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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I cry every time I talk about Mister Rogers. Every. single. time.

It doesn’t matter the context. The tears well up in my eyes. I struggle to hold them back but I always fail. To say that Mister Rogers had a big impact on my childhood is an understatement. He continues to have an impact on me decades later as I’m well into my adult years. Fred Rogers passed away in 2003. 15 years later we need him now more than ever.

Directed by Academy Award winner Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is a new documentary chronicling the life of the beloved host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers. Told through interviews, clips from the show, home video footage, news footage and more, audiences get a closer look at the man whose TV presence impacted generations of children. The talking heads in the movie are members of Fred Rogers’ close circle. These include his wife, his two sons, actors from the show, guests from the show like Yo-Yo Ma and a few others who knew him well. This gives the documentary a level of intimacy that would not have been attained if outsiders like academics, professionals, cultural historians had been included in the mix. We learn about Rogers’ early years and how his path towards becoming a Presbyterian minister was put aside when he saw a need to help children through the medium of television. Fred Rogers transformed into Mister Rogers, a gentle, caring and patient screen presence who encouraged kids to feel good about themselves and also guided them through some of the more difficult aspects of growing up and life in general.

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Fans of the show will recognize many familiar faces including David Newell (Mr. McFeeley), Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin), Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) and Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons). There are even members who worked behind the scenes including floor manager Nick Tallo who had some great stories to share. They speak at length regarding important and ground-breaking moments in the show and what Fred Rogers was like to work with. Fans will also appreciate how the documentary goes into detail how Mister Rogers used puppets and the land of make believe to convey important messages to children when a direct approach would not be as effective. We also learn how events and cultural moments of the last half of the 20th century affected children and in turn how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood addressed those concerns.

The show was ground breaking. Where other television programming for children was fast-paced, flashy, goofy and often violent, Rogers and his team had something special. The pace was slow and methodical but with not a wasted minute. Mister Rogers was always transparent with children, whether it was on his show or in person, about the format of television, what was real about it and what wasn’t. I remember one episode from the 1980s where Rogers takes viewers behind the scenes and show all the particulars of the set and introduces us to Johnny Costa, the pianist who played the music to the show. In another episode, Negri leaves his dog with Rogers to dogsit. Rogers is very clear with viewers that the set isn’t his real home and that he has a wife and children in a real home elsewhere. I always appreciated this about him. He could have relied on the smoke and mirrors quality of television. He chose honesty instead.

We like to put Fred Rogers in the mold of modern day saint but he was a much more complicated man than that. He was very vocal in his dislike for television. It took him years to accept actor Francois Clemmons’ homosexuality. Rogers had an obsession with his weight, always keeping it at 143 because that number represented the words I Love You. In his later years, especially after he retired, he got depressed, wouldn’t see the doctor for the stomach ailment that eventually turned into the cancer that killed him and he doubted the impact he had on people and whether he could still have an impact.

I knew I would get emotional watching this film. I thought it would be for the many reasons that the memory of Mister Rogers makes me cry. A couple a years ago I spent an entire year watching one episode of the show per week (a local PBS affiliate would air an episode from the early 1980s every Saturday morning at 6 am). I would record it, watch it and cry. I’d cry from happiness of seeing Mister Rogers again and from the pain that nostalgia brings with it. I cried from the loss of those early years, the loss of my childhood and the loss of my father. Every episode would bring a flood of emotions. Even as a kid I was never interested in the land of make believe and I would get upset when the trolley showed up in Mister Rogers apartment because I knew he’d be gone for a little while. I really just wanted to spend time with him.

When I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor I cried for a very different reason than I had expected. This surprised me. We live in an era in which dirty politics, mass shootings, bullying, and cruelty dominate our society. Mister Rogers was the embodiment of kindness. True and unadulterated kindness. He always told us “ I like you just the way you are.” In 2018, that kindness doesn’t seem to exist any more, a point brought up in the documentary and reflected on by Rogers’ wife Joanne. We live in a divided culture and we are cruel to each other on a daily basis. 15 years after his death we need Mister Rogers’ brand kindness more than ever. We need him to tell us to look for the helpers. We need him to remind us that “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” We need him to tell us it’s okay to be mad, sad, glad and that it’s okay to work through our emotions. We still need Mister Rogers and we get a little bit of him through this film.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is screening in select theaters now.

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Pressing On: The Letterpress Film

“Printing is a privilege”

When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type in the 15th century, the world changed forever. The printing press ushered us out of the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment. Fast forward today’s Information Age and we still have much to thank Gutenberg for how the printing press revolutionized the world. For centuries, letterpress, a form of of pressing ink into paper with the use of engravings carved into wood, metal, linoleum or zinc cut plates, was the standard for creating books, newspapers, magazines, brochures, pamphlets, posters and many other forms of printed words on paper. Over the years, the craft of letterpress was fine tuned byartisans who learned how turn type into an art form. Unlike today’s flash in the pan technology which quickly becomes replaced or obsolete, letterpress machines were improved upon in such a way they became timeless. A machine from a century ago could still function the way it was intended if handled with care. With the birth of offset printing in the mid-Twentieth Century and the advent of computers, letterpress became obsolete. But a group of letterpress printers who value the art and craft of the process are keeping it alive and hoping to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

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Co-directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a love letter to this art form. It asks the question, why is there still a love for this obsolete technology? The documentary seeks out to answer this with interviews of letterpress printers, both professionals and hobbyists who honed their craft, appreciate the process and ultimately find joy in it. The film revels in the romanc and nostalgia of this form of graphic design. The beat up blocks, the machinery, the colorful designs, the beautiful typography are all part of a long tradition handed down from generation to generation. The interview subjects hail from mid-west and mid-Atlantic. We hear from people who operate independent presses whether at established shops or out of their garage. We learn about the long tradition of Hatch Show Print in Tennessee which made concert posters a collectible art and the Hamilton Museum which keeps the history of letterpress alive. I was particularly taken with the interviews with hobbyist Dave Churchman who collected, you could even say hoarded, letter press equipment. He passed away in 2015 and within the film we also hear from his son who was left in charge of the vast collection his father left behind.

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Dave Churchman

There is a “pressing” need to pass on the knowledge of the art of letterpress to the next generation so it won’t be lost. Today we can appreciate the unique aesthetic of letterpress as a form of graphic design (everything you do in your Adobe Suite is influenced by letterpress!) but can we save the process? When the master printers pass on, who will carry their torch?

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Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a sensitive and reflective documentary that is clearly in love with its subject. It’s joyful about the form but melancholy about the future. If you have any interest in the history of technology, in graphic design or even in what drives people to pursue their passion, I would highly recommend watching this film.

Pressing On premieres on digital today. You can find it on iTunes, Vimeo or your favorite VOD platform. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray which you can find on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Best Buy!

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film Official Trailer

 

Aesthetic and Process: Exclusive Clip

Beauty Mark

A timely story for the #MeToo era, Beauty Mark (2017) explores the ramifications of sexual abuse and how the cycle affects multiple generations. Written and directed by Harrison Doran and inspired by a true story, Beauty Mark follows Angie (Auden Thornton), a down-on-her-luck single mom as she struggles to make ends meet. She’s the primary caretaker of her Autistic son Trey (Jameson Fowler) and has to deal with the prejudice that comes with raising a mixed race child. She’s also taking care of her addict mother Ruth Ann (Catherine Curtin) who refuses to work and can barely stay sober enough to take care of her grandson. When their home is condemned by the local authorities, Angie must secure the funds for a down payment for an apartment. Haunted by the memory of former pastor Bruce (Jeff Kober) who sexually molested her when she was 5 years old, she fights back hoping that suing him help her get the money she needs to keep her family off the streets. She reaches out to other victims but when faced with a system that protects abusers and driven by the urgency of her situation, she gets help from her stripper friend Lorraine (Laura Bell Bundy). Can Angie fight back or will she have to give in?

“It’s not about sex. It’s about power.”

 

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Catherine Curtin as Ruth Ann in Beauty Mark
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Auden Thornton and Jameson Fowler in Beauty Mark

Star Auden Thornton delivers in her performance of the sympathetic and complex Angie. There are two distinct phases in Angie’s story line. There is one of an overworked mom at her wits end, searching for a way to fight back. Thornton’s physical appearance contrasts greatly to the second phase when she breaks down from sheer exasperation and finds a job as a stripper. There are several heartbreaking scenes throughout the film that linger long enough to give viewers a sense of the desperate circumstances Angie is dealing with. I was particularly impressed with Catherine Curtin as the strung out grandmother who is both a pathetic and repulsive figure. I enjoyed her performance in Victoria Negri’s film Gold Star. Curtin is a modern-day Shelley Winters and one to watch.

Beauty Mark is an engrossing movie with a poignant message. It’s a warning, a call-to-action but most importantly a candid look about a serious problem that’s been swept under the rug for far too long.

Beauty Mark is available to own or rent on digital HD today.

Update: Beauty Mark is now available on DVD. You can purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy.

“A powerful film. Survivors must no longer be silent.” – Ashley Judd

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Official Trailer

 

Six L.A. Love Stories

6 couples, 6 different stories, 1 afternoon in L.A.

Directed by Michael Dunaway, 6 L.A. Love Stories is a raw and bare bones look at the complexities of love and relationships. It offers six different vignettes, not interconnected in any way other than they all take place in Los Angeles. Ashley Williams and Ross Partridge play strangers at a pool party whose conversation gets off to a rocky start. Matthew Lillard plays a husband who just discovered his wife, Carrie Preston, has been cheating on him. Jennifer Lafleur is a stage manager who reconnects with her ex-girlfriend, a motivational speaker played by Ogy Durham. Jamie Anne Allman is a Hollywood studio exec meeting up for a drink with her struggling actor ex-boyfriend Marshall Allman (both actors are a couple in real life). Director Michael Dunaway and actress Alicia Witt play a divorced couple who rediscover their emotional and physical connection. And the final vignette, which is my personal favorite, follows a Will Rogers scholar, Stephen Tobolowsky, as he battles with a Will Rogers estate tour guide, Beth Grant, who is strictly by the book.

6 L.A. Love Stories offers multiple insights into relationships, how they can go wrong and how couples can reconnect. Three of the couples are exes, two are meeting for the first time and one is at a crossroads in their journey. Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich has a small role as a speaker in the Lafleur/Durham vignette. He delivers a motivational speech using a “big stick”, in reference to president Teddy Roosevelt. His daughter Antonia Bogdanovich served as producer and production designer on the film.

Available on DVD, digital and VOD today from Random Media, 6 L.A. Love Stories is a quiet unassuming indie film that offers a genuine look at relationships.

Six L.A. Love Stories from Random Media on Vimeo.

Race

This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

Race

Station: Sports Biopic
Time Travel Destination: 1933-1936 Ohio and Berlin, Germany
Conductor: Stephen Hopkins

“There ain’t no black and white. Just fast and slow.”

One man can change the course of history. In 1936, that man was Jesse Owens.

Director Stephen Hopkins’ biopic Race (2016) explores the pivotal years when Owens begins his track and field career at Ohio State University in 1934 to when he won an four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. The journey in between is a fascinating story of a talented young man given the opportunity to practice his talent while also facing the hardships of growing up black during the Great Depression. He faces prejudice at every turn. It’s through the support and tough love he receives from his coach that Owens is given a platform to shine.

Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens. We watch Owens progress from an unskilled runner with a natural talent for speed to a highly-trained master of short sprints and the long jump. Owens carries a big weight on his back. He has a big family to support as well as his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter Gloria. He’s the first in his family to go to college. And not only that, he represents all his fellow African-American men and women through his glory as an athlete but to also fight against prejudice and racism not only in his country but also in Nazi Germany. This is no small feat. Owens has a monumental task in front of him and we are there to root him on.

“A man has to present an image to the world.”

The title of this movie Race has a double meaning. It represents Jesse Owens’ track and field career and also being African-American in a time of systemic racism. The film explores both aspects of Owens life and how running helped him transcend prejudice. Not only would Owens break records in his sport but he also paved the way for African-American athletes to come.

I was quite impressed with Race (2016). Star Stephan James did well by Owens in honoring his legacy and portraying a young talented man who had this overwhelming burden to bear. The portrayal is complex and James plays Owens in a highly sympathetic manner. I very much enjoyed the relationship between Owens and his coach Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis. I’ve only seen Sudeikis in comedic roles so it was great to see him in a drama playing a mentor. Little is known about the actual historic figure so what Sudeikis brings to the table is what we all hope their relationship would have been. James and Sudeikis play off each other effectively on screen and I looked forward to each new scene with the two. I was also particularly taken with the real life Luz Long and Jesse Owens friendship as portrayed by David Kross and James. I immediately went to research this online and the portrayal in the film is very close to what happened in real life. Long was a German track and field athlete who helped Owens even though it went against Nazi ideology.

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“God spared you for a reason.”

Jeremy Irons, one of my favorite actors who has frequently graced the screen in many a period piece, plays Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman who negotiates with the Nazis. Barnaby Metschurat plays Joseph Goebbels as a cold, calculating Nazi who is annoyed by Germany’s need for having the United States at their Olympics. He draws the audience’s necessary anti-Nazi ire. I questioned the storyline about Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker played by brilliantly by Clarice van Houten. I wondered in the filmmakers were too lenient with her portrayal as a more sympathetic figure.

Visually this film does it’s best to represent the mid 1930s as it would have looked. It’s history CGI’d with a sepia filter. Much of what we see is layered so it feels more fantastical than real. But because the story is based on true events this really doesn’t take away from the movie’s message. The 1930s style costumes are magnificent and I was particularly taken by the colorful wardrobes worn by Shanice Banton and Chantel Riley. Clarice van Houten dons finger waves, cloche hats, blouses and equestrian pants.

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Race put me through the ringer emotionally. I went through the gamut of experiencing joy, anxiety and anger and I spent most of the final 30 minutes of the film streams of tears coming down my face. This is an amazing film because it’s an amazing story.

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Race (2016) is available to rent from DVD Netflix.

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