Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Yes, I would, Fred.)

Touching. Timely. Inspiring. Infuriating.

I, like millions of other children from my generation, grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Living just 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, I watched it on his home station, WQED – PBS Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

His gentle demeanor, memorable opening song, iconic sweater, simple puppets, and the ever-cool red trolley are indelible parts of my childhood. I enjoyed the show, but soon out-grew it, and never really thought of its overall impact until I watched the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” from film-maker Morgan Neville.

If you haven’t seen it, please go. I’ll briefly put my thoughts on the movie in relationship to the four words above.

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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Display @ Heinz Museum, Pittsburgh, PA  – Photo by MWS

Touching. There are many touching moments in this film. Fred Rogers had the ability to reach the hearts of those he spoke to – and not only children. One of the most remarkable parts of the film is watching the many interviewees listen to a short clip of Fred telling people to think for one minute about a person who made a difference in their lives. Of course, Fred framed the scenario in such a lovely way, that every single one of the interviewees teared up. He encouraged them to slow down, think, remember, and cherish those people who made them who they are. Some answered ‘Mom’ others a relative or friend, one said ‘Fred.’  All of them were unmasked in a beautiful way by Fred’s amazing ability to speak to the soul of an individual. It was a perfect scene.

Timely. In this day and age of everything being hyper-politicized, Fred’s message of love and acceptance to the children he had passion for is such a tremendous message. One, albeit, lost daily on the TV airwaves. Just a quick perusal of TV channels this Sunday evening made this all the more real. The plethora of choices available were dearth of heart, meaning, sincerity, and substance – all of which Fred displayed in abundance, not only on his show but as a person in real life. Be like Fred, everyone. It should be a motto on a t-shirt.

Inspiring. As an educator, I walked away from the movie truly inspired. The way he spoke to children, the way he listened to children, the way he advocated for children, and the way he educated children has, I believe, never been matched. He tackled difficult topics with care and heart (here’s that word again). Topics like war, assassination, divorce, racism, acceptance, disabilities, etc… while the rest of TV land droned on in a flashy drivel void of meaning or substance. Watching this movie made me want to be a better teacher.

Infuriating. I was not upset at Fred at all. How could I be? Well, it seems that some people can be upset at just about anyone. If you can find fault in the public discourse and actions of one Fred Rogers, you’d probably would have lined up in glee to watch the decapitation of the Apostle Paul.  Seriously, what is wrong with people? Some pundits have blamed Mr. Rogers’ philosophy of telling children that they are good and lovable and worthy of love as a message which has poisoned a whole generation by making a bunch of spoiled, entitled brats who feel they don’t need to work for anything because Fred Rogers told them that they are special. If I can be frank, what kind of idiot analysis is that?  If you have a problem with telling every child that they are unique and special and lovable, then you have a problem. In fact, the philosophy of Fred Rogers is, in my view, one of the keys that the world desperately needs if we are ever going to bridge the divides which have pulled us apart.

Thank you, Morgan Neville, for bringing this touching and timely reminder of what decency and civility really is. I wish someone would bring it back to children’s television.

This is a film I highly recommend.

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Inha Kim Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven

I’m happy to have the astute movie insights of Inha Kim, as he gives us his in-depth take on the re-make of The Magnificent Seven. Here’s everything you want to know about the movie. 

A Callback to the Good Old Days

The 1960 film The Magnificent Seven is one of the most fondly remembered westerns ever made, with its stylish, fast-paced gun-play, star studded cast, and its old fashioned charm. So naturally the 2016 remake has garnered a considerable amount of hype before its release; A) due to its source material, and B) due to the resurgence of the western genre of recent years. So does this remake live up to the original?

The Good

The Cast – The talent and chemistry shared between the cast, especially between Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, are a sight to behold. Denzel confidently plays the leader of the pack Sam Chisolm with charisma, grit, and style, strongly reminiscent of Yul Brynner’s original performance, while Chris Pratt brings his signature humorous charm and his recently discovered “macho” persona to Josh Faraday, or the Steve McQueen archetype character (in case you didn’t realize, this movie doesn’t tell the story of the original characters, but newer characters based on the old ones). His performance fittingly pays homage to the original Steve McQueen role, and dare I say, even outshines it. As a matter of fact, each of the seven gunslingers stand out from each other more so than the original. One problem that most people have with the original film is that the seven gunmen are too similar to one another. They’re six gritty, tough men and one whiny young blood. In the remake, the writer wisely chose to give different roles, personalities, and insecurities to each character, helping to easily distinguish between the seven. The one cast member that doesn’t quite live up to expectations is Peter Sarsgaard as Bartholomew Bogue, the main villain of this film. While he does  give a suitably slimy, villainous portrayal, he still stands inferior to the devilishly charming Calvera played by the late Eli Wallach. But don’t be mistaken. His performance may not be as good as Eli’s, but Sarsgaard still manages to dish out some chilling scenes, and the evil nature of his character oozes from his various tics and gestures. All in all, the cast in this movie does a tremendous job in bringing to life this classic tale.

The Shootouts – One of the things that make the original such a classic is the shootout sequences. For a film of its age, they still hold up incredibly well to modern standards. They are fast paced, energetic, exhilarating, and fun. The shootouts in the remake are few and far between. In fact, there are only two main shootouts in the entire 2 hours 13 minutes run time. But when they happen, boy, do they happen. With clever camera work, energetic editing, and spectacular sound design, the new film takes the classic sequences and revamps them for modern tastes. Each shot is brutal, visceral, and powerful. The impact of every bullet is felt through the piercing sounds and rapid camera movement (by that I mean that the camera was following the action, imitating the effect of a bullet. I am not talking about shaky-cam). Mix that with long, tension filled stare downs, the “shoot-from-the-hip-but-somehow-always-hit-the-mark” goofiness, and snippets of the original soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself a sleek, stylish fight scene that also harkens back to the good ol’ days.

The Bad

The Villagers – The original film did an excellent job at making us sympathize with the villagers. They were simple, hard working people that were bullied and thrown around by a force more powerful than they. So naturally, we the viewers immediately felt sorry for them. This sadly isn’t quite the case in the remake. First impressions go a long way. The first impression I got from the villagers in the remake was chaotic, desperate, and angry. Not quite the kind of adjectives you’d feel sorry for. You could argue that this makes the villagers in the remake more complex characters. But that’s not the case either. The original film also had conflict among the villagers. They argued about whether they should get help or not, there was some hostility towards the seven when they arrived, when they won their first battle they were genuinely happy and excited, and there’s also the three little kids who begin to idolize the seven, and then learn the true meaning of courage. None of these nuances and sensitivities exist in the remake. They mention in passing that the village is really poor, but when you’ve got a saloon, a sheriff’s office, a church, a school, and a “whore house,” it is really difficult to see the poor in your village.

The Pacing – The film also doesn’t flow as well as the original did. The original had a distinct beginning, middle, and end structure. But the remake seems to drag out the first act so long that the first hour is spent in development while the other two acts are crammed into the last half. The first act is primarily spent in introducing the seven gunmen as they are recruited to fight. While the lengthy intro does help develop the seven, it leaves less room for the “training the villagers” sequence, which is equally important, if not more so. However, the film does pick up its pacing in the last act, the big showdown between the seven and the villagers, against Bogue’s army.

The Ugly

The problems I list here probably wouldn’t bother most people, and I would also like to preface it by saying that even with all these problems, the film is still enjoyable. None of what I say should detract from the experience, but I still do feel the need to address them since they are just so annoying to me.

The problems I have aren’t necessarily from the movie, but rather it’s audience. It seems that modern audience members only know how to complain about how everything they see is the same, while b***hing about anything that’s different. Everything has to be done in the safest, inoffensive way, or there will be an uproar. I’ve read the reviews of many critics for this film, and those that disliked the movie all basically said the same thing; “It takes no chances.” Yes. It is true that the film makes very few changes to the original plot. But would the reception be much different if it had? No! People were still complaining about the few differences it did have (some being the same people that hated it for being too safe!). It’s people like this that keeps artists from creating their own unique pieces. Why do the opinions of others matter so much anyway? Just watch the movie and form your own opinion.

This type of attitude people have on movies also hinders artists from including themes to their pieces that could potentially be controversial. During the first act, the film hints at the theme of race relations at the time, when Sam Chisolm, a black character, trots on his horse through a white dominated town. The people of the town start staring in confusion at the sight of a black man on a horse. I thought that the movie would use this opportunity to add racial commentary. But that’s just about where it ends. While I have no real evidence of this, I am fairly certain that this is due to the reception Django Unchained got from its audience a few years prior. Django Unchained chronicles the tale of a black slave who fights his way into becoming a bounty hunter. Director Quentin Tarantino unapologetically portrayed in his film the brutality and cruelty of American slavery. While the film was generally well received, it also spawned a huge controversy due to its violent depiction of such a sensitive subject.

Conclusion

The Magnificent Seven (2016) is a fun, action packed ride that lovingly pays homage to a classic genre. It is by no means superior to the original, or even as good. But the film isn’t trying to be. It is just a popcorn-action flick made for you to just kick back and enjoy. And for that, I’d say it is well worth the price of admission. If I had to give it a numerical value, I’d give it a solid 7/10.

Classic Movie Review: Funny Girl

“Funny Girl” is Barbara Streisand’s first movie, breaking into film with a bang by winning an academy award for her efforts.

I had never seen it before until recently, and I admittedly have mixed feelings about this classic musical film from 1968.

First the good.

I have honestly never paid much attention to Streisand before, but I can see why she’s a star. She was terrific in this role – especially the first half (more on that later) and her singing is spectacular. She’s left us some memorable songs in Funny Girl – especially the delightful “Don’t Rain on my Parade” and the moving “People.” Streisand played the main role of Fanny Brice, whom she also played on Broadway starting in 1964.

Streisand plays an up-and-coming Vaudeville star who makes it big on Broadway by bringing her refreshing, candid, and funny charm onto stage. Act I of the movie is terrific – a great story of overcoming obstacles, being oneself, and standing out in a crowd so much that producer Zeigfreid can’t ignore her anymore (nor can he fire her because of her spunk and popularity.)

But then the film and the entire story comes screeching to a halt as it shifts from the rising stardom of Fanny Brice to her romantic involvement with gambler Nick Arnstein. The plot shift and focus made me lose interest. It was no longer a story of Broadway and fame. It was no longer a story of the “funny girl” who felt different from the others and didn’t see herself as beautiful. It’s a script that, in my opinion, definitely needs a re-write. Just as she started to break-through and be a star on Broadway, she suddenly had no career problems at all. Suddenly her producer loved her like a father. Suddenly all that mattered was the dim-witted gambler who continually made bad decisions.

Verdict? Is this musical film worth a watch? Yes, it is, simply to see Streisand in her younger glory.

But I recommend that you stay glued to the screen during Act I and go prepare your snacks during Act II.

Movie Review: The Giver

I’m not a fan of the dystopian genre, but I really liked “The Giver,” and I highly recommend seeing it either in the theater or when its released on video because the themes and intellectual value of the piece is something to be valued – unlike a trivial movie like “The Hunger Games.”

I have not read “The Giver” or the “The Hunger Games” for that matter – as I said before, I’m not a fan of the genre. I wanted to see “The Hunger Games” movies in order to understand what all the fuss was about. After watching the movies, I still don’t know.

“The Giver”, however, is different. It has the feel of an intellectual movie, almost a satire, and a biting criticism of our society as a whole, or at least where our society might be headed.

The premise of “The Giver” is that “after the ruin” (and you can imagine what that was), elders were appointed to structure a perfect society where the past hurts and dangers of human society are no longer present. Families are chosen by society as are babies to provide the ultimate benefit for humankind as a whole. Everyone is trained and sustained by the state for the benefit of everyone. Everyone is happy, does their part, and is a small but important cog of the great chain reaction that keeps society a sterile and unemotional place. Only one person in the community, the giver, has memories of what the human world used to be like. Concepts of love, war, color, hate, joy, family, and death are all things of the past in the new utopia. The giver gives his knowledge of memory to one person for the purpose of being a guiding voice of wisdom to the ruling elders who may need to gleam wisdom from the past to make future decisions. In this story, the chosen receiver, once he begins to understand that the elders have taken humanity out of the humans, has to decide whether he can bear the pain of the past memories or if he has to try to make a change.

There are many poignant themes which emerge in “The Giver.” These include government order, government regulations on society, euthanasia, abortion, genetic selection, freedom, free will, and what it means to be human.

If I could swing it, I would love to take my American Government class to see this movie so we could explore many of these themes. I have never thought that about “The Hunger Games.”

In addition to the wonderfully deep themes, the images of human spirit which are displayed in this film are heart-warming and powerful.

So if you only see one dystopian movie this year, make it “The Giver.”

Mini-Review: Iron Man 3 vs. Star Trek – Into Darkness

No contest.

I had an opportunity to see both movies this past week, but if you can only see one, here’s my advice: make it Star Trek.

First off, if you know me, I’m not a big sci-fi or superhero fan. I have become somewhat numb by both genres as the endless flow of big budget, big disappointment films continue to be Hollywood’s forte.

Iron Man was a disappointment for me. It was slow getting on its feet at the beginning and then, at least to me, morphed into a combination of over-the-top special effects which highlighted too few characters that I actually cared about. One particular scene with many different “suits” flying about and fighting with the bad guy actually reminded me of Transformers. Ouch. That is an insult, isn’t it. I particularly didn’t like the ending and what ‘she’ does. No spoilers here.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is very much a character driven story. A complex villain, unlike the cardboard Iron Man villain  coupled with some touching, emotional scenes made the characters human, even if they aren’t actually human. That’s kind of strange, but you know what I mean. With the Star Trek film being another prequel to the series and movies I grew up with as a kid, there had to be something to grab the audience since we ultimately know what approximately will happen. Well, Star Trek had that something: heart.

Good writing, believable dialogue and characters, and some excellent direction by JJ Abrams. So if you have to choose, I recommend Star Trek. It’s an easy choice.