very interesting. If her family had failed to get the necklace in the past and that resulted in their capture, that’d be more interesting. Her motivation is vilification. Or if we saw a flashback of her past when she was young and how she fantasized about having this huge necklace, that would make her journey a childhood fascination. Similarly, we could learn about the backgrounds of the rest of the team and what drives them. Money is just not a very interesting motivator. Finding a deep, psychological driver for the team would really put us behind them and drive our emotions.

“Ocean’s 8” does do a good job of differentiating its characters. They each have a distinct personality, especially Anne Hathaway’s Daphne, and seeing how they bounce off each other is fun. The appeal of all of the “Ocean’s” films is the star-studded cast in a big plot production. There’s Sandra Bullock. There’s Rihanna. There’s Cate Blanchett. They’re doing a heist. It’s fun, and the film meets that level of premise.

A few changes to the plot and a deeper motivation would have really made “Ocean’s 8” a winner. As such, it’ll just have to settle for a fun night out at the movies.