THE OLD GUARD – PRESUMPTUOUS AND FORGETTABLE ACTION FLICK WITHOUT A PROPER ENDING OR POINT

SHORT TAKE:

Gratuitously violent action adventure about five semi-immortal mercenaries who fight for “good” guys who can find and afford them.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Only for adult fans of graphic novel genre stories which take themselves way too seriously. Inappropriate for the usual superhero demographic crowd because of: violence, profanity, disturbing images of prolonged suffering and overt same sex attraction relationships.

LONG TAKE:

Pray for rain, plow the field. Despite the unfortunate lack of genuine prayer life in most filmmakers’ lives nowadays, (the Kendrick and Coen brothers, respectively, being the most prominently laudable mainstream exceptions), movie makers sometimes demonstrate a, shall we say, unjustified amount of optimism regarding sequel-likelihood for their movie. I’m not talking about tried-and-true established film franchises justifiably confident in their future audience, like: Marvel, Star Trek and Star Wars. I’m talking about movies that come out of nowhere but blatantly setup endings which require a sequel for an adequate conclusion, ending in what can only be thought of as a cheap way to dodge coming up with a satisfying finale to a tricky plot conundrum.

One example is the campy old classic 1975 Doc Savage: Man of Bronze whose final scene showed Doc (Ron Ely) whisking off in response to an answering machine message about a threat to millions of lives. 45 years on were still waiting to find out what that was all about.

Another is the woefully underappreciated campy old 1980 classic, Flash Gordon. Even the inclusion of: Shakespearean Timothy “James Bond” Dalton, Academy Award winner and auteur Ingmar Bergman darling Max Von Sydow,  Branagh’s “go to” Shakespearean stable performer Brian Blessed, music by Queen, and production by Dino DeLaurentis (whose filmography includes 184 films), could not save this light and fun swing at the action adventure hero genre at the box office. Flash “concludes” with the destroyed evil Emperor Ming’s ring being picked up by an unidentified someone’s hand and the Emperor’s wicked laugh sounding against the end title of  “The End ?” I think we can safety answer – yes, it was the END of that movie.

Another is 1969’s The Italian Job, (not the 2003 sequel which is quite different) which ended with our intrepid antiheroes literally hanging in a bus over a cliff with a massive fortune in gold causing them to teeter towards the abyss and Michael Caine’s character’s last words: “Hold on lads, I’ve got an idea,” ringing in our ears.

SPOILERS

The Old Guard is an action adventure fantasy starring Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde, Tully, Mad Max Fury Road, and, coincidentally, the 2003 version of The Italian Job) as Andromache “Andy” of Scythia which posits the idea of a small band of almost immortal warriors who make a living performing impossible good deeds for a price. While the premise is interesting it never really carries through with the most obvious question which the characters themselves ask over and over throughout the movie, which is: “Why?”

Why are they immortal? What is the reason? They are apparently just born this way, and their only similarity is that they all tend to either be or gravitate to a warrior existence. The most obvious structure should have lead us to some kind of ultimate good towards which they were all moving. While a sort of vague impulse to do good lies at the heart of their raison d’etre, there does not seem to be a focus or long game.

Filmmakers now have such an aversion to the idea of an Intelligent Creator that even when it is the most obvious conclusion to the very setup they have created it is a Third Rail. I might have been interested in a sequel which headed toward answering this mystery. Instead we are treated to the appearance in a pre-end credit scene in which Booker, temporarily outcast for reasons I will not spoil here, encounters another quasi-immortal about which we have only seen briefly in flashbacks

Frankly, I thought it rather presumptuous of them to so obviously stick us with an unfinished conclusion, assuming a following they have not yet earned. Overall more time is spent watching the characters fight and bemoan their immortal existence than examining what could have been a very interesting philosophical question structured within the body of an action adventure movie.

The movie is based upon a comic book/graphic novel mini series. But the first issue having been published in 2017 there is not a lot of traction to warrant the conviction of a sufficient following to support a second installment.

Keep in mind Doc Savage was a comic book too, with 181 issues published between 1933 and 1949, and an established following of kids who were now adults when the 1975 clunker hit the big screen like a bug on a windshield. And Flash Gordon was a comic strip which ran from 1934 to 1992 in multiple countries around the world. But that didn’t save its 1980 butt from being thoroughly kicked with critics and audience alike.

In addition, The Old Guard violates one of my demonstrably relevant rules of successful movie making. They don’t have a sense of humor. Even the characters in Aliens found a few legitimate, albeit “whistling in the dark” chuckles despite their dire circumstances. (Hudson, a male soldier trying to antagonize Vasquez, a female soldier: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?” Vasquez: “No, have you?” After their rescue ship crashes Burk quips: “Maybe we can build a fire, sing a couple of songs, huh? Why don’t we try that?”) But in The Old Guard they don’t even try. Aside from some bleakly pessimistic sarcasm there is no genuine lightness to their lives.

They see no real upside to their longevity, but only moan a lot about the downsides – which admittedly are considerable. And while it’s true that they will outlive everyone they love, and there is always the possibility they could be trapped somewhere for an interminable amount of time without the escape hatch of death, you would think, with possibilities available to them which are not for the rest of us mortals, they could find some positives. They have all seen significant chunks of history play out. They will not get cancer, suffer overmuch from even catastrophic injury, become bald or even get cavities! Over the centuries they have done great good but never stopped to appreciate it. To them immortality just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I get that. But that is not the button that should be pushed repeatedly throughout the entire movie.

I became impatient with their collective inability to count their considerable blessings. They would have done well to watch Groundhog Day (a few times LOL) and learn what it means to be blessed with the opportunity to save lives and prevent pain. Although Phil’s  temporary immortality came in a repeat loop and The Old Guard’s is more linear and arguably should have been more satisfying, Phil came to appreciate his altruistic duty. I suspect the difference is in Phil’s basic footing in a faith in God, hinted at in moments such as when Phil looks up to Heaven as the elderly man he is trying to save dies – again. Phil came to accept that he, Phil, is not in control, but is only meant to do the best he can with the unique position he is in.

There is no such similar water shed moment in The Old Guard but just a constant, low level, bitchy undervaluing of the tremendous gift they have been given, without ever considering the possibility that maybe they have a reason and a purpose.

Despite the wishful thinking from gushing, almost syncophantic reviewers, The Old Guard is already being referred to as a “quick kill blockbuster”. A quick kill blockbuster is a movie with so much hype, star power and anticipation before it comes out, that it makes a big splash, only to sink pitifully to the bottom of the pool fairly quickly. The Old Guard’s financial demise will be hidden for a while both by the inertia it has going into the public mainstream based on Charlize Theron’s involvement and its alleged comic book origin appeal, and by the fact that “box office” returns have been reinterpreted due to the Wuhan virus government regulation cataclysm keeping theaters closed.

Collecting “box office” revenue has been replaced with counting “streaming hits” and no one has adequately interpreted the conversion factor for those yet. But it is easy to guess that what would otherwise have been a box office bomb can be covered by the “film” (if you will excuse the pun) of references to “excitement” over its release and the number of “hits” it gets on its home media of Netflix. Since a subscription to Netflix gives access to anything within that system without extra cost, it is impossible for the average observer to tell how many of those “hits” resulted in a full screening or just a casual taste which is quickly discarded after a few minutes of fading interest.

It’s just not a very good or engaging film. The characters mope about in a miasmic funk of self-pity when they are not precision “target shooting” their opponents or leaping about in martial arts choreography we’ve all seen done often and better in any of the Infinity Saga movies.

That’s not to say it is a terrible movie or not a good popcorn flick. It’s got a number of redeeming qualities to it, not the least of which is at least a nod to Judeo-Christian faith of the newbie character Nile, as well as a truly interesting concept, albeit one which is not well explored. But it is just nowhere near strong or creative enough to merit the kind of confidence which demands the movie-going public must commit to another movie in order to resolve the plot twists which had been hinted at throughout the film’s already over long two hour and five minute run.

Theron does a credible job as Andy, head and oldest of the band, artistically fighting her way through hordes of bad guys and occasionally with colleagues. But she bringing nothing much more to her character than a smoldering gruffness, which prominent personality characteristic she has brought to many of her other movies like Atomic Blonde and Mad Max. I understand her tough guy/girl persona does not lend itself to lightness and fun but even in Tully SEE REVIEW HERE, where she plays a wife and mother, why does she have to look so GROUCHY all the time??

Harry Melling’s evil pharma king Steven Merrick fully channels Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luther in Batman v Superman.  This is especially notable as Merrick, the skinny hyper megalomaniac, is portrayed by the same actor who played dumpy, spoiled but, at the end,  gratefully good hearted Dudley in the Harry Potter movies.

The ever delightful Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Dr. Strange and The Martian) plays Copley, the researcher who unearths and exposes the band and whose motives are mixed and complex.

Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, Red Sparrow SEE REVIEW HERE, and The Laundromat) is a sympathetic Booker, Andy’s favorite, whose convoluted motives provide some three-dimensional flair to the proceedings.

Relative newbie Kiki Layne is refreshing as Nile the newly emerged mostly immortal.

Veronica Ngo (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has the unenviable position of Quynh, whose character is more referred to by the other characters than ever seen but who promises to be in the sequel if one ever  is filmed.

And whether it is yet another victim of the Wuhan virus regulation cataclysm or if this slow moving action flick is using the pandemic response overreach as an excuse, the earliest that The Old Guard 2 is even being considered is 2022. So, as fans of Flash Gordon and the first The Italian Job could tell you – don’t hold your breath. And honestly, while the movie is mildly entertaining, never getting a resolution to it would not be much of a loss for this fairly arid outing.

MOON – AN EXAMINATION OF WHAT IT IS TO BE HUMAN

SHORT TAKE:

Thoughtful, low key and intriguing sci fi exploration of the definition of a human.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adults only for language, graphic depictions of radiation sickness and the topics of death, loneliness and the marketing of human life.

LONG TAKE:

Sam Rockwell is an amazing actor. I have sung his praises in other outings like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, (SEE RADIO SHOW HERE and the REVIEW HERE) and his stint as Bob Fosse in the miniseries Fosse/Verdun. But my favorite performance of his will always be the first one I ever saw him in, Galaxy Quest, the parody / love letter to Star Trek.

SPOILERS BUT AS FEW AS POSSIBLE

So I was duly intrigued by a story that would see Rockwell go back out into space. In Moon he does just that. Moon is a tour-de-force, almost a one man show.

I warn you I’m going to be a bit disingenuous about this movie because I do not want to spoil it anymore than I have to for the sake of the following analysis. Moon is about a man and a clone. I will tell you that the cleverly written script leaves “Easter eggs” around giving hints.

Set in 2035, the story initially explores an examination of how one copes alone on a solitary mission for an extended period of time. Moon then, by turns, becomes an examination in psychology, a mystery, a buddy movie, and eventually a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be a human with the soul. This last led me to realize that Moon could easily be, whether that was on the mind of the filmmaker or not, an analogy for the in vitro created embryos, especially those abandoned as excess or unwanted by the sperm and egg donors who should have accepted their responsibility as parents.

Sam Bell is alone on a space station. His mission contract is for 3 years, monitoring the mining output of extremely valuable *helium-3 from the Moon.  Sam’s only connection to Earth is from one-way video messages of his wife and baby daughter. His only companion or foil for his comments is GERTY who looks more like a Welcome Wagon than even a robot and is voiced by the now infamous Kevin Spacey, who’s measured tones, (giving the devil his due), attempt to offer Sam what limited comfort of which it is capable.

Unlike other writers who agonize over choosing just the right name for their characters, Jones did not, apparently, give it much thought. Lest you were wondering, GERTY is not an acronym but just a name, perhaps, as has been speculated by admirers of the film, chosen for Christopher E Gerty, a NASA aerospace engineer, or perhaps for its similarity to the first five letters on the top line of a standard keyboard – QWERTY.  Sam, the main character’s first name, is the actor’s first name. The harvesters are named after the four authors of the Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which one might think brings a gravitas of meaning, but Jones, himself, has said they were only chosen because he wanted four names that went together.

Sam Bell becomes desperate for any kind of human interaction, longing for personal communication, but forgets that one should be careful for what one wishes as information can be as heartbreaking as it is educational.

Rockwell does a terrific job, even landing his performance in a list of one of the top 10 most egregious Oscar snubs. Rockwell’s Sams are at once the exact same but completely different. One Sam is simply further down the road than the other and Rockwell does a magnificent job of making them completely distinguishable, while at the same time leaving the door open for alternative interpretations, such as: is Sam Bell really only losing his mind? (Rest assured, the movie will eventually answer all the pertinent questions). But during the course of the movie Rockwell’s dynamic performance leaves all possibilities viable (pun intended).

The scenes on the surface of the Moon are well done and very believable, especially when considering Moon‘s mini budget of $5,000,000 and scant shooting schedule of 33 days in Shepperton Studios. The director/writer Duncan Jones preferred models to CGI so employed Bill Pearson, the supervising “animator” for Alien, who was happily at loose ends because of a writers’ strike, to create the rovers and harvesters .

First time feature director, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones’ only other claims to fame up to this time were being a commercial director and the son of famous rocker David Bowie. The film even opens with the line: “Where are we now?” the title of one of his father’s songs.

Jones wrote Moon as a vehicle for Sam Rockwell. Jones had been interested in casting Rockwell as a villain in another film, Mute. While Rockwell liked Mute and was tempted, he was tired of playing bad guys. So Rockwell challenged Jones – that if Jones wrote something of the same quality which would trust him, Rockwell, in a leading role, he would do it. So Jones did — and Rockwell agreed.

The soundtrack by Clint Mansell is reminiscent of Philip Glass. Dissonant string chords, heavily rhythmed but mostly without regular tempo, are occasionally interspersed with simple childish tunes which would be at home in a child’s jewelry box. The effect is one of both low level, anxiety driven tension and what a quiet but hostile space environment might sound like were it anthropomorphized to conduct an orchestra. The overall result is both unsettling and lulling.

In philosophizing about where on the spectrum of humanity lies clones, there must come a reckoning as to the significance of other “artificially” created human life. As the conclusion in the favor of those not “born of woman” becomes more and more obvious, there is an inevitability for any thought conscientious person to reach the same judgement concerning those children whose conception took place in a petri dish – the in vitro embryos bred and then left discarded as “extras” and “backups” then ultimately … forgotten to death. The “where” one obtains life is not important. They – both clones and science-driven and conceived embryos – are undeniably human.

When Edward Rutledge protests against John Adams’ assertion that slaves are Americans, John Adams points out, appropriate to that particular historic juncture, in the brilliant musical 1776: “They are people, and they are here. If there’s any other requirement, I haven’t heard it,” regardless of how they arrived. Similarly, I would point out, the only prerequisite to being considered human, with all of the attendant God given rights and dignities, is to be — a human. Doesn’t matter how you arrived: sexual interaction, artificial insemination, petri dish, cloning, or (in the case of extended sci fi examples) transporter accidents – a human is a human and should be treated as such.

Moon makes this point beautifully and with great understatement. And Rockwell is the classy and compelling purveyor of that message. So to paraphrase Horton: A person’s a person, no matter how he got here.

*Helium-3 is a real thing – also called tralphium or helion, it is a light stable isotope of helium which is rare on Earth but is speculated to be more abundant and mineable from the Moon.

ALTERNATE ENDINGS TO OLD CLASSICS

 

 

MASSIVE SPOILERS – WE’RE PRIMARILY DISCUSSING ENDINGS – SO YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!

ALTERNATE ENDINGS TO OLD CLASSICS!!!

I hate to disabuse you of an illusion but:

Classic movies are not written in stone.

Nonetheless, every movie buff prides themselves on knowing the endings to their favorite old movies. Even a casual connoisseur at the cinematic buffet might know or recognize last lines to a famous movie they haven’t even seen!

“T’was beauty killed the beast” (King Kong); “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” and “Tomorrow is another day.” (Two of the last few lines in Gone With the Wind), “There’s no place like home.” (The Wizard of Oz), “Top of the world, Ma.” (White Heat).

Phrases like these and the endings they invoke have inveigled their way into the cultural vocabulary so firmly one would think that all celluloid masterpieces have amaranthine finales , unlike today’s market driven and screen tested denouements with roundtable  action figure consideration, directors’ cuts, and DVD  special edition options.

But you’d be wrong. Even movies decades old, but still popular today, occasionally went through rewrites for a variety of reasons. These are some of my favorites.

AGAIN – SPOILERS!!! LAST WARNING!

Our Town

This 1940 beauty was originally a famous play by Thornton Wilder about small town Americana life at the turn of the century, mostly focusing on the relationship of childhood sweethearts George and Emily. In the stageplay, Emily dies in childbirth. In the movie she lives. Thornton Wilder explained his approval of this change when the play transitioned to film. He said the theater piece is understood as an abstract so there is a certain emotional distance between the characters and the audience. But in the cinema there is a closeness to reality, an intimacy and familiarity developed between the movie patrons and the big screen personas, which would have made Emily’s death just cruel, so when the producers approached him to change it – he agreed.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Stanley Kubrick was known as both a brilliant cinematographer and an insufferably frustrating director. Infamous for telling his actors what he did not like, but notoriously stubborn in refusing to give them a clue as to what it was that he wanted, the filmatic and box office results were of checkerboard quality.

Anecdotes abound of Kubrick’s poor judgement as a director. Shelly Duvall broke down during filming of The Shining after a record approaching 127 takes of an intensely emotional scene. Kubrick routinely abused his cast to create a movie that even Stephen King, author of the source material, publicly stated he did not like, and who described it as: “…a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.”

Stultifyingly long scenes in Barry Lyndon, where performers appeared afraid to move, resulted in that massive flop being appropriately nicknamed “Bore-y Lyndon”.

But in 1964’s wild ride, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Kubrick was both great cinematographer and great director. With talents like George C. Scott, Peter Sellers (who almost died from exhaustion playing three key roles), Keenan Wynn and Slim Pickens invigorating the set, it is understandable that this deeply dark satire on a world teetering on the edge of global nuclear war would click along with the bizarre uniqueness of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, while still evoking the cautionary thoughtfulness of  Fail Safe, which Strangelove was parodying.

The theatrically released ending sees the world committed to all inclusive radiated destruction, a plan for a handful of survivors to go underground with LOTS of extra buxom females with which to eventually – ahem – repopulate the Earth, and a previously wheelchair bound former Nazi scientist of questionable sanity, the eponymous Dr. Strangelove himself, rising unexpectedly from his chair, give the Nazi salute and shout: “Mien Fuhrer, I can WALK!”

As provocative, quirky, memorable and blackly funny as this is…this WASN’T the original ending. It was supposed to have gone on for another 5 minutes with – of all things – a PIE fight in the war room amongst the President, his cabinet heads, military leaders and the Russian ambassador! However, with the assassination of JFK taking place as they were filming, the idea of a President being hit with anything was, wisely, determined to be a bit too close to the knuckle. On top of that the actors were having WAY too much fun throwing pies at each other to convey the bleak analogy for war Kubrick had intended. So the scenes were set aside for later editing and simply….lost.

The Birds

Then there is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 bizarre alternate reality horror movie about birds in Bodega Bay, which suddenly and for no apparent or explained reason, flock by the hundreds to commit sudden and lethal suicide attacks on people, resulting in fatal and gruesome “peckings” as car windows are shattered, gas stations are blown up, and people are driven mad by the clawing, poking, feathered beasts.

In the theatrical ending the main protagonists drive slowly away from the decimated town, watched by hundreds, if not thousands of birds perched ominously on rooftops and telephone wires.

However, Hitchcock’s initial vision ended the story with a scene showing the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds, hinting at the world wide spread of this cataclysm. BUT lacking the CGI of today, the shocking implications of nature gone – well – wild, was left limited mysteriously to Bodega Bay, as the more spectacular visuals would have been prohibitively expensive, and therefore ended up … at the bottom of the bird cage.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

This brilliant view into the emotionally wrenching family dynamics of a Southern patriarchy is the most complicated in this list, as, though the changes of the Broadway endings are thin and slight, they are pregnant (if you’ll excuse the pun given the plot of COAHTR) each with complexly nuanced different meanings.

The story of Tennessee Williams’ most well known dysfunctional love/hate family actually has FOUR endings, albeit all similar but differing in key subtleties.

COAHTR centers around the relationship between young couple, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and Brick (Paul Newman), at the birthday party for Big Daddy (Burl Ives), the wealthy head of a family whose interactions are strained, to say the least.  Brick and “Gooper” (Jack Carson)  are Big Daddy’s sons, who, like Esau and Issac, could not be more different. Gooper is the diligent, anxious to pleased progeny, whose demonstrably fertile wife’s child production is aimed at impressing Big Daddy into handing the dynasty on to her own husband.

Brick, formerly the fair haired boy and once favorite son, is now a broken down, alcoholic, ex-athlete, with a leg in a cast and a beautiful adoring wife who he disdains. The change in Brick is incomprehensible to his doting father, as Brick, like many of William’s characters, keeps a shameful secret, which would otherwise be quite revelatory, closely guarded.

Brick can not forgive Maggie (or himself) for the death of Skip, his best friend. The reason for this blame is both tragic and a bit convoluted. Maggie, completely devoted to Brick, would do ANYthing for Brick. So, in an attempt to warn Brick of Skip’s personal flaws, which she fears will hurt Brick, offered herself sexually to Skip, but Skip was unable to complete the act.

The first Broadway version included implications of Skip’s homosexual attraction to Brick. Revealed by Skip to Brick the same night as Maggie’s ineffective attempt to seduce him, it was Brick’s revulsion added to Skip’s inability to complete the act with Maggie that led to Skip’s suicide.

Brick not only is furious at Maggie for trying to sleep with Skip, but more so as Brick holds Maggie responsible for proving to him Skip’s seamier nature, which reveal, Brick concludes, resulted in Skip’s suicide.

The first ending of the stage play was dark, confirming Brick’s continued rejection of his desperate wife. Maggie: “I love you Brick.” Brick: “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was true?” callously implying that she is lying for financial gain and cruelly hinting that, even were it true, ironically, he no longer loves her.

The director who Williams’ wanted for the stage play, Elia Kazan (block buster director of both stage and screen, who brought us such movies as Streetcar Named Desire, Gentlemen’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden), did not like this bleak ending and insisted it end on a more hopeful note. Compliantly, but reluctantly, Williams added to the second stageplay version some softening dialogue and a gesture: MAGGIE: “…nothing’s more determined than a cat on a hot tin roof, is there?” Brick allows her to touch his face implying Brick might eventually soften to her.

The third version of the story was the 1958 FILM adapted from the play, and as the most positive is the one I personally like best. The director Richard Brooks and co-author of the screenplay James Poe, made two significant changes: it eliminated the homosexual undertones and made the reconciliation between Maggie and Brick crystal clear. MAGGIE: “Thank you…for backing me up in my lie. [that she was pregnant]” BRICK: “We are through with lies and liars in this house,” as Brick smiles and locks the door.

The third version of the STAGEplay and fourth version of the story overall, was written by Williams for a 1974 revival, and combines the first two stageplay endings. Brick tells Maggie he admires her. Maggie tells Brick she loves him. Brick says: “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was true?” but then allows Maggie to touch his face, making the formerly caustic line now more one of gentle sarcasm, hinting that he has forgiven her, or at least will soon.

Gone With the Wind

This gorgeous epic of the Civil War and the resulting destruction of the genteel Southern Plantation life mostly seen from the POV of Scarlett, a feisty, largely self absorbed woman, recalls one of the most famous ending lines in cinematic history. Scarlett’s husband, Rhett, finally fed up with years of Scarlett’s neglect, emotional infidelity, manipulative personality and rejection of him, leaves. Scarlett, at long last, but too late, recognizes her love for Rhett and determines to win him back. Though she is too exhausted with the traumatic events leading up to this moment right then, she will come up with a plan the next day because: “After all – tomorrow is another day.” This line from the eponymous book published in 1936 and from the movie adaptation released in 1939 reflected an assertive, self confident, pro active and independent (even if possibly delusional) woman – quite startling in that era.

BUT that was not the original last line. The first draft of the screenplay had Scarlett passively hoping that: “Rhett! You’ll come back. I know you will.” Love Scarlett or hate her, this line would have been abysmally out of character for the strong willed, bull-headed, wrecking ball we had watched survive the multiple disasters, admittedly many self-made, which formed the structure of her life.

The far more blindly confident and dauntlessly self-assured line that ended up as the well known last line of this classic is far more in keeping with the Scarlett we had come to know.

Suspicion

Simplest and most straight forward change of heart in this group. The end of the original version of this 1948 thriller/mystery, sees Cary Grant try to murder his wife. In the revised theatrically released edition he is “only” a thief, and a repentant one at that. Reason: The studio did not want to besmirch Grant’s genial good guy image.

The Jungle Book – animated, Disney – 1967

I was 8 when this movie came out in the theater and my Dad almost assuredly took me. As an adult and a now parent myself, one of my favorite Disney chuckles is the feminine eyes that eventually lure Mowgli away from the jungle and his animal friends and into the village – sort of an analogy for what happens to most men – leaving the less civil world of their singleness for the more gentile virtues of domesticity, beguiled by the enchantment of womanly wiles – a warning with which my husband and I enjoyed teasing our sons.

BUT this is not the way the first draft of the story went. Leaning more on the Kipling story, there was an entire third and LONG act which might have almost doubled the time and most certainly would have made it a darker film. In the initial concept Mowgli, upon returning to the village, was at once reunited with his human mother and challenged by an elder named Buldeo who eventually forces Mowgli into the forest in search of King Louie’s treasure, but is ultimately eaten by Shere Khan who is, in turn, shot and killed by Mowgli. Mowgli is then accepted by both villagers and jungle as a full fledged member of both. Whew! Honestly a bit much, I suspect, for the young crowd for which it was originally intended.

SO – quintessential movie endings – aren’t. They are often, as Ben Franklin described the creation of both revolutions and children born out of wedlock in the musical 1776: “half-improvised and half-compromised”. Not surprising as movies are rarely made alone. Even auteurs like Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Branagh must rely on a plethora of cast and crew to see their vision manifest itself into something tangible they can present to the rest of the world. As a result of: negotiation with a talent they wish to include, financial pragmatism, public relations, or just plain old common sense, story lines can be quite dynamic even as the movies are being filmed.

And it is a blessing when these serendipitous events, creative editings and pragmatic decisions end up producing the great films, like these, which grace the halls of cinematic legend.  

 

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.