Disney+: Review of the Platform and the Best Devices to Stream On

It seems the debuts of major streaming services (and streaming shows) almost never adhere to the premiere dates they promote. Disney+ was like Apple TV+ and gave everyone an early preview the night before going live for those waiting with bated breath.

My first look at Disney+ was at 11:00 p.m. on November 11 with an immediate eye pop at the movie/TV catalog available. After all, this is the mother lode of film and TV show vaults thanks to Disney owning three major media properties beyond their own.

If you can argue they seriously erred in promoting movies they don’t yet have rights to, the majority of content available still became overwhelming enough. No doubt the strategy is to have us absorb all of it over the next year until they’re able to complete most of their missing pieces so they truly will have “everything.”

An initial test was to stream the Disney classics and see whether they could make the big transition to the streaming world. I somehow avoided the technical glitches thousands of people experienced in the early hours and managed to stream the colorful epics like “Fantasia” and “Sleeping Beauty” on my Samsung smart TV.

The good news is they looked even better than the Blu-Rays I still own, which was unexpected with a Wi-Fi connection. Scenes from “Sleeping Beauty” and “Fantasia” and “Snow White” looked eerily ethereal in a beautiful 4K shine.

Knowing we can stream Disney classics for time immemorial and have them look otherworldly is already a media dream fulfilled. Streaming the newer things looked a little different.

When streaming “The Mandalorian”, it looked visually darker, if still crisp 4K quality. Even watching scenes of “Avengers: Endgame” seemed like it wasn’t quite bright enough. Whether a 4K flaw, or just my own TV, it’s still a tech puzzle.

What I really discovered is most of Disney+ should be watched on a big-screen smart TV with a reliable Wi-Fi connection. “The Mandalorian” alone is like a big-screen space spaghetti western that’s playing like an eight-hour movie.

Also, who would really watch Disney classics on a mobile device? Maybe if you have nothing else to watch while in a busy waiting room, watching on a tablet or smartphone would be convenient. Only the casual originals or episodic TV would work better on mobile, but I’m guessing more people will stream Disney+ on their TV’s than they will Apple TV+, Netflix, or anything else.

As imperfect as Disney+ may be in not having everything (yet), plus using wrong aspect ratios on “The Simpsons” (something they’ll amend in the coming year), they’ve just thrown the gauntlet in shaping what the future of streaming will look like into the 2020s.

What Will Disney+ Be in a Few Years?

You could make an argument Disney+ opened maybe a year too soon. When you consider some of their most anticipated Marvel and “Star Wars” originals won’t even be debuted until well into next year and even 2021, you could call this first year an acclimation.

Perhaps the original strategy was to open a year early and get users into a gradual media flow. There’s definitely enough there now to keep viewers busy for a year. By 2021, we’ll really know whether Disney+ will become the leader in the streaming universe.

In my view, it’s going to become bigger than it already is based squarely on Marvel originals consolidating there, if not most “Star Wars” content. Latter goes on a hunch the big-screen movie franchises for “Star Wars” may not be so plentiful anymore.

Imagining Disney+ eventually having every Disney movie ever made, plus being the central hub for all things Marvel and “Star Wars”, should strike all other services with a little bit of fear.

The jury’s still out on whether Netflix can keep people interested in their originals in years ahead, and the same with Apple TV+. Certainly latter’s “The Morning Show”, “See”, and “Dickinson” are worth sticking with now. Regardless, there’s nothing definite in how long the public will stay committed to new things.

At Disney, they have established brands that are more than likely going to keep everyone riveted for years. If “The Mandalorian” is any indication, there’s going to be a lot of happy Disney+ campers when connecting the shows to discussions on social media.

Disney just shaped the future of streaming profoundly, something that’s easy to miss when being so easily entertained with their media catalog during the service’s first week.

(For further individual takes on Disney+, Apple TV+, and other upcoming streaming services, visit my profile at The Cheat Sheet.)

 

Apple TV+ and “The Morning Show” Review

It seemed as if Apple TV+ was still far off on the horizon until November 1 snuck up on us like another breaking political news story. Let’s crack a smile at the notion that new streaming services arrived just in time when our country’s news cycle makes many want to escape into a six-month binge-watch session.

Sure, call that irony when discussing Apple’s “The Morning Show.”

If Netflix seems to have stayed stable in subscriber numbers and in strategizing to offset Apple (and upcoming Disney+), it doesn’t mean they won’t be challenged eventually.

Apple TV+ might not accomplish that immediately, but I discovered that the programming there is more attractive than critics initially told us.

 

Those of you still sitting on the fence about joining Apple TV+ shouldn’t hesitate to try their 7-day free trial, or the free year you received if buying an Apple product recently. While maybe access on an Apple device is a little more complicated, you can work the app faster on a 2018 or 2019 Samsung smart TV. Just have your Apple ID ready to sign in.

Of course, you can watch on your desktop even easier without needing the latest Apple OS. All you’ll need is the latest Chrome or Firefox browser.

When I first signed in, I noticed how spare Apple TV+’s basic design is. This falls in line with Apple always creating glorious, spare designs in their tech products. Their main page adheres to this by simply placing a full background pic of their shows and a “Play” button.

I recommend watching the shows on a 4K TV if you can, because the budgets for these shows are obvious in every scene. The cinematography in “The Morning Show” alone is worth seeing enlarged and not on a phone or tablet. Even if “TMS” looks somewhat dark, that’s entirely intentional based on a dark world you’re about to enter.

“The Morning Show” Mimics Reality a Little Uncomfortably (At Times)

 No doubt the sound of a vibrating smartphone will haunt you forever after watching the first three episodes of “TMS”, something no doubt intentional. That’s the first sound you hear in the debut episode as we see Jennifer Aniston’s character (celebrated morning anchor Alex Levy) waking in bed to the news her morning co-anchor, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), was fired for sexual misconduct.

Yes, Kessler is obviously an eerie parallel to NBC’s Matt Lauer, something Carell taps into in a very haunting way. We even see him give us a glimpse into what Lauer might have done to reflect his anger at home during the middle of the initial chaos.

Seeing Carell’s Kessler smash his hi-def TV screen to bits is something you’ll never forget. As a result, we see Carell isn’t there to play comedy, even if he does have a few droll moments later in episodes two and three.

As memorable as Carell is from his first scene, this is the ultimate acting showcase for Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Because they executive-produced this show, they’re clearly simpatico when their characters finally lock horns.

Witherspoon plays Bradley Jackson, a mercurial field reporter who blows her top at an anti-coal protest and doesn’t know it was captured as a viral video. Juicy as this part is for Witherspoon, it’s really the weakest character in the mix.

Aniston’s Alex is the most complex of all, giving us a view of the underbelly in cable news, or at least based on Brian Stelter’s view in his adapted book. We quickly see the world we see on-air is almost a fabricated world that can easily fall apart when reality hits a brick wall.

If you watch the first three episodes, you’ll see Aniston in numerous dramatic scenes that show off her acting chops in a way we haven’t seen since the movie “Cake.” Don’t be surprised to see her gain an Emmy nomination for this, a coup for Apple.

 

Perhaps the world of “The Morning Show” seems exaggerated, yet it might not be. Its aim is to reflect on the world of cable news (UBA the almost contrived network name here) rather than try to prognosticate anything.

Unless the show is giving us plenty of warnings here about how cutthroat news might become in the near future, if not already.

Should you find the whole thing a little overwrought, it has a lot of scenes that challenge you on feeling like a voyeur. One scene between Kessler and a fellow disgraced friend (played by Martin Short) will make you squirm during their private discussion of the #MeToo movement. We also find out at this moment Kessler has a bit of a conscience when he calls his friend a sexual predator.

The rest of the cast is top-notch, and they’re all given chances in the spotlight. Billy Crudup’s Cory Ellison is a quietly plastic and cunning exec working the plan to bring Bradley Jackson to UBA and usurp Alex Levy.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is another standout playing Hannah Shoenfeld who tries to take Bradley under her wing to help her fit in at UBA.

Everyone from Mark Duplass to a short cameo of Brett Butler (playing Bradley’s mother) are memorable and given chances to utter beefy dialogue. Almost everyone has a chance to spit out fast-flying, profane lines that almost sound written by the late Paddy Chayefsky, though written by Kerry Ehrin (with consultation by Brian Stelter).

By the end of the third episode, you’ll be entirely hooked on where the show is going to go and whether we’ll see a Howard Beale moment straight out of “Network.” The show has the feel of latter classic movie (now Broadway play), especially when Alex adamantly admits at a board meeting she’s the real one in control of the network (and American viewers).

As much as “Network” predicted where we are now, “The Morning Show” might be more the flame we’re attracted to in seeing the things we’ve only heard about from the periphery.

The only thing possibly keeping people away from Apple TV+ in its first quarter will be Netflix’s massive November strategy and the birth of Disney+. Figuring out which one becomes the most addicting will be like doing deep-dives into America’s favorite desserts.

 

(P.S.—Stay tuned for a possible review here soon of Apple’s other shows like “See” and “Dickinson”.)

 

 

“Mary Poppins Returns” Review: Succeeding with the Impossible

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More than 80 years ago, the media considered Walt Disney making “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” one of the biggest risks and mistakes of his career. Newspapers called it “Disney’s Folly” at the time, even if they had to eat their words a year later.

When it was announced a year and a half ago that Disney was going to make a “Mary Poppins Returns”, you couldn’t help wonder if “Disney’s Folly” would prove true 81 years later.

It turns out many had to eat their words again. You can say that with me as well after initially criticizing the attempt at first announcement. But Disney managed to consult with the brilliant creatives who made the original and tap into the film’s rarefied conduit of magic.

They got it mostly right. However, there are a few criticisms on plot decisions. Seeing “Mary Poppins Returns” has to work in a certain context, namely being able to share the experience with those who grew up with the film.

Here’s my impression of the film and my standard look at the audience around me. Latter were mostly older who likely saw the original when first released.

One-Half Real Life, One-Half Fantasy

Bringing more stark reality to a “Mary Poppins” movie was the best thing that director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee could have done. The only real sense of reality seen in the original “Mary Poppins” was the suffragette movement and some of the Banks family’s internal struggles.

This film takes place during the 1930s when London was also under as worse of a Depression as the U.S. We see a grown Michael Banks (a believable Ben Whishaw) facing near financial ruin due to falling behind in his mortgage payments. He now occupies the famous Cherry Tree Lane house with his wife and two kids, though lawyers come calling with an eviction warning if he doesn’t pay his loan in full.

It’s the first quarter of this film that gives some bleak reality Disney hasn’t always dished out. Then again, many live-action Disney films made during Walt’s lifetime showed families making the best of it during troubling times, even if the troubles weren’t always emphasized.

Along with the sobering news that Father and (presumably) Mother Banks have passed on, the main plot is set up: If Michael Banks doesn’t find a certificate showing claim to his father’s shares in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, he’ll lose the house.

With a major sense of dread and a pall in the first half-hour, you might forget for a brief moment that you’re watching a “Mary Poppins” sequel. Even the audience I watched this with fell ghastly silent wondering where the film was going.

It couldn’t have been a more brilliant ploy, because the arrival of Mary Poppins is all the more nostalgic knowing the stark realities at hand.

Wisely, the film uses small sections of score material from the original film to heighten the nostalgia. Using the instrumental of “Spoonful of Sugar” as Mary descends from the sky feels almost like a metaphorical Second Coming.

However, this Deus ex Machina is a far snarkier Mary Poppins than we remember from the first film. It’s prim and proper prickliness that makes Emily Blunt’s Poppins fun to watch. There’s even a few times when she resembles Julie Andrews from the first film, whether intentional or not.

Alas, though, the fact that Julie Andrews didn’t participate (to avoid overshadowing Emily Blunt) removes one degree from being legitimate. Thankfully, two notable cameos from the original wrap an official bow on the film by the end.

The Downside to the Fantasy Sequences

With Mary Poppins in the mix to help save the day, we see her take Michael Banks’ children on wild adventures with Jack, the lamplighter (a charming Lin-Manual Miranda). What makes this a little too familiar is that each sequence seems a one-up variation on the fantasy worlds seen in the original.

The first of these is at least unique, if really a nod to “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” It’s an underwater sequence that starts out in a bathtub. Some of you might laugh to yourself when you remember Emily Blunt cowering in a bloody bathtub in the recent film “A Quiet Place.”

Here, it’s an entryway to an underwater kingdom filled with a colorful amalgam of hand-drawn animation and CGI characters. Those of you who love and miss the old 2D animation days will give extra points to the film for bringing it back. As a result, it makes the film have a more retro quality as if made in the ‘60s.

One of the most dazzling fantasy sequences is “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”, even if it’s more than a little reminiscent of the “Jolly Holiday”/”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” sequence with Bert and Mary.

Its best creative touch is they enter this realm through a painted design on an antique bowl belonging to the Banks family. We even have the obligatory chase scene involving a group of nefarious animated characters. After these anthropomorphic thieves attempt to steal some Banks family heirlooms, a wild chase ensues, leading to a breathlessly imaginative outcome.

Yes, some darker animated and live-action characters turn the film a little more adult than you ever saw in the original. There’s clearly a good reason for this decision.

The Influence of the Director, Rob Marshall

If you had to balance the scales, you could say “Mary Poppins Returns” is 75% Disney nostalgia and 25% Rob Marshall adult product.

You can see a lot of Marshall touches in the film, which gives the project a little more edge in some of the production numbers. For instance, you’ll quickly notice the influence of Marshall’s “Chicago” during the eye-popping Royal Doulton Music Hall number. Mary Poppins more or less transforms into the guise of Velma Kelly, complete with more sophisticated hairdo.

The same goes with the entertaining Meryl Streep sequence (playing a character named Topsy who owns a fix-it shop that suddenly turns upside-down). Streep’s number here harkens to her other rare musical numbers in films, especially Marshall’s “Into the Woods” when she played the witch.

All other numbers tap into the Disney mystique, particularly an invigorating dance number from Jack and the lamplighters. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the classic “Step in Time” number, despite having its own original merits.

While some critics carped about “BMX Bikes” being used in this number, those bikes are really 1930s era if you look carefully. As a result, it makes the bicycle stunts all the more impressive.

Why is Bert Missing?

With Jack the lamplighter being a protégé of Bert, we learn the latter is still alive, yet off somewhere else. Considering Dick Van Dyke plays the nephew of the original banker (Mr. Dawes, Jr. here), he could have also played Bert. Then again, the timeline perhaps wasn’t conducive, despite Dick Van Dyke easily passing for 20 years younger than 91 as he was during filming.

Having Bert away from London ruins a bit of the mystery on the possible relationship he had with Mary. There were hints to that in the first “Mary Poppins”, yet we never really knew. With Mary’s new curt query of “How is Bert?” during her arrival, it seems they hadn’t seen one another in a long time.

It’s too bad this wasn’t explored more, though the continuing mystery of Mary herself makes her all the more intriguing this time.

The good news here is that Dick Van Dyke isn’t the only one who shows up in the film. You’ll also see Karen Dotrice (the original Jane) have a quick cameo in front of the Cherry Tree Lane house. Both of these give an official stamp of sequel approval.

The Songs Take Time to Settle in Your Brain

There isn’t any doubt the expectations were far too high for the songs in “Mary Poppins Returns.” You can’t help but agree with the more negative critics who thought the songs aren’t as memorable as the masterpieces created by the Sherman Brothers.

The good news is the songs will definitely stick in your mind, even if it might take a few days. Give a listen to the soundtrack album alone and you’ll appreciate the magic of this score and the insightful lyrics. After all, Richard Sherman did act as a “musical consultant.”

Standouts are “(Underneath the) London Sky”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Latter is a new “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, and “Lost Things” will make you bawl if you’ve lost someone important in your family or circle of friends.

“Nowhere to Go But Up” in the finale is also superb, making it the official “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Yet, this song has a lot more resonance for our times and falls under a film theme we only see occasionally.

Looking at the Horrible From a Different Perspective

All the depressive realities we see in Michael Banks’ world seem counterbalanced by his sister Jane (played by Emily Mortimer). She lives not far away and always seems more hopeful about things. Michael has already lost his wife and may soon lose the house without finding his father’s proof of bank shares.

The bad guy here is a bit of a caricature: Bank President William Weatherall Wilkins (played by Colin Firth). He’s intent on hiding the truth that the bank shares owned by the former Mr. Banks are indeed in the register.

While his comeuppance is predictable, how it plays out (with Dick Van Dyke’s cameo) will leave you with a huge smile on your face.

Part of this involves an exhilarating nod to “Back to the Future” involving turning back time on Big Ben. Little did we know we’d see attempted time-travel in a Mary Poppins movie, even if it seems she can do everything else.

With the entire temperament of “Mary Poppins Returns” helping us see the world from a positive light amid troubling times, the entire message hits a bullseye. This particular theme recurs only once in a while in film, most notably in “Forrest Gump.”

From a real-life perspective, you can liken the same message to Fred Rogers’ philosophy and frame of mind as noted in recent “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

When things look beyond bleak, we truly have “nowhere to go but up.” The film’s sequence of this (with balloon lady Angela Lansbury, who seemed like she missed out being in the original) will make you smile wide and tear up concurrently.

Even though we see Mary Poppins leave again, it seems inevitable she’ll be back someday, especially with the stellar box office performance as of this writing.

Whether or not Emily Blunt will want to continue in a new franchise will depend on whether she wants to overshadow her award-winning performance here.

Outside of minor flaws, “Mary Poppins Returns” should be giving people hope and endorphin rushes for years to come through hard times, just like the original still does.

The Audience

Since I attended the first showing of the day on opening day, it was expected that the audience I’d be seeing it with would tilt older. As expected, 95% of the people in the audience were retirees.

My freelance schedule allows me (occasionally) to escape to a matinee showing of a movie rather than being stuck in an office. Truth be told, it was refreshing to hear the reactions from those who likely saw the first film in 1964 as kids or young adults. Kids were still in school as well, eliminating any chance of hearing a three-year-old scream in fear during a few edgy sequences.

“Mary Poppins Returns” is really made for adults from 20-something to long past retirement age. Some kids may not understand the represented hardships of what it’s like to be a responsible adult. This cinematic confection reminds us once again to tap into that Forrest Gump/childhood well when things seem impossibly dreary.

With faithful patience, almost every bad situation has as good of an outcome as Michael Banks ultimately experiences.

 

*Nine and a half out of ten stars*

 

 

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Review: The World From Fred Rogers’ Perspective

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When “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” premiered in my hometown of Salem, OR on Thursday evening, June 28, I thought I already knew what to expect from the film and the audience. Considering the film had premiered in a number of big cities two weeks earlier, I thought I’d absorbed every online detail about what critics thought of it and audience reactions.

While this personal mindset usually held true for some films I’ve reviewed (Twitter’s liability), the revelations in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” were far greater than I planned. Even more gratifying was seeing it with a full house where the responses were a compelling component to the film itself.

If you saw a PBS documentary in March about Fred Rogers called “It’s You I Like” (hosted by former stagehand on the show, Michael Keaton), you’re in for something far different with this new film. As excellent as the former documentary was, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” dives deep into who Fred Rogers was as a person. Director Morgan Neville manages to not only bring us one of the most probing portraits of the subject’s psyche, but also places all world events of the last 50 years into an all-encompassing perspective.

We learn Fred Rogers grew up in a wealthy Latrobe, Pennsylvania family, yet ultimately lonely and unable to properly express his feelings. It’s here where we see how he shaped his TV mission for children, despite wanting to initially start a career in the seminary as a Presbyterian minister. As a result, we discover how he used his show almost as a form of therapy for himself.

One word you hear occasionally in the film is “radical”, which might sound like an odd fit in describing the genteel Fred Rogers. Yet, as you watch the film through, you see exactly how radical he was in understanding the soul of young children and even sophisticated adults. Considering he took on television rather than the ministry, you can best describe his role as a reluctant TV revolutionary.

To give you more detail about the film’s ensuing revelations, it’s best to tell you through the reactions of the audience surrounding me.

An Audience Attentive to Every Word

It’s sometimes too easy to segment an audience based squarely on appearances and how they interact. As a social observer (and being at the movie by myself), I listened to surrounding conversations while watching every person file in.

The audience for my screening was mainly adults ranging from Generation X to Baby Boomers. However, a number of kids ranging from mid teens down to eight years old were also there. I wondered to myself if they’d ever really seen “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” since it hasn’t aired on PBS in over a decade. Some of the classic episodes are available on YouTube and other online sources. Still, one can only hope their parents turned them on to the show.

I could better differentiate the audience demographics during varied reactions to the film. What’s going to surprise you the most about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is the amount of laughs it has, especially a few dirty jokes about the show’s production.

The one that made adults laugh the loudest was a story from one of the show’s longtime stagehands about taking mooning shots of his bare ass on Fred Rogers’ camera as a practical joke. Later, we learn Fred saw the picture, blew it up to poster size and presented it to the stagehand as a gift. Yes, the picture is shown on-screen.

Plenty of adult chortles were heard when learning that Fred wasn’t afraid to use the word “ass” in behind-the-scenes conversation. In the sometimes uncouth world of TV production, Fred Rogers could still be simpatico with anyone on earth. We see proof of this further during his profound connection with Koko the gorilla in 1999.

Most insightful was the reaction of some of the kids in the audience. During a segment where we see Fred Rogers fully delineate the complex feelings of children, a young girl (maybe 13 years old) from a family sitting in front of me leaned over and put her head on her dad’s shoulder.

Yes, today’s kids get Mister Rogers, no matter their age. For me, this was as gratifying as the film itself as a reflection on our youngest generation.

Those in my immediate vicinity withheld crying during the movie, though I could hear some definite sniffles in the front of the theater. Most of this occurred during the last quarter of the film where you fully realized the profound impact of Fred Rogers’ legacy on the world and also where we went wrong.

I’m not afraid to admit my eyes became misty based squarely on remembering watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with my parents every weekday as a youngster.

A Microscope On the Events from 1960s to Today

The film isn’t afraid to parlay clips of the real world occurring during the show’s run. We see Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, on up to 9/11, with clips of how Fred Rogers bravely and astutely addressed these issues for kids throughout the decades.

In this regard, it made me think of a connective string to one of the great films of the 1990s: “Forrest Gump.”

Now, I don’t want to make the connection of Fred Rogers ever being exactly like Forrest Gump. Fred was infinitely intelligent and fully comprehended the realities of the world. Similarities come in their docile demeanor and helping people see the world from a unique perspective as the world fell apart around us.

In “Forrest Gump”, we saw Forrest show us that you can still find truth, beauty, and goodness in the world amid the world’s horrors. At the time of the film’s release, a lot of people didn’t get this message. Being the 1990s, we were still perhaps naïve to what lied ahead in the 2000s and 2010s where our culture took a slow nosedive into more uncivil behavior and general social chaos.

Within the last 24 years since “Gump” played in theaters, more people finally took this message to heart. No doubt it explains why it plays so often on cable to this day.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” provides a similar deep-seeded message as the world we live in now hits us squarely between the eyes. We’re desperately trying to find a way out of the pit by changing human behavior and the type of things we see in the media every day.

One thing the film changed for me was the initial perception that Fred Rogers’ genuineness was singular and not possible with anyone else in today’s times. We’re reminded in the film that this likely isn’t true and many like him exist out there. If you go by the enlightened reactions of the audience who saw the film with me, they now realize what they need to do to improve the world around them.

The People as Fred Rogers

It’s safe to say we at least won’t see a TV host like Fred Rogers in our lifetimes, particularly because of the precedents set in what people watch. Some might find disagreement from the movie’s perspective that all entertainment for kids has gone to the dogs since the days of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Being one who was lucky enough to grow up during the glory years of “Sesame Street”, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and “The Electric Company” (the PBS triumvirate on weekday afternoons), it’s hard to find disagreement on where entertainment for children has gone. The sense of imagination and attention to feelings that Fred Rogers tapped into just isn’t there in TV where ratings are everything and careful social considerations are placed on the backburner.

This is why “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is really a call to action for all of us to fill in the role of Fred Rogers, or at least as much as possible. Spouting snark and having a political warrior attitude is easy to catch on in the more cynical times we live in. The film gives us a reminder to check ourselves in how we’re truly reacting to today’s increasingly maddening news.

I have no doubt every person who sees “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will become a better person after seeing it, including our ever-important Millennials.

Even though we can’t change everything happening in the world, we can still process things differently so it won’t turn us into cynical beings with no sense of self or meaning.

After you process this, you’ll see how prescient the show was about the world that was soon to come. The scene of King Friday XIII attempting to build a wall in the Land of Make-Believe was Fred Rogers as eerie prognosticator of the world he wouldn’t live to see. In this sense, you can almost be grateful he didn’t have to see where we are now.

Despite Mister Rogers helping us see the world differently, he used his show as a form of helping himself. Through his puppets, we now know he worked out his own complex form of therapy in expressing the feelings he couldn’t express in childhood.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was ultimately a symbiotic helping program for generations of the last 50 years and for Fred himself.

Now “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” turns the tables and becomes a form of therapy for all of us or any empathetic audience.

 

“Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” Review: Full Circle for The Force

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Photo of Carrie Fisher in 2013 by Riccardo Ghilardi.

In 2015, the first sentence of my “The Force Awakens” review was one that lamented the onslaught of reviews before anyone else had a chance to do a unique take on the film. For the “The Last Jedi”, I imagine each posted review on opening week has a different take this time. If so, you can give thanks to Episode VIII building a dizzying array of angles compared to any “Star Wars” product ever made.

One thing history is going to note about the original trilogy (and the prequels) is that George Lucas’s version of the battle between the Jedi and the Dark Side was far more cut and dry. Those lines were clearly marked in an era before our own recent reality turned more complex in what’s deemed ethical and non-ethical.

Director and writer Rian Johnson has to be given kudos for realizing this sensibility in audiences today. Someone else might have felt too intimidated to go in a brave and thoughtful new direction, just to appease sensitive fans.

On an emotional spectrum, “The Last Jedi” reaches back to the original trilogy more than once to bring a full circle for many characters. At the same time, the new characters have become fully and believably compelling without feeling like a forced “new generation” taking over.

The Resistance as George Washington’s Army

In the opening scenes of “The Last Jedi”, you get the immediate impression they tapped American history in realizing what the impact is working with a diminished army. It’s a playbook right out of George Washington’s battle in the Revolutionary War where his outnumbered army miraculously overcame the British after taking numerous losses.

The Resistance in the film is a definite parallel to Washington’s army at this point, and the losses are horrific at the hand of The First Order. With The Resistance led by General Leia, the opening of the film gives more for Oscar Isaac (as Poe Dameron) to do in terms of continued heroics. Playing close to a Han Solo type without nearly as much sarcasm, he still compels in playing a pivotal role with the ensuing new battles.

The First Order has Kylo Ren and Snoke plotting to take down what remains of the resistance. Adam Driver expertly displays the slow burn of inner conflict in Kylo Ren without overt emoting, and a more humanized Snoke allows Andy Serkis to take motion-capture technology closer to the level of reality.

You could almost (yes, almost) envision Christopher Plummer playing the slimy Snoke here, even if the former can’t be in every movie.

 The Compelling Interplay Between Luke and Rey

If the battle plots of The Resistance and The First Order seem more pedestrian, the interplay between Luke and Rey takes you to an outlying and more thoughtful frame of mind in an instant.

Johnson didn’t waste any time getting right to what we wanted to know: Why is Luke on the island of Ahch-To, and what’s the relationship to Rey?

We quickly find out, but the acting between Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill in these scenes is more than just adequate. Their chemistry is superb with well-structured scenes throughout.

The details, creatures, and way of life on Ahch-To are also highly imaginative and awesome, especially if seeing the film in Real D. And, yes, Ahch-To-based Porgs are memorable, including a funny scene involving Chewbacca attempting to eat a fried Porg.

It’s no surprise why Daisy Ridley has about half-a-dozen or more non-“Star Wars” films on her future slate considering her fast evolution as a supreme actress. She brings complete believability, beauty, focused badassery, and emotion to Rey here, making the character exponentially more interesting than in “The Force Awakens.”

Mark Hamill is almost Shakespearean this time in one of his greatest ever live-action performances. The fate of Luke Skywalker (and Rey’s parentage) is going to remain a secret in this review. But let it be known Luke reunites with key pivotal people from the original trilogy, at one point through Jedi projection. In this version of Luke, we see him looking younger, perhaps through CGI trickery, or practical hair and beard dye.

Yes, That Jedi Projection Thing

One of the key plot elements in “The Last Jedi” is the ability for Rey to connect telepathically with Kylo Ren. It’s here where they establish an eerie bond that sets up the “grey area” aspect somewhere between what’s considered good and evil.

The Force basically achieves a makeover in this film. Ultimately, it turns into a philosophy class where someone new steps in to bring a refreshing take on Aristotle. We even get into some new metaphysical territory that might confuse neophytes to “Star Wars” mythology.

A key figure from the past shows up to talk to Luke about what this all means in a moment when old Jedi texts on Ahch-To burn to ashes. In other words, Armageddon has occurred in the “Star Wars” universe, and it’s time to examine what happens at the next level in testing everyone’s souls.

Memorable Scenes

You’ll find many scenes that are going to stick with you forever. I didn’t expect so many scenes like this, though only a true fan like Rian Johnson could dream up some of these situations and images.

A scene involving General Leia floating in space while John Williams’ iconic “Leia’s Theme” gently plays in the background will bring you to tears. In fact, all of Carrie Fisher’s scenes as Leia will bring the emotions, even if the character’s fate isn’t what you think it is.

Nevertheless, one particular scene with Leia in a sick bed will tear at your heartstrings. The irony of the real-life parallel to Carrie Fisher’s heart attack soon after filming is more than felt during these moments.

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Another segment of the film you’ll never forget involves Finn and Rose Tico (played by memorable Kelly Marie Tran) going to a rogue planet to find a mysterious code breaker. It’s The Resistance’s only hope to find this code breaker as a way to intercept a First Order tracking technology.

This planet looks like it could be owned and managed by an alien Donald Trump in the famous galaxy far, far away. As you watch, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t have this in mind. Once Finn and Rose enter the planet’s odd alien casino, you’ll be overwhelmed at a wild bacchanal of alien creatures and semi-humans, all presented with creative camera devices.

Johnson uses an old camera tracking technique of passing through crowds of people as they gamble at ensuing tables. The technique seems a deliberate tribute to the classic opening shot of 1927’s “Wings” where the camera magically pans through tables at a party.

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Laura Dern stands out as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo who temporarily takes over for an injured Gen. Leia. Her purple hair isn’t a distraction either, including adding considerable woman power when Poe inadvertently starts doing too much mansplaining.

Also look out for Benicio del Toro as an underworld character who also happens to be a so-called code breaker. You might not recognize him at first, yet plays a major role in a serious outcome toward the end of the film.

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Many more memorable scenes exist, including an epic final battle in an ice cave where we see Kylo Ren and Luke meet face-to-face. Rey’s dynamic interplay with Kylo Ren is also a standout, as is one of the most exciting lightsaber battle scenes ever staged, leading to the unexpected denouement of two pivotal characters.

Yet another memorable aspect is what’s not shown. Namely, there aren’t any flashbacks to Han Solo, or even footage of a funeral as once rumored. He’s referenced by name only in a few scenes.

New Directions for Both Sides

Despite the blurring lines of good and evil, the film finally settles on a more defined path by the last quarter. Even so, it sets up an interesting situation for Episode IX, especially with Rey adamant on attempting to turn Kylo back to the good side.

Kylo’s forceful philosophy on Rey to let go of the past to fulfill destiny is an interesting frame of mind, though, in the realm of psychology. It’s one that might answer why some of our own leaders in the real world do what they do, opening doors to far more mental complexity in what constitutes leadership.

All of these elements and explorations of what lurks within “Star Wars” characters (and those in our real world) stirs the soul even more in Episode VIII.

To counteract the emotional connections to the original trilogy, you’ll find a lot of funny moments in the film than you’ll initially expect. Some of those occur during dramatic turns, bringing an occasional tongue-in-cheek sensibility at surprising moments.

The Audience That Attended

I’ve always analyzed audience reactions in my movie reviews, and this film deserves the same treatment.

What’s most interesting is that my screening wasn’t completely sold out. Whether the city where I live just isn’t in to “Star Wars”, or people just didn’t have time to attend, it was refreshing to have two empty seats on either side of me for arm room. It was a mix of those from college age to middle age, seemingly 75% male.

With five screens showing the film at my multiplex, however, it was probably just the law of averages. The theater had a line a mile long outside as I went in with my Fandango ticket.

The initial emotional reactions added a lot to the film, including applause at the opening title scroll, and at the end. You could also hear a few surrounding sniffles during the emotional scenes, especially with Carrie Fisher.

It seems some local audiences didn’t care about attending the Real D screening (not surprising at a $16 ticket price). Regardless, I highly recommend seeing it in Real D. The scenes on Ahch-To, the rogue casino, and the final battle are just some in-depth highlights where you won’t regret wearing the bulky 3D glasses.

Attempting a Rating

I gave nine out of ten stars to “The Force Awakens” in 2015. I’m tempted to do the same for “The Last Jedi” based on a few minor plot hole quibbles, particularly on Snoke’s claimed ability to read Kylo’s mind.

Yet, with everything else resonating so perfectly and satisfactorily, it’s deserving of a final ten out of ten stars.

Much of this goes to the credit of the cast for making the characters and conflicts so powerfully believable. Plus, Rian Johnson had the Midas touch in advancing the story. His direction and writing has mostly perfect execution, including some creative editing.

It’s hard to fathom this is perhaps the swan song film for many of the original trilogy characters. On the other hand, a memorable Jedi line in “The Last Jedi” sums it all up for the new trilogy, and as a philosophy to take with us in reality for those who’ve lost loved ones:

“No one is really gone.”

 

 

Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One”: Will it Save Movies From Virtual Reality? (Updated)

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Photo Credit: Georges Biard

(Author’s Note: Here’s a quick read from when I wrote for Examiner back in 2015. Some of the articles I wrote were about films announced several years in advance, allowing me to re-use them later. It pays to keep things like this in reserve when they become more relevant than ever…)

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It’s long overdue that the movies take on virtual reality in a context where human beings consume it as a complete escape from the real world. If The Matrixfranchise showed virtual reality as a construct against our will, most movies haven’t shown it in a universe where it’s used as a utopia. This doesn’t count Star Trek: The Next Generation” being 30 years ahead of everyone else showing the Holodeck as a form of VR and escapism from space travel tedium.

Now that real virtual reality technology is advancing quickly through Oculus, the timing of Steven Spielberg deciding to take on VR in a movie looks like the celebrated director of old. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Spielberg was far ahead of his peers in disparate genres many found impossible to imitate. Thirty years from now, you have to wonder how we’ll view the book and movie of “Ready Player One”, the title Spielberg decided to take on and just previewed at Comic-Con in San Diego.

As we see from the short stories of Philip K. Dick written 40 years ago, we’re still seeing movies being made from this author’s prescient stories. His tales fit in perfectly now with all of our current technologies and cultural situations. Ernest Cline’s vision in his “Ready Player One” is one easily fitting in more now than six years ago when the book released. It also fits into the idea that virtual reality may soon become a digital escape from the ills of the world.

The above even gives hints to the future of movies. With Oculus already making the first VR movie in history, the movie theater of the near future could look very different. You also have the possibility that theaters becoming empty shells if everyone can find entertainment in a VR headset in their own homes. A VR-equipped theater would maybe be only for interaction with willing strangers around you.

In that regard, you could look at Steven Spielberg’s take on Ready Player Oneas more of a warning tale than cinematic heaven for gamers. Even if gamers and overall tech nerds put Ernest Cline up on a pedestal, the chance for Spielberg to set a more personal statement about VR tech may have strong impact.

Does Spielberg have a covert concern that virtual reality may eventually supersede movies in a theater? Those familiar with the book of Ready Player One know the virtual reality worlds in the story aren’t entirely to anyone’s benefit. Protagonist Wade Watts, his friends, (and foes) mostly realize virtual reality isn’t a coveted utopia when it becomes a permanent part of escaping real life. You can say that, despite all the fun pop culture adds to the VR world as seen in the recent trailer.

Just like when Spielberg once brought more awareness about sharks, UFOs, and a forgotten story about the Holocaust, his take on Ready Player One may bring awareness of VR liabilities. It’s similar to recent movies about artificial intelligence showing enough vivid cinematic evidence of how much it could go awry. Even a movie like recent “Chappie could persuade our present generation to stop taking artificial intelligence too far before reality becomes the most unbelievable sci-fi movie.

It’s obvious Spielberg doesn’t want movie theaters to become archaic. With VR as entertainment at home, this very well could happen within a mere decade. If any of that gets halfway conveyed compellingly in Ready Player One, Spielberg might save the movie theater while also tempering our desire to escape entirely from our own reality.

End Note: Stay tuned for a follow-up piece that looks at the pop culture cross-references used in the upcoming “Ready Player One” film. Is this a sign of film marketing to come to challenge cable at home?

“Wonder Woman” and World War I: Scoping Out Super Heroines in Past, Present, and Future Wars

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Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman as war hero.

While we’ve already seen collective cheers for this summer’s “Wonder Woman” finally paving a path for compelling female superheroes, the film’s new time setting might seem a little awkward. Those old enough to remember the original comic book (or TV series) know WWII was mostly the original setting, other than a few variations. Even if the new WWI-based Wonder Woman seems a ruse for leading into WWII for the sequel, the intention might have an unexpected impact.

The idea of a woman superhero fighting in a major world war is already coloring outside the lines for a film. In the few lead female superhero films we’ve seen over the last several decades, almost all were set in modernly contrived situations with little purpose.

All of this was wrapped in the notion that the female superhero still had to fit into an appealing guise for a male audience.

Yes, comic book movies have decidedly made the assumption most of the genre’s fans are male. The intention behind this summer’s “Wonder Woman” seems to make an effort to draw men and women into those seats.

In other words: “Comic book men, meet women.”

At the forefront is the concept of war and the perceptions that’s it’s perpetually a movie genre attracting males. “Wonder Woman” seem to also reference the real world where the prospect of another world war is once again top of mind.

One thing we definitely haven’t seen in any film is a story of women fighting in war. We’ve seen countless movies about war with women in them, usually working as nurses or WACS, WAVES, WASPS, and SPARS. What’s been overlooked is that women fought on the front lines in all wars, notably in World War I.

Most people wouldn’t know this without a Google Doodle scoping out these war veterans. “Wonder Woman” has a setup to give a tangential nod to women fighting in our first world war, at least through a fantasy lens.

What Role Did Women Play in World War I?

 It turns out women played a larger role in WWI warfare than much of modern society knows. Most of this occurred in the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. In the latter case, it was the “Coast Guard Yeomanettes“, something worthy of a movie on its own.

What’s most important about this is it was the first time any women became admitted to a military rank during war.

Now you see a new twist to the new “Wonder Woman” considering we see this Diana Prince trying to prevent WWI from happening. You have to assume the writers and producers of the film realized military women in this world war received short shrift. Not that the real heroes of the war will likely receive any mention.

Nevertheless, it opens the door to everyone wondering about it, including individual stories about women fighting in WWI and beyond. Tales like twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWI, are good examples of how much women became written out of war annals.

At the same time, the new Wonder Woman makes us give a serious think about whether women can prevent or end wars.

With a more alpha male sensibility reigniting itself in our current government, the concept of a war might sound like it’s reverting back to machismo management. In the real world, we’re already seeing it being done while reaping repercussions in the process.

What will the new “Wonder Woman” do to inspire a new idea about a woman managing a real world war down the road?

Bringing Out Our Real Wonder Women Leaders

As our world becomes increasingly volatile, we may eventually find ourselves discovering what a real Wonder Woman could do to stop a world conflict. As noted by Harvard Magazine several years ago, women are proven to have a stronger disposition to negotiating peace and stopping wars. The magazine based this on the way women in international conflict zones work under the radar because of their second-class citizenry in these regions.

What we don’t know is whether we’re experiencing a growing resentment to women becoming major leaders to solve world conflict. If the 2016 Presidential election spread the false notion that a Hillary Clinton would cause WWIII, we might see the inverse faster than we’ve ever seen in history.

The intention of “Wonder Woman” is to merely bring a strong female superhero to the big screen. Its other intentions are perhaps much broader, especially with a woman director at the helm (Patty Jenkins) who knows the opportunities to go beyond.

Let’s assume this “Wonder Woman” can set a precedent for more female superhero movies. Employing enlightening elements about a super woman trying to stop a war might bring a more concerted group effort for women to seek leadership roles. You can assume this was one of the benefits of having an all-woman screening of the film in Austin, Texas before its official debut.

The film isn’t afraid of tackling history and gives us an added reminder of past women being at the forefront of conflict. It’s not something we’ll likely cover up again as we did in times past when it didn’t make sense to the order of things.

By the time we face another world war possibility, we may finally have a real Wonder Woman at the helm stopping it from progressing. Once this occurs, we’re sure to see a “Wonder Woman” sequel giving guidance on dealing with another world war from her original comic book setting.