Monday, 27 January 2020

Film Review: "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (2019).

"Neighbor. Icon. Friend. An American icon and the story of kindness we need right now." This is A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. This drama film directed by Marielle Heller, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and inspired by the 1998 Esquire article Can You Say ... Hero? by Tom Junod. The film centres on Lloyd Vogel, an investigative journalist who receives an assignment to profile Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers. He approaches the interview with skepticism, as he finds it hard to believe that anyone can have such a good nature. But Roger's empathy, kindness and decency soon chips away at Vogel's jaded outlook on life, forcing the reporter to reconcile with his own painful past.

Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster's script, based on a 1998 Esquire magazine article about television personality Fred Rogers, was featured among the 2013 Black List of best unproduced screenplays. By early September 2018, Tom Hanks was cast as Mr. Rogers, with Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, and Christine Lahti rounding out the cast for the film with Heller as director. At the same time, with a budget of $45 million, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early November. Filming took place in Pittsburgh at the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED (TV) where the late television host recorded Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The crew consulted with original crew members from Rogers' television series and also brought in the same broadcast cameras and monitors used in the original production. The production received tax credits of approximately $9.5 million. In late December, it was announced the film had been officially titled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The film was originally going to be released on October 18, 2019, but in May 2018 was pushed back to November 22, 2019.

The film stars Hanks, Rhys, Watson, Cooper, Plunkett, Colantoni, Makkena, and Lahti. Terrific performances were given by the cast, especially from the always reliable Mr. Hanks. It takes an actor as delightful as Hanks to make his portrayal of the iconic children show host not just charming, but downright lovable as well. Hanks elevates the material at every opportunity. We must give Hanks well-deserved praise for taking on a role so typical for him yet so different than anything he's done.

Deftly directed and laced equally with drama and humour, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood proves a compelling showcase for deeply affecting work from Tom Hanks. Every beat of the film is just so, its portraiture as rich as the characters themselves are barely solvent. The screenplay by Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster is well structured, witty and poignant. It is one of those films that's so good that you almost miss it the first time. This film is a 'portrait of an American icon' in its honest form. It is an interesting character study, and also one of the most sweetest too. It is a terrific film, with a lot to say about kindness and forgiveness.

Simon says A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood receives:

Also, see my review for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Film Review: "Spies in Disguise" (2019).

"Super Spy. Super Fly." This is Spies in Disguise. This computer-animated spy comedy film directed by Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, in their feature directorial debuts, adapted by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, loosely based on the 2009 animated short Pigeon: Impossible by Lucas Martell, and produced by Blue Sky Studios. Super spy Lance Sterling and scientist Walter Beckett are almost exact opposites. Lance is smooth, suave and debonair. Walter is not. But what Walter lacks in social skills he makes up for in smarts and invention, creating the awesome gadgets Lance uses on his epic missions. But when events take an unexpected turn, Walter and Lance suddenly have to rely on each other in a whole new way. And if this odd couple can't learn to work as a team, the whole world is in peril.

In early October 2017, it was announced that development was underway on a film based on the animated short Pigeon: Impossible (2009), with Will Smith and Tom Holland set to voice the lead characters. In early June 2018, it was reported that Theodore Shapiro was set to compose the film's score. By September 2019, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka, and Carla Jimenez were added to the voice cast. The film's original release date was January 18th, 2019, but was then pushed back to April 19th. It got pushed back again to September 13th. And it got pushed back once more to Christmas day on December 25th.

The film stars the voice talents of Smith, Holland, Jones, Mendelsohn, McEntire, Brosnahan, Gillan, Khaled, Oka, and Jimenez. Solid performances were given by the cast, especially from Smith and Holland, despite the cliched humour associated with an ensemble and film of this nature.

Spies in Disguise's colourful update on a classic tale and genre doesn't go anywhere unexpected, but its themes – and Smith's engaging voice work – make for family-friendly fun. Sometimes enough with the dark and gritty approach. What is needed sometimes is this film, a different kind of spy who is about as light-hearted and humorous as he is suave and cool. A cool-looking spy that goes on a mission of fun and adventure in this unique adaptation of the 2009 animated short. Though the film is inoffensive fun, but unlike its cinematic predecessors, it is unlikely to stand the test of time. With a lovely voice performance from Smith, the spirit does shine through. But the rest of the story filler is mostly forgettable. Unlike the animated short, the film earns the arena’s cheers for not the action, but the crowd’s sense of surprise will elude audiences attending the film. It’s no Missing Link, but Ferdinand, a CG-animated spy caper about a suave spy and geeky scientist, manages to squeak by with enough charming set-pieces and amusing sight gags to compensate for a stalling storyline. The film may lack the all-out charm offensive of the studio’s Ice Age vehicle, but it’s not too far off in terms of quality and sweetness.

Simon says Spies in Disguise receives:

Also, see my review for Ferdinand.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Film Review: "Bombshell" (2019).

"Based on a Real Scandal." This is Bombshell. This biographical drama film directed by Jay Roach and written by Charles Randolph. When Gretchen Carlson slaps Fox News founder Roger Ailes with a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, not a soul could predict what would happen next. Her decision leads to Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly coming forward with her own story, as well as multiple other women, inciting a movement that reverberates around the world.

In mid May 2017, after Ailes' death, it was announced that Annapurna Pictures was in the early stages of developing a film centred on the Fox News Scandal with Randolph penning the script. In late May, it was announced that Roach had been hired to direct, and that Charlize Theron had entered negotiations to portray Kelly. The project was originally brought to Theron's production company, with the intention of her producing and possibly starring in the film. Once Theron decided to star as Kelly, Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman were her top picks for the roles of Kayla Pospisil and Carlson, respectively. In early August 2018, it was reported that Kidman had begun negotiations to star as Carlson and that Robbie was in talks to play Pospisil, with Theron confirmed to star. Later that month, it was announced that John Lithgow had been cast as Ailes. In early October, it was announced that Annapurna had dropped out of producing the film, reportedly due to concerns over the film's growing budget. At the time of the announcement, it was confirmed that Bron Studios was staying on board the film and that producers were reportedly looking at Focus Features, Participant Media, and Amblin Entertainment to potentially help finance the film. Additionally, Lionsgate began negotiating to join the production after Focus Features and Amblin Entertainment passed on the project. By the end of the month, Lionsgate was reported to be closing a deal to distribute the film. At the same time, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Kate McKinnon, Nazanin Boniadi, Andy Buckley, Michael Buie, P. J. Byrne, D'Arcy Carden, Alice Eve, Spencer Garrett, Ashley Greene, Tricia Helfer, Marc Evan Jackson, Richard Kind, Amy Landecker, Ben Lawson, Josh Lawson, Jennifer Morrison, Mark Moses, Ahna O'Reilly, Tony Plana, Elisabeth Röhm, Stephen Root, Brooke Smith, Holland Taylor, Alanna Ubach, Robin Weigert, and Madeline Zima rounded out the film's cast. Additionally, principal photography commenced, and took place in Los Angeles, California under the working title Fair and Balanced.

The film features an ensemble cast that includes Theron, Kidman, Robbie, Lithgow, Britton, Delaney, Duplass, Janney, McDowell, McKinnon, Boniadi, Buckley, Buie, Byrne, Carden, Eve, Garrett, Greene, Helfer, Jackson, Kind, Landecker, Lawson, Lawson, Morrison, Moses, O'Reilly, Plana, Röhm, Root, Smith, Taylor, Ubach, Weigert, and Zima. The cast, especially Theron, Kidman, Robbie, and Lithgow, gave incredible performances that gave us fascinating insights into the real-life figures and the situation.

Bombshell serves as an honourable and well-acted examination to the insane sexual allegations against Roger Alies and Fox News, even if it doesn't quite achieve the historical accuracy that we had hoped.

Simon says Bombshell receives:

Also, see my review for Trumbo.

Series Review: "Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez" (2020).

"A Netflix original documentary series" comes Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. This true crime documentary series directed by Geno McDermott. As a gifted young football athlete from Bristol, Connecticut, Aaron Hernandez had capitalized rapidly on his promise, playing for a top tier college program before being drafted into the National Football League at the age of 20. But in 2013, fresh off of a newly inked five-year, $40 million contract with the New England Patriots, Hernandez would become a household name for the most infamous murder case involving an American athlete since OJ Simpson. Hernandez's trials for the brutal killing of Odin Lloyd and two Boston-area men yielded a Pandora's box of secrets: a tumultuous and often abusive upbringing, a growing fascination with gang life, and other discoveries that painted a maelstrom of motivations behind his violent behavior. A three-part documentary series featuring exclusive courtroom footage, Hernandez's phone calls from prison, and interviews with those who knew Hernandez and Lloyd, the series meticulously examines the perfect storm of factors leading to the trial, conviction, and death of an athlete who seemingly had it all.

In January 2017, McDermott met with journalists Dan Wetzel and Kevin Armstrong, who had both covered Hernandez's trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd and were writing a book about Hernandez. They began gathering interviews and other research for the documentary. After a year and a half, McDermott originally compiled a documentary film, My Perfect World: The Aaron Hernandez Story, that was shown at the DOC NYC film festival, but decided to make it a series after partnering with Netflix. Hernandez's immediate family "very respectfully" declined to participate.

Difficult to watch, the documentary is inevitably compelling but structurally messy - a byproduct, perhaps, of stretching the material over six parts. Fascinating and informative as a procedural in terms of how high-profile cases like this unfold. Driven by a litany of talking heads from all corners of the legal and social-worker world-not to mention from Hernandez's friends, the documentary is an exposé about institutional failure. As a true journalistic effort, the documentary doesn't shy away from the messiness of the truth, especially when efforts to prevent another death like Odin Lloyd's prove not enough. It is a series that forces watchers to live a terrible but necessary moment in modern history. It's as if the desire of the documentary to entertain, to ensure that we are as spellbound as possible by yet another example of the atrocities that humans are capable of, is greater than any need to inform and educate. Made with respect and an absolute absence of sensationalism or exploitativeness. A heart-wrenching documentary that explores complex issues. It is a very difficult show to watch. But it's one of those that's a must watch, because it'll show you how the government agencies that are supposed to protect children can often fail, often for very stupid reasons. However, in the end, six episodes, lasting between an hour and an hour and ten minutes, are too little to tell the whole story.

Simon says Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez receives:

Monday, 13 January 2020

Film Review: "A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon" (2019).

"Close Encounters of the Furred Kind." This is A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon. This stop-motion animated science fiction comedy film co-directed by Will Becher and Richard Phelan, in their directorial debuts, written by Mark Burton and Jon Brown, based on the characters created by Nick Park, and produced by Aardman Animations. It is the stand-alone sequel to Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015). When an alien possessing strange powers crash-lands near Mossy Bottom Farm, Shaun the Sheep quickly makes a new friend. Together they must run from a dangerous organisation who wants to capture the intergalactic visitor.

In mid September 2015, StudioCanal announced its collaboration with Aardman on a sequel to Shaun the Sheep Movie, marking Aardman's first sequel. In late October 2016, Aardman confirmed a sequel would go into pre production in January 2017, under the working title of Shaun the Sheep Movie 2, with Richard Starzak returning to the director's chair. However, in November 2018, it was announced that Aardman employees Richard Phelan and Will Becher will be co directing the film, with Starzak still attached as director, due to Peter Lord and David Sproxton giving majority of ownership to employees to keep the company independent.

Like a great silent film, the performances creates its pathos and comedy out of the concrete objects being animated, building elaborate gags involving everyday items transformed into Rube Goldberg devices. Sometimes the simplest movies are the best. Case in point: the film, a dialogue-free, non-digitally designed, plain old stop-motion animated film that is hilarious beyond human measure.

Warm, funny, and brilliantly animated, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is yet another stop-motion jewel in Aardman's family-friendly crown. The film may be less elaborate than Aardman masterpieces like Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), but there's still much to enjoy. It's not often you see a cartoon that references both Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Refreshingly for children (but especially for adults), there are no lessons to learn and no faults to admonish. Instead, it's an eighty-seven-minute, dialogue-free distillation of all the innocent fun we wish childhood could be. Playful, absurd and endearingly inventive, this unstoppably amusing feature reminds us why Britain's Aardman Animations is a mainstay of the current cartooning golden age. Though realized on a more modest scale than other Aardman features, the film is still an absolute delight in terms of set and character design, with sophisticated blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detailing to counterbalance the franchise’s cruder visual trademarks. In a bold move that pays off, the movie jettisons dialogue altogether and tells its whole story through barn-animal noises, goofy sound effects, and sight gags so silly they’d make Benny Hill spin in sped-up ecstasy. The effect is contagiously cute. From the company that gave us Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace and Gromit, this adorable tale about a sheep who leads his comrades on a big-city adventure is some of the most pure visual storytelling you’re going to see this year.

Simon says A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon receives:

Also, see my review for Early Man.

Film Review: "1917" (2019).

"Time is the enemy" in 1917. This epic war film directed by Sam Mendes, and Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Set during World War I, two British soldiers, Lance Cpl. Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake, receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save sixteen hundred of their fellow comrades, including Blake's own brother.

In June 2018, it was announced that Amblin Partners and New Republic Pictures have acquired the World War I script written by Mendes and Wilson-Cairns, with Mendes directing. The story is based on Mendes' grandfather's experience detailed in WWI: "The Autobiography of Alfred H. Mendes 1897-1991. In September, Tom Holland was reported to be in talks to star. However, due to scheduling conflicts, Holland turned down the opportunity. In October, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman entered negotiations to star in the film. By early April 2019, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in June. Filming took place throughout Surrey and Teesdale, England, and Govan, Scotland, as well as Shepperton Studios. Prior to filming, concerns were raised by conservationists who felt the production could disturb potentially undiscovered remains in Salisbury Plain, requesting a survey be conducted before any construction for sets began on the land. Over fifty-two hundred feet of trenches, just under one mile, were dug for the film. The production staff had to install signs warning walkers in the area not be alarmed by the bodies strewn around the site as they were prosthetic. As many as five hundred background extras were required for some shots. Filming was accomplished with long takes and elaborately choreographed moving camera shots to give the effect of one continuous take.

The film stars MacKay, Chapman, Strong, Scott, Madden, Duburcq, Firth, and Cumberbatch. The cast gave terrific performances, especially with MacKay and Chapman giving performances that epitomised the courageous heroics of men during war.

A thrilling leap forward for Mendes, 1917 is an ambitious technical showcase powered by a layered story and outstanding performances from the cast, led by MacKay and Chapman. Mendes has delivered all the spectacle of a big-screen tentpole, ratcheting up both the tension and heroism through his intricate and occasionally overwhelming cinematography. The film serves up emotionally satisfying spectacle, delivered by a filmmaker in full command of his craft and brought to life by a gifted ensemble cast that honours the fact-based story. By the end of the film, what stands out the most isn’t its inspirational message or everyday heroism. It’s the small indelible, unshakeable images that accumulate like the details in the corner of a mural. This is not only the best WWI film since Paths of Glory (1957), it is very simply one of the greatest war movies ever made. The film was a tour de force of cinematic craft and technique. It was just really beautifully written and stunningly performed and beautifully made.

Simon says 1917 receives:

Also, see my review for Spectre.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Film Review: "The Gentlemen" (2020).

"Criminal. Class." This is The Gentlemen. This action crime film written and directed by Guy Ritchie. Mickey Pearson is an American expatriate who became rich by building a marijuana empire in London. When word gets out that he's looking to cash out of the business, it soon triggers an array of plots and schemes from those who want his fortune.

In early May 2018, at the Cannes Film Festival, it was announced that Ritchie would be writing and directing a film that would be in the same spirit as Ritchie’s earlier films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). Filming was expected to begin in October. By November, Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant were cast. Kate Beckinsale was originally cast but dropped two days after shooting commenced. Dockery ultimately replaced her. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and took place at West London Film Studios, London, England.

The film stars McConaughey, Hunnam, Golding, Dockery, Strong, Marsan, Farrell and Grant. Despite good intentions, the performances came off as both crude and annoying. Of the ensemble, only McConaughey truly shows his class, delivering an amusing yet emotive performance amongst a group of actors who, at best, are pandering to laddish culture. While ostensibly rooted in the London underworld, McConaughey's drug dealer was probably the most interesting element of the plot and the film's clearest predecessors were all American: Dick Tracycomics, Damon Runyon stories, and zany Marx Brothers comedies.

The Gentlemen is a grimy, crude, and derivative twist on the Tarantino hip gangster formula. Though perhaps a case of style over substance, Ritchie's return to form crime caper is full of snappy dialogue, dark comedy, and interesting characters. What am I to say of Ritchie's new film, which follows the formulas of his earlier films so slavishly it could be like a new arrangement of the same song? Ritchie seems to be stepping backward when he should be moving ahead. Ritchie may be skilled at generating controlled chaos, but his surprise-a-minute strategy ultimately holds no surprises. There's just not a lot of fun to be had here. The plot is too convoluted, too filled with double-reversals and twists for us to turn our brains off, relax and watch Ritchie's kinetic visual style. What we have here is a gaudy mess. At times it feels like it's being made up as it goes along. The best one can say is that it's a smart cartoon, and a fairly exhausting viewing experience. The humour is as rude and crude as the characters, but the picture certainly isn't lacking in energy. There are far too many tokenistic soundtrack and cinematographic throws of the dice. If only it could have resisted revelry in its own style and violence, it might have been one 1999's best films, due to its performances and clever plot twists. The film is not boring, but it doesn't build and it doesn't arrive anywhere.

Simon says The Gentlemen receives:

Also, see my review for Aladdin (2019).

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Film Review: "Little Women" (2019).

"Own your story." This is Little Women. This coming-of-age period drama film adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig, and based on Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel of the same name. It is the seventh adaptation of Alcott's literary classic. The film follows the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times.

In October 2013, Sony Pictures announced a new film adaptation of Alcott's novel. In March 2015, Amy Pascal began developing the new adaptation, with Sarah Polley hired to pen, and potentially direct, the adaptation. However, despite reports, Polley's involvement never went beyond initial discussions. In August 2016, Gerwig was hired to pen the adaptation. In June 2018, in light of her awards season success with Lady Bird, Gerwig was hired to direct as well. In addition, it was announced that Emma Stone, Saoirse Ronan, and Florence Pugh had been cast as Meg, Jo, and Amy March. In July, Eliza Scanlen was cast as Beth March. In addition, Stone dropped out of the project due to scheduling conflicts. Ultimately, Emma Watson replaced her. By early October, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, and Chris Cooper rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in mid December. Filming took place throughout Massachusetts. Gerwig was six months pregnant with her first child by the time filming ended and went into labor forty-eight hours after turning in her rough edit. She succeeded in keeping her pregnancy under wraps so well that nobody on set knew she was expecting. In early April 2019, it was announced that Alexandre Desplat had been hired to compose the film's score.

The film stars an ensemble cast that includes Ronan, Watson, Pugh, Scanlen, Dern, Chalamet, Streep, Letts, Odenkirk, Norton, Garrel, and Cooper. The cast, especially Ronan, Watson, Pugh and Scanlen, so impeccably transported these characters from page to screen that the film, like the book, has become a familiar haven of warmth to be visited again and again.

Thanks to a powerhouse lineup of talented actresses, Gerwig's take on Alcott's Little Women proves that a timeless story can succeed no matter how many times it's told. The film is an outstanding version of Alcott's perennial, one that surpasses even the best previous rendition, Gillian Armstrong's 1994 outing starring Wynona Ryder. The film is, in short, a joy to behold. But beyond the eye-candy, there is real substance in Gerwig's screenwriting. It's her naturalistic approach to a story she clearly loves that brings this beautiful film to life. The film is meticulously crafted and warmly acted. It is one of the rare Hollywood studio films that invites your attention, slowly and elegantly, rather than propelling your interest with effects and easy manipulation. Ladies, get out your hand-hemmed handkerchiefs for the loveliest Little Women ever on screen.

Simon says Little Women receives:

Also, see my review for Lady Bird.