Whitney (*** ½) R 

Kevin McDonald is the second British director in less than a year and a half to tackle a documentary on the subject of troubled pop music icon Whitney Houston. The first was last year’s film Whitney: Can I Be Me, directed by Nick Broomfield, a film which was generally well received after debuting on the Showtime cable channel last summer. I can’t attest to how McDonald’s film compares to the previous attempt to document Houston’s life but what I can tell you is that the new film, Whitney, can stand alone on its own merits. It’s a compelling, engrossing, mystifying and ultimately sad tale of the meteoric rise and tragic fall of one of the most notable public figures of the last fifty years. Watching the film one can’t help but ponder the mysteries as to how such talent and potential was laid to rest in such a relatively short amount of time. McDonald tries his best to answer some of those mysteries even if providing a concrete answer proves to be an unenviable task.

McDonald is no stranger to probing documentary films as evidenced in his previous works such as One Day in September, Touching the Void and Marley, the last of which was a similar look at a revered figure (Bob Marley) in the world of contemporary music. The filmmaker brings all of his formidable filmmaking skills to play as he unravels a tale that is both familiar and, as expected, quite heartbreaking.

Photo: Whitney Houston

From a filmmaking standpoint, McDonald has chosen to structure his film in a most interesting way. He uses historical footage as a counterpoint to the different points of the singer’s life. By showing the audience what was going on in the world at any particular time we get a more clearly defined sense of the cultural scene in which Houston’s star rose and eventually fell.

The story is told, more or less, in a linear fashion and McDonald manages to land interviews with most of the major surviving players in Whitney Houston’s life. Most are very forthcoming, particularly the majority of family members. The subjects who aren’t as insightful as one might hope (ex husband, Bobby Brown and music impresario, LA Reid) don’t really come as that big of a surprise.

There are major bombshells dropped during the course of the film that attempt to shed light on what lead to the tragic downfall of such an incredible talent but the reasons ultimately prove to be elusive. Regardless, it’s a powerful and unflinching portrait of one of the most renowned public figures of the latter half of the twentieth century that demands to be seen.

Boundaries (** ½) R

Writer/director Shana Feste’s film Boundaries feels firmly in place with other works that populate the filmmaker’s resume, which includes such titles as The Greatest and the Gwyneth Paltrow starrer Country Strong, from 2011. Both of those feature good work from performers saddled with formulaic material and the same can be said for Feste’s latest directorial entry, which includes great work from reliable pros such as Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga.

The film’s plot is just a flimsy excuse to get the characters on the road in what is both literally and figuratively a road movie. Divorcee Laura (Farmiga) is running as fast as she can from past hurts by taking in every stray animal that comes down the pike while her relationships with the real people in her life, namely her son (Lewis MacDougal) and father (Plummer), wither in the interim. When Laura’s dad finds himself evicted from the assisted living facility where he resides he decides to go and live with Laura’s sister in California. This necessitates a road trip where anyone who’s seen similar fare will recognize the journey as a contrived plot device wherein wounds will be healed.

There are a few fine moments scattered about and it’s all easy enough to digest, but there’s a feeling of déjà vu hanging over the proceedings.  It’s sure to remind more astute viewers of similar plots in better films. Boundaries is fine but it hardly breaks any new ground

Won’t You Be My Neighbor (*** ½)

Coming fifteen years after the death of celebrated children’s television host Fred Rogers, the documentary film on Rogers’ life and career, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is a surprise in that it took this long for a film on the subject to materialize. Then again, as it turns out and taking into consideration the current state of affairs, this is certainly the right film for our current times. Rogers’ message of loving and respecting all of our fellow human beings, regardless of status in life, is heard throughout the film. The timing couldn’t be more impeccable.

The film has lots of great archival moments from the show but it isn’t just a compilation of clips. There are also reminiscences from those that knew him. These include Rogers’ widow, children and the coworkers who helped guide Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to its great and lasting success. Among the remembrances included in the film some of the most memorable exchanges come from the late host’s family who give insight as to what it was like to live, quite literally, in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. We also learn from his staffers that he had quite a sense of humor as well and an appreciation of the occasional practical joke.

Photo: Mr. Rogers & Daniel the tiger

The film’s final section details the end of the show and its lasting legacy and impact. At the screening I attended there was hardly a dry eye to be found in the house by the film’s end, which goes to illustrate just how deeply felt Fred Rogers’ message continues to be all these years later. To say it’s a great film is an understatement.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is playing in Hickory. Boundaries and Whitney are playing in Charlotte.

Questions or comments? Write Adam at [email protected].