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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews. 23 Jan, 2019

Jim Schembri

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD ****(109 minutes) PG

There are a lot of superpowers flying about in movies these days, yet the one super power that undercuts them all – the one that nobody would argue is more valuable, more potent and, arguably, more rare than any – is the power that fuels A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a wonderful, timely, quietly moving drama about compassion and human connection.

That supreme power of which we speak is decency, a singular quality that possesses American children’s television presenter Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) to an astonishing degree, and which has a profound effect on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical New York journalist nostril-deep in a personal crisis.

Regrettably the name of Fred Rogers draws a blank from most Australians, for while we got Sesame Street and an endless cascade of quickly produced cartoon shows from America, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was never aired in Australia even though it was hugely popular in the US.

It wasn’t until the excellent 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that we got the full measure of the man Fred Rogers was, the impact he had on popular culture through his TV shows and the crucial role he played in securing the future of public television.

The film largely sidesteps the wider picture to concentrate on the relationship Vogel develops with Rogers.

With his reputation in a spiral after getting into a fight with his estranged father (Chris Cooper), Vogel is assigned by his editor to go to the low-budget TV studio in Pittsburgh and do a brief profile on Rogers for a series on heroes.

Dismissing the epithet, Rogers is far more concerned about the fight wounds on Vogel’s face and why his relationship with his father is so poor. To Vogel, Rogers seems perfectly decent. Too decent.

Following his darker journalistic instincts, Vogel suspects Rogers must have a dark side which he intends to uncover, thus giving him a much meatier story. Yet all he finds is kindness and compassion, a kind-hearted Christian man who regards television as a valuable educational tool for children, who he believes are precious, yet undervalued.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a treasure of a film, presenting Rogers as the standard-bearer of the embattled American ideal where everybody has each other’s back, people are intrinsically good and suburban streets are held together by the values of community and friendship.

To this end, the everyman persona Tom Hanks has cultivated across his film career dovetails perfectly into his winning, winsome performance as Rogers. So used are we to seeing major roles coloured by high emotion that it’s great to watch a film driven by a performance marked by its gentleness and warmth.

As for Rhys, he arguably has the harder job given how Vogel has a bigger character arc to traverse. The transformation that results from the collision of Vogel’s curmudgeon with Rogers’ caring soul is a reminder of how decency and true compassion can crack through even the most stubborn cynicism and reach a troubled heart.

Delicate direction by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl; Can You Ever Forgive Me?) allows for memorable moments of lyricism and surrealism, including one where Rogers appears to hold an entire cafe in a trance as he reaches out to Vogel.

Because Rogers is so deeply embedded in US culture Americans will obviously feel an immediate connection with the film, yet the film’s real value might be in introducing Rogers to those who don’t know him all that well, if at all.

Hopefully the grace and emotional tone of the film will prompt people to get curious and tap “Fred Rogers” into YouTube, where a trove of delights await.

There’s much to enjoy, with the most riveting being his extraordinary 1969 appearance before a Senate Committee where, in six minutes, he reduces the hard-as-nails Senator John Pastore to putty. It’s a golden moment that changed the course of public television and crystallized everything Rogers stood for. It’s a great primer before seeing the film.

 

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE ***1/2

In the most interesting moment in the belated third installment of the action/comedy Bad Boys franchise – yes, there shall be a fourth – Marcus (Martin Lawrence) vows unto God that, having lead a rather violent life as a cop, he now totally renounces violence.

A short time later, in the midst of a typically frenetic car chase, his life-long partner in crime-fighting Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) takes issue with his Holy pledge. “Violence is what we do!”, he sagely reminds Marcus as they thunder down a busy Miami street.

That neatly sets the unapologetic tone of a film that is so entertaining, funny and surprising it makes you forgive the occasional burst of bloodshed.

Though Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are credited as the directors of the film, it is the fast-cutting, fast-talking signature style of uber-alpha director Michael Bay – who began his career with the first Bad Boys in 1995, making the second in 2003 – that saturates every frame of the film. Why, he even has a cameo in the wedding scene.

So closely have the directors followed Bay’s lead that you could easily watch Bad Boys for Life straight after Bad Boys II and barely notice the 17-year gap, the only giveaway signs being the advance in digital technology and the swelling of Martin Lawrence’s jowls.

With a proud and bloody history of cleaning Miami’s streets of drug-running scum, we find Marcus and Mikey at that stage of life where they’ve got to prioritize what is meaningful.

For Marcus, it’s the allure of retirement and the comforts of family life. For Mikey, it’s the adrenalin rush of being a cop, a calling he knows Marcus can’t ignore should the siren song of duty ever call.

Sure enough it does. The vengeful wife of a Mexican drug baron who Mikey helped put away decades earlier has sent her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) on a special mission – to assassinate everyone involved in the case. So it’s a matter of stop the killer before he kills Mikey.

Like most modern-day movie cop heroes, Mikey is a blessed figure, with the might of American fire-power and technology behind him.

On top of that, he’s also given a trigger-happy, digi-savvy team of experts, including Bad Boys veteran Joe Pantoliano, Mexican actress Paola Nunez and High School Musical graduate Vanessa Hudgens, who does a fine job here bringing all her action movie nous from Sucker Punch to the party.

As an action/comedy movie, Bad Boys For Life absolutely delivers. The semi-improvised banter between the leads crackles with jibes and jabs as the two settle effortlessly into the characters that made them stars.

The many frenetic action sequences sport all the sharp editing and heft of the earlier films, with one remarkable night-time shoot-em-up scene being almost entirely lit by fireballs and the muzzle flash of automatic weapons.

What really gives the film such a refreshing edge, though, is the strength of the story, which contains some great surprises. The friendship between Marcus and Mikey moves beyond the usual bromance and the crime element is given a moral complexity these sorts of films tend to avoid.

What? A Bad Boys film with actual substance in its story, along with megatonnes of action? Who’d have thought?

By the way, that sound you heard on Monday wasn’t somebody shooting the air out of a truck tyre, it was Will Smith breathing a sigh of relief that he is finally in a film that is drawing good reviews and strong box office ($112m first week). Makes a nice change to all those snarky comment threads on whether he can still pull a crowd.

 

JUST MERCY ***1/2 (137 minutes) M

Having been host to so many great films about racial bigotry – The Defiant Ones; To Kill a Mockingbird; In the Heat of the Night, etc etc  – America’s Deep South is again on show in Just Mercy, a lengthy, laudable legal procedural where casual racism and a callous disregard for truth are challenged by a newcomer.

There’s not much you won’t see coming in Just Mercy, though its predictability is more than offset by a suite of compelling performances.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan), an eager young black lawyer freshly hatched from Harvard, takes up the all-but-lost case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a death row prisoner resigned to his fate in the electric chair.

Based on a true story, the setting is a corner of Alabama that, even in 1989, was still awaiting the spirit of the Civil Rights enlightenment to take hold. Black people were still victims of prejudice and police harassment, the judicial system primed to readily put them away.

Walking into this swirling swamp of racism comes  the community-minded Stevenson who sees the McMillian case as an open-and-shut example of wrongful conviction based on demonstrably false evidence.

But he quickly finds as he works his way through the quirks and bigotry of the local system that justice is something that happens to other people, and the bureaucracy is geared to maintain the status quo and keep black people in their place.

The methodical pace of the film, signaled early on, allows director Destin Daniel Cretton the time needed to establish Stevenson as a genuine agent of change driven by quiet conviction and determination. For him, theatrics can’t replace the bold power of facts, and that belief in the truth is best served by belief in a person, even if that person has run out of hope.

After the fireworks of playing the villain in Black Panther, Michael B Jordan (Creed; Chronicle; Fruitvale Station) puts in a contemplative, convincing lead performance, his outer calm driven by an inner strength that feeds on the need to correct an obvious injustice.

As the doomed McMillian, Jamie Foxx is terrific. He initially regards his new lawyer with skepticism before learning to trust him, something he is clearly not used to. As a southern legal worker Brie Larson (winner of Oscar for Room; also starred in Captain Marvel) clocks in some top support.

Shining through this showcase, however, are two pivotal, bound-to-be overlooked performances: one by Rafe Spall as McMillian’s prosecutor; the other by Tim Blake Nelson as the convict whose highly questionable evidence put McMillian on death row.

Though the film is surely one of triumph and justice for Stevenson against racism, look closely and you’ll see – as you are supposed to see – another parallel story just under the main one.

It’s  about how the shifting mindsets of these two not-very-likeable white characters actually hold the key to the story, giving the film a subtle, secondary meaning that, though half-buried, is as uplifting as the film’s primary one.

 

LIKE A BOSS **1/2 (83 minutes) M

If they ever discover the computer that churns out the formulaic comedy mulch that clogs the multiplexes chances are the screenplay for Like a Boss will be on the hard drive.

The easily digested premise of this throwaway yukfest sees two odd-couple best friends, Mia (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel (Rose Byrne), start a cosmetics company that is popular but skint.

Salvation comes in the attractive form of Claire Luna (Salma Hayek, who’s apparently had some dental work), a corporate queen keen to invest. She, of course, has a sinister hidden agenda that involves stealing the company by driving a perfumed wedge between Mel & Mia.

Give it a minute’s thought and you can probably guess the rest, though, to be fair, there is a pretty decent fistful of laughs in the film, mostly from Byrne, who has been stealing scenes in comedy films since Bridesmaids (and who, by the by, seems to be getting more beautiful with each film. Is it nature or make-up?)

Ironically, the film was intended by Paramount as a starring vehicle for Haddish, though her sassy manner and whiplash tongue can’t quite match the comedy stylings or dance moves of her co-star.

The film is very brief – about 76 minutes, sans credits – and appears to have a truncated finale. Seems that once everything in the story was resolved they just wanted to wrap things up.

So, it’s funny – but is it worth the dosh? Perhaps, as a girls’ night out comedy, or a first-time date movie. Otherwise, to be straight, just take note that Like A Boss will soon be coming to a streaming service near you. It’ll probably play better there. So, wait.

 

UNDERWATER *** (95 minutes) M

Praise be to the Goddess of Good Timing who has smiled down upon Kristen Stewart by delivering unto us Underwater, a nifty, tense little underwater action thriller that will erase at least some of the memory of the disaster that was Charlie’s Angels.

Fit for duty and ready for action, Stewart plays Norah, a tech wiz on a sprawling deep-water facility that is struck by a crippling quake on the seabed. Deadly jets of water come bursting through the collapsing walls as the station crumbles like tinfoil and everybody scurries for their lives.

Norah is only one of a few survivors and they’ve got limited time to make it to last few escape pods. This will involve a long, wet trek through the damaged station, then a mile-long walk in pressure suits across the perilous ocean floor.

Dangerous enough as this excursion shall be, they’ve got the added treat of dealing with these mysterious creatures that have come out of nowhere and who like snacking on humans.

As a short-cropped, non-smiling action hero, Stewart and her furrowed brow serve the scenario well, her lithe frame jumping, bouncing and squeezing through the high-tech wreckage. She’s ably aided by a top supporting cast that includes French veteran Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones) and wise-cracker TJ Miller.

The film is all go once the chaos begins, with director William Eubank overly anxious to keep the frame full of action, noise, sparks and surprises. While obviously owing a huge debt to Alien and Aliens, the film nonetheless has enough style of its own.

There is some clumsy enviro-messaging that casts the monsters as symbolic demons who are wreaking revenge for humankind’s exploitation of the underwater environment. Yeah – deep, man.

It’s irritating and unnecessary, yet silly and fleeting enough to overlook in favour of enjoying all the claustrophobic tension and action and wondering whether the lovely Norah will make it back to her husband.

Jim Schembri
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