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Indie Focus: Meeting Mister Rogers in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The Spirit Awards announced their nominees this week. Josh and Bennie Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” and Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” led the way with five nominations each. Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy” and Kiril Mikhanovsky’s “Give Me Liberty” each received four, while “Hustlers,” “Marriage Story,” “Luce,” “Clemency” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” all earned three nominations. Regardless of who wins or loses, or if any of these titles goes on to be recognized by other awards, these nominees make for an exciting snapshot of the year.

For our podcast “The Reel,” I spoke to Rian Johnson, writer and director of the rollicking new star-studded mystery whodunit “Knives Out,” which is getting early preview screenings on Nov. 22 and 23 before opening on Nov. 27.

“It’s a very comforting genre,” Johnson said. “There’s no moral ambiguity at the end of a whodunit. Everything is kind of fixed and put back. The idea of plugging that specifically into America in 2019, with some of the issues that we get into in the movie — again, it’s a fantasy but, God, it felt good.”

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We will be taking next week off from the newsletter for a much-needed vacation. May we suggest you use the time to catch up on those movies you’ve been meaning to get to but haven’t yet? And on Dec. 2, there will be a screening of “Les Miserables,” France’s submission for the best international feature film Oscar, followed by a Q&A with director Ladj Ly. For more information, visit events.latimes.com/screenings.

Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks, who star in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks, who star in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

Directed by Marielle Heller, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a movie about the man Fred Rogers, but it is not a Mister Rogers biopic. Rather, in the movie, a magazine writer (Matthew Rhys) is assigned to profile the beloved children’s television personality (Tom Hanks) and finds out his subject has a lot to teach adults, too.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film “a beam of kindness at a moment that profoundly needs it” while adding that Heller “neither soft-pedals nor tries to explain the sheer oddness that proved inextricable from Mister Rogers’ compassion, the degree to which he opposed a culture of hurry and worry, of vulgar sensationalism and consumerist excess. There’s a scene in which Mister Rogers calls for a moment of silence — and if you’re lucky, brings the theater to a reflective standstill — that is as close to a sacred moment as I’ve experienced at the movies all year.”

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Yvonne Villarreal spoke to Hanks and Rhys together about making the film. As Hanks said of the real Mister Rogers and his children’s show, “I didn’t realize that that show was a very specific sort of work that is not meant for us. If you have any reason for cynicism in your outlook, you cannot watch that show and not just have cynicism completely take over. ... The thing that no one could quite believe is that the purpose [of the show] was good — the purpose was to make little kids feel safe.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday called the movie “the work of a filmmaker of superb judgment and confidence, who knows exactly what her movie is about: not a cuddly figure from baby boomers’ collective past or the ‘emotional arc’ of a flawed protagonist, but those moments of grace — vagrant, unearned, numinous and liberating — that can turn everyday life into a miracle. In an era that seems fatally mired in fear, anger and mistrust, ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ arrives as something more than a movie. It feels like an answered prayer.”

At Slate, Dana Stevens wrote that “Hanks’ embodiment of Rogers — no doubt the reason many viewers will be curious to see this movie — is astonishing in its depth and richness, but the character still remains an enigma that we never come close to solving.”

Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo in Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters.”
Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo in Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters.”
(Mary Cybulski / Focus Features)

‘Dark Waters’

Directed by Todd Haynes, “Dark Waters” is an environmentally themed legal thriller based on the true story of a corporate attorney named Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) who finds himself risking his career to battle the DuPont Chemical Co. on behalf of a small community victimized by the dumping of hazardous waste.

In a review for The Times, Kenneth Turan praised Ruffalo’s performance. “An actor whose presence is always welcome, Ruffalo is splendid at projecting the unusual combination of bred-in-the-bone idealism with mulish stubbornness that made it impossible for Bilott to walk away .… Seeing ‘Dark Waters’ makes you wonder not why more people don’t call corporations to account, but why anyone does. And makes us all the more grateful when they do.”

Amy Kaufman spoke to Ruffalo and Bilott for a story that will be publishing soon. Ruffalo spoke of the inspiration he took from the man he portrays: “These kind of stories move me because they are important stories that people need to have and hold on to to feel that life isn’t just a miserable, cynical experience. That there are people like Rob. That that is a path that you can take. That people aren’t just purely selfish and self-serving .… And we’re here to say there’s an alternative to this: the truth.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that “at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is, Haynes suggests, a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.”

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For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “If ‘Dark Waters’ is not instantly recognizable as a Todd Haynes movie, it is at least clearly made by someone who cares. The film’s style never gets in the way of its cause, but rather gently emboldens it, providing all the starch of scientific exposition with an eerily enveloping atmosphere .… There could be a note of coastal condescension in that — look at all this lost and irredeemable middle space — but I think there is a good deal of genuine empathy at work in ‘Dark Waters.’”

Geraldine Viswanathan and Jack Kilmer in a scene from “Hala.”
Geraldine Viswanathan and Jack Kilmer in a scene from “Hala.”
(AppleTV+)

‘Hala’

The feature debut for writer and director Minhal Baig, “Hala” is the story of a Pakistani American teenager (Geraldine Viswanathan) struggling for self-discovery and self-acceptance in suburban Chicago. The movie is among the first releases from Apple TV+ and comes to theaters now ahead of its streaming debut on Dec. 6.

Reviewing for The Times, Robert Abele said that “what’s winning and wise about Baig’s movie are the narrative’s emotional contours, particularly how the drama between Hala and her parents plays out, which is made all the more vivid by the performances — Viswanathan especially offers up a magnetic mix of darkness and light, and how both seem equally manifest in her charmingly crooked smile.”

Back when the film first premiered at Sundance earlier this year, I moderated a lively panel with Baig, Viswanathan, producer Jada Pinkett Smith and cast members Gabriel Luna, Azad Khan and Anna Chlumsky.

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “Effortlessly conveying this bifurcation, the young Australian actor Geraldine Viswanathan is, quite simply, sublime .… Momentous things happen in ‘Hala,’ but the soundtrack remains mostly hushed and voices are rarely raised. In one simple shopping scene, Hala’s mother urges her to try on a shapeless plaid shirt; she does, but only after reaching for a silky, sleeveless top with a look of such longing it feels almost indecent.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.


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