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TIFF 2017: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Questions The Necessity Of Violence

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Martin McDonagh continues to exemplify the very best in screenwriting with his third feature film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Leaning more towards In Bruges than 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh delivers another ensemble cast that brings a nuanced darkness and humor to Midwestern America. Anchored by one of Frances McDormand’s best performances, Three Billboards takes itself to Hell and back in order to present a textured portrayal of grief and culpability in a small community.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who is fed up with the town of Ebbing, Missouri’s police department not having found out who raped and murdered her daughter seven months prior. She notices three unused billboards, and rents them out for the year to single out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and serve as a reminder of a terrible crime unsolved. Much of the strife within Three Billboards comes from how people react to the signs, and how Mildred carries herself despite being opposed constantly by the volatile Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and the rest of the Ebbing community.

While the narrative remains fairly simplistic, McDonagh focuses on Mildred and her suffering, while still keeping the dark humor that he has always done well. She’s extremely impulsive, but only when it makes sense to be, which serves as an excellent foil to Dixon, who is also impulsive, but in a much more dangerous and unrestrained way — after all, he’s known around town for beating up people of color for no reason. That is just one of the ways in which the film explores ideas of racism, along with notions of culpability, sexism, and hope. It’s all par for the course with McDonagh, who used the same single-character portrait in In Bruges when Colin Farrell’s character struggled with seeking redemption. McDonagh knows how to mine his characters for subtext, and he uses the characters around them to do so.

Most interesting is Mildred’s relationship with Chief Willoughby, as both seem to share a mutual understanding and appreciation of each other. Her singling him out is just a thing she had to do, and the way the film keeps their relationship very business-like is commendable when other characters have so much intensity in how they react to the billboards. It also helps that Harrelson’s performance is the kind of calm, funny, and just-dramatic-enough presence that works well and keeps the audience on both sides of the fight. We all want to see justice, but what Three Billboards is more interested in is talking about culpability and redemption. Justice is on everyone’s minds, but it’s the secondary components of it that elevate the narrative and take into account all the characters surrounding the case.

Also par for the course are intense moments of violence, which McDonagh employs very sparingly throughout — just enough so that he can subvert violent expectations while still letting violence provide both humor and/or tension. Some moments are gleefully violent, while others condemn it wholly, but never does it feel like violence is the answer — it’s a means to an end. McDonagh has wrestled with violence in all his previous films, and always leaves the viewer with the same struggle: is it worth the suffering? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is another huge accomplishment from the acclaimed writer/director, and provides Harrelson, Rockwell, and of course, McDormand, with some of the best roles and performances they’ve had in a long time. It’s a violent world out there, and McDonagh is here to show that even in the darkest moments there can still be a glimmer of hope.

The 42nd annual Toronto International Film Festival is scheduled to be held from 7 to 17 September 2017.

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Toronto, Ontario. His favorite films include The Big Lebowski, The Raid 2, Alien, and The Thing. You will often find him with a drink in his hand yelling about movies.

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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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