FilmWatch Weekly: Mister Rogers, Jewish Film Fest, “Hereditary”

The highlights in Portland movie theaters right now range from a touching portrait of a beloved TV icon to a soul-searing portrait of family dealing with grief, insanity and terror. How’s that for range?

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: It’s safe to say that Fred Rogers would not be pleased with the state of the world today. It’s also safe to say that anyone who spent any time at all as a child watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and who feels anything but sadness at our society’s current dearth of decency and empathy simply wasn’t paying attention.

These sorts of poignant observations come easily to mind watching this straightforward, inevitably affecting portrait of the Pennsylvanian Presbyterian who became a cardigan-clad paragon of calm kindness for American kids of at least a couple generations. The fact that Morgan Neville’s movie is opening in Portland the same week that the federal government defends a program that cruelly separates immigrant children from their parents is just icing on the irony cake.

Any review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will inevitably result in a nostalgic appreciation of Rogers himself, but, to Spurlock’s credit, the movie doesn’t wallow in gooey platitudes. It doesn’t need to. Taking a clear-eyed perspective toward Rogers’ off-camera self reveals that he was anything but an idealist or an escapist. He saw that there was a glaring lack on the television landscape of programming that could improve the minds and lives of young viewers, and then he fought like Hell to correct the situation.

I’m not sure how compelling the movie would be for someone going in cold, unfamiliar with Mister Rogers, untriggered by the sight of Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Aberlin, untouched by his legacy. But I do know that for anyone who misses the humanity and moral clarity he embodied, this is probably the most bittersweet cinematic experience of the year.

(“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is currently playing at Cinema 21.)

Jewish Film Festival: The Northwest Film Center’s annual program highlighting films that explore the Jewish experience moves into its second week. For film history buffs, the most fascinating item on the docket is “The Ancient Law,” a 1923 German silent film about a rabbi’s son who leaves his shtetl to explore the world and become an actor. He winds up in Vienna, starring in “Hamlet” and catching the eye of the Archduchess. Eventually, though, he’s forced to decide between tradition and assimilation.

Long thought lost, the movie was partially restored in the 1980s. Then a German censor’s card containing a detailed outline of the film was discovered, allowing for this full, stunningly accomplished version to exist. (One of the few benefits of censorship is that censors have to write down everything they object to.) As a portrait of Jewish life in 19th-century Europe, reflected through a Weimar lens, “The Ancient Law” is a fascinating piece of cinematic and cultural history—and its archetypal narrative still packs a punch, too.

Other notable screenings include “An Act of Defiance,” a historical drama about the Afrikaner lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela at his 1963 trial in apartheid-era South Africa; “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a documentary portrait of the Rat Pack member whose incongruous qualities included converting to Judaism and speaking out in favor of Richard Nixon; and “Scaffolding,” in which a young man is torn between taking his place in his father’s construction business and pursuing his appreciation of literature. Some stories never get old.

(“The Ancient Law” screens on Saturday, June 16, at the Northwest Film Center. The 26th Portland Jewish Film Festival runs through June 26. For a full schedule, visit www.nwfilm.org.)

“Hereditary”: I finally caught up with the latest iteration in the quasi-artsy, indie-fueled horror film trend of recent years (see, previously, “It Follows,” “The Witch,” etc.). As with most decently scary movies, it’s best experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible. Toni Collette plays Ellen, an artist who creates elaborate miniature dioramas. She lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Charlie and her older pothead brother Arnie, in a suitably grand and isolated house in a forest. Ellen’s character’s mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, has just died. Creepy stuff starts happening, most of it centered on Charlie, a morbid, odd-looking girl with a masklike face and deep, dead eyes. (She’s played by Molly Shapiro, making her film debut after winning a Tony for playing “Matilda” on Broadway. Molly doesn’t look nearly as disturbing in real life, you’ll be relieved to know.) So far, so good—dysfunctional family grief meets supernaturally-tinged scares. But first-time writer-director Ari Aster ratchets things up in both intensity and surreality, leading to a final half-hour that’s being justly acclaimed as one of the most riveting—if divisive—third acts in recent memory. If that vague promise whets your whistle, be sure to check this one out.

(“Hereditary” is currently playing at the Hollywood Theatre and the Regal Fox Tower.)

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