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.