“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a proud portrait of Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers has meant so much to so many people that it’s hard to separate the man from his image. So to hear from his friends and family that the man asking us to be his neighbor was pretty much exactly as he appeared on TV for so many years is remarkable. And in today’s world, a Fred Rogers might really do some good, even if only in memory.

Directed by Morgan Neville, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” examines more Mr. Rogers’ philosophy more so than painting a portrait or biography. As the 1950s morph into the 60s and 70s and 80s, all the way up to 9/11, can Mr. Rogers’ simple message of accepting love from others and believing in yourself hold up as the times change? Utilizing interviews with his friends and family, clips from his show and semi-frequent animation, the film explores what Mr. Rogers stood for and how his positive view of life influenced his actions.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” uses the sour current national mood as a backdrop. Have we lost a bit of the kindness that Mr. Rogers preached of us? The cynic would say yes or that the optimism of the 1980s or 90s was overblown, but the film does a good job of framing today’s issues as lacking a sense of the idea of decency. Respect, love and kindness are universal themes that never go out of style, and it’s amazing how such a simple message can be so hard to convey and appreciate.

The arc of the documentary is Fred Rogers’ continuous struggle to show children and adults that simple peace and love are important, overcoming a national stage that values superfluousness, cynicism and moxie. Even Mr. Rogers himself struggled with a feeling that what he did was never enough, but the joy he instilled in others as demonstrated in the film stands as a testament to his work. It’s a powerful message that many need to remember and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a sterling work of love that Mr. Rogers himself would appreciate.

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“Like Father” a sweet but slightly bland drama

“Like Father” follows the story of Rachel (Kristen Bell), a career woman whose fiance, Owen (Jon Foster), leaves her at the altar. When her lost father, Harry (Kelsey Grammer), shows up out of the blue and tries to reunite with her, they delve into booze and wind up on the honeymoon cruise she was supposed to go on with Owen. Now trapped on a boat and with nowhere to go, both Rachel and Harry must try to mend the fences that pushed them apart.

The film is sweet nearly to the point of schmaltz, teetering right on the edge of soap opera, but just barely not going over it. Grammer and Bell are great and bring a hefty amount of regret, nervousness and acceptance to their roles. Their co-stars, a collage of honeymooners and newlyweds, are entertaining, but somewhat stereotypical and could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Sometimes feeling a bit like an ad for Carnival cruises, the film does a good job of using the trappings and corniness of the cruise to bolster the film’s message of feeling release and overcoming the persona we give to others.

What’s missing is a sense of comedy and build-up. Rachel is annoying, combative and high-strung. Harry is solemn, regretful and nervous. There are plenty of opportunities for them to butt heads on the cruise (“How did we get here?” “I don’t know where here is.” “It’s a boat.” “What kind of boat?” “Does it look like I know what kind of boat?”, etc.) and get some laughs out of the audience. There’s a few funny lines and instances, but neither really gets on the other’s nerves enough to generate comedy. The film feels like it’s trying to be a dramedy, but can’t quite get there.

And the film doesn’t have much arc. Harry and Rachel meet. They end up on the ship. They reconcile. The End. There’s a little bit of a secret Harry is hiding, but it’s resolved pretty easily and doesn’t contribute to a major falling out between the characters. It’s all rather ho-hum and the story could have gone further to build up obstacles that the characters need to overcome.

But it’s hard not to be overcome by the film’s charm. It wears its heart on its sleeve and Grammer and Bell work seamlessly as father and daughter, full of regret and hope. For a world of cinema so often focused on explosions and sequels, it’s nice to just watch a simple story that takes place over a week on a cruise ship.

“Last Flag Flying” a sterling portrait of duty

Directed by Richard Linklater and written by him and Darryl Ponicsan, “Last Flag Flying” tells the story of three Vietnam veterans, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a drunk bar owner, Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a reformed pastor, and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), whose son has just died in the Iraq war. As Doc reunites with his old army buddies, he asks for their help to bury his son.

The film follows a typical Linklater style where many plot points are understated and long moments are spent talking and thinking deeply about life. And like many Linklater films, there are moments where it is very sweet and moments where it is grating. But overall, the film is touching with just the right amount of schmaltz without tipping into sentimentalism.

The three principal actors are fantastic, each imbuing their character with conflict and depth. It’s a tribute to the writing that gives each actor a strong basis to connect with their performance. They’re stereotypes to a point, but unique enough to be memorable.

And there is a deep, festering anger burning at the heart of the film, an anger about the sacrifices the United States asks every generation to make, wars seemingly springing up again and again. When will it end? After how much we’ve already given up, how can our country ask for more? It’s an interesting perspective counter to the constant chest-beating patriotism so often seem in films.

At the end, there is only respect, for our country, despite its flaws, for the military and for our friends. For a nation so often weighed down by moral qualms, it’s a satisfying film.

The ultimate result of the Trump presidency

Domestic breakthroughs are few and far between in today’s America. Congress is mired by gridlock, but gridlock on the fault of the voters, not the system. Lawmakers would be more willing to compromise if they weren’t scared of primary challengers and litmus tests of party loyalty. Making laws should be difficult and should be formed on consensus, not oligarchy. Lawmakers going to their far flanks are doomed to never reach agreement with each other and until that political fever breaks, passing laws will continue to stifle the American public. Regardless of the lack of legislative achievements, many fear the outcome of a Trump presidency as it continues to unfold and their fears should lie with the true purview of the American presidency: foreign policy. What is truly happening in the world today is an erosion of international perception of the American government, and that will be the ultimate result of the Trump presidency.

Ever since the end of World War II, the United States in conjunction with NATO have established themselves as the bastions of Western civilization, pushing the same fundamental ideals to the rest of the world in direct confrontation against Communism and now fanaticism: capitalism, democracy, an impartial judiciary, freedom of speech and religion. For many countries (Iran, Egypt, Vietnam), the push by the Western world was a facade of half-truths or outright lies, governments seen as chess pieces to a larger endgame as unpopular monarchs and dictators were financially supported by a country terrified of seeing more nations fall prey to Communism. After Vietnam and the birth of 24/7 media, democracy became a guiding pillar of US intervention. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this system has rushed to every corner of the globe, met with open hands by some and resistance by others. Some countries, such as China, have embraced Western economic systems while shunning human rights while others have bought into the United States concept wholeheartedly.

For years, the United States and Europe remained united in their attempts to push their doctrine, utilizing free trade to engage with many different nations. The hope is that this constant communication and trade can introduce a system of a strong central government with checks and balances, capitalist society and basic human rights to nations that never had them before, creating a unified, prosperous world.

Regardless of whether or not you personally agree with capitalism or the United States dogma, the push into the world has been dramatic and swift. The problem for many is a feeling of invasion of culture as Western ideals clash with ancient philosophies in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen. A direct clash ensues as fears of racial and religious tarnishing erupts in places that for so long had were secluded in their own borders.

One need only look at the Middle East to see this clash result in bloodshed. What had always been apparent was that the United States was committed to weathering the storm against insurgents, backed by other countries of similar minds such as Canada, the UK, France and Australia. Today, those alliances are fraying and creating a dangerous future world order.

The Trump Administration’s natural inclination is to retreat from world leadership. They’ve pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear deal and have threatened to pull out of or dramatically change NAFTA. The one-on-one meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un appears to have yielded little other than a photo op. The President has routinely criticized NATO as not pulling its fair share and has frayed relationships with Germany, Canada, France and the UK. Immigration has slowed considerably under stricter policies enacted and isolationism is now the unofficial mantra of the Republican party. The argument that the United States is pulling too much weight and should be left to its own devices, with closed borders, is an antiquated, outdated idea of foreign policy. The world is too small today for isolationist thoughts. There is no going back.

Retreating from international order will only result in a vacuum of world leadership for the United States. China, Russia or other spheres of influence will move in and direct the order of international events. And these countries’ poor civil rights records will supersede our previous intentions.

There is plenty of debate on what creates terrorist organizations. Is it our presence in countries such as Saudi Arabia that ignites resentment or our absence that allows despots to assume power and blame outsiders? There’s a natural inclination to attack the ones at the top so it might not matter, but the only solution to international conflict is strong leadership and a united global community. A retreat from responsibility leaves the weak vulnerable to despotic forces much akin to the period between World War 1 and 2 when the League of Nations failed to maintain a global order and left a struggling Germany, Italy and Japan with no direction to turn to except fascism. This is not to say that the current state of affairs is going to lead to a World War III, but the ingredients are falling into place for a new world hierarchy with potentially catastrophic ramifications. For most, there has never been a world where the United States has not been the strongest, most prosperous country in the world. Waking up to find a new world order would be an unwelcome surprise, the results of which many can not even comprehend.

Without the United States’ leadership, Russia can continue to flex in muscles in an attempt to regain its former empire, Crimea just the tip of the iceberg in their pursuit. China can grow its economy exponentially with wider avenues for trade, dethroning the United States and costing us trillions of potential dollars. Terrorist organizations can gain in strength in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, threatening millions of lives and unstable governments, and they could acquire new methods of warfare such as nuclear and chemical weapons. And lest anyone think that the rest of the world is not our problem, history teaches us that fires started by our neighbors will eventually reach us.

This will be the lasting result of the Trump presidency: a fractured global community, unreliant on the United States, where power struggles between nations become commonplace and regional violence escalates. There is always the possibility that Trumpism will be a one-off. Many Republicans in Congress are squimish about shirking international leadership and have forced the President’s hand on a number of international issues such as sanctions against Russia and a commitment to NATO. Perhaps once the Administration has passed, there will be a return to normalcy.

But such a conclusion does not take into account the amount of damage by the time all is said and done. China or Russia may have swept in and taken the reins in Pakistan or Cameroon or El Salvador. ISIS or al-Qaeda may have grown resurgent. The European Union may fracture even more.

Isolationism may sound great in theory, but much like communism, it is a deeply flawed, dangerous guiding principle. Worldwide intervention and leadership is a terrible burden to bear with the potential for loss of human life and a confrontation against malignant forces, but it is the strength of our convictions that will ultimately save us. The world needs a shining light to push through against oppressors and the whims of corruption, and the United States is losing its glow. It is imperative it find it again.

“Incredibles 2” not quite good enough

Many Pixar films have received sequels even when it didn’t seem as if they needed them. “Finding Dory”, “Cars 2”, “Cars 3” and “Monsters University” are all proof of that, essentially elevating secondary characters into primary roles and trying to create franchises when one story was simply enough. The examples above in general feel less than their predecessors because of a lack of ingenuity, a sense that their only reason for existence is money. Films such as “Toy Story” are inclined towards sequels because of a wide crew of characters whose relationships develop and a chance to build upon themes of maturation and family. The same can be said of the first “Incredibles” movie, a story that tackled the modern American family, mid-life crises and adolescent angst. Those themes translate to growth in another film, much how “Toy Story 2” and “3” built upon and deepened the themes of the first movie. “The Incredibles 2” manages to do some theme building and growth, but is hamstrung by some of the same problems that plague other Pixar sequels.

The film picks up right after the events of the first film. The Parr family must deal with the fallout from another botched hero operation, and Mrs. Incredible (Holly Hunter) is recruited by the Deavors, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and Winston (Bob Odenkirk), on a reclamation project for superheroes. In a brand new family role, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) must help raise the family, Dash (Huck Milner), Violet (Sarah Vowell) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), a role he’s never had before.

The film does a good job of bringing new themes of feminism and family into the series. Mrs. Incredible is now the superhero star and Mr. is home, being a house husband. It shows how both responsibilities carry weight and importance for the good of the family. In fact, the film could have gone even further, especially in regards to the villain, whose motivation is clearly lacking after how integral Syndrome and his philosophy was to the first movie. Perhaps if the villain were a man-hating anarchist whose mission is to destroy male-centered hegemony or something to that effect. The greatest detriment to the film is its villain and how unimportant they are to the plot. There’s a slight theme about screens and how they control us, but it too could have been taken much deeper.

And as with other Pixar sequels, a secondary character is elevated to a major role in the sequel, in this case Jack-Jack. While entertaining at times, he soon overrides the plot, the same joke over and over again. It becomes redundant.

It’s still great to see the family in another adventure. The film is enjoyable with plenty of cool action sequences and funny moments. The animation looks great (aside from a few cartoony new superheroes) and incorporates the same vintage silver age of comics grandeur and sci-fi panache. But it’s all too familiar and lacks the depth of its predecessor.

*SPOILERS*

The plot is far too similar to the first film. The Incredibles family is forced into hiding, a secret benefactor tries to help them, drama ensues on the home front, the benefactor betrays them and the family must fight together to save the public. And the film ends exactly the same as the first with Violet dating Tony, the family together and fighting crime and hope for the future.

Something, anything different would have been appreciated. Perhaps there is a supervillain family that the team must confront and turn to their side. Perhaps the supervillains were being paid off by the government when the supers were banned to stop committing crime, echoing current fears about corruption. Or the film is set 14 or so years after the first one and the Parr family must deal with Violet going to college, Jack-Jack and Dash not getting along as brothers and other maturation issues.

The result would be a different story with a different conclusion. The family would have grown in some way, having overcome new dilemmas and conflicts. But director Brad Bird, as with many directors before him, was too enamored with his previous project and simply retread what worked.

 

“Solo” a mishmash of ideas and concepts

When you have too many cooks in the kitchen, the result can be a sloppy mess of mixmatched ingredients and half-baked concepts. Especially when you fire your cook when the meal’s almost done and hire another cook to try and salvage the dish.

“Solo” tells the beginnings of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a rebel on the planet Corellia trying to escape with his girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). A series of events leads him through the Empire, a band of new rebels and a group of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) as well as future companions Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

The film is now infamous for the firing of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller near the end of the film’s production. Ron Howard was brought on board and the result was a rushed schedule and costly reshoots. The final film is a conglomeration of different ideas and loose ends, some obviously Lord and Miller’s, some Howard’s and some the studio’s, specifically Kathleen Kennedy, whose reputation continues to take a beating with the constant behind-the-scenes drama that unfurls with each new Star Wars film.

The very idea of a Han Solo spinoff film seems uninspired, more like a safe excuse to make another Star Wars film; another franchise character, some small tidbits about his past and a whole new array of potential merchandise opportunities. Alden Ehrenreich is a serious step down from the charismatic Harrison Ford. Rumors of acting coaches being brought in during the shoot certainly must not have done well for his confidence and his chemistry with Emilia Clarke is lacking. He’s caught between trying to be the cocksure, charming Ford while being his own thing while adapting to modern day acting in contrast to the 1970s and 80s Ford style. It’d be difficult for any actor, and it just doesn’t work.

There are some fun moments to be sure. After a dismal first half, the film picks up with double-crosses, space battles and slave uprisings. There’s a few funny moments (probably delivered by Lord and Miller) and some of the action scenes are fun and interesting. But they’re surrounded by a production that feels mismanaged and lacking focus.

*SPOILERS*

If a Han Solo film needed to be made, a focus on Solo’s character was needed. How did he become who he becomes? The film does try to show how he gets the Millennium Falcon and how he meets Lando, but doesn’t show his character progression.

How did he become the burned-out, selfish renegade at the start of “A New Hope”? The natural progression would be from idealist to cynic. You can see during the film that’s where things were generally heading, but the character change is minimal at best, most likely because Disney was planning a sequel to complete the narrative (as evidenced by an open ending and an eyeball-inducing cameo from Darth Maul). For this to feel like an actual, complete story, Han’s character arc needs to be complete.

Imagine this: the film starts much as the film actually does; a young Han and his first love, Qi’ra, scrounge on Corellia, dreaming of getting out and being rich and happy. They make plans and try to ignore the destitution they live in. Then the Empire roars in and drafts all able-bodied men and women into the armed services. Han and Qi’ra are separated. He sees Qi’ra personally taken by an Imperial commander, a man who has a history with the couple and has always wanted Qi’ra for himself (let’s call him Zoran). Han eventually runs off from the Empire after he refuses to massacre the Wookies on an Imperial campaign, in the process saving Chewbacca. Chewbacca and Han connect over their lost loves, Han missing Qi’ra and Chewie, his life partner. They are recruited by Beckett who teaches them how to survive as smugglers (a la Oliver Twist), seeing in Han an innate gift for the job. Han is wary of compromising his morals, but Beckett promises that after their big score, which he’s been planning for years, he’ll personally take him to find Qi’ra. They gather a crew, including Lando, and, heist style, detail exactly how the operation is going to go down: a cosmic, fun, intergalactic scenario that barely succeeds, but ends in success. Beckett stays true to his word and takes Han to Qi’ra aboard an Imperial shuttle under the guise of an emissary to the Empire. There, he discovers Qi’ra has married the Imperial lieutenant, who is secretly working with crimelords on the side. Han tries to run with Qi’ra, but she is torn. She tries to convince him that she loves Zoran, but he doesn’t believe her. Then he is betrayed by Beckett as the old man makes a deal with the crimelords on Zoran’s side. Trapped and alone with just Chewbacca, Han becomes the bitter man we know. Chewie saves him by breaking him out and they escape. Qi’ra, realizing her love for Han, tries to abscond with him, but is held back by Zoran. Chewie and Han are trapped in an elevator shaft, but Qi’ra manages to make it to the control panel and release them, saving them as they blast off on a stolen ship into hyperspace. Qi’ra is detained by Zoran, her fate a mystery. We cut to a year later, Han a womanizer going from job to job with Chewie. They rendezvous with Beckett, cornering him in a bad deal with Lando’s help. The two men talk about their father-son relationship, talk about old times and how the world has led them to this place of eat-or-be-eaten. Han shoots Beckett before he can draw.

This sort of storyline would show a clear progression of Han’s character and a streamlined story, with more dramatic moments and actual sorrow, joy and tension. The new Star Wars films are too preoccupied with repeating the formulas of the past: shoot ’em ups, blasters firing, good and evil, etc. Branching out and trying something different would have gone a long way. The plot I outlined above includes some Dickens, some classic Western, some heist and some film noir. Not nearly enough thought beyond franchise building went into “Solo.”

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” continues franchise’s deeper morals

In its fifth outing, many find the “Jurassic” franchise lacking in originality and freshness. They’re tired of people running from through the jungle from blood-thirsty beasts. Evolve, change, they say. But the “Jurassic” franchise has never been coy about what it is: an action-adventure romp featuring dinosaurs. That’s what it always will be. No one criticizes James Bond or an Ocean’s movie for not evolving. Movies fit into their genres and reflect variations on a concept. So “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” in general succeeds because it doesn’t deviate from what works and yet it adds some new underlying themes about animal rights and mankind’s responsibility.

The movie picks up three years after the events of the previous film. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is spearing an effort to save the abandoned dinosaurs on Isla Nublar with an upcoming volcanic eruption promising to wipe them out. She gets help from a benefactor, Eli (Rafe Spall), who works on behalf of one of John Hammond’s old partners, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), to rescue the Velociraptor Blue. This leads her to reconcile with her old boyfriend and dinosaur trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, secrets about Eli and the Lockwood corporation begin to emerge, especially regarding Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon).

The film is sectioned off in two sections, one on the island to save the dinosaurs and then after the dinosaurs are captured. Unlike “The Lost World” which feels like two different films after a similar return to the mainland, the plot moves forward in a logical sequence to make a concentrated story. It builds off themes hinted at in “Jurassic World” about the rights of animals, corporate ownership and human responsibility. If an animal is created in a lab, does it have the rights afforded other creatures found in nature or is it the property of a company? What responsibility do Claire and Owen have in regards to their ambition overriding their judgment? Why do we have to keep relearning the same lesson about tampering with nature (with current connotations to global warming, warfare, etc.) before we stop doing it?

The film is far from perfect. The characters in general are still rather one-dimensional, especially in regards to the villains, who are cookie-cutter evil businessmen and hunters. Some depth (perhaps a character who changes his mind about his inhumanity a la Roland in “Lost World) would have gone a long way. Both Owen and Claire are given a wider role than in the previous film and their chemistry seems to have grown. Their previously forced-in romance feels natural here as does the weight of their past. Claire in particular is not the frigid damsel, but a fully-developed character who can get stuff done. If only Eli was given a little more development (though it is worth noting that previous films’ villains have also been giving little depth such as Hoskins in “Jurassic World” and Peter Ludlow in “Lost World”).

And the revelation involving Maisie is unnecessary and strange. The whole subplot involving the Lockwood corporation seems tacked on and not important to the overall story. It could have been just as easily any corporation and it would have served its purpose just fine.

The film is a popcorn-munching, high-octane thrill ride that’ll leave most viewers eager for a repeat viewing. The action set pieces are tense and interesting and the film sets up what should be another exciting chapter. Nostalgia still runs deep and drives the franchise too much, but as a solid action movie, it’s worth your money.

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