Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:23 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated, some thematic elements and language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Discussion of difficult topics including assassinations, terrorism, prejudice, disability, loss
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 8, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is about Mr. Rogers, a kind, gentle star of PBS children’s programming who liked us us just the way we were and was the neighbor we would all love to have next door.

His story is told in a documentary that matches its subject. It is candid but respectful, utterly heartwarming, and a particularly timely reminder that we don’t have to be swept away in bombast and sensory overload. It is also a welcome reminder that children need us to help them understand themselves and the world around them, even when some aspects are painful and difficult. Indeed, Fred Rogers exemplified the idea that adults were here to protect children not by keeping information about tragedy and hardship away from them but by helping them learn how to respond. His advice to “look for the helpers” is always repeated when some terrible new story is in the news. And of course he was one of the greatest helpers of all. “One of my main jobs,” he said, “is through the mass media to help children through the difficult modulators of life.” These included world events and also family issues like divorce and emotions like anger. One of the film’s most remarkable archival scenes is Fred Rogers testifying before a skeptical Senator about the importance of funding PBS. Instead of reeling off statistics, Rogers recited the lyrics to a song about how to deal with angry feelings. When he was done, the senator, obviously not just moved but pretty much tamed, says quietly, “You just got $20 million.”

Fred Rogers was an aspiring Presbyterian minister when he realized that television had enormous influence on children and that most of children’s programming was loud, rude, and violent. He put his plans on hold to start a series for the new Public Broadcasting Service that would be quiet, low-key, and low-tech. As a producer of the show noted the theory of the series was, “You take all of the elements that make good television and don’t do any of them.” He says, “I never felt I had to wear a funny hat.” And he welcomes elements that are anathema to television, including silence. Mr. Rogers set a timer to show children how long a minute was and just sat there while it moved around the circle. There a lot of “slow space, but no wasted space.” He was patient. He listened.

The show’s first national broadcast was in 1968, a time when there were many difficult modulators to navigate. “What does assassination mean?” a frightened Daniel Tiger puppet asks? He gets an answer that is honest but presented in a way that helps him not just understand it but understand how to process it.

In each episode, Mr. Rogers would come into the house, change his shoes, put on his sweater (one is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History), and have a little chat or sing a song to the audience. He would talk to the mailman or another friend from the neighborhood, and maybe interview a guest or explain something, from how biscuits get made in a bakery to how a young Yo Yo Ma plays the cello. Rogers himself never appeared before the camera in the other part of the show, set in a magical land, because he wanted a clear demarcation between the “real” and fantasy parts of the show. But he voiced the puppets, as many as ten characters, and we see more than once that those puppets allowed him to express parts of himself he could not any other way.

Director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) had nearly 1000 hours of archival footage to choose from and, while he certainly could have made several movies based on Fred Rogers’ life, the clips and contemporary interviews are exceptionally well chosen and well matched. We learn that Rogers asked Francois Clemons, a black man, to play the policeman on the show in part to promote diversity. A scene from the show where the men soak their feet together to cool off on a hot day is juxtaposed with contemporary news footage of black swimmers being thrown out of a public pool. Clemons says he was reluctant to play a policeman because the experience of his own neighborhood with police was not good. But he took the job. And then we learn that Clemons is gay, and hear how Rogers’ response to that news changed over time.

Two of the movie’s most powerful archival scenes are the interview Rogers said was his most memorable, with Jeff Erlanger a cheerful 10-year-old quadriplegic, and his time with Koko, who apparently indicated that he was her favorite visitor. Rogers’ palpable delight and boundless empathy have them end up in an embrace that is utterly endearing.

We hear from his family, friends, and colleagues, and from Ma (whose son is one of the film’s producers). But most of all, we hear from Rogers himself, who tells us, “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he is accepted exactly as he is.” Other than Fox News, who we briefly hear blaming Rogers for the entitlement of the millennial generation, we all feel lucky that Mr. Rogers was exactly who he was, and this lovely film reminds us that we cal all be more like him.

Parents should know that this movie includes discussion of difficult issues and some archival footage of tragic news stories and a brief humorous shot of a bare bottom.

Family discussion: What parts of Mr. Rogers did we only see through the puppets? What are your favorite television shows for children?

If you like this, try: “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Street Gang” (about “Sesame Street”)

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Darkest Hour

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 5:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 Focus

A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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AWFJ’s Movie of the Week: The Dancer

Posted on November 28, 2017 at 10:13 pm

The Alliance of Women Film Journalists has picked “The Dancer” as the MOTW (movie of the week). The recreations of Loie Fuller’s stunning performances are dazzling.

Betsy Bozdech writes:

Chances are, even people who wouldn’t describe themselves as “into dance” have heard the name Isadora Duncan and know something about her career and tragic death. But what about dancer and performance artist Loie Fuller, the innovator of modern dance who helped propel Duncan to superstardom in the early 20th century? Stephanie Di Giusto’s drama “The Dancer” remedies that by telling the story of Fuller’s complex, fascinating and often-heartbreaking life and career.

I’m proud to be one of the critics quoted by AWFJ in support of the film.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:53 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence, post-traumatic stress
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

This telling of the story behind the creation of some of the world’s most beloved books for children is sincere and well-intentioned but what Pooh might call a bit of a muddle. The movie is not at all clear about whose perspective it is giving us or what story it is trying to tell.

Author A.A. Milne, called Blue by his family and played by Domhnall Gleeson, was a successful playwright and humorist before the Great War, but came back badly shaken from the experience of combat and carnage. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is affectionate but impatient. Neither one of them is very interested in their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who spends most of his time with his devoted nanny, Nou (Kelly Macdonald). Milne insists the family move to the country, where Daphne feels isolated from the parties and friends she enjoys. She goes back to London, saying she won’t return until Milne begins to write again, just as Nou has to take some time off to care for her mother. This leaves Milne alone with his son, called Billy Moon by the family, and for the first time they spend time together, playing in the woods with the child’s stuffed bear, named Winnie after the bear in the zoo. It is these days that inspire the two chapter books and two books of poems that have been read aloud to generations of children who have grown up and read them to their own children, plus, Disney movies and a television series (Disney now own the rights to the characters) and more books and toys.

And it is these days that are the best part of the film, especially when Milne’s friend, the illustrator Ernest Howard Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) comes to visit, and we see the stories Milne and Billy Moon tell melting into the sketches that are as beloved as the writing.

The problem is the rest of the movie, which is really four movies fighting with each other, none of them very good. There is the story of a shattered veteran trying to find a way to return to civilian life and work that is meaningful to him. There is the story of a man and a boy who do not realize how much they need each other discovering a common language. There is the story of enormous success that benefits one family member but at great cost to another.  The stories lead to feelings of betrayal and bitterness when Billy Moon becomes famous, more famous than his father, and much more famous than his boarding school classmates.  And there is the story of estrangement and partial reconciliation.

It is never clear what the point of view of the movie is, or what the point of the movie is.  Is it that art can be healing and wounding at the same time?  Is it that behind tales of wonder and enchantment there can be pain and bitterness?  Fans of the Winnie the Pooh books may enjoy some of the classic biopic “ah, that’s where this part I loved came from” moments, but they do not provide any additional insight or depth to the work itself, not even an exploration of what the books have to say about childhood and whether they represent a child’s perspective or a parent’s.  Most of all, unlike Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Owl, these characters are not very interested or interesting.

Parents should know that this movie includes wartime violence, PTSD, marital estrangement, sad offscreen death of a parent, apparent death of a child, and social drinking.

Family discussion:  What should Blue and Daphne have done differently?  Why did Christopher want to go into the army?  Is “the great thing” finding something to be happy about?

If you like this, try: the books of A.A. Milne

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Rebel in the Rye

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking
Profanity: A few strong and crude words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

J.D. Salinger had three great losses and three great teachers, and “Rebel in the Rye” is the story of how those all came together to influence the author of one of the most popular and influential novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, along with his shorter pieces, a few novellas and stories. Salinger is almost as well known for his decades of seclusion in New Hampshire as he is for his work. Reportedly, after publishing his last story in 1965, he continued to write full-time, but never showed it to anyone or allowed it to be published. It may be that the mystery is a better story than the writing.

Writer/director Danny Strong (co-creator of “Empire,” screenwriter of the “Mockingjay” films and actor in “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy”) introduces us to Salinger before all of that happened, young, ambitious, and like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, a smart aleck who has left or been asked to leave a number of top schools. Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) shows us the teenage Salinger, arrogant but insecure, especially arrogant when it came to writing and especially insecure when it came to girls. He meets Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and they begin to date, though what makes her most attractive to him is her lineage and her admiration for his writing. And, after leaving NYU, he enrolls in Columbia, where he takes a class from the editor of Story Magazine, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). “There is nothing more sacred than stories,” Burnett tells the class. And he advises Salinger not to let his voice overwhelm the story, not to let his ego obstruct the emotional experience of the reader.

Burnett will be Salinger’s most important influence on the content of his stories, suggesting that Holden Caulfield deserves a novel. And O’Neill will be an influence, too, the first of the three great losses, when she leaves him to marry Charlie Chaplin.  Just as he is beginning to make progress as a writer, with his first published work in Burnett’s literary journal, Salinger joins the military in WWII, where he endures great peril and hardship and witnesses some of the worst events in world history, including the landing on Normandy beach and the liberation of a concentration camp.  These traumatic experiences caused great distress for Salinger, what would today be called PTSD (as Salinger movingly described in my favorite of his stories, “For Esme, with Love and Squalor.”  But it was these experiences that gave him the depth and scope to write his sole novel.

Burnett teaches Salinger that publication is incidental; what matters is doing the work of writing.  Salinger’s agent (Sarah Paulson, wry but sympathetic) tells him that “publication is everything” and urges him to “soften” his stories according to the “notes (comments) she gets back from editors.  Salinger, initially refusing to make any changes, finally does and even admits that they made the story better.

But the stress of success becomes too much for him.  “I’m shackled by my own creation,” he says as Catcher is seen as an invitation for readers to come see him.  The last loss and the last teacher are combined in a zen master who advises him to let go of his need for approval.  He moves to New Hampshire and never has anything to do with the literary world again. “If I can dedicate my life to writing and get nothing in return,” he says, “I think I might find happiness.”

Hoult is fine in showing us how Salinger changes, especially the effect of the war.  His scenes with his parents (Hope Davis and Victor Garber) and with the women he is trying to impress are especially effective.  Strong, as a writer himself, well understands the struggle to understand which voices to listen to, whether internal or external, in evaluating the work, and the complexity of needing approval even as we try to transcend that need.  The film evokes the mid-century era without being showy or distracting, and, an even more difficult challenge, explores the life of someone who wanted to be left alone without being exploitive.  Salinger insisted that there will never be a film about Holden Caulfield, and he was right as the value of that book is in the voice of its narrator more than in the incidents it portrays.  This is a better version of a story about someone who wants to catch children to keep them safe, at least in his own mind, or in the stories he will never show.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust footage, drinking and drunkenness, constant smoking, and sexual references.

Family discussion:  Who was right about writing vs. publishing?  What makes Catcher in the Rye so compelling?  How was Salinger’s wartime experience reflected in his writing?

If you like this, try: the books of JD Salinger

 

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