Tag: tom hanks

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod, the biographical drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” manages to stand out a bit from its contemporaries because it is able to capture the essence of Fred Rogers (known to many Americans as Mr. Rogers)—even though the work itself is not about him. It employs slow but purposeful pacing to fascinate, silence to give us room to consider, and irregular beats to draw us deeply into the conflict surrounding a man who cannot find it within himself to forgive his father.

Matthew Rhys plays investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel with a convincing weariness. One looks at his face even for just a few seconds and seething anger can be felt. But the anger is not menacing; rather it is the kind that eats up its host little by little, decade after decade. This anger reaches a boiling point when Lloyd’s father (Chris Cooper) is suddenly thrown back into his life. Rhys delivers a solid performance that stands strong alongside Tom Hanks’ interpretation of the legendary Mr. Rogers. When the two are engaged in a reflective exchange, for instance, they manage to hit every subtle emotion seemingly without effort. When the camera is up close and personal and emotions are exorcised, it feels like a dance.

I think it is a challenge to pull off this type of script. A jaded person crossing paths with a saintly figure and the former learning to have a more positive outlook on life by the end of the story is nothing particularly new. However, there are enough fresh ideas here to blindside the viewers from identifying the more familiar turns of the plot—like taking Mr. Rogers’ empathetic/humanistic approach of dealing with “the mad” one feels, which is targeted toward children, and applying this idea to adults. Had it been helmed by heavier hands, it could have been reduced to yet another Lifetime drama where everyone cries during the climax and all is happy by the end credits. Marielle Heller’s direction is careful and nuanced, so the journey comes across genuine.

Having seen Morgan Neville’s terrific documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I admit I was put off by Hanks’ performance initially. The film opens with Mr. Rogers entering his home, making eye contact with the viewers, taking off the blazer, putting on the famous red cardigan… while singing the theme song. Although I did not grow up with Mr. Rogers or his television program, I felt as though Hanks is more on the side of imitation rather than simply inhabiting.

Having said that, I grew to enjoy his version of Mr. Rogers about a third of the way through—when the character is no longer shooting another episode in front of the camera. Curiously, he remains to be a saint-like figure. It is acknowledged Mr. Rogers is not perfect and does feel anger from time to time, but this is shown only once. The fact that he had challenging relationships with his sons is mentioned, but it is disappointing that it is not delved into. It would have been appropriate because the central conflict revolves around father and son. The thought of the picture being afraid of putting a stain on Rogers’ memory and legacy crossed my mind.

Despite this key shortcoming, I was emotionally engaged by the film. I wondered not necessarily whether Lloyd would choose to forgive his father but rather if he could forgive himself in allowing so many years to pass for harboring so much anger and hatred. Make no mistake that this is Lloyd’s story, not Mr. Roger’s. It does, however, make an appropriate and worthy companion piece with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in that both provide layers worth examining closely.

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pixar proves yet again that they understand their audience. Sure, the computer animation is more spectacular than ever. No detail is considered as too small or insignificant even during a most exciting chase or action sequence. The score is consistently on point: carefully calibrated depending on specific emotions being conveyed at a particular moment. But when it all comes down to it, notice that the standout works from this superlative studio are those that possess the most humanity; the medium just so happens to be animation. And “Toy Story 4,” written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, is one of Pixar’s most entertaining works, a welcome installment to an illustrious series.

The screenwriters make the intelligent choice not to tell just another adventure story that unfolds throughout a road trip. Instead, it focuses on an existential note that harkens all the way back to the original “Toy Story”: what happens when a toy is no longer needed, or wanted, by its owner? (What happens when parents recognize that their children no longer needs them?) College-bound Andy handed over Woody (voiced by the inimitable Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) at the end of the previous film and this next chapter proves interested in exploring—not just showing—what happens next. The masterstroke, I think, is that although the gang has found another home, not all of them feels at home. This is when the drama comes in.

Respect is given to longtime fans by not showing a strong bond between Bonnie and Woody. Although Bonnie’s name is written on the underside of Woody’s boots, we all know his heart will forever belong to Andy. This can be a complicated concept, both for young children and those who are new to the series, but I admired that the writing is sharp and patient enough to provide morsels of how important it is for every toy—not just Woody—to find a place where they feel like they are loved. And these universal examples are applied to the cowboy character’s psychology. It is clear that the writing strives to provide more than just surface entertainment. It is so refreshing given the poor caliber of animated movies aimed at children that release annually.

But what about those who are interested in surface entertainment? (There is nothing wrong with that.) Well, the movie has that covered, too. Its type of humor will appeal to the young, old, and everyone in between. The reason is because most jokes are kid-at-heart. They are creative and often delivered with such vivacity that even when an attempt at humor is not that funny, you find yourself laughing anyway. It is a movie filled to the brim with smiles.

There is not one joke involving poop, fart, or pee but there are jokes about body parts of specific toys—how they react, for example, after seeing another toy with a similar body composition having been cut in half. We get the impression that the filmmakers had put in the time to observe each character’s physicality and find ways to make us laugh out loud—or giggle at the very least. Notice that many jokes presented here cannot be used in other generic animated movies. Conversely, jokes involving bodily functions are all the same when used in said films. It goes to show that specificity goes a long way.

“Toy Story 4,” directed by Josh Cooley, provides a most joyous and emotional experience—a wonderful summer movie when children are out of school and have all the time in the world to play with their toys, to pretend like cowboys, princesses, monsters, gooey invaders from another planet. And for those of us who are grown, well, for about a hundred minutes the picture makes us feel like we are kids again. That’s indispensable.

The Post

The Post (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Impeccably acted and executed with a high level of verve common to memorable historical dramas, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” on the surface, is about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents that spans three decades with regards to the United States’ role in Vietnam, the resulting quicksand war, including the government’s lies and manipulation of the American people, but look a little more carefully and realize it is an exploration of the role The Washington Post, under the leadership of publisher Kay Graham, in continuing to inform Americans of the contents within the aforementioned classified documents after The New York Times was stopped by the Nixon administration from reporting any further about the leaks.

Meryl Streep plays the publisher who, over time, becomes willing to risk her company, fortune, and reputation for the sake of truth. Graham’s evolution from a woman who holds a title but not the respect that should come with it to a strong leader who leaves the room in silence once her decision is made is consistently intriguing. The veteran director ensures that the requisite rollercoaster ride of emotions that come with such a journey are not only present but that the viewers are thoroughly engaged with every turn of events.

The power of Spielberg’s control and Streep’s range, from behind and in front of the camera, respectively, are in perfect unison during an early scene where Graham is in a meeting with bankers and members of the company’s board—all of whom are white male. Questions demand the publisher’s input at times but these are always directed to the spectacled man next to her. For emphasis, Spielberg never places the camera from Graham’s side of the long table. As the subject struggles to speak up and realizes that her presence is merely a formality, decoration, the camera patiently inches toward Streep’s face for a detailed close-up. Although Streep’s face begins to dominate the screen, she is able to make us feel how small, how humiliated, Graham must feel at that moment.

Equally intriguing, in content and tone, is how the source of the leak (Matthew Ryhs) is tracked down by Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), one of the journalists for the Post. Despite a high-stakes situation, the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer establishes contrast by providing just enough room for light humor. Odenkirk does plenty with the limitations of the way the character is written. (Most of the time he is talking to someone on an office telephone or a payphone.) It helps that the performer looks like a convincing experienced journalist who is desperate to get to the contractor who acquired the highly controversial documents. I wished the character had more detail to him.

The narrative drive behind “The Post” is appealing because the story is supported by a natural ebb and flow of white-knuckle suspense and light amusement, spearheaded by leads who deliver top-notch performances. And yet not once do we forget that the themes it explores are serious and timely. It is a great reminder that we, as Americans, tend to take the First Amendment for granted.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Though just about anyone, from the most experienced critic to a casual moviegoer, can consider it a success or a failure, what cannot be denied is that “Cloud Atlas,” directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, has vision and it dares to ask us what we should expect from the movies as an art form and as a source of entertainment.

The plot does not hold much significance. And it does not need to. It is understandable that we are resistant of it, either only initially or throughout, because we are used to recognizing a template and seeing it build from the ground up. This one starts in the middle while floating on air. Right away it begins grow a trunk, all the way down until it takes root, as it simultaneously builds height and eventually bears fruit. Having a story unfold this way is frustrating, certainly. During its opening scenes I was confused. I wondered with crumpled brow when or if it was going to go anywhere worthwhile. After some time I gave up. But not on the movie. I gave up trying to make sense of it through a conventional lens.

To evaluate it in terms of plot, I think, is a misstep, a limitation in part of the perceiver. In essence, the film’s message is somewhere along the lines of a person’s action (or inaction) having a rippling effect across time and space. We track these decisions across six stories, each subsequent piece at least forty to a hundred years apart. They are interwoven to make an elegiac quilt. Actors play different characters regardless of their gender and race. Some of us might be distracted by the makeup; I was not. The focus is on the big picture: humans putting stamp on our home planet and beyond.

Each segment varies in level of curiosity and emotional impact. Most beautifully executed is one that begins in 1936 Cambridge as Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaves his lover, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), with hopes of being hired by a renowned musician (Jim Broadbent) as an amanuensis. Frobisher thinks that by being around a person of considerable talent, he will learn to become a great composer someday. Under the direction of Tykwer, showing the images of Frobisher writing letters to Sixsmith along a voiceover that reads its contents as the score yearns and laments, creates a period piece with magnetic pull. We do not get to know the main players inside and out, but a lot of us, I imagine, will be able to relate to former or existing feelings of being young and wanting to accomplish so much that eventually we end up sacrificing more than we should.

Also compelling, but to a lesser degree, is the the Wachowskis’ love story between a clone named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo (Jim Sturgess), member of a rebel group who shows her the reality of Neo Seoul 2144. What they have is forbidden. It is predictable that they are hunted by government agents and there are rapid-fire shootouts. Impressive special and visual effects are employed. But how do you know when a love story works? Here is one answer: When you know what is going to happen and yet you root for reality to turn out differently. In this case, the romance is told through flashbacks as Sonmi-451 is interviewed by an Archivist (D’Arcy) before she is put to death.

Two stories fail to take off: the 1849 voyage in the Pacific Ocean, directed by the Wachowskis, and the 1973 nuclear reactor conspiracy in San Francisco, directed by Tykwer. With the former, it is mostly composed of familiar elements of a white man (Sturgess) recognizing slavery of black people, through Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway, for what it really is. As shown here, it is difficult buy into a character somehow overcoming racial attitudes when the story is told only superficially. With the latter, Louisa (Halle Berry), a journalist, is mostly boring. Instead of really making us understand how her deceased father is major force behind her motivations, going as far as putting her life on the line, we are simply given shots of her glancing at his picture and then looking sad.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” is not short on ambition. Two of the six parts are weak compared to the others but they are not so dull that they break the film’s overall rhythm. Also, I would have liked to have the birthmark, shaped like a comet, to have been delved into. The movement across time and back is so fluid that it is almost like looking into a memory of a soul that has gone through several incarnations.

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the book “Mary Poppins,” is advised to close a deal with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) because she is running out of money. Though the writer realizes the difficulty of her financial situation, the story is really important to her so she cannot let go. If she does sign over her rights to Disney, it means two things: the film will be a musical and it will contain animation. She finds the idea repulsive. She believes songs and dancing penguins will take away the necessary gravity from her original work.

“Saving Mr. Banks,” written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is as light as a feather. Although Thompson and Hanks are entertaining as a pair, the picture is not an effective comedy-drama because the dramatic elements are so syrupy to the point of indigestion. The film is divided into two time points: the novelist’s visit to Los Angeles in 1961 and her childhood in 1906 when she learns her father’s addiction to alcohol (Colin Farrell). The former, the comedy, is a joy while the latter, the drama, is bereft of energy. A lopsided picture results.

Thompson finds the right tone to make an entertaining character. Though she creates a very uptight Travers, not once does she come off mean-spirited. In fact, we can understand where she is coming from because handing over what is important to us to someone else who we fear is not as passionate or invested is often difficult. Interestingly, even though she is supposed to be the main character of the movie, most of us will find ourselves on the side of Disney and his artists without realizing why. Such is the power of branding and legacy in action.

The screenplay allowing Travers to be surrounded by merry characters is a good source of comedy. Every time she criticizes a proposed direction, an accompanying reaction shot is shown at the right time. Also, it lingers just enough to showcase their frustration, shock, or embarrassment. It becomes clear quite quickly that Travers’ approach is a dictatorship rather than a partnership. And yet when the tone shifts just a little, especially during the scenes between the writer and her driver (Paul Giamatti), it feels just right. The sensitive moments are earned.

Flashbacks to Australia ’61 are a bore. The sentimentality is just too much. Put the overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson—miscast and the character underwritten), alcoholic father, and a daughter’s innocence (Annie Rose Buckley) being crushed into the mix, there is a lack of uplift within the time period to balance the sad moments. At one point, a character chooses to commit suicide. I was shocked—not in a good way. What if children who love Robert Stevenson’s “Mary Poppins” end up seeing this? How is that appropriate? In my opinion, if a serious subject like suicide is brought up, it should at least be acknowledged or explained later.

Another problem, though somewhat of a lesser degree, is that I never felt as though Disney ever liked his punctilious collaborator. His gestures to convince Travers to sign the paperwork feel hollow. I suppose deals are made in real life without people having to like each other or to meet in person, but it feels a bit off here. One gets the impression that a more realistic layer is tacked on late into script development.

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is in command of a cargo ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya. Aware of the pirates patrolling the Gulf of Aden, he insists on being vigilant of the potential dangers of the voyage. Soon enough, two boats with armed men are in pursuit of Maersk Alabama. The leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is extremely determined to get aboard the ship, take hostages, and receive millions of dollars in exchange. Although the massive ship is running full speed, the boats inch closer by the second.

Half of “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass, is a good movie—heavily entertaining and with a solid handle on the human drama between Somali pirates and Americans who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The first half is strong; the second half is fatigued. Meanwhile, Greengrass employs his usual tricks which work only some of the time.

With the exception of the first scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener), which is at best an awkward miscalculation, the first forty to fifty minutes builds tension so elegantly and so convincingly, I discovered my hands clamming up in anticipation. You know you are watching something genuinely suspenseful and thrilling when the trailer reveals certain information but that knowledge goes out the window and you feel you are caught in the middle of the conflict being portrayed on screen. In other words, the pirates will get on the ship but you root for them to fail anyway.

The two boats chasing the cargo ship is Greengrass at his best. The editing is quick and sharp but never incomprehensible. He is in complete control of the camera as emphasis is placed on the urgency of what ought to be done in order to accomplish a goal. From the Americans’ perspective: communicating with proper authorities to seek aid, gaining a whole lot of speed, getting defenses set up, and a possible Plan B. From Somali pirates’ side: maintaining speed but not to the point where their boats can be overturned by the waves.

In addition, the camera captures the many expressions of Captain Phillips, from determination, anticipation, increasing fear, and surrender. Though we get only glimpses of Hanks during the high-speed pursuit, there is enough detail in his voice, body movement, and facial expressions to communicate to us what his character might be feeling or thinking during a particular snapshot. He is an extremely efficient performer and it is a complete joy to watch him near the top of his game.

But the second half left me unimpressed. Most of it takes place in a small space which gives us a whole lot of time waiting for something significant to occur. In addition to utilizing a much slower pace, the general approach involves repetition: a cycle of physical and verbal violence then a period of waiting. Captain Phillips’ struggle verges on boredom.

Instead of being inspired to lean closer, I found the close-ups and shaking of the camera repulsive. It is as if the director wants so badly for us to be in the moment that he neglects to just leave the camera be and trust that we are already emotionally involved in the conflict. As a result, instead of being in the moment as I was during the first half, I found myself noticing the craftsmanship and, more importantly, a lack of control with regards to the elements that should, in a theory, make the drama work.

“Captain Phillips,” based on the screenplay by Billy Ray and Richard Phillips’ book, is elevated by an ace performer, but the director needs to learn new tricks or at least be willing to go back to basics in order to tell parts of his story more effectively.

Larry Crowne

Larry Crowne (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks), a former chef in the Navy, has been an associate at UMart for several years. He shares a camaraderie with his co-workers, is friendly to customers, and great at his job. When he is called in by his superiors, he suspects he is to be named Employee of the Month. In actuality, his bosses inform him that he has been let go, citing the bad economy as a reason. Also, they tell Larry that even though he is good at what he does, there is no chance of him ever climbing the corporate ladder because he did not go to college. His solution: to go back to school and get a degree.

Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos, “Larry Crowne” takes serious issues involving job instability and unemployment and colors them with a lighter shade, often to an amusing effect. Some might say that this is an inappropriate avenue given that there is nothing funny about a person losing his or her job. While getting fired or let go along with the feelings it unearths is a serious matter–more than a handful have become so desperate that they committed suicide–the filmmakers intended to make a comedy. Therefore, it must be evaluated with respect to the genre and not what we believe is or is not respectful.

When Larry decides to go back to school, the picture carries a certain excitement. From the people he meets, like cute-as-a-button Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her passion for vintage clothes, to the classes he signs up for, like Speech 217, The Art of Informal Remarks, led by Marcedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), and Economics 1, led by Dr. Ed Matsutani (George Takei), there is grace in the way subplots pile on top of one another. I enjoyed tug-o’-war between the youthfulness of the situation and Larry, no longer a young pup, trying to keep up with the groove. It is not always easy.

Serious situations are not simply swept under the rug. The scenes of Larry having to make difficult decisions since he can no longer afford the mortgage for his house ring some truths. His interactions with his neighbors (Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson), holding a year-round garage sale, offers some humor but it has enough small, personal moments that serve as a reminder that they, too, have had their share of pecuniary instability. In a way, Larry sees the happy couple as possible life he can have if he can manage to get his life back on track somehow.

It is not just Larry who has to struggle. Mercedes is extremely frustrated with her husband (Bryan Cranston), a writer who claims he gets work done at home when, in reality, he spends a lot of his time looking at pornography. On top of her problems at home, she no longer feels passionate about teaching. So, she turns to alcohol to drown the thoughts and feelings that she does not want to deal with. I enjoyed that this message is communicated clearly: hangovers disappear but problems do not.

My problem with the movie is neither its intentions nor its small scope. It is in the many conveniences of the script that do not feel completely believable. While Larry and Mercedes are supposed to be yin and yang, their scenes wonderful to watch when life’s silly coincidences converge with their effusive charms, some strands left me wanting more.

For instance, Larry eventually joins a bike gang after being invited by Talia. There is chemistry between the two even though they are about thirty years apart in age. I felt that the material shies away from their electricity, relying on the bike gang distraction as a sort of quirk, an excuse for them to not deal with their feelings. Talia is an adult, smart and plucky, and there should have been no shame in a possible romance between them. Instead, the script conveniently paints her as “the nice girl,” a plot device designed to build a romantic bridge between Larry and Mercedes.

“Larry Crowne,” directed by Tom Hanks, is about people trying to make it through one day at a time but it needs more highs that feel more complete–highs that are not restricted to Mercedes binge drinking after a long day of work.