REVIEW: “Whitney” (2018)

Whitney posterOn February 11, 2012 Whitney Houston was found dead at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. She was 48 years-old. The superstar’s death sent shockwaves throughout the entertainment industry and among her millions of fans. But while her death was a stunner, signs of her spiraling out of control were both obvious and everywhere.

Kevin Macdonald’s “Whitney” is a captivating new documentary chronicling the extraordinary rise and heartrending fall of this immensely talented and internationally acclaimed singer and actress. Macdonald was given the approval by Houston’s estate along with never-before-seen footage, rare performances and exclusive interviews.

Macdonald’s portrait begins by delving into Whitney’s childhood. Raised in Newark, New Jersey, she knew by the age of thirteen she wanted to be a singer. She was affectionately known as “Nippy” by those close to her and that sweet, innocent nickname would represent a certain childlike side of her personality for the rest of her life.

Whitney was born into a family of singers and we are told there was always music playing in the home. Her adoration for song also showed itself at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. Through her own words we hear how much she loved it there. Macdonald includes a video of a young teenaged girl effortless showcasing that magical signature voice. Just a few years later she would become a breakout megastar shattering records and paving the way for others. These were among the happier times of Whitney Houston’s life.

There have been several times the devil tried to get me.” – Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston’s life was one of unimaginable highs but also some troubling lows. Early on as a child she was bullied because of her lighter skin. Later she was deeply effected by her parents divorce, her mom’s infidelity and her father’s corruption. After her meteoric rise to stardom she endured questions about her sexuality and racially-fueled attacks by Al Sharpton among others.

But Macdonald makes a strong case that the most devastating influences came from those Whitney loved the most. She was first introduced to drugs by her brothers, the same ones who proclaimed themselves to be her protectors. It would lead to an addiction she was never able to shake. She was heartbroken by revelations that her father had been stealing from her for years. Then there are the shocking allegations of child molestation which have made headlines since the documentary’s release.

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And of course there is her tumultuous 14-year marriage to Bobby Brown. Friends share that Whitney loved Bobby but it proved to be a damaging relationship. Despite popular sentiment, the film shows her drug abuse didn’t begin with Brown, but it certainly became more pronounced and grew worse over time. The two quickly became tabloid fodder. During their time together Brown had frequent run-ins with the law for domestic assault, sexual harassment, and a plethora of other high-profile arrests. When interviewed for the film Brown refused to speak of his or Whitney’s drug abuse, but Macdonald shows several painful videos of the couple that paints pretty clear pictures for us. What’s worse are the horrific effects their stormy marriage had on their young daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown.

She was always a little girl wishing upon a star” – Cissy Houston

But as sad and tragic as the film is, it also gives us some of her high moments – welcomed reminders of the incredible singer Whitney Houston was. Moments like the 1991 Super Bowl where she delivered perhaps the most beautiful and moving rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner of all time. Macdonald makes it a little jarring by giving it a modern political spin, but it was an amazing moment for Whitney and the country. As was the slice we get of her 1994 post-apartheid performance in Johannesburg. And of course there is her venture into acting with “The Bodyguard”, a film and soundtrack that catapulted her into the stratosphere.

“Whitney” could probably use a few more of those high marks. Some fans are sure to long for more of a celebration of her music. But Kevin Macdonald manages to make a film that’s both a tribute and a tragic tale of the cost of fame. He also shatters many popular perceptions of this tremendous talent whose love and trust were exploited by many of the key people in her life. Yet despite how somber the movie is, the echoes of that breathtaking voice and the reflection of that sparkling young woman from Newark remains etched in the back of my mind. I think it always will be.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

 

REVIEW: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

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Like millions of others, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is forever etched into my childhood memories. For me it was sitting in my grandmother’s living room watching as the show’s unassuming and unlikely star walked through the door of his low budget set and welcomed me into his world. Day after day I would watch him, even as an older kid outside of what some might call the target audience. That’s because I really liked Mister Rogers himself and I genuinely loved being in his neighborhood.

It was that type of relationship Fred McFeely Rogers yearned to establish with children over the course of three decades of programming. The new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is an insightful and heartwarming portrait of this remarkable man who had an authentic heart of gold and would become a truly unique television and cultural icon.

Academy Award winning documentarian Morgan Neville offers us the chance to gaze into the life and legacy of Fred Rogers (1928-2003). Neville’s film is a near perfect mix of biographical sketches and ministerial philosophies which guided Rogers. The film moves swiftly and fluidly between the two, revealing much through Rogers’ own words. We also hear from his family, particularly his wife Joanne and his two sons James and John, along with several of those who worked close with him.

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One of my favorite elements of the film is seeing the genesis of Rogers’ almost otherworldly compassion. We learn he was born into a wealthy household but his life was far from trouble-free. As an overweight child he was often the target of bullying. He also experienced a lot of illness, much of which left him in quarantine. During these times of loneliness he retreated into his imagination which helped him deal with his feelings. He never forgot these childhood experiences and they ultimately fed his uncanny abilities to sympathize and relate to children on levels few could.

The roots of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” dates back to 1953 when he started a show on Pittsburgh public television station WQED. It would eventually become a national broadcast and a signature show on PBS. In its most popular form the half-hour program ran from 1968 until 2000 with only a three year hiatus between 1976 and 1979.

Neville highlights Rogers’ conviction that with television children were treated more as a marketing demographic than young people with their own complex feelings. Therefore his shows often addressed troubling topics or events – the Vietnam War, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, racism, depression, etc. Rogers believed children shouldn’t be left to their own devices when trying to comprehend these issues. He sought to engage them in ways unseen in most children’s television entertainment.

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The film also shows Rogers’ advocacy for public broadcasting. In 1969 and facing serious budget cuts, Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. In six short minutes of testimony, Rogers so moved hard-nosed Rhode Island Senator (and subcommittee chairman) John Pastore that he granted the funding on the spot. Neville includes this entire exchange in one of the film’s most inspirational segments.

When I think of the political discourse of today, the incivility and lack of respect, it feels as if Fred Rogers and his vision are from a different planet and foreign from anything we see today. In that way “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is both sad and beautiful. It highlights this special man’s uniquely rare empathy and sincerity, only occasionally projecting interpretations. It’s hard to watch the film and not yearn for the kind of compassion and spirit he exuded.

After watching the documentary I spent quite some time mulling over my feelings. The one thing that kept coming to mind was that I really miss Mister Rogers. I was reminded of how easy it was for me to forget the impact he had on my childhood. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, a lifelong Republican, a devoted husband and a loving father. But also, for over 900 episodes, he was my friend, my teacher, and my television neighbor.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Wonderstruck”

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It would be wrong to write off Todd Haynes’ delightful “Wonderstruck” as just a kid’s movie. Aside from being terribly reductive, that perspective shortchanges what is a beautifully crafted story and a striking two-headed visual composition that packs one heck of an emotional punch.

“Wonderstruck” is based on the 2011 Brian Selznick novel of the same name. Selznick had previously written “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, a book adapted to screen by Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”). He also wrote the screenplay for “Wonderstruck” (his first) which is a cleverly layered puzzle featuring two intersecting stories set 50 years apart, the first in 1927 and the other in 1977.

The film starts in 1977 rural Minnesota. A young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousins after the tragic loss of his mother (played via flashbacks by Michelle Williams in a small but delicately moving performance). To make matters worse, he loses his hearing in a freak lightning accident. Ben’s longing to know about his absent father existed before his mother’s death. He finds a mysterious book kept hidden by his mom with hints of his father’s life. He sneaks away and embarks on a quest to find his father in New York City – an entirely new world to a small town lad.

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A parallel story is set in 1927. A young deaf girl named Rose (played with an infectious sweetness by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) lives in New Jersey with her strict and abrasive father. Much like Ben she is longing for a parent – in her case it’s her mother (Julianne Moore), a Broadway prima donna more interested in the limelight than her family. But with innocent, childlike naïveté she runs away to New York City in hopes of tracking down the mother who has been away for so long.

Todd Haynes deftly hops back and forth between these two braided adventures, one never losing its flow to the either. To make it even more impressive, an incredible amount of detail is poured into the individual stories making each feel of its time. Cinematographer Edward Lachman is a true star of the film. He shoots both stories with drastically different styles. Rose’s is shot in gorgeous black-and-white while Ben’s features a color palette pulled directly from the 1970s.

Other things breathe life into the vastly different periods. The costume design is top-notch and it’s given a lot of attention. There is also the way Haynes and company visualize the differences from one era to another economically but also in diversity. And then you have Carter Burwell’s score which is plentiful but never intrusive. It’s especially critical in Rose’s story which is entirely framed as a silent picture. Just as effective to the 70s vibe are the cool musical injections of David Bowie, Rose Royce and Sweet.

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As mentioned Rose’s portion of the story is presented as a silent picture. It’s seen in how the scenes are shot and in the steady, mood-setting orchestration. But it also fits the narrative of a young girl who has been deaf her entire life. It offers a sense of perspective and it’s done with grace and thoughtfulness. And over and over the camera captures Simmonds delicate smile and her constant gaze of wonderment. Counter that with Ben’s world rich with big city sound. Only recently deaf, the sounds are still real to him even though he can no longer hear them. His struggle with that is one of the more poignant aspects of his story.

Eventually the two tales connect in a way that could have leaned heavily on overwrought sentiment, but that’s not the case at all. Instead it’s an emotionally justified solution to an exquisitely conceived cinematic puzzle. It’s an ending that feels right for a film that is this earnest. And let me say again this isn’t just a kid’s movie. It’s a very human movie that not only touches your heart but reminds us of why cinema is such an extraordinary form of storytelling.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “ Winchester”

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The Spierig Brothers are perhaps best known for their Ethan Hawke films “Daybreakers” and “Predestination”. They also directed last year’s “Jigsaw”, a rekindling of the tired “Saw” franchise. Now they give us yet another horror entry with “Winchester”, an intriguing concept that amounts to nothing more than another bland processed genre film.

Inspiration for the story came from the popular legends surrounding Sarah Winchester, a wealthy heiress who inherited a fortune following her husband’s death in 1881. She was also left 50% ownership in her husband’s business – the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. It’s believed that at the time she was the wealthiest woman in the world.

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Legends say Sarah believed her family to be cursed by every spirit killed by a Winchester rifle. She purchased a large farmhouse and immediately began spending her inheritance adding rooms to appease the spirits. The labyrinthine house remained in a perpetual state of construction, 24 hours a day, seven days a week until her death in 1922.

The Spierig’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay) begin their story in 1906. Sarah is played by Oscar-winning gem Helen Mirren (I would love to know how she was roped into this). Believing her to be unfit to run the company, her Winchester co-owners demand Sarah be mentally evaluated. They hire a drug-addicted louse of a doctor Eric Prince (Jason Clarke) to assess Sarah’s frame of mind and render the verdict they’re hoping for.

The not-so-good doctor arrives at the seven story, nearly 100 room Winchester estate and over the next several days the skeptical Eric has back-and-forths with the creepy Sarah over the existence of spirits. Aside from that early wrangling we learn they are both grief-stricken souls. Eric aches for his deceased wife while Sarah’s sorrow gives voice to the the film’s bungled gun control message. They are joined in the house by Sarah’s relatives Marion (Sarah Snook) and her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), but they’re mainly just along for the ride and serve as nothing more than plot devices.

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It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that the house is indeed haunted yet there is nothing particularly haunting about the house. We get dimly lighted hallways and plenty of dark corners but it’s far from spooky. In the place of terror and dread we get jump scares, an endless parade of tired, uninspired jump scares. In one way I found them helpful. After dozing amid the yawn-worthy exposition and lackluster tension-building, they did jolt me awake a couple of times.

“Winchester” ends up a bizarrely unremarkable slog that takes an interesting idea and does absolutely nothing with it. If you’ve seen even a couple of these types of movies nothing here will catch you off-guard. It’s a houseful of bland characters, toothless ‘horror’ and silly attempts at social commentary. The actors give it their all and no one is phoning it in, but it would help if they had something to work with. “Winchester” is a real snoozer.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “Wonder Wheel”

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Calling the results of Woody Allen’s annualized blueprint to filmmaking ‘wildly hit-or-miss’ is a colossal understatement. Each year the 82 year-old Allen pops out another quirky postmodern exercise in human reflection. When they stick their landing they can be nothing short of delightful. But when they don’t they can be tedious, uninspired and generally unpleasant to watch.

Unfortunately Allen’s latest film “Wonder Wheel” falls in the latter category. It’s set in 1950s Coney Island and puts us in with a mostly flawed and disagreeable lot of characters. The story’s centerpiece is Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam shack waitress married to carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) and with a pyromaniac son from a previous marriage. Their household is misery personified. The fragilely sober Humpty is occasionally sensitive but mostly loud and abusive. Ginny (one time an aspiring actress) hates her job, wants out of her marriage, and doesn’t mind sharing her unhappiness.

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To make things even more unsavory, Ginny begins having an affair with a younger man named Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s a Coney Island lifeguard and wannabe dramatist who also happens to be the movie’s narrator. It’s hard to figure out how the the film wants us to feel about Mickey. You could say Allen treats him as his protagonist and in some ways he’s the one character who comes out of this mess unscathed. Could it reasonably be taken as an indictment on Allen’s perspective? Me, I thought Mickey was a slime.

The one small twinkle of light is in Juno Temple’s character Carolina. She is Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage who shows up after being gone for five years. Turns out her family disowned her after she ran off with a known gangster. Now she is ‘marked’ by the mob after talking to the feds and she seeks help from her father. It’s an absurd angle but Carolina is a nice break from the constant toxicity we get elsewhere. She’s actually sensible, pleasant and ambitious.

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You can’t help but notice Allen once again drawing from Tennessee Williams, but at times I saw it as cheaply ripping from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. It’s in Allen’s dialogue and in how he squeezes some of his characters. Take Belushi who has some impressive moments, but his dial is almost always cranked up to 10. Same for Winslet who gives it her all, but is rarely given any softer moments. As her character steadily unravels she’s hardly given room to breathe. It’s a suffocating task for a really good actress.

I have no problems with movies that focus on deeply flawed people or that put us in the company of an unlikable cast of characters. In fact I enjoy those explorations. “Wonder Wheel” has its moments where you begin to see what makes its characters tick. The problem is it doesn’t have an ounce of temperance. And despite its teases of intrigue and some good images from new Allen collaborator Vittorio Storaro, the movie never keeps its footing and becomes little more than an aimless endurance test. But there’s always next year, right? Or is there?

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Walking Out”

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“How was your year”? It’s the first question Cal has for David his teenaged son who just flew in for a winter hunting trip. It’s the first of many signs revealing a disconnect between father and son who rarely see each other following Cal’s divorce from David’s mother. David lives with her in Texas. Cal lives in a secluded cabin in the mountains of Montana.

Twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith directed and wrote the screenplay for “Walking Out”, an adapatation of a David Quammen short story. You could say it is a poignant family drama masquerading as a survival thriller. This story of a hunting trip gone bad certainly has all the elements tense survival tale. But even during those moments it’s the unfolding family dynamic that gives it all such meaning.

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Cal is played by Matt Bomer, an unexpectedly nice fit. There’s a lot we aren’t told about Cal. Why does he live like a hermit? What does he do for a living? Why did he and David’s mom divorce? What little bit we know is picked out of conversations with David and occasional flashbacks to when Cal hunted with his dad (played by Bill Pullman).

David is wonderfully played by Josh Wiggins. It’s such a genuine performance and a genuine character. David would much rather play on his cell phone than trod through the snowy wilderness. He’s a kid any viewer could recognize – awkward and a bit aloof. He is certainly out of his element in Montana. But at the same time he wants to be please his father and be close to him.

The chemistry between Bomer and Wiggins is a big reason this film works. For nearly half of the film the two make their way to the remote hunting grounds high up in the mountains. During this time we see both the compassion and contention that defines their relationship. But when the inevitable happens and something goes terribly wrong we see a necessary evolution of their relationship.

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“Walking Out” offers an interesting exploration of the father/son dynamic. For example it plays with the idea of sons becoming their father. We see it in how during the hunt Cal assumes the role of his father (who we see during the flashback sequences). And after the incident we see David doing something similar and becoming more like his father. This is one of several themes the Smith brothers play around with. There’s nothing deeply profound, but interesting nonetheless.

The film’s title make the impending peril obvious, but the buildup of the two main characters and their strained relationship gives form to the danger once it hits. The mountainous wilderness is shot in a way that makes it both menacing and breathtaking. The further they get from civilization the more beautiful and treacherous the land becomes. It becomes a powerful supporting character and a perfect setting for this modest yet satisfying picture.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars