Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Documentary;
Box Office $22.53 million;
$29.98 DVD, $21.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some thematic elements and language.

Two questions come to mind while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, documentarian Morgan Neville’s captivating profile of children’s TV icon Fred Rogers.

The first is, how would Mister Rogers have been perceived had his show been developed during the Internet era?

And the second — how has Jim Parsons not yet been tapped to play him in a biopic?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? delves deeply into Rogers’ upbringing, growing up to become an ordained minister with an interest in child development and turning that expertise into the popular “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the 1960s, eventually ending up as a staple of the nascent Public Broadcasting Company.

The film touches upon the inevitable questions about his sexuality (he wasn’t gay) and several urban legends (he didn’t serve in the military). It also delves a bit into questions that arose well after Rogers’ 2003 death from stomach cancer about whether his message that every kid is special in their own way may have given millennials an unrealistic sense of entitlement (mostly laughing off such suggestions).

In regards to the first question, then, there’s certainly enough to suggest that the sincerity of Mister Rogers’ message would be a calming salve in today’s raucous culture, even if the sincerity of his personality might not fly in the overly cautious attitudes of modern times. Thinking of how much times have certainly changed since the early days of PBS, I’m reminded of how the first episode of “Sesame Street” begins with a little girl who just moved in being invited by a strange man to come to his house for milk and cookies. Simpler times, indeed.

Mister Rogers, of course, was never afraid to introduce children to controversial ideas. He just had a more subtle way of going about it, such as striking up a friendship with a black police officer as a message of equality during a turbulent time for civil rights. Sometimes he was less subtle, as when he presented a special episode to help kids cope with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

A healthy dose of clips from the show turns the nostalgia factor up to 11, supplemented with fresh interviews with Rogers’ loved ones — including his widow, sister and sons — and some of the key performers on the show. Mister Rogers also gets a chance to speak for himself thanks to some expertly chosen archive footage.

Through emotionally charged reflections, several of the participants look back on the elements of Rogers’ life that influenced the show, particularly in regards to the puppets that populate the Land of Make-Believe.

Naturally, there’s also a segment devoted to Rogers’ famous testimony in support of funding for PBS in front of a Senate committee that was looking to slash the budget. Neville lets the scene play out, as the nervous Rogers spends just a few minutes explaining how programming that treats children with respect while demonstrating the key lessons of life can be beneficial to their upbringing, and using his soft-spoken sincerity to turn the hardened committee chairman into a supporter of the cause as he declares, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

All in all, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a man who was much more complicated than who he appeared to be on screen.

As to that second question, well, Tom Hanks is slated to play Rogers in an upcoming film called You Are My Friend. Not a bad choice to go with the guy who played Walt Disney.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? serves as a good companion to PBS’s recent 50th anniversary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s a Beautiful Day Collection DVD compilation of some of the show’s classic episodes. Otherwise, the Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Blu-ray and DVD include no bonus materials.

Ken Burns Documentary ‘The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science’ Coming on Digital and Disc Sept. 25 from PBS

The Ken Burns documentary The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science is being released on digital, DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 25 from PBS Distribution.

Executive-produced by Burns, and directed by Burns, Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers, the documentary features interviews with patients, including John McCain and the Dalai Lama, to tell the story of William Worrall Mayo, an English immigrant who began practicing medicine with his sons Will and Charlie in Rochester, Minn.

Mayo laid the foundation for a medical center that now treats over a million patients every year from 50 states and 150 countries. Blending historical narrative with contemporary patient stories, the program also looks at what the Mayo Clinic’s history can teach us about facing the challenges of patient care today.

‘The Miniaturist’ From Masterpiece Coming Out on Digital Sept. 10, Disc Sept. 18 From PBS

Masterpiece: The Miniaturist will be released on digital Sept. 10 and DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 18 from PBS Distribution.

Set in Golden Age Amsterdam in 1686, this adaptation of Jessie Burton’s bestselling novel stars Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Witch), Romola Garai (Churchill’s Secret, The Hour) and Alex Hassell (Suburbicon, Anonymous). The story follows Nella (Taylor-Joy), a naive 18-year-old from a bankrupt aristocratic family in the provinces who is wooed by Johannes Brandt (Hassell), a handsome and prosperous merchant looking for a wife. Once wed, Nella lives in Johannes’ mansion, mostly without him, kept in the care of his grim and overbearing sister, Marin (Garai), and the household’s two controlling servants. As a wedding gift, Johannes gives Nella an exquisitely crafted cutaway model of the very house she is living in. He instructs her to furnish it to her liking and gives her the address to the miniaturist who creates the tiny objects. She and the miniaturist only communicate by letter and upon her first order, she receives more objects than she requests. Without direction from Nella, the miniaturist keeps sending new creations including dolls replicating Johannes, Marin and the servants, with details that hint at closely held secrets.

‘Hillary’ Miniseries, Third Installment of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ Due on Digital and Disc from PBS

Anne of Green Gables — Fire and Dew, the third installment in the series based on the classic book, and the miniseries Hillary, about the famous explorer, are coming on disc and digital from PBS Distribution.

The continuing Lucy Maud Montgomery story of a free-spirited teenager on Prince Edward Island, Anne of Green Gables — Fire and Dew, will be available on DVD and digital Sept. 18. The first two installments will also be available in a two-set DVD collection. The third in the series, which airs Sept. 23, follows Anne Shirley (Ella Ballentine) as she moves to Charlottetown and is overwhelmed by her new surroundings, difficult classes at the teacher’s college and a deepening romance with Gilbert. At the same time, Matthew (Martin Sheen) and Marilla deal with health and financial difficulties that jeopardize their lives at Green Gables. After Anne graduates, she must make an important decision, whether to move back home or continue on to university.

The six-part miniseries Hillary (available now for digital download) debuts on DVD Aug. 21. The program, from New Zealand, is based on the life of mountaineer and philanthropist Sir Edmund Hillary. Based on thousands of hours of exclusive interviews, it tells the story of the first man to conquer Mt. Everest. The program recounts his beekeeping days in South Auckland, to his ascent of the world’s highest mountain with climbing partner Tenzing Norgay, to the plane crash that killed his wife and daughter. When he summited Everest in May 1953, Hillary put his small home country, New Zealand, on the map. He was so beloved in there that his likeness is featured on the five-dollar note, and he was given a state funeral after his 2008 death. Andrew Munro (The Kick) stars as Hillary, while Dean O’Gorman (The Hobbit) plays George Lowe, his longtime friend and climbing partner, and Amy Usherwood (“Shortland Street”) plays his wife, Lady Louise Hillary.

PBS ‘American Masters’ Documentary on Baseball’s Ted Williams to Bow July 24 on DVD and Digital

PBS Distribution will release American Masters — Ted Williams: “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” on DVD and Digital HD July 24.

The program premieres July 23 on PBS.

Co-produced by Albert M. Tapper Productions, in association with Major League Baseball, David Ortiz’ Big Papi Productions and Nick Davis Productions, the program explores not only the Baseball Hall of Famer’s on-field accomplishments but also his complicated relationships with family, teammates, press, fans and himself. The release honors Williams’ centennial and marks the first baseball subject in the series’ 32-year history.

Narrated by Jon Hamm, the documentary features never-before-seen archival footage and in-depth interviews with those who knew and studied Williams, including his daughter Claudia Williams, author/journalist Ben Bradlee Jr., veteran baseball writer Roger Angela, and broadcasters Bob Costas and the late Dick Enberg.

Williams is the last player to hit over .400, finishing the 1941 season batting .406. Former players — including Baseball Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Wade Boggs, three-time All-Star Jim Kaat, and current Cincinnati Reds first baseman and former National League MVP Joey Votto — share how Williams influenced them in the program.

‘Nova: Wonders’ Due on DVD and Digital July 31 From PBS

The “Nova: Wonders” series will be available on DVD and Digital HD July 31 from PBS Distribution.

The program, hosted by three young scientists, explores the frontiers of science, following researchers who are tackling the biggest unanswered questions about life and the cosmos. Each episode poses a big scientific question and takes viewers along on a journey to explore how far we’ve come in our quest for answers, and how we’ve managed to get here. Among the topics pondered are the secret language of animals, what’s hidden in the human body, the artificial intelligence technologies that could rival and surpass the abilities of the human mind, the controversial power to engineer life in a lab, and the mysteries of the universe.

The DVD retails at $34.99.

‘Bill Nye: Science Guy’ Doc Coming to Disc April 24, Digital HD April 19 from PBS

PBS Distribution will release POV: Bill Nye: Science Guy on Blu-ray and DVD April 24 and Digital HD April 19.

The Blu-ray retails at $29.99; the DVD at $24.99.

The documentary is a behind-the-scenes portrait of Bill Nye, known as the “Science Guy,” former host of a popular kids’ show and now the CEO of the Planetary Society. Nye is on a mission to stop the spread of anti-scientific thought and action, and he’s leading an undertaking to launch LightSail, a satellite propelled by sunlight, while in turn fulfilling the legacy of his late professor and Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan. As Nye takes on climate change deniers and evolution opponents, the documentary explores his life and work through supporters and critics.

In addition to Nye, the film features Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan and many other notable voices in the field.

PBS to Release ‘Little Women’ Adaptation on Digital May 14, Disc May 22

PBS Distribution will release Masterpiece: Little Women, featuring Emily Watson and Angela Lansbury, on DVD ($24.99) and Blu-ray ($34.99) May 22 and Digital HD May 14.

Little Women airs on “Masterpiece” May 13 and May 20.

Masterpiece: Little Women (Photo courtesy of Patrick Redmond)

Based on the classic novel, the story follows the four March sisters on their journey from childhood to adulthood while their father is away at war. Under the guidance of their mother Marmee (Emily Watson), the girls navigate what it means to be a young woman, from gender roles to sibling rivalry, first love, loss and marriage. The March sisters are played by newcomer Maya Hawke as Jo, Willa Fitzgerald (“Scream: The TV Series”) as Meg, Annes Elwy (King Arthur: Excalibur Rising) as Beth and Kathryn Newton (“Big Little Lies”) as Amy. Also appearing are Angela Landsbury as their cantankerous wealthy Aunt March; Michael Gambon as benevolent neighbor Mr. Laurence; Jonah Hauer-King (Howards End) as Laurie Laurence, the boy next door; and Dylan Baker (“The Good Wife”) as Mr. March.

Little Women is one of the most-loved novels in the English language, and with good reason,” said writer and executive producer Heidi Thomas in a statement. “Its humanity, humor, and tenderness never date, and as a study of love, grief, and growing up it has no equal. There could be no better time to revisit the story of a family striving for happiness in an uncertain world.”

PBS Releasing 50th Anniversary ‘Mister Rogers’ DVD Collection

PBS Distribution is commemorating the 50th anniversary of iconic children’s educational show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with a special DVD release of 32 episodes from the series.

The four-disc Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s A Beautiful Day Collection arrives March 27 and carries a list price of $19.99 (many online retailers are offering preorders for $14.99 or lower). Episodes of the program are available now for digital download.

The DVD set will include episodes from the 1979-2001 run of the show. As a bonus, the collection will include the series premiere in its original black-and-white format.

After some regional success with children’s programming, Fred Rogers broadcast his show to a national audience for the first time Feb. 19, 1968. Through his popular daily TV visits, generations of young children grew up with the kind and gentle Mister Rogers, who entertained with real-life guests, educational field trips and adventures into the land of make-believe. Episodes were produced until 2001, featuring such celebrity guest stars as Tony Bennett, Julia Child, Margaret Hamilton, Michael Keaton, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Rita Moreno and Bill Nye.

Outside the show, Rogers famously advocated for public funding of children’s programming during U.S. Senate hearings. He also provided court testimony in support of using videocassettes to record television programming for personal use, later cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in drafting the fair use exemption to copyright law.

Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003, but the spirit of the show lives on in an animated spin-off, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

Episodes featured on the It’s A Beautiful Day DVD set include:

  • “Helping Children Know What to Expect at School”
  • “Creating with Friends is Different than Playing Alone”
  • “Play is the Work of Childhood”
  • “Respecting All Living Creatures”
  • “Opera Day”
  • “Ups and Downs of Friendship”
  • “Learning about Rules and Limits”
  • “Appreciating the People Who Came Before”
  • “Food and Love Go Hand in Hand”
  • “Music As a Way to Express Feelings”
  • “Families Come in Different Shapes and Sizes”
  • “Celebrating Big and Little Things”
  • “Lots of Different Things for Play and Pretending”
  • “Each Person is Unique – Yet We All Have Much in Common”
  • “Being Kind to Ourselves and Others”
  • “Nobody Knows What You’re Thinking Unless You Tell Them”
  • “Games Can Be Fun, But Not If You’re Left Out”
  • “Recycling and Other Ways to Care for Our Planet”
  • “Learning to Take Care of Yourself”
  • “Trying on Different Roles”
  • “We All Have Art Inside of Us”
  • “Understanding Concepts of Up and Down”
  • “The Strength of Love – Even Through Angry Times”
  • “Appreciating our Uniqueness”
  • “Some Things Change … Some Things Stay the Same”
  • “Needing Help and Giving Help”
  • “Feeling Good About Who We Are”
  • “Encouraging Generosity and Gratitude”
  • “Strengths and Limitations, Abilities and Disabilities”
  • “Wondering and Asking Questions”
  • “Enjoying Books and Recognizing Symbols”
  • “Valuing All Kinds of Art”

PBS to Release Documentary on Black Colleges

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, a new documentary directed by Stanley Nelson, chronicles not only the history of African-American higher education, but also the importance of education in the fight for Civil Rights in America from slavery to today.

The film, which airs on PBS Feb. 19, debuts on Blu-ray Disc ($29.99), DVD ($24.99) and Digital HD Feb. 20 from PBS Distribution.

The film begins before the end of slavery.

“I felt that it was really important that we start the story in the time of enslavement, because I thought that the framework of the story was that there was a time where African-Americans were forbidden by law to learn to read and write, where African-Americans were forbidden by law to be educated or educate themselves,” Nelson said. “Only if you start there do a lot of the other pieces of the story make sense.”

As black schools and colleges developed, two leading figures in black education espoused different philosophies, a conflict covered in the documentary. Booker T. Washington, a former slave from the south who became head of a black college and a popular spokesperson, espoused “industrial” education, but W.E.B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated intellectual from Massachusetts, didn’t agree with Washington’s plan to merely teach trades.

“These were great personalities that represented — at that point coming out of the first generation out of slavery — two paths for the education for African-Americans,” Nelson said.

Washington can be looked at as a pragmatist, Nelson said, but his ideas were dangerous.

“It played into what the northern industrialists were looking for,” Nelson said. “They were looking for an educated workforce, but not too educated. They had to be able to read the sign that said ‘explosives’ but they didn’t want them to read much else.”

Du Bois and his allies wanted an equal education, but it had to be built from the ground up. Black colleges often developed from grade schools and high schools that began to add classes as their students progressed. Finding teachers was hard. Still, many of the most talented black graduates found a place in black colleges.

“Black professors couldn’t teach anywhere except black colleges,” Nelson noted. “That served black colleges very well, with a wonderful faculty.”

Black colleges also helped focus movements after World War I, when black soldiers who experienced a new viewpoint abroad, found the same old oppression at home. They also became an incubator for the Civil Rights movement, playing an important role in the Brown v. Board of Education case to end school segregation (argued by lawyers from Howard University) and in the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides of the 1960s.

“Black colleges became this hotbed of change,” Nelson said.

Today, many black colleges are struggling with change, but are finding a new enthusiasm from young people, in part because of recent political events and movements, Nelson said.

“This country is much more racialized than it was a very few years ago,” Nelson said. “It was just eight years ago when they were talking about a post-racial society. Nobody is talking about a post-racial society now.”

Black colleges also offer a unique environment.

“There’s this feeling that for young African-Americans that we want to live in a space that’s safe for four years,” Nelson said. “We want to live in a space where we’re not judged solely on our race or looked at as a black person or the black person every time we enter a room. We want to have a safe intellectual space where we can talk to other African-Americans about what’s going on in our world and in our country.”