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Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2019: ‘Nancy’ Can’t Maintain its Unsettling Tone

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What does Nancy Freeman want out of life? Subtly played by shapeshifter-turned-actress Andrea Riseborough, she remains a complete enigma right until the final scene of Nancy. Aiming for delicate ambiguity before becoming totally inscrutable, the film can’t maintain its unsettling, sad tone, and despite round-the-board excellent performances to go with a dreamy, lush score by Peter Raeburn, first-time feature director Christina Choe can’t quite find the narrative to match

Nancy is a sad, reclusive woman. She works as a temp at a dentist’s office, but wants to be a writer, frantically checking the post each morning to see if her submissions are successful. They never are. Perhaps this inspires her to weave her own fictions in real life, such as pretending to be pregnant online to win the affection of Jeb (John Leguizamo), who is recently suffering from the still-born death of his own child. Is she trying to manipulate people, or is she just lonely, looking for someone to really care for her?

After her mother (Ann Dowd) dies of Parkinson’s, Nancy sees a story in the news. Leo and Ellen Lynch (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) have set up a scholarship fund in the name of their daughter, Brooke, who has been missing for over thirty years. Scientists provide a projection of what they think their child would have looked like, and noticing the similarity, Nancy calls Ellen up, telling her she might the girl she’s looking for…

We know that Nancy is a liar from how she treated Jeb, but does she genuinely believe herself to be the couple’s daughter, or is she like Frédéric Bourdin, the serial imposter who pretended to be over 500 different people, including missing children? With its bleak and snowy setting, and with genre queen Riseborough in the lead, Nancy courts noir territory, yet never commits to it, opting for subtle family drama instead. This decision is fine — after all, one can’t judge a film for being a different genre than anticipated — yet going down the “subtle family drama” route doesn’t have to mean abandoning conflict altogether.

Like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s movies, such as Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son, Nancy asks key questions about what it means to be a family. Is it something one is entitled to, or can it be reverse-manufactured? Unlike with Kore-eda’s work, however, these issues in Nancy aren’t particularly heightened by the drama itself; the search for a lost cat and an unrelated hunting misfire are more distracting than affecting. Considering the lived-in sadness of both Steve Buscemi and J.Smith-Cameron’s performances, they deserved a screenplay that treated their desire for family life with compassion and nuance. Instead, the richness of the premise is diluted by a fuzzy and un-incisive plot.

Completely different from her other 2018 appearances in Mandy, Black Mirror‘s“Crocodile,” and The Death of Stalin, Riseborough uses her varied facial expressions as a mask. We can tell when she is lost deep in thought, but what exactly those thoughts are is anyone’s guess. Early on, she reveals to her colleagues that she went to North Korea alone, but strangely withholds the reason for her trip. An interesting trait (especially as Christina Choe visited the country herself for a TV series), but its never picked up on again — a classic example of Nancy‘s inadequacy when it comes to developing character. Why mention something like that if it doesn’t pay off later?

By the end, one could have several different interpretations of what this woman is really thinking. She could be mentally unstable, damaged, or deeply in need of love. Who knows? It’s like an emotional choose-your-own-adventure story. The problem is that when every opinion is valid, then no opinions are valid. The audience shouldn’t be told how to feel, but sometimes it helps if you push them in the right direction.

As far back as he can remember, Redmond Bacon always wanted to be a film critic. To him, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States

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How ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ Filmmakers Told the Story of Mr. Rogers

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Tom Hanks and director Marielle Heller of "Won't You Be My Neighbor" (Lacey Terrell/ Sony Pictures)

Talking to the director of the new movie about Mr. Rogers, and author whose article was the inspiration for the movie. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a new movie about legendary television host Fred Rogers and the time he changed the life of a reporter assigned to write a magazine profile of him, opens nationwide on Friday. The film is being positioned as a celebration of goodness, virtue, and kindness, especially at a time when those values are in somewhat short supply. 

It’s a movie so unabashedly earnest that it actually uses the phrase “not all heroes wear capes” unironically in its ad copy: 

Shortly before the film’s release, we spoke with Marielle Heller, who directed the film, and journalist Tom Junod, whose story was the inspiration for the film, about how they came to the project, and the lessons we can take from the legacy of Mr. Rogers today. 

The film is based on “Can You Say… Hero?”, a profile of Rogers that was authored by Junod in Esquire in 1998. Starring Tom Hanks as Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Junod stand-in Lloyd Vogel, the film depicts Junod/Vogel as a cynical, unhappy 40ish man, until his encounter with Rogers helps him come to terms with his life, reconcile with his father (Chris Cooper) and become a better father. 

Heller, who directed last year’s acclaimed Can You Ever Forgive Me?, said she had first heard about the project years earlier from its screenwriters, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. 

“I had met Noah and Micah, and they mentioned that they were working on this movie about Mr. Rogers,” Heller said. “They explained to me what the movie was about- and I said, why am I not directing that?”

Heller said she forgot about the project, until years later, when a producer brought it to her. 

“I wept through the script,” she said. “I was a Mr. Rogers fan [as a child], and I remember I kind of outgrew him, and getting a little too cool for school.” But like many parents, she rediscovered his philosophy when she had a child of her own, who was an avid watcher of the animated spinoff Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. 

Heller was actually on board the project before Hanks was. 

“He and I had developed a relationship, we had been looking for projects to do together,” she said. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is actually the second Mr. Rogers movie in two years. Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the acclaimed documentary directed by Morgan Neville, was released in the summer of 2018, after the Hanks movie was already in production. 

“Is this a good thing or a bad thing,” Heller remembers asking, before concluding that “more Fred Rogers in the world is only a good thing.” 

Tom Hanks Fred Rogers

While there’s been talk of a Mr. Rogers movie for many years, it really came together when Hanks was cast, and as Tom Junod wrote in a piece earlier this month for The Atlantic, he requested that his name and those of his relatives change once he read the script. However, Junod is working on a book that will touch on the Rogers story, but is primarily about his real-life relationship with his father. 

“When I first heard from [the screenwriters] Micah and Noah, they told me right off, they had represented my relationship with Fred really accurately but made up quite a bit of family background,” Junod said in our interview. “The dis-similarities mean so little to me [but] the similarities mean a tremendous amount, and they hit me hard emotionally.” He added that friends who knew him in the ’90s have told him, after watching the movie, that they enjoying seeing “the classic Tom” on screen. 

While Junod has been a prominent magazine writer for over two decades – he’s perhaps best known for “The Falling Man,” one of the most celebrated pieces of reporting about the 9/11 attacks – Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the first time Hollywood has adapted his work. He did say that one of his other past stories was recently optioned. 

Needless to say, it’s been a difficult time for magazines, and many journalists have pointed out that things in the movie, most notably a budget that allows the reporter to fly to Pittsburgh multiple times for a 400-word profile, are radically different from how things are today. 

“One of the many things that moves me in the movie, but I think that storytelling- it’s so basic to the human species that I think that humans are always going to do,” Junod said. “We’re in a time of transition about how those stories are going to be told. I think that this movie is a tribute to that.” 

“I am aware that there is a powerful voice in there speaking directly to me, and that’s exactly the feeling I had when I was spending time with Fred,” Junod said of watching Hanks on screen as Rogers. “The thing that Tom does in that movie is exactly what Fred did. To me, that is the complete measure of the movie’s power, and Tom’s power as an actor.”

The director is also thinking about Rogers’ legacy. 

“My hope is that you don’t come away from this movie thinking what you’ve learned about Fred Rogers, but what you’ve learned about yourself,” Heller said. “I hope people come away from it more connected to humanity, and more connected to themselves.” 

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Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

TIFF 2019

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.

Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.

Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [2018]), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.

Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.

Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.

In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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