YANKEE DOODLE DANDY – AN AMERICAN ICON PORTRAYS AN AMERICAN ICON

 

SHORT TAKE:

One of the greatest American classic musicals – Yankee Doodle Dandy – about one of the greatest American stage play auteurs – George M. Cohan – played by one of the greatest American actors – Jimmy Cagney.

WHO CAN WATCH:

Anyone and everyone!

LONG TAKE:

It’s hard for an old screen movie buff like me to talk about George M. Cohan without bringing up Jimmy Cagney. Cagney was to Cohan in the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy what George C. Scott did for General George S. Patton in the movie Patton.  But for those born closer to the turn of the last milennium than I was, a brief history lesson might be in order.

George M. Cohan was a prolific Broadway song and dance man. Beginning in vaudeville with his family he went on to write over 300 songs, many which would ring a bell even today: “You’re a Grand Ole Flag”, “Yankee Doodle Boy”, and “Give my Regards to Broadway,” among many others. With his long time partner Sam Harris, Cohan wrote the stories, lyrics and  music performed in more than 50 plays. They helped create Broadway at the turn of the previous century and were the first to incorporate songs and dance numbers into musicals, not just for razzle dazzle but to further the story. Cohan encouraged and promoted a pure clean patriotism and love of country which, like now, was sorely needed in the face of world challenges – at that time the World Wars.

He was the first artisan of any kind to win the Congressional Gold Medal, bestowed upon him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for boosting American troop morale with his songs, particularly with “Over There”. His songs and stories helped reinforce and unite Americans throughout two World Wars, delighted Broadway attendees for decades and added to the heritage of Americana just as Norma Rockwell did with painting, Aaron Copeland did with music, and John Wayne did with movies.

Jimmy Cagney was an actor whose length and breadth of performances spanned from gangster to comedian. He established the bad boy thug in The Public Enemy, White Heat and Angels with Dirty Faces so thoroughly and forcefully that many people do not know he was an accomplished “hoofer” right up there with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is an old school heartwarming slice of American apple pie, the likes of which is lacking in our lexicon of cinema today. This song and dance banquet is a lighthearted and often intimate portrait of this American hero and brilliant raconteur who epitomized the American spirit as much as Patton did the American will to win and sacrifice in the name of worldwide freedom.

Yankee Doodle Dandy follows Cohan from his days with his family on the vaudeville stage, his partnership with Sam Harris, his marriage to his devoted wife and stage partner Mary, and his indefatigable devotion to his family and his country.

Movies like Patton, The Patriot, 1776, Sergeant York and The Longest Day are brilliant films whose legacy is in honor of blood spilled by our self-sacrificing soldiers for the establishment and continuation of our Independence. But also give a thought to Yankee Doodle Dandy, a gentler movie about a gentler time whose strength of character, patriotic resolve, firmness of character and courage manifested itself in songs intended to comfort, inspire and honor those same brave American battle field heroes.

Now, Voyager – Old Classic Movie with a Disturbing but Largely Ignored Perversity

SHORT TAKE:

Golden Age Hollywood film of a torrid affair between a transformed Ugly Duckling and a married man.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mid-teens and up, with parental discussion, for morally ambiguous rationalizations, rejection of children, mental illness, frequent smoking, and adulterous behavior, though absolutely nothing but a bit of kissing is shown. Besides which younger kids would be bored spitless.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!

It is a commonly held misconception that old movies were compasses for morality. This myth is reinforced by the sadly defunct Hays Code and the largely ignored MPAA rating system, not to mention the creation of the Disney empire in the 1920’s, which used to be the Gold standard for family friendly fare. Then there was the preponderance of extremely popular morally upright movies which endorsed and respected religion and marriage, which were released in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, such as: The Ten Commandments, Bells of St. Mary’s, Parent Trap, Going my Way, Angels with Dirty Faces, Sound of Music and Song of Bernadette.

So it is understandable that audiences seeking entertainment less likely to offend a drunken sailor than the average TV show or random choice at a local theater would look to what are considered old classics – relying on the myth that movies made just before, during and right after World War II would aspire to a higher standard of morality than an early morning staggering Bourbon Street denizen. That old classic movies were — classy.

I hate to be the one to disabuse you of this illusion but…they were often – not.

Don’t get me wrong. I love old classics and I highly recommend them – with cautions. I’ve oft mentioned to our kids that it isn’t so much that movies, by and large, were made BETTER a long time ago than they are today, it’s just that the ones we still watch today were the “cream of the crop”, the ones which would, naturally stand the test of time. There were then, just as there are now, MORE than a fair share of stinkers. But, 50 or even 20 years from now, the ones at the theater today, which continue to attract attention later, are likely to be those of an especially high quality of: acting, plot, cinematography, soundtrack, special effects, or a combination. And they will be remembered when others will have been long forgotten.

BUT this does not mean the movies we now remember from 30, 50 or even going on a solid century ago were unerringly squeaky clean or held to a sterling character of righteous behavior.

One such example is Now, Voyager. The title is gleaned from the poem, “The Untold Want” by Walt Whitman (a man not exactly of pristine rectitude himself). The phrase hearkens to the advice given to Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), the lead character in Now, Voyager by her psychiatrist, (Claude Rains). Charlotte is a drab and emotionally abused spinster, who is sent to go forth and seek adventure and a full life, to “Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

This is all well and good as she disentangles herself from her bitter, possessive harpy of a mother (Gladys Cooper) to blossom into a self-respecting beautiful woman. But when she decides to occupy herself on a cruise with the affections of a philandering married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid) the movie degenerates into a torrid love affair which spends the majority of the rest of the movie rationalizing why he should refocus his affections on the already reconstructed Charlotte who, by all accounts, suffered previously from the same dowdy, ignored life in which Jerry has abandoned his own wife. In other words, why should he spend his time trying to make a beautiful woman out of his own wife when he can forego all that work and effort by exploiting this vulnerable woman at his fingertips. Of course, the answer, resoundingly given by the movie is —- Why NOT?

So off Jerry goes with Charlotte, wooing then bedding a more than willing Charlotte. Charlotte justifies her dalliance with a man already taken and with a family, in part, by the knowledge that Jerry’s daughter, Tina, is lonely and unwanted by her own mother, Jerry’s wife. There’s definitely something Freudian or dysfunctionally “Elektra”  in Charlotte’s behavior.

Elektra was Oedipus’ daughter, if that gives you a clue. And while this theory is, as Hamlet might say, “more honor’d in the breach,” as it is now universally ridiculed, the Elektra Complex theory was postulated by Carl Jung in 1913 and not yet fully discredited in 1942 when Now, Voyager was released. So there definitely would be a certain armchair psychologist’s nod of understanding, if not approval, by audience members of that time, assuming that Charlotte is taking a certain subtle vengeance on her shrewish and uncaring mother by sleeping with the husband of a woman with a similar personality.

This is not to say it is a badly DONE movie. For its stylized time and manner it is extremely well done. Beautifully tailored costumes, often hand-picked by Bette Davis, herself, for the character of Charlotte; acting which, for that era, was at its height. The extraordinarily and rightly acclaimed Bette Davis and Gladys Cooper won Oscar nominations (back when it meant something), respectively, for best actress, as Charlotte, and  best supporting actress, as Charlotte’s horrible mother.

Bette Davis was one of the Grand Dames of Hollywood. Strong, intelligent, forceful in a largely male dominated industry, she was not at all shy about insisting on her own way of doing things – pressing for changes in everything from script to costuming for the advancement of the film she was in, Davis was a true talent who respected her craft and, like other brilliant later actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, did not shy from making herself unattractive for her role. Almost six decades of films include: the literature based Of Human Bondage and The Corn is Green, the filming of stageplays like Little Foxes and The Whales of August, the psychological horror Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the expose on the manipulative often meaningless lives of famous actors in All About Eve. From comedy to horror to drawing room romance, there is something for everyone in Ms. Davis’ repertoire of films. And she could convey, with a nod or raised eyebrow, more than many performers today can in five minutes of screen time.

Paul Heinreid, the noble and self-sacrificing Victor from Casablanca, here is at his subtly slimy best, weaseling his way into Charlotte’s fully consenting bed.

Max Steiner won for best music. The black and white filming by Sol Polito makes the most of the gray emotional and moral areas in which the characters live.

And on a personal note it is one of the few movies I’ve seen in which Claude Rains’ character, in this case Dr. Jaquith, Charlotte’s caring psychiatrist, is a completely good guy. His usual fare is the likes of the insane Invisible Man, the evil Earl of Hertford from Prince and the Pauper, the wicked caricature of Prince John in Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the morally murky Capt. Renault from Casablanca – delightful characters all. But seeing him as a squeaky clean white hat was refreshing.

So the quality of the production itself was quite high.

But the most troubling part about this whole movie is the way in which the audience is openly being lead and manipulated into a position of accessory guilt to an adulterous affair. We are meant to sympathize with both Charlotte, who knowingly accepts the advances of a married man, and Jerry, a flat out cad, who flirts and schmoozes his way into a vulnerable woman’s arms, justifying his behavior with possibly one of the oldest pickup lines in history: my wife just doesn’t understand me the way you do. While he doesn’t actually say these words, the sentiment is obvious as he parades out an exceptionally unattractive picture of his wife with his two daughters.

What struck me was how much Jerry’s wife reminded me of pre-transformation Charlotte – dowdy, over-weight, dressed in an unflattering tent, sour expression. And there’s zero excuse for Jerry not to make the same connection, as Charlotte shares an old family picture in which Charlotte appears in her most unappealing frumpiness. Jerry even asks, in one of the most indelicate, foot-in-mouth comments in movie history, who the old fat woman is. So the comparison can not have been lost on him: that, if Charlotte can make this physical transformation so complete and that with a bit of love from him can blossom emotionally, why can he not aid his own wife in such a transformation – or at least TRY!

The film makers appeared not to have made this connection themselves despite its incredibly blatant obviousness. Jerry could see the swan Charlotte became but refused to see anything but the Ugly Duckling his wife was. I suspect it was because it would have been too much trouble for him to do all that work.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, through a set of happenstances, meets and informally adopts Tina, Jerry’s maternally neglected daughter, transforming Tina from a moody self-loathing adolescent into a happy bubbly child. This is supposed to amend for the diverting of Jerry’s allegiances from his family to herself, his mistress (emotionally, at that point, if not carnally).

In the end, Jerry and Charlotte are to remain physically chaste as Dr. Jaquith’s sole contingent proviso for his endorsement of Charlotte’s retention of Tina. In fact, this will become the string by which Charlotte will hold Jerry emotionally hostage for the rest of his life. To adapt Rhett Butler’s comments to Scarlett about the object of SCARLETT’S infatuation, Ashley Wilkes: [Jerry] can’t be mentally faithful to his wife – and won’t be unfaithful to her technically [aside from that one time in Rio].

As my mother used to say: it takes two to Tango, and I have no doubt that Jerry’s wife was complicit in her own marital undoing. But similarly we are never shown her side of the story either. As Jerry, no doubt, felt unappreciated, Jerry’s wife too would have her own side of the story showing her not to be the sole perpetrator in the murder of their marriage.

I finished the movie noting this was one of the first in a long series of movies intended to assuage the guilty conscience of men who wish to abandon their familial responsibilities in pursuit of a fresh bit of — adventure, the list of which notably includes the most tragic and lamentable Toy Story 4, in which Woody callously walks away from “his” child to chase after Boo Peep’s bustle. SEE REVIEW HERE

Now, Voyager could have utilized the brilliant and deep treasure trove of talent and experience to create a positive and productive tale of the healing of a wounded marriage. Perhaps even through his relationship with Charlotte, learning how to nurture his “hopeless” cause wife into a beautiful woman, as he helped Charlotte, and rekindling his marital relationship with his wife. Instead, though listed among one of the “greats” in cinematic history, this “classic” is just another in a long line of movies without a true moral compass or conscience, justifying the devastation wrought but never seen by a husband and father’s illicit behavior. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE ON RUTH INSTITUTE WEBSITE

 

DR. WHO AND THE OOD – A TONGUE-IN-CHEEK WARNING?

Just about every sentient creature in the known universe has at least heard of Dr Who. Not surprising, since the show has been around since the JFK assassination. No really. As in Dr. Who’s November 23, 1963 premiere was briefly postponed in the UK for coverage of the horrific tragedy which had taken place the day before.

But for the benefit of the two or three people left in our solar system who do not know “WHO” – ahem – the good doctor is: Dr. Who is a British TV show about a Time Lord, an Earth-protecting alien from the lost planet Gallifrey, who travels around in a T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) – a sentient vehicle which looks like a British telephone booth – which takes him and his chosen companions to different times and places, usually of the Doctor’s choosing, but occasionally places where the TARDIS thinks he needs to be. And as though he were Superman’s nerdy British cousin, Dr. Who uses his brains, and plot convenient tech to do good, and usually dangerous, deeds across the multi-verse.

And as a side note, interesting, but somewhat irrelevant to the purposes of this article, in the most brilliant show contrivance in history, when the lead actor wishes to depart or his ratings drop they “kill” the current one off so that a “new”, but the same, Doctor “regenerates” into a different looking body. So you have the same character but with a completely different actor and personality. Soooo – since the latest incarnation regenerated into a woman the pronouns above could be he OR she.

With this kind of an intro, it should raise no eyebrows to learn that Dr. Who has run across more and weirder creatures than Star Trek and Star Wars combined: from flirting lady trees, to space whales that can carry all of England on its back, Cybermen and Daleks, vampire fish masquerading as people, water-bourne parasitic Martians which turn normal humans into water spewing zombies, disembodied vapor creatures who live in suns, the TARDIS herself (yes, she is a female), terrifying and untraceable hypnotic monsters who live in intense radiation on a planet with sapphire waterfalls, two-dimensional beings (and yes, that was a particularly creative episode), Western cybernetically enhanced victims of war crime experimentation, and psychotic Time Lords; NOT to mention the famous and infamous throughout history: Charles Dickens haunted by ghosts, Lady Pompadour pursued by robots, Shakespeare tormented by witches, Vincent Van Gogh (possibly my favorite episode) chasing a monster, President Nixon, Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and the prototype for Robin Hood.

BUT – one of the Oodest – or rather – Oddest of them all are the – Ood. Normally docile, meditative, both telepathic and empathic, they carry a portion of their brain — on the outside, holding it at all times. Come to think of it now I see why they are docile – kind of tough to wield a weapon while jostling a chunk of your cerebrum in the other hand – NOT to mention the vulnerability of it. Their sensitivity and awareness, their connectivity to other creature’s minds, their constant attention to this fragile link with all the other minds and thoughts of so many other creatures, their constant input of images and emotions of those around them – make them vulnerable to corruption by more powerful telepathic minds with evil intent … or even to enslavement. As they spend all their time continually monitoring the Ood hive mentality of their interconnectedness, it has engendered in them a subservience and lack of independence which crippled their society. At one time their slave masters even physically removed that external portion of their brain in order to replace it with a mechanized one in order to more easily control them, but which backfired on the slave masters allowing the suppressed Ood rage to turn them blindly homicidal.

While it is always nice, it is not always pre-requisite to have a logical basis for science fiction generated creatures’ unique characteristics. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but play the “what if” game, and wonder, if such a creature existed, why might God, in His infinite wisdom, craft or allow such a creature, so uniquely hobbled, to evolve? This one attribute’s disadvantages seemed to so spectacularly outweigh its benefits that it held their entire civilization’s progress back, dragging like an anchor against the promise of their potential development.

So I continued to puzzle. How might such a singularly disadvantageous and peculiar physical attribute EVER been catalyzed to manifest itself? I wondered how the concept of a portion of one’s brain being held in one’s hand EVER came about……..

Then it occurred to me.

F — Ood for thought, certainly.

ARTEMIS FOWL – HARMLESS BUT MUDDLED FILM OF THE BOOK SERIES

SHORT TAKE:

A mish mash, unsuccessful attempt to put Artemis Fowl on screen with a cobbled together plot loosely based on the first three books.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Well, its biggest virtue is that there is NO profanity and NO sexuality. Unfortunately there is also almost NO comprehensible story or relatable characters, EVEN if you’re familiar with the books. So – no harm in watching – aside from a waste of your time.

LONG TAKE:

I saw a sign on a shop. It said: “We can do it fast. We can do a cheap. We can do it high quality. Pick two.” Mulling this over thoroughly while waiting for my order I concluded that was absolutely right.

Similarly, I have found in movies: You can world build. You can develop characters. You can create a complex plot. Given the limited time you have in a single movie – pick two.

Disney gave director Kenneth Branagh an impossible task by requiring he do all three in a single movie based on three books in the Artemis Fowl series. This not only required world building for anyone who has never read the Artemis Fowl books, of an underground militant fairy folk world and the eponymous human adolescent crime lord attempting to steal from them, but involved a complex series of plot maneuvers and gizmos there was just not enough time to explain.

Something had to give and like too many bowls and not enough soup, everything got watered down to a less than satisfactory presentation.

Dune suffered from the same problem – too complex a plot in an world full of unfamiliar customs and politics. Audiences who had not read the books were pretty much left in the dust — or sand worm – you’d have to have read the books to get that one.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets came close. It was a beautifully constructed complex world, with fairly well done characters and a reasonably straight forward plot – get an item from point A to point B. The characters were interesting but still the film makers got a bit too excited about the visually stunning imagery to give us enough character development to carry the day.

Star Wars nailed it. Simple plot – get plans to rebel base. There was world building with new LOOKING characters but when you boiled it down it was really cowboys versus indians in space. Just substitute rebels for cowboys and storm troopers for indians. There was even a cowboy feel to some of the costuming and attitude– especially Han’s. The only unique aspect was the Force and that was a fairly simple concept and well covered on the Millenium Falcon by Guiness’ Obi Wan, then repeated gently in enough spots for us to “get it”. So without having to do a lot of expositing all over the audience, there was time to develop the deliciously fun Han, Luke, Leia, C3PO, R2D2, Chewie, and Obi Wan – all got lots of moments to make us love them.

Harry Potter did a great job as well but had the advantage of being almost ubitquitously read by the time the first movie came out, WHICH plot was carefully followed (given the time limits of a movie). The characters were easily accessible – Harry was Oliver Twist. And the images of cauldrons and witches, wands and owls, schools and friends easy to relate to. The plot was simple – keep powerful item away from bad guy.

BUT – Artemis Fowl tried to do it ALL and ended up with NONE of it.

In the BOOKS Artemis is a genius 12 year old criminal mastermind left to his own devices trying to maintain the family criminal business in the wake of his father’s mysterious disappearance and his mother’s untimely descent into madness. He is under the care of a bodyguard named Butler who acts as a substitute paternal figure, protector and teacher.  Artemis’ primary occupation is stealing gold from the heretofore invisible world of fairies. Think of it as Die Hard from Hans Gruber’s POV and an elf in Bruce Willis’ place.

Disney CHANGED the books in an attempt to “sanitize” the story, leaving the fans scrambling to catch up. There was no exploitation of the clever idea that our legends of fairies comes from a REAL hidden world, how they interact with us, the fact that the word leprechaun is actually part acronym for “LEPrecon” Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance. Their world is part magic but part advanced tech – like their wings but no clear definitions, or examination are provided.

In a truly comic stereotyping of Disney movies they actually kill off the mother  rather than bother with a mad one. The father is kidnapped by an evil elf, Opal Koboi Hong Chau (voiced by an uncredited Hong Chau who was the only bright spot in the dreadful Downsizing) – who isn’t supposed to be a major player until the fourth book, and presented as a hooded figure with an electronically disguised voice. She’s given no background or motive other than her desire for revenge, but for what is never mentioned. Opal is after a powerful orb, the Aculos, invented for the movie, whose features are never really explained. Opal kidnaps Artemis’ father (Colin Farrell) to get Artemis to find it. She threatens to kill Artemis senior but since Artemis’ father is the one who hid it and Artemis doesn’t even know of its existence much less where it is, this doesn’t seem like a good plan.

The rules are not clear on what is and is not allowed for the relations between fairies and people. Examples: An annoying member of the LEPRecon team turns out (surprise) to be a mole for Opal but when the other elves turn on HIM we never find out what happens to him. There’s a time bubble placed over the house which everyone is frantic about when it becomes destabilized. But aside from a few odd bendy special effects we are never given a picture of the dangers. Some moments include fairies needing to be invited into the house but Root (Judi Dench) doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about this and even comments that Artemis can’t fool her. But about what we are never clued in to.

And the acting was just – awful.

Butler is played by Nonso Anozie, normally a solid performer and a Game of Thrones alum. He gave off more charisma in his teeninsie part as a Captain in Cinderella than he does as this significant supporting character, Butler. Despite claims that his striking blue contacts didn’t bother him, either he or the cinematographer seem handicapped by them as Anozie doesn’t make good eye contact or response with his fellow actors. This may seem a tiny complaint but is just one of the dozens of suspension of disbelief jarring items which burdened this film with unnecessary problems.

Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and Artemis (Ferdia Shaw, grandson of the esteemed actor Robert Shaw), have, between the two of them, NO significant screen credits. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the chemistry between them. The frenemie relationship between Holly and Artemis is a pivot in the books but is shallow and almost non-existent here. In a development that took three books, the movie transforms them from antagonists to trusted compatriots with the sudden and unearned finesse of a play written by summer-bored teenagers. McDonnell throws energy into her lacklusterly written Short.

Sadly, and all due respect to his grandfather who I loved as the gruff but loveable Quint in Jaws and through the layered evil of Henry the Eighth in Man for All Seasons, Ferdia is just…not very good. This is entirely the fault of the film makers and not this young man. He’s dull and stiff and should never have been saddled with the responsibility to carry an entire franchise. Sometimes using unknowns works but this was a gamble the film makers lost here big time.

Even the great Dame Judi Dench’s performance as Commander Root seemed “phoned in” as though she was anxious to get out of her uncomfortable costume.

Juliet Butler, played by Tamara Smart, was cute and enthusiastic, but a cookie cutter perky girl who could have been pulled from any of a dozen other Disney movies.

Relationships are rushed, taken for granted and without warmth. The only one with any glimmer to it is between the father and son Fowls and that is credited solely to Colin Farrell’s performance as Artemis senior.

Josh Gad (Beauty and the Beast, Murder on the Orient Express) as Mulch Diggums, the dirt devouring, tunnel building, thief/large dwarf with purchasable and malleable morals and an – interesting – digestive system, was the only who looked like he was having any fun. Gad, as Diggums is truly delightful in the irresistibly disgusting role, but in complete contradiction to his sidekick position in the books, is placed front and center as the C3PO/Horatio character – the one who knows everything and tasked with filling in unprepared viewers with narrative and exposition.

The plot was confusing, the characters wooden and the world of fairies so filled with orbs and unexplained magic and time devices and characters we’ve never seen that unless you’d read the three books on which the script was based — last week – you would be hard pressed to follow.

And the Aculos, the item which is sought and fought over through the movie, was invented exclusively for the movie and explained about as much as the golden glow coming from the briefcase in Pulp Fiction – as in not at all. I even looked it up in Wikipedia. Nada. And when you are creating a movie from a series as rich in magical elements as the Artemis Fowl series, adding an element you don’t even bother to explain much less incorporate into the existing storyline is definitely over-egging the pudding. It would be a bit like making a Harry Potter movie, ignoring the elements familiar to the fan core and throwing in a random McGuffin which makes no sense.

The screenplay, such as it is, was written by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl. The author, Eoin Colfer, is nowhere in the writing credits, as apparently he either didn’t WANT to do it or didn’t feel he could and doesn’t really seem to care it bears little resemblance to his originally intended story.

This thing was largely a mess – a harmless mess but a mess nonetheless. This rates right down there with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, (SEE REVIEW HERE) though at least mercifully without the politically correct agenda.

DISCOVERY – INTERESTING BUT FLAWED ATTEMPT TO FILL IN THE GAPS

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW OF STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

SHORT TAKE:

A two season Star Trek show which was released (in real life) just before Picard, it takes a stab at gap filling in the story arcs of Star Trek in general and the characters of Spock and Pike in particular (even though they do not show up until the second season) during the (reel life) period between the two original pilots from the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adults only for: language, graphic violence, sexuality, promotion of alternative lifestyles and frequent examples of – best way to put it —- conduct unbecoming a Starfleet officer.

LONG TAKE:

Star Trek, “The Original Series”, with Captain Kirk, debuted in 1963. I was four years old and lived in a house full of science fiction fans. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to correctly surmise from that I have followed Star Trek my whole life.

And in case anyone doesn’t know, and relevant to this article, as referenced above, there were TWO Star Trek pilots: the FIRST one with Captain Pike, and the SECOND, but better known one, with Captain Kirk.

Roddenberry, the brains behind everything Star Trek, (the way Lucas is for Star Wars), had some clout and a LOT of persistence. So when the powers that be did not like the first pilot, Roddenberry managed, in an instance as rare as finding a herd of unicorns, to persuade the producers to give him another shot at it. He changed much of the lead cast and told a different tale. The rest is history. Discovery looks at knitting these two scenarios together into the whole cloth of the Star Trek Universe.

I have seen all the filmed live iterations: TOS, Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, Picard, ALL the movies in both the prime and alternate time lines – and now into the fold comes Discovery. I have mixed feelings about this show.

The original Star Trek concept in 1963 was promoted by Roddenberry as “Wagon Train to the stars” to the powers that held the money. In fact, Roddenberry used science fiction as clever social commentary, much of which is still quite relevant almost six decades later.

As a framework for that cultural analysis was the idea that the best of mankind would strive and survive to reach out to the stars and, as has been so many times quoted, parodied, and ultimately followed, “…to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!” (Cue theme that only The Queen of the Night could sing.) Possibly the most famous split infinitive in literary history.

The eloquent words and profoundly inspiring message have been part of what has kept the Star Trek franchise alive for almost sixty years, across seven different shows, with seven different casts, covering hundreds of shows, and inspiring thirteen movies; not to mention: cartoons, novels, graphic novels, audio books, fanzines, comic cons, animation, games, technical manuals, coffee cups, bath mats, life sized cut outs, costumes (deep breath) – the list goes on and on.

One of the uplifting concepts that has kept this boat afloat (pun intended as the Star Trek universe has always had a naval feel) is the idea that these frontiers will be breached by the best and the brightest, the most humane and brave, the self-sacrificing, the merciful and the altruistic, to insure that we would go forth to that (following homages intended) Undiscovered Country (Star Trek VI) of this Final Frontier (Star Trek V) with our best foot forward.

Unfortunately, this is not what Discovery did. It began with a mutineer, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) starting a war with the Klingons. Huh!??? And much of the next two years deals with the direct and indirect fallout from that. Granted, good comes out of this catastrophe, as well as discoveries of galactic-sized threats which are averted, in part, due to the setting in motion of events stemming from this war. (It gets complicated.) But my teeth were set on edge right away because this was NOT the Starfleet I remembered.

Set (in reel life) about 10 years before Kirk and not long after Captain Archer, I do acknowledge that this is Starfleet in its infancy – even embryonic. Captain Archer, in the series Enterprise, stepped WAAAY  over the line more than once: hypocritically denying assistance to a freighter in one show, running rough shod over an alien species during a diplomatic mission in another, acting abrasively and belligerently to his crew on the bridge, and on one noteworthy occasion leaving a hatchery of sentient infants to die on a fading ship – because they were an enemy insectoid race – DESPITE the fact they were innocents. I have a lot of trouble with Enterprise too.

That all being said there ARE interesting characters and intriguing storylines within Discovery. There is, for example, a backstory on Spock (Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck) no one anticipated and information on Pike which fits  nicely with the character to which we were introduced 60 (real) years ago. Like it or hate it or love it, I understand this is an effort by the crafters of the Star Trek universe to tie up the ten (reel) years between the first pilot with Pike and the opening proper in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” which introduced us to Kirk and company.

The cast is hit and miss.

Captain Pike’s character in Discovery, introduced at the tip end of season one, was a breath of fresh air in embodying the characteristics of the Starfleet captains with whom we grew up. I look forward to the future planned shows, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds with Anson Mount’s Pike.

You will meet, if you will excuse the unavoidable pun, a much darker Mudd (Rainn Wilson, The Office alum) as in Harcourt Fenton —, than we saw in the original series.

A line often attributed to Louis B Mayer is: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”. Unfortunately, there has been a trickle which has grown into a  monsoon of disregard for this advice amongst the writers, directors and producers of TV shows and movies over the last few decades.

One of the demonstrations of distracting and overt PC writing in Discovery is the prominent portrayal of a homosexual couple by engineer Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz). As there are no other featured couples and as their relationship figures heavily as unnecessary subplot fodder in a number of the episodes, this smacks more of political correctness then plot craft. The shoe-horning in of scenes is distracting as well as making the show inappropriate for non-adults. To be fair, Kirk’s promiscuous bed hopping did not exactly contribute to a G-rated atmosphere either. But at least Kirk’s antics were to promote ratings amongst the teenage boys who already dominated the demographics for Star Trek: TOS. The relationship between Stamets and Culber is propagandistic posturing.

In addition, their relationship as portrayed was neither dynamic nor convincing. Dr. Who’s pansexual Captain Jack Harkness frequently conveyed, in one flirty grin to a total stranger, more connection and interest than Culber and Stamets did towards each other in two seasons.

Cruz as Culber does the heavy emotional lifting but only succeeds in coming off as whiny. Stamets is an interesting stand alone character as an aloof and snobby, but brilliant, engineer wrestling with a technology new to the Star Trek universe: a Spore Drive, which allows instantaneous travel from one point in the galaxy to another. Stamets was obviously in love with THAT. But there is very little chemistry between the two men.

Tilly (Mary Wiseman), another engineer, while also brilliant, should not have been allowed anywhere near a star ship bridge. She is flighty, immature, overly chatty, and tends to wander off in flights of irrelevance even in the midst of a crisis. This behavior would have either been trained out of her at the Academy or she would have been dismissed. And in one of the “Short Trek” shows, (15 minute lagniappe episodes), Tilly commits an outright crime of aiding and abetting a stowaway when she helps one to their home planet without even reporting their presence on board the ship. This would have been court-martial level grounds for cashiering in anybody’s reality aboard a military vessel of any kind.

There are bright spots. Saru (Doug Jones, who has the dubious honor of having played the amphibian man in the horrible Shape of Water SEE REVIEW HERE), a Kelpian, is the first officer. He is from a species which we have never before seen, and is unique to the crew. Jones, with his 6 foot 3-1/2 inch tall frame gives the skeletal visaged Saru a surprising physical grace. Saru is an officer who is thoughtful, considered, intelligent, calm under fire, attentive to the advice of the other crew, and who makes plain old good decisions. In the first season Saru is the one who reminds me the most of the Starfleet personality we should have had all along.

Jason Isaacs is Captain Lorca, of whom I’m hesitant to say much for fear of giving spoilers. Suffice to say that while more in line with the Star Trek: TOS personality, he pushes the envelope too much and too hard to be a comfortable character. These feelings ultimately fit well with his story arc and the structure of the two season plot but it can be very off-putting on first viewing.

The music by Jeff Russo (Star Trek: Picard) provides the same inspiring atmosphere we have come to know and love from the Star Trek universe. The special effects, gadgets and prosthetics are pretty cool, but nothing we haven’t seen before in the best of some of the shows.

The dialogue has too much profanity especially for a starship bridge crew, who are on the bridge and on duty. And remember I’m evaluating from the point of view of Star Trek not the reality of a naval cruiser on Earth, though I suspect some of the cavalier dialogue would not be well tolerated on a modern-day destroyer bridge either.

There’s been a good deal of complaint about the female-heavy cast: Martin-Green’s Burnham, Wiseman’s Tilly, Emily Coutts’ cybernetically enhanced Detmer, Oyin Oladejo’s Owosekun, Sarah Mitich’s android/human hybrid Airiam, Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou, Mary Chieffo’s female Klingon Chancellor L’Rell, Jane Brooks’ Admiral Cornwall, Rebecca (pre-Lawrence “Mystique” from X-Men) Romijn’s Number One – the list goes on. I’d have to agree. There is a grossly disproportionate number of prominent women in the show, especially when you consider that many of the men that DO make it to the cast list are either given only passing notice, like Ronnie Rowe’s Lt. Bryce, or are written as women-dependent and emotionally fragile, like former POW Ash Tyler (played by Shazad Letif).

While the women did a good job comporting themselves (mostly – with the exception of the aforementioned Tilly) as command crew who just happen to be female (as opposed to the creativity-destroying reverse) this is NOT the Amazonian brigade nor community theater! There MUST have been more men auditioning for these parts than is reflected in the casting choices.

Nonetheless, after Pike, my favorite character would have to be engineer Reno (played by Tig Notaro from Instant Family SEE REVIEW HERE) who comes late onto the scene. Carrying the blunt honesty of a single minded nerd who gets along better with her equipment than people, she is funny and refreshingly abrasive in her no nonsense exchanges. Sort of like a female Henry Higgins she treats everyone the same – as though they were ALL between her and the solution to the engineering problem at hand and life would be so much easier if they would just get out of her way! Yet, also like Higgins, she is almost preternaturally observant to those around her and, as such, and as she has little filter, is often able to offer unexpectedly apt advice.

So, overall, despite the heavy handed estrogen injections, the occasional forays into soap opera territory, and the aspects of the show that make it inappropriate for youths, I’d say Discovery was worth the time, if for no other reason than to tie up previously loose ends and establish a launching pad for Pike’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

But adults only – it’s neither the relatively more innocent nor mostly the example to be followed, as was the Star Trek of our youth. Even so, it still manages to point us to the stars.

THE WAY BACK: A WORTHWHILE JOURNEY

AUDIO OPTION OF THE WAY BACK REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

The Way Back is a story, beautiful in its own troubled way, of a broken man struggling with alcoholism and his own regrets, by coaching a “lost cause” basketball team at the high school where he had been a celebrated champion.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mid-teens and up but ONLY with parental discretion, supervision and discussion. While there is no sexual content, there is a LOT of bad language and scenes of self-destructive drinking which make for excellent horrible warnings. On the plus side The Way Back gives a clear demonstration of respect for the Catholic Church in general and priests in particular as kind moral centers and understanding sources of redemption.

SPOILERS

LONG TAKE:

While The Way Back has a lot of similarities to traditional underdog movies, it  progresses through far darker waters than your average feel good sports flick. Most movies of this genre would have ended two-thirds of the way through where The Way Back does. But The Way Back has the courage to move FORWARD through a realistic assessment of the deeply troubled Jack Cunningham, far after the predictable conclusion to the basketball team’s triumphs. This is not condemnation but commendation.

I like a formulaic sports movie as much as the next person. From the faith-based Facing the Giants to the histo-sports drama Victory, the sentimental Hoosiers and the weepy The Miracle Season, I love movies that end tied up in a nice neat bow. But The Way Back is just not one of those movies.

The story, clearly a vehicle for Affleck as cinematic therapy for his own struggles with alcoholism, is of an angry and bitter Jack Cunningham – divorced, former basketball champion, alone and seemingly determined to drink himself to death. Functional in his construction worker job, he showers in the morning with a beer in the soap dish, pops one open on his way home, spends his evenings at a bar and often has to be partially carried home by a family friend. Apparently his life fell apart 2 years previous and we do not initially know why. It could have been for a lot of reasons, but this is a man who has almost completely cut himself off from his family, and self indulgently given up on his marriage, his life, and hope itself.

He is a walking poster child for horrible warnings, until his former priest calls him in need of some assistance with the team which is now languishing at his old alma mater. The previous coach had taken ill. They needed a replacement and, I suspect, the priest knew Jack needed a constructive purpose. While the rehabilitation of the basketball team is satisfyingly predictable, it is only the background of the road to redemption for Jack.

Movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and Batman versus Superman notwithstanding, Ben Affleck is a fine actor. His talents have shined in movies like The Accountant, (SEE REVIEW HERE) about an autistic hitman, and Argo, the semi-docudrama about the rescue of six people behind Iranian lines during the Carter botched, Reagan recovered hostage crisis of 1979. The Way Back, directed by the same talented Gavin O’Connor who helmed The Accountant, is another example of Affleck’s abilities. It’s no coincidence that Affleck has had his own battles with dependency. Jack’s very realistic pain reaches through to the viewer in every scene.By Affleck’s own admission The Way Back was cathartic as the actor went from rehab to filming. And Affleck makes the most of every aching moment.

Janina Gavankar is solid as Jack’s long suffering estranged wife, Angela. Al Madrigal is sympathetic and charming as Dan, Jack’s assistant. Jeremy Radin and John Alyward offer lovely performances as Fathers Mark and Edward, respectively, who try to encourage  Jack while still guiding the young men on the court who are in Jack’s care.

The basketball scenes are energetic and entertaining, respecting the audience enough to immerse the basketball in what was, to me, obscure language, but providing enough clear context in language, action and good filmmaking, that details were not necessary.

The movie is quite good but certainly not without its flaws. The cinematography by Eduard Grau is dark, whether by accident or poorly thought out attempts at atmosphere is unclear. Some scenes have jerky edits, and a lot of the intimate conversations are shot with all the panache of a TV soap opera.

On the other hand, the music by Rob Simonsen, who has penned music for other heart wrenching and moving stories like: Burnt, Tully, Life of Pi and The Nativity Story, is hauntingly beautiful and understated, like variations on a theme in the tragic symphony of Jack’s life. The soundtrack carries a theme that plays hide and seek from opening to ending credits, like the thoughts Jack can not, and perhaps does not want, to purge from his mind or in which he wishes to drown.

While The Way Back is a challenge to watch it is also rewarding, warm and even occasionally funny. The path that Jack walks is a rough road with an uncertain destiny, and though it is occasionally painful to travel with him, it is a worthwhile journey to take.

SPIES IN DISGUISE – FORGETTABLE AND REGRETTABLE

AUDIO OPTION OF SPIES IN DISGUISE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Poorly thought out computer animated spy spoof with a bad theme.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults will be alternately bored or infuriated, older kids will find it too juvenile and kids young enough to enjoy the animation and silly plot shouldn’t be exposed to the inappropriately constructed pacifist theme. So despite there being no profanity and, aside from a naked bottom shown for laughs, no sex  — no one should bother.

LONG TAKE:

Spies in Disguise is the latest computer animated venture by Blue Skies Productions whose checkerboard career has included the Ice Age franchise and the well done Horton Hears a Who but also the rather pitiful Robots and pathetic Ferdinand SEE MY REVIEW Spies in Disguise, both forgettable and regrettable, is not one of their best efforts.

Forgettably derivative, it pulls from a number of other much better movies.

The premise is that a celebrity spy, Lance Sterling (the often terrific Will Smith – Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, Collaterol Beauty SEE MY REVIEW) is framed for an act of treason by Killian (Ben Mendelsohn from Rogue One and Darkest Hour SEE MY REVIEW) so must seek the help of a tech inventor Walter (Tom “the best Spiderman” Holland), who Lance just had fired (though how this spy had the authority to do that is never explained). Lance is then chased by a team lead by Marcy (Rashida Jones who did such a good job in Klaus SEE MY REVIEW) and aided by “Eyes” (Karen Gillan – fantastic as both Dr. Who‘s Amy Pond and Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy) from the agency, headed by Joyless (Reba McEntire), for whom Lance is the agency star acheiver.

The plot, by the unsuccessful collaboration of: Lucas Martell, Cindy Davis, Brad Copeland, and Lloyd Taylor is pretty dumb even for a kid demographic parody. You can’t just throw anything up on the screen and expect that, just because it’s animated, it’ll be fun. The success of enterprises like Toy Story 1 ,2 and 3, (my objections to Toy Story 4 are in the REVIEW HERE), The Incredibles or even the old Bugs Bunny cartoons was in part due to being smart and cleverly written, giving something for the adults to enjoy while still being fun and wholesome for the kids. Those first three Toy Stories, Incredibles and Bugs are the kind of entertainment that become classics, as the children who see them now, will grow up to be the adults who will come back to them with their own kids, and see something fresh and new from an adult perspective. The classics offer thoughtful entertainment to a multitude of generations.

Not so with Spies in Disguise which barely has any original thoughts or decent narrative for anybody. For one thing, the lynchpin upon which the entire plot springs, the framing of Lance, is suspension of disbelief breaking-level dumb.

It’s hard to believe that this super secret and heavily intelligence based agency would so readily dismiss their top agent, or that they would not find his claims of a bad guy able to disguise himself as Lance credible. With all the tech demonstrated at their disposal what is INcredible is that the agency DIDN’T believe Lance. So the story was off to a rocky start to begin with.

Despite Disguise featuring some of my favorite actors, I was disappointed by the largely bland performances. But then there’s not much an actor can do with a bad script. The only one who makes any impact is Mendelsohn, who manages to invest the megalo revenge villain with an emotional base that actually made him more interesting and sympathetic than the main characters.

The movie becomes a combo fish out of water, (or rather a bird out of air, as Smith’s character is turned into a pigeon), and then an Odd Couple story as the suave, now bird-ified, Lance must pair with the slight and wide-eyed nerdy inventor Walter. Spies then wanders around in a Mission Impossible miasma and lands at the end of every Bond movie ever – minus the babes in bikinis.

The story is regrettable because it pushes a pacifist agenda in a place for which it is not appropriate. We’re not covering the civil disobedience of Gandhi or the Christian martyrs. These are agents sworn to uphold the law and defend citizens from violent, armed and dangerous madmen. But Walter, who lost his police officer mother in her line of duty, is on a quest, while working for a Get Smart/Men in Black type agency (the latter, no doubt, a nod to Smith’s participation in the Men in Black franchise), to create a line of defensive weapons which theoretically distracts or, at best, hinders the bad guys but does not kill them.

Sorry guys, but the purpose of a military or secret service equivalent agency is to kill people and break things. It is an unfortunate point of fact that endorphin enhancing glitter creating cute kitten shapes won’t stop people who do not play by the same pacifist rules as our intrepid hero.

But really, you might say, it’s only a kid movie. That is true. It is aimed at young children. So when you teach impressionable youths that the good guys are not good guys if they kill the bad guys then you instill in children the idea that happy feelings and party favor prank level gizmos can stem the tide of an opposing force armed with AK47s, missile launchers and nerve gas. Funny how the bad guys never seem to follow those oh-so-touted gun laws.

I saw this kind of mentality back in the 70’s when the soldiers were returning from Vietnam. Make Peace not War. Protestors shoving flowers into the barrels of soldiers, the latter who exercised heroic self restraint.  Glorified hippies dodging the draft to smoke weed, behave promiscuously and hang out to the tunes from Yasgur’s Farm while breeding the likes of the pregnant-woman-butchering Manson Family.

Meanwhile, while the self-indulged all felt good about themselves, our soldiers were meat shields protecting the hippies’ option to layabout.

Al Quaida, the Gulf Cartel, Aryan Nation, sex traffickers, not to mention the North Korean Army, mobsters, Somali pirates, or an armed thug holding up the diner you’re in don’t follow those cute little rules.

And painting the police or military or an armed citizen who defends an innocent as anything but a hero, is an affront to those who risk their lives to protect ours.

The animation is pretty good – nothing spectacular but adequate to the needs of the story. Kind of (uninspired) Incredibles. Speaking of The Incredibles, and nothing against Reba McEntire, but her heavy Southern accented character Joyless, sounded as though she was channeling Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl, making me suspect the filmmakers knew they were dealing with a very weak movie so employed all the cheap tricks they could think of.

The pigeons were cute, especially Crazy Eyes who was cousin to the indestructable, able to eat anything Alan Tudyk-voiced HeiHei from Moana. And when the reprised version of Hei Hei and the villain are the most interesting characters in the movie, you know you have a problem.

The music by Theodore Shapiro sounded like it was pulled from a barrel of mediocre “spy movie” tropes, culled from theme rejects off of Men in Black, or just tediously loud generic hip hop.

So give this one a miss. If you’re not snoozing through the trite storyline or improvisational sounding dialogue, you’ll be aggravated by the touchy-feeley approach to deadly killers.

Go see Martell’s far more amusing and clever short from which Spies was “inspired”: Pigeon Impossible HERE or just watch The Incredibles again instead.

WILLIAM THE MARSHAL – AN ORIGINAL…..MEDIEVAL….RADIO PLAY

 

…AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT (APOLOGIES TO MONTY PYTHON).

I’VE WRITTEN A: BATTLE TO THE DEATH, ROMANCE, COMEDY, COURT INTRIGUE, HISTORIC DRAMA, MURDER MYSTERY, AND BIOGRAPHY…AN ORIGINAL STAGEPLAY ABOUT THE LIFE OF WILLIAM THE MARSHAL, THE MAN WITHOUT WHOM ENGLAND, EUROPE AS WE KNOW IT AND LIKELY AMERICA WOULD NOT EXIST…BUT WHOSE NAME IS VERY LITTLE KNOWN FOR ALL THAT.

MY AWARD WINNING ACTOR-IN-RESIDENCE, LOUIS, HAS AGREED TO DRAMATIZE THE PLAY FOR ME AS A RADIO SHOW WHICH WILL BE UPLOADED IN WEEKLY(-ISH_) INSTALLMENTS.

SO PLEASE JOIN US AS YOU WILL – GROWL FOR BLOOD, LAUGH OUT LOUD, SWOON WITH ANTICIPATION, RALLY FOR THE WINNER, PONDER THE SIGNIFICANCE, AND MARVEL AT……..WILLIAM MARSHAL.

PART ONE

WELCOME TO LONDON 1189 – THE ROMANCE OF THE MILLENIUM IS ABOUT TO BEGIN…BUT FIRST A WORD FROM YOUR DOCENT TO THE MIDDLE AGES:

MY TOP 10 EASTER MOVIES NOT USUALLY ON ANYONE ELSE’S LIST

AUDIO OPTION OF MY TOP 10 EASTER MOVIES NOT USUALLY ON ANYONE ELSE’S LIST

There are a number of traditional Easter movies we turn to every year – and rightly so.

The Passion of the Christ is at the top of that list. Directed by Mel Gibson and starring Jim Caviezel, this 2004 movie is based upon the Gospels as well as the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions of Our Savior’s walk to Calvary. The Passion is a difficult watch and not one I would recommend for children or even some adults. Accurate in its intensity, there can be no mistake of the suffering and degradation Our Lord went through as expiation for our sins. And because of that alone it is often difficult for anyone to watch, let alone believers who understand that even now, outside of time, our sins make us complicit in putting Jesus on the Cross.

If you CAN watch this remarkable film I strongly encourage you to do so. If not this year, then at some time in your life. It should be on most people’s bucket list.

There are other films, though, which help convey this message. The Greatest Story Ever Told is a beautiful but far more sanitized version of the life of Jesus. Covering His birth to His Resurrection, this old classic stars Max von Sydow and features an array of actors who would be familiar to anyone fond of old World War II or epic costume dramas of the 1950’s and 1960’s: Telly Savalas, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, Martin Landau, Charlton Heston, and Roddy MacDowell, among others

1959’s Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston, is an inspiring gem of a film, about two life shattering encounter-moments with Christ that re-inform the life of an unjustly punished man.

These, as well as many other traditional films, are magnificent and should be seen multiple times.

But I wanted to suggest a broader field of vision this year. I thought it might be a worthwhile exercise to consider films which are either lesser known or whose Christ-like self-sacrificing moments are under appreciated.

Many movies today lionize the idea of revenge, following the motto of Bruce Willis’ John McClane, from Live Free or Die Hard. When asked what his plan was to save his daughter, McClane quips: “Find Lucy. Kill everybody else.” The cinemas are rife with vengeance porn bloodbaths: The John Wick franchise, the Taken series, the Kill Bills, Peppermint, Death Wish, True Grit

And I’m not saying all these movies are bad. Some are classics. And some, like Dark Knight, make it clear that the desire for revenge can corrupt and destroy you. Nor am I absolving myself from admitting to be a fan of these often cathartic films.

But – there is something inherently and far more satisfying, not to mention noble and Christ-like, in stories wherein one character sacrifices himself to save a stranger or even an enemy. So here is my list of 10 movies – some of which may surprise you – which include self-sacrifice on behalf of a stranger or enemy.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

While there are dozens of others I could have included on the following list, here is my top 10 (plus) from least to most notable of my personal favorite:

MOVIES DEMONSTRATING UNEXPECTED EXAMPLES OF CHRIST-LIKE SACRIFICE

SERIOUSLY – SPOILERS BELOW – AS IN – I GIVE AWAY ENDINGS AND/OR KEY PLOT POINTS TO  A BUNCH OF MOVIES. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!

10. Starting with an example for my fellow nerds – Avengers: Age of Ultron is about super heroes combating an evil super A.I. During the course of the movie, two characters who had been antagonists to our good guys, Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) switch sides. During the course of one of the battles against Ultron’s AI bots, Quicksilver throws himself, as a shield, in front of Hawkeye, one of his former opponents, who is, in turn, shielding a child with his body. Quicksilver takes the brunt of the bullets and dies. Greater love hath no man…

9. In Armageddon, Bruce Willis, instead of killing everybody else, chooses to die in the place of his daughter’s fiancé, a man with whom he has had a love-hate relationship throughout the movie, in order to save the world.

8. X-Men: Days of Future Past, casts Magneto (Ian McKellen) as our unexpected hero. Magneto, who has been at lethal odds with Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and company throughout the course of three previous movies (four if you count The Wolverine) places himself between an overwhelming force of deadly mutant-hunting robots and his life long friend/nemesis Charles Xavier.

7. Dramatically moving is the moment in 1982’s Blade Runner wherein Harrison Ford’s Deckard has a final confrontation with Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. Batty is an android who Deckard has been chasing throughout most of the movie. By showdown time Deckard has killed most of Batty’s friends and pursued the android to a rooftop where Batty gets the literal upper hand over the bounty hunter. Batty grabs Deckard just as Deckard loses his grip on a slick rain soaked pipe from which he would have plummeted to his death. But instead of gloating over his pursuer’s brutal demise, Batty lifts Deckard, his tormentor and would be executioner, in an act of mercy, to safety minutes before his own time is up and his predetermined android life span ends.

6. A little known movie worth the watch in this theme is Baby Boom. Baby Boom stars Diane Keaton, a darling of the late 1970’s through early 1990’s cinema, (most particularly from Annie Hall, the Godfather saga and the Father of the Bride movies). Keaton plays JP Wiatt, a wealthy and successful advertising executive who inherits a young toddler from a deceased cousin. The key turning point in the movie comes early when JP has the opportunity to “dump” this child on a willing foster family. But, knowing in her heart of hearts what she will ultimately have to give up, she just can’t bring herself to do it and turns her life upside down, inside out and leaves everything she values behind, in order to start over as a mother. With a supporting cast of Harold Ramis (actor in Ghostbusters, director/writer of Groundhog Day), James Spader (Ultron as well as “Red” Reddington from Blacklist), Sam Shepard (actor in The Right Stuff and prolific stage and screenplay writer), it is a shame this charming and warm hearted movie did not get more positive attention.

5. The end of the 1935 version of Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities sees Ronald Coleman’s dissipate Sydney Carlton dying on the guillotine for another man’s happy ending: “Tis a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done …” He takes the place of the noble Darnay, the husband of the woman, Lucie, he loves but who Carlton knows does not love him. Carlton subjects himself to a shameful and terrifying death for the love of someone he could have claimed but was not truly his.

4. Rain Man a brilliantly acted and beautifully quiet film, stars American cinematic icon and chameleon Dustin Hoffman and the ever ebullient and watchable Tom Cruise. Cruise plays Charlie, a selfish and cynically manipulative man. When Charlie’s father dies, Charlie takes custody of his autistic brother, Raymond, solely to get access to the three million dollars left to Raymond’s trust fund. But during the course of a cross country trek Charlie develops a genuine and completely altruistic love for this man, even knowing Raymond will never be capable of returning or even acknowledging the bond.

3. Molokai: The Story of Father Damien stars David Wenham (Lord of the Rings). The movie is based on the true story of Father Damien who feels inexorably pulled to offer up the prime of his life to a leper colony, knowing he will eventually catch and succumb to the disease that ravages the inhabitants. Also starring Peter O’Toole (Lord Jim, Lion in Winter among a plethora of famous performances), Derek Jacobi (the great Shakespearean actor who has worked with Kenneth Branagh on many films from Hamlet to Murder on the Orient Express), Kris Kristofferson (country singer turned actor), Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact), and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) this film is a moving portrait of a truly Christ-like example of loving another as oneself. This one could be watched by mid-teens and up with parental supervision.

2. After The Passion, the most difficult to watch is Calvary, a story about Father James, portrayed by Brendan Gleeson, a flawed man but good priest, who spends his life in caring for a difficult flock, and takes upon himself the punishment for another man’s sins. With a supporting cast which includes Gleeson’s son Domhnall, the usually jaunty Chris O’Dowd who takes on a very different role this time, and the familiar face of M. Emmett Walsh, this is a movie that you will not easily forget. Language, violence, and extreme topics of serial killers, arson, murder and child sex abuse make this one movie STRICTLY for adults, and only those who are well formed in their faith, as well as with a sturdy emotional constitution.

RUNNER UP

Before revealing my number one pic, I can not neglect a favorite moment from the Cumberbatch/Freeman Sherlock films. (Yes, I know they are technically TV shows, but at 90 minutes each and with a quality of acting and writing that outshines the vast majority of what hits the big screen, these qualify as movies.) In The Final Problem Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), Watson (Martin Freeman) and Mycroft (Sherlock’s estranged brother, played by Mark Gatiss) are trapped by a psychopath into a sadistic game where Holmes must choose to kill either his best and arguably only friend, Watson, or his brother. Mycroft then proceeds to explain very coldly and succinctly why Sherlock should kill Watson, putting forth a rather compelling argument why Watson is the weak link in their predicament. But it is a ruse. Mycroft knows that Sherlock would eventually be able to forgive himself for killing his own brother but it would destroy him to kill Watson. So Mycroft attempts reverse psychology to goad Sherlock into sparing Watson, effectively offering himself up in Watson’s place.  Sherlock understands Mycroft is trying to make this sacrifice so INSTEAD Sherlock, in an act to save BOTH Watson and Mycroft chooses…to shoot himself. (What happens next I’ll leave to you to watch and find out. But you MUST see this stunningly creative, intelligent, witty and masterfully acted show in order of production.)

1. Saving the best for last is the original Gene Wilder led 1971 Willie Wonka  and the Chocolate Factory. This quirky and whimsical musical features Wilder as the eponymous and very eccentric sweets inventor Wonka, who leads a group of ticket-winning children through his mysterious Oompa Loompa-run candy factory.

At the start of the tour all are given an “Everlasting Gobstopper” and cautioned to give it to no one else as the recipe is coveted. All but one have been co-opted into stealing secrets from Wonka by a competitor.

Charlie (Jack Ostrum) is a gentle and honorable child who only wishes to obtain the life time chocolate supply, promised as part of the prize, for his desperately poor family. The rest of the group are indulged, selfish, and one by one fall away from the group as they succumb to their particular vices – gluttony, pride, avarice, and obsession with TV. Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson), are guilty of having snuck a sip of Fizzy Lifting Drink, an infraction for which they are almost immediately repentant and, as they are allowed to continue with the tour, we assume is a minor piccadillo.

However, at the end of the day, Wonka, who up to now had been especially kind to Charlie, turns nasty and informs them that they, too, have forfeited the prize chocolate, then abruptly and rudely dismissed them. A livid Grandpa Joe tells Wonka off then pulls Charlie aside and advises him to sell the souvenir Gobstopper to Slugworth, the corporate spy.

Instead, believing Wonka unaware of the competition’s espionage attempts, Charlie meekly places the candy on Wonka’s desk, thereby protecting Wonka’s secret but foregoing the promised fortune he could have obtained from Slugworth. Charlie sacrifices his future to save someone who has betrayed and deeply hurt him.

Wonka then quietly says one of the most touching lines in cinematic history: “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”  It had all been a test to judge Charlie’s mettle as, and after apologizing to Charlie and Grandpa Joe, a positively effervescent Wonka reveals to Charlie the real prize was the entire factory. Charlie is to be Wonka’s heir.

The Christian imagery is unmistakable and no doubt the reason for this telling’s decades old endurance as a family favorite: Wonka allows all the children to be tempted. In a perspicuous, albeit child-like and abbreviated tracking of Pilgrim’s Progress, most fall away, but not Charlie. Charlie turns down a lifetime of worldly goods to save his betrayer, an offering which results in Charlie being taken up as an heir to the confectionary paradise and ends with a literal rise to the Heavens in a floating elevator.

Unlike the other films mentioned here, this one is accessible to children as well as entertaining for adults.

So there you have my Easter gift of what I hope is a new perspective on films which offer unusual gateways into the examples offered by Jesus of forgiveness, mercy, and love.

By acceptance of His own horrific death for the expiation of our sins, Jesus gave us the template to follow in our own infinitely smaller ways. These movies, famous and obscure, old and recent, from a variety of genres, I think, demonstrate some of the many many movies which bear witness to the many many ways we can find opportunity to die to ourselves for the sake of another. And I hope you find LOTS more.

Love charitably those around you and have a Blessed, Christ-like, Happy … and self-giving … Easter.

THE CURRENT WAR – GREAT PERFORMANCES CAN’T SHINE ENOUGH LIGHT ON UNFOCUSED PLOT

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW ON THE CURRENT WAR

SHORT TAKE:

Interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, movie about three of the most brilliant American minds at the turn of the previous century – Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla – wrestling with and competing for the frontier of bringing electricity to American homes for light and power. Unfortunately, the movie is undercut by its own attempts at being too art house for its own good, spending more time on kaleidoscopic imagery than on character development or coherent plot.

WHO SHOULD GO:

No sex but some profanity, including unnecessary blasphemy. But it is unlikely that younger than mid-teens would be interested anyway.

LONG TAKE:

It is a maxim of screenplay writing that you never put anything into your script which does not forward your story. There is even a colloquial expression for it: “killing your darlings”. I don’t think the writer of Current War, Michael Mitnick, got that memo.

The script reads like a kid’s book titled “Things you might not know about Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse”. The movie is full of trivia bits about America’s most prominent electrical inventors, which scenes come and go like waves on a beach, only to disappear, go nowhere, and without contributing anything significant to the story. Edison’s young son knew Morse code which he uses a couple of times to communicate in secret with his father. Westinghouse endured a traumatic incident during the Civil War. Tesla was seriously OCD. But these moments only come out in brief scenes, flicker like fireflies, then wink out never to be heard from again.

The main story revolves around the competition for who, among these geniuses, would be the pre-eminent powerhouse in, for and of America. Who would bring electricity, power and energy, coast to coast into American homes? Each man had his own motivations, principles which upheld him, styles of behavior and problem-solving approaches with which to accomplish this goal.

But because of the scattershot approach by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and writer Mitnick, we get only the most trivial of impressions of each of these astonishing minds and never get at the heart of what truly motivated them.

What makes this worse is the disjointed cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung. Current War looks more like an artsy MTV music video than a presentation of the historic events that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the jumbled and anachronistic style isn’t the problem with the film, just a visualized symptom of its fatal flaw.

Even those somewhat keen on history will be left confused and befuddled because of the incohesive way the story is presented. Scenes were broken into multiple unconnected parts. Series of pictures with only a tangential relation to the events were injected into the proceedings. For example, a kinetoscope series of photos of a walking elephant then monkey then a man were precursors to a condemned murderer’s walk to his execution. Even the music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans was unhelpfully off-putting and unpleasant.

Also, scenes were poorly lit, in an apparent but misguided effort to show how important the electric light would become. Rejon may have been going for realism but instead just resulted in a lot of squinting by this audience member. Even at one moment of triumph, when all the lights were supposed to go on in a city, it was a lot of build up then —- meh. Yes, perhaps the actual lights were not that bright, but there was no attempt to translate for a modern audience to show how the characters would have perceived the event. The film makers were apparently so engrossed in making something that would impress themselves they forgot to impress their audience.

The costumes were really beautiful and the set designs were interesting, but as sepia toned as everything was it was difficult to appreciate either fully.

The overall effect was disappointing, especially as Mr. Chung did such a wonderful job with his far more straight forward telling of both Hotel Artemis (SEE REVIEW HERE) and Zombieland: Double Tap (SEE REVIEW HERE).

Messieurs Chung and Gomez-Rejon tried to present three sides of the same story all at once. While the threads did occasionally intertwine, the focus of the pattern ended up pulled in three different directions, resulting in the unraveling of the core of the tale. This might have worked had there been a strong central idea. But the more threads, the stronger the center must be. And there was only the vague notion of the three men wanting to achieve success in their fields to carry the story forward. There was no singular goal to let us know when the race was over.

What keeps this from being a complete disaster was the masterful performances of the major actors: Benedict “Dr. Strange” Cumberbatch as Edison, Michael “General Zod” Shannon as Westinghouse, Nicholas “Beast” Hoult as Tesla,  Tom “Spiderman” Holland as Edison’s assistant, Samuel Insull, and Katherine Waterston (Tina from Fantastic Beasts) as Mrs. Westinghouse all did a yeoman’s job with their parts. The actors’ chemistry is excellent, at turns with: camaraderie, loyalty , antagonism and occasionally begrudging admiration. But even channeling their alter-ego super beings only lit the way for Current War so far.

Others like  Matthew MacFadyen (Pride and Prejudice) as tycoon and financier J.P. Morgan, and Stanley Townsend who actually studied engineering and math in Dublin, and plays Franklin Pope, Westinghouse’s friend and chief engineer/inventor, give stand out performances. But again, they are not in a position to rescue the quirky distracting cinematography or jumbled storyline.

On the plus side, for family viewing, there is no sex. And while violence does occur – an axe murder, an accidental electrocution, an execution, and the deliberate electrocution of a horse as a demonstration of the dangers of alternating current – the carnage is very Shakespearean in that it all politely happens off-screen. Unfortunately, there is some unnecessary profanity and blasphemy which, along with the muddled presentation, makes this less than ideal for children, even as a cinematic history lesson.

There ARE, however, other movies which cover most of the same ground which would be a far better use of your time.

The delightful old Spencer Tracy 1940 classic Edison: The Man which you can get on Amazon.com, is a charming telling of Edison’s life.

There are two films featuring Tesla. The biographical 1980 The Secret of Nickola Tesla, which in full disclosure, I have not seen yet myself, but my research promises it to be an interesting view. The Secret of Nikola Tesla stars Yugoslavian-born Petar Bovozic in the lead, Struther Martin (who, in Cool Hand Luke, famously said: “What we have here is a failure to communicate!”) as George Westinghouse, and THE Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) as JP Morgan, Edison’s financier. The star power and focus on the one man’s life warrants a better story.

The other movie with Tesla, which demonstrates how clever slight of hand and advanced enough scientific breakthroughs can both look like magic, is the eccentric The Prestige about – well – magic. The Prestige stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, and the notoriously bizarre rock star David Bowie as Tesla!

And if you’re looking for a movie about George Westinghouse, well you’re kind of out of luck, at least for the moment.

But Current War, despite its clever title, in its attempt to cover too much ground, with more art than substance, from too many perspectives was, ironically, as far as the men it purports to be about, not very illuminating.