As I was watching the sweetly good-natured but somewhat superficial 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was left wondering if there could be a big screen story on minister-turned-children’s TV host Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers.” Was there enough material to open up this kind, affirming, gentle man into a three-dimensional character worthy of a deep dive? I’m still unsure after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks as Rogers. The filmmakers made the conscious decision to construct a fictional narrative of family strife between a father (Chris Cooper) and his son, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer. Fred Rogers begins as an assignment for Lloyd and becomes the change agent, pushing Lloyd, in the gentlest and most empathetic manner, to reflect on his anger over his father’s abandonment and to work through his feelings and potentially forgive the old man. Like the PBS star, the movie is sweet and optimistic and gentle and just a little bit boring. The film follows a pretty strict formula of catharsis, and while it works it doesn’t make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feel more than a TV-movie plot attached to a malnourished Fred Rogers biopic. I understand the storytelling difficulties of trying to make a soft-spoken man who isn’t given to long-winded speeches a starring role, so it makes sense that his presence would be a catalyst for a family in crisis, basically serving as therapist. Hanks is fitting and affecting, and once again I feel like there are glimmers of a more complex man underneath the persona we’ll never be treated to in any big screen examination, like about his struggles raising his own children, his crisis of relevancy late in life. The majority of the movie is a father/son story that is well acted and pretty much fine, and “pretty much fine” is a perfect description of the film as a whole. It’s nothing you’ll regret seeing and it will generally be uplifting and sincere, but it’s basically a 108-minute greeting card.
Nate’s Grade: B
Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
Some of the greatest stories are so bizarre and unpredictable that they could only come from real life, and documentaries are a terrific showcase for the strange-but-true realities of our world that have escaped notice. Two of the more fascinating documentaries of 2016 are also two of its most strange films that have to be seen to be believed. Tickled begins as an innocuous look into amateur competitive tickle videos online, an obvious minor fetish industry that swears by its integrity as legitimate sport. A curious New Zealand journalist is then beset by homophobic harassment, personal attacks, and legal threats, which only makes him more determined to unravel the source of these tickle videos. It reminds me of 2010’s Catfish except this story actually has the stakes that film ultimately lacked. It’s an investigative piece of journalism that involves working through false identities, spooked video participants that have had their lives ruined from persecution, interviewing lackeys on hidden video, and ultimately discovering the true source behind the web of lies, a man that uses his privileged class position and wealth to intimidate and exploit others. It’s a movie that starts off goofy and just becomes darker, more serious, and downright sad by the end, leaving you with the sinister impression of the danger of a powerful bully using Internet anonymity to satisfy his repressed kinks including emotional sadism. Tickled could be better as it feels disorganized and padded out, including an extended trip to another tickle fetish vendor. The ending leaves something to be desired as well and will send you online to scour for more information. Still, the story is naturally intriguing and the filmmakers don’t mess up a good thing by allowing the curiosity to grab an audience.
The same can be said for The Lovers and the Despot, a film that leaves you wanting more just because its own true-life tale is so engrossing and deserving of further examination. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was so frustrated with his country’s film industry that he kidnapped his favorite South Korean filmmaking husband and wife team, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok. The couple made over 17 films for the dictator and had to earn his trust before they could plot an escape. This is a fascinating story about the power and entitlement others feel of art, with Kim Jong-il desperate for world recognition through the cinematic arts. He gave the couple a blank check and unrivaled artistic freedom, enough that some in South Korea suspect that Shin defected to the North rather than having been kidnapped. There are astonishing gets for this doc, namely Kim Jong-il’s actual audio conversations secretly recorded by Choi Eun-hee. When the couple defected to an American embassy, the U.S. government had never heard the dictator’s voice before, and here it was thanks to an actress. It feels like there’s so much more to this story that’s missing, either from the interview subjects’ reticence to share too much or the filmmakers reluctance to embrace more of the Cold War paranoia thriller trappings the story can veer into. There are some insights into the despot but they mostly fall into daddy issues. The omnipresent threat of the dictator is best visually showcased during the funeral marches for his father and then eventually Kim Jong-il himself. The masses are in a state of hysterical grief that crosses into parody, until you realize that these people are adopting a false front to protect themselves and their families just like Choi. Those not “properly grieving” could be punished, and so the miles of people wailing and hyperventilating becomes a chilling symbol of the hold one man has on the country even after death. The Lovers and the Despot is a fascinating story of artists held hostage by their biggest fan, who happened to be a ruthless dictator. It’s naturally compelling but you wish that someone else might better realize its potential on a second crack.
Both films follow the powerful exploiting others for their whims and both movies leave a little something to be desired for, but both are prime examples on how documentaries can shine a light on the wealth of human experiences we wouldn’t believe in other movies.
The Lovers and the Despot: B
Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This is a solidly engaging mystery with some twists and turns that don’t come out of left field. Russell Crowe is a journalist investigating the murder of a Congressional aide, who just happened to be having an affair with Ben Affleck, his old friend. There are strong performances all around by the cast, though Rachel McAdams seems superfluous as a blogger-turned-sidekick except for allowing the movie to barely touch upon the idea of print journalism dying. The biggest issue is the pacing. The movie stays at a constant simmer, which works for grabbing your interest but then the final plot blows feel lacking because the narrative has not risen in tension. In fact, I’d say the conclusion to one of the two main mysteries is downright disappointing the way it fails to dovetail with the other, larger mystery. There is a lot more that could be said over the state of modern newspapers and the inherent biases that need be kept at bay. State of Play is an intelligent thriller but ultimately too limited by the condensed framework of its script. This movie feels like it has more ideas to share, ethics to chew over, questions to tease out, characters to ripen, and that’s probably because State of Play is based upon a 2003 BBC miniseries that gave sufficient time for these elements to flourish. Still, I can’t knock this relevant, political, old-fashioned conspiracy thriller. It’s too rare these days that Hollywood churns out smart movies like this for adults.
Nate’s Grade: B
The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Zodiac is something altogether different from a genre best known for cannibalism, skin suits, and express shipping of human heads. It has more in common with All the President’s Men than director David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, Seven. This is a serial killer thriller steeped in police procedural, closed door deliberations, and the slow drip of a decades long investigation into the Zodiac killings that terrorized California from the 1960s and 70s. Watching close to 3 hours of procedure with nary a car chase or a shoot-out may not sit right for fans of the genre, but I enjoyed the film for the same reasons people will decry it — the details. I loved how methodical this film is, how dogged and stubborn it is, and I found myself being enveloped into the minutia of the case.
It all began with a young couple looking for a bit of privacy in 1968. They park at a lover’s lane and nervously engage in a bit of the old “neckin.” A passing car interrupts them, and then that car returns with its headlights blasting into the couple’s faces. This man then takes out a gun and starts firing, killing the woman and badly injuring the young man. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when a curious letter has stirred up a lot of discussion. It’s a cryptic message with a puzzle attached made up of symbols and codes. The author demands his puzzle run in the newspaper, and if not, more will suffer at his hands. There are further attacks along the California coast and the mysterious figure finally gives himself a name at the end of one of his letters: Zodiac.
San Francisco detectives David Toschi (a great, raspy Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are called in after Zodiac executes a cab driver in the city. The Chronicle‘s star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), pesters the police for details and eventually gets under Zodiac?s skin. Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case through a life-long love of puzzles and the case eventually consumes him, dooming his marriage to a pretty girl (Chloe Sevigny). Thanks to the tutelage of Avery, Graymsith becomes an amateur detective of his own, and his zeal to solve the case outlasts the actual police.
The Zodiac killer was really the first mass media serial killer. As the news of brutal attacks spreads, the media ate it all up and enlarged the figure of Zodiac to grand heights. And he was eager to help inflate his image, taking credit for crimes and slayings that were not his doing. The killer used the media age to terrorize the populace and increase his notoriety, similar tactics used by today’s stream of terrorists. The detectives didn’t just have to navigate all the shifting evidence but the formation of an urban legend.
This is before the day of DNA and super computers, so all progress comes from good old-fashioned police work. Long hours are spent pouring over mounting evidence while coordinating around bureaucracy; because Zodiac has struck in several different small communities it can take a saint’s patience to figure out the correct jurisdiction and compile the various parts in various offices. The film packs a lot in its running time introducing scores of information, suspects, witnesses, and varying theories, but the film cannot be faulted for pace; nearly every scene takes place weeks, months, even years after the last.
Zodiac is Fincher’s most restrained work even at a gargantuan running length. Fincher is a master tactician with slick visuals but has a penchant for getting too dazzled by needless visual flourishes (did the camera really need to zoom through the handle of a coffee pot in Panic Room?). He tones down the excess but still maintains a refined visual palate that makes the film feel fluid. The period detail is incredibly reconstructed, giving an authentic feel for a very serious story. But Fincher knows that with Zodiac the impetus lies with the story, and he devotes his considerable style to the service of the story. The mood balances nicely with intrigue, humor (after Zodiac singles out Avery fellow journalists start wearing “I’m Not Avery” buttons), and some truly terrifying moments involving the Zodiac attacks. The violence is sparse but when it does occur it is shocking, particularly watching a knife plunge repeatedly into the writhing body of a woman at a lake. One key element of sustaining such an ominous mood is fabulous song selection. Very often pop songs can be counter-productive to a movie, coming across as a lazy attempt to cobble together a soundtrack to shill. With Zodiac, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” becomes a powerfully haunting medley for the killer and the sonic linchpin for the film.
Fincher does an excellent job of transporting us back in time and recreating the sense of paranoia that grappled many. There is a great scene late in the film where Graysmith comes to the sudden realization that he may have walked right into the spider’s parlor. The scene plays out to an agonizingly uncomfortable length, and you too feel like running out the door as fast as your legs can take you. By not knowing definitively who the Zodiac may be, the film gets a boost of suspense from a multitude of creepy suspects. In an interesting decision, Fincher uses different actors of different shape during the Zodiac attacks, playing against the varying reports from witnesses and survivors.
There?s a sizeable danger trying to find a climax to a case that remains open to this day and where no one has been officially charged. Zodiac does as good a job as possible to present a fitting, mostly satisfying conclusion. The movie presents the best theory and points a convincing finger at who Zodiac perhaps really was.
Zodiac is expertly crafted but has a handful of minor flaws that hold it back. The overall script is rather nimble with how it dishes new information to digest, however the intricacies can amass and become too great, and some scenes congest too much without needed forward momentum which causes the flow to get caught up in an expository pile-up. Still, the film is demanding but not overwhelming and not without reward. The film follows the ups and downs of the Zodiac investigation, and that means characterization runs short and simple. I fear the only false note amongst a vastly talented cast is Gyllenhaal, an actor I adore. He works fine in the portrayal of a young kid in the newsroom trying his hand at crime solving, but it’s the film’s second half where the actor falters. He fails to sell the obsession and desperation that dominates his life, instead looking wiped out but no worse for wear, like the temporary results of an all-nighter before a big test.
It was five years since Fincher’s last film, and he wasn’t sitting on his laurels when he crafted Zodiac, an exceptionally intelligent and demanding movie. Decades pass, suspects weave in and out, evidence and testimony contradict one another, it’s all a lot to keep track of but I found myself absorbed in the case just like Graysmith. This is a serial killer movie that could bring the smarts back and redefine the genre, that is, if fans are willing to sit through 3 hours of police work. If not, well they might get their kicks out of the more genre loyal The Zodiac, released in 2006. And that movie’s only 97 minutes long.
Nate’s Grade: A-
George Clooney’s pet project is articulate and a tad dull. The black and white cinematography is elegant; you can practically taste all the smoke onscreen. The idea of press vs. fear-mongering politician is very relevant today, and the film?s insight into the running of TV news is really interesting, but this is a movie that works best as a study and not as strict entertainment. It?s not stuffy or ideologically overwhelming; in fact it’s easy to follow and easy to get into, even if it leans too heavily on speeches. Clooney, as I predicted, is transforming himself into a terrific director with a great feel for his material. With Good Night, and Good Luck it seems like he got exactly what he wanted, regardless if an audience is going to walk away feeling they got their money’s worth.
Nate’s Grade: B