Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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I can recall sitting on the carpet in front of our television when I was something like 8-years-old. Flipping through the twelve-ish channels we had, I’d click past it several times before stopping to see what it was; a tiger puppet, a king, a human lady talking to all of them — what in the world was going on?

My mottled adolescent brain had been so thoroughly exhausted by video games and far-too-violent cartoons by the very green age of eight to appreciate the purity going on in that little world of make-believe.

Now, I’ll be honest; we live in a world where — when grown men have a vested interest in children — it’s easy to draw one simple, horrifying conclusion. Looking at Fred Rogers through my adult eyes, it’s as though I am conditioned to believe there was something salacious or unsavory fueling his motives.

That voice saying, “be wary” lives in all of us. It is our natural instinct to be protective or cautious when something or someone seems too good to be true. We’re quick to think that danger is lurking around every corner. It’s not our fault; it’s the world around us. There is evil here.

Mercifully, however, there is also benevolence. Fred Rogers was a living, breathing manifestation of altruism.

After television sets made their way into several homes across the nation, Fred had the opportunity to watch one. On it, he saw people getting hit in the face with pies and falling down for satirical purposes. Rogers thought the content of the shows he saw was doing the medium a disservice.

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He landed a job at NBC, but felt, still, that the quality of shows targeting a younger demographic were essentially a waste and wouldn’t properly educate children.

Not long after his departure from NBC, Rogers began working at WQED — a public television station in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he would work on a program called The Children’s Corner as a puppeteer. Nearly a decade later, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would become a household favorite, capturing the hearts of children everywhere.

The Neighborhood wasn’t particularly glamorous, but its modesty gave way for something more profound; quality.

Youngsters could relate to what they were seeing and hearing. The far out, often graphic fare offered by many other programs being advertised to the same group that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was just couldn’t give them comparable content.

Fred was angry that adults would allow kids to be mislead by mainstream media. His outrage when he learned of a young boy who was injured by jumping out a window — thinking he could fly if he was wearing his Superman cape — made its own episode of Neighborhood.

The show frequently featured content that you just wouldn’t find elsewhere. It covered topics like war, assassination, and racism in a way that children could comprehend. The show embraced diversity and created an atmosphere where viewers could feel safe.

While the documentary feels like it’s holding back a bit, we’re given a window to the world of Fred Rogers. Audiences are also treated to interviews with good friends of Fred’s — Yo-Yo Ma and François Clemmons — and the woman who knew him most intimately, his wife, Joanne Rogers.

Typically, the more you know about a person, the easier it is to dislike them. That might sound a bit cold-blooded, but, think about it.

The opposite seems to be true in this case. The more you learn about Mister Rogers, the more you love the guy. His empathetic, earnest nature was palpable. Sadly, it’s the kindest people with the biggest hearts who are let down the hardest by malevolence.

Whether Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shaped your childhood or not, we could all use a dose of goodness in these turbulent times. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? serves up happy vibes and inconvenient truths in the same package and leaves its viewer feeling thoughtful and, yes, probably a bit teary-eyed.

The world would be a more wholesome place with more people like Fred Rogers and we are better for having had him at all, even if only for a time.

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Hereditary

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If I were to make a list of my favorite movies from the last couple of years or so, I can say with a modicum of certainty that very likely 50% or more of them would be A24 films. The company — founded fairly recently in 2012 — has given the movie-going public mind-benders like The VVitch, Ex Machina, and The Lobster.

Clearly, they have a propensity for leaving an audience breathless.

With a number of inevitably exciting films yet to come in 2018, Hereditary is their freshest nightmare fuel fare.

Following the passing of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) eulogizes the Graham family matriarch’s very private nature, telling mourners that even disclosing an aggressively modest amount of information about the woman feels like a betrayal.

With two teenaged children at home, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie and her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), work together to maintain normalcy in the house, minus one member.

A miniaturist artist, Annie is struggling to meet a deadline with a client. Her work doubles as a sort of therapy in that we see her professional projects alongside her personal ones; miniature embodiments of the eerie imagery that lives between her ears.

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Parsing her feelings about her late mother, her waxing/waning relationship with her husband, and the lack thereof with her two children, Annie has a lot on her proverbial plate.

It would seem that strange goings-on pile up one after another, though I wouldn’t have called the Graham household terribly “normal” to begin with. Finding camaraderie in a new friend, Annie begins to lose her footing and slip back into unsettling tendencies.

To tell you anything more about the plot of the film would be unfair.

As a person who enjoys the thrill of a good scary movie, Hereditary felt… different. It filled me with a sense of dread from start to finish. Families often have secrets, but this made my own look like the Brady Bunch.

Shapiro and Wolff — as the offspring of a mother who would appear to the naked eye to be totally off the reservation — are perfectly creepy, as children often are. Shapiro was given a role that required her to channel some truly jarring behavior while maintaining the idea that she is, in fact, still a child. A tall order that Shapiro pulls off seemingly effortlessly.

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As Annie’s son and her husband, Wolff and Byrne are the very portrait of a family wrecked by the loss of a loved one who is still living and breathing. Byrne’s crumbling attempts to keep law and order are both heartening and agonizing while we see Collette’s Annie spiral farther into darkness. Her startling, unhinged performance is positively extraordinary.

While the film itself thrives on its ghastly premise, Collette ups the ante and becomes what I imagine the human form of sleep paralysis looks like.

Director Ari Aster’s feature-length debut comes on the heels of several shorts — the first of which is possibly his most well-known — called The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. Aster wrote and directed the film — available on YouTube. While I recommend checking it out to get a decent gauge of Aster’s style, I don’t think that anything can quite prepare one for Hereditary.

Making it to the ending credits was akin, for me, to waking from a nightmare; you’re back in the real world, but it’s gonna take some time to shake what you’ve just experienced.

Or are you still asleep?

A silent theater shuffles out into the hallway and quiet murmurs of, “wow” and “… what?” bounce between audience members. In other words, the film achieves what it sets out to do.

Hereditary goes above and beyond the call of duty for a horror/supernatural/thriller — whatever you want to call it. It is a slow burn that eventually engulfs everything in its path and will likely be discussed for years to come as an example of how to get someone to sleep with all the lights on.

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