A CHRISTMAS STORY – LOVELY NOSTALGIC REMINISCENCE AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely Christmas tale, set in 1950’s Americana, of a narrator’s look back on his childhood quest for the ideal present during the weeks leading up to Christmas morning.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone – children of all ages.

LONG TAKE:

A Christmas Story, which opened December 6, 2019  at ACTS Theatre and plays through December 15, 2019 (GET TICKETS HERE), is the stage play version, which premiered in 2000, based upon the charming classic holiday movie from 1983, which was, in turn, based upon the semi-autobiographical anecdotal book by Jean Shepherd, titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

The play tale is the same as the movie, narrated by the adult version of Ralphie, a little boy growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s during the weeks leading up to Christmas the year he desperately wanted and fantasized about having “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time”. Unfortunately his mother, his teacher and even the department store Santa gave the same litany response: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

While Ralphie’s ploys to obtain this forbidden item create the Christmas tree trunk of the story, the real gems, like ornaments on the branches, are the moments of true Americana which made up Ralphie’s childhood: the bundling up ritual before venturing into the bitter weather to get to school; Ralphie’s fantasies of protecting his family and friends with his BB gun; his father’s constant struggle with their old furnace accompanied by a string of invectives translated for the play into child-appropriate made up words; Ralphie’s friend Flick getting his tongue stuck on a lamppost subsequent to a triple dog dare; his fellow classmate Esther Jane’s obvious crush on him about which he is, at the time, completely oblivious; the eccentricities of his little brother Randy; and most importantly the close knit time he spent with his family. It didn’t matter that the dinners often suffered from routine or his father erroneously thought he was a mechanic. The magic was in the fact the parents and boys were together every night and the quantity of time they spent together AS a family which brings meaning to the real Christmas Story. The moments in a child’s life spent, as my own husband refers to them, MAKING memories.

A Christmas Story is a comedy, in as much as people are naturally funny. It’s not a series of one liners or gags but finds humor in the people we have in our lives, or even the people we are, all of whom find places in this story.  From Mother, “the Old Man” and brother Ralphie, to the bully Farkus and Miss Shields, his fifth grade teacher, all the characters will be quite familiar even to those who have never before seen the movie or this play. These are people who exist in all our lives in one form or another.

Noah Herbert is perfect as Ralphie, the young lead, sweet and ingenuous, he is the embodiment of that innocent time. Elizabeth Harper, as Mother, is the practical center of the family, kindly guiding her family through their antics like a loving human “face palm” of affectionate exasperation. Bobbie Guillory is “The Old Man”, a hard working devoted husband and father, whose amateur mechanics, whimsical commitment to contest entering, and attachment to a uniquely peculiar prize lamp inform many of the family events. Harper and Guillory create warm appealing characters with believable affectionate chemistry. Zac Hammon is the adult version of Ralphie looking back on his family and that particular Christmas with a fond nostalgia and warm wisdom, providing narration for the necessary exposition. Mila Alcantara is sweet and natural as Esther Jane, Ralphie’s crush. Hannah Miller chews the scenery as Scut Farkus, a comical version of the class bully. David Gustafson is adorable as Ralphie’s younger brother. Elliott Mitchell is the hapless Flick, constantly the butt of bad luck. Dorothy Thomason is fun as the stern but well meaning Miss Shields. And rounding out the cast is Dylan Freeman as Schwartz, and Jolie Leubner as Helen, Ralphie’s other classmates.

All the young actors do a magnificent job in their portrayals, timing and enthusiastic characterizations of these 1950’s children.

The set is appropriately always against the backdrop of the family kitchen. The kitchen was the heart and center of Ralphie’s home and life, with occasional forays to a nicely constructed upstairs bedroom to where Ralphie retires to think out loud, write essays of devotion about his Red Ryder gun and contemplate the mysteries of his life. Action outside the kitchen is set in front of the kitchen backdrop. This works on a conceptual as well as practical level, as the consequences of the outside world will eventually return and resolve to a satisfying conclusion there at the kitchen table anyway within the bosom of his family.

Director Clay Hebert, along with assistant Stan Morris and stage manager Lauren Manuel do a terrific job bringing this story together. Much of this stage incarnation echoes true to the film version but I must especially commend the director and his crew in what I personally perceive as a major improvement on the dynamics of the parents. In the 1983 movie Mother, as portrayed by Melinda Dillon, is a mousy creature and Darren MacGavin’s “Old Man” is kind of a clueless bulldozer. But Clay Hebert’s vision transforms those unappealing characters into the charming complementary couple of smart pragmatic Mother and energetic idealist “Old Man,” who we parents would not mind being remembered as. Plaudits go to all the cast and crew for successfully coming together as a troupe to offer this magical Christmas gift down memory lane to Lake Charles.

So go see this warm hearted show, which will conjure nostalgia for the past in the adults, ring true for children in the present, and light a unique lamp in the window for all families who look hopefully towards this Christmas and all the future Christmases to come.

KNIVES OUT – A MURDER ANTI-MYSTERY WITH A SHARP-WITTED PLOT AND RAZOR-EDGED HUMOR

SHORT TAKE:

Clever, witty, well acted, anti-mystery which will keep you guessing to the end.

 

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up for: profane and blasphemous language, unscrupulous behavior, and some violence and a few disturbing images.

LONG TAKE:

First off I have to be careful what I say. I don’t want to spoil any of this cleverly written murder anti-mystery.

If you are familiar with the old Columbo TV series you’ll know what I mean by anti-mystery. The anti-mystery is a plot format whereby the “mystery” is revealed in the first act. You know what is done, how and by whom, and in the classic charming Peter Falk vehicle the fun is in watching Detective Columbo as he “bumbles” around waiting for the killer to underestimate the savvy investigator and let his guard down.

Knives Out is similarly structured. Act I of Knives Out reveals a great deal in the first 20 minutes, leaving the consequences for the remainder of the movie. But despite starting at the “end” the plot is so clever that there were still a lot of legitimate surprises in store – none from left field and all earned.

The title is a “sharp”-witted, double edged – uh – sword, referring not just to murder weapons but the emotional knee jerk reactions of the family members to each other not just as events unfold but in their “normal” every day relationships to each other.

A truly star studded film written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out will keep you guessing.

Daniel Craig definitely missed his calling. He made his name as James Bond beginning with Casino Royale in 2006, but his flare is for more humorous characters. His southern private detective, Benoit Blanc, is not a caricature but amusing in his juxtaposition amongst the New England snobby crazy rich Thrombey family. His timing is precise and his occasional quirks executed with style but without being distracting.Christopher Plummer is a veteran actor of both theatre and film whose career spans 6 decades – including such varied stories as The Sound of Music, The Man Who Would be King, Oedipus the King, 12 Monkeys, Waterloo, A Beautiful Mind, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, The Man Who Invented Christmas and made recent cinematic news by stepping up to replace Kevin Spacey in All The Money in the World when Spacey was excised in shame from the cast of that movie. Plummer has portrayed Kipling, Oedipus, Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, a Klingon general, Santa Claus, Julius Caesar, Tolstoy, John Barrymore, King Herod and J. Paul Getty. Here, in Knives Out, Plummer portrays patriarch Harlan Thrombey. Wealthy, successful murder mystery (what else) novelist, he is found with his throat slit on the day after his 85th birthday party. (FYI Plummer was actually 88 during filming.) Suicide or murder? Police Detectives Elliott and Wagner (LaKeith Stanfield from Get Out and Noah Segan from Looper) work with Blanc to find out.

In life Harlan had been saddled with a crew of weak and dependent relatives. Chris Evans, in an obvious distancing from his Captain America persona, is Ransom, the obnoxious entitled grandson. (Halloween Scream Queen) Jamie Lee Curtis is cold and stiff Linda, Harlan’s eldest. Don Johnson (Miami Vice – the original, who made the five o’clock shadow a facial fashion statement) is Richard her socially clueless husband. Michael Shannon (12 Strong – SEE MY REVIEW HERE) is Walt, Harlan’s son and publishing employee who has otherwise never held a job in his life. Riki Lindhome (The Big Bang Theory) is Walt’s hanger-on wife. Toni Collette (Sixth Sense, and lots of other horror movies specializing in emotionally very unhealthy families) is aged hippie Joni, Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law. Katherine Langford plays dependent, professional college student Meg, Harlan’s granddaughter. Jaeden Martell (It and St. Vincent) is Jacob, Harlan’s reclusive internet-addicted grandson. All are a bit like zoo animals, both confined and supported by a keeper until they can not function in the outside world.

Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Bond movie with Daniels, No Time to Die, in 2020) plays Marta, Harlan’s private nurse, through whose eyes much of the action is witnessed and whose very peculiar behavioral McGuffin provides a helpful plot anchor.

The cinematography by Steve Hedlin (San Andreas and Looper) takes advantage of cloudy days and dark passages to enhance the mood and theme of confusion – to make you doubt what you think you might know. He also does not shy from taking harsh advantage of close shots that put characters in “lights” most reflective of their personalities.

The theme music by Nathan Johnson is a very classy dissonant original string quartet and the rest of the soundtrack has the familiar richness of a symphonic poem.

The acting is wonderful: part caricature Clue characters part Agatha Christie – a fine ensemble group of players who walk that fine line effortlessly between realistic portrayals of dysfunctional people and outright hamminess. These are people you love to truly dislike but can’t wait to see what they do next. And Knives Out will keep you guessing to the tip end.

PLAYING WITH FIRE – CLEAN FAMILY FARE BUT DOESN’T EVEN HOLD A CANDLE TO OTHER SIMILAR MOVIES

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family (SEE REVIEW HERE) meets The Three Stooges.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone can go.

LONG TAKE:

There are a number of entertaining films about unlikely parental figures left to care for children. They range from comedies like Little Miss Marker and The Pacifier to serious ones like Gloria and Leon the Professional. Playing With Fire should have been in this list. While it has the same premise as the other movies it lacks a basic essential ingredient – enough plot to carry a feature length film.

Smoke jumpers rescue three children Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), Will (Christian Convery), and Zooey (Finey Rose Slater) left alone in a burning cabin then find they are stuck with them at the station due to a storm and the fact their parents are away on vacation. This was a cute promising premise. Unfortunately they apparently started shooting with no more script than above described. Instead of fleshing out some story they decided to fill most of the time with fart and poop jokes, extended kitsch and twee bits from Key and Leguizamo who adlib long drawn out scenes of: responding to the smell of baby poo, gloat dancing, failed attempts at responding to smart aleck responses from Brynn, and spying/eavesdropping on their boss.

The acting is minimal. The music by Nathan Wang sounds like the canned standards from old cartoons and cheap TV shows. The cinematography features shockingly bad cheap throw backs to 1970’s sitcoms, especially egregious given these were choices made by Dean Semler who was responsible for the spectacular visuals in such varied fare as Dances with Wolves, 2012 and We Were Soldiers. There are an abundance of close-ups during action sequences where the performer “responds” while they are supposedly: slipping through oil, falling, flying on an out of control fire hose, being spun, etc. – an obvious excuse to minimize filming risks or stunt men expenditure.

The amount of poop and fart jokes as well as slip and slide scenes were excessive and lazy attempts to fill the running time.

The finale winds things up in a happy ending with Judy Greer (Ant-Man, Jurassic World and Planet of the Apes) as Amy, a forced love interest, which might have been believable with WAY more back story to the main characters. It looked like the director basically filmed the first draft extended treatment you present to a brainstorming group instead of a well thought out screenplay.

John Cena (WWE and Ferdinand SEE REVIEW HERE) is smoke jumper chief Jake who leads the motley crew. John Leguizamo (who is usually a very good actor in everything from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to action films like Executive Decision and voice acting in kid movies like Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age franchise) is Rodrigo, the antic bad cook and reluctant pilot. Keegan-Michael Key (of the very funny Key and Peele Youtube shorts) is Mark, Jake’s kitschy-twee right hand yes-man. Tyler Mane (pre- Liv Schreiber Sabretooth from X-Men franchise) is Axe the (almost) completely silent crew member.

I don’t blame the actors though. It looked as though the screen writers (Dan Ewen with pretty much NO other screen credits and Matt Lieberman whose few credits include the weakly scripted Addams Family SEE REVIEW HERE) and director (Andy Fickman who directed a very similar plotted B movie The Game Plan in 2007) told them: “We have a threadbare script and don’t feel like putting in the effort to write a better one so – ADLIB!”

It’s a shame too as there were a few moments which show what could have been done. In one, for example, Key tones it down to a human level and explains to Brynn why he became a smoke jumper – that he had been an accountant, saved from certain death by Jake and decided to join. There’s some good lines in there too, such as when he mentions that his family is full of accountants who are heroes to him. It was Key’s best moment in the movie. In another notable spot Cena tells the kids a biography-revealing bed time story, which was nice, but would have been more effective had they not done the big reveal on his father’s death earlier.

There are also some REALLY poorly thought out and more than questionable events such as deciding two adult men are appropriate to change a girl toddler’s diaper when her teenaged sister is available. Also, how is it OK to leave a little girl alone with a full grown male stranger, even if he is a smoke jumper, to play tea party? To say the scenes were awkward would be an understatement. (And WHERE, in the middle of the night when trapped by a storm at a fire station did they get baby wipes much less replacement diapers??!!)

For all its flaws I will give it this: There was no sex or bad language and the movie does a good job of emphasizing the importance of a Dad in a child’s life whether the child is a boy, girl, teen or toddler. The little girl missed her Dad and glommed onto the first male role model available. The kids all mentioned how their Dad used to tell them bed time stories. Brynn, the teenager, puts herself and siblings into life threatening situations because she won’t listen to Jake, who in turn risks his life to save them more than once. The best moments in the movie are when Jake tones it down and acts like a person instead of a cliche joke magnet.

So – Playing with Fire is harmless, brainless fun but, honestly, if you are in the mood for this kind of movie, The Pacifier with Vin Diesel does it SO much better.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD – MATTHEW 22: 39

SHORT TAKE:

Matthew 22: 39

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE!

LONG TAKE:

Jesus, in Matthew 22:39, when asked what the Greatest Commandment was, replied that it was to love God with your whole mind, soul and strength then added that the Second was like the first: To love your neighbor as yourself. And I can think of few men whose lives have better served as a template for following these instructions than Mr. Fred Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, contrary to what you might think, is not about the life of Fred McFeeley (yes that’s his real middle name) Rogers. If you want to learn more about Mr. Rogers’ biography you can watch the wonderful documentary on him Won’t You be My Neighbor? (READ MY REVIEW OF THAT HERE)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is less about the life of the man than the effect his life had on others. Mr. Rogers began his show to teach children appropriate and healthy ways to deal with feelings – especially negative feelings: hurt, envy, anger, betrayal, loss. When children do not learn to deal with their dark parts they become adults who do not deal well with them either. And while the show successfully managed that in a way no other show even tried, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about so much more.

The writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and director Marielle Heller (sister to composer Nate mentioned below) of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood made some bold choices I had not expected. The movie starts as though you were watching the old children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood – with the spritely theme song, models of moving trolleys (and a plot appropriate addition of a flying toy plane), filmed in the period slightly fuzzy television low definition we grew up with, followed by Mr. Rogers’ appearance to sing his song, change from his jacket to a sweater and explain what the day’s show is to be about. In this case, he uses a picture board, opening little hand-made doors to remind us of a few of the show’s regulars: Lady Aberlin, King Friday the 13th, etc. He then reveals an uncharacteristically ugly photo of a bewildered and injured man who Mr. Rogers refers to as his friend Lloyd (Matthew Rhys).

As the movie segues into a more conventional format, we soon find out that Lloyd Voger (Matthew Rhys who is actually Welsh doing a fabulously authentic American accent) is an  ambush journalist who has been assigned a “fluff” piece on Mr. Rogers by his concerned boss Ellen (Christine Lahti – a former Blacklist frequent guest star) who believes Lloyd has alienated a few too many people and that this will soften his image. Suffice it to say Lloyd has issues with this assignment, himself, the world and life in general.

Although there is no real Lloyd, he is a composite and representative of the children of all ages who were aided by the gentle ministry of Mr. Rogers. The story was inspired by the existence of an anecdotal article about Fred Rogers written by Tom Junod for Esquire magazine in November 1998 called “Can You Say…Hero?”

The show within the movie even includes Mr. Rogers’ break of the fourth wall as he gazes directly and kindly at the camera in a stare both penetrating and non-threatening, the way your grandfather might encourage you to be completely honest with him about some problem you were having. Mr. Rogers used this technique to let children know that he was interested in each of them. And this wasn’t just a gimmick. When he met someone face to face he genuinely gave them his full and undivided attention in a way few people will or can. Hanks recreates this beautifully, making the audience members feel included in a personal comforting way.

The acting is Oscar worthy (at least measured against a time when the Oscars meant something). Tom Hanks (whose astonishing filmography ranges from the goofy adorable Big to the mesmerizing Bridge of Spies, iconic Forrest Gump AND the voice of Woody from the Toy Story franchise) has the look, nuance and gestures of Mr. Rogers spot on – every hesitation, the warm genuine smile, the playful shoe toss, the kind but perceptively intense gaze, the ingenuous attitude which masks the sharp analytical mind searching for a way to help that you don’t even realize you need.

Rhys gives a heartbreaking performance as an emotionally crippled man whose arc propels the narrative of the story.

Susan Kelechi Watson (another Blacklist alumna) is lovely as Lloyd’s supportive wife, Andrea.

Chris Cooper (whose resume includes everything from The Tempest to the Muppets and the Bourne franchise) does a solid job as Lloyd’s father, Jerry, with whom Lloyd has a complex and strained relationship.

The cinematography is extremely effective telling a subtext of the story by itself. The cameras employed for the scenes which recreate the shooting of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood show are the same kind of cameras originally used for the real thing. The studio they filmed those Mr. Rogers Neighborhood recreated scenes were the original ones used in Philadelphia for the real show. This creates a nostalgic feel to those segments of the movie, especially as shots of Lloyd during cuts to him even in the same scenes, use a digital camera. This provide a notable visual contrast between the two men and the way they perceive the world: Mr. Rogers – through the gentle softer lens of a children’s show, versus Lloyd’s harsher view of the world and the people around him. It is this kind of thoughtful subtlety which makes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood so deeply effecting as both a story and parable.

The music is both soundtrack (by Nate Heller – Can You Ever Forgive Me?) woven about the Mr. Rogers’ theme music and an eclectic collection of lovely songs which you would likely have come across as you cruised the radio dial from the 1970’s to 1990’s: “Northern Sky” by Nick Drake, “Road to Find Out” by Cat Stevens, “Down by the Bay” by Raffi, “The Promise” by Tracy Chapman – chosen either for the meaning behind the lyrics or for the sheer joy of the innocence of the song.

Not to give away too much but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not only about a man named Lloyd. It is about the reclamation of a soul and for anyone with leftover negative feelings from childhood with which they struggle – so, everyone. And the beauty of this Neighborhood is the solution which this lovely man demonstrated daily to the world.

So go see this gentle movie about the healing powers of a genuinely kind and loving man who performed miracles by simply taking Jesus’ instruction to treat everyone as their neighbor to heart and lived it every day of his life.

FORD v FERRARI aka LE MANS ’66 – THE RIGHT STUFF ON THE RACE TRACK

 

SHORT TAKE:

Ford v Ferrari does for the professional car race what The Right Stuff did for the space race. Fascinating insight into the art of the beasts’ designs and the intense skill of the men who push the limits of human endurance to risk piloting these genius feats of American engineering into record breaking speeds and distances.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mostly mid to older teens for profanity, including blasphemy, and sudden automotive violence. No inappropriate or gratuitous sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Ford v Ferrari, directed by the eclectically talented James Mangold, (including films as diverse as Logan, and Kate and Leopold) tells the tale about the challenge to the long time champion Ferrari  by the underdog American Ford company in the grueling 24-hour Le Mans race in 1966.

Previous racing movies like the crowd pleasing Grand Prix in 1966 and the disastrous MacQueen vanity bomb LeMans in 1971 relied heavily on made up soap opera plots against the backdrop of the famous races. The more recent cinematic venture, Rush (2013), while covering the story of two real life competitors, leaned on the scandal and juicy personal troubles of the men.

Ford v Ferrari, like the cars it features and the men who drove them, is a different breed. Ford v Ferrari, written by the team of: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, is far more reminiscent of The Right Stuff, focusing on the goals these brave and determined men wished to achieve. Where astronauts like Armstrong, Grissom, Glenn and Yeager dreamed of going out into space, drivers  like Ken Miles (Christian Bale – Batman: Dark Knight, Henry V, Midsummer’s Night Dream, Prestige) and designer Carroll Shelby (Will Damon – Good Will Hunting, Bourne franchise, The Martian) were committed to going flat out.

Carroll Shelby, most famous for bringing the Mustang to life for Ford Motor Company, spoke to a group of people on the eve of Ford’s launch into the racing business. He recalled that his father told them if he found something he loved to do for a living he would never have to work a day in his life. He then goes on to say that there are some people who go beyond that, and find something that compels them so strongly that they must do it or die. Ferrari versus Ford is the story of two such men, Shelby and Miles whose groundbreaking work on the development of the racing car brought innovations in speed, efficiency and safety to the motor vehicles we drive 50 years later. Their determination and courage to break records and accomplish what others only dream of is inspirational and exemplifies the American spirit of the 1960’s and gives example of what America does when her people put their minds to it.

Christian Bale’s British Ken Miles allows this versatile method actor to relax into something closer to his native accent than is his usual. Bale is, like Charlize Theron, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, one of those brilliant actors who don’t mind looking rough and ugly to benefit a performance. If you don’t believe that you should take a look at The Machinist. In Ford v Ferrari, Bale portrays Miles accurately as sweaty, dirty and plain, with the weather-beaten rough sunburned face of a man who spends his time either underneath the car or outside behind the wheel.

Damon’s performance as Carroll Shelby is one of quiet strength and subtle restraint. There’s great chemistry between these two men and you thoroughly believe them to be closer than brothers bonded by a common passion.

Unlike other racing movies, Ford v Ferrari has the courage of its convictions in putting the machines, technology and the race in the forefront of the story, leaving the personalities and the corporate manipulators as a colorful background. I understand very little about how cars work and despite the mountains of (perfectly appropriate) technobabble and jargon in the script, I understood clearly everything that was going on, including the hazards risked, the challenges endured, and the accomplishments achieved by these men and their crews.

Miles is at once brash and obnoxiously violent, not suffering fools, and at the same time gentle and philosophical with his son and wife.

There is a beautiful subplot that runs as a thread throughout the movie in the warm and close relationship between Miles and his son, Peter (Noah Jupes known for his outstanding performance in A Quiet Place). Peter was constantly at Miles’ elbow and went on to a career in car design, manufacture and racing. There seems to be a genuine rapport between Bale and Jupes.  The scenes with Miles and Peter provide many of the quiet gentle themes and take aways to this otherwise often loud and brutal movie.

There is also good chemistry between Bale and Caitriona Balfe (beautiful Irish model known for Money Monster and Now You See Me) who plays Miles’ wife Mollie. Balfe’s Mollie is supportive and understanding of Miles’ obsession but practical and no-nonsense when the occasion requires. Their tender moments feel very natural, with Bale and Balfe’s performance together making believable that this lovely woman would be devoted to this tough beef jerky of a man.

The machines, which provide the freedom of incredible speed, imagined and sculpted by the men devoted to the craft, demand a terrible price. Along with native skill and hard won knowledge it takes the sangfroid of acceptance of one’s own brief mortality to truly master the racing art. The drivers, designers and machinists accept that and know it takes a special fearlessness to undertake command of this breed of car. Ken Miles exemplifies this perfect blend of talents, expertise, aesthetic comprehension, and raw courage.

There are a number of character cameos: Jon Bernthal (The Accountant SEE REVIEW HERE and Peanut Butter Falcon SEE REVIEW HERE) portrays Lee Iaccoca, (later known for his part in the development of the Mustang and reviving the Chrysler Corporation), at the beginning of his career with Ford. Tracy Letts, an accomplished writer and theatre actor known for the movies Lady Bird SEE REVIEW HERE and 2019’s Little Women, portrays the blustering but determined Henry Ford, II. Josh Lucas (2006 Poseidon and Glory Road) is the weaselly Beebe, a composite of the worst of the corporate suits system. Remo Girone portrays Enzo Ferrari.

The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is outstanding, taking you right into the “cockpit” of the driver’s seat, helping you feel the enticement of the driver’s adrenaline rush without feeling claustrophobic. The music by Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders  echoes the sound of pistons while adding an Aaron Copeland feel of freedom and a jaunty ’60’s cockiness, all adding up to a musical recreation of the personalities of the two main characters.

If you are familiar with this history this movie will bring what you know to robust life. If you are not familiar with the history, do NOT look it up before you see this film because to give away too much would be  unfair to this  movie about racing cars which is more than the sum of its parts. So two checkered flags to Ford v Ferrari.

MIDWAY GOES ALL THE WAY

SHORT TAKE:

Inspiring reenactment of the days before and of the watershed Battle of Midway during World War II, highlighting the selfless heroism and courageous dedication of men who committed EVERYTHING they had to fighting what  seemed to be a losing struggle with the Japanese Empire.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid teens and up as the violence is necessarily graphic and brutal. No sexuality but the language is occasionally rough and appropriate to the men and circumstances.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!

Romans 5:7: “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just man, though perhaps for a good man one might even find courage to die.”

We all love action heroes who put their lives on the line in extreme moments to save family or friends in desperate situations: Bruce Willis’ John McLane in the Die Hard series, Tony Stark in Endgame. Even the disaster “B” movies like Skyscraper and The Poseidon Adventure can be guilty pleasures, admiring (pretend) courage in the face of the (manufactured) crisis.

Now imagine HUNDREDS of these types of everymen, volunteers or drafted, trained certainly but no superheroes. But this was real. These men had real families and lives. The pain, the terror, the disfiguring injuries and sudden young deaths, the gut wrenching grief left behind, HAPPENED to people your grandparents knew – or TO your grandparents. Your own family histories, photos, private letters, and stories told at family gatherings are probably rife with tales of loss and sacrifice of young men who left everything behind, including their youth and many their lives, to protect their country and families.

The story of Midway begins on a warm December in Hawaii, where people planning outdoor church services and picnics with their families, are suddenly faced with split-second life changing and life losing decisions when, without  warning, planes tore out of the sky shooting at  friends and crewmates, ripping them to pieces. Few would have blamed any who froze or ran, but hundreds of these men seized the nearest weapon to shoot back, some hopelessly trying to simply buy time for others to reach safety, while the vessel they were on broke, sank or burned in brutish apocalyptic Hellscapes of screaming and smoke and explosions, with no possibility of escape.

That was Pearl Harbor and the movie Midway examines the fallout from this cataclysmic event and the eponymous Battle for our lives that followed in Pearl’s wake. The Battle of Midway was the determiner whether the war would continue to be fought out in the ocean and around Japan and Europe or whether it would make its way to the shores of continental USA and be prolonged, possibly for decades.

Midway tells the story of the men who, at Pearl and during the Midway Battle, followed Christ’s example, willingly offering up their lives for their fellow countrymen regardless of who they were, knowing only that they were in desperate danger.

All of the acting choices were inspired, the indigenous accents of the people being portrayed understated and realistic.

Woody Harrelson (2012, Zombieland, The Glass Castle) is the perfect Charles W. Nimitz, bringing his familiar wary self confidence to this real life seasoned soldier, agonizingly cognizant he is in the fight of his country’s life.

Dennis Quaid (Frequency, A Dog’s Purpose, The Alamo) is the growly fire hydrant shaped tough guy William “Bull” Halsey who leads from the front.

Patrick Wilson, (The Alamo, Phantom of the Opera) whose talents have been grotesquely underused in the fright flick Conjuring franchise, comes into his own as the intelligence officer Edwin Layton, whose warnings leading up to Pearl had been ignored and who now was determined to put everything on the line to be sure his country was never under-prepared again.

Ed Skrein (Alita: Battle Angel, Deadpool) is the fighter pilot Dick Best, who put his country’s freedom and his fellow patriots before any consideration for his own personal safety.

Aaron Eckhart (Batman: Dark Knight, White House Down) is Jimmy Doolittle who led the potential suicide mission into the never-before attacked Tokyo to strike a morale blow for America.

Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) is Bruno Gaido, whose calmly philosophical personality and selfless heroism are brought to light on the screen.

Luke Evans (Hobbit trilogy, steam punk Three Musketeers, live action Beauty and the Beast) portrays Wade McClusky, decorated air group commander whose reasoned instincts and willingness to think outside the box became critical elements in the outcome of the Midway Battle.

All these actors brought to life real heroes, instilling their performances with the respect and dignity those historic military fighters deserve.

There are no last-minute saves or inevitable wins, no cliched characters though some cast members portray composites of real people, no politically correct soft pedaling, no feminist agenda. This is historically based on the raw courage of the men who went toe to toe with a ruthless aggressor Empire, with only a handful of planes and the few patched up aircraft carriers which survived the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. These are the men who truly were the Thin Line between the west coast of America and conflagration by the Japanese Empire. The soldiers at Midway were the only thing standing between us and a brutal autocracy for whom the Geneva Convention meant nothing, and which slaughtered a quarter of a million Chinese as retribution for the aid given by a few dozen Chinese to a single American Squadron.

These men, many young and barely out of their teens, stood like the Spartans at Thermopalaye, with their homes almost in sight against an overwhelming Imperial military which would have shown no quarter, no mercy, no diplomacy and no compromise for anything west of the Rocky Mountains. Had the Japanese won at Midway there was a distinct possibility that everything from Seattle to San Diego would have burned, the citizens butchered or enslaved by the merciless occupying Japanese force, as they had done in China. As such, these desperate and disparate courageous men threw themselves against this juggernaut, with photos of their families tucked into the control panel, in planes technologically years behind the Japanese, flying missions which were often tantamount to suicide, with little regard for their own personal safety.

Writer Wes Tooke and director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot) show the stark savagery with which America was confronted, bringing to unvarnished relief the raw dauntless valor required of these American heroes. Robbie Baumgartner’s (Argo, Hunger Games) cinematography puts you in the flying seats with the pilots as they dive bomb in and out of the sky, challenging the limits of human endurance against incredible G-forces to survive the onslaught of anti-aircraft coming from the Japanese ships. The soundtrack by Harold Kloser and Thomas Wander (Independence Day, 2012)  is inspirationally stirring and evocative not only of the selfless patriotism of the country behind this effort but evocative of the very plane propellers and stuttering guns which flew like under-weaponed knights against this massive Japanese dragon.

So go see this tribute to great American soldiers who stood between us and a sadistic pitiless foe, who risked and gave their lives, not only for the just, or the good, but following Christ’s example, for every man, woman and child in America. Go see it, if for no other reason, than we owe it to their memory.

 

TAMING OF THE SHREW – CLASSIC COMEDY ON STAGE AT LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Fantastic production of Shakespeare’s most popular romantic comedy – Taming of the Shrew at Lake Charles Little Theatre from November 8 thru November 24, 2019 Get your TICKETS HERE!

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to sit through a fun and energetic full length play.

LONG TAKE:

Language immersion is a great way to learn a foreign language in all its many delights. Sous vide is a water immersion technique which gourmet chefs use to produce delectable meats. And Lake Charles Little Theatre presents a verbally and visually delicious, completely Shakespearean immersion experience, starting Friday, November 8, 2019, in their production of Taming of the Shrew, directed by 26 year stage veteran and Professor of Theatre Arts at McNeese University, Charles McNeeley, and stage managed by the tried and true staple of Lake Charles Little Theatre, Dan Sadler.

Taming of the Shrew is a love story with a twist, where the immovable object meets the unstoppable force and a most unusual courtship gets underway. Katherine, beautiful, rich and unmatchably pugnacious, must, by her mother’s decree, be wed before her demure younger sister Bianca can walk up the aisle. Providentially arrives Petruchio, set to expand his existing inherited fortunes to a wealthy woman, he launches into a bawdy, rousing, explosive battle of wills with the woman he is determined to make his wife.

Original period music written by David Ifland sets the mood in the theatre. Artist (Sean Hinchee, who also comes forth as the Haberdasher) and Fruit Vendor (Ashley Vidrine who also plays Josephine, a servant in Petruchio’s house) populate the stage providing the opening peep through this 16th century window from the comfort of your cat-bird seat. Funny, exciting, and romantic, this is Shakespeare’s most beloved battle of the sexes. The performers throw themselves – sometimes literally – into their roles, as actors enter down aisles, embrace the stage in force and occasionally even break the fourth wall.

Raye Floyd, returning to the stage for the first time since middle school, is in full on fiery Liz Taylor mode. Her rough Katherine meets her match only in  Petruchio, Louis Barrilleaux’, fresh from leads in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Arsenic and Old Lace, whose wildly commanding and eccentric personality is undaunted by the formidable Kate. Shakespeare’s witty banter is used to its full as these skillful thespians wrestle their way through this classic, combative and comedic courtship.

The supporting cast is also brilliant. Petruchio’s attendant, Grumio is played by Kassie Coltrin, channeling both Puck and Tinkerbell as she reacts to the insane antics of her master and new mistress. Lucentio’s Antonio Dre (Bye Bye Birdie) and Anna Sternaman’s Bianca establish an instant chemistry that make their airing an inevitability. Rebecca Harris (Arsenic and Old Lace) skillfully meets the challenge of Lucentio’s attendant, Tranio, as she is required to portray a character who portrays yet another character. Dylan Conley (Arsenic and Old Lace) plays the rebuffed suitor Hortensio with comic frustration. Taylor Novak-Tyler (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bye Bye Birdie) is completely relatable as Baptista, the put upon parent of these two very different daughters. Rounding out the cast is a wonderful ensemble of veterans and newbies. Andres Germosen method acts as the comedic and elderly Gremio, third suitor to Bianca. Biondello, one of Lucentio’s servants, is Rylee Hall. Jeffrey Underwood performs as both Curtis, a servant of Petruchio and Vincentio, father to Lucentio. Aimee Mayeux (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) does double duty as both Hortensio’s rebound wife, the Widow and as the Tailor. Philomene and Petrah, both servants of Petruchio’s house are played, respectively, by Alex Hebert and Neveah Brown. Matt Dye, on-air personality for KKGB, sports mavin and Sowela professor, does a cameo as the Merchant who pretends to be Vincentio.

The costumes are stunningly detailed and gorgeous. The backdrop warmly evocative of the time and place of 16th century Padua.

Several roles normally played by men are performed by women due to the practicalities of the available cast. They make themselves completely at home in the oft rough and tumble vaudeville antics  inherent in the action. This is completely in keeping with Shakespearean tradition inasmuch as Shakespeare had the reverse problem, for cultural and legal reasons of the time, having to employ men for women’s roles. It is one of the many genius’ of Shakespearean plot and dialogue that Will S’s universal stories, which strike deeply into the fundamentals of human nature, can be portrayed across cultural, gender and chronological lines with ease.

The cast conveys the often complex dialogue with virtuosity as the iambic pentameter comes trippingly off their tongues in a way which, with their actions and emphasis, make the Shakespearean heightened language easy to understand even for the novice.

So go see Taming of the Shrew – this funny, romantic, explosively energetic, delightful period piece of deliciously Shakespeare literature at the Bard’s story-telling best, at Lake Charles Little Theatre from November 8 through November 24, 2019. Get your TICKETS HERE! Get them early as you’ll want to see this unique romance more than once!

LIST OF SCARIEST HALLOWEEN FILMS TO WATCH

SHORT TAKE:

A list, gleaned with the help of some of my friends and family, of filmed entertainments to help heap on the horror at Halloween.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Depends on the entertainment and the kid in question, but pretty much everything on this list is for a minimum of mid-teens and up, except for the two I mention at the bottom for the younger set, but EVEN THEN, as always, parents, use discretion – see them first AND WITH your child.

LONG TAKE:

This year I decided to do an informal survey – VERY informal – of my husband, children and a few friends, for what they thought were the scariest movies at the time they saw them. Didn’t matter whether they still thought them scary now or not – just that they remembered the film as being the scariest thing they had ever seen at the time. I asked each to pick two.

Below find the runners up in alphabetical order followed by my personal recommendations at the end.

So – as Richard Dawson used to say during Family Feud: Survey SAYS!!

Alien – this one not only happens to be at the top of the alphabetical list but was chosen by the most people. This 1979 hit is the FIRST in what has since become a major franchise – the spaceship Nostromo, which turned into a haunted house/people trapped in a slasher movie – the original with chest-burst John Hurt and the first time we ever saw the multi-serried teeth, accordian-jawed , acid blood, armored killer. I was so scared during the scene when Harry Dean Stanton gets a “close encounter” with the full grown version that I remember thinking – “This is no longer fun. I am so scared it is painful.” I couldn’t face even the thought of it until Aliens came out 7 years later.

Annabelle – a demon doll, in search of  souls to possess, stalks an innocent unsuspecting family. There are few things more frightening than dolls, created to provide gentle entertainment and comfort to children, portrayed as vessels of demonic evil.

The Blair Witch Project – gotta tell you, this “founder” of the “found footage” movies scared the living daylights out of me. I remember telling my husband as we watched it at home on a TV screen: “Honey, the lights are on, and you’re in the room, and I KNOW this is only a movie but this thing is scaring me spitless!” (Probably the fact I’m afraid of camping at night to begin with contributed mightily to my reaction.) I had to actually look up the actors and assure myself they were cast in movies after this one before I was convinced it was just a hoax.

The Blob – (the original, not the extremely bad 1988 remake) while very dated, is a 1958 classic which still holds up in the gut-wrenching suspense category, in no small part due to the acting talents of Steve McQueen in one of his very first films, and a very simple concept simply, and VERY effectively, expressed. A small — well, blob — lands on Earth via meteorite in a small town. When examined by an unwary but curious passer-by he is slowly and painfully absorbed, but not before the poor Ground Zero victim gets to a doctor who is more quickly overpowered by the now far larger mass. Mindless, voracious, completely silent, and able to creep through screen doors, window cracks, up trees, into gutters, it takes very little special effects to get you picking up your feet and jumping at the slightest touch from something that brushes against you in the dark.

Cloverfield – saw this one in the middle of the night, in a hotel room, after a long drive. Where most monster- disaster movies are shown from the view of the heroes who will eventually overcome the beasts, Cloverfield is seen from the point of view of poor schmucks who, like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern in Hamlet, do not know what is going on or why, but end up suffering the consequences of the catastrophe going on around them. Also the first “found footage” movie since The Blair Witch Project and the first “found footage” sci fi.

The Conjuring – another evil spirit terrorizing a family, this time the manifestation is of a woman named Bathsheba, who committed suicide as part of a Satanic cult ritual. Loosely connected to the above mentioned movie Annabelle, as the demonologists sought for help are the same who fought the demon doll.

The Grudge – a curse in the form of an entity, born of someone who dies in the grip of rage or extreme sorrow, which , by its nature, is repeated in a terrible endless cycle of inescapable grisly deaths.

Hostage – deals with the scariest monster of all – a human. The only one on the list which has no supernatural terrors or science fiction horrors and is therefore the most deeply disturbing, for the simple reason that people like the psychotic kidnapper Mars actually exist.

Jurassic World – dinosaurs escape their confines at a theme park. Imagine, (to loosely paraphrase Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character from the first Jurassic movie), if the critters at a Disney zoo got out to snack on the tourists.

KrampusDrag me to Hell meets Gremlins set during Christmas.

Morgus’ assistant Eric’s signature laugh: Here’s a blast from the past. A local New Orleans TV show featuring a campy mad scientist host for late night horror and B science fiction movies aired on and off from 1959 through 2006 under various monikers, each title having the name “Morgus” somewhere in it. Each half hour Morgus episode was split into roughly 5 minute bits shown with the commercial breaks. During these episodes Morgus tries some crazy experiment – shrinking people, making them invisible, home made nuclear bombs, mind control – which predictably went horribly wrong. By the end of the show Morgus and his mute assistant Chopsley were always unavailable – arrested, running away, blown up, turned to dust, whatever. This left his other assistant Eric – a disembodied skull attached electrically to the top of a TV screen – to bid the audience farewell after the credits rolled on the feature film. The eyeless skull would sign off in closeup every week in an echoy cadaverous voice: “Tune in next week when Morgus the Magnificent takes us into the realm of science. Good night. Pleasant dreams,” then would let go with an ominous evil cackle —- which I never heard because I would cover my ears and run out of the room. Something about that laugh and it wishing me “Pleasant dreams” got to me every time. I mean, I was all of maybe 5 or 6 when I first heard it. I can handle it NOW — really, honest, it’s on Youtube and I don’t run out the room any more – altogether. Maybe just keep my distance a bit, turn down the sound…..For anyone interested in this ultraspoof you can find entire episodes on Youtube HERE.

The Stand – Stephen King’s opus as a mini-series about the end of the world — twice – once by a genetically engineered virus with a 999/1000 kill ratio which leaves the world littered with mountainous piles of dead and decaying bodies, then again when the Devil’s own son sets up a totalitarian regime in Las Vegas to come after the survivors’ souls. While I admit the book was far better, the video was not a bad rendition. When tackling a 1,472  page novel (in its uncut form) and given the limitations of the material allowed on TV in 1994, even 361 minutes was not nearly enough time to do the best work of Stephen King justice. Nonetheless, the very concept will give you significant nightmares. It does not hurt that Gary Sinise and Ed Harris lend their talents to this abridged effort.

The Ring – grisly frightening movie about a cursed DVD which sends a ghoul to crawl right out of the screen to kill you. Talk about too much TV being BAD for you!!

Signs – Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson as brothers trying to defend their children/nephew/niece in a science fiction horror movie about a family trapped on a farm house in the middle of a corn field in a War of the Worlds-type scenario . If you can ignore some of the preposterous plot points, it’s a fun way to get the pants scared off of you. Blends humor and suspense in equal measures and one of Shyamalan’s better works.

MY TOP RECOMMENDATIONS

TO TERRIFY OLDER TEENS AND UP:

Aliens – the sequel to Alien, only this time it’s space marines facing down an entire swarm of Alien critters made from a harvest of unwary human colonists. This well written script expands on the “haunted house” theme in the first venture to provide a thoughtful commentary on two extreme faces of motherhood as Ripley and the Queen Mother of all Aliens face off to defend their own in a show down which will grab you with visceral ferocity.

A Quiet Place – this movie will disturb your dreams forever. The most thoughtful, well written and well acted terrifying movie I have ever seen. Humanity is stalked by critters, from where we know not, faster than a cheetah, which will rip you to literal shreds if they hear you make the slightest sound. We follow a family, one of the lone surviving groups, who have learned the art of silence through their use of sign language with their deaf daughter. The brilliance is not just in the execution (if you’ll excuse the grisly pun) but in the layers of meaning in the story which can be seen as a strictly horror flick, as an analogy for the terrors of raising children in a dangerous world (SEE MY REVIEW HERE) or even, as Bishop Barron noted in his review HERE, a modern myth representing the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

FOR THE OLDER CROWD WHO LIKE TO ALTERNATE LAUGHS WITH THEIR SCREAMS:

Shaun of the Dead – Simon Pegg’s parody-homage to zombie movies. Funny for adults, but – word of advice – don’t show it to your kids thinking they will find it as funny as you will. (Kind of why it made the list for some of our now grown surveyors – but that’s OK – that’s what therapy funds are for – oops.)

Zombieland – Parts 1 and 2 which (once Part 2 leaves the theater and gets on DVD) could be shown back to back as one movie. (SEE MY REVIEW HERE) A grotesquely funny flick, which turns the genre on its ear with an ersatz family of survivors in a post-zombie apocalypse, who approach killing the brain hungry undead with the joie de vivre of extreme sports enthusiasts.

FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES:

The Wizard of Oz – the flying monkeys will get you every time. Classic story with a timeless message of a girl who gets what she wants, to run away from her troubles, only to find out that “There’s no place like home.”

Disney’s delightful animated Legend of Sleepy Hollow – (not to be confused with the very weird feature length live action with Johnny Depp) based upon the Washington Irving short story of a gangly school teacher who moves to a new town which hosts a frightening legend in the form of a headless horseman.

So there we have it – from winged monkeys and dinosaurs to demons and a garden variety psychopath, these are movies which scare me and mine and some of our friends, in some cases have done for decades.

So – Tune in again when I will take you to the realm of movie mavin-ness. Good night…Pleasant dreams. Muhohahahahahahaha.

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP – GOOFY GORY FUN

SHORT TAKE:

Sequel to the over-the-top zombie movie spoof about four survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ABSOLUTELY NO CHILDREN! And only for adults who have a taste for gory macabre humor that pushes the envelope – like Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and the Evil Dead franchise. No sexual content of note aside from seeing two unmarried people in bed talking, but there is a lot of profanity.

LONG TAKE:

Let me make this simple: if you liked Zombieland then you will like Zombieland: Double Tap. There is nothing deep or philosophical about either of these movies. They are just plain old gory fun.

The premise of Zombieland: Double Tap answers that most pressing of all questions: Where are our intrepid heroes from the original Zombieland 10 years later?

The original cast returns as four survivors of a zombie apocalypse who form an ersatz family, fighting the undead with as much joie de vivre as possible. Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri see review HERE, Now You See Me 1 and 2, 2012 AND lest anyone forgot, broke out as the sweet Woody Boyd assistant bartender in Cheers) is Tallahassee again, the leader of the group and the one who attacks zombies with the most creative and gleeful enthusiasm. Jesse Eisenberg (Social Network, Batman v Superman) reprises Columbus, Tallahassee’s sidekick. Columbus’ official romantic interest is Wichita, (Emma Stone – La La Land see review HERE), older sister of Little Rock (Abigail Breslin – Signs, Raising Helen).

To tell more than these bare bones would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say, ZDT is as clever and as campy as its predecessor, playfully turning the zombie genre on its head. Instead of characters cringing in fear and running in fright from the brain hungry mobs, this crew embraces the challenge of zombie killing the way others in a non-zombie world might embrace an extreme sport like skydiving into a shallow pool without a parachute or Safari hunting lions with a crossbow.

I must say zombie killing has been good to these guys. Zombieland was the first thing I ever really liked Woody Harrelson in, Jesse Eisenberg makes a far better Columbus than Lex Luthor, none of the actors, except Abigail Breslin appear to have aged a day and Little Rock couldn’t help it because she went from teen to young adult, and all of them seem to be having the best time of their lives.

Adding to the merry mayhem of people they meet along the way are: Zoey Deutch as Madison, Avan Jogia as Berkley,  Rosario Dawson as Nevada, Luke Wilson (brother of Owen and Andrew) as Alberquerque, and Thomas Middleditch (Godzilla see review HERE, Tag see review HERE) as Flag Staff.

The music is at turns perky folk Americana, upbeat, creepy, and sometimes all of the above at once, incorporating songs from Caddyshack‘s “I’m Alright” to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. (You’ll understand why each of them are included when you see the movie.)

The characters are self-aware, make fun of themselves, the genre, their characters and do not just break the fourth wall but don’t really seem to care if there is one or not.

Had the actors, writers (David Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick) or director (Ruben Fleischer) stepped back even an inch from the full steam ahead, break through the guard rails approach, Zombieland would not have worked.

As it is, this ultimate camp of the year zombie movie, for the demographic of those who prefer goofy in their gore, camp in their carnage, and do not mind more than a bit of grotesque with their humoresque, Zombieland: Double Tap is, in its own special and unique way, a delight. But please oh please, leave the kids at home unless you want to start the therapy fund early.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY – GOOD MOVIE WHICH JUST FALLS – LONG – OF BEING AN EXCELLENT ONE

SHORT TAKE:

Charming animated movie based on the Addams Family characters, created decades ago by Charles Addams, but honestly, with not enough plot for a full length feature.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone who is interested. No sex, there is ghoulishness but nothing really scary (except for perhaps the very young), cartoon (obviously) violence, no bad language, but could be a bit slow for any of the youngish set used to the quick and flashy.

LONG TAKE:

The story, for anyone not familiar with this quirky bunch, is about a tight knit loving family who do not quite fit the standard mold. (Though some of them may be a bit — moldy.) Resembling nothing so much as a band of ghouls, vampires and assorted monsters, they frighten the neighbors wherever they go. In truth they just wish to be left (to rest) in peace to raise their children and live (or be dead) without bothering anyone else. Unfortunately, a developer buys the land around their home and a neighborhood eventually grows up around them. And not your ordinary neighborhood but a carefully planned and controlled one which sees the Addams as a threat to their desire for plastic conformity.

While this is a promising premise, alas The Addams Family animated feature falls not short of being a classic but too long. They had all the ingredients of a five star triumph: engaging memorable characters, excellent voice acting from grade A actors, excellent though stylized animation, and even a built-in multi-generational cult audience.

Unfortunately, what they did not have was a plot that could sustain a feature-length film.

When the kids were little we all picked a theme song. I won’t tell you what anyone else’s was but I will tell you that they ranged from Broadway to rock and roll and mine was the theme song from the TV show The Addams Family. “They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re altogether ooky … ” Okay, well it wasn’t Shakespeare but what it WAS was confident, eccentric and whimsical. While others saw them as odd and scary, I saw a warm loving and wholesome (in their own way) family. Gomez and Morticia were very much in love even after many, possibly hundreds, of years of marriage. The kids were homeschooled, they lived with extended family – Gomez’s brother, Fester, and Morticia’s “grandmama”. They took good care of their pets – well, OK a lion named “Kitty” and a tall man eating Venus fly trap named Cleopatra. Gomez was an extremely successful, kind and philanthropic businessman who kept an open pocketbook to anyone in need. They adored their children, spent all their time together as a family, were welcoming to everyone, including the neighbors who occasionally ran from the bemused but well meaning family in terror. They never forced themselves on anyone but were  happily content to quietly go about their own business. Yet they were looked at askance just because they chose to do things a little — differently.

In short they reminded me of — us.

As a kid I enjoyed The Addams Family for its unusual humor and adorable characters. Later in life I had a much deeper appreciation for their situation. A LOOONG time ago when the kids were little, homeschooling was a very peculiar affectation to many people. The two most common questions we got were: “Homeschool – where is that?” and “Is that legal?” Many thought we were crazy. Even some of our friends would distance themselves when the subject of educating children came up. And our families were convinced we would tire of this “cultish” idea. 30 years later we had graduated all 6 out of high school and into college and careers. And retrospectively I recognized – we WERE The Addams Family to a lot of people.

So they hold a special place in my heart.

The source material is from a single panel comic by Charles Addams that featured regularly in The New Yorker. It specialized in dark and macabre humor: Morticia discarding the blooms of flowers to keep the stems. The children chopping the heads off of dolls with a child sized guillotine. The 1960’s TV show with John Astin (the adopted father of Sean Astin aka Samwise Gamgee) as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia, kept the dark comedy, but converted it into a cockeyed Leave it to Beaver sitcom. The movies, with Raul Julia taking over for Astin, and Angelica Houston for Jones, echoed their predecessors with devoted enthusiasm and ramped up the outlandishness of the family’s eccentricities. I thoroughly loved all of it.

This animated movie wisely pulls from all three. The voice acting is perfect and evokes the — uh — spirit of all the unique personalities: Gomez harkens back not to the good looks of the human leads but portrays Gomez as the short squat little pin-stripped ghoul he was originally drawn to be. The acting talents of Oscar Isaacs (Star Wars, Operation Finale) and Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde, Tully, Mad Max: Fury Road) instill Gomez and Morticia with all the lively personality of their live action predecessors. And while Chloe Grace Moretz (Dark Shadows, Carrie) as Wednesday is much like Christina Ricci’s stone faced version from the live action movies instead of the sweet faced Wednesday from the TV show, Nick Kroll (Operation Finale) does a spitty mouthed Uncle Fester which is far closer to Jackie Coogan’s version in the TV show  than Chris Lloyd’s feature film Fester. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things and It – that kid better watch it as he’s well on the way to being type cast) did a lovely job as the voice of the good natured but “explosively” enthusiastic Pugsley. Bette Midler (singer extraordinary and actress from The Rose) does a surprise “appearance” as the voice of Grandmama. SCTV veterans Martin Short (Inner Space) and Catherine O’Hara (Ode to Joy – see my post HERE) perform an adorable cameos as visiting deceased spirits who give Morticia advice. I think all the choices made by the animators and actors worked together beautifully – cherry picking the elements which work best in this medium and blending them together like the tints in a fine painting.

The music uses both modern and iconic, employing the likes of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” as well as the familiar theme song from the TV show. Of particular note is the BRILLIANTLY inspired end credit sequence wherein the animated characters repeat precisely the scenes shown at the beginning of the TV show: Morticia and Gomez’ sword practice, Lurch at the organ, Fester’s smudged post-explosion face – in a loving homage to the wonderful 1960’s super quirky sitcom.

Unfortunately, unlike the live action movies, there is just not enough for these wonderful characters to do. Events — occur — and there is a theme of conformity versus independence, but it is more Road Runner booms and sight gags than storyline. There’s lots of quick one-liners and don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-them clever sight gags, but it just doesn’t all quite gel into a whole idea worthy of its 87 minute run time.

The “villain”, Margaux Needler, ultra-micromanager real estate mogul and TV show host, who will stop at nothing to get her “perfect” development off the ground, is a carbon copy of the perfectionist and micromanager homeowner association chairwoman Gladys Sharp, whose personality is lifted right off the storyboards for Over the Hedge. Both characters are even voiced by the same actress, Allison Janney.

It’s not that The Addams Family is bad, but it treads no knew ground and drags. With the content available here this would have been far more successful as a quick paced 20 minute short.

However, I think with the talent at hand and the rich potentials for the premise they could do SO much better and I look forward to a sequel if the writers would just put a bit more effort into the script.

But for all the flaws, I was delighted to see my favorite eccentric family on the big screen again.