Friday, November 22, 2019


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood official site When we are constantly bombarded by news full of war, violence, disaster, corruption, injustice, and doomed climate in this turbulent world, we desperately gasp for fresh air that reflects humanity and kindness. The director Marielle Heller's timely new film "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (USA/China 2019 | 108 min.) offers us a much-needed antidote during this Thanksgiving holiday. We will be thankful for Tom Hanks, perhaps the nicest guy alive, to bring back the saintly figure Mr. Rogers on the big screen. The film doesn't tell Mr. Rogers's story as extensively as last year's beloved documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (2018), nor is it perfect by all means, but it gently touches and warms our heart nevertheless. It makes us yearn for Mr. Rogers to come back and offer comfort to us, as well as generations to come.

Even though the film opens with a scene in which Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) changes his shoes and puts on his signature red sweater, while amiably singing and talking to the television camera, Fred isn't the film's protagonist. Fred comes to the story to help another man named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a fictional version of the writer Tom Junod, who has many issues including his anger toward his estranged father (Chris Cooper).

Lloyd is an award-winning writer for the magazine Esquire. He is given an assignment to write a profile of Fred Rogers, who makes the popular children's program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Despite the fact that he and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) are raising an infant child, Lloyd isn't too excited about interviewing a TV host who talks to children in a slow and compassionate voice with plain and comprehensible words. But soon after he meets Fred, Lloyd is fascinated by Fred's charisma and demeanor, and he begins to open up to Fred. Between the two, the table is turned and Lloyd becomes the subject of the interview. He starts to reflect on his life and deal with his issues with Fred's unassuming yet potent help.

In the end, a 400-word assignment is turned into a 9,000-word cover story: Can You Say...Hero?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Official Site
Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Photo: Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures

Kindness, acceptance, and compassion is the hallmark of Fred Rogers's personality on and off camera. He dedicated himself to help children while making himself approachable. He was a master of communication and made everyone feel that they are at the center of the conversation, regardless of how difficult the subject matter might be. The director Marielle Heller wonderfully captures that spirit and made Lloyd at the center of the film's story. She skillfully showed us how Mr. Rogers's irresistible affection can profoundly impact not only a child, but just about anyone.

Besides wearing the colorful sweaters and slowing down his speeches, Tom Hanks probably doesn't need to do much else to become Mr. Rogers. They share plenty of common traits as decent human beings. That can be both a blessing and a curse because sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish which one we are watching on the screen: Mr. Rogers or Mr. Hank. No matter who that might be, he is probably the nicest person you have ever known.

Even though there was only one Mr. Rogers, there could certainly be more kindness in this world. That would make it a beautiful day no matter in which neighborhood you are.

"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" opens on Friday, November 22, 2019.

Thursday, October 31, 2019


Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate official site Thirty-five years ago, James Cameron created sleek and lethal sci-fi characters in "The Terminator" (1984) and made "I will be back!" a catchphrase for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Four sequels and three and a half decades later, Terminators are back with spectacular actions and a couple of more heroines in "Terminator: Dark Fate" (USA 2019 | 128 min.), directed by Tim Miller. Despite its fine execution and exhilarating action sequences, the film is a typical and forgettable franchise reboot.

The film starts in Mexico City, where Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) and her brother Diego (Diego Boneta) live like every ordinary happy family. Dani has no idea that she is the target of the deadly robots, a.k.a. Terminators, created by humans in the future. In fact, there is no time to reason why she has become the target after a Terminator named Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) drops from the sky and zooms in on her. Rev-9 is able to transform himself into the appearance of anyone he touches. He also swiftly eliminates anyone in his way, stylishly and terrifyingly.

Also dropped from the sky is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced super-soldier from the future who is determined to protect Dani, and never mind the rationale behind Grance's action either. Immediately, you will be dragged into the eye-popping chase sequences, joined by a vengeful Terminator-hunter Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).

During the cat and mouse pursuit, Sarah encounters her enemy, the Terminator named T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is gruff and aged (apparently AI cannot solve the aging problem). Even though T-800 has decided to be more human and claims himself to be extremely funny, this isn't really a happy reunion. However, unlike the US government, Sarah is able to put her grudges aside and gets on with the mission of saving Dani, as well as the human race.

Terminator: Dark Fate Official Site
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate. Photo: Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures

Of course, the story is not entirely making sense, but that's beside the point of this film. It can get away from logic or physics as long as it creates imaginary sci-fi characters involving time-travel. Instead, the film focuses on actions and CGI spectacles. The director Tim Miller knows exactly how to clearly orchestrate action sequences and cut off the mellow portions in between. He is able to pack the film with action sequences that are entertaining regardless of whether they are convincing.

What's even more delightful is the film's humorous references to our current paralyzed political environment, especially regarding immigration. It's also refreshing for this new installment to focus on its three female fighters in the battle with the robots.

But despite its CGI achievement and nostalgic sentiment toward Sarah and T-800, this is just another forgettable reboot of this aging franchise without much to be remembered. Do you recall what happened on Judgement Day and who killed whom in previous installments? That's okay. You won't remember much in this film either after all the noise fades away.

"Terminator: Dark Fate" opens on Friday, November 1, 2019.

Friday, September 20, 2019


Ad Astra

Ad Astra official site Sir Arthur C. Clark once famously wrote: "Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." Yet, space exploration has captivated the imagination of both scientists and artists. There are great films such as "Gravity" (2013) that depict the exhilarating experience about going into outer space, and the frightening effort to try to get back on earth, if at all. But the director James Gray's sci-fi movie "Ad Astra" (USA 2019 | 124 min.) isn't about a thrilling mission of going out of and getting back on earth, rather, it tells a human story unfolding beyond the earth. The film's Latin title means "To the Stars," although its story is quite down to earth. It tells the story about a father-son relationship, while showing us plenty of terrifying moments and spectacular imaginary visuals from outer space.

That son is the focused, confident, and intelligent astronaut Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) whose pulse rate never exceeds 80 beats per minute no matter under what stressful situations. His unattended father is Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a devoted astronaut who leads an exploration mission named Lima Project near Neptune to search for other intelligent lives in the Universe. But the project went dark sixteen years ago when Roy was only 16 years old, and Roy believes his father is dead.

After a series of dangerous electrical surges that cause catastrophic damages on earth, Roy is summoned to go on a top-secret mission to go to Neptune. That's because the U.S. intelligence believes the source of the electrical bursts are coming from the Lima Project and Clifford is still alive and responsible for it. After a stop-over on the moon, Roy is deployed to a military base on Mars where he attempts to make contact with his dad Clifford. If he can establish communications with Clifford, he will travel to Neptune and destroy the Lima Project in order to save the earth and the solar system.

That's a tall order to fill, even for the gifted Roy. When he realizes that his father Clifford is actually alive and he has to persuade him to give up on the Lima Project to save the earth, his heart beat starts to quicken, his assertive voice begins to tremble, his psychological screening begins to flunk, and his emotions toward his dad begin to bubble up.

Ad Astra Official Site
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra. Photo: Francois Duhamel/20th Century Fox

Even though the setting is not quite convincing (you can open a door when a spacecraft begins to launch, really?) and sometimes rather confusing (what planet are we looking at?), the human story always takes the center stage in the story and the director James Gray patiently let Roy's emotion build up, often in a solitary environment. He also paints a grim picture for the colonized Moon and Mars. Will humans mess with other planets after the Earth is torched up?

To watch Brad Pitt play Roy is pure pleasure. Even though he has two more decades' worth of wrinkles than a 32-year-old, his demeanor and expression perfectly convey taciturn Roy's mind—a strong and wounded soul that both admires and resents his absent father. His deep voice-over resonates as if he is reciting Sir Arthur C. Clark.

Apparently, daddy issue is a more urgent matter to resolve before we figure out if we are alone in the Universe.

"Ad Astra" opens on Friday, September 20, 2019.

Friday, September 13, 2019


The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch official site If you have read Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, you would probably feel unsatisfied to say the least by its much anticipated motion picture adaptation "The Goldfinch" (USA 2019 | 149 min.), directed by John Crowley. Despite the fine performances and the lush production for an extraordinary story, the film doesn't quite convey the emotions of its guilt-stricken protagonist. That being said, if you have not read the book, then you may enjoy the storytelling about a young man's incredible coming-of-age journey.

The film's title refers to a painting with the same name painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Even though the painting is hanging in the Mauritshuis in real life, for the sake of this story it's displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York City.

When 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) and his mom visit the Met, a terrorist sets off a bomb and Theo's mom is killed along with many others. Covered in white ash and disoriented, Theo arrives at his classmate Andy's (Ryan Foust) home. Appearing in a perfectly tailored and gorgeous, but always different, outfit in every scene, Andy's mom Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) takes Theo in as part of the family. Gradually, Theo seems to be getting back to normal hanging out with Andy in their daily routines, but he is hiding his grief for losing his mother. Something else he is hiding is the masterpiece The Goldfinch which he walked out of the Met with in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.

But Theo's life takes another sharp turn when his absent father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) show up. Larry decides to take Theo to the outskirts of Las Vegas where they live in a home surrounded by foreclosed houses. Theo soon forms a bond with a Russian-born Ukrainian boy Boris (Finn Wolfhard) who lives with his abusive father and is probably the only other kid around the neighborhood. The street-smart Boris teaches Theo things ranging from smoking and drinking to sniffing crushed pills. The painting seems to have been forgotten while hidden under Theo's bed.

Before long, this neglected and idle desert life takes another turn for Theo and he comes back to New York City and finds a safe harbor in Hobie's (Jeffrey Wright) antique shop. Years later, under Hobie's mentorship, and adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) becomes a sleek sales-person for Hobie and reconnects with the Barbour family. But his grief and guilt from that fatal day at the Met never goes away. That long forgotten painting which reminds him of his mom's death also comes back to haunt him.

The Goldfinch Official Site
Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch. Photo: Macall Polay/Warner Bros.

The teenage and adult Theo's odyssey is intertwined by constant flashbacks. But despite the voiceover confession, how the guilt and grief shaped his mental state and his actions never becomes clear. Even more cloudy is how the painting plays a significant role in his coming-of-age, because the painting could have been easily replaced by a piece of his mom's belongings. It's also puzzling that even though the film uses the painting as its title, it never gives the masterpiece a close-up, nor does it explains why Theo decides to hide it instead of returning it to the Met after he became an adult.

The performance from the fine ensemble cast, however, is quite pleasant to watch throughout the film. Jeffrey Wright is particularly impressive as the knowledgeable and philosophical guardian for Theo. Finn Wolfhard is equally impressive, and even amusing, as the eccentric and resourceful bad boy Boris.

Even though the film may not be a perfect adaptation of the novel, it might serve as a two-and-a-half-hour trailer, so you can go back and read Donna Tartt's best-selling book to fill in the blanks left by the film.

"The Goldfinch" opens on Friday, September 13, 2019.

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