A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD (***)
Watching Tom Hanks emerge into one of American cinema’s greatest actors has been nothing but a pleasure. From his breakthrough as the man child in Big (1988), to his two consecutive Academy Award-winning performances as the AIDS afflicted lawyer in Philadelphia (1993) and the idiot savant stumbling through American history in Forrest Gump (1994), Hanks has been nothing short of extraordinary. He walks that line so few can as a great actor and genuine movie star.
I cannot see how the Academy can possibly ignore Hanks for his wonderful performance as Fred Rogers in this new film; he goes as far as he has ever gone in a role to disappear.
The film opens like the famous Mr. Rogers program opened, with the host entering, singing his iconic song as he removes his jacket, pulling on his famous cardigan. Continuing to sing, he sits and removes his outdoor shoes to pull on his indoor shoes, all the while looking at the audience that has tuned in by the millions. In these brief seconds, Hanks disappears under the skin of Fred Rogers and absolutely becomes the character. We never see a trace of Tom Hanks again, only Mr. Rogers.
Late in his career on the Pittsburgh cable television station where his show was taped then broadcast nationally, Fred Rogers was interviewed by an Esquire journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who was struggling with his relationship with his father. In obvious pain, Rogers took the man into his life and helped him deal with it. In the film, Vogel fights the friendship, thinking he is being had, but slowly he realizes Rogers is the real deal, that this kind man is genuine with no pretense, nothing about him is false.
Tom Hanks gives a supporting performance, he is not the lead in the film. The lead is Matthew Rhys portraying Vogel, who was really named Tom Junod. Both actors are exceptional, but expect Hanks to get the lion’s share of great reviews because he’s Tom Hanks, and the performance is simply astonishing. If the film has any single disappointment, it was that there was not more Hanks, that this was not a biography dedicated entirely to the man.
“There is no human life free from pain” says Mr. Rogers to his young friend, and he helps Vogel understand that all pain can be overcome with the right attitude, which involves forgiving the person you are struggling with. Vogel is amazed that when Mr. Rogers shakes his hand he feels like the only person in the world, that when he gazes into his eyes, it is just the two of them talking, and when they are out in public and Mr. Rogers is recognized, he is always gracious and kind with everyone he encounters. Though Vogel is sent to interview Mr. Rogers, it becomes clear from the beginning Rogers is interviewing Vpgel, seeing a man in pain and hoping to get to the bottom of it.
Hanks is simply magnificent in the film, perfect in every way. There is not a false note in his performance, he never steps out of character, he does not ACT the part, he inhabits every single aspect of it. Though the supporting actor field is mighty crowded this year, I cannot see how the Academy cannot nominate him.
Rhys is very good as Vogel, an angry writer with a wife and new child who is struggling with emotions about his father. They encounter one another at his sister’s wedding, it goes poorly, but his father refuses to stop trying, wanting to make amends with his son. Chris Cooper is excellent as his father, each wounded by the past, each wanting closure but not sure how to get there.
Marielle Heller directed the film with grace and the right gentle touch. She uses the sets from the Mr. Rogers Show in the picture to merge the make believe of his program with the reality of the real world. It is an interesting choice, one of great imagination and brings something special and magical to the film. Knowing her greatest job was casting one feels she sat back and let the actors do their job, sometimes the hardest thing for a director to do.
It is a beautiful film about a decent, generous and very kind man. In this day and age, how we need a Mr. Rogers now. He really was one of a kind. So is Tom Hanks.
WESTERN STARS (****)
FORD VS. FERRARI (****)
As a blue collar family, my father worked for 41 years at General Motors. He would work two weeks days and two weeks nights, until he gained enough seniority to work steady days. He despised factory work, but had a wife and four kids. Though Dad built cars, I never had an interest in them, not a bit. It is odd than that I enjoyed Ford vs. Ferrari as much as I did because it is about the building of a race car to challenge the so-called unbeatable car owned by the Ferrari corporation.
When Henry Ford II (Tracey Letts), an arrogant, cold man, wants to build a race car to compete against the Italian champion in the 1966 Le Mans Endurance Race, he hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to supervise the building of a race car that will represent the Ford Motor Company at the famous race. Shelby, knowing they need a gifted driver, turns to the difficult, tempermental hot head Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to help build the car and to be its driver. Given a near impossible deadline, they begin working on the car, despite the interference of Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a sneak behind the scenes who seeks the approval of his boss.
Slowly the car comes together, but there always seems to be something wrong. Miles always finds something that needs fixing until Beebe believes the explosive driver is holding up the project and seeks to get him fired. Shelby will not have it, and goes to Ford personally to plead his case. Finally, when Ford is seriously wondering what the hold up is at the track, he arrives. Into the car he goes with Shelby at the wheel and they take off full speed down the track. Terrified, Ford holds on for dear life as Shelby skids to a halt, at which point the owner of Ford bursts into tears, perhaps fuelled by fear, or the joy of the speed he has just experienced. Needless to say, Shelby has made his point and Miles remains the lead driver.
Once built, the crew heads to the race, which Ferrari has dominated for the previous few years. It is here that director James Mangold truly shines, plunging the audience into the driver’s seat as these cars hurtle around the track at insane speeds, avoiding each other, slipping in past the other, avoiding crashes, and navigating turns and curves without driving off the track. Miles is masterful on the track, thrilling the Ford owners, and Ford did indeed win the 1966 race, changing the face of racing for the rest of time. The director handles these sequences brilliantly, with just the right edit, swelling of the score, or dialogue as the cars move in a blur around the track. In terms of directing sheer motion, it is a remarkable achievement.
The performances are equally superb, beginning with Christian Bale. Moving out of the realm of being a child actor for Steven Spielberg in Empire of the Sun (1987), he flexed his acting muscles in American Psycho (1999), and has never stopped giving astonishing performances in which he shape shifts in the manner Lon Chaney changed his face. Last year, Bale packed on 60 pounds to portray Dick Cheney in Vice (2018) and arguably should have won another Academy Award for the astonishing transformation.
This performance as hot-headed Ken Miles joins his gallery of rogues as yet another brilliant performance. Watch him during the sequences in which he is not talking, but listening to the car, understanding every ping of the engine, knowing exactly what is going on under the hood, how it will impact him on the track. There is a certain amount of fearlessness to Miles, which there must be, I suppose, if he is willing to drive a cars at the speeds he was going, knowing death waited for him on the track. Death found him six months after this race. If the film receives the attention it deserves from the Academy, Bale is a certain nominee for either Best Actor or Supporting Actor.
Matt Damon continues to evolve as a character actor. As Shelby he is rock solid as a man who knows exactly what he is doing, and grows frustrated by the interference of the harpy corporate drone. The trusts he places in Miles is a testament to their friendship, which was often interrupted by their fights with one another. It is an often quiet performance, watchful, but no less perfect.
As Henry Ford II, Tracey Letts is both hysterically funny and a cantankerous millionaire very aware of the power he wields. His breakdown in the passenger seat of the car is one of this year’s film delights, beautifully portrayed by this playwright turned actor. A nod for supporting actor would not be out of the question, though that category seems filled to overflowing.
Nothing James Mangold has done before suggests the level of artistry displayed in this film. If the Academy likes the film it could land a Best Picture nomination, and subsequently, maybe, Best Director which would not be out of place at all.
The cinematography is top notch, the editing perfect, and the sound and sound editing superbly capture what it is to watch a car race and be in the driver’s seat as the cars speed around the track. Technically the film is a marvel of achievement, and to Mangolds’ credit he gives the film passion and a beating heart through his characters.
This is one of the year’s best films.
THE KING – on Netflix
There have been two previous incarnations of Henry V on screen, both based on the Shakespeare play. The first was the Laurence Olivier film of 1945, a fine version of the play which drew close parallels with World War II. That film was the first truly great Shakespearean adaptation and helped kickstart the British film industry, virtually dead during and after the war. The second, and best, was Kenneth Branagh’s realistic film in 1989, a stirring and bloody film with a powerhouse performance from young Branagh that earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.
This new version tells the same story without iambic pentameter (Shakespeare verse) and is even more realistic than the Branagh version; a gritty, muddy film that superbly captures what it must have been to live in this time.
At the centre of it all is 23-year old Timothee Chalamet, fast becoming one of the finest actors of his time. Acclaimed two years ago for his mesmerizing performance in Call Me By Your Name (2017), he was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor and won the prestigious New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor, well-deserved. Here he gives a brooding, quietly intense performance as a young man suddenly thrown into a role he did not want, that of the King of England.
Estranged from his father, young Hal (Henry) was happy being a warrior, fighting his father’s battles, and when told his younger brother would be king, he was fine with it. Yet he saw in his brother an arrogance that will be the boy’s undoing, a lack of battle sense that will lead him to his doom. Forced into the role of king, the young carouser, used to nights of drinking and bedding young women, is forced to suddenly focus his attentions on his country. He seeks to bring peace to his country, and to end the long war with France. When France sends an insult as a gift to him as new king, followed by assassin to kill him, he has no alternative but to fight back. Meeting with the pompous young Dauphin (Robert Pattinson), he challenges the French man to one-on-one combat as a means to saving the lives of thousands of men on both sides. But the arrogant French man refuses, knowing his army outnumbers Henry’s three to one.
Needing an advantage, Henry is advised by his best friend and most trusted advisor Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) that should it rain through the night, and the English army, shed of armour, becomes quicker and lethal. The Battle of Agincourt remains one the bloodiest and most infamous battles in British history, a terrible fight that saw mud mingle with spilled blood. The French are brutally beaten. The Dauphin rides into the thick of combat and challenges Henry to the one-on-one the British monarch had first suggested, but finds he cannot stand in the slippery mud. With a nod, Henry orders his men to kill the entitled young snob. During the fight his good friend Falstaff falls, leaving Henry in deep mourning. Perhaps angered by the death of his dear friend, he refuses to give the French prisoners quarter and has them all killed.
Meeting the new French king, a shaky truce is created through marriage. Henry will assume the monarchy of France, and marry Catherine, the daughter of the so-called Mad King. As their wedding day approaches he asks her why her father tried to have him killed. She answers honestly that her father did nothing of the kind, that she was with him when he was told of the plot and his reaction made clear he had nothing to do with it. Henry then accuses her brother, and she again answers honestly that her brother did not have the vision or imagination to create such a plot. Realizing he has been duped, set up to invade France, executed his cousin unnecessarily for treason and sent thousands of men to their deaths in war, he turns to one of his closest advisors and realizes this man was responsible for it all. There had never been an assassin sent, there had never been a threat from France, though the two countries were uneasy with each other, no fight was desired by the French king. Henry kills his treacherous advisor, and goes directly to his bride to ask only that she always speak truthfully to him.
Henry did not reign long, dying at 36. He was by all accounts a good man, a true warrior king who refused to sit back and watch men fight and die for him, he was right in the heat of battle swinging his sword. When he became king he sought to be a good one, to eliminate the feelings of the people towards the corrupt monarchy of his father by being honest and truthful.
Chalamet is superb as the brooding king, always thinking, always bearing the weight of the monarchy on his shoulders. He believes he can trust the men around him, and the realization that he has been betrayed by one he holds so close devastates him, you can see his body visibly collapsing before he recovers and stabs the man with his dagger. There is a wonderful arc to his performance, moving from drunken young womanizer to the leader of a formidable army and kingdom – when told he has become a great king, despite the source (his betrayer), it is a true statement. It is a marvelous evolution watching this young man capture the intensity of a man handling the transition to power as best he can. We feel his loss for Falstaff as he sits aboard the ship on the way back to England, feeling for the first time the true weight of the throne, having taken men into battle to be slaughtered, including his friend. It is a powerful, deeply felt performance, internalized rather than emoting, which was exciting to watch.
Robert Pattinson is terrific, again, as a dandy French Dauphin, tragically in love with who he believes himself to be. Resplendent in his armour, he could be a GQ poster boy for the Middle Ages, but is truly a foolish fop. Pattinson, so brilliant earlier this year in The Lighthouse, has developed into a wonderfully daring actor, seemingly fearless to tackle new and challenging films. He gives this film a charge of high-spirited energy.
Though his role is small, Joel Edgerton cuts a fine figure as Falstaff, the most trusted friend of the young king. Their friendship is such that he can refuse an order and live because the young king understands he is morally correct. The love and respect Henry feels for Falstaff is evident when he kneels in the blood and mud beside his fallen friend.
The battle scenes are bloody and barbaric as men hack and slash at each other trying to find a spot in the armour where the flesh is unprotected. It presents a grim look at combat in the Middle Ages.
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (***)
LUCY IN THE SKY (**)