Mike at the Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

This gentle, yet probing documentary will be most popular with parents in their later years since the show ran mostly in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The film shows us Fred Rogers’ life in TV, from the earliest days to the last moments of Rogers and the show.

He almost missed the boat on the show because he was about to be ordained as a minister. He later did get ordained, but the show was his church. He delayed the ordination and showed up at WQED in Pittsburgh, staying there for 33 years, even longer than Captain Kangaroo on CBS.

The documentary includes the turning point in not only Rogers’ career but PBS, as Rogers’ testimony before a Senate committee in 1969 on cutting the PBS budget convinced Sen. John Pastore that the network deserved its $20-million grant from Congress. PBS has struggled to survive nearly every Republican budget ever since, including, so far, this year.

There are many surprises in the documentary: Rogers hated regular television and children’s television in general. Rogers wrote all the music and the scripts and did all the puppet voices. His wife confides that Daniel, the scrawny tiger, was Rogers’ alter ego. Admitting that “Music was my first language,” Rogers’ real theme song, encapsulating his rock-bottom belief, was “I Like You as You Are.” The song and the philosophy resonate throughout the entire movie. Another trademark of the show was the number 143—One letter, followed by four letters, concluding with three: “I Love You.”

One of the startling things about the film is that it exposes some of the hatred that Rogers faced. Brian Kilmeade of “Fox and Friends” took a shot at Rogers for his endorsement of the special nature of each child; he preferred them to prove their specialness on the field or in the marketplace. Others accused Rogers of being homosexual for his gentleness and themes of forgiveness and cooperation. (He was not.) His songs about himself are particularly moving, especially “Sometimes I Feel I Was a Mistake.”

The deep personal exposure of Rogers to the issues around him was remarkable for his time and for television especially. His scenes with François Scarborough Clemmons were particularly moving since, at a time when black Americans were not allowed to swim in pools with whites and when anti-homosexual prejudices were rampant, Clemmons was both black and gay. Rogers’ quiet statement was to wash his feet in a plastic wading pool and invite Clemmons to join him. The sight of the two pairs of feet, one white, one black, was poignant and striking. There are scenes like that throughout the whole hour and a half of this remarkable achievement. The whole enterprise reminds us of a time many Americans—perhaps most—would like to return to: a time of calm, worthiness of every human being and regard for our neighbors.

Sorry to Bother You (R)

This film may confuse a lot of people and there are strange gaps in the narrative, but on the whole, it is an intriguing attack on corporate America and what pursuing the “American Dream” can do to individuals. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is drifting through Oakland after high school and finally gets what looks like a good job working for Regal Telemarketing. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), has a less intriguing job as a sign twirler.

Looking for a way up, Cassius seems to have found it as Langston (Danny Glover) tells him that the key to success in telemarketing may be adopting a “white voice.” Cassius does and suddenly he finds himself being promoted to “Power Caller.” This allows him to take the very personal (it talks) company gold elevator to work (if he can ever recall the multi-digited passcode).

The slimy boss of the callers (Michael X. Sommers) promises him the world if he reaches “PC” status, and the Big Boss (Arnie Hammer) snorts some cocaine and makes a hero of Cassius. Meanwhile, the workers on the lower floors organize and eventually strike to the call of “Phones Down.”

From here on out the film gets stranger and stranger. A company called “Worry Free” has started. Its big attraction is that all its workers are guaranteed a lifetime of unconcern. They all dress the same and do the same repetitive jobs. It turns out that, in association with Hammer, the company is working on a prototype that involves snorting something that is NOT cocaine: It turns anyone who indulges into a muscular centaur, capable of doing multiple times the work that human workers can.

Cassius is predictably caught between his job as a PC, his friends, Detroit, and the future. The satire of American business and politics is intense, and the scenes of the organized workers getting beaten in order to let scabs in to work resonate with earlier periods in American labor history. The film has been billed as a comedy, but it is a very, very dark comedy indeed. There are comical bits but most of them have an edge that shortens the laughter. This will not be for everybody, but it is a thought-provoking evocation of a possible new future for American labor.

Skyscraper (PG-13)

This movie has the wrong title. It should be something like “Raging Inferno” only that’s taken. Or “Firestorm.” Is that taken? Briefly, Dwayne Johnson as Will Sawyer is a former Ranger who gets his leg blown off. Ten years later he’s a safety certifier in Hong Kong. (Certifying the world’s tallest hotel is his first job!!)

Baddies set fire to the fireproof “Pearl,” a 120-story beauty with Sawyer’s family inside. That family fortunately consists of his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), a combat nurse with lots of martial arts training as well as surgical time, and two kids. They are, of course, trapped at various levels in the hotel and Sawyer has to get them out. To do so, he has to fight two sets of baddies and the cops. The ends to which he has to go to save his troops are ridiculous. There is no other word. AND he does it with one leg!

We find out that 1) the building is too hot for a helicopter to land and take the Sawyers out, but Will can operate without harm; 2) Will prepares for an audition on “American Ninja” by doing all sorts of intrepid stuff in the midst of a raging inferno; 3) He can take care of himself by pulling shrapnel from his shoulder with only gin to sterilize the operation; and 4) he, a more than 200 pound-man, can hang onto the burning building with the help of duct tape and a curtain cord designed to hold drapes.

The final groaner of many in this film comes when all are saved by a resumption of the fire protection system, which is mostly water. The rescued emerge bone dry. Of course. I found the film terrifically boring because it was so predictable. The innocents among you who have never seen Johnson or a fire movie may enjoy it. Others may groan with me.

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (PG)

Recently I saw the biopic of Mr. Rogers. In it he stresses that TV or film for kids does not have to consist of silly voices, slapstick or pies in the face. That fact escaped the makers of this piece of commercial junk. There are at least two farts in the film, both greeted by a familiar tittle from the young audience, there are monsters galore doing hideous things to each other and to others, there is slime, there is even a love story of sorts between Dracula (Adam Sandler) and Ericka (Kathryn Hahn) and enough talented actors to fill an all-star movie. But at heart, it’s the same old exploitative violence and attempts at cheap comedy that we’ve come to expect from this format. There’s even a rough attempt at dumb poetry: “Holy Moley! That was a lot of guacamole!” Too much guac by far. In fact, the entire film was too much.

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