A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Directed by Marielle Heller best known for 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautifully affecting and bittersweet movie about the beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers and his relationship with a journalist that shows exactly how Mr. Rogers positively affected those he touched personally and on television. Unexpectedly, the movie focuses much more on the emotional evolution of the fictional journalist Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys best known for his role on the TV series The Americans, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon but is told by the editor of Esquire magazine to do a short profile of Fred Rogers. The character Lloyd is actually based on the real-life Esquire writer Tom Junod who wrote an 1998 article that the movie is based. Lloyd sees himself as a serious journalist who is coping with the new reality of being a father to a newborn baby and is hesitant to interview someone like Fred Rogers who Lloyd the skeptic believes is disingenuous. Eventually, he goes to Pittsburgh to the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at the PBS television station WQED in order to interview Rogers for an issue of Esquire about heroes. Lloyd is taken aback by Fred Rogers, played brilliantly by the nice guy of Hollywood Tom Hanks, who is exactly like he is on television, a wonderful human being too humble to be called a hero. Throughout his time interviewing Mr. Rogers on several different occasions, Lloyd is struggling with the reappearance of his estranged father Jerry, played by Chris Cooper, and wants nothing to do with him since he left his sick mother years ago. The real purpose of the movie is to show how Lloyd eventually comes around to make amends with his father as a result of the the advice given to him by Mr. Rogers who teaches him to forgive and care for family and friends even when they may be troubled themselves. Rogers himself admits to not being a perfect person as everybody believes him to be and even admits to having difficult relationships with his two sons. The filmmaker quite effectively depicts Fred Rogers through a single episode of his kindness towards another character who needs help, rather than the traditional biopic that may not have given a truly personal story that would resonate with the audience. Other terrific filmmaking decisions were to include models of cities and puppets as they were in the original show, as well as using similar video cameras from the real Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to recreate scenes from the television show. Overall, I found it to be an uplifting movie that captures the true spirit of such a down-to-earth man of values as Fred Rogers, primarily as a result of the intimate script and perfect casting of Tom Hanks. Yes, the film does have sad moments as the emotionally distant Lloyd tries to come to terms with his family situation while receiving invaluable moral guidance from Mr. Rogers.

Knives Out

Written, produced, and directed by Rian Johnson best known for 2005’s Brick and 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out is a modern take on the classic murder mystery whodunit that has a brilliant script with many twists and a terrific ensemble cast, making for one of the most entertaining movies in recent memory. Similar to an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the story revolves around the mysterious death of a wealthy crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, whose entire dysfunctional family are gathered together for his 85th birthday in his remote grand old mansion in Massachusetts. After discovering his body in what looks like a suicide, the police led by Detective Lieutenant Elliot, played by Lakeith Stanfield, as well as a stereotypical Southern private detective named Benoit Blanc, played by a very memorable Daniel Craig, begin an investigation to see whether there was foul play so they begin interviewing each member of the family. There is the oldest daughter Linda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who has an air of self-importance; Linda’s husband Richard, played by Don Johnson, who may be having an affair; the youngest son Walt, played by Michael Shannon, who runs his father’s publishing company but feels underappreciated; and the daughter-in-law Joni, played by Toni Collette, who always tries to ingratiate herself to her father-in-law who financially supports her and her daughter. Equally unique characters, the younger generation is comprised of the spoiled socialite Ransom, played by Chris Evans; the conservative Internet troll teenager Jacob, played by Jaeden Martell; and the liberal college student Meg, played by Katherine Langford. Detective Blanc, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s famous detective character Hercule Poirot, is a rather funny character who is brilliant but sometimes is a over-the-top buffoon throughout his investigation in which nobody is eliminated as a suspect. An unexpected central character of the plot is Harlan’s young Hispanic caregiver Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who genuinely cares for Harlan unlike his rather unpleasant money-grubbing family. The filmmaker does an excellent job of having the eccentric characters play off one another as they are really competing to see who will benefit the most financially from Harlan’s will. Besides the excellent cast, what really sets the movie apart is the script full of entertaining surprises and unexpected twists that harks back to the classic murder mystery movies that relied less on bloody violence. What makes it different is it is much more of a comedy that pokes fun at upper class families who are very much out-of-touch with the rest of the world and only think about maintaining their wealth and status. Overall, I found the film to be true cinematic gold that is so entertaining that one feels as if they are a part of the investigation and playing a game of Clue. Rian Johnson creates something that feels so new and extraordinary for such a old-fashioned style mystery; he was also blessed by a wonderful cast that really pulled the whole thing together. Three words: go see it!

The Good Liar

Directed by Bill Condon best known for 1998’s Gods and Monsters and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, The Good Liar is an above-average British crime thriller that is somewhat predictable but is a devilishly fun showcase for the critically acclaimed actors Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. The story follows the con artist Roy, played by British Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, who preys on the gullible using fake identities to make away with large amounts of money. Eventually, he meets the well-off widow Betty, played by British Oscar winner Helen Mirren, and decides to make her his latest mark by earning her trust through a romantic relationship. Over the course of their companionship and possible dating, he cleverly manipulates her to allow him to stay at her house pretending to have a knee injury. After a trip to Berlin in which Roy reveals surprising facts about his real background brought forth by Betty’s suspicious grandson Steven, played by Russell Tovey, Roy tries to convince Betty to create a joint bank account with the help of his long-time accomplice Vincent, played by Jim Carter best known for his role in Downton Abbey, who is posing as a investment accountant. The real fun showing the chemistry between the actors comes towards the end of the film when the intentions of both Roy and Betty are finally brought to life through a series of plot twists connected to their lives as teenagers during World War II. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining movie to pass the time that does not really add much to the genre but is worthwhile to watch simply for the brilliant performances given by Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in their first movie together.

Ford v Ferrari

Directed by James Mangold best known for 2005’s Walk the Line and 2017’s Logan, Ford v Ferrari is a brilliant car racing movie remarkable for its terrific acting performances, entertaining story, and thrilling race sequences, all adding up to a film that can be enjoyed even by those who do not care for cars or racing. Based on a true story, the plot follows Ford Motor Company’s pursuit of winning their first 24 Hours of Le Mans race and finally overtaking the dominance of Ferrari. Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca, played by Jon Bernthal, pitches the idea in 1963 of creating a competitive racing team to Ford CEO Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts, as a means to appeal to the younger generation of car buyers, and he approaches famed car designer Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, to help design the car to beat Ferrari. A brilliant yet somewhat eccentric Texan, Shelby is confident that, with the right mechanics and driver, he can optimize a Ford GT40 to compete and eventually win the coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans, which he himself won in 1959 in a different car before he was forced to retire. The only problem Shelby encounters is the complicated bureaucracy of such a large company as Ford, especially as it relates to Shelby’s handpicked driver Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale. Miles is a hot-headed yet excellent British race car driver who is struggling to make a living as a mechanic in Los Angeles with his wife Mollie, played by Caitriona Balfe best known for her role in the TV series Outlander. The Ford Motor Company and its racing division led by Ford Senior Executive Vice President Leo Beebe, played by Josh Lucas, are very much against having such a wild and brash lead driver as Miles and try almost anything to get rid of him, at least in public. Amidst all the dramatic infighting, the movie is filled with truly exciting and realistic racing scenes that show exactly how difficult it is to be an endurance race car driver and the very real dangers of serious injury or death, especially during that era when safety standards were lower than today’s. Eventually, Shelby American and Ford make it to the crucial Le Mans race in 1966 where they will finally have the best chance of taking down Ferrari. Overall, I found it to be one of the best auto racing movies ever made as a result of its extraordinary intense race sequences and surprisedly in-depth character studies of the iconic automotive designer Carroll Shelby and one-of-a-kind daredevil Ken Miles, making for an extremely entertaining cinematic experience for all types of viewers.

Motherless Brooklyn

Written, directed, and produced by actor Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn is a well-crafted neo-noir crime drama that is somewhat remarkable for its unique storytelling and fascinating characters but, unfortunately, is bogged down by convoluted plotlines and a long runtime. Set in 1957 in New York City, the film follows a private investigator named Lionel Essrog, played by Edward Norton in a very committed performance, who has struggled his whole life with Tourette syndrome yet has a photographic memory that makes him an asset for the detective agency he works for under his beloved boss Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis. Eventually, he is taken on a rabbit hole as he tries to uncover the circumstances surrounding Frank’s death, which is personally devastating since Frank is the one who saved him from an orphanage when Lionel was a child. Lionel is deeply committed to the investigation and is hesitantly assisted by the other investigators that work for Frank’s agency, including a rather suspicious detective who is played by Bobby Cannavale. Posing as a reporter, Lionel learns much more about the corrupt inner-workings of the city and its boroughs and the real power structure led by a publicly unassuming municipal official and developer named Moses Randolph, played by Alec Baldwin. Appearing rather odd to those he encounters along the way as a result of his Tourette-induced quirks, Lionel realizes that Moses may have something to do with Frank’s murder after he talks with an eccentric man named Paul, played by Willem Dafoe. He is suspicious of Moses after he connects several clues left behind by Frank that take him to a beautiful African American woman named Laura Rose, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who works for an organization fighting gentrification and the overdevelopment of minority neighborhoods. Throughout the movie, a romantic relationship between Lionel and Laura seems to be developing, which forces Lionel to open up and reveal some of his secrets. Without giving too much of the story away, suffice it to say that the film is chock-full of plot twists that can be overly complicated and drawn-out. Overall, I thought the multi-talented Edward Norton did a great job of recreating the trappings of a classic film noir with dark and mysterious settings, characters with believable backstories, and a quintessential detective story. However, it could have been a much better movie if it was more condensed into a shorter and less confusing story that could be better followed by the audience.

Midway

Directed by Roland Emmerich who is best known for such Hollywood Blockbusters as 1996’s Independence Day and 2000’s The Patriot, Midway is a large-scale war action movie that heavily relies on CGI special effects to recreate the pivotal Battle of Midway during World War II but does not fully satisfy as a well-rounded movie as a result of its fairly generic script and characters. Based on true events of the beginning of the American involvement in World War II, the movie shows the devastating surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by the Empire of Japan. The plot follows a bunch of American characters from the top with the Commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, played by Woody Harrelson, to the top intelligence officer in the region Edwin Layton, played by Patrick Wilson, and all the way down to the Naval bomber and fighter pilots, including the real life Dick Best who is played by Ed Skrein and Wade McClusky who is played by Luke Evans. Also, unlike most traditional war movies, the film also follows several key Japanese Naval commanders and officers who are shown making battle decisions based on their best interest. After the somewhat haphazard introduction to almost too many characters to keep count, the story leads up to June 4, 1942 when the Japanese engage the American military at and around the remote islands of the Midway Atoll, a strategic base that allows for closer range to the Japanese Islands. What ensues is the Battle of Midway in which American aircraft carriers and their warplanes go up against the Japanese counterparts in what would become the one of the largest naval battles of World War II. In dramatic and spectacular fashion, the movie effectively uses special effects to capture what the battle must have been like with a constant flurry of aircraft and anti-aircraft fire on both sides. The main mission of the Americans is to destroy as many of the Japanese aircraft carriers as possible in order to recapture control of the Pacific Theater after the mass destruction of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The script also does scratch the surface of the personal lives of those involved, especially the Naval pilots, but is ineffective because it comes off as cheesy and formulaic, making for unnecessary storylines to the main thrust of the movie to portray a specific battle. Overall, I found it to be a suitably entertaining war movie that does a good job of using special effects to fashion realistic and thrilling battle sequences in order to tell the important story of the Battle of Midway, but, as a whole, relies on too many characters and a rather average screenplay to truly become an iconic war movie.

Harriet

Directed by critically acclaimed African American filmmaker Kasi Lemmons best known for 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, Harriet is important as the first major motion picture about runaway slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman that tells a truly remarkable story but does not do justice to such an extraordinary person as a result of the film’s rather formulaic script. Based on a true story, the plot follows Harriet Tubman, played by Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, first living as a slave in Maryland who decides, after receiving visions from God, that she must escape and run away to the free state of Pennsylvania. We witness her courageous solo journey of over 100 miles being chased by slave catchers led by her brutal slave owner Gideon, played by Joe Alwyn. Eventually, she makes it to Philadelphia where she gets help from an African American abolitionist leader named William Still, played by Leslie Odom Jr., and a generous African American boarding house owner named Marie, played by Janelle MonĂ¡e. Receiving further visions, she makes the brave decision to return to Maryland to help her family also escape slavery using the Underground Railroad route given to her by Still. The rest of the film follows her numerous other expeditions as one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad to eventually help almost 300 slaves escape to freedom. Following the tropes of the adventure genre, Harriet is constantly chased by the villain in the form of Gideon and his slave catchers, including an African American man, but she always perseveres to help her fellow man, woman, and child to reach freedom. Her missions are very much complicated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed runaway slaves living in free states to be legally captured and returned to their slave owners in the South. Overall, I found it to be a much-needed and thereby very important depiction of one of America’s greatest heroes who has been overlooked in terms of the embarrassing lack of cinematic treatments. Despite the terrific acting performances and amazing story, the movie, unfortunately, adheres too much to a typical action adventure film with predictable actions and results and makes for a movie that does not rise to the stature of the truly extraordinary Harriet Tubman.

Jojo Rabbit

Written and directed by critically acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi best known for 2016’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit is a terrifically well-made comedy drama that has the unusual premise of satirizing the Nazis to provide a powerful message about hatred while also being highly entertaining as a result of its very irreverent humor. The plot follows a ten-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany during World War II named Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, played by the talented young British actor Roman Griffin Davis, who is a fervent follower of the Nazis and happens to have Adolf Hitler, played by the brilliantly funny Taika Waititi, as his imaginary friend. Jojo and his best friend Yorki are active members of the Hitler Youth under the local leadership of the foolish Captain Klenzendorf, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell. Often at the disgust of the imaginary Hitler, Jojo has to deal with his secretively anti-Nazi single mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, who we eventually learn is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa, played by the acclaimed young New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie. When he first discovers her, Jojo has great disdain for Elsa because of his fervent Nazi beliefs, but, over time, they strike up a friendship with Jojo’s understanding that it could help him learn about the so-called Jewish enemy. He often fights with the childish and ridiculous imagination of Hitler who somewhat uncomfortably becomes the comic relief of the movie, and they obviously disagree about befriending a Jew. In addition to the main characters, the film’s comedic nature is greatly assisted by a cast of rather buffoonish characters played by such highly talented actors as Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Alfie Allen. Despite all the preposterous shenanigans and over-the-top satirical portrayal of the Nazis, the film ends on a positive and important note by showing how someone so indoctrinated by hate like Jojo can come around to despise his previous actions and beliefs by simply getting to know the supposed enemy of Nazi Germany, Elsa as a Jewish girl. Overall, despite the fact that the movie is not for everyone as a result of its comedic depiction of the Nazis, I found it to be one of the more entertaining and incisive satires as a result of its terrific acting and very creative and irreverent script.

Parasite

Winner of the highest award the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Parasite is a brilliant dark satirical drama that reaches the heights of filmmaking as a result of the truly extraordinary craft of the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho who is already critically acclaimed for 2013’s Snowpiercer and 2017’s Okja. The film follows a poor working-class family living in a decrepit basement apartment in South Korea who are unable to find work, but, eventually, come up with a fraudulent plan to get themselves all employed at the residence of the wealthy Park family. The son decides to pretend to be a English tutor after his friend must take a leave from the job tutoring the high school daughter of the Parks. After his plan works, his family devises a plan to trick the extremely gullible mother of the extremely wealthy family to hire his sister as an art tutor, his father as a driver, and his mother as the housekeeper. In rather absurd fashion, all of the previous employees need to be replaced as a result of the lower class family’s shenanigans. Everything goes according to plan for a majority of the film until a rather shocking twist takes place in which the conniving family is put in jeopardy and could be caught by the Park family. The true artistry of the film is the filmmaker’s effective ability to mix satire and the twisted dark parts of the movie with the very dramatic and tragic elements of what impoverished families must struggle with on a daily basis. Overall, the movie is a cinematic masterpiece that takes a scalpel to better understand the deep wound of income inequalities that take place even in today’s modern society and does so by presenting a highly entertaining story that is both darkly humorous and painfully sad. Even if you do not usually enjoy subtitled foreign language films, I would still highly recommended seeing this movie for its mesmerizing use of cinema to tell a truly important story.

Gemini Man

Directed by visionary director Ang Lee best known for 2013’s Life of Pi which won him the Oscar for Best Director, Gemini Man is a high-concept and technically brilliant film that uses new technology for great visual effect but ultimately fails as a movie due to its poor script writing and slow pace. The plot revolves around the aging secret government assassin Henry Brogan, played by Will Smith, who is close to retirement after his latest assassination almost goes terribly wrong but is forced to remain in action as things go awry with his handlers. He teams up with a fellow secret government agent named Dani, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who greatly helps him evade those who are chasing him. Henry is on the run from a secret non-governmental military force known as GEMINI after its leader and a previous military acquaintance of Henry must do whatever he can to protect his company’s secrets. The increasingly misguided head of the organization Clay, played by Clive Owen, dispatches his own clandestine assassin Junior who we later find out is actually a younger clone of Henry as part of a secret operation to create a superhuman force of clones for the American military. Like a typical action thriller, there are a few visually dazzling action sequences that occur across the world, including in Columbia and Budapest. What really makes the movie stand out is the filmmaker’s decision to film in a much higher frame rate of almost a 120 frames per second when the typical movie is only 24 frames per second. The high frame rate along with a less gimmicky version of 3D made the movie much more smooth and thereby realistic. Another technical breakthrough is the fact that the younger version of Will Smith is a completely digital creation made from CGI and a compilation of Will Smith’s earlier works. Unfortunately, these quite innovative cinematic tools were used on a surprisingly ineffective and sometimes boring action flick. Overall, I found that the only reason to see the movie is to witness the birth of several technical milestones, but otherwise I would avoid the movie because of its weak story, almost entirely devoid of emotion.