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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Review: A rewarding day at the movies

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Review: A rewarding day at the movies

Films inspired by true stories can offer refreshingly different cinematic treatment and there is no substitute for good casting; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood scores on both parameters. What prevents it from getting into the outstanding league is a certain amount of cynicism with which the average cine-goer looks at movies about modern-day saints, especially if they happen to host their own TV shows.

Inspired by the 1998 article "Can You Say ... Hero?" by Tom Junod, published in Esquire magazine, it depicts Lloyd Vogel, an investigative, cynical journalist for New York based Esquire, who is given an assignment to profile television icon, Fred Rogers. In 1998, Lloyd attends his sister Lorraine's wedding, along with his wife, Andrea, and their newborn son, Gavin. During the reception, Lloyd gets into a fistfight with his estranged father, Jerry, over issues related to Lloyd's mother, whom Jerry abandoned when she was critically ill. Lloyd sustains a nose injury in the fight. The next day, Lloyd's editor assigns him to interview Fred Rogers for a 400-word article about heroes, as each of the other potential heroes turned down chances to be interviewed by him.

Lloyd travels to the TV station’s studio in Pittsburgh, to interview Rogers. During the interview, Rogers shows no airs and, instead, displays concern for Lloyd's nose injury, prompting a discussion in which Lloyd, a bit reluctantly, details to Rogers, the nature of his stormy relationship with his father, whose belated apology and attempt at reconciliation Lloyd has dismissed. Determined to expose Rogers' Mr. Nice Guy persona as an ‘act’, Lloyd watches several episodes of Rogers' show, but is unable to discover anything that could appear negative. Lloyd interviews Rogers again, when he visits New York. During the interview, Rogers dodges Lloyd's questions and reminisces about raising his two sons. He shares that his relationship with them has not always been very smooth.

Taking major liberties with facts are screenplay writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, who work as a team, and have been together for 13 years. Harpster is also an actor. The duo’s credits include In the Land of Imagined Things and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was a script on which they had been working for 10 years, and it made it to the Black List in 2013. Till 2018, it was titled You Are My Friend, which is as much of a mysterious title as the one finally chosen, if not more.

Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, who died in 2003, aged73. Tom Junod is now 61, and most of the incidents attributed to his avatar as Lloyd Vogel are either completely imagined or grossly exaggerated. Yet we must give it to the writers that they struck all the right chords on the emotional keyboards. Even if Jerry deserting his wife, and sleeping around when she needed him most, is a cliché, they put it across with such authentic naturalness that you condone the familiar trapping, an American movie staple. A scene in a restaurant, wherein Rogers asks Vogel to keep silent, is a cinematic highlight of the film, the silence lasting a minute or so, with Rogers looking into the camera.

Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller gets the film off to an off-beat, unconventional start, with Rogers talking to the audience. It is only much later down the road that you learn Rogers was looking into a TV camera, as part of his show. While it does appear that Lloyd softens up rather easily, in the second half, towards both his father and Rogers, the relationship between man, wife and their attachment to their child is beautifully brought out, including the altercation and the making-up. Heller imparts to Rogers a personality, gait and vocals that have an almost surreal, other-worldly quality. Joanne, Rogers’ wife, comes across just as you might imagine her to be. It is obviously a deliberate, conscious decision not to show the two sons of Rogers, though they are mentioned and marginally discussed. Heller's direction is a judicious blend of female sensitivity with a general, top angle view of the significant moments in the lives of her characters.

Tom Hanks (Oscars for Big and Philadelphia, nominated for the current film) lives his role, and I truly mean it, as Fred Rogers. Watching hundreds of hours of the TV show, as well as a documentary on Rogers, helped him develop a nuanced, chiseled, focussed performance. We could be looking at highest recognition for 63 year-old Hanks. Matthew Rhys (45; Welsh; The Post, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, The Report—played a reporter) as Lloyd Vogel is not far behind, though he has the advantage of running a whole gamut of emotions, from suppressed anger, anxiety and depression, to acceptance, reconciliation and rapprochement.

Susan Kelechi Watson (laudable debut on the big screen) as Andrea Vogel strikes you as a strong but lovable and sacrificing woman who will not let her emotions cloud her judgement. Good job, Watson. Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit, Capote) as Jerry Vogel is the philanderer who wants to do a good turn as he prepares to meet his maker. Physically and performance-wise, he fits in rather well. Born on the same day as Hanks (July 9), he is five years older. Maryann Plunkett has a tiny but graceful role as Joanne Rogers. Wendy Makkena as Dorothy, Jerry's second wife, who has looked after him for the past 15 years,  Tammy Blanchard as Lorraine, Lloyd's sister and Todd's wife, Noah Harpster cast as Todd,  Lorraine's husband and Lloyd's brother-in-law, Christine Lahti essaying Ellen, Lloyd's editor, all provide commendable support.

Music by Nate Heller, cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes and editing by Anne McCabe are all first grade. A running time of 109 minutes is well borne out. Do sit till the end, to catch a glimpse of the real Fred Rogers at the very end, singing You've Got to Do It.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, releasing in India on the 17th of January 2020, has made the New Year set-off to a wonderful start. It is a genre defying story of a most unlikely superhero, who stands for all that is good, and gentle, and kind, and forgiving. Aren’t these the real strengths that any superhero should have? Presbyterian or not, Minister or not, Rogers embodies qualities that we normally associate with sainthood. The film is not likely to resonate with the lowest common denominator, being somewhat intellectual and philosophical in treatment, but there some chapters that are so much a slice of life that many will identify with the scenario. Signing off, I will put in a plug for the movie, courtesy Rogers’ real-life song: See it. You’ve Got to Do It. And, in the bargain, spend a rewarding day at the movies.

Rating: *** ½

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VLEPhfEN2M

First paragraph of the article, published in the November 1998 issue of Esquire

Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy's brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as "Young Rabbit," or even "Rabbit"; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn't know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit's safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.

(In the film, Lloyd Vogel talks about one of his childhood possessions, a stuffed toy called Old Rabbit).

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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