A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG)
Perhaps the most beautifully and carefully crafted movie of the year so far. Directed at the same pace as Mr. Rogers spoke—slowly and clearly—the movie never seems to drag. It gives you, as the show gave children, time to think and absorb what you are hearing and feeling.
And feeling is what this film is all about and what it causes in the audience. There are so many throat-tightening moments in this film that one loses count. It seems we are almost always on the verge of a tear or two.
The emotions in the audience are not drawn cheaply, with melodrama, but with a series of truths that we all can recognize and relate to, those relating to love, individuality, creativity, independence, honesty, hatred—they all touch us one way or another.
The film also reminds us either of our childhood or, in my case, parenthood, when we watched and absorbed Mr. Rogers with our children. The story is built beautifully on a story written for Esquire magazine by Tom Junod, altered in the film to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Vogel had issues with his absent father (Chris Cooper) but hid them until, unbeknownst to Vogel, Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) researched him before their interview. Rogers takes Vogel under his wing, trying to bring the two together before Jerry Vogel (the father) dies. Through gentle questions and example, Rogers leads Vogel back to forgiveness.
The questions and examples apply to all of us as well, further resonating with the audience. Vogel is aided in his “recovery” by his wife, Andrea, brilliantly played by “This Is Us” star Susan Kalechi Watson.
Along the way, associates of Rogers share observations on his work habits and his character—a very effective way of deepening the story. “He’s just about the most gentle man I’ve ever met,” observes one. Asides and knowing smiles are the comments from Bill Isler, (Enrico Colantoni), Rogers’ longtime producer.
There are throat-tightening scenes, as I mentioned earlier, and the most unlikely, though it is probably true, is a scene on a New York subway where a mixed-race and mixed-age crowd sings the Rogers’ theme song to him, to his great delight. Another striking scene is Rogers and his wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), playing a serious two-piano duet in their living room. A late scene in which Rogers shows up at Jerry’s house to visit the dying man is a killer—and all this without banging, shooting, explosions or special effects.
It is almost impossible to believe a man in the late 20th century could have been so poised, so focused on children, so kind and so understanding of humankind, but it is apparently true. Joanne smilingly reminds Lloyd, “He does have a temper!” but it is hard to believe.
The taste and humanity that this film embraces are too much absent in our world, as are the honest feelings that it engenders. Put it on your “Gifts to Self” list for the holidays and don’t be ashamed to see it more than once.
Frozen II (PG)
Darker and more mysterious than the first edition, this film will still set box office records—because it’s “Frozen II.” There are several scenes, one underwater, that are, a bit tough to take for the target audience for the film.
For a good quarter of the film, this looks and sounds like opera. Everything is sung and sung well by the cast, but this does delay for some time the movement of the plot, which is complex, as usual, for Elsa and her sister, Anna (Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, respectively). Some of Menzel’s work approaches coloratura soprano singing, especially “Lost in the Woods” and “Show Yourself.” Bell’s work is more pedestrian but perhaps more accessible to a young audience. Josh Gad as the indestructible snowman, Olaf, has a good time and is the comic relief for the cast.
Briefly, the plot involves Elsa and her sister, Anna, going to the dreaded Dark Forest to discover their roots. What they find is disturbing to them, but it allows the rest of the plot to proceed as planned—so in this case, disturbing is a good thing. Jonathan Groff as the hapless swain, Kristoff, keeps trying to pop the question to Anna, but the writers hold off that moment for as long as possible. Elsa would be lost without Anna but struggles alone nevertheless and succeeds in large part thanks to a frozen horse that serves her well for several narrow escapes from a fate equal to death. Kids may not understand her vulnerability and that, too, is a good thing as she is constantly in peril and, should she perish, millions of Halloween costumes would be in jeopardy next year.
This is a colorful event with lots of magic and lots of ice and an indelible message: When you can’t decide what to do, “Do the Next Right Thing.”
Knives Out (PG-13)
A throwback to not only old crime films, but old crime novels, this is a thoroughly entertaining romp filled with scads of suspects, furrowed brows, red herrings and derring-do.
Ana de Armas stars as Marta Cabrera. The Cuban-born and trained actress has been in many films, but this is her first starring role in Hollywood. Her co-star is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), sporting a strange and often flawed Southern accent, but he is supposedly a hint at Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie. There are several Christie moments in the film, including a “Something’s afoot in this affair,” and, later, “The game is afoot!”
There is an overt tip of the hat to “Murder She Wrote” with a short clip from that series, and the entire piece reeks of mysteries of bygone days. The cast is large because casts in these things are always large—there have to be enough suspects to have room for some of them to seem innocent. Here, we have a cast that could all be guilty! Jamie Lee Curtis as the head of the family, Linda Drysdale, Don Johnson as the philanderer Richard Drysdale, Toni Colette as the widowed daughter-in-law, Michael Shannon as Walter, the wounded publisher of Harlan Thrombey’s successful crime novels, and Christopher Plummer as the late and partially lamented Harlan. He seems to have committed suicide, but we know, from what transpires, that his nurse, Marta, has poisoned him by accident. The true manner of his death remains a misty focus of the film throughout most of its length. Enter the vagabond son, BMW-driving rakehell Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) who misses the funeral but arrives just in time for the reading of the will.
The complex plot winds its ways with twists, turns, surprises and skullduggery to a satisfactory conclusion, explained in the drawing room with all the suspects present (another Christie touch). There is even a reference to the Iron Throne of the “Game of Thrones” TV show, and it provides one of the great (and many) laughs in this romp.
This is not a great movie. I would not curse it with that accolade, but it is a helluva lot of fun with a fine cast and skillful direction by Rian Johnson, using many of his trademarks such as dark humor, clues on paper, noir moments and style and black, black comedy. Except for Craig’s unexplainable accent, this is a wonderful adventure in comic murder. Enjoy it!