Friday, June 29, 2018

To Be or Not To Be (1983) * * *

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Directed by:  Alan Johnson

Starring:  Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Jose Ferrer, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, George Gaynes, James Haake

A remake of the 1942 Jack Benny comedy of the same name, To Be or Not To Be is a comedy in which a troupe of Polish actors outwit the Nazi machine long enough to plot an escape from occupied Poland.    There are serious undertones (how could there not be?), but Brooks and company squeeze a lot of laughs and suspense from the material.    We have our ration of Mel Brooks style puns and gags ("Sondheim!  Send in the clowns!) or, after the opening scenes are spoken in Polish, an announcer explains over a loudspeaker how the rest of the movie will spoken in English.    Mel Brooks wouldn't be Mel Brooks without the style of verbal humor, but To Be or Not To Be presents us with a story and people we care about.  

As To Be or Not To Be opens, the Bronski theater troupe led by second-rate actor Frederick Bronski (Brooks), is performing "Highlights from Hamlet" and his soliloquy is interrupted by handsome young officer Lt. Sobinski (Matheson) loudly excusing himself and sneaking backstage for a meeting with Frederick's wife and co-star Anna (Bancroft).    Frederick is incensed more by the interruption than by the meeting with his wife, but then again he is such an egomaniac he puts his wife's name in parentheses on the theater posters.   

Anna isn't exactly cheating on Frederick, but she adores the attention lavished upon her by Sobinski.  Wouldn't you if your husband put your name in parentheses?   Sobinski is soon called away on a mission just as the Nazis invade and assume control of Warsaw and closes the theater.    The occupation of Warsaw is led by the blowhard doofus Col. Erhardt (Durning), who blames his own incompetence on his underling Schultz (Lloyd) and adores the fact he is supposedly called "Concentration Camp Erhardt".

As the plot unfolds, Frederick is forced to impersonate a traitorous professor (Ferrer), Col. Erhardt, and even Hitler himself.    Frederick's biggest lament is how he gave the best performances of his life, and no one saw it or applauded him.     Yes, Frederick is a typically insecure actor, but Brooks makes him lovable anyway.     We can forgive him his trespasses, as we do Anna's, who as played by Bancroft shows us that, damn it all, she loves her schmuck husband anyway.    There are a few touching moments in which both Frederick and Anna realize that they are still in love. 

Even though the Nazis in To Be or Not To Be are buffoons, there is still the evil presence of the Nazi war machine everywhere.    We know the war would drag on for six more years and millions upon millions were killed in the name of stopping the Axis Powers' attempt at world domination.    But, even in a slapstick comedy like this one, we get to see the Nazi war machine made a fool of by a group of second-rate actors (the characters, not the real actors, who are all great here) who would like nothing more than to put on "Highlights from Hamlet" night after night.    That is satisfying enough for me. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

25th Hour (2003) * * *

25th Hour Movie Review

Directed by:  Spike Lee

Starring:  Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Tony Siragusa, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin

25th Hour details the last 24 hours of freedom for Monty Brogan (Norton), a drug dealer who begins his seven-year prison sentence tomorrow and spends his last free hours setting things right with his friends, loved ones, and even enemies.    He has thought about how he got here, and how he should've gotten out while the getting was good, before DEA agents searched his house and found kilos of cocaine and stashed cash in his sofa cushions.    He is kicking himself for not having the money laundered or for trusting too many people with his secrets.    The rest of the people in his life will go on with their lives after tomorrow.    Monty will have to deal with survival in prison for seven long years.    He knows as we do that he brought this on himself, not that it helps much. 

In Spike Lee's thoughtful, contemplative film, we first meet Monty sitting on a park bench next to his dog Doyle.    A strung-out junkie approaches him looking for a fix.   Monty coldly tells him he is no longer in that business.     He isn't anymore, but in a way he always will be in that business.    Every day in prison will remind him of this.    Monty lives in the same posh apartment with his girlfriend Naturelle (Dawson) in which he hid his drugs.    We see in flashbacks how his relationship with Naturelle started and how his life slowly and inevitably crashed.    Naturelle senses Monty's distance from her.    Is he preoccupied with his fate or does he think she turned him in to the feds?    A mutual friend, Kostoya (Siragusa- yes the football player), plants seeds of doubt in Monty's head about Naturelle's loyalty.  

Monty's day will continue with a visit to his father at his bar and then a final get together with his longtime buddies Frank (Pepper), a hotshot stockbroker, and Jake (Hoffman), a rich kid schoolteacher who has fantasies about 17-year-old student Mary (Paquin), who clearly likes him.    Frank and Jake are saddled with their own guilt about Monty.    Frank thinks he should've at least warned Monty once about the dangers of his lifestyle.    Jake knows he can't act on his feelings towards Mary, but a coincidental meeting outside the club where he is meeting Monty only muddies the waters.

What is spoken once by Frank to Jake (but not to Monty) is how tonight will be the end of Monty as they know him.    Or more to the point, their relationship with him.    Frank promises to be there when Monty is released from prison seven years from now, but a lot can happen in seven years.    Whether Monty runs away, kills himself, or goes to prison, the Monty they knew will be gone forever.    Among Monty's myriad thoughts, I am sure this occurred to him too, even if he doesn't say it out loud.

25th Hour is sobering, but perceptive about its characters and their inner conflicts.   Yet, it is not a downer, mostly because Lee directs with energy and style, although sometimes a bit too heavy on the style.    The score sometimes is either too loud and drowns out the dialogue, or it too blatantly underlines important points.    And a Spike Lee movie wouldn't be a Spike Lee movie without the character who appears to be floating above the fray.    There is also that awkward allusion to Do The Right Thing in which Monty looks at himself in the mirror and curses out every ethnic group, race, neighborhood, and class in New York.    My understanding is that such a passage is in the book on which the film is based, but it comes off as too much of a distracting nod to Lee's earlier films.

Regardless, Lee's film is at its best when it taps into the universal feelings of regret, loss, and guilt.    It is human nature to curse ourselves when we turned right instead of left, or did something terribly stupid which seemed reasonable at the moment.     I recently reviewed American History X (also starring Norton), and in both films we see a strong, centered Norton performance in which he is fully aware of the consequences of his actions.   Norton is controlled, attempting to be dispassionate, but we know the thoughts that are churning away in his brain and eating at his soul.     But, this is not just Norton's film.    Pepper, Dawson, and Hoffman also give stellar supporting performances with their own painful conflicts.     And Brian Cox (as Monty's dad) has a remarkable final speech to his son as he is driving him to the prison gates.    Maybe, just maybe, they can make a turn and head west never to be heard from again.    Does this become a reality or is it simply a fond wish for both men who know what is ahead?    We aren't entirely sure, and Lee leaves us with a semblance of hope in a story which we thought was exclusively hopeless. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

American History X (1998) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Tony Kaye

Starring:  Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Stacy Keach, Ethan Suplee, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks

American History X was made in 1998 and contains ideas which are more relevant today than ever.   Immigration is now a hot-button issue and we see and hear stories of immigrant children separated from their parents.    No matter what your view is on illegal (or legal) immigration and how it should be handled, separating kids from parents doesn't sound like the way to go about dealing with the issue.    Is there even an issue?    Or just a rabble-rousing way to gain electoral support?  

In American History X, a white man from Venice, CA named Derek (Norton) is seduced into the world of neo-Nazism and the skinhead culture.    He not only joins, he rises in the ranks and becomes a powerful spokesperson spewing hateful rhetoric to troubled, lonely, and insecure teens looking for someone to blame for their troubles.    How did Derek get this way?   Flashbacks suggest a father who instilled bigotry into his children, but to see the extremes to which Derek takes his beliefs suggests something darker and bleaker.    Not just content to make speeches, Derek leads his followers in violent attacks against minorities.     One night when vandals were attempting to steal his car, Derek kills a black man with a curb stomp and is sentenced to prison.    The wild look in his eyes displays his unbridled hatred.

That changes in prison, when Derek discovers tacit cooperation between the white supremacist and minority factions.    Derek doesn't understand nor care that their alliance is for monetary or practical benefit.     He challenges the white supremacists and the minorities and is raped in the shower for his troubles.    Now a disillusioned loner,  Derek is befriended on his work detail in the laundry room by a black teen who is able to help steer Derek's beliefs into more positive views of others.  

Assisting in Derek's transformation is Sweeney (Brooks), a teacher who taught Derek in high school and is now teaching Derek's younger brother Danny (Furlong), who is dangerously emulating his older brother.     Derek is released from prison attempting to save Danny from his fate and from the grip of white supremacy.    These supply some of the most powerful moments in American History X, which scarily manufactures a nightmarish world of violence, hatred, and maybe redemption if it can be allowed.    Or are Derek and Danny in too deep to break free?  

Edward Norton (in an Oscar-nominated performance) provides us with a protagonist who convincingly and powerfully transforms from hate monger to a wiser version of himself thanks to his experiences in prison.     Sweeney asks the most pertinent question which forever alters Derek's attitude, "Has anything you've done made your life better?"    Looking around his prison surroundings, Derek knows the answer and in a scene of intense power, he finally understands where his hatred has landed him.    But, breaking Danny free of this life is a hurdle, since he is clearly under the sway of Cameron (Keach), the head of the local skinhead chapter who recruited Derek and eagerly tells him how the infant internet will help unite the cause of racism and violence.  

American History X can really only end one way, and it chronicles an almost inevitable path for Danny which he can never truly escape from because he sets the wheels in motion early on.    Even as Derek tells him of his prison story, and Danny undergoes a change of heart, their fates are sealed.    It is telling as Derek's last words in the movie are, "What have I done?"    It is a question which will haunt him the rest of his days and provides a terrifying conclusion.    American History X's post-production war between director Kaye and Norton is well documented, but even with that, the movie gives us a dark look at a horrifying underbelly of society which in 2018 now feels empowered and even emboldened by rhetoric from a president who appealed to the basest instincts of voters in a cheap, cynical, transparent attempt to win votes.    The saddest part is that it worked.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

Blue Chips (1994) * * *

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Directed by:  William Friedkin

Starring:  Nick Nolte, Shaquille O' Neal, Mary McDonnell, Anfernee Hardaway, J.T. Walsh, Ed O' Neill,  Alfre Woodard, Bob Cousy

The question posed by Blue Chips in 1994 is the same today for college athletics:   Can't we just pay these athletes out in the open already?    This way, we drop the pretense of the "student athlete", since many of the top players don't play four years anyway.    Most use college as a one or two-year waiting period until they can enter the NBA draft, and that is only because the NBA prohibits drafting players right out of school.    They must wait at least one year, but then this turns the top college programs into one-and-done institutions.

As Happy (Walsh), the chief booster of the fictional Western University says, "We owe these kids!"   His logic is that the university makes millions and the NCAA makes billions on the backs of these athletes, so what's wrong with buying a recruit's father a new tractor?   Or the mother of another blue chipper a house?    Or $30,000 in cash to another recruit?   These are mere pittances compared to the revenue these kids bring in.

Blue Chips begins with Western basketball coach Pete Bell (Nolte) enduring his first losing season in his storied career.    He won two national titles, but that was a long time ago, and the restless "friends of the program" wants to know what Pete has done for them lately.    Now, Pete is in a quandary.   He needs the top recruits to come to his program, but to do so, he must violate NCAA (or in this film NCSA) recruiting rules.    Pete always ran a clean program, but with the pressure to win weighing on his shoulders, he relents and breaks the rules for the first time in his life.

This brings two of the top national recruits to Western, courtesy of some payoffs, and also a 7'4" monster named Neon (O'Neal) who plays pick-up games in his hometown and can dunk like no other.    But, at what cost?   Pete struggles with his conscience and a local reporter (O'Neill) starts snooping around after unearthing some pretty damning evidence of illegal recruiting.    It is amusing when Happy tells Pete the money and paper trail are untraceable, yet the reporter is able to gather up his information within ten minutes.

William Friedkin's film is a morality tale about college athletics and no doubt sides with Pete's point of view, but Happy's argument can't be denied.    A lot of investigative headaches could go away if the players receive even a stipend to play ball, as well as a lot of hypocrisy.    Universities wouldn't have to keep pretending the athletic programs aren't revenue streams which bring millions into the schools' coffers.    Nolte is at his best when he spews angry tirades at his team and froths at Happy, but we like him even when he is kicking basketballs into the stands during arguments with referees.   You would think Pete is playing Bob Knight, only Knight himself appears in the film and is relatively calm compared to Pete.   Who woulda thunk it?

Pete is under intense pressure as he battles the media, his conscience, and tries to win back his ex-wife (McDonnell) who he still loves, so we feel for him and makes him a sympathetic hero.    O'Neal isn't just a hulking basketball player, but a kid at heart who loves to play basketball, and there is a joy to his performance.    He doesn't even ask for a handout, but the boosters attempt to send him a Lexus anyway.    The other recruits aren't so bashful, especially the mother (Woodward) of one of the recruits who explicitly spells out her needs to Pete.   

There is basketball action in Blue Chips, but the outcome doesn't matter because in Pete's mind any victory is tainted.    The boosters, school, and fans have no such qualms, which is of little comfort to the coach.    The point of Blue Chips is that the rules are made to be bent and broken and it takes someone with less of a moral compass to play the game.   

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Tag (2018) * * *

Tag Movie Review

Directed by:  Jeff Tomsic

Starring:  Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Burress, Leslie Bibb, Isla Fisher, Annabell Wallis, Jake Johnson, Rashida Jones, Nora Dunn

Based on a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Tag is based on a true story of a group of lifelong friends who play a game of tag in May of each year.    They've been playing the same game for thirty years and they want to take one last crack at Jerry (Renner), who has never been tagged and is soon to be married and dropping out of the game.    Just to prove the events portrayed in the film aren't completely exaggerated, we see video recordings of the real players at the end of the movie dressing in disguise, enacting silly pranks, and sneaking up on other players in the shower all in the name of saying "You're it,"

There is an oft-repeated phrase in the film which serves as the group's mantra:  "You don't stop playing because you get old.   You get old because you stop playing."    They say Ben Franklin coined the phrase, but there is doubt.    The guys (and wife of one of them) use the game as an excuse to stay in touch, which isn't a bad thing.    But, on the basis of this film, they must have an awful lot of free time and unlimited income to do all of the traveling and put in the time to play the game for a whole month.

Tag is naturally preposterous, and once you accept that, you can sit back and revel in its absurdity.    Jerry is not an easy target.    Here is a guy who doesn't just run away from tags, but sets up Rambo-like traps and has the stealth and energy of an action hero.    He is not going to give up his undefeated streak without a fight and some underhanded tactics, including having his fiancee play a role in the festivities.    The film begins with Hogan (Helms), a successful veterinarian who applies for a job as a janitor at a Fortune 800 company.    Why?    So, he can get close enough to take his friend Bob (Hamm), who runs the company.    Bob is in the middle of an interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter when Hogan, disguised as the janitor, tags him.    The reporter, Rebecca (Wallis) is more curious now about the game than Bob's company and comes along when the duo declares their intentions to finally tag Jerry after all these years. 

Jerry is about to be married and some ground rules are set up among Bob, Hogan, and the other players.    No tagging during the rehearsal dinner nor during the wedding ceremony.    Anything else, including Jerry's AA meeting, is fair game.    The crew schemes and pays people off for intel on Jerry (remember the unlimited money comment from two paragraphs ago).    If these bozos would put as much thought into curing cancer as they do this game, cancer would be a thing of the past.    Isn't that the case with a lot of misdirected passion?

I can't say I wasn't entertained on a basic level with Tag.    The actors bring the same passion for the ridiculousness as the real life players did, and Renner provides the movie with an elusive, mysterious target.    His escapes at times border on the supernatural.    I'm quite sure some dramatic (or comic) license was taken with this story, but then again, maybe not.    Based on the real videos which were shown at the end, I wouldn't put anything past these players. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Diner (1982) * * *

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Directed by:  Barry Levinson

Starring:  Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly, Michael Tucker

The Fells Point Diner in Baltimore is the center of the universe for a group of 20ish men in 1959 Baltimore.    The 60's were upon them, but their immediate futures were in a state of flux.    We have Fenwick (Bacon)- a college dropout with no direction, Billy (Daly)- a graduate student who finds out his recent tryst with a female friend has resulted in pregnancy, Boog (Rourke)- a hairdresser by day and law student/degenerate gambler by night who now owes the local thugs $2,000, Eddie (Guttenberg), who is about to be married, but this depends on whether his fiancee can past an oral test Eddie devises about the Baltimore Colts, and Shrevy (Stern), who is married to Beth (Barkin), but finds he can't talk to her about much of anything. 

Hanging around on the outskirts of this group of friends is Modell (Reiser), the clown of the group who loves to talk about the topics of the day and give his unique opinions.    Modell doesn't appear to have any back story himself, but lives vicariously through his friends and seems to turn up whenever the gang assembles.    Barry Levinson's Diner lovingly details his hometown of the late 1950s, and did so again in the hilarious Tin Men (1987), which also used Baltimore as a backdrop.    The guys are unsure about, well, everything.    How will Boog be able to pay the $2,000 he owes before getting his legs broken?    Does Eddie even want to get married?    (Hint:  When you call your upcoming wedding "the thing" and your wedding depends on the outcome of a test you give your fiancee, then perhaps you don't want to get married).    Will Beth and Shrevy learn to communicate or find anything in common?    Will Fenwick do anything useful with his life? 

The plots are all reasonably resolved by the time Eddie's wedding rolls around on New Year's Eve. 
Some of the resolutions are convincing, some a bit too tidy to be real, but we care enough to be taken along for the ride.    Levinson, in his feature film directorial debut, peppers his dialogue with nice verbal touches and has a clear eye for the period, including the fact that everyone smokes cigarettes.   I grew up in a time in which smoking was permitted in restaurants, and the ashtray full of butts was part of the deal when you ate at a diner at 2 am.    The guys in Diner stay out until dawn hanging out at the Fells Point and then make plans to meet up there again later, as if hanging around there is something that can continue for years to come.

Diner doesn't make any larger points about the troubled times to come.    There is no mention of civil rights, the Cold War, or any outside world events at all.    These guys aren't focused on such matters and Diner takes on a charming innocence.    Levinson is concerned with showing us a time in his life which he holds dear to his heart and allowing us to witness it.    There will be enough time to deal with real life for these men.    For a few more days, they want nothing more than to pretend the end of their innocence isn't imminent.

Gotti (2018) * * 1/2

Gotti Movie Review

Directed by:  Kevin Connolly

Starring: John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Stacy Keach, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Spencer Lofranco

Yes,  Gotti isn't Goodfellas.   But then, how many films are?    Gotti isn't interested in depth or insight into the mob world or John Gotti himself.    It is more superficial and paints in broader strokes with its characters.    But, even without any real depth, Gotti wasn't boring.    It moved along reasonably well, anchored by a John Travolta performance in which he is clearly enjoying himself playing "The Teflon Don", although we may have to retire using The Animals' House of the Rising Sun on mob movie soundtracks from now on. 

Travolta doesn't look as much like the feared mob boss as Armand Assante did in a late 90's TV movie, but he hits all the notes even with some of the below par dialogue he has to shoulder.    And if think Gotti was tough, his wife Victoria (played by Travolta's real life wife Kelly Preston) maybe even more fearsome in some of her scenes.    When she gives her husband the business, I was reminded of Al Pacino telling Talia Shire in The Godfather Part III: "They should fear you."   

Gotti chronicles its subject's rise to power in the Gambino crime family.   John is a ruthless foot soldier who answers to a boss he can't stand and doesn't respect, and soon has him whacked to assume control of the family in 1985.    Gotti became known as The Teflon Don because he was able to beat three federal cases against him until the fourth one resulted in conviction in 1992.    His namesake son (Lofranco) assumes control, but then he is awash in charges and trial upon trial.    The film begins with a face-to-face meeting between John Jr. and the dying John Sr. in prison.   John Jr. is debating possibly taking a plea deal because he doesn't want to go through any more trials.   The old man, bald and stricken with terminal cancer, nearly blows his stack and tells his son all about not backing down no matter what the cost.    Junior could've said to his dad: "A lot of good it did you," but this isn't that type of movie.

Gotti loves its protagonist.   So much so that the archived footage of him and his funeral includes man on the street interviews with people who regarding Gotti with hero worship.    Gotti may have been a murderer and racketeer, but he did so with honor and adherence to a personal code.    He smacks an underling around for hiding his head when walking into a courtroom.    If you're going to court, hold your head up high and don't hide, says John, who becomes a media darling and rock star despite being the head of the largest crime family in America.

What is Gotti exactly?    Its milieu is the mob, but it doesn't delve into it much past cliches you've seen from other mob movies.    Do we learn what makes Gotti tick?    Not really, except on a basic level, but even with a flashy Travolta performance we don't get to know him in an intimate way.    Gotti touches the bases and sees much, but doesn't quite see through. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) * * * 1/2

Terminator 2: Judgment Day Movie Review

Directed by:  James Cameron

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Earl Boen, Joe Morton

The Terminator (1984) was compelling and worked on the level of a horror film.   It laid the groundwork for its superior sequel, which combines the horror elements of something relentlessly stalking you that can't be killed with terrifying visions of a future in which most of humankind is obliterated by computers and machines.    If there was ever an argument against artificial intelligence, this is it.    With the advent of the Internet, Alexa, and a whole new generation of computers, cell phones, and super smart technology still to come, Terminator 2: Judgment Day foreshadows how technology can be dangerous in the wrong hands.   

In the original 1984 film, which also starred Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron, Schwarzenegger played a "terminator" sent from the future to kill a woman (Hamilton) who would later give birth to the leader of the resistance against the very machines which rule the bleak, dark future.    The mission did not succeed, which the machines should have realized would happen since the leader, John Connor, exists in the future.   So, the machines try again by sending a new and improved terminator, the T-1000 (Patrick) back to the past to kill a now teenage, juvenile delinquent Connor (Furlong), who is now being raised by uncaring foster parents while his real mother Sarah (Hamilton) is locked away in a mental institution for ranting about the impending doom of the future. 

The twist is:   A second terminator, a rewired one played again by Schwarzenegger, is sent back by the future Connor to protect himself from the T-1000.    This is no easy task.   Both terminators look human from the outside, but contain robotic skeletons and computers for brains.    The Schwarzenegger model lacks the shape-shifting, identity-assuming ability, and liquid core of the T-1000, although he can still impersonate others with his voice.    When the terminators do battle, it is the irresistible force vs. the immovable object and an exercise in futility since both can take a licking and keep on ticking.   Schwarzenegger vs. Patrick is a good matchup. 

John comes to understand that Schwarzenegger is his de facto bodyguard, but also teaches him to be more "human" and not kill everyone in his path.    He just wounds them instead, and there is a funny allusion to the first film in which Schwarzenegger ripped the heart out of an unsuspecting lout who refused to give him his clothes.    Terminator 2 takes its time to slow down from the car chases, explosions, and fights to develop some comic, touching moments between John and his terminator.  But, the film is about action, and it delivers some riveting scenes in which we think the T-1000 is destroyed, only to find it will simply reconstruct itself and keep moving.    The T-1000 is an improved model on Schwarzenegger's 1984 version, which is a triumph in itself, since that terminator wasn't exactly easy to kill either.

Cameron relies heavily on convincing visuals and scary predictions of what's to come.    John, Sarah, and their terminator soon try to stop the terrible future which awaits from happening altogether,  while eluding the tireless T-1000.   What happens is inevitable and ultimately least until Hollywood dipped its toe into these waters again with the pedestrian Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), which wasn't bad, but unnecessary.    This film brought the saga to its logical end and it was more than satisfactory, but then the series didn't quit while it was ahead.  

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018) * * * *

Won't You Be My Neighbor? Movie Review

Directed by:  Morgan Neville

Starring:  Fred Rogers, Francois Clemmons, Joanne Rogers, Yo-Yo Ma

I doubt a show like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood could succeed in today's world in which we are bombarded with information, opinions, and news at a relentless pace.    When I first see Fred Rogers' wide-eyed, open smile in Won't You Be My Neighbor?,  I admit I was unnerved a bit.    Why?   Because surely Fred Rogers (1928-2003) couldn't be that benevolent and caring about children, could he?    You mean to tell me he has no angle?    That this isn't just a phony persona aimed at cynically making millions off of an innocent audience?    I am relieved to report that with Fred Rogers, what you saw is what you got.    He was as honest, forthright, and loving as his TV persona suggested.    I watched the show from time to time in my childhood, but even then found it to be too slow.    I wanted cartoons and action, which is precisely why Mr. Rogers created his neighborhood.    It was the antithesis of mind-numbing action.    He wanted children to think, to listen, and most of all to feel cared about.  

Won't You Be My Neighbor? shows us a man who was misunderstood because he exuded gentleness and compassion.    He actually felt children deserved to be dealt with honestly and with the belief that they were special in their own way.    We see early 2000's media coverage bashing Mr. Rogers for "creating a generation of entitled kids who felt they didn't have to prove they were special."    What a cruel bunch of horseshit.    As Mr. Rogers stated in his final commencement speech to college grads circa 2002, (shortly before his 2003 death from cancer) he only wanted children to know they were special.    That their feelings and thoughts mattered and that they deserved to be loved for who they are, not who they will eventually be.   Rogers could be considered a pioneer in recognizing children's rights. 

One of the themes of Morgan Neville's extraordinary and touching documentary is that Mr. Rogers, for all of his square behavior like wearing a sweater and bobo sneakers on his quiet show, was radical and ahead of his time with his thinking and how he explained controversial topics to children on his show.    Because I wasn't a regular watcher, I was amazed that Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood actually tackled assassination on the June 7, 1968 broadcast (one day following the assassination of Robert Kennedy).    He spent numerous episodes on dealing with death, divorce, loss, and grief; all topics which would certainly confuse children.    Heck, they even confuse adults.     At no point does Fred Rogers ever condescend to his audience.    He didn't sugarcoat.   He asked questions and explained honestly and directly.    When Mr. Rogers wasn't playing himself on screen, he assumed various personas in the form of puppets such as Daniel (a cat) and King Friday XIII (a pompous, dictatorial king).   

Each puppet wasn't just a character, it was an extension of Rogers himself.    Daniel represented the doubting, sensitive side, while King Friday represented the Rogers who was angry and wanted things his way.    When we hear Rogers talk in a high-pitched voice as Daniel, it is sad and heartbreaking because inside Rogers was sad and heartbroken.     The real Fred Rogers was a man who doubted himself constantly, yet pushed forward with his message of acceptance.    His childhood was touched upon in interviews with his sister, who confessed that as children she and Fred were not permitted to "be bad" and express anger.    They were taught children were to be seen and not heard.    The adult Mr. Rogers never forgot how this felt for him, and ensured he would not make the same mistake when dealing with his own children and the children he reached every day on television.

We see how much Mr. Rogers believed in the value of his show and his audience.   He defended it vigorously, but not by shouting or being aggressive, but by staying true to himself and finding just the right words to say.     Public television has only been around for a little over fifty years; created during the Johnson administration, but facing elimination by Richard Nixon because money was needed to fund the Vietnam War.    Public hearings were held by the Senate on the matter, but it seemed clear the programs would be eliminated, until Fred Rogers spoke.    With every syllable, he had the committee and especially its harsh chairman eating out of his hand.    Rogers spoke to the child in everyone and in the end, the chairman smiled and said, "You just got your $20 million,"   It is a breathtaking moment.

Mr. Rogers was not perfect and not a saint, but pretty close.    He had his moments in which he wasn't so enlightened, such as when he learned Francois Clemmons (a black man who played a police officer on his show) was gay and visiting gay bars.    Rogers ordered him not to visit those bars anymore out of fear his sponsors would pull their funding once they found out the show employed a gay man.    But, according to Clemmons, Rogers eventually came around and accepted him openly, which caused Clemmons to consider Mr. Rogers his surrogate father.    One of the themes during some of the most tumultuous times in our history was how Mr. Rogers accepted all, regardless of color or gender.    When blacks were being forced in some cities to leave public pools by cruel pool owners, Mr. Rogers symbolically dipped his feet in a kiddie pool with Francois.    His message to children:  It was ok to share a pool with a black person.   

There are so many stunning and emotional moments in Won't You Be My Neighbor? that it would not be proper to list them all here.    One of the wonders of watching this movie is being constantly surprised by the depth of its subject and the love it feels for him.    We see how much Mr. Rogers touched so many lives by offering simple messages that children deserve to be valued and should value others in the same way.   The movie touches upon people's skepticism about Rogers himself.   Surely no one can be this genuine, adults thought, but it turns out there were no skeletons in his closet.     Rogers never adapted a persona on camera because he felt children would see right through it.    He believed children's innate intelligence would allow them to accept his slow, quiet show with its cheap sets and sock puppets.    He was correct, and we may never see anyone like him again.    In his own understated, but no less powerful way, Fred Rogers was revolutionary.   And in today's even more insane political climate, his calming voice is needed more than ever.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Back to the Future Part III (1990) * * *

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Directed by:  Robert Zemeckis

Starring:  Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue

The final chapter of the Back to the Future trilogy does not possess the wonderful insanity and creativity of its predecessors, but it's still a fitting end to the time-travel series.    At the very least, Marty (Fox) and Doc Brown (Lloyd) pretty much stick around the Old West for the majority of the film and can recover from the whiplash they must've suffered from whipping around three different eras in the trusty DeLorean time machine.

If you recall from Part II, Doc is sent back to 1885 after the time machine is struck by lightning in 1955.    Marty receives a 70-year old telegram from Western Union assuring Marty that he is safe and living peacefully.    Marty soon learns this will not be the case for long, as old records and a gravestone reveal that Doc will be shot and killed by "Mad Dog" Tannen (Wilson), an ornery criminal who is the great grandfather of Marty's enemy Biff.    Poor Marty can't seem to ever rid himself of Biff or any of his relatives.

Marty (with help of the "second" Doc who is still around in 1955---if you remember such a paradox from the last film) travels back to 1885 to warn Doc of his impending death and naturally things don't go nearly as smoothly as Marty or Doc would like.    There are complications, such as the ruptured fuel line which the DeLorean sustains and the arrival of Clara (Steenburgen), a schoolmarm with whom Doc falls in love.    Now, Doc must choose between staying with Clara in 1885 or traveling back to 1985 with Marty.    Mad Dog and his gang are lurking as always, itching for a fight, and how exactly will Marty and Doc be able to get the time machine to travel at 88 mph to thrust them back to the future when gasoline doesn't exist and they can't repair the fuel line?    By train, of course, which is the closest thing that can travel even close to that speed.

What makes the Fox and Lloyd performances so perfect for these films is how they don't blink in the face of absolute preposterousness.    They are having a blast, and Steenburgen is a welcome addition who causes flutters in Doc's heart for perhaps the first time in his life.    And we get to see the famous Hill Valley clock tower, which was crippled by lightning in 1955 and provides the impetus for getting Marty home in the first film, being built.    Marty and Doc stand for a photo in front of the clock and each looks at the other fully knowing what will become of this architectural achievement.     These moments elevate the Back to the Future series from silly science fiction to films with a heart and history.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

Cobra Kai (2018) * * 1/2 (series premiering on YouTube Red)

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Directed by:  Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg

Starring:  Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Ed Asner, Courtney Henggler, Xolo Mariduena, Mary Mouser

(This is a review of the first two episodes)  

Thirty years following the events of the first Karate Kid film comes Cobra Kai, a new series on YouTube Red which chronicles the rekindling of the feud between Daniel LaRusso (Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (Zabka) from the initial film.    If you recall, Johnny and his black belt karate buddies pounded Daniel almost daily in high school until Daniel learned karate from his kindly apartment building maintenance manager Mr. Miyagi.    Pat Morita's death in 2005 precludes him from being in this series, but there are loving tributes to the wise old man.

Daniel exacted his revenge against Johnny by defeating him in the finals of the All-Valley Karate Tournament.    As Cobra Kai opens, Johnny is a hard-drinking contractor who has never gotten over that defeat.    He is forever reminded of the loss by radio ads and billboards for Daniel's chain of car dealerships.    Daniel is a happy family man, while Johnny is divorced and estranged from his son.   Their paths merge again when Johnny's ancient Pontiac Firebird is totaled in an accident and towed to one of Daniel's dealerships for repair.    Daniel offers to fix the car for free, but no matter, Johnny has reached his breaking point and decides to open Cobra Kai (his karate dojo from his youth) again, which causes obvious consternation from Daniel.

Johnny's lone student so far is Miguel (Mariduena), a nice high school student who is picked on by creeps in much the same way Johnny picked on Daniel back in the day.    Johnny beats up Miguel's bullies one night and realizes karate is still the only thing in which he excels.    He promises to teach Miguel the same time of brutal martial arts taught to him, which prompts a challenge from Daniel, whose daughter's friend was one of the guys Johnny beat up.
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A frustrating thing which keeps Cobra Kai creeping along to its inevitable storyline is how Johnny never relays the one bit of information which would save he and Daniel a bunch of conflict.    Instead of telling Daniel how Samantha's friend was bullying Miguel, he chooses not to.    Instead of telling Daniel how Samantha was involved in the accident which wrecked his car, he chooses to stay quiet.   This feud is going to happen no matter what.  

The original Karate Kid (1984) was a spirited Rocky-type underdog story.    Its sequel, Karate Kid Part II (1986) took Daniel and Miyagi back to Miyagi's native Okinawa to settle an old score.    The sequel was also pretty good in its own ways.    Then, the series overstayed its welcome with the ludicrous Part III (1989) and then The Next Karate Kid (1994), in which Miyagi trains future two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank to battle bullies.    A continuation of this story wasn't exactly being cried out for, but don't let that stop anyone from making it.

I enjoyed the fact that Cobra Kai's episodes were only a half-hour, which helps to speed things along.   The first two episodes were paced just right, and you could do worse than killing thirty minutes by watching a Cobra Kai episode.    Macchio and Zabka are comfortable in their roles and there are shades of gray to each character.     I don't know if it was such a good idea to have Johnny be such a relic of the 80s, so much so that Poison blasts from his car stereo speakers.    And do we really need the music to underline the emotions of the characters so blatantly?  

But, if you ask if I would spend $10.00 a month to watch the remaining eight episodes of this season, plus next season's (the show was already renewed), the answer would be no.    There is nothing about Cobra Kai which would necessitate that.