Fiction for Fun and a Touching Documentary: Drac, The Rock and Mr. Rogers

By BILL GEIGER | Aug 01, 2018

This week, we’ll be looking at two fiction films and one documentary. The fictional films are new, but the doc has a little wear on its cinematic treads. I hope it will be around for a little longer, because if you remember the children’s show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” then you owe it to yourself to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

But let’s talk about the two fiction films first. One is animated, while the other certainly could have been, with all its cartoonish action. If it has cartoonish action, then The Rock has to be in it. Yeah, I’m talking about “Skyscraper,” where the action begins and goes on and on, with kids in peril, bystanders in peril, families in peril, the Rock in peril, good guys in peril, bad guys in peril, everyone in peril, no one in peril – wait, that’s the animated film. Let’s cue that discussion.

“Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is the kind of film that reminds me what it would be like if a horde of comedians descended on a film set, doing whatever they wanted, scripted or not. Going for it, it features one of my favorite actors as the lead, the great Adam Sandler, voicing the character Dracula for the third time in this series. This is the second one of these “Hotel Transylvania” films I’ve seen; I missed the middle one, but judging from this, I didn’t miss much.

Drac is lonely, he’s distracted, and he’s lookin’ for love. His well-meaning daughter Mavis (voice of Selena Gomez) arranges for him to go on a special cruise, one geared for Drac and his ilk – namely monsters, vampires, re-animated types like Frankenstein (voiced by Kevin James, by the way, another of my favorite actors). So it’s a monster cruise, and there are lots of things the monsters etc. can do. You know, like Disney World for ogres, fiends and beasts, only on the water.

Everything on the cruise is hunky dory for Drac, except for the loneliness. Then he spies the girl of his dreams, one Ericka (voice of Kathryn Hahn), the captain of the ship. There are two problems for Drac with this choice. One, Ericka is mortal, not a monster or a vampire. Two, she is a member of the Van Helsing clan, the notorious vampire hunters who have been hunting Drac and his like for centuries. Despite these complications, or maybe because of them, Drac pursues Ericka, love is in the air, and the movie races toward its climax as slowly as possible.

HT3SV is several ticks longer than 90 minutes, but the painfulness of the goings on makes it seem far longer. The kiddies might like it, with all the odd monsters and the strange things they can do, and for the adults, how could you go wrong with the voices of Adam Sandler and Kevin James, two behemoths of the small and big screen?

Well, for the rest of us, if you want animation, stick with “The Incredibles.”

*   *   *

“Skyscraper” asks the question “Dude, what happened to the codes that operate all the electronics of the new building?” It seems the world’s tallest skyscraper, in Hong Kong, has 225 floors, an in-building ecosystem, and its own waterfall, but can’t keep itself or its inhabitants fire safe, or just plain safe-safe, from rampant thugs and ruffians bent on getting what they want from the architect and designer, one Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Along with Ji, the principal designer, but in a secondary capacity is Will Sawyer (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the design and safety consultant for the skyscraper.

Gee (or Ji), I would have thought Johnson would have been the designer, architect, and builder with his bare hands, based on his track record in these disaster-type films. However, since he was in his little designer diapers when “The Towering Inferno” hit the big screen, and since many of his “hits” include more outdoorsy, environmental type roles, skyscraper films do not seem to be his métier. Thus, in this fish-out-of-water role, the Rock has a chance to build up some equity with his first head of steam, and maybe, as the film proceeds, even excel.

Here’s how it could happen. It’s Will’s job to be sure everything is safe for the grand opening of the Hong Kong skyscraper from a fail-safe to a fire-safe to a safe-safe perspective, but the odds are stacked against him. It turns out this is his first try at this consultant’s gig since his military training, which led to his FBI Hostage Rescue Unit experience, which ended badly with an explosion and a loss of limb.

But once in his new job, Will worked out of the garage of his home, and built up the equity needed to take on the Hong Kong job. It helped, of course, that fellow Afghanistan vet and wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), is a surgeon who can pay the bills while Will goes out and consults, but everything seemed to be falling into place after the FBI disaster. When he took the job, Will could not have known about the thugs who were trying to extort Li into paying a ransom to keep his high-rise safe. Those thugs, led by the ruthless Kores Botha (Roland Møller), have set fire to the 96th floor of the skyscraper.

That’s the very floor Will’s family, Sarah and the twins, have been living on since the move to Hong Kong. Will now must find a way to get up to that floor to save his family. Problem: He’s been double-crossed by his former FBI partner and framed for the fire, so he has to make it through the Hong Kong traffic (kind of like Route 72 eastbound on a summer Saturday morning) to the building itself, and get the right codes to get him in and to change the enviro codes to start the fire protocols and fix the building. Hence the building and electronic codes question.

Because it’s basically a Rock film, people tend to give it a pass and a get out of jail free card because Johnson is the lead. No, no, no, his films should bear the same scrutiny any other film does. After the first half-hour, I knew where the film’s climax would occur and much about how the events would unfold. It was that easy to figure out how things would happen. There could be a defect in a character, or a case of hubris, especially where Ji is concerned, which points to a direction the film would take. While they were probably thought to be clever story tropes, they were in actuality pointers showing the way the climax would unfold.

A pity, since the film had some promise, and even a scene where old Rock jumps from a crane into the burning 96th floor of the high-rise. If they could have gotten those codes, none of that would have happened. But then the film would have lost all of its drama.

In the fish-out-of-water drama “Skyscraper” wanted to be, the telegraphed and orchestrated ending kind of spoiled the fun. Johnson will have to wait for some more-mundane fare to test his acting chops. I wonder how he would have been in “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.”

Alas, we’ll never know. But he does sing, as we heard when he voiced the demigod Maui in “Moana.” So maybe that’s not so impossible to think of the Rock singing ABBA.

*   *   *

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: As the familiar piano strains tinkle across the screen and you recognize the road and houses as “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the plain-voiced Fred Rogers comes into his playhouse in sport coat and tie, but soon exchanges the sport coat for a more informal sweater and his shoes for sneakers as he sings the opening strains of “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood …”

And just like that, you’re transported back to your childhood, or an outer rim of it, watching “Mr. Rogers” so you can soak in the good vibes or load up on things to make fun of. I was a bit too old for him when Fred went into major production, somewhere around the late 1960s, as I gathered my things and went into high school, so my memories of his show are from when my own sons would watch it, late 1980s and early 1990s.

I’d be in another room, hear the familiar music and think of all the ways I despised this show and yet, there was something ineffable about the way the show carried itself and worked with the kids who were always around the periphery of the studio. I’d make fun of his puppets, the sets of his show, and wonder why in this golden age of television was this show so stifled – yet, I’d still be watching it.

Rogers had a way of pulling you in, of making his message your message. His craft was simple. He’d talk, and then he’d listen. His gentleness was not an affect; it was genuine. As the film points out, he had been studying for the clergy, and when he had the chance to do a television show in what was then, in the early 1960s, the forerunner of public television, he took it and discovered he could reach his audience – an audience of children. And he could not have been happier.

Rogers used his newfound popularity to keep the ratings high, to influence the genre so that shows Rogers thought good for kids would be broadcast. He even had the chance to influence the government’s ways of funding public television. He became a champion for public television. He’d delayed his enrolling into the seminary but eventually, when he had enough shows taped for repeat over several years, he re-entered and after a few years of study was ordained into a ministry he knew and loved, the ministry to small children.

He spoke to them directly, and they responded. Over the course of the show’s run, they spoke about divorce, about the death of a favorite pet, about the death of a parent, about tragedies such as 9/11, and about anything the child would want. The film lets on that Rogers might have been compensating for a less than stellar youth of his own. An only child, he was most likely bullied in middle or high school for his weight or his gentleness, and that would certainly have affected his adulthood.

While he produced his show in his own way, he didn’t always make the best decisions. He tried to produce shows intended for adults late in the 1990s, where he would talk to them about issues that affected the kids, whom he cared about the most. By that time, many adults were in no mood to listen, and the show faltered. The movie points out that Rogers may have had some trouble with health issues of his own during this, too. He had stomach cancer, and died from it in 2003.

By that time, of course, his message was well known, and had threaded its way into the fabric of the country’s being. His message of gentleness, kindness and compassion would hold on for some time, and then gradually erode away. Do we need Rogers’ message at all today?

All it takes is one look at the current mood of the country to realize the answer is a resounding YES.

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