Years and Years–Our Future?

The HBO six-part series, Years and Years,  is a  dystopian drama of the near future that rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” but with a focus on technology and financial crisis. 

In Years and Years the viewer witnesses a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces, and concentration camps for refugees and dissidents in Great Britain. 

The  harrowing image of Vivienne Rook MP (Emma Thompson), as an outspoken celebrity business woman turned political figure à la Trump, divides the nation with  her controversial opinions and policies.  In tandem, a second parallel story of one family– the Lyons family–details the impact of an unstable world on their lives.

Beginning in 2020,  three generations of the Lyons family watch the rapid change occurring around them due, in part, to the radical demagoguery of Vivienne Rook who eventually rises to power in 2027.  With a mix of horror, confusion, and occasional glee individual members align with Rook or resist her autocracy.

In rapid-fire time-jumps from 2020 to  2035, Years and Years  has Trump winning a second term as US president, Pence succeeding him and Rook seizing  power and proclaiming policies in similar autocratic style in England.

In 2020 air raid sirens blast over all regions of the UK,  with news that Trump has fired a nuclear missile at a Chinese island.  Panic and misinformation spiral out of control.

In a series of unfortunate events, there is a financial  crisis due to the collapse of an American investment bank.  A compulsory national IQ test is administered to exclude low-IQ individuals  from voting.  Arrests and detention become the rule of law for refugees, homosexuals, and dissidents.

By 2027  the coalition government of Great Britain has collapsed, and Viv Rook becomes the Prime Minister, backed by unidentified corporate moguls. Countries become unstable with similar governments being put into place.   

By  2028, Viv Rook promises freedom to her supporters but begins arresting her opponents, contracting with a giant corporation to maintain two “Erstwhile” concentration camps, intended as death camps with fascist oversight. 

By 2029 attacks on journalists increase, and the BBC is forced to shut down, having had its charter withdrawn. Muriel Lyons, matriarch and grandmother, blames the family and global citizens at large for the rampant dictatorships worldwide.  In one of  the most powerful monologues (see video clip) in television this year, she eloquently tells her family that many small acts of indifference have had a snowball effect,  creating the toxic environment everyone now lives in. Today perhaps?  And so it now seems that there is little control the Lyons have over their destinies.  The military isn’t storming parliament. The change is more insidious. Dictatorship creeps up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed, suddenly we are rendered powerless while ordinary life goes on.

Years and Years, through its flashbacks, forecasts the next decade-and-a-half  with a pessimistic, quasi-nihilistic lens.  A sum of the problems and anxieties currently playing out in Trump-land, this dystopia is a world-weary projection,  resonant of a   prequel to Black Mirror’s astringent tales.

Note:  The sixth and last episode took me by surprise.   The tone seemed off, shifting  gears into much more futuristic  science fiction. We’re being given fake videos with fake news, but this seemed to me like a  fake ending.

Locked Up–Spain’s “Orange Is the New Black”

In this riveting Netflix series, we see a psychological drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat..  A combination of “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Locked Up is darker, more sinister, and more brutal and violent.  [Alex Pina is the creator of both this 2015 television series and 2017’s Casa de Papel. ]  Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

Every episode will keep you wanting more.  Perhaps a more realistic point of view of prison life than OITNB, Locked Up is binge-worthy and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Macarena Ferreiro (played by Maggie Civantos)  is a twenty-nine year old professional financier who ends up in prison, after an affair with her manipulative boss who coaxed her into embezzling funds.  Sentenced to seven years at the Cruz del Sur Prison for women while her boss absconds jail-free, Macarena has to navigate her new and unfamiliar home where mostly murderers and drug dealers are her fellow cell mates.  At first, Macarena believes the justice system will realize that she was as much victim as perpetrator and will be released. Slowly she realizes survival in prison for a seven-year sentence will mean developing the cunning of her fellow inmates. 

The title of the Spanish version, Vis-à-Vis (literally,”face-to-face”), is also a colloquial term for conjugal visit used not only for the expected titillating aspect of sexual activity, but also for hiding, a metaphor for secrets and lies.  In a secondary plot, Macarena’s loving family–including her father, a former police officer,– are determined to help her get out of prison by any means necessary 

The ensemble cast could not be better. Brilliantly acted,  Locked Up never loses steam. Each episode surprises and leaves the viewer  wanting more and more. All the characters are an unnerving blend of good and evil, even the two obvious antagonists.  While the audience is never in doubt as to where its sympathies are supposed to lie, there are nudges of understanding for even the most vile.

Locked Up boldly and savagely challenges racist and homophobic attitudes. This prison drama makes OITNB  seem like summer camp, whereas in Locked Up  the inmates are  forever changed at almost a cellular level.  

Note:  Season 4 of Locked Up will be released September 25 on Netflix.

La Casa de Papel –“Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids

La Casa de Papel (“Money Heist”)

La Casa de Papel (Netflix English title: “Money Heist“) was the most-watched non-English language series of 2018 and one of the most-watched series overall on Netflix.  This is a Spanish  “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids.

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

Named after cities, each robber has a backstory and the motivation to move on with a different, less desperate life. In La  Casa de Papel “Tokyo” is the unreliable narrator,  with a winner-take-all attitude, and no impulse control but lots of unhealed wounds.  She narrates each character’s backstory in flashbacks, time-jumps, and unmitigated judgment of her fellow team members. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wearing masks of the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, the burglars take 67 hostages as part of their plan in negotiating with the police.

The Professor oversees the heist from a different location, using state-of-the-art computer systems and an extraordinary psychological analysis of the police. Soon the charismatic, albeit excessively cerebral  Professor  wins over  the public, who are angry at the powerful banks and corrupt corporate and government elite.

The actors, in often tight camera shots, reveal the emotions and alienation at play as they have to deal with each other, the Professor, the hostages, and the police–particularly one vulnerable and needy police inspector.  An extraordinary string of plots over thirty-five episodes, La Casa de Papel rarely sags throughout an entire episode, but ratchets up tension, drama, and unexpected twists in psychology and power dynamics. A highly  unpredictable chess game between the police and the robbers, you will be surprised by almost every move, even with its “telenovela” elements. Can’t wait for  the next season!

Note:  There are three Parts [=Seasons].  Part 1 has  13 episodes;  Part 2: 9 episodes; Part 3: 8 episode and  were released December 2017 through July 2019.  The filming of Part 4 of La Casa de Papel ended last month and will be released sometime next year.

The Farewell–Family Matters

The Farewell movie

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

In the opening scene of The Farewell, taking place in a local hospital in China, the winsome and irrepressible grandmother, Nai Nai, has a complete physical, but has no idea of what it portends. Her sister and doctor tell Nai Nai everything is fine,  she need not worry.  She has stage 4 lung cancer.

Determined to spare Nai Nai bad news, her adult children, under the pretext of planning a wedding for one of the grandsons, gather the family for what is to be presented as a family reunion.  The granddaughter, Billi,  a young millennial living in New York City (played by the extraordiary Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich Asians”), does not approve of the decision to hide the truth from Nai Nai. 

The rationale and Chinese tradition (similar to US medical practices forty years ago) believes that the shock of the diagnosis would worsen and hasten Nai Nai’s death due to her advanced age.  So, at the wedding, there is forced merriment as the family pretends to celebrate a happy occasion while secretly mourning their beloved Nai Nai.  Only Nai Nai doesn’t know she is dying and is in a joyous mood.

The cultural and geographical distance between Nai Nai and her granddaughter, Billi, becomes irrelevant as The Farewell progresses. In some ways, despite the gulf between them, Nai Nai seems to know and understands her granddaughter better than her American parents. Hilarious scenes discussing Billi’s weight and dating options underscore their closeness. 

But,  The Farewell also  delivers some powerful emotional blows. In its unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this disarming film examines family bonds and forced compromise, personal sacrifice, and the complexity and ambivalence of expressing emotions.

Awkwafina’s performance is raw, authentic and delicate in switching from humor to seriousness seemingly effortlessly.  The Farewell is  a winner!

Note:  The American director, Lulu Wang, has deftly constructed a very American film that seems like an independent foreign film, with subtitles, and cross-cultural shifts in perspective and comic nuance.

Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness

Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher.   (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).

In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus.   Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in  group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is.  The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds,  Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a  lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.

Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of  “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He  triggers Elton’s sexual desire.  They fall in love and then comes the  darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.

The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing.  They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely  confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue.  [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]

A successful example of using the “fourth wall”:  when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.

Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety  for nearly 30 years.

There’s  one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much.  While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene.  Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.

Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half .  The  electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John.  He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.

Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love.  Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.

Note: Currently in theaters.

Fahrenheit 11/9–Fourth of July

Michael Moore’s most recent documentary,  Fahrenheit 11/9, released in September of last year, is an interesting take on the 2016  presidential election .  (The film is named for the day Trump was declared the electoral winner.) This is another film in Moore’s canon of what is wrong with America, not his best but still worth  seeing.  The 39th Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor went to Donald Trump.

Although purportedly about Trump’s election and how the country got there, Fahrenheit 11/9 is also about other issues close to Moore’s heart including the 2014 Flint water crisis, and the local government’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that levels of lead were unsafe to drink.  An unusual scene of Obama’s visit to Flint and how he disappointed local residents is eye-opening.

Moore also compares Trump’s rise to power to that of  Hitler in hate speeches against different ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation. Showcasing recent racial violence, Fahrenheit 11/9 concludes that the  Constitution no longer protects the majority of our citizens from the wealthy and powerful. And, therefore, the American Dream is now nothing but a dream.  Highlighting social and political injustices,  Fahrenheit 11/9  insists that the election of Trump is a wakeup-call to the country for radical transformation. 

Although extremely provocative with multiple political targets–including not only Republican presidents but also Clinton and Obama,– this is not one of Michael Moore’s best documentaries.  It is somewhat scattered and loses its focus on what happened to the country when Clinton won the popular vote but Trump took  the electoral college.

Nonetheless, there is much substantive analysis of the political structure we have in the US, filmed with the director’s characteristic zeal, passion, flair, and wicked sense of humor.  Highly recommend for the 4th of July or when any gimlet-eyed vision of the US is called for.

The Hate U Give –T.H.U.G.

The Hate U Give is an adaptation of Angie Thomas’s bestseller by the same name (released in February 2017).  Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

Beautiful  newcomer,  Amandla Stenberg, is perfectly cast as the  wounded, courageous high school student who attends an elite white private school because her mother Lisa (a superb Regina Hall) insists she has a bright future, one that most of their neighborhood’s teen residents will not have.  

Shedding her hoodie, swallowing any aggression that might make her seem “ghetto,” and eradicating black slang, Starr endures  her white peers, including boyfriend Chris (“Riverdale” star K J Apa) and friend Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) who have appropriated what they think is “cool” from black youth.  Painful tolerance is evident on Starr’s face.  “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me,” Starr tells Chris in response to his clueless-white-boy pride in  “not seeing color.”  Yet Starr also has to  straddle  differing opinions  of her blackness and suspicions about her elitist classmates.

Starr’s life is carefully compartmentalized. Yet it seems she can only truly relax around her loving family.  In a deeply moving and unforgettable scene, Maverick, her father  (sympathetically played by Russell Hornsby), is sitting at the dining room table giving his elementary school-age son a lesson on how to survive a traffic stop by a white cop.  Maverick insists that his young son copy how he should place his hands on the dashboard, head down, avoiding eye contact.  The little boy has no comprehension why his father’s doing this.

After a raucous and typical teenage party where Starr reconnects with her  childhood playmate and crush Khalil (Algee Smith), the story becomes tragic. Starr will become the  only witness, at first reluctantly, to a night of infamy.

The Hate U Give offers a fascinating portrayal of the inspiration and moral courage of youth,  especially  black youth, who struggle to understand and survive  the racism and brutality they encounter from infancy. Solidarity against the enemy should not have to mean harboring and hating the enemy within.  The lessons to be learned from The Hate U Give and the power of understanding the self-destructive force of hate are nuanced, not dogmatic.

 The Hate U Give deserves wide circulation.   Enraging, heartbreaking, and ultimately deeply moving,  none of the young people should ever have been asked to make these impossible choices.   Although the ending is rather weak,  the true ending IMHO is when Starr finds her voice.  The Hate U Give’s impact lies in using film to  demand concrete social change.

Note: Available on Netflix as a DVD and soon available on HBO.

Mendocino–An Artist Haven

Mendocino County is known for its beautiful coastline, redwood forests, wineries, microbreweries and liberal attitudes towards marijuana.  Also, in July of last year the Ranch Fire devastated miles near Clear Lake in Mendocino County.  For my first trip there last week it was for an art workshop at the Mendocino Art Center, a wonderful experience I highly recommend.  There are a wide range of art classes available for weekend artists and friendly, beautiful accommodations within walking distance.  (My friend and I stayed at MacCallum House, and I highly recommend them!)

“Lost Horizon” by Susie Berteaux
Barbara Kibbe

“The Finale” by Diana Paul

I think of Mendocino as Carmel about a century ago:  quaint, historic buildings that are impeccably well-preserved and with history hiding between its lanes and alleys.  For example, there is a cemetery with a Chinese grave site within its perimeter, established in 1863, and segregated from the “mainstream” plots.  Ditto for the Catholic cemetery.  Little known but well-worth stopping by.

The artisanal grocery stores, curated galleries, and wide range of retail clothing and jewelry shops try to represent locals only in their goods.  And an  unbelievably well-stocked bookstore (Gallery Bookshophas an entire table devoted to the local history of Mendocino. And the food (check out Trillium and Cafe Mendocino restaurants) are not to be missed.

For all of you who plan to visit northern California, I highly recommend the Mendocino Coast, and if you are there in May and love flowers, make sure to stop by the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (on 47 acres).  Last week’s rhododendron show was memorable–and the largest in the U.S.!

Who knew Mendocino had so much to offer?!

Kusama–Infinity

The art of critically-acclaimed Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama,  now commands the highest price for any female artist alive today.  As an art-world superstar, Kusama has attracted millions of  museum-goers worldwide who wait for hours for the chance to take selfies to post on Instagram in one of her mirrored Infinity Rooms.  Yet little is known of this nonagenarian artist obsessed with dots and the film Kusama-Infinity reveals much about the artist.  She committed herself to a mental hospital in the 1970s, out of fear that she might commit suicide.  Her long arduous road to success was painful and took decades to reach.

Infinity follows a young and beautiful Kusama whose tortuous path not only reveals the artist’s persistence, resilience, and confidence but also her understanding of women’s rights, sexual freedom,  and gay rights in the US.  She symbolically performed the first gay marriage in the US,  in Central Park,  long before most Americans were cognizant of the cultural revolution about to take over the mainstream psyche. 

Endlessly courageous, Kusama aggressively promoted her work in the male-dominated artworld of New York City, only a decade after the end of the Second World War.  Despite staggering odds, this petite, unassuming Japanese woman, speaking faltering English, was determined to exhibit her art as she wanted, not as the gatekeepers of the artworld demanded. 

Infinity suggests that Yayoi Kusama’s mental illness may have stemmed from a traumatic childhood.  Both her parents wanted her to have a traditional Japanese marriage, with an upper class lifestyle.  Instead, the young artist escaped to New York City. While Kusama was waiting for recognition, she had an intimate but nonsexual relationship with the famous artist, Joseph Cornell. Under the mentorship of Georgia O’Keefe, Kusama had her first important gallery show.  Frank Stella became an avid collector of her work as well as a supporter.

Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, among others, “borrowed heavily”from Kusama’s work which was still relatively obscure while these male artists became sensations.   This repeated pattern, with white male artists being recognized for work that seemed influenced by her own innovations, understandably upset Kusama. The theft of her ideas may have been a catalyst for her depression and decision to return to Japan in the late 70s.

Slowly, as Kusama reached her late sixties, her art became fully acknowledged and skyrocketed in value. The 1993 Venice Biennale exemplified the art world’s recognition.

Infinity should have broad appeal as this film is also a condemnation  of the patronizing art overseers and their impact as gatekeepers of  what art becomes internationally recognized.

Note:  Kusama–Infinity is available on Netflix DVD.  “Velvet Buzzsaw” (see my  February 12, 2019 review),  a dramatization of a fictionalized and futuristic artworld is a fascinating metaphor for what Yayoi Kusama experienced over half a century ago.

Hanna–“Handmaid’s Tale” meets “Jack Ryan”

Hanna Amazon Original Series
Hanna, starring Esme Creed-Miles

On the surface Hanna (Amazon original series) might appear to be another conventional espionage thriller/dystopia about discovery of identity and revenge against those who hid the truth.  However, this reinterpretation of the 2011 action movie starring Saoirse Ronan, is also a dark sci-fi treatise on fascism and violence in society.  In this new release we follow an isolated teen (newcomer Esme Creed-Miles) with almost super-human powers.  She learns both survival and assassin skills from  her ex-government operative father (Joel Kinnamon), both of them hiding deep in a forest in Poland, after escaping Romania. Hiding from a CIA agent (Mireille Enos) who is determined to kill them, the father and daughter’s  cat-and-mouse game  leads to evermore sinister conspiracies.

Those expecting consistently fast-paced action may  be disappointed.  The soundtrack, languorous chase and car scenes are for Bourne Identity and Jack Ryan fans.  The narrative has plot holes, often involving how someone was located and why a change of venue occurs as we move from Romania, to Poland, Morocco, Amsterdam, Germany, and London.

The casting of  Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnamon (both starring in “The Killing”  TV series 2011-2014) was a perfect match for supporting Esme Creed-Miles in her coming-of-age story.  However,  the nine episodes could have been edited to seven or eight for a tighter, more cohesive drama.

Nonetheless, I was hooked by this young superwoman and found Hanna enjoyable and intriguing, especially the dynamic between father and daughter.  Do not compare this mini-series with the film, because so much of the story has been revised. This is one of the better Amazon series we’ve been offered in the past few years.  Highly recommend!

Note:  Available on Amazon Prime.

Dawn Wall–They Persisted (The Only Wall to Consider?)

Dawn Wall documentary

Dawn Wall was last year’s SXSW Audience Award documentary winner. Free climber Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, attempt to scale the unscalable 3000 ft. Dawn Wall, a vertical granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Dawn Wall  is much more than a documentary about climbing, however.  There is the horrific incident in Krzygistan, the years of gaining experience climbing the other faces of El Capitan, and the friendship with two female climbing partners, both of whom he had married. After an accident, Caldwell resolved not to stop his free climbing but persevered, often blurring the boundary between commitment and obsession.

All can appreciate Dawn Wall,  even if you don’t have a clue about climbing. This is an engrossing documentary that is, first and foremost, about the friendship between Caldwell and Jorgeson. Kevin Jorgeson was inexperienced as a free climber but expert at “bouldering”, a type of free climbing at 50-100 feet.  Together the two climbers   spend more than six years meticulously mapping and practicing their route. Their resilience and courage are beyond astonishing as the two climbers make history.

Dawn Wall is about the indefatigable human spirit, and the ability to overcome and accomplish the impossible. The power of friendship and supportive brotherly love in the face of adversity is beautifully crafted. While Caldwell’s obsessive nature is apparent in almost every frame of this movie, he avoids narcissism in the turning point of their climb.

This is where Dawn Wall transfixes the viewer. I felt like I was literally hanging on the side of the mountain with both climbers as they slept in a portaledger tent suspended in mid-air and laughed about what they ate and how they adapted to toilet needs as they climbed for weeks.  This isn’t really a sports film. 

The magic is in this amazing journey between kindred spirits. The fact that there are two humans in a partnership without jealousy or competitive pettiness outstrips other movies about supra-human feats and endurance such as “Man on a Wire” and “Free Solo”.  The need for human companionship and sharing in the victory makes Dawn Wall more compelling.  Adversity and setbacks drive their  personal challenges but  their friendship triumphs over all.   Dawn Wall is full of heart and soul, for everyone who has experienced hard climbs, slipping and losing our grip, and then pushing through.  Highly recommended!

Note: This YouTube behind-the-scenes clip is an added bonus for appreciating the heroic efforts the film crew undertook as well!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — The Golden Rule

There’s a lot to like about producer/director Morgan Neville’s moving,  2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  Neville (who also created 20 Feet from Stardom – see my August 19, 2018 review) interviews just about everyone who knew Fred Rogers– his wife and two sons, his longtime cast and crew on the pioneering PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood  (1968 to 2001).  Some baby-boomers, their children and their grandchildren grew up on the soothing words of Mister Rogers:

   So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day/Since we’re together we might as well say/Would you be mine?/Could you be  mine?/Won’t you be my neighbor?”

        Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was pokey enough to be cringe-worthy for adults who wondered how their children could be spellbound by a nondescript, unassuming man in a cardigan, who changed his shoes while singing the same opening song for almost forty years.

Fred Rogers, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the mid-60’s, soon realized that television could be revolutionary and that children’s lives would be impacted by this new medium.  Why not offer a show that deals with a child’s feelings–anger, fear, self-esteem, grief–to prepare them for their new world?  Mister Rogers proved to be a master at eliciting children’s  feelings, and recommending  trusting grownups to listen.    Daniel Striped Tiger–Mister Rogers’ alter ego in a furry puppet form– tackled the everyday emotional needs of pre-schoolers with respect, honesty, and thoughtfulness rarely seen on television then or now.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  Without preaching but with integrity and visual connection, Mister Rogers would show by example.  Soaking his feet in a kiddie pool with his friend, the African American policeman, Officer Clemmons,  demonstrated community in a time of segregated swimming pools.

When cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes first meeting Fred Rogers, he recalls that Rogers put his face three inches from Ma’s while gently smiling at him.  “He scared the hell out of me,” says Ma.  Rogers did the same thing when he first met the gorilla Koko, who then held his hand and signed that she loved him.

Under Mr. Rogers’ seemingly bland exterior was a true radical.   Here was a white middle-aged man inviting everyone to live in his neighborhood, regardless of color.  And his cast reflected diversity not yet seen on most shows today.

Almost hagiographical in scope, Neville does reveal one of Fred Rogers’ blind spots.  The actor who played Officer Clemmons had been to a gay bar.   Rogers soon informed him that if there were any future visits to gay bars, he would be terminated out of fear of losing corporate sponsors. The inclusion and fostering of community revealed in the context of its time was  still not universally accepting. 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? elevates this classic children’s show and its star to a standard we need to remind ourselves of and recommit to.  The unspoken question is:  What would Fred Rogers think of a culture congealed into a state of outrage, vulgarity and intolerance?  How would we build a neighborhood and live together in an era of proposed wall-building?

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood   was a realistic lens on how a child must make sense of an emotionally complex and sometimes irrational world. 

 It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows. It’s oxygen: It’s vital, and needs to be nurtured.

When you watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? you don’t see a Republican or a Democrat.  Mister Rogers speaks to the fundamental ways we should all speak to each other.

Note: Available on PBS.com and Netflix DVD.