A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Lloyd Vogel is an investigative journalist who receives an assignment to profile Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers. Fred’s empathy, kindness and decency soon chips away at Vogel’s jaded outlook on life, forcing him to reconcile with his painful past.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one of those films every human should go see, not because it’s one of the most quintessential films — but because it’s one of the most moving and inspiring. Mr. Rogers’ words and messages shine to an audience in a world that now more than ever should remember the ways of this childhood television icon, who aspired not to be an icon to all, but rather a friend. The movie begins and ends like an episode out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with Rogers, played wonderfully by Tom Hanks, singing his signature songs and introducing the protagonist, an excellent foil to Rogers who has a tragic past, leaving tension and anger inside of him towards his family. Rhys hits the right marks from emotion to the rude cynicism of his character, while Hanks captures Rogers’ calm and slow speech, and moreover, the strength and presence of an inspiration and a hero to so many viewers over multiple generations. Director Marielle Heller establishes a strong style after her mediocre Can You Ever Forgive Me? which was released last year and nobody seems to remember anymore. Yet here every scene seems integral to the feel of the film and not a single scene feels uninteresting. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a mix of heartwarming, impactful, and poignant yet hopeful about everyone’s capabilities as their own special individual. Rogers’ ideas of love, kindness, inclusivity, forgiveness, openness, and optimism translate perfectly to a big screen audience (that even kids could probably enjoy), that will be left moved, and probably clapping by the end, and certainly want to be Mr. Rogers’ neighbor, or even more so, aspire to be like him someday.

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Frozen 2

Elsa sets out to discover the origin of her powers and save Arendelle, with the help of her sister Anna, as well as Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven.

The first Frozen was a phenomenon when it was released six years ago; audiences loved it because of the inspirational and empowering story about sisterhood, family, and independence. Unfortunately, I can’t quite tell you what the second film is really about, even days after I’ve seen it. Frozen 2 has no stakes, resonant themes, memorable songs, or character changes throughout the story. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel are still impressive and the connection between Anna and Elsa is strong, but although they take up the most screen-time, the film in its core isn’t really about them — more so about their deceased parents and some ancient war they took part in. The forest storyline also gets very complicated and uninteresting with a completely wasted performance from Sterling K. Brown. At least Evan Rachel Wood’s voice is a standout in the opening scene. The animation also isn’t as resonant as it was in the first film or Zootopia, Moana, and all of Disney’s most recent animated works. The plot feels very inconsequential and most the characters barely have an arc, so there aren’t any inspiring messages that shine through. There’s also a plot twist that anyone who has seen a single Disney film can see coming. I normally go to animated films in the theaters because I want a film that appeals equally to all generations. Yet unfortunately, this has none of the depth or intelligence the first film had, and is strictly for the pleasure of youngsters. I didn’t even laugh more than once.

Frozen 2 could’ve been a meaningful sequel, but rather it feels more like the unnecessary direct-to-DVD sequels like Aladdin: The Return of Jafar and Mulan II, films I like to pretend never existed because of their disposable and impossible-to-remember-plots. Good cast and animation can’t make up for a muddled story without much reward for the 6-year wait.

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Knives Out

When wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead on his 85th birthday, his eccentric family is gathered by an equally bizarre detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to solve the case of Harlan’s murder.

When an original project from a respected filmmaker and an incredibly talented cast is released — that’s when I know I’m in for something good. Knives Out has mystery, laughs, and plenty of popular actors quarreling. The cast, including Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon, all get a shot to shine, but the film belongs to Ana de Armas. She steals the screen in every one of her moments and is the character you really want to root for. There’s plenty of witty, hilarious, and memorable dialogue from the remarkable Rian Johnson, who also uses some brilliant visual cues for glamour, as well as “a-ha!” moments and even some humor. From the first act, the movie takes a turn away from what you’d normally expect in a “Whodunnit” murder mystery, yet it all makes for an equally creative and thrilling experience. However, I do feel like some revelations were placed too early along the film’s runtime and could have been saved for a few sequences later. Also, while Johnson does present some truly golden moments throughout the film, like the savage, vulgar moments or the more showy, stylish moments, I think the film could’ve overall used a more distinct style, as I know Johnson is of much skill yet a few scenes felt like they could’ve been directed by anyone. Also, perhaps the film could’ve benefited from an R-rating as a few scenes do slightly hold back in terms of language, yet fortunately this is nothing that harms the film. Johnson also goes for some social themes — some so direct and on-the-nose that they feel too obvious and surface-level, and others so subtle and hidden that they require more digging and thought before the true meaning of some of the themes really come to me, but he certainly addresses ideas such as class, race, politics, and the Internet’s influence on Americans.

Ultimately, though, Rian Johnson is able to once again challenge genres and craft unique dialogue while still being able to appeal to mainstream audiences with the incredible cast that help make Knives Out quite the pleasing and interesting experience, appealing to all generations with its call-backs to Agatha Christie’s genres, and cast involving all generations, like Christopher Plummer and Chris Evans, as well as the fast-paced and humorous script that make for a “Whodunnit” like no film has ever “dunnit” before.

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Ford v Ferrari

American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles must battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

This film could have easily ended up being a disposable, formulaic biopic if it weren’t for the directing talents of James Mangold and the incredible pairing of Matt Damon and Christian Bale, two of the most multi-talented performers around. Their talent shines with every moment they’re on the screen, and it’s hard to imagine the film without them. Bale, especially, brings so much energy to his cocky, rebellious persona, which is converted into life breathed onto the screen and joy watching him perform. Although it may be underwhelming for those who still have his transformation in Vice fresh in their minds, it’s hard to criticize the show-stealing skills he brings to every role, including this one. The racing scenes are loud and exciting, pulling you to Le Mans ’66 with top-notch production design, costumes, cinematography, and sound design. The dialogue is witty and engaging, with great tastes of humor throughout but also moments of drive, passion, and endurance to the finish line, both mentally and literally. There’s also a good amount of grounded material for Bale’s role, and a little less for Damon’s though he does get his moments to shine, especially in the opening and final scenes. The movie’s 152 minutes but you don’t feel the length at all — however, I would’ve omitted maybe 5 or 10 minutes as one plot point basically repeated itself at one point in the film. The one more thing I wish we got is a little more stakes — if Ford doesn’t win this race, what do the characters lose? Does Ferrari have anything to lose either? We don’t see much of this perspective, which could’ve added a bit more tension to the race against time to build and race the greatest car in the world. It overall does follow the basic racing/biopic/sports film formula, yet its the performers and behind-the-screen craftsman that make the film stand out over similar films such as Ron Howard’s Rush, another great racing film from the decade. There’s also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, like I said, as well as a few somber moments, all of which hit home and blend together strongly.

Usually sports biopics like these focus on nothing other than to pull in lots of audiences with mainstream tropes, but in the case of Ford v Ferrari, “crowd-pleaser” is actually a term I’d use to compliment it — it caters to the wide audiences with excitement and humor, yet never sacrifices intellect or humanity for the loudness and prestige. Sure, it’s familiar at times, but the two names on the poster should be enough to get you excited — and if that’s not enough to convince you, it’s got adrenaline, spirit, and soul — This is the kind of film that was made to bring people together.

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Terminator: Dark Fate

Though it’s the sixth Terminator film, Terminator: Dark Fate disregards the events of all but the first two Terminator films and takes place after Judgment Day. In this new future, Sarah Connor’s fate has forever been changed when she teams up with an augmented superhuman soldier sent from the future to protect Dani Ramos, a young woman whose survival is critical to ensuring the fate of humanity. Along their way to stopping the Rev-9 (a new, advanced, deadly Terminator from the future), another familiar face, well, comes back, just like he said he would.

Terminator: Dark Fate attempts to be a course correction by righting all these previous films’ wrongs, including bringing back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and James Cameron as producer, and even straight up retconning them and pretending they never existed, except for the only two good ones. But even in all its efforts to return the franchise to form, the spark that this series once had is still missing in Dark Fate. It’s a step up from the previous installment Genisys, but I’m not sure by how large of a margin. It sticks closer in tone to the first Terminator film than the second, but soon it just becomes a rehash of the 1984 classic. Linda Hamilton gives it her all, returning as one of the greatest on-screen badasses on film. She’s accompanied by another returning ass-kicker, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has some fun moments and even some humor in his role as a new T-800 who conveniently also looks like Arnie. Mackenzie Davis was well-cast to play her role, but the writing for her, as well as for the character of Dani, aren’t as interesting or fresh as they should have been. The villain feels like a ripoff of the T-1000 from Terminator 2 and the CGI for his character doesn’t feel convincing.

Perhaps the thing that’s truly missing from this installment is the groundedness the first two had; they were relatively low-budget so they felt like action chase films. But in the age of infinite CGI, nothing feels real, imminent, or threatening like it did back then. At times it feels like the movie’s attempting to be the Logan of the Terminator franchise with small-scale sequences set in Mexico like a scene involving the characters being apprehended by border patrol officers — but soon it ditches all that for a CGI-filled mess, and the finale is almost as cartoonishly bad as some sequences from Genisys. The action sequences all have nice concepts and were probably storyboarded out really well, some of the action, like an opening fist fight or a car chase, turns out to be poorly shot, although a scene involving two planes colliding and a dam was very entertaining. And the score is no longer haunting or memorable — perhaps they could have benefitted from more use of the original theme? Also, the new evil supercomputer that’s producing Terminators is exactly the same as Skynet and everything is the same in the concept, even though the future battle is well-done. There’s also a “plot twist” near the end of the movie that’s embarrassingly executed and so predictable I could see it coming before the movie even began. The theme of fate recurs throughout the film, yet it never feels like it belongs. All the dialogue about fate feels so forced, if only they had focused more on this franchise’s real theme: humanity. None of this is made better by the fact that there’s a choice made in the film that may anger fans of the first two films, and never really justifies itself — or a “we’ll make a sequel if this one makes enough money” ending that I wish had the finality the first two films had, back when we weren’t worried about the continuations and each film could stand as one. There’s some fun callbacks to the original, like the iconic line that has made the series so popular, or a scene taken directly out of the second film. However, Hamilton’s depth and Schwarzenegger’s charisma is all that make the movie, and even those aspects aren’t as strong as they used to be, to which the script is at fault, not the actors. So many times has the sequel that “brings back the true spirit and nature of the franchise that people cherish so dearly” decades later been done now — it felt exciting with Star Wars: The Force Awakens and daring and new with Blade Runner 2049, and was also done by Halloween, Mary Poppins Returns, Independence Day: Resurgence, and soonly enough by Top Gun: Maverick and Doctor Sleep. Unfortunately, though it tries its best to maintain its ties to the original, Dark Fate falls trap to some more modern action trademarks, ending up being too formulaic and not as emotionally raw as before. The big action and concepts often compromise the urgency, excitement, and resonance Terminator used to have, while this one is rather disposal and forgettable. Perhaps the dark fate the franchise may be going down is what the title warned us about.

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Zombieland: Double Tap

Life in the zombie apocalypse can be quite tough — yet these four know how to make the best of it. The ten-year wait for the sequel to a fan favorite has finally ended, in the too-good-to-be-true reunion of the original cast, who by now have become renowned and award-nominated household names if they weren’t already – Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin. Sony even successfully brought the original writers and director back on board — writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who have since then found great success with another genre-breaking, beloved series with Deadpool and Deadpool 2 — and director Ruben Fleischer, who even after an awful misstep with whatever the hell Venom was supposed to be, retains the signature taste of what made Zombieland so great. Double Tap is one of those sequels that takes everything the first film does and tries to do it all but bigger, and for the most part the film hits its target quite well. From the opening narration that will already get a few laughs, to a slo-mo opening credits action scene that recalls a montage that opened the predecessor, it’s clear that the heart and unique fun from the first film is back. It’s ideal to watch the first film to thoroughly understand the characters and their relationships, as well as some call-backs, like Harrelson’s character Tallahassee’s signature catchphrases, as well as a joke about a famous celebrity’s unfortunate demise as depicted in the first film. However, Zombieland: Double Tap can still stand on its own for general audiences searching for a violent action comedy that doesn’t hold back.

While not as iconic as he was when he first played the role, Woody Harrelson is still delightful as the badass Tallahassee who since the first film has grown to love his new family but still is the unrestrained, hilarious zombie-killer who loves Elvis and his guns, and takes annoyance towards car designs and pacifism. Eisenberg is also once again solid as Columbus, even though sometimes his narration gets a bit too explanatory or excessive, and his character arc feels slightly questionable at times when it comes to his love interests, and Stone is also charming and great again, though it’s hard today not to compare to her superior performances like La La Land and The Favourite. And while Breslin is still decent, it’s slightly disappointing to see her character separated from the rest of the gang for part of the film so we don’t get to see as much chemistry from the main four. Rosario Dawson and Zoey Deutch are surprisingly terrific additions to the cast who both have plenty of energy and also have great chemistry with the leads. While the film mostly keeps that signature fun the first film had, there’s one action scene that felt poorly shot, with too many cuts and shaky cam. However, this is redeemed by a later long-take action scene that’s quite enjoyable and creative. Also, the humor does sometimes get routine and predictable, but there are still a fair share of laugh-out-loud moments. Overall, the movie doesn’t feel as fresh as the original considering how many films have tried to do similar, and the story doesn’t have the same natural flow, but there’s still plenty to commend here, including an exciting final battle. Ultimately, Zombieland: Double Tap is a worthy sequel, and although some moments are rushed and other comedic moments don’t feel top-tier, the over-the-top violence and dialogue and the ultimate execution of the film including the cast and story, that’s set in a violent apocalyptic world yet still makes you smile and think about themes like family, is what makes it feel worthy of your time and money, so follow Columbus’ list of rules and enjoy the little things by going to enjoy Zombieland: Double Tap on the big screen.

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Joker

Imagine a film based on a popular comic book property that’s been adapted before into billion-dollar successes, but this time has no action, no CGI, and focuses solely on character development and delivering dark themes about our society. That’s exactly what Joker is. It’s no Dark Knight — the Joker never robs banks or blows up buildings, and it’s certainly no Suicide Squad — no gang wars, alien armies, or apocalypse-level stakes. Joker aligns more with the likes of Scorsese — certain scenes reminded me very much of The King of Comedy, as well as the filmmaker’s darkest classic Taxi Driver. It always sticks to a very old-fashioned, noir-like style, gracefully shot with every prop feeling like it belongs in a frame of a painting. The roaring music feels perfectly done for a haunting and tense crime thriller that focuses deeply on the protagonist’s descent into darkness. Joaquin Phoenix has always had a spot on my favorite actors list, but he manages to own the show in a completely new way here — different than Ledger’s spectacular take on the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight, but equally worthy of praise. He disappears into Arthur Fleck, a man living in poverty with mental illness who feels like an outcast in society and is soon pushed over the edge. Phoenix’s speech, menacing laugh, and weight loss all contribute to how impressive his performance is, and I seriously think he deserves an Oscar nomination. Also outstanding is Robert De Niro as a talk show host whom Arthur idolizes, resembling Jerry Lewis’ character in The King of Comedy whom Robert De Niro’s character in that film develops an obsession over. Joker does occasionally tie-in to characters or events from the Batman universe which may feel slightly forced, but for the most part it stands on its own as a deep and unpredictable story. For such a large studio to adapt such a large property but then include such little action in the film is a huge risk which completely pays off. It’s a character study and a drama with meaningful social commentary, such as the marginalization of those with mental illnesses by the rest of society, or how the less privileged or fortunate are looked down on and ridiculed by the elites. Even though it takes place in the early ’80s, it asks difficult questions like how our modern society could be taking part in creating criminals like the Joker. It’s more unsettling, resonant, and inventive than any comic book film I’ve seen in recent years, to the point where it could also speak to non-superhero-fan audiences like those who are only expecting a dark crime film. In terms of the concerns about the film’s violence, there isn’t much graphic content (definitely not as much as other R-rated superhero films like Deadpool and Logan) but the implications the violence has are more disturbing, serious, and grounded, but hence the R-rating.

Joker is a finely acted, thought-provoking chcracter piece that takes place in a world of gloomy uncertainty and takes more risks than almost any other franchise film recently. It’s not focused on the big fights, or post-credits scenes teasing another film, instead being a brilliant stand-alone piece that leaves you thinking for a long time, and hopefully paves the way for more variety in blockbuster filmmaking, as well as likely remaining one of the films that will be discussed until the end of the year for its strong filmmaking and top-notch writing and themes.

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