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New films: Knives Out, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, 21 Bridges, Frozen II

Daniel Craig in "Knives Out"

As often happens, following a major holiday, both movie choices and food choices are dominated by leftovers from the previous week. With that in mind, here’s a quick moviebriefs roundup of four recent releases.

Although, unfairly or not, many Star Wars fans may go to their graves badmouthing him, Rian Johnson has returned to the big screen after “…Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” with one of the best original screenplays of 2019. “Knives Out” is a classic whodunnit, complete with a large country house, wrapped up in dark, twisted comedy. Much like 2001’s more serious “Gosford Park,” the central mysterious death here is less important than the family dynamic, and the marvelous cast is a joy to behold. Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, Michael Shannon, and Don Johnson play the older members of the suitably dysfunctional Thrombey clan, with Daniel Craig as private investigator Benoit Blanc, a character name well suited to his slow Southern drawl. That accent was a bit of an uphill climb at first but it ultimately serves to add punch to some pretty fantastic dialog. If a laugh out loud funny take on the Agatha Christie formula sounds appealing, then this is the film to watch.

For those who didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers as an influence, watching “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a little bit like being trapped on the outside of an extended inside joke. Based not on the show but as an extended riff on a 1998 article from Esquire Magazine, written by Tom Junod, the film considers the task of a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys as writer Lloyd Vogel) assigned to write a short puff piece on Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the beloved host of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Vogel is a stand-in for Junod, but essentially he’s all of us, caught wondering if Rogers could really be the genuine article, or if there’s something less wholesome behind the scenes. In the original article, Junod repeatedly used the trick of writing as though talking to children (A clock is a machine that tells the time), and the film uses visual gimmicks in a similar way as it transitions between scenes as though in Mr. Rogers’ on-set model town. It’s a neat trick in an interesting film and the article and the screenplay would make a fascinating basis for a discussion of film adaptations for students. And for those who have the necessary background, it’s likely to resonate with rich nostalgia. Without that background, it was instead an interesting launchpad to the subject matter and the article, and the film and the article were mutually complementary.

21 Bridges” is one of those films where nothing seems particularly original in concept or execution and yet it’s still fun watching it all play out, whether or not it manages to surprise you. Chadwick Boseman plays a chip off the old block detective, caught up in the search for two cop-killing fugitives who head into night-time Manhattan, causing the police to shut down the entire island in the attempt to find and trap them. It’s essentially one long search and destroy mission, or at least that’s the intention of those on the force who would prefer some deeper secrets not to be uncovered. It’s one of those films where you can bet on there being more to certain characters than initially meets the eye, based on casting alone but that cast keeps things interesting. And the film benefits to some extent by being a stand-alone film in which there are no particular expectations about who will live, die, succeed or fail – unlike so many franchise films where certain characters have to carry future excursions, or where you’re likely to have read about so and so’s five picture deal before the film is even released. It’s no “Serpico,” but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours, and if it makes you want to watch “Serpico” again, it’s time even better spent.

For the kids who can’t let it go, “Frozen II” takes us back to the winter wonderland of Arendelle complete with Elsa, Anna, Kristoph, reindeer Sven, and the irritatingly unmeltable snowman Olaf. Oddly, given its intended audience, it’s one of the least clear plots of any recent film, and I’ve spoken to multiple adults who’ve seen it who can’t quite explain exactly what happens or why. There’s a backstory that’s suddenly all important and yet wasn’t told to us the first time around and the individual scenes make as much sense as one expects in a film largely designed to deliver songs and laughs and toys rather than narrative coherence. But it’s hard in particular, even after the fact, to determine the motivations of the elemental spirits (earth, fire, water, air) who seem at one moment to be trying to help Elsa et. al., and in the next to be hindering them, as they all go off in search of the origins of magic, or the source of a strange voice, or the motivation behind a large public works project, or the whereabouts of a lost people, or to try to save the town, or all of those things. And at risk of sounding entirely curmudgeonly, I couldn’t have hummed a single song from the film even ten minutes after watching it and mistakenly thought a completely unrelated song was from the soundtrack a day or two later. It’ll be on Disney+ fairly soon and might keep the kids happy while you’re waiting for new episodes of “The Mandalorian.”

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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