Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

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Darkest Hour


When you’re Winston Churchill, you can ride on the tube smoking your tube of tobacco.

(2017) True Life Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlings, David Strathairn (voice), David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Perhaps more than any figure of his time Winston Churchill remains in the eyes of Britain as an enduring hero, a steadfast bulldog who led England when she alone faced down the might of Hitler’s war machine in the year before the United States joined the fight.

In 1940, the war is going disastrously for Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), the Prime Minister who infamously declared “Peace in Our Time” after negotiations with Adolph Hitler essentially handed Poland to the Nazis, is about to be forced out of his position. Who will replace him? Lord Halifax (Dillane) suggests Winston Churchill (Oldman), a former First Lord of the Admiralty who’s Gallipoli Campaign during the First World War had been so mishandled that he left the position in disgrace.

However, he was politically astute and was one of the few candidates that the opposition would accept. Halifax suspected the notoriously blunt Churchill would fumble this position as well at which time Dillane and his faction that urged surrender to the Nazis could come in and negotiate a peace tht Britain could live with. As mind-blowing as that sounds, it actually happened.

Churchill has other ideas. Although aging and infirm as the result of lifelong smoking and drinking, he was still a firebrand who was one of the great orators of the 20th century although that was a part of his skill set that Chamberlain and Halifax didn’t reckon on. Churchill was prescient enough to realize that the Americans would eventually enter the war although that didn’t look likely at the time as conversations with President Roosevelt (Strathairn) brought Churchill to the brink of despair. With his army trapped at Dunkirk, his navy neutralized by the U-Boats of the Nazis and his RAF completely outclassed by the Luftwaffe, Churchill knew he was days away from having most of his fighting force annihilated, leaving the road open for Hitler to invade.

He was also sensible enough to know that there could be no negotiations for peace. “When will you learn,” he roars at Halifax and his allies, “That you can’t negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” His relationship with King George VI (Mendelsohn), who detested him, was dysfunctional and only the steadfast support of his wife Clemmie (Thomas) – who also isn’t afraid to scold him from time to time – and his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (James) was all he had to see him through. Nonetheless, his true strength came from someone unexpected – the British people themselves. This would lead to one of the defining moments in the War – and in British history as a whole.

This is very much Churchill’s story and as such it’s very much Oldman’s show and to his credit he responds with maybe the defining performance of an already lustrous career. He has been the odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar since the first reviews came out in September following the movie’s debut at Toronto, and although there have been some great performances since the same sentiment prevails on the eve of the Oscar telecast this weekend. Whereas most of the previous performances of Churchill have either run perilously close to parody or focused on an aspect of the man, this is really the first onscreen performance that has captured Churchill as a complete, complex man. Blustery almost to the point of bullying (his first encounter with Layton reduces her to tears) but also possessed of an almost romantic soul, Oldman’s Churchill possesses an enormous ego but also a unique appreciation for the people of Britain that no other Prime Minister has possessed before or since. If anyone other than Oldman’s name is called on Sunday I should be very surprised.

Thomas does a game job being the yin to Churchill’s yang but she’s a lone tree against a hurricane. Nobody can stand against a performance like this and Thomas wisely doesn’t try. James also provides moments of genuine calm and compassion.

Maybe the most moving scene is one that didn’t actually happen in real life – Churchill taking a Tube from Downing Street to speak at Parliament rather than riding in his limousine. He takes the time to talk to the working people riding along with him and to his surprise they not only support him but urge him to fight for their survival, giving him all the motivation he needs. However, it should be said that while there’s no record of Churchill ever riding the subway, he was known to leave Downing Street to talk to the British people around London to find out what they were thinking and feeling. It is during this scene however that we realize that even though the movie is about Winston Churchill, it is also about the British people maybe even more so.

The movie is a bit long and takes a long time to get to the climactic speech that is the emotional payoff for the film but Oldman’s performance is just so engrossing that one doesn’t mind so much that we get to watch more of it. I will say that there are some CGI bombers and war scenes that aren’t very convincing; it might have been better to use newsreel footage rather than construct a nice but ineffective shot of a British soldier looking up to the sky through a hole in the roof of a house in Dunkirk and the camera rising to follow his gaze to Nazi bombers but because of the mediocre CGI the scene loses all of its power.

The movie is a strong one but one wonders how it would have been without Oldman in the cast; not quite so compelling I believe. Still, performances like this should be savored and encouraged. Oldman has given us a performance that comes in a very long while; you would be remiss if you are a film buff and miss this. Chances are you’ve already seen it but for those who haven’t, what on Earth are you waiting for?

REASONS TO GO: Oldman is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for good reason. This is a movie that makes as effective a use of pauses as any I’ve ever seen. The complex relationship between King and Prime Minister is highlighted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is way too long. The CGI is poor and actually unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Hurt was originally cast to portray Neville Chamberlain but had become ill in the final stages of the cancer that claimed his life – which ironically Chamberlain was also stricken with during the period portrayed here. Hurt never made any readings or filmed any scenes but the movie is still dedicated to him.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Churchill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oh Lucy!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


Spider-Man goes electric.

Spider-Man goes electric.

(2014) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Chris Cooper, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Marton Csokas, B.J. Novak, Michael Massee, Louis Cancelmi, Felicity Jones, Max Charles, Sarah Gordon, Jorge Vega, Bill Heck, Helen Stern, Kari Coleman. Directed by Marc Webb

It is inevitable that when a superhero shows up, eventually a super-villain will as well. With great power comes great responsibility but also comes great angst and great greed as well.

Despite Peter Parker’s (Garfield) a.k.a. Spider-Man promise to stay away from Gwen Stacy (Stone), daughter of the police captain (Leary) who died in the first ASM film, the feelings between the two are so strong that they can’t stay away from each other, at least until Peter starts seeing disapproving visions of her dear old dad and the guilt forces him to break up with her. Or she gets tired of all the on-again, off-again stuff and tells him to take a hike.

Peter is also haunted by the death of his parents, dad Richard (Scott) who once worked for the evil Oscorp empire, and mom (Davidtz) whom Peter remembers only fragments of. He finally confronts his Aunt May (Field) about them. May, who sometimes comes off as too saintly in both the comic and the first film trilogy, actually acts with a completely understandable anger – wasn’t she there for him? Wasn’t her love enough?

He’s also busy taking care of things in New York City, including taking down a crazed Russian mobster who will eventually come to be known as the Rhino (Giamatti). His best friend Harry Osborne (DeHaan) returns to town as his diseased and despotic father Norman (Cooper) lays dying, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces, take over Oscorp and fend off the scheming Donald Menken (Feore) who has an agenda of his own. Harry also discovers that he may soon share his father’s fate and only the blood of a certain Spider-Man might contain the clue that can cure him.

On top of that there’s a new super-villain in town. Mild mannered Max Dillon (Foxx) who develops a man-crush on Spidey after he saves him from being hit by a bus has a terrifying accident as he is shocked by high power lines and falls into a tank full of genetically altered electric eels which leave him badly burned but with the ability to shoot electric charges from his hands and eventually turn into living electric current.

Max, now going by the name Electro, has felt ignored and marginalized all his life. He is tired of being invisible (which ironically becomes one of his superpowers) and now that he can cause so much carnage feels vindicated that people can “see” him now and his freakish appearance is a small price to pay. He also feels betrayed by Spider-Man, his buddy who forgot his name.

All this leads to a pair of climactic battles as betrayals lead to rage which leads to a tragic confrontation that will alter Spider-Man’s life forever. Which is essentially how the second installment in any superhero franchise tends to go.

The second film in the Sam Raimi Spider-trilogy turned out to be one of the best superhero movies ever. This one, sadly, falls more into the category of the third Raimi movie which was sunk by too many supervillains and not enough memorable characters mainly because the film doesn’t get to develop them too much other than Foxx’s Electro and even he doesn’t get a whole lot of background.

What does get some background is the romance between Gwen and Peter which is a double-edged sword. Some of the most natural sequences in the movie involve those two and the banter between the two of them reflects the real-life romance that has developed between Stone and Garfield, eerily reflecting the real-life romance between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst that developed in the first Spider-trilogy. However, spending as much time on the romance as Webb does tends to mess with the momentum of the film, creating awkward breaks between action sequences and a sense that Webb is trying to make a movie that is all things to all audiences. Columbia execs have a history of becoming too involved in the Spider-Man films and I get a sense that studio interference may have occurred here as well.

Webb shows some deft touch with the action sequences and his vision of Electro is nothing short of amazing, worthy of a high-profile superhero franchise such as this one. One sequence in which Electro disappears into an ordinary electric outlet to go and wreak havoc is so well done that it looks as if it could have actually happened. That’s excellent effects in my book.

The character of Gwen Stacy doesn’t work as well for me. Stone described her as the “brains” of the operation which is a bit of a departure from the comic book in which the nerdy Peter, one of the first true science geeks, was capable of being the strategist but it is Gwen who comes to his rescue time after time by figuring out solutions to problems Spider-Man is having and incredibly, as an intern at Oscorp in biochemistry for whatever reason has learned how to work the electric grid of New York City which Oscorp runs. That part doesn’t ring true at all and took me right out of the film. I don’t mind smart women in movies but make her realistically clever please.

Garfield however continues to impress as both Parker and Spider-Man. In the latter role he has the fluid movements that make him look just non-human enough to be different. In the former role, he isn’t quite as brooding as he was in the first film (until near the end) but he certainly shows the inner conflicts that come from wanting to do the right thing but knowing that doing so could potentially put those he loves in danger. Some critics have groused about the smartaleck wisecracking that Spider-Man does, but that is part of the comic book personality of the character and is Parker’s way of coping with his own self-doubt.

This isn’t the sequel I was hoping for. I’m a big fan of Webb and I like the way Garfield plays both Peter and Spider-Man. I was hoping after the unnecessary second origin movie in ten years for the character that they might take Garfield’s strong performance in the title role and build on it. To some extent they do but their ambitions exceed the realistic here and they wind up making a movie that is a bit of a mess. It’s still plenty entertaining and has all the thrills, action and emotions that you need to make a great summer blockbuster, but they also failed to learn from Raimi’s mistakes. It’s worth seeing for the action, for Garfield and for some of the emotional sequences but the movie is nonetheless very flawed.

REASONS TO GO: The Electro sequences are amazing. Some emotional high points.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and subplots. The flow of the film doesn’t quite work. Logical issues.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of superhero violence and peril, plus a brief scene that may be disturbing for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Spider-Man movie to film in New York City where the series is set – it is also the largest production to date to film in the state of New York.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Words and Pictures

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters


Logan Lerman, wearing his hoodie, keeps a sharp eye out for George Zimmerman.

Logan Lerman, wearing his hoodie, keeps a sharp eye out for George Zimmerman.

(2013) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T. Jackson, Douglas Smith, Mary Birdsong, Yvette Nicole Brown, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Fillion, Anthony Head, Leven Rambin, Jake Abel, Missi Pyle, Connor Dunn, Paloma Kwiatkowski, Ron Perlman (voice), Octavia Spencer (voice), Shohreh Aghdashloo (voice). Directed by Thor Freudenthal

When you’re a demigod (the offspring of one mortal parent and one Greek God or Goddess), life pretty much sucks. You can save the world and still end up feeling like a loser.

At least, that’s the way it is for Percy Jackson (Lerman). The son of Poseidon who saved the world from a plot to use the world’s most dangerous weapon to kickstart a war between the Gods that would have devastated the planet is kind of moping around a year later, wondering if he was indeed a one-quest wonder. Upstaged in nearly everything by Charisse (Rambin), daughter of the God of War, his friends Grover (Jackson) the satyr and Annabeth (Daddario) the daughter of the Goddess of Wisdom have his back but the headmaster at Camp Half-Blood, Dionysus (Tucci) can’t even remember Percy’s name let alone his fame.

When the camp’s defensive barrier is attacked (a magic tree), it appears that the only way to sustain it is to retrieve the legendary Golden Fleece of Jason and the Argonauts. However, that rests on an island in the Sea of Monsters (what we humans call the Bermuda Triangle) and the way there and back is perilous indeed. He will have to deal with traitorous demigods, crazed cabbies, monsters of all size and shapes and a dorky half-brother (Smith) who happens to be a Cyclops. With his friends at his side, how can he be beaten? Well, quite often actually…

The second movie in the series based on Rick Riordan’s wildly popular young adult books, like the first film, uses Greek mythology as a jumping off point. However, that film was kind of poorly written with plot points that lacked coherent explanation and suffered a bit from too close to Harry Potter for comfort. Those sins are still very much in evidence here and while the special effects are more spectacular in the sequel, the thrill factor is much less in the second film than it was in the first.

Lerman has blown hot and cold as a young leading man. His sad sack Percy doesn’t have the heroic qualities of a Harry Potter although he does find his inner hero by film’s end (that’s not much of a spoiler). Here, he doesn’t hold up well to Rambin, who is sexy and charismatic and whose character exceeds Percy in nearly every category as Rambin does Lerman here. Lerman is beginning to remind me of Shia LaBeouf in a negative way.

A movie like this needs to be exciting and thrilling and the issue is that I never felt those things even once during the movie. It’s just kind of there – I don’t really care much about the characters, the visuals can be nice but ultimately they are like seeing a single red rose in a snowy garden; the color is beautiful but it doesn’t change that the rest of the setting is bland and colorless. The series, beloved by many, deserves better movies to be made from it.

REASONS TO GO: Some spectacular effects sequences. Fillion and Tucci are fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too Harry Potter-esque. Lacks chemistry. Percy not nearly as heroic as Harry.

FAMILY VALUES:  Here there be monsters; also some mild foul language, fantasy action sequences and a few semi-scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rambin, a natural blonde, wore a wig for her role as Charisse; Daddario, a natural brunette, dyed her hair blonde to play Annabeth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Story of Us