WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
“I saw Won't You Be My Neighbor?. Friggin' face faucet, dude.” – actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani, in a recent tweet
Unless you're too young to be aware of the man and his legacy or too cynical or angry to care, it's hard to imagine who won't dissolve into a blubbery mess watching Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a supremely intelligent, bighearted look at the life and career of Fred McFeely Rogers, host of the beloved PBS children's series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. (And were you aware that his middle name was “McFeely”? Landing on that information recently, I got choked up anew with the refrain “Speedy delivery! Speedy delivery!” in my head.)
Nearly everyone I know who's seen the film's preview has admitted to welling up, if not outright weeping, at the trailer's iconic sounds and images: the simple xylophone tinkle of the show's theme song; the sight of Mr. Rogers zipping up one of his famed cardigans; Daniel Tiger asking Lady Aberlin “What does 'assassination' mean?'; our host enjoying a warm conversation with young quadriplegic Jeff Erlanger. But to misquote Citizen Kane, it's no trick to make a lot of people cry if all you want is to make a lot of people cry. The specific, deeply necessary accomplishment of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, to me, lies in Neville implicitly asking us: What about this film is making you cry? Are they tears shed over lost youth? Lost innocence? A pervading sense of universally lost decency? Or are they perhaps tears of joy, however disguised by sorrow – tears that, on a gut level, recognize inherent, unmistakable goodness, and acknowledge that even if it's currently tough to find, such goodness still exists? My guess is that, for most viewers, it'll be some blend of all of the above that will only become apparent hours or days after the experience is over. As for the 90-plus minutes of the movie itself? Friggin' face faucet, dude.
Hyperbole aside, Nanjiani's description is actually a perfectly accurate representation of how you cry during Neville's documentary: not in explosive bursts, but through a steady stream that might easily begin in the opening credits and not abate until the film is over. Though this latest work from 20 Feet from Stardom Oscar-winner Neville is currently playing locally, I caught a jam-packed, Wednesday-afternoon screening at Iowa City's FilmScene, and noted only one instance that elicited an unexpected, guttural group sob: when Mr. Rogers, in an effort to help secure funding for PBS, testified before a Senate committee overseen by the curmudgeonly Joe Pastore, and the TV host's sincerity and song lyrics melted the man's heart enough for the senator to say “Looks like you just got your $20 million.” (It was a movie-going moment straight out of Capra; upon hearing Pastore's pronouncement, our FilmScene audience collectively laughed, then wept, then applauded.)
But that bit, somewhat surprisingly, is an aberration, because Neville hasn't designed Won't You Be My Neighbor? to be filled with emotional sucker punches, even though he easily could have. Those familiar with Mr. Rogers' charming, decidedly not-maudlin chat with Erlanger know what an honest heart-melter that sequence is, just as they know the devastating effects of Mr. Rogers' “interview” with the recently deceased Koko the gorilla, and his magical rapport with very young children, and Betty Aberlin's supreme tact as she offered support and love to a striped hand puppet. (There was an audible sigh in my crowd when Aberlin first appeared on-screen, reinforcing the childhood notion that she was indeed the prettiest, sweetest, most wonderful woman on Earth who wasn't your mom.) Yet these moments land organically amidst a disciplined, mostly chronological narrative structure that weaves archival footage and present-day interviews to form a picture of not only an awfully good man, but an awfully good idea: a daily, televised, 30-minute safe haven for children who needed to know that someone, somewhere, liked them just the way they were.
For those of us who literally grew up on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood – the show premiered mere months before my 1968 birth – Neville's film features no end of fascinating material, beginning with the plotline that found puppet tyrant King Friday the 13th, in the show's first week, determined to build a wall around his kingdom in order to keep undesired masses from crossing its borders. (Nice to see how far we've advanced over a half-century.) Yet the program's subtle radicalism is demonstrated and discussed all throughout the movie: Mr. Rogers soaking his feet in a wading pool alongside the black policeman played by François Clemmons, with adjacent newsreel footage showing real-world Blacks doused with bleach by a motel proprietor; our host devoting entire weeks to the subjects of death and divorce. It's easy to forget how fully Mr. Rogers made real-world scariness a little less scary just by dint of his treating events, and us, with honesty and compassion. It was also, I found, easy to forget cherished memories of my daily experience with the show until Won't You Be My Neighbor? reminded me of them, and the rush of feelings generated by reunions with by-now-fabled characters of my youth – X the Owl! Handyman Negri! Lady Elaine Fairchilde! – was enough the keep the waterworks flowing even when nothing of particularly sentimental import was happening on-screen.
Neville, however, understands that nostalgia has its limits, and it's to his credit that the movie doesn't completely shy away from addressing our complicated feelings toward Mr. Rogers and his show after he and it served our prepubescent purposes. True, the film doesn't satisfyingly address the exact cause of Mr. Rogers' 2003 death (stomach cancer), or what happened to Jeff Erlanger (he passed away in 2007), or why Betty Aberlin is one of very few Mister Rogers' Neighborhood castmates who didn't agree to a Neville interview. (No idea, though her appearances in four Kevin Smith comedies may offer a hint.) But the movie does, through interview footage with Clemmons, reveal that the PBS host wasn't always as gay-friendly as funeral protestors would have you believe, and Neville shrewdly employs sketch-comedy examples of satiric swipes at Mr. Rogers – Martin Short on SCTV, Jim Carrey on In Living Color, and, of course, Eddie Murphy doing Mister Robinson's Neighborhood on Saturday Night Live – to articulate the universally raised eyebrow regarding the man's eternally kindly persona. Smartly, the film also addresses the reason that so many of us, as we shifted from early youth to later youth, gradually but thoroughly also shifted away from Mr. Rogers' TV show: It became too slow for us, and too sedate, and too easygoing. We had Looney Tunes and Super Friends and Ninja Turtles, damn it … . What did Mister Rogers' Neighborhood have left to offer us?!
As Won't You Be My Neighbor proves, quite a lot, and there's a marvelous mid-film argument for the series' deliberate pacing as a respite from the overabundance of fast-moving images for a child newly exposed to television. (As Mr. McFeely portrayer David Newell concisely states in his interview, “There's a lot of slow space; there's no wasted space.”) But the movie also doesn't begrudge us our inevitable exodus from the host's TV grip; nothing about Neville's filmmaking tactics suggests a “Don't you wish you paid more attention to this guy?!” guilt trip. Instead, the movie offers an embrace both to Fred Rogers and everyone who ever, at any point, loved him as the entertainer, educator, moral leader, and televised father figure he was. The tears you shed feel earned because they're tears of appreciation. And the reason so many adult viewers are shedding tears here, I think, has everything to do with a collective fear about how goodness of Mr. Rogers' – and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood's – kind may never exist again.
All throughout Won't You Be My Neighbor? – a movie bizarrely rated PG-13 for, I'm presuming, images of 9/11 debris, the Challenger explosion, and a cast member's bare ass – we're treated to present-day interview snippets with Fred Rogers' widow Joanne Rogers (plus sons John and James), and in the climactic moments, the off-screen Neville asks all of his interview subjects to take a full minute to silently consider the person who most directly influenced the course of their lives. It's a tactic taken directly from the Mr. Rogers handbook, and participants including Betty “Mrs. McFeely” Seamons and cellist Yo-Yo Ma willingly comply, eventually sharing who they were thinking about. But the last word goes to Joanne, who ends her meditation with a smile, a contented gaze at the camera, and the most succinct of messages. I won't give away what it is. But staring at the screen, and wiping your eyes, as the credits roll, you'll likely want to say the exact same thing.
THE FIRST PURGE
Current events being what they are, when I heard that the horror-thriller prequel The First Purge was going to detail precisely why and how the series' 12-hours-of-legal-lawlessness mandate was initiated, I half-presumed we'd just be shown 90 minutes of real-world punditry from, say, any nightly cable-news broadcast over the past several years. Granted, that would've been pretty on-the-nose – though not necessarily more so than screenwriter James DeMonaco's conceit that The Purge was designed to rid the U.S. of black and brown faces without government officials (embodied here by a heavy-set, pasty-faced white dude) dirtying their hands in the process. If Get Out was social commentary wrapped in sublime entertainment, director Gerald McMurray's Blumhouse outing is social commentary wrapped in even more social commentary, and with only random bits of enjoyment allowed to bleed through.
Cleverness certainly abounds in this dystopian nightmare that finds Staten Island the dusk-to-dawn test site for ritualized mayhem and murder, and I thought it was an especially heartening touch that, with the exception of the slavering psychopath Skeletor (a feral, terrifying Rotimi Paul), residents were less interested in killing one another than in throwing massive, joyous block parties. (Aghast that Islanders aren't instinctively prone to violence, governmental Purge advocates begin doctoring the test results through well-armed mercenaries disguised as Klansmen.) But DeMonaco and McMurray also deliver additionally witty touches both narrative and visual, from the airborne drones unexpectedly loaded with artillery to the glowing eyes of the Staten Island residents sporting spy-cam contact lenses, who peer through the darkness like Cheshire Cats in a particularly ugly Wonderland. Badly lit though much of it is, the movie at least has a distinctive look along with a few effective jump scares, and the acting is generally top-tier, with leads Y'lan Noel and Lex Scott Davis focused and empathetic and comic-relief actress Mugga legitimately welcome as the last stereotype I expected from this franchise: a wisecracking next-door neighbor. (Marisa Tomei also pops up as a conflicted Purge research scientist, and is such a pro that she even makes her clichéd “What have I done?” sound relatively fresh.)
Yet until the staging of the inevitably uber-violent melees in the film's final third, there's too much presentational dawdling and way too much sentimentality. Barely two sentences are allowed to pass in which Staten Island characters don't give voice to the already-obvious message of how The Purge is destroying lower-class communities, and the script never stops beating you over the head with capitalized Themes that get in the way of lowercase fun. (Even audience-baiting laugh lines such as Davis calling a creep a “p---y-grabbing motherf-----!” are suffused with heavy-handed political commentary.) Heaven knows there's enormous satisfaction in watching Noel, dressed in Bruce Willis' Die Hard T-shirt, laying waste to scores of racist goons. Yet by the time that happened, nearly all of my early interest in The First Purge had evaporated, along with any hope that this might be the rare prequel to improve on its series predecessors. Sadly, it's just another rueful day in the neighborhood.
ANT-MAN & THE WASP
For about half its length, the Marvel sequel Ant-Man & the Wasp is exactly the movie that those of us who didn't care for 2015's Ant-Man were hoping it would be: a better version of Ant-Man.
Stripped of the previous comic-book adventure's origin-story blah-ness, director Peyton Reed's follow-up, at least early on, is looser, flakier, and funnier than its predecessor, especially when Paul Rudd's Scott Lang is entertaining himself and screen daughter Abby Ryder Fortson while under house arrest. (I may never forgive the movie, however, for underscoring Lang's endearing antics to the Partridge Family theme song, as that earworm has now been trapped in my head for days.) While there are antagonists in the forms of Walton Goggins' middling arms dealer and Hannah John-Kamen's ephemeral, rather empathetic Ghost, the storyline, refreshingly, is less villain- than rescue-driven, with Ant-Man, the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly, her 2015 pageboy blessedly gone), and Wasp's dad (Michael Douglas) attempting to free Mama Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer) from imprisonment in the sub-atomic Quantum Realm. And while the original movie's comedic high point came at the very end with its battle royale on a model-train set, the sequel wastes no time treating us to the delightfully tacky, miniaturized joys that sequence delivered, earning major laughs via Hot Wheels zipping through the air and a priceless Jurassic Park gag with a pigeon cast in the role of T. rex. All this plus a very funny Randall Park as an obsequious FBI agent, a clever explanation for why Ant-Man was MIA from the most recent Avengers, another one of co-star Michael Peña's rambling flashbacks that plays like a sped-up Drunk History skit … .
Had I left my screening after an hour, this review would be an unqualified rave, and there are still things to rave about in Act II, principally Rudd's brief Michelle Pfeiffer impersonation (don't ask) and the sight of those dreaded Infinity War ashes that still deliver a kick to the gut some 10 weeks after their debut. But the screenwriters, all five of them, seem to run out of inspiration long before the movie runs out of minutes, the jokes lose their punch when presented merely as filler for stock action choreography, and after the film trades its early silliness for sincerity, Reed's initially solid direction grows incredibly sluggish. (One flashback sequence revealing how Ghost got her powers dragged on for so long, and was so flatly staged, that I'm pretty sure it was only my yawns keeping me awake.) Even those majestic streets of San Francisco, employed for memorable chase scenes in movies ranging from Bullit to What's Up, Doc? to Foul Play, don't house the kinetically staged, high-speed diversions they should. Reed, the writers, and the cast (which also includes Laurence Fishburne, Judy Greer, and Bobby Cannavale) all seem alert and happy when their movie is a comedy, yet glum and a little bored when it's in straight-up comic-book mode; for a film titled Ant-Man & the Wasp, it has precious little sting.