Looking at the poster for Venus, one could be forgiven for thinking that the end was near. Here is nothing but a full-on shot of Peter O’Toole’s head, carefully doctored to make him seem frail and desiccated: not only is there a yellowish tinge to the skin that I’ve never seen on a human being, but O’Toole himself looks stunned, confused, and ready to pack it all in. This is strange not merely from a publicity standpoint (who attracts customers with something like this?), but because it doesn’t do the film (or O’Toole) justice. Venus and its star are as lively as they come, raging against the dying of the light even as they have to acknowledge its approach. The star does his best to fulfill his preordained role as randy raconteur, raising hell in theatre’s name and never betraying the idea, hanging at the margins of the movie, that we all have to ring down the curtain sometime.
You couldn’t call Venus a great film. It’s one of those movies about an older “life-force” bonding with a younger person and having all sorts of lively frolic (see Harold and Maude—or for that matter, 1982’s My Favorite Year, which starred O’Toole). This time, the life-force is Maurice (O’Toole), a once-prominent, now-aged actor who counts the days—loudly—with his ever-excitable theater buddies Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (a marginalized Richard Griffiths). His younger charge arrives with a big noise: she’s Ian’s grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a sullen, anti-intellectual teenager arrived in London to pursue a modeling career and who instead alarms the deeply genteel relation to whom she’s elected to bunk. Not so Maurice: partly attracted to a mind to mold, partly aroused by her unformed beauty, he gravitates to the graceless girl and forges a friendship that she, knowing no-one else in the city, guardedly reciprocates.
The set-up is obvious, but it’s handled well by the filmmakers. Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi could perhaps be chided for retreating from his more engaged work in the ‘80s, but then, so could most of the British film industry; in any event, he’s crafted a script that doesn’t reach too high but doesn’t embarrass itself by pretending otherwise. Mostly, it’s a machine for providing O’Toole with grandiloquently clever lines, and perhaps trading on his reputation as a drunken hellraiser: not for nothing does it reference the wife he left behind (Vanessa Redgrave, killing with kindness in her single scene of indulgence) and frame the cost of living high and witty in terms of personal isolation. Wisely, Venus doesn’t do anything serious with the darkness at the edge of the frame: it just makes Maurice’s extroversion that much more piquant and noble, and lets O’Toole say “I ain’t dead yet,” to audience delight.
Of course, the wrong director could have thrown this out of balance, either pushing the gloom about the end of one’s life and career or blowing it off for bright, carefree, Sandy Dennis-worthy frivolity. But Roger Michell—who, with Notting Hill, gave the hated British rom-com one of its few credible entries—manages the various elements with, if not brilliance, then with a sense of proportion. He doesn’t inflate the proceedings to world-historical importance; nor does he trivialize the main characters’ emotions to get easy laughs. And while on that last score Kureshi almost obliges for him (the witticisms of Maurice and his colleagues get to be a bit much), the pair of them manage the two extremes into something light enough to enjoy but hefty enough to stick to your bones.
Take the character of Jessie. In one sense, she’s a caricature, a nightmare vision of shiftless commoner unresponsive to the calling of culture. Early scenes present her as a lump of sulking matter, a veritable immovable object open to a mockery that spills over on the aged relative who takes her in. But as the movie progresses, she becomes more of a person—or rather, the film sees her as more of a person. Without shifting Whittaker’s excellent, dagger-eyed performance in the slightest, it manages to reframe how we understand it: how her sloth and touchiness are endemic of a greater personal hurt, and how vulnerable she feels all alone in the big city. When Maurice tries to open her up (as when he gets her a modeling gig…with a life-study art class), her defenses are put in context, and made less ridiculous in the process.
Of course, that life-study class raises the hobgoblin of sexism that also lurks at the edges of the film. Venus is seen largely from Maurice’s point of view—and subsequently, from the objectifying gaze of a man with a serious hard-on. Much of his interest in his young charge could perhaps be described as condescending, if not leering; much of the film is based on Jessie fending off lecherous advances from the boy-can’t-help-it hands of her would-be mentor. And the film, through that art class, seems to be suggesting that for Jessie to be happy she has to make herself somewhat available—an idea as hackneyed as it is dubious. It’s here that the film stays in agreeable-time-killer territory: it’s happy to lurk in the subgenre’s clichés rather than define its own dramatic terra firma.
But while it stays within those familiar confines, it deepens them to the point that they aren’t perceived as such. Such sleight of hand is what makes Venus the lovely bit of fluff that it is—and in this traditionally slack movie month of January, likely your only new filmic option worth exercising. It knows that it isn’t aiming very high, but it senses why people aim at this level at all, and it tries to build a sensitive place where the constructs seem to add up to more than they normally would. O’Toole would be better served by a more attentive and joyful image than the strange, strange picture with which marketing has him saddled.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
Review: Queen & Slim Is an Uneven Braiding of the Personal and the Political
For a spell, Melina Matsoukas’s film exudes the concision of an old B movie.2.5
Director Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim exudes across its opening minutes the concision of an old B movie, setting up its central characters and conflict without an ounce of fat. The film’s opening scene, set at a diner where Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) go on a Tinder date, quickly establishes the characters’ personalities: Queen, regally poised and faintly disgusted to have been taken to such a cheap place, softens when Slim notes that the establishment is black-owned. That mild rejoinder to his date’s huffy irritation says a lot about Slim’s quiet, unassuming smarts and empathy, which occasionally peek out from behind an exterior of timidity and flighty distraction.
The simplicity with which the film, written by Lena Waithe, introduces its characters extends to the subsequent scene in which they’re stopped without cause by a police officer (Sturgill Simpson) clearly jonesing for a reason to harass black people. For no reason, the cop forces Slim out of the car on this cold, Ohio winter night, rifling through the man’s trunk until Queen, an attorney, decides to call the officer out on his behavior. The immediate escalation ends with the policeman firing on the woman, prompting Slim into a fight that ends with the civilian shooting the cop in self-defense. As Slim gazes in horror at what he’s done, Queen, knowing exactly what awaits them in the justice system, springs into action, plotting an escape with the efficiency of someone familiar with how police operate.
This opening sets the standard for the way the film, for a time, conveys narrative and character information through concise dialogue and visuals. Matsoukas shoots her main characters in separate close-ups throughout the early stretch of their drive out of town, emphasizing the manner in which they’re uneasy strangers thrown together by fate. But gradually, as their mutual trust builds, the two begin to share the frame, and soon they’re noticing when someone stares at them too long as news bulletins spread of their crime. Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe lights Queen and Slim in shades of blue, green, and yellow that provide striking contrasts for the actors’ skin tones, while also lending a neo-noir vibe to the film.
Indeed, Queen & Slim wears its influences on its sleeve, going so far as to have one character explicitly refer to the eponymous couple as “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” But it’s in chasing such comparisons that the film starts to lose focus. We see from the outset of Queen and Slim’s quest that they’re normal people trapped in a no-win scenario, propelled by fear. Yet when they begin to become a cause célèbre among blacks across the country, folk heroes fighting back against police brutality, they begin to transform, their initial caution giving way to a recklessness that feels more narratively convenient than logical. Even the pair’s dynamic flips without warning or reason, as the reserved Slim turns into the more assertive of the two while Queen transitions from a cold pragmatist to someone who indulges in every dreamy flight of fancy. The initial reversal of stereotypical gender roles thus reverts to the norm.
Matsoukas incorporates into the film a great deal of imagery that links the fears and anxieties of today’s African-Americans to the history of racist abuse. It’s in the sight of prisoner chain gangs working rural fields in an eerie echo of slavery, and in the network of both black and white people who help Queen and Slim along—a contemporary Underground Railroad leading out of the country. Such loaded imagery intriguingly places Queen and Slim against a wider backdrop of exploitation and resistance, but soon the context is used only as background shading for their relationship as it strengthens. Where the characters first seemed to exist as an embodiment of the pressures of American black life, that political commentary is eventually externalized to make space for a more generic lovers-on-the-lam romance.
The political and personal collide in a sex scene that recalls the famous one from Munich. Yet where Steven Spielberg’s film used the physical intimacy between two characters to communicate the psychological hang-ups affecting a man’s political violence, Queen & Slim so clumsily jumps between its main characters’ lovemaking and the anti-cop rally held in their honor that it cheapens both threads. The scene epitomizes the way that the film escalates its romantic and social images to extremes that cannot be reconciled, losing the careful balance between the two tones that it achieved so subtly and powerfully at the start.
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, John Sturgill Simpson, Indya Moore, Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Thom Gossom Jr. Director: Melina Matsoukas Screenwriter: Lena Waithe Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 132 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: White Snake’s Visual Splendor Is Undone by Perfunctory Storytelling
The film feels more like a smattering of action scenes strung together by the barest thread of plot.2
As an origin story for the Chinese legend of more or less the same name, Light Chaser Animation’s White Snake is awash in fantastical mythology. It has shape-shifting demon snake people, a power-sucking jade hairpin, titanic monsters, and a sinister general who saps the abilities of snakes across China to augment his dark brand of kung-fu. The film’s CGI artistry can be striking, with people routinely dwarfed by colorful country landscapes of massive cliffs and mountains, but beneath that appealing exterior, White Snake feels more like a smattering of action scenes strung together by the barest thread of plot.
Consistent with its roots in legend, the story is heavily archetypal: Blanca (Zhang Zhe), a white snake demon, and Xu Xuan (Yang Tianxiang), a human snake hunter, form a tenuous alliance, traveling across the countryside in search of the key to unlocking Blanca’s past. She lost her memories in the aftermath of a battle, which opens her up to Xu Xuan’s charms; she does not, after all, remember that humans and demons are enemies, or even that she herself is a demon.
The character models have a bland, Disney-esque smoothness to them, though they lack detail in the close-ups and medium shots that dominate the film’s early stretches. Much of the story feels similarly perfunctory, as the leads fall in love less because of any discernible chemistry or romance than because that’s simply what happens when two attractive, available characters share so much screen time in a film such as this. There’s even a comic-relief animal sidekick in Xuan’s pet dog. What’s appealing here is instead everything around such conventions, a vibrant world of Chinese legend filled with things like a three-headed bird, a spinning machine adorned with countless skulls, and especially a surreal demon weapon workshop filled with floating trains of boxes and run by a woman with a fox face on the back of her head.
The lightning-paced action scenes are White Snake’s main attraction, each one intricately choreographed around characters’ bombastic magical powers. But as such scenes increase in number and complexity over the course of the film, they totally overwhelm the story, dragging the climax to an absurdly protracted mess of betrayals, revivals, and overused slow-motion. Any impressiveness constructed by the film eventually wears thin, until all of White Snake’s visual splendor feels more numbing than anything else.
Cast: Zhang Zhe, Yang Tianxiang, Zhang He, Tang Xiaoxi, Zhang Yaohan, Zheng Xiaopu, Zhang Boheng, Zhang Lei, Liu Wei Director: Amp Wong, Zhao Ji Screenwriter: Da Mao Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Michael Apted on 63 Up and the Changing Face of a Nation
Apted discusses his relationship to his subjects, and his own transformation over the years.
The Up series began in 1964 as a Granada Television International documentary special, entitled Seven Up!, touted as “glimpse of Britain’s future.” Fourteen British seven-year-olds—nine boys and five girls—from different backgrounds and classes were interviewed about their lives. Paul Almond’s film set out to prove a motto usually attributed to a founder of the Jesuit order: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”
In 1970, director Michael Apted, a researcher on Seven Up!, took over the helming of the series with Seven Plus 7. “The series was an attempt to do a long view of English society,” the filmmaker told me in a recent conversation. “The class system needed a kick up the backside.” Every seven years, Apted dropped in on the lives of his subjects, with the goal of revealing the changing face of a nation through the words, and faces, of a generation of Brits.
The series is a fascinating sociological experimental, about how matters of class, education, and opportunity in Britain have transformed over the decades. After Seven Plus 7 came seven more films, including the latest, 63 Up. Inevitably, this entry in the series is fixated on issues of aging and retirement, given that the subjects are all mostly at the tail end of their careers.
During our conversation, Apted discussed his initial involvement in the Up series, his relationship to his subjects, and his own transformation over the years.
Do the subjects see the previous installments before filming the new episodes? Do you find a theme from past interviews to follow up on in the next installment?
I decide what I want to ask and talk about. If they want to talk about something that changed [in their lives], then they can. If something new or important happened privately…I use bits of history, but I don’t tell them what I want to ask. I see if their opinions or the atmosphere changes. I don’t want to talk about their past or do an update. I start from scratch.
Do you recall the criteria for finding the subjects, and the number of subjects? They’re all likeable, which is so gratifying.
It was accidental. We wanted to look at England in 1963, ‘64. It was loosely done. We were looking at a big picture. I had no idea it would go on as long as it did. We didn’t plan the second [entry] until five years after the first. When we decided to do it again and again, it was [about] what aspect of change in their lives or the country’s life was important.
What about issues of diversity? There’s class diversity, but the series features more men than women, one minority, and no one who’s gay.
We missed the point about the increased [engagement] of women in jobs and politics. Women became central in society. Female leadership—Thatcher, a female prime minister—happened quicker than we thought. Thatcher was unique in a way. We didn’t get enough women [in the series] when we started, so I brought wives in. Women were adjacent to the people we were interviewing, so we were able to put different female voices in the film. We were keen to have the wives and husbands [as co-subjects] and use them as if they had been there since the start.
There’s a question raised about the value of the series, generally from the subjects who find it “emotionally draining” to do the interviews. What observations do you have about the value and impact of the series?
I can’t speak highly enough about the impact of the series. No one had done it, and it was an original idea. It couldn’t be done like this again. We had inspiration and luck to keep going. People copied it. We tracked major events and progress in society. I’m glad we did it when we did it. We couldn’t have chosen a better period.
There are thoughts on aging, marriage, children, opportunity, education, and, now, Brexit. How have the subjects’ opinions dovetailed or differed from yours?
I’m not interested in using the film [as a mirror] for my own views. It’s what they think. I don’t compare how I lived my life to them. I’m quite different from them. I went through different things in life. I spent much of my time in America.
Jackie takes you to task in one of the programs about your questions toward women, suggesting you’re treating the women differently. Peter dropped out for a spell, and Suzy passes on participating because of all the baggage associated with making the program. What are your feelings about the subjects who don’t cooperate?
I’m thrilled that they opened their hearts and souls as much as they did. There were areas not to be discussed. I did not want to alienate them. If things got controversial, fair enough. I pursued the things they pursued in what they said. I didn’t say, “Why not be a doctor?”
Symon lacks ambition in his younger years. Neil struggled with homelessness in his youth. Tony makes a perhaps bad business decision. Some of the subjects—Lynn and Bruce, in particular—make efforts to give back to society. What can you say about the opportunities the subjects had being in the series? Did you ever help them?
I would help them in small ways, but I didn’t change their lives. They had opportunities that came from being on the program. But they couldn’t take advantage of [their participation], like getting a job because they were in the project.
You will primarily be known for this series, but you’ve also made classic films like Coal Miner’s Daughter, a Bond picture, even a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. What observations do you have about your career and how this program shaped your life and work?
I think it helped me a lot. The films I like best are hybrids. Coal Miner’s Daughter was a sociological film and an intimate story. I can get real performances out of people from doing documentaries. I cast well, and hope people trust me having seen these films. There has been no backlash. That was my ambition. The series kept me oriented to do what I wanted to do. Granada kept it ongoing. I convinced [executives] that if I wanted to do Gorillas in the Mist with real gorillas, then I could make that because I was a realistic documentary storyteller.
The theme of the series is “Show me the child when he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Do you think there’s a truth to that, given that you have at least one counterexample in 63 Up? What were you like at seven?
I was shy and didn’t say much at that age. I thought things, though. I went to a good secondary school in London. You would be surprised if you saw me at seven. I had lucky breaks and good luck. I was 21, 22 [when the series started in 1963]. It was a good thing that the program was embraced. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time—the year after I left Cambridge. I made a good decision even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Will there be a 70 Up? Would this series continue without you?
I don’t know if everyone will be alive, but if they are, yes. You never know. I’d like to go on for as long as I am above ground. I’d like it to continue.
Review: Michael Apted’s 63 Up Is a Grand Meditation on Mortality
Throughout, the remaining participants take stock of private and career successes as well as perceived failures.3.5
Intimations of mortality inform much of 63 Up, the ninth and latest installment of director Michael Apted’s monumental Up series, which has checked in with a representative cross-section of 14 Britons every seven years since 1964, when they were seven years old. In one sense, the elegiac edge to 63 Up can be put down to a structural factor: The participants are now in their autumn years, nearing or at retirement age, and thus in an ideal position to look back over their lives, taking stock of private and career successes as well as perceived failures. Most of them find themselves suspended, as it were, between generations: dealing with aging or infirm parents while trying to leave their mark on the next generation.
When it comes to two participants, the pall of finitude hangs all too heavy. Lynn, a librarian, passed away five years ago owing to a brain condition that had been documented earlier in the series, triggered by an almost ridiculously mundane accident: She was struck in the arm by a swing while playing with her grandchildren. In one of the film’s most unabashedly affecting sequences, Apted gathers her family around the table to discuss Lynn’s volunteer work and literacy advocation, a legacy that’s literalized when the local library endows a reading room with a plaque in her honor. Elsewhere, nuclear physicist and academician Nick has been diagnosed with throat cancer and a concomitant blood disease, leaving him to ruminate on the nature of his existence, in particular emotions brought to the fore by the recent death of his father. “All the things we repress as hard as we can,” as Nick puts it.
The phenomenon of Brexit allows Apted to delve more explicitly into politics and the British class system than he has in some of the more recent installments. Needless to say, no one thinks Brexit is a great idea, not even Tony, who works as a cab driver and initially voted for the measure but now suspects he might have been hoodwinked. More nuanced are responses to the question of where the class system is at nowadays. Some say it still thrives, some that it’s been replaced by a sort of superficial meritocracy based solely on fame and fortune. No one seems too hopeful for the future, and most of the participants speak to the steady narrowing of opportunities for well-paying jobs and quality housing.
The bedrock question of identity that the Up series explores is contained in the Jesuit motto that opened the first film, Seven Up!, and gets trotted out in every subsequent installment: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” To what extent, Apted’s series asks, are we made by where we came from—the legacy of our parents and our early education? How free are we to create ourselves from moment to moment? When asked, nearly every participant in 63 Up recognizes a certain truth in the Jesuitical credo, and detects a definite resemblance between who they are now and who they were then.
Watching Apted’s film shuttle back and forth through the participants’ lives, it’s abundantly clear that the trajectory of any given life can never be seen clearly from the beginning. It’s one of the reasons viewers want to keep checking back in with these folks. Even as opportunities for radical existential change seem to be funneling down toward the absolute zero of extinction, there are always developments that continue to surprise us. And, with the Up series, the one figure who’s embodied that truth more often than any other is Neil.
From college dropout to member of government, Neil’s arc certainly has been the most egregiously dramatic. At 63, he seems perched on the precise point halfway between settled and uprooted, splitting his time between rural Cumbria and rural France, between performing lay ministry and dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage. In a perfectly apt final shot, we see Neil bicycling off into the distance, the next stage in his life’s journey anybody’s guess.
Director: Michael Apted Distributor: BritBox Running Time: 139 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: 21 Bridges Is a Cop Thriller with a Confounding Sense of Timing
It’s difficult to imagine a worse time to release Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges than the present.1
It’s difficult to imagine a worse time to release 21 Bridges than the present. The film’s premise, about police bringing Manhattan’s transit system to a complete halt in order to facilitate a manhunt for two cop killers, draws immediate parallels to the explosion of NYPD officers in the city’s already crowded subways in order to crack down on turnstile jumpers. The speed with which the NYPD seals off the borough in 21 Bridges is presented not as a chilling glimpse into police-state overreach, but as a hip montage of professional efficiency, a show of inflamed passions at the loss of several colleagues in the line of duty.
Spearheading this initiative is Detective André Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a trigger-happy cop with a history of killing perps. We meet Davis as a child sitting in a cathedral watching the funeral of his father, a cop killed by strung-out crackheads. As the reverend (John Douglas Thompson) gives a shockingly bloodthirsty eulogy, celebrating the dead policeman as a warrior for punishing the two of his three attackers by killing them, we see young André (Christian Isaiah) gradually stifle his tears, embracing the steeliness of the man he would become: a hard-edged cop eager to put any criminal who dares stand up to him in the ground.
Davis finds ample traction for this worldview among the members of a police precinct where eight officers are murdered by two thieves, Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch). As McKenna (J.K. Simmons), the local police captain, tells Davis at one point, the wives and children of the slain cops will be so profoundly consumed with mourning that they shouldn’t have to be dealt the additional “trauma” of seeing the perpetrators going through the legal process of trials and appeals. In so many words, McKenna asks Davis to “spare” the families such a burden, and it’s an assignment that the young detective very much relishes.
21 Bridges never really pauses to consider how Davis let a childhood trauma justify a lifetime of dubious behavior under the legal protection of a badge, and indeed, it presents his dogged pursuit of the killers through the clichés of so many thrillers about loose-cannon cops driven by their take-no-prisoners intensity. Yet even before Davis enters the crime scene, we see how the murdered cops were implicated in the drug trade that Michael and Ray disrupted by robbing a cocaine stash that was clearly protected by the cops who happened upon the heist. And this advance knowledge of the dirty ties that the slain officers had to the underworld creates a potentially intriguing dramatic irony in Davis’s quest to sanctify the fallen officers.
But instead of using the audience’s awareness of the greater truth to critique its hero, the film merely barrels through a series of plot twists that are twists only to Davis. He obliviously seeks vengeance for dirty cops whose equally corrupt colleagues launch their own ruthless efforts to silence Michael and Ray, as well as anyone who could expose their involvement in New York’s drug trade. This makes Davis, in many ways, ancillary to the story, a third wheel that’s ostensibly meant to come off as sympathetic to the audience.
Of course, the only way that Davis can seem like a good guy is for 21 Bridges to never call the morality of his manhunt into question. And when the film shows any disgust at all, it’s in the way that the other cops’ unseemly connections make them unfit for the job that someone like Davis upholds so fiercely: Our protagonist quickly picks up on the suspiciousness of his colleagues’ behavior, yet the film treats the ruthlessness of crooked officers covering their asses as somehow different than his own hyper-violent sense of justice.
When, late in the film, Davis summarizes his feelings on the police getting involved with the drug trade by saying “that blood cannot be on the badge,” he sounds ridiculous, so certain of his own moral righteousness even as he, too, leaves bodies in his wake. In the end, 21 Bridges suggests that the only true problem with the increasing power of a police state is that some cops might be unworthy of the authority otherwise duly invested in them.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Keith David, Alexander Siddig, Taylor Kitsch, J.K. Simmons, Louis Cancelmi, Victoria Cartagena Director: Brian Kirk Screenwriter: Adam Mervis, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: STX Entertainment Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Interview: Marielle Heller on Mr. Rogers and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Our conversation led us into discussion about how far Mr. Rogers’s philosophy can extend into today’s world.
Fred Rogers had no shortage of simple yet beautiful sayings pertaining to countless people and professions, including, it appears, journalists. In a nugget from the recent New York Times profile of Tom Hanks, archival documents revealed that Mr. Rogers had laid out the principles that he hoped his Esquire profiler, Tom Junod, would adhere to when writing about him. Among them were “journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons” and “be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.” Junod’s piece did, ultimately, become a tribute to the life-altering power of Mr. Rogers’s empathic power and serves as the inspiration for the new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
“Wasn’t that so beautiful?” remarked the film’s director, Marielle Heller, when I broached the subject of Rogers’s journalistic pillars with her. I admitted that I could not feign the impartiality of an automaton in our conversation given how deeply the film moved me. After delivering two films where tenderness broke through the facades of more hardened characters, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller’s third feature fully embraces sincerity and rejects cynicism without ever feeling cloying or corny.
Unlike Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), the film’s fictionalized avatar of Junod, I couldn’t pretend to be unmoved or skeptical of a creation that made me feel such profound emotion. Heller’s chronicle of how Mr. Rogers (embodied here by Tom Hanks) changed one person picks up and continues the television icon’s work by allowing his message of love and forgiveness to reach, and thus transform, more lives.
I spoke with Heller over the phone ahead of her sending A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out into the world, a process she claimed would be the hardest part of the film’s journey to screen. Our conversation began with how Mr. Rogers’s legacy loomed large over the shoot and led us into discussion about how far his philosophy can extend into today’s world.
I’ve read that you attached quotes from Mr. Rogers on the daily call sheet. Was there a sense that this set and production needed to be infused with his personality and grace?
Oh my gosh, totally. I think we all felt like we were so privileged getting to work on his own story, and we were filming it in his hometown of Pittsburgh on the stage where he originally filmed the program. We were walking among the ghost of Fred Rogers the whole time, and we were trying to invoke him whenever we could.
The way Tom Hanks portrays Mr. Rogers is less of an impression and more of an inhabitation, particularly when it comes to portraying his patience and stillness. Those moments must be like walking a tightrope, so how did you find the right balance, be it in directing Tom’s performance on set or finding the rhythm in the editing room?
Truthfully, we tried to get the rhythm right on set. Part of that was because Jody [Lee Lipes, the cinematographer] and I had devised a way of filming this that wasn’t really meant to be edited super quick with lots of cutting. It was meant to sit in shots for longer and let things play in two-shots or single shots that moved. We got to rehearse, which is something I always hope to do with movies, and part of the rehearsal is about trying to find the rhythms in the script and have the actors find their pacing. I tend to approach things like theater in that way where you sit around, do table work, work through the bigger emotional beats of a scene, ask questions, comment on it and really play with it. By the time we’re shooting it, we know what we need to be hitting in a bigger emotional way and can be focusing on other things as well.
But every day, I was constantly pushing Tom to go slower and stiller than he could possibly imagine because Fred really was incredibly still and listened so intently. And Tom would say, “Really? I thought I was so still and so slow! Really, still slower? Okay!” I would say, “I want you to sit and listen and wait as long as you possibly can before you respond to this question. Sit, take him in and wait so much longer than you expect to.” We were really trying to build that pace into the actual filming. Luckily, Tom loves to be directed. He’s an actor who loves the relationship with the director. He never minded that I was nitpicking him.
How did you approach the big moment of silence in the film? Was it actually a minute long like Mr. Rogers says?
It’s a little more than a minute! [laughs] Just over a full minute. I actually held myself back from timing it when we were editing it, just because I was trying to feel it. Tom and I were just talking about that scene in a Q&A. He was saying that while we filmed it, he thought, “Are you really going to do this? Are you serious right now?” And I was like, “Yeah, that was the scene I was clearest about when I signed onto the movie.” It’s the moment that the audience becomes an active participant in the film, and that’s what Mr. Rogers does with his program. He asks the kids who’re watching the show to be active participants. He asks them, “Can you see the color green here? What do you see when you look at this picture?” And then he waits for them to respond. That’s the moment where we’re waiting for our audience to respond.
The film unfolds, to use your words, like “a big episode of Mr. Rogers for adults.” Was all of that baked in at the script level, or were there elements you added in when you boarded the project?
It was part of the script when I came on board. That was the bigger, larger conceit of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and then figuring out how to actually make that integrate and work cinematically was our job. How do you make an episode of Mr. Rogers that can feel both bigger than an episode of Mr. Rogers, because it’s a film after all, but how do you take these elements that are very small and handmade and make them integrate with a real-life world that can feel grounded in reality and emotionally resonant? How do you take this world of Mr. Rogers and Lloyd’s world of New York and find a way to travel between them that both points out the dissonance between the two of them and the ways in which they’re connected—and become more and more alike as we go through the movie. Or get more and more confused with each other, is maybe a better way to say it. That was part of the joy of it, figuring out how this bigger conceit, which is great on paper, can actually work.
How do you thread that thin needle of returning an adult audience to a state of childlike innocence without infantilizing them?
I think it’s a fine line, and we just tried to make it with every choice and tried to be as truthful as we could. Trying to portray taking you back in time to watch episodes of the original program, we tried to recreate them in such an authentic way that they didn’t feel like we were making fun of them in any way. Trying to find truth within it. Lloyd is a very helpful conduit for bringing us into that story because his cynicism steps in for all of our cynicism. Having somebody there going, “Come on, who is this guy? He can’t be real!” is sort of helpful for those of us who come into a story with a certain amount of neurotic cynicism. And I thought that was something so smart about the script, we have this guy who can speak for the part of us that’s outgrown Mr. Rogers. And as his cynicism gets chipped away, so does ours. I was also very aware that Mr. Rogers couldn’t be the protagonist of a movie because he’s just too evolved. But he makes a really good antagonist.
You wrote the script for your first film, but then have used other people’s for your next two. How do you make these screenplays your own when bringing them to the screen when the words don’t originate from your own mind?
Even when I’m directing a movie I haven’t written, because I’m a writer, I always work on the script. For Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I worked on the script for a long time. For this film, I worked together with Noah [Harpster] and Micah [Fitzerman-Blue], who are just incredible writers, to bring in the parts of it that felt personally connected for me. It’s about finding a script that you can find your way into from an emotional point of view and know inside and out. Then it’s many, many months of going through every single scene and feeling if there’s any line, word, or phrase that isn’t quite feeling like how I would have written it, and then us working through it! We went through the script pretty meticulously, and the script evolved and changed when I came on board. It was a beautiful script to begin with, and it made me cry many times when I read it the first time, which is why I signed on.
The script kicked around for many years but really began to take off in 2015 or so. Do you think that’s because the film serves as such a tonic for our troubled times?
I think it was a year or two after that, but I can’t quite remember. Whatever you believe, I think projects happen when they’re meant to happen. It’s really hard sometimes when you’re working on a project that takes ten years to come to be and believe that because you start to think it will never happen. But, ultimately, I have a similar philosophy about casting: You’ll lose an actor, and whoever is meant to play that part, it will work out. I feel that way with when projects came to be. I think this project, yeah, it could have been made ten years ago. But it was meant to be now. This is when we need it, for whatever reason.
What challenged you the most about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and where did you see yourself growing as a director?
I don’t know what challenged me the most about it. The truth of the matter is that it’s been a pretty joyful experience making this movie. It’s been a gift, and I just feel really lucky that I got to make it. I feel like it gave me so much, and as you said, the reverberations of Fred’s lessons have been with me now for years. I’ve gotten to live with his voice in my head, and it changes my life. It’s been a total gift, and I feel unworthy. And the challenge is now, truthfully, putting this out into the world and deal with people [laughs]. Living up to their expectations, it’s not how they would make a movie about Fred Rogers, but up until now, it’s been a privilege and something I feel incredibly proud of. Now I just have to let it go, like a child out into the world.
I’m a sucker for a good Mr. Rogers quote, but I did come across a provocative perspective from The Atlantic suggesting a “fetishization” of some of his aphorisms. It got me wondering if there’s a point where relying on advice designed for children prevents us from fulfilling more adult responsibilities. I think we’re both true believers here, but as someone who’s been much more steeped in his philosophy and teachings, I’m curious if you have a perspective on the potential limitations of Mr. Rogers’s advice.
I don’t think there are limitations to his advice. I think he knew that you had to give children bite-sized versions of the truth. You had to give them the amount of the truth they could handle. But I think he had that wisdom for adults, and there was a period of time when he did a series for adults. The thing about him is that he didn’t shy away from the harder stuff. He did an episode on assassination after RFK was shot. He did a whole episode on divorce when people weren’t really talking about it on television. The darkest things, fear of death…
Fear of going down the drain!
Or going down the drain, which is apparently a very real fear! My kid was afraid of that.
Yes, it’s a very common fear! But I know what you mean. I think it’s taken out of context if someone is letting people off the hook with one of his quotes. The truth is, Fred was doing the tough work of being a person part of our global community. He was connecting with humanity in a deep way. He was present with people and helping people truly. It wasn’t just phrases.
I do truly feel like the film has encouraged me to be more empathetic, understanding, and present—and the effects have lasted far longer than I anticipated. Yet I do still struggle with the idea that I’m barely making a dent in the world’s problems given the magnitude of what we’re facing.
I think we all do, and I think Fred struggled with that too. There’s something that was touched on in the documentary [2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?], where he was asked to come back and do a special after 9/11, and he thought, “Could it possibly be enough? How could I possibly do enough to help in this moment? Why would anyone need to hear from me right now?” I don’t think that feeling like you can’t do enough is a bad thing to be connected with.
I was talking about this in our Q&A today where I was in prep for this movie and went to hear a talk at Brooklyn Buddhist Zen Center. I think I was thinking of Fred as a Buddha-like figure. I had something in my head that the Buddha must be at peace at all times, that somehow if you reach that level of enlightenment or come to a point that far along in your emotional journey, you would feel happiness all the time. This woman who was giving this talk said, “No, you’d feel all the pain of the world. You’d actually feel it more. You’d feel everyone’s suffering. And the goal is not to not feel the suffering. The goal is to feel it even more deeply.” And it made me think about Fred because I think that’s what he did. I don’t think he was walking around with a smile on his face all the time. I think he was feeling the pain of the world.
It’s my understanding that you weren’t filming in Pittsburgh at the time of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Squirrel Hill, where Mr. Rogers lived, but did come back and do some pick-ups in town as they were still grieving and processing.
We had just left. We had left three days earlier to do our last days of filming in New York. We were in Pittsburgh for five months and left three days before the shooting happened. Actually, we wrapped principal photography in New York at four in the morning at Port Authority and then the shooting happened in the morning. It was so right on the heels, and then we returned to Pittsburgh two weeks later to do our miniatures shoot, which was always planned.
Did that weigh on the film at all?
Oh my gosh, are you kidding? It was so present for all of us. We felt so embraced and loved by the Pittsburgh community. Being in Pittsburgh making a movie about Mr. Rogers, we were like the most famous people in town. Everyone knew who we were and where were filming and come by to say hi to us and making sure we did Fred proud. My kid was going to school at a JCC in Squirrel Hill while we were there. That was our community. Bill Isler [former president and CEO of the Fred Rogers Company] lives there. It felt so, so close to home. When we returned to do our miniatures shoot, Tom Hanks came back too, and we all went to the city’s unity celebration. We spent a lot of time mourning together.
Interview: Rian Johnson on Knives Out and Bringing the Whodunnit to the Present
Johnson discusses his affinity for the whodunnit, his love of Agatha Christie, Star Wars, and more.
Whether paying homage to the golden age of noir in a high school setting (Brick), exploring a world in which time travel has not only been invented, but commodified and outlawed (Looper), or crafting a more intimate narrative within a beloved franchise (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Rian Johnson’s adoration of his cinematic predecessors is undeniable. Of the multitude of career feats for which the Silver Spring native is known, redefining genres remains, arguably, his most impressive.
And this year, the filmmaker has done it again with Knives Out, a modern, politically conscious take on the whodunnit. Though infused with the staples of this class-conscious genre, from the magnanimous detective, though one of the Southern-fried variety, to the coterie of potentially guilty parties, the film is also shot through with a distinctly modern sense of meta self-awareness and sociopolitical commentary.
Johnson recently sat down with me to discuss the film, and as we exchanged niceties, he pointed out my Girls on Tops shirt, noting he has “the Jamie Lee Curtis one.” Evidently, even directors geek out on their favorite actors. During our chat, we discussed the philosophical differences between film noir and the whodunnit, Johnson’s love for Agatha Christie, some of his other genre inspirations, the brilliance of Ana de Armas among Knives Out’s seasoned cast, Steven Sondheim, Skywalker Ranch, Star Wars, and more.
Brick is a neo-noir, and Knives Out is a whodunit. To you, what are the differences between the genres?
The key difference is almost a philosophical one between fiction film noir, which is [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler and [James M.] Cain, and the whodunnit genre of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr. And the basic difference between the two of them is moral clarity, which is very interesting. The whodunit genre is a very morally unambiguous genre. There’s a crime. There’s moral chaos. The detective comes in, who’s usually the benevolent father, and he, through reason and order, sorts everything out and figures it out at the end and solves the crime and puts the universe back to sorts.
Whereas, obviously, with Chandler or Hammett, it’s the morally murky antihero, and nothing is put back right at the end of it. And everything is just as terrible as it always was. It’s fascinating, the comforting fairy-tale aspect of the whodunnit, but it’s also why I do describe the genre as comfort food for me. It’s something I keep coming back to over the years. And, goddamn, especially recently, the notion that reason and order could restore anything—the idea that goodness can bring anything back to being okay—would be nice [laughs].
No kidding. You spent 10 years developing Knives Out, and it subverts expectations until the very end. How many drafts did it take to make sure that the math and science of the script didn’t show?
That’s a good one. I [write] very structurally. Ten years ago, what I had was this very conceptual idea. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this person did it, and they did it this way with this weapon in the conservatory with the knife.” It was the very conceptual idea of taking a whodunnit, which is typically a genre that’s built on a big buildup to a surprise. Just, “Who done it?” That’s the name of the genre. And so you figure out who done it. “Oh my God, I’d never guess that,” or, “Oh, I guessed that.” And “Who cares?” That’s why Hitchcock hated whodunnits, famously, because drama built on surprise isn’t great drama. So, taking a whodunnit and putting the engine of a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of it and almost using that Hitchcock thriller as misdirection in a way so that we tell the audience very early, “Don’t worry about who done it. Don’t worry about solving this puzzle. That’s not what’s going to be entertaining for the next two hours. Here’s a person you care about. They’re threatened. Let’s all go on this ride together seeing if they can get out of this impossible situation.”
And the idea of doing that and yet still having all the pleasures of a whodunnit, basically, was the big-picture thing 10 years ago. And then I zoom in from there, and I figure out maybe it’s set in a big house with this family, and that means it’s this type of character who has this relation to this character, and this is how the detective functions in it. And I start putting the pieces together bit by bit, basically. And then the writing is where it really hits the road. Like you said, that’s when all the work goes into making the math feel like it isn’t math. I actually just sat down to write it last January. We had wrapped the movie by Christmas. I wrote it in like six months. And I still did a bunch of drafts. I did a lot of revisions to it. But when it was ready to come out, it came out very quickly, which I recently learned Christie wrote her books very quickly also. She was a big proponent of you think it, and you think it, and you think it. But then, especially with something this dense, there’s a value to not getting lost in the weeds. There’s a value to just pooping it out all at once. And I get it. It makes sense, especially if you’re trying to retain that very simple shape while it’s there.
This film is one of, if not, the funniest film that I’ve seen this year. Was it always your intention to have comedy be as much of an aspect as everything else?
I knew I wanted it to be funny. And I love all Agatha Christie adaptations. I’m a junkie. But I feel like a lot of the recent ones tend to go very serious in their tone. They tend to go dark. And that always loses me because the adaptations I grew up loving are Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, the ones with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. And they all have this sense of self-aware fun, and they have all-star casts. It’s a big show that they’re putting on, but it never tips into parody. It’s not Clue. It’s not Murder by Death. It’s a real whodunnit with actual emotional stakes that rides that line of still being incredibly fun and being aware that it’s putting on a show.
That was the target for me, were those Ustinov-based adaptations. It was always something I wanted to really clearly communicate, both to the studio when we were starting and then the actors when we were casting. Every step of the way, it was, “We’re going to try and have a lot of fun with this. This, hopefully, is going to be very funny, but it’s absolutely essential that we all know that we’re not making a parody about whodunnits, that we’re making a whodunnit about something else.” And what’s on the screen, if that’s successful, it’s the actors. It takes really good actors to be able to walk that line and give performances that are this big and this on the verge of caricature, but then to never lose the grounding so much that they disconnect from planet Earth.
And that “something else” is a staple of the whodunnit genre: class. Many of the characters share unsavory opinions about immigration and take other offensive stances toward minorities while Marta is working for them. Much of their careless spitting out of Fox News soundbites signifies a cold detachment. And while his own family is so dysfunctional, the grandchild searches for another family to call his own, unfortunately finding one in the annals of internet white supremacy.
Annals or the anals, yeah, one of the two [laughs].
Exactly. Would you say that this film is just as much about upper-class American decay as it is about a murder mystery?
For me, what’s always fun about using genre is how one thing can engage the other. And it’s every movie. I can’t start making a movie until I know what it’s really about for me, and that thing it’s about is never the genre itself. It’s always got to be something else, obviously, that I care about or I’m angry about or thinking about. And it’s not trying to insert a message into a genre or trying to hide a message under a genre. For me, the “message” can’t be a message at all. It’s got to be something that every single scene in the movie engages with in some way. It’s got to be tied into the very shape and mechanics of the genre itself. And class is something that, like you mentioned, this genre is particularly good at.
Gosford Park is a brilliant example of using it to talk about class. What’s interesting to me is it’s usually done in the context of Britain, and just because of Christie. And we have this thing in America where we like to pretend that class doesn’t exist. We like to pretend we’re a classless society, so the idea of applying the genre to America in 2019 seemed like fertile soil. But if I’m doing my job right, it’s a fun whodunnit. And everything that’s fun and whodunnit-y about it is also serving the thing that this has on its mind.
Not to throw anyone under the bus—
With such an incredible cast of actors, who were you most excited about working with?
I’m not dodging it when I say every single one of them. I know I kind of am. But I’ll say this. For me, the person I’m most excited for audiences to see and discover in it is Ana [de Armas]. She’s great. Of a cast full of huge, amazing actors and movie stars, [she] is maybe the least known, and she plays the central part in the movie. And it’s a really tricky part because she has to bring so much to it for it to actually work. And for her to confidently step into the middle of a cast like this and carry the movie to the extent that she does, she’s absolutely extraordinary.
Yeah. She was amazing in it.
Isn’t she great? And she’s been working forever. She did Spanish TV. She was in Blade Runner 2049 and a couple other American films, but I have a feeling you’re going to see a lot more of her over the next couple of years. My casting director, Mary Vernieu, brought her to my attention. I’d seen her in Blade Runner 2049, but I wasn’t really familiar with her work. She’s really something special. And she’s playing Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which is crazy because she was camera testing for that while we were shooting. She would show me these video tests of her done up as Marilyn in the middle of shooting this with her as Marta. Like, de-glamorized Marta. And then she shows me, and I’m like, “Wow! Who are you?”
I’m looking forward to that one. The Assassination of Jesse James was—
A fucking masterpiece. Incredible. He’s an amazing director. So, so good.
It was interesting that you had the cast spend time in the film’s gothic mansion for three weeks ahead of shooting in order to allow for “family bonding.” Do you have a fun story to share from the set?
There was one day where Frank Oz did a cameo, so he was on set. And it was really fun because everyone would just hang out in this little basement rec room down in the basement of this house. It felt like summer camp for movie stars. It was crazy. But the day Frank was on set, it was amazing seeing all these movie stars just gathered at his feet. Everybody was just in awe of him, and rightly so, trying to get stories about him doing Miss Piggy and Yoda. But Frank is a fantastic director: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, The Little Shop of Horrors, which is one the all-time great movie musicals. He’s an extraordinary, multi-talented guy. So that was an amazing day, just seeing all these actors bow down to the mighty Frank.
Are you planning any Agatha Christie-esque Knives Out sequels?
I would be thrilled, man. Yeah. We’ll see how this one does. You never know with an original thing. But god, I hope it does well because it would be so much fun to get together with Daniel [Craig] every few years and make a new one. You can tell how much fun he’s having doing this [laughs]. And it’s such a malleable genre. You can do so many different things with it, so that would be really, really fun.
Speaking of fun, the Sondheim song that Craig sings in the car was such a great scene [laughs]. You both must have had a blast shooting that.
Yes! Oh my god! “Losing My Mind.” That scene was so good.
Does Craig play F on the piano throughout the film? Because “Losing My Mind” is in the key of E.
Oh! Is that the song that’s going in his head while he’s doing it? I forget what note it is. Next time I’m watching, I’m going to look, and I’m sure we can see which one he’s hitting. Shit, where were you on set? I can claim it. I will retroactively claim it. I could have actually had it be a slightly different note he’s chiming, playing the tune of “Losing My Mind.” Shit! I have to go back and redo it [laughs].
Shall we do some last-minute reshoots?
Yeah. Let’s get back in, man. We’re going up to Skywalker this afternoon. We can do a remix. We’ll get [Daniel] up there.
Speaking of Skywalker, you’re still planning on writing and directing a Star Wars trilogy, correct?
I’m still talking to Lucasfilm about it. They haven’t announced anything. They’re still figuring out what they’re doing.
You confronted Rey’s parental lineage in The Last Jedi, seemingly putting an end to the many fan theories, while subverting expectations for a portion of toxic fans. Has any further information on Rey’s family been shared with you since The Rise of Skywalker began production, and are you concerned what J.J. Abrams might do with Rey’s lineage?
I’m not concerned at all. I’m 0% concerned. I’m thrilled. I cannot wait to see Episode IX. I’ll preface this by saying I’m going to be going in clean. I’ve tried to stay out of the process as much as possible. I can just be a Star Wars fan and sit down and watch. And I want to be thrilled. I want to be surprised. I cannot wait to see what happens next. I’ve never really understood the attitude that some people come at the movies with of, “I have my very specific list of things I want to see, and if those don’t happen, I’m going to be upset.” That I don’t get. And just in terms of movies, in general, I don’t know why you would sit down to watch a movie and feel like that and want that. So, to me, it’s all storytelling, man, and so push the story forward, have it make emotional sense, and take me someplace I’ve never been. And I know J.J.’s going to do that. I can’t wait.
Review: The Hard-Earned Richness of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller takes a script that many filmmakers would turn into cringe-inducing treacle and interrogates the sentimental trappings.3.5
All of it is so eerily familiar: the gently comforting music, the hand-built miniature buildings. Even the televisual texture of the image is exactly as anyone who watched the beloved children’s series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood might recollect. Then Fred Rogers himself walks into frame—or, rather, Tom Hanks, the actor playing him. He sings the famous theme song. He changes from his outdoor to his indoor clothes. And he breaks the fourth wall with that tranquil gaze that lets each person watching know that they’re gloriously unique. You’ll likely never doubt the reality of what you’re seeing at any point, though there’s something unsettling about the precision of both Hanks’s performance and the frame housing it—uncanny valley effects that have been achieved through fully analog means.
The tension that emanates out of this opening scene, and many more besides it, isn’t a fault, but a virtue of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This is a knotty film masquerading as a simple one. Director Marielle Heller proves that the equally steely and empathetic eye that she brought to last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? was no fluke. She takes a screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster that many filmmakers would turn into cringe-inducing treacle and consistently interrogates the sentimental trappings.
Rogers isn’t even the primary focus here. Rather, it’s Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an Esquire writer based loosely on columnist Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers back in 1998 (also the year the film is set). Lloyd is both a new father and a damaged son. He’s been estranged from his own dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper), for years, and he’s developed a reputation for work that takes his subjects down several pegs. Lloyd loves his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and their infant child, but cynicism and anger are his go-to modes. Right after he gets into fisticuffs with Jerry at a family wedding, Lloyd’s editor (Christine Lahti) assigns him to profile Mister Rogers for an Esquire issue about heroes. An unwitting disciple is about to meet his guru.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a spiritual film of sorts, though it doesn’t make the mistake of presuming Mister Rogers or his perspective to be above doubt or suspicion. “How does it feel to be married to a living saint?” Lloyd asks Rogers’s wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), in one scene. She proceeds to bring that lofty sentiment down to earth, noting her husband’s temper and hinting at other day-to-day challenges that his public will never see. The image Mister Rogers projects is sincere, but it takes work to maintain. And it only helps other people insofar as they’re able to access the truth underlying the benevolent illusion.
This gets to the heart of Heller’s approach. Time and again she and her keen-eyed DP, Jody Lee Lipes, draw our attention to the falsity of Rogers’s world, most notably in the sections in which Lloyd visits the WQED studios in Pittsburgh where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is filmed. In one scene, the camera pulls back from within one of the show’s many miniature models to reveal Lloyd hovering over it like a colossus. In another, a musical interlude between Lady Aberlin (Maddie Corman) and the Rogers-performed puppet Daniel Striped Tiger is shown from the perspective of Lloyd and the on-set crew so that we see the machinery, such as it is, undergirding a childlike song about controlling your anger. Heller isn’t exposing or devaluing the beliefs that are being extolled, but is showing us the place from which they spring. It’s left to the audience, as it is to Lloyd, to assess how applicable Rogers’s lessons are to life itself.
The narrative, of course, proceeds along exactly the redemptive and reconciliatory paths you might expect. There are ways in which Heller can’t avoid the “movie we need right now” aura of the script. But even in scenes where the scales tip toward mawkishness, as when a group of subway riders serenades Mister Rogers with his own theme song, Heller makes sure to emphasize a look or a line reading that complicates our sense of the sentimentality.
It helps that Rhys is the king of a certain world-weary expression that he’s been honing since FX’s The Americans, and that Heller has directed Hanks so that his innate and often irritating mildness comes off much more enigmatic than usual. When Lloyd tries to press Mister Rogers’s buttons during one of their lengthy interviews, his eyes briefly cloud over with anger. The moment is particularly striking because you can see that he chooses not to act on the destructive emotion and instead take a more peaceable route.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is similarly perched on the razor’s edge of compassion and cruelty. It’s not surprising that tenderness ultimately triumphs, but the film acknowledges, with shrewd subtlety, that it could easily go the other way. The warmth and humanity at the heart of this deceptively modest parable aren’t easy virtues, but hard-earned ones.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Enrico Colantoni, Maryann Plunkett, Tammy Blanchard, Wendy Makkena, Sakina Jaffrey, Carmen Cusack Director: Marielle Heller Screenwriter: Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue Distributor: TriStar Pictures Running Time: 107 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Frozen II and Its Recycled Stakes Quickly Get Lost in the Snow
Woke Disney, trying to navigate a tricky representational path, steps all over itself throughout.2
Any successor to Frozen practically mandates a designated successor to “Let It Go.” And the standard-bearing song for Disney’s Frozen II is “Into the Unknown,” another bombastic earworm that’s belted out by Idina Menzel’s Queen Elsa about 20 minutes into the film, as she embraces a literal call to adventure. But the unknown is hardly a place that co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee care to take this sequel. If the first Frozen succeeded in rebranding the Disney Princess line of products for a more woke era, Frozen II doesn’t want to risk undoing the first film’s magic. The sequel plays things safe, hitting many of the same beats as its predecessor—and sometimes with a wink—all while making sure to introduce adorable, marketable new creatures and outfits along the way.
Such is the nature of Hollywood sequels, perhaps, but aside from a prologue that expands the fantastical, ostensibly peaceful Nordic kingdom in which the series is set with an intriguingly bellicose backstory, Frozen II doesn’t craft a strong enough story to mask its capitalist machinations. The film joins Elsa, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the latter’s beau Christoph (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the animate snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) at harvest time in Arendelle, which has about the size and cultural depth of the Swedish village at Epcot Center. Just after the four humanoid principal characters are done singing a status-quo-minded ditty, “Some Things Never Change,” Elsa, the magically attuned “snow queen,” begins hearing a wordless voice singing to her from beyond the fjord. In responding to the voice, Elsa awakens the wrath of nature’s four elements—air, earth, fire, and water—which wreak havoc on Arendelle, because, it turns out, nature’s got an axe to grind with Anna and Elsa’s family.
Frozen’s narrative trappings are all accounted for here: a malevolent magic of obscure origin, a forgotten slight that must be righted, a quest to reveal the truth. But whereas the first film had very human stakes—that of the reconciliation between Anna and Elsa—the stakes of Frozen II get lost in the snow. The imperative to redeem Arendelle in the eyes of nature remains rather abstract. Lee, also the film’s screenwriter, attempts to ground the quest in the mysterious fate of the rival clan of the Northuldra, a people who, with their darker features and leather-and-fur parkas, are coded as an indigenous Arctic culture. Something happened to these people, who haven’t been seen since a battle waged when Anna and Elsa’s father was a boy.
Frozen II suggests that the Northuldrans are the wronged party but, oddly, doesn’t posit them as the aggrieved one: It’s clear from early on that Anna and Elsa’s forbears committed some unspoken crime against their neighbors, but it’s nature, rather than the “indigenous” clan themselves, that demands redress. When Anna, Elsa, and their sidekicks find the Northuldrans in the enchanted woods, they’re perfectly friendly and ready for coexistence (the ideal natives for a film being released around the Thanksgiving holiday), and they’re happy to let Anna and Elsa do the heavy lifting when it comes to restoring balance to the world.
Woke Disney, in trying to navigate a tricky representational path with this film, steps all over itself: Seeking to address colonial shame, but also to avoid portraying natives as angry and threatening, Frozen II makes them into docile figures under the protection of a mystically empowered nature. Moreover, this maneuvering tangles the thread of the story, as these friendly forest dwellers are at once the object of Elsa and Anna’s quest and relatively inconsequential. As the quintet from the first film encounters the avatars for each of the four elements—a gust of wind named Gale that Olaf befriends, a pack of rock giants that Anna sneaks past at one point, a flaming gecko that Elsa takes as a pet, and a powerful steed composed of congealed water that she tames—these embodiments of natural phenomena prove to have more character and import to the plot than any of the Northuldrans.
This carefully orchestrated vagueness gives Frozen II a fragmentary quality, each scene standing alone as a mini-adventure. Olaf and Christoph’s solo numbers in particular feel very much like the music videos they are, fun and vibrant on their own but not particularly well integrated into the story’s trajectory. The looseness of Lee’s script also serves to foreground the more devious functions of the film as a Disney product intended to promote further consumption. It’s hard to ignore the convenience of the avatar of fire resembling in size, color, and design a collectible, cuddly doll; the way one of the heroines is magically granted a new, flowing hairdo and a bejeweled, strapless dress when she sings the song “Show Yourself”; or the calculations that must underlie the visually pleasing arrangement of the glittering geometric patterns that fill the frame during musical sequences. If, as a story, Frozen II is a tad too messy, as an advertisement it’s much too polished.
That said, Frozen II’s attempt at an enlightened fairy tale is in many aspects preferable to Disney’s recent “live action” resurrections of dated animated features. The relatively complex relationship between Anna and Elsa, as well as a subplot about Olaf the snowman’s existential musings now that his lifetime has been extended beyond winter, suggest hints of life beneath the film’s cold, corporate exterior. The series’s foregrounding of the ups and downs of a caring, if sometimes tense, connection between two women represents incremental progress at a studio whose other film franchises still favor male agency and Oedipal conflict. But given its confused ethics, narrative weaknesses, and naked function as a brand-refresher, Frozen II hardly constitutes a case for why we need more stories about fairy-tale princesses.
Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, Martha Plimpton, Jeremy Sisto Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything
Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.
But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.
In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
How did you get involved with Dark Waters?
The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.
At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”
Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?
No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.
How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?
Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.
Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.
I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?
I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.
Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.
It was shot in the real Taft offices?
Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.
Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?
Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.
That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?
Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—
Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.
How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?
We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.
In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?
I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.
The material through which systems work.
The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.
What are your upcoming projects?
My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.
They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.
Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.