The Way Back is a story, beautiful in its own troubled way, of a broken man struggling with alcoholism and his own regrets, by coaching a “lost cause” basketball team at the high school where he had been a celebrated champion.
WHO SHOULD WATCH:
Mid-teens and up but ONLY with parental discretion, supervision and discussion. While there is no sexual content, there is a LOT of bad language and scenes of self-destructive drinking which make for excellent horrible warnings. On the plus side The Way Back gives a clear demonstration of respect for the Catholic Church in general and priests in particular as kind moral centers and understanding sources of redemption.
While The Way Back has a lot of similarities to traditional underdog movies, it progresses through far darker waters than your average feel good sports flick. Most movies of this genre would have ended two-thirds of the way through where The Way Back does. But The Way Back has the courage to move FORWARD through a realistic assessment of the deeply troubled Jack Cunningham, far after the predictable conclusion to the basketball team’s triumphs. This is not condemnation but commendation.
I like a formulaic sports movie as much as the next person. From the faith-based Facing the Giants to the histo-sports drama Victory, the sentimental Hoosiers and the weepy The Miracle Season, I love movies that end tied up in a nice neat bow. But The Way Back is just not one of those movies.
The story, clearly a vehicle for Affleck as cinematic therapy for his own struggles with alcoholism, is of an angry and bitter Jack Cunningham – divorced, former basketball champion, alone and seemingly determined to drink himself to death. Functional in his construction worker job, he showers in the morning with a beer in the soap dish, pops one open on his way home, spends his evenings at a bar and often has to be partially carried home by a family friend. Apparently his life fell apart 2 years previous and we do not initially know why. It could have been for a lot of reasons, but this is a man who has almost completely cut himself off from his family, and self indulgently given up on his marriage, his life, and hope itself.
He is a walking poster child for horrible warnings, until his former priest calls him in need of some assistance with the team which is now languishing at his old alma mater. The previous coach had taken ill. They needed a replacement and, I suspect, the priest knew Jack needed a constructive purpose. While the rehabilitation of the basketball team is satisfyingly predictable, it is only the background of the road to redemption for Jack.
Movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and Batman versus Superman notwithstanding, Ben Affleck is a fine actor. His talents have shined in movies like The Accountant, (SEE REVIEW HERE) about an autistic hitman, and Argo, the semi-docudrama about the rescue of six people behind Iranian lines during the Carter botched, Reagan recovered hostage crisis of 1979. The Way Back, directed by the same talented Gavin O’Connor who helmed The Accountant, is another example of Affleck’s abilities. It’s no coincidence that Affleck has had his own battles with dependency. Jack’s very realistic pain reaches through to the viewer in every scene.By Affleck’s own admission The Way Back was cathartic as the actor went from rehab to filming. And Affleck makes the most of every aching moment.
Janina Gavankar is solid as Jack’s long suffering estranged wife, Angela. Al Madrigal is sympathetic and charming as Dan, Jack’s assistant. Jeremy Radin and John Alyward offer lovely performances as Fathers Mark and Edward, respectively, who try to encourage Jack while still guiding the young men on the court who are in Jack’s care.
The basketball scenes are energetic and entertaining, respecting the audience enough to immerse the basketball in what was, to me, obscure language, but providing enough clear context in language, action and good filmmaking, that details were not necessary.
The movie is quite good but certainly not without its flaws. The cinematography by Eduard Grau is dark, whether by accident or poorly thought out attempts at atmosphere is unclear. Some scenes have jerky edits, and a lot of the intimate conversations are shot with all the panache of a TV soap opera.
On the other hand, the music by Rob Simonsen, who has penned music for other heart wrenching and moving stories like: Burnt, Tully, Life of Pi and The Nativity Story, is hauntingly beautiful and understated, like variations on a theme in the tragic symphony of Jack’s life. The soundtrack carries a theme that plays hide and seek from opening to ending credits, like the thoughts Jack can not, and perhaps does not want, to purge from his mind or in which he wishes to drown.
While The Way Back is a challenge to watch it is also rewarding, warm and even occasionally funny. The path that Jack walks is a rough road with an uncertain destiny, and though it is occasionally painful to travel with him, it is a worthwhile journey to take.
Despite a brilliant start, clever plot, continued great acting, wonderful cameos, and magical animation, the story abandons its own raison d’etre.
WHO SHOULD GO:
Anyone can go but I can’t recommend it for the target young audience because of very dark imagery and multiple scenes of loss and childhood trauma involving being separated from one’s family and justifiable fears of a child losing her toys which could seriously distress small children. And I can’t recommend it for the older crowd because of the final message.
SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TOY STORY FRANCHISE
Full disclosure – this is a long post, even by my standards, but the Toy Story franchise has always been the beneficiary of some truly good writing, and the theme has always been that of family, so, it breaks my heart, but I have to make the case ….. against Toy Story 4, and that’s going to take some explaining.
In the first movie the question was the choice between ego or family, when Woody’s seniority and favorite status is threatened by Buzz Lightyear. Woody chose family by placing the needs of his fatherless owner, Andy, above his own wants and even risking his own life to rescue Buzz and incorporate Buzz into their group.
Toy Story 2 dealt with the idea of fame versus family when Woody has the opportunity to be admired from afar as a classic toy in a Japanese museum but instead chooses to return to Andy, even telling Buzz that he no longer fears Andy outgrowing him because he has the family of toys “for [sic] infinity and beyond”.
Toy Story 3 addresses the inevitable time when Andy, like Little Jackie Paper in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”, does outgrow the magic and the toys are sent to another child.
This latest installment also involves the issue of family.
Aside from the amazing computer animation, the sterling voice acting of terrific actors, the astonishingly complex characters, the jokes both obvious and inside which parents and even the youngest can understand on a variety of levels and the complex and interesting plot lines, the real brilliance of the films has always been that the stories are really about parenthood – selflessly being there when your child needs you, even if they don’t know they do, even if you do it knowing the goal is for them to eventually not need you any more.
To be a good parent one must choose their children’s happiness, safety and sense of security over the expediences of the parents’ own wants, desires and even needs. Woody, the de facto Dad in each of the movies, chooses to protect his toy family for the benefit of his child. And this is the way to which the ownership is referred – that the toy has a child, which is always viewed as the ultimate and Xanadu of existence for any toy. And the lack of a child is always seen as a tragic circumstance and even one which can, like Lotso or Stinky Pete, lead to a bitter expression of their baser and negative personality traits.
Woody chooses to share the lime light in the first, to forego fame in the second, and accept when his child no longer needs him but accepts the responsibilities of another child who does in the third.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR TOY STORY 4 – SEROUSLY I AM GOING TO BE DISCUSSING THE ENDING SO IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT YET AND WANT TO LET THE STORY UNVEIL ITSELF IN THE MOVIE THEATER PLEASE BAIL OUT NOW.
ALSO SPOILERS BY IMPLICATION FOR IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS IN PETER PAN, LION KING, ALADDIN AND STAR WARS– A NEW HOPE.
OK FAIR WARNING WAS GIVEN
FIRST – THE GOOD STUFF
While I have rarely seen a franchise manage the same quality throughout all of its films, Back to the Future being the only one that springs to mind at the moment, Toy Story seemed to conquer that artistic challenge with grace and a strong sense of its own universe. The writers respect these characters and recognize the intricate personalities of each toy, especially the major players. Each has flaws and virtues. None are treated as black and white. They are very recognizably 3D humans. Part of the magic of these stories is that everyone in the audience, including the adults, can find a toy with which to identify, just as any child can, in real life, find a toy which speaks to them out of a well stocked toy box. And the one overarching and abiding principle which has provided the strength of backbone to all of the stories is that their child means everything to the toys about whom the tale is woven.
Toy Story 4 is no exception. At least not at first and not for most of the movie. Woody steps aside as Jessie and other toys are regularly chosen as playmates over him because that is what Bonnie wants. He is the only one who recognizes Bonnie’s need for a champion and secret guardian when she is taken to kindergarten for orientation. Not even her parents apparently fully wish to understand that the little girl is too young to be left at an institution when she is devastated by her separation from home. Woody sneaks into her backpack and secretly assists her throughout the day, proving abundantly that he was right. Woody then steps up to promote a “toy” given life by Bonnie’s imagination and love which is made from a spork and some art supplies. Forky’s determination to be trash instead and his constant attempts to throw himself away are played for laughs and every parent who has had to deal with a self-destructive toddler (but I repeat myself) understands what Woody is up against.
And for anyone who has raised a child to adulthood, Woody’s consistent leadership, even when not wanted, and loyalty even when not appreciated, are part of the definition of true parenthood. You want kids to grow up and not need you any more but it is a painful process. In Woody’s case Bonnie still needs him but doesn’t even know it.
They have brought to the acting table all of the previous actors: Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear, the ubiquitous Ratzenberger as Hamm, Wally Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie, Annie Potts as Bo Peep, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly, and even, using posthumous archival clips, the late Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, even dedicating the film to his memory. And in a delightful spate of celebrity castings they have added: TV legend Carol Burnett in a small part as a talking child’s chair named Chairol Burnett, the one and only incredible Mel Brooks as Meliphant Brooks, and Betty White as Bitey White, the infamous web-short duo of Key and (Academy Award winning) Peele as Ducky and Bunny, Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers as three action adventure versions of Combat Carl (possibly take-offs of real toys based on his role in Predator), the Shakespearean actor and former James Bond Timothy Dalton in a reprising role as Mr. Pricklepants, Carl “basically invented TV sitcoms” Reiner as the little pink Carl Reinerocerous , and saving the most surprsing for laughs – Keanu “John Wick” Reeves as Duke Caboom – a Canadian based (in honor of Reeves home country) daredevil toy.
As a small digression: for anyone who has read my review of John Wick will note, I have mentioned that, despite Reeves omnipresence in bloody action flicks might otherwise suggest, Reeves calling is comedian – and if this stint as the voice of the wheelie posturing motorcyclist doesn’t prove that, then not even Bill and Ted could.
NOW THE BAD – TO BEGIN WITH IT IS VERY DARK AND CREEPY
I wish I could tell you that the film makers took this final installment to the Toy Story adventure to a brilliant conclusion… AND THEY WERE sooooooo CLOSE… but in truth they stumbled and fell badly at the finish line – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they just quit the race altogether.
I won’t reveal the details of the plot journey in THIS part of the post, except to say this is a darker movie than the others. Even Toy Story 3 with the accidental abandonment of the toys and Lotso’s dystopian nursery is not as unsettling as Toy Story 4. Bo Peep reemerges but her porcelein arms have been broken, are held on by tape and occasionally fall off. Some time is spent in an antique store which might as well have been labeled “Haunted House” from the toys’ point of view. A band of shuffling, very creepy, perpetually smiling, voiceless ventriolquist dolls protect, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) the nemesis, providing jump scares and kidnapping and assaulting different characters. Worse, Bonnie is beset almost the entire film with having to face loss. Loss of her home to kindergarten, loss of security as the other children treat her with casual indifference and her teacher does nothing about it; constant and repeated episodes of losing Forky, a traumatic (and I mean for the observing audience as well) scene where she is beside herself over Forky’s disappearance on a trip.
I HOPE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN, BUT WOODY — LEAVES — HIS CHILD
But the darkest parts of this Toy Story is Woody’s decision to become a “lost toy”. By choice.
Our younger son who went with us, an adult now, but a child when the first one came out, mentioned he was glad they had not gone to the well again of making another toy the “bad guy” as they had done with both Toy Stories 2 and 3 with Stinky Pete and Lotso, respectively. In retrospect, I’m afraid he was wrong. And I’m not talking about Gabby who ultimately repents, but Bo Peep. like the song about the temptress Lola in Damn Yankees, whatever Bo wants she gets and Woody, little man, she wants you.
Bo even expresses bitterness at having never truly been played with but ultimately rejected and discarded as an eventually unneeded nightlight. She shows her true colors in the opening scene of TS4, in a flashback event which took place nine years before, (and retroactively explains why Bo was not in Toy Story 3), when she tries to get Woody to abandon Andy, when Andy was still just a little boy. Woody wisely resists the temptation and stays with his child. But Bo finally gets her revenge through Bonnie, by enticing Woody to abandon his sworn responsibilities to Bonnie, his child now, to run off with her. It is a stunningly sad epitaph describing the fall of a once noble character.
The narrator in a famous Bruce Springsteen song defiantly declares: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back….” This is all we need to know about this manure ball – that he abandoned his family because he had a “hungry heart”. Sorry, but that’s a pathetic reason to turn your back on your kids – your KIDS! Never mind breaking the most important oath he will ever make – to his wife. This is an evil perpetrated that can never be fully healed.
In the end, and contrary to everything that has gone before in all four movies, Woody walks away from his heretofore all important vocation of being his child’s toy in order to stay with Bo Peep. Bonnie, his child, has not given him up. She plays with him sometimes, knows he’s around, obviously needs him whether she knows it or not, and will eventually realize he is gone.
In the somewhat realistic universe in which the Toy Story characters exist it is even possible that Andy, who gave Woody up with great reluctance at the end of Toy Story 3 and then only because he thought Bonnie loved Woody so much, that Andy might one day find out that Woody has been lost. So Woody’s abandonment of Bonnie is a betrayal not just of Bonnie but of Andy as well.
ALSO also, the toys live in a background of realism where their actions did effect the humans around them. Al from Al’s Toy Barn, for example, ended up near bankruptcy when he lost his valuable toys – but could be seen to deserve it because he had stolen Woody. Bonnie’s parents are stopped by the police when the van they are driving moves erratically because of toy hi-jinx. So, when in the end of TS4 the mission of Woody, Bo and company seems to be stealing from carnival barkers to give toys they do not own to children, this has a disastrous effect on the humans. From the horrified expression of the game attendant on which this scheme was perpetrated, this was not a good thing. His stall would not survive long and he might even be accused of stealing the merchandise himself.
If Toy Story is a reminder to parents to not let their ego get in the way of being good parents, if Toy Story 2 is a reminder not to let the lure of fame and attraction of money (presumably representing one’s job) keep them from being there for their kids, and if Toy Story 3 is a reminder to parents that one day they will have to take a step back and let their kids grow up but perhaps parent (read grandparent) a new generation , then what exactly is Toy Story 4 trying to tell us?
AN EXCUSE FOR THE ABANDONING, DEAD BEAT PARENT
Are the Toy Story 4 film makers saying one should put personal romantic attachments ahead of their family? Is this a subtle message to imply that a Dad who abandons his responsibilities for a girl friend is OK? Is this finally, an attempt at justifying behavior of the actual Hollywood culture which is responsible for the creation of this franchise, to say that it is acceptable to leave their children behind like goose droppings or unwanted furniture for a selfish fling? Yes, Bo Peep is an old friend, but this is still not reasonable. Woody’s behavior in the final moments of this four movie franchise flies in the face of everything Woody has said, done and believed up to now INCLUDING what he has said in this very movie – that a toy’s most noble cause and purpose is to help their child. Instead Woody, in a completely unexpected 180 degree turn around ABANDONS his child, who is still a little girl demonstrably in need of his aid, even if it is behind the scenes, for Bo Peep, a now wild toy who he has not seen for 9 years.
This is, frankly, an appalling and disappointing break in an established noble character – What if Simba had decided to stay in his comfy hobo existence? What if Wendy had chosen to not leave Neverland with her brothers? What if Aladdin had decided to tuck Genie back into his lamp for a rainy day? I know I’m crossing universes here but Disney will eventually own everything, so what if Han had decided to book it out of town with the gold in the first Star Wars and never come back?
What if Woody left his child?
The Woody we know would not leave Bonnie. But he does. It’s a shame that the Toy Story franchise had to end with a tag line that should have read: And so Bonnie lived precariously, never knowing what loss she would suffer next … ever after.
WOODY LOSES HIS CONSCIENCE
Now all this being said, my husband made a VERY interesting point. A lot of rather clever and playful reference is made about one’s conscience. Woody understands the abstract concept well but when trying to explain it to Buzz, Buzz mistakes it for his pre-programmed sayings, which actually end up being very appropriate. This was actually quite a cute way to broach this ethereal topic for a very young crowd and amuse the older people at the same time. Woody’s pre-programmed voice box works perfectly, but the voice box of Gabby Gabby, the antagonist, does not – because she was manufactured incorrectly.
Before the exchange near the end of the movie in order to save Forky, Woody’s spiritual conscience works with selfless clarity of purpose, while Gabby’s behavior stems from a desperate selfishness born of loneliness and a sense of never experiencing what non-defective dolls get – unconditional love (her appropriately used term).
AFTER the transplant, though we never hear the defective version of Woody’s pre-programmed “inner voice”, we get to hear Gabby’s now much improved inner, pull string, voice. So we know the exchange was made, with Woody getting Gabby’s flawed “inner voice”.
We quickly see a subtle but significant change in behavior. Gabby gives up a sure home to risk helping a lost child, while Woody … chooses the vagabond life of a “lost” toy to be with his “honey,” Bo Peep, abandoning his fellow toys and Bonnie, the little girl who is SELF-DESCRIBED AS HIS CHILD. It used to be considered an abominably shameful thing to turn your back on the spouse to whom you promised fidelity and the child you produced, in order to engage in selfish pursuits. Now, tragically, it is applauded and the children left behind are treated like old furniture at a garage sale to be shuffled to whomever might still want them.
IS TOY STORY NOW ADVOCATING IN FAVOR OF THE DIVORCE CULTURE ?
For more information on the devastation that divorce leaves, even decades later to adult children of divorced parents, you can buy at the Ruth Institute or READ ONLINE FOR FREE HERE THROUGH AMAZON KINDLE, a copy of Leila Millers’s Primal Loss – The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak.
And where were Jessie and Buzz? I can not fathom why the writers think we would accept either of them letting Woody go. But it fits in with the popular divorce routine where all the adult friends are supposed to rally around the abandoning parent and encourage them to “follow their heart”. I think if I hear that phrase used to justify another self-indulgently destructive behavior in a movie I’m going to stand up right there in the theater and scream in frustration. While they do not actually SAY it in TS4 Woody certainly DOES it.
Were the film makers saying they think it is OK to justify the “divorce” culture dad who leaves his child to start a new life with another woman (or less frequently but just as horrible, wife who leaves to be with another man) and we’re all supposed to be OK with it? OR – is this a subtle remonstration that those who behave in such a cruelly callous, irresponsible and self indulgent manner have broken inner voices – defective consciences? If the latter, it wasn’t nearly made clear enough … perhaps because the writers were afraid to ruffle a few feathers whose plumage was way too close to the guilty fire on this one.
I’m more than a little confused so can only imagine the perplexing message being conveyed to the youngest members of the family to whom these movies are primarily aimed.
The Toy Story we know and loved might have allowed Woody to be tempted but one of his most trusted confidantes would have slapped him, questioned his sanity, and made Woody recognize what a terrible mistake he was making. THAT would have been a good and fitting ending to this franchise. Anyone can be tempted. Even Jesus was tempted in the desert. It is what we fallen creatures do in the face of that temptation which separates the wheat from the chaff. And the film makers tossed every bit of good will the audience had invested in this character into the wind.
I would rather have seen Woody destroyed or fade into inanimacy from Bonnie’s loss of interest than see him betray everything for which he was created, everything he espoused and every principle he upheld for the last 24 years through the first three and most of this fourth movie.
The writers, lead by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, had so much going into this movie: a rich treasure of talent, an invested audience, well developed characters and plot back ground, and they gave it all away for a potage of politically correct propaganda to help justify succumbing to the lure of romantic adventure at the expense of a small trusting child. Shame on them.
Dry and uninvolving biopic, despite Michael Keaton’s efforts, about Ray Kroc, the avaricious business predator, who co-opted then outsted the McDonald brothers from their own creation.
WHO SHOULD WATCH:
Limited to adults and older teens only because some language and Kroc’s lack of interpersonal and business ethics. The mechaniations of enterprise – good and bad – might be interesting to business and history students.
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If you can not be a good example be a horrible warning. I’m not sure which one the makers of The Founder intended it to be.
The Founder is a 2016 biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald’s a multi-bazillion dollar enterprise and its distinct Golden Arches logo one of the most recognizable symbols on (literally) the entire planet.
McDonald’s was a singular hamburger restaurant – one of, if not the first, walk-up, designed by the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard (John Carroll Lynch of Jackie – see my review of Jackiehere – and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation). Their’s was a unique concept, carefully designed and laid out, innovative and revoluitionary in the Drive-In-car hop-predominated culture of America in the 1950’s. Richard and Maurice, had created this style as a money saver – no car hops, broken glassware, or dallying hoodlums. People stood in line to get great tasting burgers, in throw away packaging, in a clean family friendly environment. What the McDonald brothers saw as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Ray Kroc saw as a golden goose just waiting to be plucked.
The film starts with Ray as an unsuccessful multi-spindle milkshake salesman who happens upon this singular successful enterprise and recognizes the brilliant business model for what it is. The McDonald brothers think “small” but Ray believes in BIG. And the McDonald brothers don’t know to whom they are linking their futures when they sign a contract with Ray to establish franchises. Ray’s personal motto is “Persistence” and he uses his formidable variation on it to: slowly negotiate, maneuver and leverage their business right out from under them, steal the wife of one of his franchise partners, leave his own wife, and cheat the McDonald brothers out of the royalty fees to which they were promised when they inevitably are forced to sell out to Ray.
This is NOT a nice man, but then neither was Vito Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy or Loki from The Avengers movies. And people generally love both the Corleone patriarch and Thor’s sly brother as guilty pleasures. But what the latter two had in abundance, Ray Kroc, as portrayed in The Founder, had none of – and that was a relatable personality.
The Founder plays out like the dramatically filmed version of a documentary. It is not filmed in documentary style but is written as a series of facts filmed in vignettes. The movie is seen through Ray Kroc’s eyes in a terrific performance by Michael Keaton but only in the visual sense. By that I mean, we see what happens as Kroc himself might remember them but we, the audience, get no real feel for seeing AS Kroc might have seen life. We are never given opportunity to see the world as Ray Kroc sees it. We only hear him voice the sentiments of his own avarice without understanding what it was that drove him to HAVE those views. No back story, no moments of reflection, no knowing how he reconciles with or justifies to himself what he has done to others. Certainly, no King Claudius self-tormenting moments from Hamlet, wherein the character knows the wrong he has done and would like to repent but is unable because of his own weaknesses for the things he has acquired through those same outrageous acts.
Keaton has been Batman, Bird Man, Vulture in Spiderman Homecoming, and Mr. Mom – all variations on super heroes with a dark but redemptively inclined streak in one form or another (even his character in the comedy Mr Mom gets within a hair’s breadth of the dark action of cheating on his wife but comes to his senses in the nick of time). So playing an appealing villain would not be his first rodeo. Unfortunately, the script gives him little to do but posture and go through the motions. Once he establishes his unsuccessful frustrated character then woos the McDonald brothers, the rest of the movie is merely a checklist of events. Expand the business – check. Buy land – check. Meet his business associate’s wife and show interest – check. Use innovations, like dried instant milkshake without the McDonald brothers permission – check. Tell the brothers he has more money and so he can do what he wants and they are out – check. Movie over – check.
Don’t get me wrong. Keaton does his best with this dry script. He even manages a few moments which gives a glimmer of what the movie should have been. For example, there’s one scene where he joins his future second wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini from Daddy’s Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a piano where she works and, right in front of her husband, manages to woo her by singing with her. And the first scenes which show his woeful attempts to sell his multi-mixers demonstrate his gift of gab which is falling on deaf ears. I mean, his pitch was so good I was almost ready to buy one! But, alas, his potential buyers were noT so convinced. So you come to understand why, when he sees this extremely profitable “hamburger joint” his mouth starts watering and not just for the French fries. But for every one of the few interesting scenes there are several astonishingly bland ones, such as when he announces, as they eat a silent dinner at their kitchen table, to his all but ignored wife, Ethel, (Laura “Jurassic Park” Dern), that he wants a divorce. She just puts down her fork, the camera pans back and away from her, the end. (Huh?) The audience pretty much knew this was coming, but instead of Beatrice Straight’s Oscar winning 5 minutes in Network where she reads her husband the riot act for walking out on her, we get something more akin to the emotional vacuum of Dave as he eats alone in the empty house in 2001.
This is a humorless look at the man. Kroc states as his personal philosophy to the McDonald brothers at one point – “If my competitor was drowning I’d stick a hose in his mouth.” So “business is business” is obviously a manifesto with Kroc. But that does not mean this arid POV has to be reflected in the way the movie is written. I can’t help but wonder how much better this movie would have been with a Cohen Brothers-style hero in the lead.
In short, this is a flat film whose basic moral could be stated as: “If you are persistent enough you can have everything you want and never have to suffer the consequences of your evil actions.” Kroc stole his partners’ business, his friend’s wife, and cheated the McDonald brothers out of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties —- because he could. But we ultimately don’t care. We don’t know the abused well enough to empathize and we are givennothing with which to relate to the main character. It’s an unpalatable story which wastes the considerable talents of Keaton.
So……….next time, Keaton wants to play a vulture, I’d much rather it be one in a Spiderman sequel.
Lovely, delightful and moving documentary covering the life of both Fred Rogers and his Neighborhood.
WHO SHOULD SEE IT:
Absolutely everyone. No really – unequivocally, no holds barred, universally, unabashedly, and without even the smallest reservation – EVERYONE!!!!
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When I was a kid, I had a brother and sister who were 9 and 10 years older, respectively, than I. Come to think of it, they STILL are 9 and 10 years older. Also, my Dad and I were buddies. I’d go to the hardware store with him, and I would hang around and “help” him with construction projects around our house. He was 40 when I was born. My point is that when we turned on the TV it was “Fractured Fairy Tales” on Rocky and Bullwinkle, Star Trek, Hogan’s Heroes, Abbot and Costello, The Great Escape, Wagon Train and The Magnificent Seven. The quiet and gentle wisdom of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and his cardigan sweaters was just not on my radar. So later, when I had kids, while I respected the show, and thought he was doing something nice for kids, I just wasn’t that interested.
So I was surprised by my own emotional reaction to Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I realized then that Fred Rogers had seeped, ever so slowly, into my consciousness with his gentle, joyful manner over the last 50 years. He was simply a kind and decent man who both advocated as a motto of his show and lived by the personal ethic: “I like you just the way you are.” Fred Rogers spent his life wisely, as the personification of Jesus' answer to the question which preambled the parable of The Good Samaritan: "Who is my neighbor?" There is no doubt in my mind that the name of his show was intended as an incarnation of that answer – that, to Mr. Rogers, everyone was his neighbor. And Fred Rogers' personal Inspired ministry was to bring God's Love to all people in a very practical, first hand way – by demonstration.
St. Francis famously advocated to: “Preach always, sometimes even with words.” Fred Rogers, through his actions, showed himself to be an avid disciple. Though the subject of Fred Rogers’ specific spiritual beliefs came up sparingly in the documentary, aside from the fact of his ordination as a minister, his adherence to the foundational Christian belief that all men are brothers, beloved of and equal in God’s eyes, comes out boldly and profoundly in everything Fred Rogers did, or said.
The documentary dips into the very deep well of video on which he appears. Not just the copies of almost 1,000 shows, but his personal appearances on interview programs, at schools, and even before Congress! There is no lack of documentation of Fred Rogers’ progress from his early philosophical musings before a piano on teaching children about serious issues, probably filmed by his wife, in 1962, all the way through the blooper video clips from his very last show in 2001 and his PSA in 2002 on 9/11.
The documentary interviews his wife, his sons, John and Jim, his co-workers, friends, associates, and other interviewers. They come from many walks of life, and life styles. But all people were equal in Fred Rogers’ eyes. Rogers maintained a tight ship, monitoring every aspect of the show, and required understandably scrupulous behavior, watching over the reputation of the show with care and affection for everyone involved in the production. Mr. Rogers, for example, forbade one actor from frequenting a particular bar and Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin) from appearing in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, Rogers’ fatherly supervision of his cast and crew did not discourage a certain level of good-natured juvenile behavior amongst those Mrs. Rogers remembered he called his “playmates”, such as practical jokes on set or a poster made from a tasteless but amusing photo clandestinely left on Rogers’ camera by a mischievous member of the crew.
Back in the 1960's, there were topics, it was understood, that children’s programming just would not explore. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’sstock in trade was the places where angels would fear to tread. He tackled issues head on that many adults avoided: death, divorce, lost children, serious illness, and disabilities. He had guest stars, wrote books, made appearances, did interviews, and performed puppet plays intended to translate these complex topics in ways which children could understand, talk about, and express their confusions and concerns.
The cast and crew were close and the show was very personal to everyone involved. Daniel the Tiger, the avatar most close to Fred Roger's heart and personality, according to those who knew him best, often spoke of insecurity and self doubt. King Friday XIII and his Queen dealt frequently with parental concerns. Everyone on the cast was known by a real name. Lady Aberlin's name was Betty Aberlin, Officer Clemmons was, in real life, the powerhouse singer, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, and the name Mr. McFeely, though played by David Newell, was Fred Rogers' middle name.
In the ‘60's, when black people were forced out of public pools, Fred Rogers pointedly invited Francois Clemmons, a black man portraying Mr. Rogers’ local police officer, to come join him on a hot day as he soaked his feet in a child’s plastic pool and to share his towel. Fred Rogers went out of his way to rinse Officer Clemmons' feet with his hose and offer him his towel. There is no mistaking the reference to Jesus' washing of his disciples feet nor of the point Mr. Rogers made. I couldn’t help but laugh as Mr. Rogers looked up at the camera from contemplating their cooling feet. There was an expression I'd never seen on the face of this usually sweet, impeturbable man – just a glimpse of his righteousness anger at the injustices which inspired this demonstration, as though, for a moment, he was staring down anyone who would dare question his actions. I hoped those at the time, he was silently addressing, had seen and squirmed in shame. Mr. Roger and Mr. Clemmons re-enacted the event some years later.
When Bobby Kennedy was murdered, Fred Rogers’ show had Lady Aberlin and Daniel the Tiger discuss what the word “assassination” meant. When the Challenger blew up in front of millions of kids, Fred Rogers was there to confront the topic with his beloved puppets in ways small children could understand. When the horrific attack on our country was made by Islamic terrorists on 9/11, Fred Rogers came out of retirement, ill with only months left before he would pass away, to offer comfort to 33 years of children who had grown up watching him.
Mr. Rogers was the personification of kindness and the exemplification of Jesus’ instruction to his apostles as he sent them to preach, to be: “…wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Rogers loved and put at ease everyone he met, but was uncompromising in his beliefs and could talk anybody into anything he believed was right.
Rogers’ powers of persuasion were legendary. Mr. Clemmons, during the documentary, explained that just portraying a police officer as a black man at the time was initially out of his comfort zone, because he had grown up afraid of police. But Clemmons put on the uniform and gave good example, portraying this character for decades. Mr. Rogers could reason anyone into doing the right thing, including convincing an extremely prejudiced and skeptical Congressman Pastore out of the 20 MILLION dollars needed in 1969 to keep a fledgling Public Broadcast System afloat, by simply being reasonable. See the Youtube of Rogers' appearance before the subcommittee here.
Mr. Rogers recognized what a force for good the power of the television medium could be and how its worth was being wasted on frivolous, violent and brainless assaults on children’s senses. His mind set was to minister to children of all ages by taking their feelings and thoughts seriously, and help them cope with the normal struggles of life. He featured everyone from the profoundly physically challenged Jeffrey Erlanger to a young Wynton Marsalis to the famous Julia Child to Koko the Gorilla. Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist, not only appeared several times on the show, but was a friend, was interviewed for the documentary, and is credited by the director, Morgan Neville, as being the inspiration for the documentary. While interviewing Mr. Ma for a different project, Mr. Neville asked Mr. Ma how he dealt with fame. Ma's response surprised him – that he learned it from Mr. Rogers who, it turned out, assured Mr. Ma that fame was not an inherently bad thing, and mentored him on the appropriate ways to use this gift.
Like Colonel Pickering, who treated even a flower girl like Elisa Doolittle as though she were a lady, Mr. Rogers treated everyone alike, to be valued as a child of God. His love for every man was carried out in his prison ministry, and his outreach to adults, Old Friends, New Friends which aired during the hiatus of his Neighborhood during 1967-8.
He was a missionary of fraternal love to mankind and The Good Samaritan to the world. I am so glad his ministry lives on in his shows, in the memories of his friends, family, co-workers and those children, now adults, who watched him and were positively influenced. The picture of humility, his wife remembered how on his death bed he wondered if he would be accepted into Jesus' sheepfold. Known world wide, recognized and admired by celebrities, all he thought of himself was God's unworthy servant.
In this, the 50th anniversary year of his show’s debut, not only will a commemorative U.S. postage stamp featuring Fred Rogers be released, but work has begun on a biopic of the legendary minister, starring Tom Hanks, planned for release in 2019.
Jesus said the second half of the greatest law is to: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rogers was an ordained minister, so it was obviously not a coincidence that in the world of his “Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers' declared, by word and action, daily, that he liked his fellow man, with a Christian love, just the way they were. St. Francis should be proud.