May 26, 2020

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Fred Rogers Doc on HBO

I watched a church service on Easter morning, cooked some festive dishes and had two virtual parties with friends and family in the afternoon. As evening approached, I tried to think of something to watch in keeping with the Easter spirit. That ruled out murder dramas, Covid-10 news and political pundits.

Suddenly, a recommendation from last Easter popped into my head. A friend had raved about the 2018 American documentary currently streaming on HBO, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I had never watched Mr. Rogers when his show was on PBS, mistakenly thinking it was strictly for kiddies. The documentary points out social consciousness always played a part in his programming.

It was with wonder I watched him share bare feet in a kiddie pool with his African-American postman, a not so subtle counterbalance to the fights over whites and blacks using the same public swimming pools. Through fairy tale stories and realistic conversations between puppets and humans, Fred Rogers tackled difficult issues of the day.

One of the most moving segments of the doc is when Rogers interviews a disabled boy in a wheel chair. There is no pity on either side of the conversation, just a positive exchange of ideas between two individuals.

First and foremost was Mr. Rogers’ reverence for the feelings and education of children. He views television as a medium to create more than just cheap entertainment for kids. (On a personal note, my husband interviewed someone from the cast and was given a ticket to see Mr. Rogers live at the Auditorium in Chicago. He related how the venue was jam-packed with kids shouting and laughing until Mr. Rogers appeared on stage. A dead hush occurred before one little voice called out in awe, “Rogers,” only to be joined by hundreds of devoted fans yelling his name. Sadly, I never got to see the man in person, but I do recall this vivid description from my spouse.)

As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers chose to wear a sweater and comfortable shoes instead of a white collar but his spirituality is apparent in his songs, his speech and his very demeanor. The documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, directed by Morgan Neville, captures the essence of Mr. Rogers. Watch it with people you love.

P.S. I may yet watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the 2019 movie starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, but the the footage of the real man is gonna be hard to beat.

Library apps: Overdrive, Hoopla and Libby

Libraries have two strikes against them during this Covid-19 outbreak. They are not considered essential services and they risk attracting numbers of people who may catch or spread the disease. I understand the rationale, but if ever we needed the comfort of books, it is now.

Library apps to the rescue. If you have a library card number, you have access to a wealth of downloadable material on at least three different apps. Overdrive lets you download e-books, audiobooks and magazines like Oprah, Newsweek, Prevention, House Beautiful and Forbes, among others.

https://www.overdrive.com/explore

Hoopla not only carries ebooks and audiobooks, but movies, comics, an impressive catalogue of recorded music and a treasure trove of television shows both old and new. The library card holder is limited to six selections per month however.

https://www.hoopladigital.com/my/hoopla

Libby, an off-shoot of Overdrive, specializes in audiobooks and ebooks. The user is able to set preferences like genre, language and availability. One can explore new releases with the ability to put holds on the most popular titles. Libby estimates how many weeks one will have to wait for a title. I always have one or two books downloaded from this easy-to-use app.

https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby/

If you have the money, please order a book from your local bookstore. If, however, you are pinching pennies, you can be grateful Overdrive, Hoopla and Libby apps are free. We have our public library system to thank for this. Books, to my mind, are essential.

The Two Popes – a Netflix original movie

When major film stars agree to appear in films produced by Netflix, you know the movie industry is indeed changing. Witness the redoubtable Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Pope Benedict in The Two Popes. Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis is no slouch either having worked in films, tv and on stage, most notably to me as The Engineer in the original Miss Saigon on Broadway.

Based on true life, The Two Popes allows the viewer to see the relationship between these two pontiffs. Pope Benedict is the German who loves music but has difficulty connecting with people. Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina asks papal permission to resign from his post. Based on a play by Anthony McCarten, the future Pope Francis admits to dancing the tango and confesses a dark secret to his church boss.

Film director Fernando Meireiles has fashioned a film with intelligent dialogue and tour de force acting moments for both Hopkins and Pryce. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy watching these two acting titans verbally joust as they get to know one another.

We all know that Pope Francis followed Benedict to the papacy, but the journey is still entertaining in The Two Popes. Hopkins, Pryce and Meireiles all garnered Oscar nominations for their work.

And if you are not all “poped out,” HBO also features The Young Pope with Jude Law and The New Pope with Chicago acting legend John Malkovich.

What’s next? A papal fashion craze? I want a pair of those red leather shoes.

Rocketman, a film inspired by the life of Sir Elton John

Released last year, Rocketman, the bio pic based on Elton John’s early life, has been currently available on selected streaming sites. In short, Taron Egerton is a wonder as Sir Elton. He justifiably won a Golden Globe as best actor for his performance, but was inexplicably left off the list of this year’s Oscar nominations.

Film credits go to director Dexter Fletcher and screenplay writer Lee Hall for choosing a dramatic arc in John’s life that has great emotional resonance. We see his difficult childhood, his precocity at the Royal Academy of Music in London and his search for a musical path. Enter lyricist, Bernie Taupin, played by actor Jamie Bell, who teams up with Elton to add words to his prolific compositions.

We see his meteoric rise as he conquers British and American music markets and becomes fabulously wealthy. Like a rocket, what goes up, must come down. Along the way, he tries to commit suicide and becomes addicted to alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, shopping and sex. The movie effectivelyly uses his participation in a rehab group as a device to tell the story.

Throughout the film, we hear those iconic hits and are bemused by his journey through ever more outrageous clothing and accessories. Those platform shoes! Those eyeglasses!

Elton John’s journey in this movie feels a little bit like that of Rocky Balboa’s in the Rocky franchise, but that is not a bad thing. We are rooting for him to turn his life around. Stay for the final credits where you get to read about “the rest of the story.”

If you love Elton John’s music, Rocketman is a must, but the film is inspiring enough for those who are less familiar with his work. Fashionistas will have a visual feast, producing both horror and delight.

Movie Musical Binge

I watch very few movies these days, so I was in Seventh Heaven on the United flight home to Chicago as I binged on three film musicals.

The Greatest Showman absolutely delighted me with lovely music, great acting especially from Hugh Jackman and the over-all art direction of the film. Watching the movie on a small screen was disappointing however, so seeing it again at a movie theater is on my agenda. Music Box Theater are you listening?

I have a special connection to all four A Star Is Born movies which deal with the topic of a couple on opposite fame trajectories. My mother loved black and white movies so the engaging 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March was introduced to me at a very early age.

A Star Is Born (1954) with Judy Garland and James Mason I saw as foreign exchange student at a film revival house in Paris. The vibrant visuals of Technicolor mesmerized me, and English has never sounded so good to me.

Both Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson were idols of mine so the 1976 version was for me, unmissable. The movie soundtrack got heavy rotation on my home stereo as well. Evergreen, the song hit from the movie, was an ear worm at piano bars everywhere.

I did not have high expectations for the 2018 adaptation with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but I must admit that the film at least goes toe to toe with the 1976 film. Cooper’s singing is surprisingly good but his acting and directing are excellent. What can I say about Lady Gaga? She sings, acts and dances like the super star she is. Her French singing on La Vie En Rose was pretty magnifique, too.

My eyes started to hurt, but on I went to Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic starring Rami Malek as Queen lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Malek had caught my notice as the intriguing lead in the TV series Mr. Robot, but his embodiment of Mercury went beyond all expectations. Malek has moves! True, his singing voice was electronically mixed with that of Mercury and Canadian singer, Marc Martel throughout the movie, but he goes full throttle with the accent, the teeth prothesis and the sheer physical excitement of a Mercury performance. Be sure to watch the end credits so you can catch Mercury himself in full stage glory.

Like a binge monkey, I started Mary Poppins Returns only to be cut off by the pilot’s voice ten minutes into the movie, noting our imminent arrival to Chicago. Had there been time, I would have finished the Poppins film, gone on to the new Disney Dumbo remake and finished with Rocketman.

When is my next transatlantic flight so I can have another personal music film festival? Note to self: remember to pack eye drops.

Deadwood on HBO, the series and the new movie

My father was a U. S. Attorney for 8 years and had to spend summers in Deadwood, South Dakota for federal court sessions. Our family benefited by spending weeks exploring the whole Black Hills area, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Hot Springs, Hill City with its coal train locomotive and horseback riding being some of the attractions.

The real draw for me on these trips was the town of Deadwood with its storied past as a gold rush town, a gambling mecca and the place where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered by the infamous Jack McCall.

Show creator of Deadwood, David Milch set the HBO series in the time period when the lawless town was literally being mined for profit and being dragged into the orbit of government and civilization.

The excellent cast of Deadwood reads like an impressive who’s who of future tv shows. Timothy Oliphant subsequently added Justified and Santa Clarita Diet to his resume. Anna Gunn as his school-teacher wife went on to play the beleaguered spouse in Breaking Bad. Ian McShane as the town underworld boss has been seen in American Gods, Ray Donovan and Game of Thrones. Mollie Parker went on to House of Cards and Goliath. Paula Malcomson played Katniss’ mother in the Hunger Games movies. Kim Dickens and Garret Dillahunt both have been in Fear the Walking Dead. William Sanderson as Mayor and hotel owner E. B. Farnum plays a quirky sheriff in True Blood. Titus Welliver has done stints in The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy and Bosch. Seasoned actor Powers Booth has been recently seen in Nashville and Agents of S. H. I. E. L. D. Calamity Jane played by Robin Weigert recently popped up as a therapist on Big Little Lies. And I have not even touched upon the guest stars.

I make special note of Keith Carradine who is a wonder to behold as Wild Bill Hickok and Gerald McRaney as powerful bad guy, George Hurst.

The language is as raw as I remember. Four letter words and graphic scenes of sex and violence abound. This is unique dialogue that gives a nod to the time period and allows the characters to use the rough and raw words of whore houses, gambling dens and booze joints.

As you may have noticed, streaming services are revisiting series that still hold interest for viewers. In the case of Deadwood: The Movie (May 2019), David Milch picks up the story ten years after the end of the original series.

While I loved communing with these characters again and loose ends are indeed tied, the film was not of the same artistic quality of the series. By all means, watch this ground-breaking remarkable series as a newcomer or as a repeat customer. The Movie may be optional.

Just remember, aces and eights are the dead man’s poker hand. At least in Deadwood.