Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers was an amazing man. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers decided to go into children’s television in the early 1950’s because he hated the programming that was aimed at young children in those early days of television. Eventually, this would lead to the incredibly popular children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was broadcast nationally (in the U.S.) from 1968 to 2001. But the show actually started in Canada, on CBC, from 1963 - 66, something that isn’t mentioned in Morgan Neville’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

As Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes clear, Rogers’ slow-paced quiet show broke all the rules for supposedly good TV, but somehow he was able to make an almost magical connection with his viewers that not only made his show popular but resulted in it having a major impact on generations of pre-school children. Rogers’ down-to-earth style and way of talking with and to children about the ups and downs of real life (including divorce and assassinations), without talking down to the kids, was behind that magical connection. The documentary also hints that children were able to pick up on the fact that Rogers was utterly sincere and honest about everything he said to them - this was not a man who was in TV for the wealth or the fame but simply because he wanted to make the world a better place. 

I am too old and too Canadian to have had the opportunity to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, which is too bad, but I heard a lot of good things about it over the years, which makes me particularly appreciative of the documentary. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does a great job of telling the vital story of Rogers’ life and the impact of his show. The highlights for me were hearing Rogers speak in various settings over the years, passing along his profound insights into life. A couple of wise quotes that stood out for me:

About TV, he said: “Love is at the root of everything - all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” About his show, he said: “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they're loved and capable of loving.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tries to present an honest account of Rogers’ life, including showing his flaws. But these are so minor that they only serve to make Rogers more impressive. He was a man who genuinely lived what he presented to the public (among other things, Rogers was a pacifist, a vegetarian, a feminist and an environmentalist). The biggest criticism of Rogers and his show was that he was so effective in making children feel special that he was partly responsible for entire generations of young adults having a sense of entitlement. That would be an impressive achievement, but the charge is somewhat laughable when you consider the way Rogers’ telling the kids that they are special (unique) and worthy of love was part of a consistent message about caring for and loving others. Indeed, Rogers’ show was often about making goodness attractive. 

I did find that the documentary occasionally dragged by getting into too much unnecessary detail about characters in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and this is why I can’t give the film a clear four stars. But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a moving tribute to a great man and I recommend it to everyone. ***+ - ****. My mug is up.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Leave No Trace


That’s back-to-back wows in what has, so far, been a fairly unimpressive year at the cinema.

Unlike this year’s previous wow films, however, Leave No Trace is a film I can recommend to almost everyone (I say ‘almost’ because, for some people, the slow pace will be a problem). Leave No Trace is described as a family drama, which is certainly accurate, but Debra Granik’s films are so unique in their structure and atmosphere that it’s misleading to use such descriptions. I would simply describe it as a Granik drama.

Granik made my favourite film of 2010 (Winter’s Bone), which launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Leave No Trace, which will make my top ten but not get to number one, may launch another career, that of Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, whose performance as 14-year-old Tom is nothing short of perfection. It needs to be for this film to work, because so much of this quiet film rides on her expressions and tones of voice.

Leave No Trace tells the story of Tom and her father, Will (Ben Foster), who live in the woods just outside Portland, Oregon. Why they live in the woods is never really explained, which is part of the magic of this incredibly subtle and understated story. We are given just enough information to know that Will has PTSD from his experience in the military (Iraq? Afghanistan?) and in a sense he is one of many homeless veterans found all over the U.S. (others in the Portland area also feature in the film). But Will is unique in that he is parenting a teenage girl while living a life of hiding from the authorities (changing camp regularly) in an urban forest. And somehow Will is doing a terrific job of being a loving and attentive parent. When Will and Tom are caught, very early in the film, and taken into custody, Jean (Dana Millican), a social worker, is amazed that Tom is so well-educated and so content with her life.

That contentment will fade as Tom and Will are taken to their new home on a tree farm/ranch. It’s a living situation Will cannot tolerate for long, but Tom is intrigued by the people around her and she begins to make friends. The growing separation between Tom and Will, based on very different needs, lies at the heart of this sad and bleak, but also heartwarming and hopeful, drama.

Like McKenzie, Foster’s understated performance is spot-on. It doesn’t hurt that the screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini makes Tom and Will such fully-developed characters. The cinematography, score and direction are all outstanding, creating a film that feels so real it could almost be a documentary, which somehow only makes the story more haunting, though also deeply moving because of the way we can empathize with the experiences of the protagonists.

But whats sets Leave No Trace apart and puts it into my top ten has not yet been mentioned. I’m taking about the way all the characters who come into contact with Tom and Will are treated by the writers. I don’t want to spoil the film, in even a minimal way, by elaborating on this, so for now I will only say that the way Leave No Trace constantly defies predictable interactions blew me away. I'll write an entire article about this one day.

Leave No Trace is a profound film about relationships, community, growing up and life in the 21st century. And while it’s a slow quiet film, I couldn’t believe it was over already when it ended, which is always a very good sign. ****. My mug is up. Not to be missed!

Friday, 13 July 2018

First Reformed

Wow! (Only the third wow of 2018, but more are on the way)

Lots of catching up to do, with at least eight reviews coming, but this is the best of them. You can read my review at Third Way:

Paul Schrader's First Reformed gets an easy ****. My mug is up for a guaranteed entry in my top fifteen films of the year.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

On Chesil Beach

I had read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach to Kathy in April, just a few days before we saw the trailer for the film, and we had much enjoyed it, so we could hardly miss an opportunity to watch the film version on the big screen. That big screen was certainly helpful in allowing us to enjoy the excellent cinematography (it was actually filmed on Chesil Beach), but watching Dominic Cooke’s film so soon after reading the novel wasn’t ideal: Despite the fact that Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay himself, the film failed to do justice to his novel.

On Chesil Beach uses the backdrop of a wedding night in 1962 to tell the story of the bride and groom through flashbacks. Florence Ponting (played by Saoirse Ronan) is a brilliant young musician from an upper class family who dreams of leading a String Quartet on the world stage. Florence knows little about sex and is terrified about what she does know. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) also doesn’t know much about sex, but otherwise is avery different person. Coming from a working class home and living with a mother whose brain was damaged in an accident, Edward has few ambitions other than getting away from home.

The unique flashback structure (in which most of the film involves flashbacks) worked well in the novel, filling in the story of the two nervous newlyweds in a way that fit nicely into the short excursions back to the wedding night. Unfortunately, I did not find that this structure worked well in the film. On the contrary, I found it awkward, with no clear flow from past to present or vice versa, making for slow going at times. I also found the new extended ending to be awkwardly contrived. Where I was hoping for some new scenes to add to my appreciation of the novel, I found the new scenes did the opposite. 

Which is not to say that the writing was inferior. Many scenes in the film, as in the novel, featured thoughtful and well-crafted dialogue. And the acting was outstanding throughout. With such acting and writing, I had hoped for a more engaging film, but that was not the case for me. Perhaps this is partly the fault of having a rookie director.

In the end, Kathy and I enjoyed watching On Chesil Beach, with no regrets for having seen it, but we came away disappointed because of how much more we had enjoyed the novel. A solid ***. My mug is up. 

Friday, 15 June 2018

Ocean's 8

Ocean’s 8, directed and co-written by Gary Ross, is a film about eight women trying to pull off the biggest jewel heist in history - at the Met (museum) in New York City. Leading the gang is Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister to Danny Ocean (George Clooney, who isn’t in the film) from the Soderbergh films. Debbie just got out of prison, where she spent five years planning this heist. Now she gathers together her team, played by actors like Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulsen, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina and, later, also Anne Hathaway. Ocean’s 8, in other words, is a film about women. Women don’t usually pull off heists, and I assume this is a film that’s supposed to draw attention to the lack of films featuring women in such roles and do its part to counter that lack.

But here’s the thing: Ocean’s 8 only really got entertaining for me when James Cordon got involved in the last quarter of the film. Cordon plays John Frazier, an insurance investigator who knows the Oceans all to well. Every minute of Ocean’s 8 with Cordon in it was more entertaining than all the minutes without him. I consider that a huge fail on the part of the writers. The problem isn’t that Cordon outshines the women as an actor. He is very good, but so were all of the women, especially Bullock and Blanchett (as Debbie’s partner). The problem is that Frazier is just a better-drawn character than the ones the women play (whom I’m not even bothering to name), and his lines snap the way all the lines should have snapped. The only other male actor of note was Richard Armitage, but he didn’t fare as well.

The entire film needed to snap and flow instead of meandering along with some scattered fun scenes between the women (the best involving Bullock and Blanchett). And by the time we get to the twists that are mandatory for the end of every heist caper, they almost made me yawn because of their lack of originality and boring delivery. 

And what was with the change of date at Danny Ocean’s grave marker: At the beginning of the film it read 2017; at the end it was 2018, which no one else seems to have noticed?

Thanks to Cordon, Ocean’s 8 was worth a look and there was just enough fun along the way to slide over into ***. My mug is up, but, again, just barely.

Thursday, 7 June 2018


Walter was in town, and we were fortunate to catch a new indie film to watch together.

Sebastian Lelio made my seventh-favourite film of 2017 (A Fantastic Woman), so I wasn’t about to miss his new film, regardless of subject matter. I was surprised by how very different Disobedience feels to his last film, but I was not disappointed, though its one major flaw prevents it from receiving the four stars which would have guaranteed Lelio’s second consecutive appearance on my top-fifteen list.

Disobedience tells the story of three close friends in London whose lives have taken unexpected turns and who are brought together again after years of separation (one lives in New York, for reasons which become clear during the film), resulting in the release of long pent-up emotions and passions.

Rachel Weisz plays Ronit Krushka, a New York City artist who has abandoned her Jewish faith but now returns to the Orthodox Jewish community in London after the death of her father (the community’s rabbi). Ronit does not receive much of a welcome, even from one of her close friends, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who has married Esti (Rachel McAdams), Ronit’s other close friend. In an absolutely brilliant first half hour, we are slowly introduced to these three characters (whose surface successes seem clouded by deep unhappiness and even loneliness), their relationship and the reason Ronit left her father and friends to move across the ocean.

It’s only an introduction, though, as additional pieces fall into place throughout the film. Disobedience is in no hurry to reveal its secrets, which is great, though its major flaw is related to this strength. I would like to leave all the secrets for you to discover (as you know, I rarely do spoilers), but since every other reviewer (and even the film’s poster) gives away the central secret, I suppose I need to do so as well (minor spoiler alert): Ronit and Esti’s friendship goes much deeper than friendship and was the cause of the estrangement between Ronit and her father. 

I share this because one of the film’s highlights is the perfect chemistry between Ronit and Esti, made possible by the wonderful understated performances of Weisz and McAdams (perhaps their best performances ever). The acting of everyone in the film is excellent and this is matched by the outstanding cinematography and score (the singing is another highlight). 

Unfortunately, Disobedience could not sustain the brilliance of its first half hour. As it moves towards its unexpected ending, there is an increasing sense that vital pieces of character development are missing, especially for Dovid. Decisions seem to lack enough context, as if the film is sometimes as lost as its three central figures. The result is a last half hour with moments of great beauty and power but too many moments that don’t quite satisfy. 

Nevertheless, Disobedience is a marvellous, thoughtful and moving drama that gets a solid ***+. Two mugs up.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

And now for another episode of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly:

The Good:

1) What’s not to love about L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando Calrissian’s droid?

2) The acting and dialogue (written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan) are, again, well above the old Star Wars level. Emilia Clarke stands out as Qi’ra, the woman who has somehow stolen Han Solo’s heart and is at the heart of the action during the second half of the film (and the most fascinating character in the film). Then there’s Thandie Newton (playing Val) and Woody Harrelson (playing Beckett), who are always fun to watch. Paul Bettany plays Dryden Voss and Donald Glover is Calrissian. They’re okay. Alden Ehrenreich (Solo) grew on me, but is never really convincing as Solo. So-so.

3) The last half hour of the film actually has a compelling storyline, though by then I was almost asleep.

4) Given all the controversy around the making of this film, Ron Howard (director) acquitted himself well.

5) There were moments of fun and adventure that reminded me of Indiana Jones. Not a bad thing.

The Bad:

1) The first three-quarters of the film. What a mess. Non-stop action involving endless chases and PG violence of the kind that bore me to tears. No story to speak of. Just an attempt by Han, Chewbacca, and company to steal some valuable resource to pacify Voss and something called Crimson Dawn. Very sad.

2) Given that we know where Han Solo and Chewbacca will end up, this film should be providing a much much much more interesting backstory (blaming the Kasdans this time). What waste!

The Ugly:

1) The cinematography is appallingly awful!!! It was like watching the film through a dark grey fog. No colour! No faces! The original Star Wars films were magnificent beyond words in comparison. I assume it was all because of 3D, but that certainly doesn’t excuse it. Unforgivable!!

Solo: A Star Wars Story has just enough good to outweigh the bad and ugly, and allow me to award it ***. My mug is up, but just barely.