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Schultz reviews: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Hereditary,” “Hotel Artemis” & “Ocean’s Eight”

Schultz reviews: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Hereditary,” “Hotel Artemis” & “Ocean’s Eight”

By Carl Schultz

schultzcarlschultz@aol.com

 

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Distributed by Focus Films, 93 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released June 8:

The parallels and similarities are right there, inescapable and plain, on display for everybody to see:

In Chapter 10 of the Bible’s Book for Luke, a lawyer seeking to test Jesus asks him what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers the man by saying that he needs to love God with all his heart, his soul and his mind. And to love his neighbor as he loves himself.

The lawyer persists. He asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus replies by telling the man the parable of the Good Samaritan.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, it is impossible that Fred Rogers did not know the story documented by Luke in his Gospel . . . or that he didn’t have Jesus’ parable very much in mind when he composed the song which opened not only every single episode of his seminal children’s television show, but also is used as the title to the superb new documentary released on June 8 by Focus Features, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Fred Rogers, of course, was the creator and star of WQED’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the PBS children’s show which over the course of 912 episodes and 31 years helped entire generations of young people through some of the most traumatic times they experienced between infancy and adolescence. Over the course of those years, Mister Rogers changed not only the face of PBS and children’s television — he changed the world.

Directed by Morgan Neville, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind “Twenty Feet From Stardom” in 2014 and 2015’s “Best of Enemies,” the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” with the full cooperation of Rogers’ family and unlimited access to rare and obscure archival footage, paints the gentle and soft-spoken Rogers as an enormously unlikely but fearless and persistent revolutionary: The word “radical,” in all its tenses and forms, is used several times over the course of the film’s 93-minute running time.

A 1946 graduate of Latrobe High School, Fred Rogers was educated at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where in 1951 he earned a bachelor's in music. Intending to pursue a career as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, Rogers experienced a life-changing epiphany when he first viewed the new medium of television.

Specifically, Rogers was appalled by what passed in those days as children’s television programming — pies in the face, violence and often-inappropriate cartoons. The young Rogers decided to put on hold his ambitions of a career in faith and religion, and instead set about changing the face and image of children’s television. 

“I’ve always felt that I didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child,” Rogers says in archival footage used by Neville in the film.

Employing a fairly straightforward documentary style, director Neville makes brilliant use of new interviews with Rogers’ associates, colleagues, friends and family members, as well as writers, critics and historians, to relate observations, insights and always more stories and anecdotes about the gentle and unassuming man who sought to make television his personal ministry.

But the real heart and soul of Neville’s documentary is the footage of Rogers himself, blazing trails, opening doors and resisting intolerance, often in ways which when viewed with the clarity of hindsight appear audacious, sometimes heroic, and at least once even prescient: In February of 1968, during the very first nationally-televised week of “Mister Rogers,” the Neighborhood of Make Believe’s ruler King Friday the 13th commanded the construction of a wall topped with barbed wire to isolate his kingdom from outsiders. Sound familiar?

During the course of Neville’s documentary, we see Rogers sometimes braving almost overwhelming opposition to reinforce his vision, his medium and his message. While public television was originally endorsed and subsidized by the presidential administration of Lyndon Johnson, President Richard Nixon in 1969 needed more funding to channel to the Vietnam War. He sought to find some of that money by deducting $20 million from government subsidies to the fledgling PBS.

To resist cuts which might’ve ended public television while still in its infancy, Mister Rogers went to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee, headed by the cynical, caustic and outrageously sarcastic Rhode Island Senator John O. Pastore. 

In new interview footage, Rogers’ widow Joanne reveals the nervousness and fear felt by her husband that day, but Neville’s archival footage betrays no such tension. Instead, with a firm but carefully deferential demeanor and a quietly modulated voice little different from the tones and cadences he used to communicate with the nation’s preschoolers, Rogers faces down Pastore’s belligerence. He recites to the Senate committee the lyrics to a song he composed for an episode of his show, highlighting the importance of people helping others. 

In six minutes of testimony, Rogers accomplishes much the same result the Army’s chief counsel Joseph Walsh did some 15 years earlier while facing down the despotic Senator Joe McCarthy: After Rogers completes his brief presentation, a chastened and defeated Senator Pastore looks down at his hands and resignedly acknowledges, “Well, it looks like you’ve just earned $20 million.” It’s a powerful moment.

There are many such quietly courageous instances included in this wonderful film. In response to news footage of the owners of segregated hotels dumping cleaning compounds into pools as a means of evicting black swimmers, Rogers appears in an episode of his show soaking his feet in a small pool of cool water, an antidote to the day’s oppressive heat. And when the Neighborhood’s Officer Clemons happens by, Rogers insists that the African American policeman join him.

The message of the scene is unmistakable, but one wonders today how many of the nation’s segregationists understood the relevance of the moment which followed, as Mister Rogers helped his black friend towel off his feet . . . or that the simple gesture’s roots were in the Bible’s Book of John. In new interview footage shot by director Neville, actor and singer Francois Clemons, who played the Neighborhood’s police officer, still grows misty while cherishing his memory of the scene, and the man.

We see moments from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” shows on assassination, on death and divorce — “Love is the root of all relationships,” says Rogers, “Love . . . or the lack of it.” We see black and white news footage of hundreds of children and their families in a line stretching along entire city blocks for a 1969 guest appearance by Mister Rogers on a PBS show in Boston. And it’s difficult to not feel a sense of electricity and inspiration while viewing the images of Rogers and Clemons emerging side-by-side from a tenement during times of civil turbulence, engaging inner-city youngsters playing in the mean streets of New York.

Still, Neville never renders Fred Rogers in strokes larger than the man himself. Mister Rogers was not a saint, nor by any means perfect. We see his eyes flash with anger and his words grow harsh at the thought of a proliferation of violence and suggestiveness in children’s television programming. A staff member recalls Rogers admonishing him for frequenting a venue for gays, and forbidding return visits. And we see Rogers’ son John ruefully acknowledging the childhood difficulties of being “the son of the second coming of Christ.”

But the overwhelming impression of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is one of a quiet, gentle, unassuming man, not much different than the one entire generations grew to know, love and trust — the man who regarded the space between the television and the child “holy ground indeed,” and who sought to “make goodness attractive.”

Is there room in the world for such a message today? The tearful smiles of viewers exiting screenings of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” emphatically suggest that there is.

Rated PG-13 for documentary news footage of warfare, as well as some adult language, rude humor and a flash of nudity, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is now showing at Pittsburgh’s Manor Theater and AMC Waterfront 22.

 

“Hereditary” Distributed by A24 Pictures, 127 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 8:

Before “The Exorcist” in 1973, horror movies were mostly a simple affair: Somebody jumped out and said “Boo!” the audience screamed, and everybody went home happy.

But “The Exorcist” changed all that. As director and horror movie connoisseur Wes Craven once noted, the most upsetting part of “The Exorcist” was the knowledge that it was made by people who were willing to inflict psychological damage upon the audience as a means of making a financially-successful motion picture.

In “Hereditary,” a family — mom, dad, high school senior son and 13-year-old daughter — begins to experience strange occurrences following the death of a difficult and reclusive grandmother. Grandma suffered from dementia toward the end, and the family — mostly mom — provided her maintenance care in the family home despite the long estrangement between the two. The phenomena experienced after Grandma’s death is likely caused by either her estranged daughter’s emotional problems . . . or something infinitely worse.

Known for his critically acclaimed short film “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons,” filmmaker Ari Aster in his debut as a writer and director of a major motion picture has produced a film of surprising maturity and skill. If somebody could take the most unsettling parts of “The Exorcist,” 1963’s “The Haunting,” and 2015’s “The Witch” and filter them through the sensibilities of the existential Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, the result might look like what Aster has accomplished with “Hereditary.” 

This is a remarkably canny picture in its narrative development, largely due to actress Toni Collette’s nuanced performance as Annie, the daughter of the late grandmother. As each new twist in “Hereditary” can be explained as either a manifestation of supernatural forces or a result of Annie’s increasing emotional and psychological strain, Collette’s masterful performance presents the character as increasingly disheveled, brittle and finally hysterical, disconnected and possibly homicidal.

“Hereditary” is not the kind of movie that’s going to make the viewer scream and jump out of his seat. Instead, there are moments when the audience instinctively knows what’s going to happen next, doesn’t want to see it happen, but still is unable to look away or cover its eyes. And when the dreaded events occur, they’re even worse than the viewer feared they’d be. Writer-director Aster builds layer upon layer of dread until by the picture’s final half hour the audience is ready to explode.

Possibly as a result, there seems to be a substantial divide between the critics and the audience in their reactions to this picture. Based on 160 critical reviews, “Hereditary” has earned an approval rating of 93 percent from the Rotten Tomatoes website, while Metacritic reports an average score of 87 percent. Ticket-buying audiences polled by the CinemaScore service, though, assign “Hereditary” a disproportional grade of D-plus. 

In their summary, Rotten Tomatoes reports that the picture “uses its classic setup as the framework for a harrowing, uncommonly unsettling horror film whose cold hand lingers long beyond the closing credits.” That’s an accurate assessment, and very well written. It doesn’t make “Hereditary” any easier to sit through, though.

“Hereditary” is rated R for language, violence, adult situations, scenes of substance abuse, and nudity and sexuality. Possibly an NC-17 rating would’ve been more appropriate to the film and its subject matter. Proceed with caution.

 

“Hotel Artemis” Distributed by Global Road Entertainment, 94 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 8:

Set in Los Angeles in a dystopian future — honestly, is there any other kind in movies? — the Hotel Artemis is a clandestine hospital, one whose patients are wounded criminals on the run from the law. The rules for admission are simple: No guns, no bombs, no police, no killing other patients. And as with any good HMO, patients need to be members.

Several of those rules are violated when a powerful crime boss needs emergency medical attention, and another patient is bound by a contract to kill him.

“Hotel Artemis” looks like it might’ve once been intended as a satire, then changed direction to become a black comedy, and then changed direction again to become a crime thriller. In its final form, it’s just a mess, a big shambling wreck of a movie, difficult, obscure and by the final half hour all but incomprehensible.

A good cast, contributing their worst career performances, is led by two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, lured out of a five-year retirement to play The Nurse, the hospital’s chief administrator and caregiver. Appearing beneath layers of makeup and prosthetics, her characterization an array of tics and twitches and her voice a harsh whisper reminiscent of Clint Eastwood, Foster is nearly unrecognizable. That might be the point.

Still, the picture has its defenders. Rotten Tomatoes assigns “Hotel Artemis” an average score of 58 percent, with Metacritic assigning a rating of 57 percent. CinemaScore audiences award the picture a grade of C-minus.

Released to 2,340 theaters across North America, “Hotel Artemis” was originally projected to earn up to $9 million during its opening weekend. After a dismal first day, however, estimates were adjusted to a more reasonable $3 million.

Skip it.

 

“Ocean’s Eight” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released June 8:

Be honest: Whenever you see some big celebrity on a TV talk show going on and on about attending some big party — the Oscars, maybe, or the prince’s wedding, or the opening night of some big show — you hate them a little bit, don’t you? Probably it’s something left over from grade school: There’s no party quite as desirable as the one you’re not invited to. And it’s natural to feel jealous, even if it’s of some big movie star.

Described as “the most desirable party invitation in the world,” the Met Gala — that is, the annual fundraising party for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute — is central to the plot of “Ocean’s Eight,” the new comedy released June 8 by Warner Bros. Pictures. Usually attended by the most popular celebrities in the world, the Met Gala is so exclusive that when a character in “Ocean’s Eight” pronounces the second word of the event “GAY-la,” she’s sharply corrected by one of the organizers to pronounce the word “GAH-la.”

In “Ocean’s Eight,” con artist Debbie Ocean, played by actress Sandra Bullock, is the sister of the character played by George Clooney in the three “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. Paroled from prison after serving nearly six years for the one crime she didn’t commit, Debbie is the kind of con artist for whom lies are a second language — she swindles people so naturally that she often seems to not realize she’s doing it.

The instant Ms. Ocean walks out of prison, she begins recruiting a gang of criminal experts to help her commit the crime she’s been planning since the day she relocated from an apartment to a cell — the theft of the most valuable diamond necklace in the world, which is going to be worn by one of the celebrities attending the Met Gala. A secondary benefit of Debbie’s plan is to frame for the heist the former partner responsible for her incarceration.

The original version of “Ocean’s Eleven” in 1960 was produced primarily so Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and a group of their buddies could hang out together in Las Vegas, carouse, and have fun while making an undemanding, low-maintenance movie. When the picture turned out to be a success at the box office, Sinatra and company were as surprised as nation’s film critics.

Forty-one years later, Sinatra’s original idea began to appeal to superstar actor George Clooney. Clooney helped to organize a remake, with himself in the central role and fellow superstars Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and other popular motion picture luminaries in the supporting roles. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Clooney’s 2001 version of “Ocean’s Eleven” was successful enough at the box office to spawn two sequels, “Ocean’s Twelve” in 2004 and “Ocean’s Thirteen” in 2007.

Believing the novelty of the idea to have run its course, Clooney, Soderbergh and the others declined to continue the series beyond the 2007 picture. But in Hollywood, no money-making opportunity is left undeveloped. And it wasn’t long before the idea was introduced to produce another “Ocean” movie, this time with a female-led cast.

Joining Sandra Bullock’s gang in “Ocean’s Eight” are Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, and the popular rap artist Nora Lum Ying, known by her stage name Awkwafina. The eighth member of the “Ocean’s Eight” title refers to the gang’s target, a superstar and socialite played by Anne Hathaway. Additional roles in the picture are played by Richard Armitage and James Corden, and a couple of dozen other celebrities make brief surprise cameo appearances.

“Ocean’s Eight” despite a couple of serious but unobtrusive holes in its plot is well-made, with everybody on their toes on both sides of the camera. Director Gary Ross keeps the plot moving forward at a brisk pace, with Daniel Pemberton’s unobtrusive musical score helping the picture along enormously: During the planning stages, you’ll notice that Pemberton’s background music features cool jazz with a Calypso flavor, while the heist itself is accompanied by drum-driven soft rock, with a faster tempo to suggest tension and suspense.

But to be honest, nobody’s going to win any awards for “Ocean’s Eight.” It’s about as close as these people get to making a home movie and charging us to see it. And that’s OK — as with Clooney’s version of the picture and Sinatra’s before it, nobody was expecting the “Gone With the Wind” of heist movies, a “Grand Hotel” of crime pictures, or “Godfather”-like critical mass.

But there’s something awfully warm and reassuring about a movie like this . . . especially if you’ve recently felt the cold, clammy hand of “Hereditary” on the back of your neck. “Ocean’s Eight” is the cinematic equivalent of junk food, sort of a motion picture Big Mac, with a large order of fries and a chocolate milk shake on the side. It costs about as much to indulge yourself, and it’s probably a lot healthier. 

Like its predecessors, “Ocean’s Eight” is really about attractive people wearing stylish clothes and hanging out together, much like an Academy Awards broadcast with a plot superimposed. That we get to see enormously likable people sticking a pin into the pretentious butts of the rich and famous is an additional bonus. Stars like to make movies like this because they’re human too. Pictures like this give them a chance to get together and play make-believe. 

And if it makes us feel any better, they probably didn’t get invited to the Met Gala either.

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