Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: December 2019

Saturday

14

December 2019

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The Muppet Christmas Carol Is the Definitive Christmas Classic

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The Christmas genre is based on a rather brilliant model. While seasonal films rarely top the yearly box office charts, the seasonal nature of their narratives presents far more staying power in the long run. Holiday favorites are often revisited on an annual basis. Even the lesser works receive far more attention than they would otherwise, filling out the ranks of lineups such as those on Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is a film born out of great tragedy. The first feature released by the studio after the death of its founder Jim Henson, as well as longtime puppeteer Richard Hunt, few could have predicted what might have come out of this new Muppet world. Directed by Brian Henson, the adaptation of Charles Dickens’ seminal holiday classic closely embraced its source material, particularly the haunting nature of one Ebenezer Scrooge.

As the perpetual humbug, Michael Caine puts forth one of the most powerful performances of his career. His presence as the straight-faced Ebenezer supplies a steady hand through the Muppet mania. The film thoroughly exists both in Dickens’ bleak London and the Muppets’ zanier reality.

This dynamic is best illustrated in one of the film’s opening numbers, “Scrooge.” Sung by the Muppet characters, Paul Williams’ harrowing lyrics aim their sights more at the adults watching than the children the film appears more suited for. A child can process the lines, “When a cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone. But there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone.” Only an adult can see Caine’s Scrooge for the lonely shell of a man he’s presented as, hardened by greed and tragedy.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is an emotional roller coaster. Gonzo supplies levity throughout the film as Charles Dickens, taking on narration duties with the help of Rizzo the Rat, who acts mostly as a kind of Greek chorus present for comic relief. As with most Muppet films, the core ensemble fills out most of the roles. Kermit is a natural fit as the everyman Bob Cratchit, eager to see the good in a world that’s done him nothing but wrong.

In choosing to keep the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future original characters, the film allows itself to sink a bit deeper into Dickens lore. Scrooge is never independent of the Muppets, but there’s a great power in the execution of their relationship. The story presents many opportunities for laughs, but it never has to work very hard for them. The Muppets pulled off an completely serious adaptation of A Christmas Carol while still retaining plenty of humor.

In many ways, it’s easy to imagine Dickens himself being pleased with the way the film blended Muppets into his work. Scrooge is a difficult protagonist, an early take on what we’ve later grown to call “anti-heroes.” By having Gonzo and Rizzo around for the ride, the film lets Scrooge exist as the insufferable miser, without letting him drag out the mood.

Crucial to the staying power of the narrative is the inclusion of the song “When Love is Gone,” which was absent from the theatrical cut due to Disney objecting to the song’s complex themes. It’s not a song that necessarily belongs in a children’s movie, but The Muppet Christmas Carol isn’t really designed to serve one audience. The song reminds older viewers of the importance of cultivating one’s relationships. Love cannot sustain itself on tomorrow, as Ebenezer spends most of the film learning.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is the definitive holiday classic, a triumph of comedy and tragedy with something to offer audiences of all ages. Simply perfect. Thoroughly committed to inhabiting the world that Dickens created, the Muppets put forth a valiant effort in the wake of their own loss. Many Christmas movies get watched each year that likely don’t deserve an annual viewing. The Muppet Christmas Carol is one that should not be missed each and every December.

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Thursday

12

December 2019

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Rabid Is an Disappointing, Boring Remake

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Given the popularity of services like Instagram, it makes plenty of sense that a remake of David Cronenberg’s Rabid would pop up in today’s climate. Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska seemed well poised to tackle such a film, with their background in horror that’s often uncomfortable to watch. Unfortunately, the updated Rabid is too much of a mess to pack a punch.

Rabid spends its first few scenes building the audience’s relationship with its protagonist Rose (Laura Vandervoort), a fairly sympathetic lead. Rose is portrayed as a downtrodden girl seemingly unable to find love, which doesn’t exactly translate through Vandervoort’s portrayal of the character. A failed setup attempt by her best friend Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot) leads to unfortunate motor scooter incident that leaves her disfigured. A visit to an experimental surgery clinic sets the horror in motion.

Vandervoort does her best with the character, though it’s hard to care about Rose beyond the first few scenes. Past that, the film seems totally uninterested in investing in her development, at which point she’s mostly used simply as a force driving the plot. There’s a few scenes where she doesn’t appear at all that feel weirdly out of place.

Rabid is way too long for a film that rarely seems like it knows where its plot is headed. As a horror movie, the audience can certainly guess, but there’s the bigger question of whether anyone should care. Rose becomes less and less effective of a protagonist as time moves on. The film slow walks the horror to such a degree that it falls flat by the time the narrative finally starts moving.

The script is a disaster. Some of that could be forgiven, such as listening to the doctors awkwardly talk about the flaws in American healthcare or Rose’s inconsistent relationship with Chelsea, who’s revealed to be her foster sister even though their relationship barely seems familial. The dialogue is just too clunky to get beyond.

The production values are a mixed bag as well. The sets are well-crafted, but too many scenes are poorly lit, often contrasting with the actor’s makeup. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that these characters are supposed to work in fashion, showing up to work with so much foundation that it looks like they let a young child play dress up. The dynamic is distracting, making you wonder how this film got made.

Rabid is a regrettable bore, drawn out to the point that it forces unnecessary attention on the film’s many shortcomings. Somewhere underneath all the mess might have been a passable remake of a great film. This movie was just a disaster.

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Wednesday

11

December 2019

12

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No Safe Spaces Is a Repetitive Waste of Time

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Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla have millions of supporters. Carolla’s podcast set a Guinness World Record in 2011 as the most downloaded podcast ever. Prager’s company PragerU has created videos that have been viewed more than two billion times. These men have two of the largest platforms in the world.

Watching No Safe Spaces, you’d think both men were reduced to conducting underground meetings in the dead of night, under constant siege from a world trying to silence them. The documentary is largely centered around discourse on college campuses, often populated by students who find their work odious, tiresome, and/or hateful. Using colorful footage of campus protests, the film attempts to paint the image that the First Amendment is about to crumble at the hands of those they deem “snowflakes.”

Throughout the film, Prager repeatedly denies being a homophobe. A simple Google search would suggest otherwise. Prager was a huge proponent of the preposterous theory that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy, incest, and child brides, none of which have seen any uptick in popularity since gay marriage was legalized in 2015. Prager also made the bizarre claim that the “T” in LGBT “does not represent transsexuals,” something that would certainly be news to me as a transsexual. For a man who seems to place such a high premium on the notion of truth, it appears he has some soul-searching to do.

For a film that repeatedly stresses the importance of free speech, No Safe Spaces never really makes clear why listening to Dennis Prager adds any value to one’s life. The narrative makes clear that not letting him speak has negative ramifications, including his incessant complaining about being silenced, but there does exist an alternative. One can simply not listen to him. The longer the film drags on, the more appealing that options becomes.

Regrettably, many protests against speakers such as Ben Shapiro have led to violence or the destruction of private property. This should not happen for any speaker, bigoted or otherwise. No Safe Spaces focuses its attention entirely on the most extreme of these examples, in the process forgetting that protest itself is a practice protected by the Constitution.

To its detriment, the film opts not to engage with people who have listened to what Prager has to say and decided that they don’t find it particularly valuable. His commentary often falls into the reactionary, tone-policing nature common on talk radio. It is not unreasonable for a person to not want him to come to their university because they’re embarrassed at the thought of having him there. That notion is hardly un-American.

The film includes obligatory conservative comparisons to Stalin, Hitler, socialism, etc. Oddly enough, the film itself is critical of undercover footage of a girl who herself is being compared to Hitler for showing a Jordan Peterson video to a classroom. Free speech aside, apparently only one side gets to compare the other to Hitler.

Free speech is a pillar of American life. Despite the fear-mongering in No Safe Spaces, that is never going to change. If a few college campuses don’t want people like Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla around, so be it. The film makes a pretty good case for why students wouldn’t want to waste an evening listening to them anyway.

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Tuesday

10

December 2019

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Christmas Under the Stars Wastes Its Runtime on Bizarre Subplots

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Part of the beauty of Hallmark Christmas movies is their ability to commit to truly absurd premises. The idea of a man recently laid off from his job in high finance being rescued from his aimless midday wandering to work in a Christmas tree lot seems rather preposterous, but Christmas Under the Stars turns that concept into an entire film. As a narrative it almost works.

Nick (Jesse Metcalfe) has a dream life, on the verge of making junior partner at his investment banking firm. That is, until he’s used as the scapegoat for an error made with their biggest client. Fired just before Christmas, Nick avoids his successful father and mopes around. Thankfully, Clem (Clarke Peters) is able to quickly, almost miraculously, identify the root of Nick’s sadness and offers him a job helping out at the Christmas tree lot that he’s run for the past thirty years.

Julie (Autumn Reeser) is a passionate middle school science teacher, saddened by the loss of her father, who naturally loved Christmas more than anything. When Julie isn’t looking out for tardy honors students, she’s taking care of her son Matt (Anthony Bolognese). Her lifelong friendship with Clem, who knew her grandfather from the air force, puts her in Nick’s orbit, allowing two downtrodden souls the chance to warm each other up for the holidays.

The film deserves credit for not putting romance at the heart of the narrative. Nick and Julie don’t spend all that much time courting each other, a breath of fresh air for a genre that often works on unrealistic time tables. Trouble is, Christmas Under the Stars chooses some pretty bizarre plot points including parental medical debt and the future of a seasonal vacant lot to drive its narrative.

Clem’s love of Christmas is the fodder that fuels plenty of holiday films, but Christmas Under the Stars channels that passion in ways that are hard to relate to. A big evil real estate company wants to repurpose the lot, which presumably remains vacant for 11 months out of the year. It’s never explained what Clem does for work when he’s not selling Christmas trees. Plenty of people have fond memories of chopping down their own trees at farms, but this film asks us to invest emotional weight in the future of a concrete lot in the middle of a city.

Similarly casting capitalism as its nemesis, the film presents Julie as saddled with medical debt from her father’s death. This creates romantic problems when she learns that the firm who bought her debt obligations, currently pressing her for repayment, was once Nick’s top client. This whole dynamic is weirdly complex and totally unnecessary for a film with way too many subplots.

There are other minor quibbles with the script and production values that are somewhat to be expected. At one point, Julie states that her parents met at Clem’s lot, which makes a big deal out of its thirtieth anniversary. Trouble is, that would put Julie at about age 29, while raising an adoptive teenager. Similarly unrealistic is Julie’s immaculate full makeup, perfect in every scene, even when she’s taking her child to buy a Christmas tree.

Christmas Under the Stars has some charm. The acting is quite entertaining, with Peters, Reeser, and Metcalfe making the most of a mediocre script. The film would have been much better off centering itself on a few narratives rather than completely spread out over too many subplots. There’s a good story here about the power of the holidays to put life in perspective. Unfortunately it’s mostly buried under a load of convolution.

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Saturday

7

December 2019

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The Mandalorian Season One Review: Chapter 5

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Part of what made last week’s Chapter 4 such a great episode was the simple fact that the show had finally left its initial planet, which we now know is called Navarro. Plenty of recaps, including this one, wondered if that planet was Tatooine, owing to the desert climate and presence of Jawas. “Chapter 5” features the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda arriving on Star Wars’ most iconic planet, a moment that felt weirdly robbed of its potential impact.

There’s a running joke in the Star Trek fandom that revolves around how there’s seemingly endless planets in the universe, but they all look like the same pile of rocks. Obviously there’s a reason for this. Sets are expensive and deserts are easy to create. The Mandalorian is an expensive show, with episodes costing upwards of 15 million dollars apiece to make.

From an audience perspective, cost is a difficult thing to gauge. Shows like Game of Thrones and The Crown clearly look expensive due to their lavish sets and costumes, something that certainly holds true for The Mandalorian. With episode runtimes that barely go beyond a half hour and a palette of monotonous desert landscapes, it can be sometimes hard to be all that impressed with the scale of this show.

Chapter 5 – The Gunslinger further solidifies The Mandalorian as “The Baby Yoda Show.” Each episode feels fairly self-contained in nature, focusing on either protecting the adorable baby or fixing Mando’s ship. For now, that formula has generally produced satisfying television.

This episode felt fairly small in nature. Perhaps some of that has to do with the empty Mos Eisely Cantina, which now allows droids. We see a cute R5 unit inside, along with a bartender who looks like EV-9D9, who worked in Jabba’s palace overseeing the torture of other droids.

The pit droids that worked for Peli Motto were a nice throwback to The Phantom Menace, though it’s unclear why The Mandalorian wouldn’t let them work on his ship. Similarly implausible is the idea that he’d leave Baby Yoda on the ship alone.

There had to be some level of trust toward Amy Sedaris’ Peli Motto in order to leave him there in her general vicinity, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense. This situation does lead to Peli asking her droids to fetch Baby Yoda something to eat, an adorable sequence. A spinoff where Peli simply babysits Baby Yoda would totally work.

Toro Calican is a strong contender for worst character of the season. Jake Cannavale does a decent job with the arrogant wannabe bounty hunter, but he’s an annoying character. That might explain why Mando decided to toss over his binoculars to the Tusken Raiders instead of simply shooting them, an approach he took with the Jawas back in Chapter 2. Thankfully we won’t have to see any more of Toro moving forward.

Fennec Shand is a character who will likely be quite important to The Mandalorian moving forward. For now, this was a fairly weak introduction. Mando and she clearly have a lot of history, but Toro’s presence in the narrative hindered any exploration of this dynamic. Ming-Na Wen was fun to watch, but this episode didn’t really give her any time to shine.

Does anybody on Tatooine need water? It’s a desert planet with two suns, yet Mando and Toro were all too content to sit outside all day in the sun with no shade, and no Camelback. Maybe Mando’s helmet has air conditioning.

This episode had a lot of fan service. From the mention of Coreillian-quality ships to Mando’s “no good to us dead” line, a throwback to Boba Fett in Empire Strikes Back, some were quite easy to pick up on. Most impressive was when Toro remarked, “Who wouldn’t want to be a legend?” to Shand, quite likely a reference to Ming-Na Wen’s status as a Disney Legend.

Chapter 5 was easily the weakest of the show, an episode mostly salvaged by Amy Sedaris’ lively performance. Her relationship with Mando felt oddly organic for the small amount of time they’d spent together, and her affection for Baby Yoda was palpable. It’s too bad she couldn’t join Mando for the rest of the season.

The end of the episode hinted at what’s in store for the remaining three episodes, with an unknown figure approaching Shand out in the desert. It seems likely that this person is Giancarlo Esposito’s Moff Gideon, who was announced for the season but hasn’t appeared yet. After a collection of mostly self-contained episodes, hopefully we’ll see a villain who sticks around for a while. This show can’t rest on Baby Yoda’s laurels forever.

 

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Friday

6

December 2019

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Dollface Is a Charming Comedy Hindered by a Bland Premise

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The premise for a show like Dollface is certainly one to earn a lot of eye-rolls. The world hardly needs another narrative of affluent millennials being sad in Los Angeles. This situation is perhaps slightly exacerbated by the presence of Esther Povitsky, whose own show about being affluent and sad in Los Angeles, the hilarious Alone Together, was tragically cancelled last year. Despite the familiar territory, Dollface works largely because Kat Dennings and the core cast are such a joy to watch.

Dennings portrays Jules, a woman dumped by her longtime boyfriend Jeremy (Connor Hines) for seemingly no reason. With Jeremy at the center of her social life, Jules gets back into contact with her old college friends Madison (Brenda Song) and Stella (Shay Mitchell) who begrudgingly take her back into their circle. Povitsky rounds out the main cast as Izzy, a socially awkward coworker of Jules who often provides most of the episode’s laughs.

Dollface includes many surrealist sequences, usually involving Jules talking with an anthropomorphic cat. The writing for the show is a bit of a mixed bag, superb when it comes to writing jokes but far less effective at plot progression. Most of the gems in the ten-episode season can be found in the middle, with fewer obligations to deal with Jules’ broader narrative.

At times, the narrative is pretty frustrating. There’s a few episodes that focus on plots that have been beaten to death by too many other shows this decade, providing superficial commentary on the nature of adult friendship. The show doesn’t quite realize that it doesn’t really have to return to the premise of its pilot.

To some extent, it’s natural that a show like Dollface would try and exist as something more than a comedy. Trouble is, the show is mostly just good for its jokes. Not every series needs to exist in the realm of “dramedy.” It’s okay to just to be funny.

For a show about adult friendships, the show misses a key aspect of these kinds of relationships. Sure, there’s support involved, but these group dynamics are inherently fleeting in nature. You’re not supposed to build your adult life around your friend group, because sooner or later, people start to move on. Life is fleeting. Enjoy the fun while it lasts.

Weekly sitcoms that produce upwards of twenty episodes a year tend to understand this dichotomy a lot better. These shows exist to supply moments of enjoyment for small portions of our overall lives. Like adult friendships, they’re not supposed to be the center of anyone’s universe, and it is pretty sad when they do.

Dollface is a show that launched 10 episodes on a single day out of the year. Much like old college friends you see once or twice a year, it’s not supposed be a big part of your life. Instead of trying to offer life lessons or superficial comedy, Dollface should stick to the laughs. Not everything needs to be more than a couple hours of lighthearted fun.

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Wednesday

4

December 2019

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Let It Snow Is a Fun Teen Christmas Movie

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The challenge facing a Christmas film like Let It Snow with an ensemble cast stems from the need to endear a bunch of characters to an audience within a ninety-minute runtime. This dynamic differs from that of its source material, a novel with significantly more opportunities to flesh out the personalities the audience is supposed to care about. Fortunately, the film proves up to the task, delivering a satisfying holiday narrative.

Let It Snow follows a few high schoolers as they spend Christmas Eve doing just about anything other than spending time with their families. Julie (Isabela Moner) struggles with her acceptance into Colombia University, feeling a need to care for her sick mother. A chance encounter with a pop star Stuart (Shameik Moore) provides the kind of clichéd drama that tends to dominate Christmas narratives.

Tobin (Mitchell Hope) is roped in to helping his childhood best friend Angie (Kiernan Shipka), better known as the Duke, court a college boy JP (Matthew Noszka), despite his obvious feelings for her. A similar dynamic is on display at the local waffle diner, where Dorie (Liv Henson) tries to court a closeted cheerleader (Anna Akana), who won’t show her the time of day in public. Dorie’s life is made complicated by her best friend Addie (Odeya Rush), who harbors unhealthy feelings toward her boyfriend. Rounding out the primary cast is Keon (Jacob Batalon), just about the only person in the country who thinks it’s a good idea to throw a party on Christmas Eve.

Let It Snow is a very silly movie with a lot of heart, nailing the holiday formula with strong production values and an impressive young cast. The characters have a lot of backstory that doesn’t always translate well to the film, but the young actors do a great job conveying their emotions. The film probably bites off more than it can chew from a plot perspective, but it juggles its many storylines well.

Perpetually present is the notion that this film represents a minute sliver of these characters’ potentials. You could almost see the plotlines of Let It Snow serving as a television series’ Christmas episode, a slice of life narrative that was undoubtedly better fleshed out in print. The themes will undoubtedly resonate with high school audiences, who aren’t always well-represented in Christmas narratives.

Plenty of holiday movies use ensemble approaches, a difficult dynamic to balance considering the audience will likely only spend 90 minutes with these characters. As with any film, there’s obviously more to these people’s stories, but most successful narratives manage to put that idea out of the audience’s minds. The characters in Let It Snow could probably make for a fun follow-up series, albeit one we’re unlikely to see.

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Sunday

1

December 2019

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Captures the Essence of Fred Rogers

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t’s not very complicated to understand the continued appeal of Fred Rogers in the year 2019, close to two decades after his death. In an era defined by noise and distraction, the quiet nature of Mister Rogers’ show offers a calming presence to ease one’s anxiety. My partner and I have a Sunday morning tradition of watching an episode Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood each week, which are still offered on the show’s website, finding that the morals he preaches still resonate even in adulthood. His method of directly addressing the audience still carries the feel that he’s speaking to old friends, his millions of television neighbors.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses more on the idea of Fred Rogers than the man himself. The narrative is centered around Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in his efforts to profile Mister Rogers. Vogel, a new parent, harbors immense resentment for his own father (Chris Cooper). Vogel is fairly disliked at work, mainly by the subjects of his pieces, and his dedication to his career is putting a strain on his marriage.

Tom Hanks is a decent Fred Rogers, capturing the essence of the man’s message though falling a bit short on his intonations. He sounds less like Fred Rogers than Tom Hanks doing a Fred Rogers imitation. This dynamic is most apparent when the film tries to recreate the actual Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood show.

The Neighborhood sets are beautifully reconstructed, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a bit sloppy on the actors’ delivery. Hanks speaks far too fast for Fred Rogers, who used a softer, contemplative tone when addressing his television neighbors. There’s also a scene where Lady Aberlin moves right past the trolley in the Neighborhood of Make Believe without saying hello, something that never would have happened on the actual show. Of the three actors used in Neighborhood recreations, only Daniel Krell’s Mr. McFeely truly nails the character.

Granted, most of the adult audience watching the film will not sit down in the theatre with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fresh in the minds. Hanks is far more effective as Rogers when communicating with Vogel. His expressions and quiet responses to Vogel’s intrusive lines of questioning give the audience the Rogers they came for, a patient man ready to make the world a little less scary.

The choice of narrative may seem a bit puzzling for people who simply want a movie full of Fred Rogers, but the film demonstrates why Mister Rogers is hardly suited for the role of film protagonist. Main characters in movies have conflict. Fred Rogers enjoys one of the most spotless reputations of any American Icon, a living saint, as the movie itself admits. No one wants to see an angry Fred Rogers.

Matthew Rhys does a great job in the lead role, unsurprisingly shining most in scenes without Hanks. Susan Kelechi Watson works well opposite Rhys as Vogel’s wife Andrea, and Cooper plays a compelling yet mostly detestable father. The film presents enough conflict to carry the movie narrative while deploying Hanks in a manner bound to keep audiences satisfied.

There are moments where the narrative feels almost too neatly constructed. Though based on a true story, the very fact that original Esquire journalist Tom Junod’s name was changed suggests the film takes plenty of dramatic liberties. That’s mostly okay when you consider that the film doesn’t really exist to provide a new perspective about Fred Rogers, but rather to present a bunch of feel-good moments.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie that understands what it’s supposed to do. Hanks is warm and engaging in the title role. The film gives plenty of good feelings, true to Mister Rogers’ message. While many biopics dramatize the past, this film succeeds through its devotion to the essence of its subject.

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