DR. WHO: THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – SHAVE AND A HAIR CUT…………….???

 

SHORT TAKE:

Disappointing, lackluster reboot of Dr. Who into the first female incarnation of the main character, in a plot that is a routine set up without any real payoff.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone CAN go see this DR. WHO, but…(to use a different interrogative pronoun)…WHY?

LONG TAKE:

I went with an open mind, I really did. After all, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that, contrary to my long held opinion, a good superhero could be made featuring a woman when Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot knocked the socks off me with her powerful but feminine portrait of a righteously heroic super woman.

So it was with high hopes that I went to go see the premiere of the very first show featuring the very first woman Dr Who – that is with the exception of The Curse of Fatal Death, the parody filmed for the charity Comic Relief with Rowen Atkinson who ultimately morphs into Joanne Lumley in 1999.

If you like the cheap waxy chocolate in your Easter basket; if you make your milkshakes out of fat free ice milk; if you prefer plain unsweetened rice cakes for breakfast; if your refreshment of choice is a clear sugar free diet soda (why don't you just drink water?); if your musical taste runs to the elevator music version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" — then this is the Dr Who for you. All promise and little delivery.

SPOILERS

To start with, the pronouns present a challenge, but let’s do this – if I’m referring to Jody Whittaker’s Dr Who it seems fair to use the feminine. BUT if I refer to any previous incarnation, then the masculine grammatical reference should apply.

For those of you NOT familiar with Dr Who, please refer to my previous blog on Dr Who: Twice Upon a Time, which gives a quick "cheat sheet" introduction to the Whovian Universe.

For those of you already familiar with Dr Who, the premise of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, is that the first female Doctor (literally) falls to Earth – and physically – through a train roof, just as the passengers are being terrorized by an energy ball of tentacles. Companions happen upon her and follow like dust motes in the wake of a guppy and they decide to figure out what it is and its connection to another alien with teeth imbedded in its face. Meanwhile, an entire more interesting and better acted subplot involving a missing girl and her murdered brother are brushed aside like so much flotsam and the story drags to a conclusion with manufactured tension and a lead who can not even smile convincingly.

None of this is remotely quality Who.

Even the beginning flies in the face of the basic mechanics of the Who-verse. Everyone knows or suspects strongly that Dr. Who’s TARDIS gets him/her to where they are most needed. From the get go, as explained by Whittaker's Who, the TARDIS was wounded and dematerialized leaving the new Who to the tender ministrations of gravity. So Who's propitious appearance at the train to save the passengers seems more like coincidence than it should.

Next, while the Doctor has shown himself to be physically resilient, and crashing bodily into Earth like a thrown bowling ball is not necessarily the most injurious event he has ever survived, to fall to Earth from near outer space and crash THROUGH a train roof without so much as mussed hair is a bit much for even my considerable suspension of disbelief. 

Tennant, having burst through a skylight in The End of Time Part II looks like he's been on the wrong side of a blender.

And her adaptability to her new body misses SO much. Tennant noticed new teeth immediately before collapsing from the regeneration effort. Matt Smith examined his whole body in a humorous frenzy even as the TARDIS was exploding around him: "Legs! I've still got legs! Good. Arms. Hands. Oo! Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears. Yes. Eyes two. Nose. I've had worse. Chin. [Noting its size]  Blimey. Hair. [presciently] I’m a girl. [feels Adam’s apple] No no. I’m not a girl. [Pulling a lock of hair forward to look at it, grumps] And still not ginger." When River Song morphed from young black teen to middle aged but shapely white woman we got more brilliant acting with Alex Kingston as she admires her own new hair then hollars from the bathroom: "Oh, that’s magnificent! I’m gonna wear lots of jodhpurs!" 

Jody Whittaker's Dr. Who's only comment is "Brilliant" and we're not even sure she's reacting to her new gender. Granted this is a flaw in the writing, but there's no indication from her acting or movements that she is: awed, amazed, dismayed, confused, curious, intrigued, or turned on by the fact that for the first time she is whole new GENDER! When in the past your previous selves have been surprised and dazzled by hair color and teeth size, and another Time Lord by the size of her own booty, you'd THINK a change in your entire sex would merit SOME attention. Even the spoof skit showed Lumley impressed with her new found…upgrades. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth her responses COULD have been tastefully done and REALLY funny. But it was like "Shave and a hair cut…………….." WHERE was the overwhelm? Where was the curiosity?

And her acting is – to put it kindly – bland. To NOT be so kind, she demonstrates all the emoting variations of an indulgent second grade school teacher.

Don't believe me? Let's take a trip down memory lane:

Tennant:

Smith:

Eccleston:  

Hurt:

Capaldi:

Now here's the new Dr Who: Her busy face,  her studious face  her surprised face. Is she afraid to move her eyebrows? Or show any genuine enthusiasm? Or risk looking silly?

Where is the humor? Where is the childlike enthusiasm to which we can all relate? And while, again, this is largely the fault of the script, it's not even that the show takes itself too seriously. I've often told our kids – it's not necessarily WHAT you say, but HOW you say it that makes all the difference. And I can't help but nostalgically wonder how a previous doctor (pick one – ANY one) would have done the reading on these same fairly uninspired lines and what desperately needed, resuscitating life they might have given them.

The writing is mundane and pedestrian. The trailer even features a good example: "I'm The Doctor. When people need help I never refuse." This is not only lazy writing but it is said with all the conviction of a PSA.

There's a scene where she jumps dramatically and dangerously (in Capaldi's slippery ill-fitting dress shoes) from one crane to another about 15 stories off the ground, then simply talks and tosses something to the bad guy to win the day. It would have been far more interesting if she had realized she did not have the upper body strength in the female body she now has, admitted that and worked around it. Realistically she could have done exactly what she ended up doing – talking and tossing – only without the death defying leap. This is just manufactured suspense.

Even the title is not particularly creative, merely a take on an old David Bowie sci fi vehicle The MAN Who Fell to Earth. There's no connection except the paraphrase.

Her companions are ginned up from what looks like the politically correct pool of the week: an elderly white man, married to a caricature of the pushy black woman, with a black teen grandson and a young woman whose last name is Khan who used to be a classmate of the grandson. They are all intimately related to each other yet we are to believe it is all coincidence. It was so unlikely a group of connections that I thought, surely the links must be part of the plot twist. But no, again just lazy writing to avoid having to introduce these characters to each other and endure the arduous task of creatively writing ways and events for them to get to know each other. Yet none of them has any real chemistry with either each other or the Doctor. And when one of them dies…..

SORRY – SPOILER – BUT HONESTLY, "WHO" CARES?

…….I wanted to feel badly about it but the show gave us little emotional investment to spend.

The direction was unremarkable but adequate – sort of like a high end shampoo commercial.

There is no vision. There was no rhyme or reason. Dr. Who started out over a half century ago as Britain's answer to Mr. Wizard – a science show which presented interesting facts in an entertaining way. It has – up to now – held to the tradition of teaching …. something: how to treat your fellow sentient creature, clever ways to solve puzzles, return evil with kindness, self sacrifice to protect the innocent, theories on effects of time travel, how other creatures from entirely different perspectives might react to the human culture, simply – thou shalt not kill. But I got the impression Mr. Chibnall, the show's new writer, has not yet gotten the memo on this one. He wrote a couple of the mini-shorts "The Power of Three" and "Pond Life" as well as some pretty decent other shows: 42, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Cold Blood/Hungry Earth. But being able to pick up a basket of pecans does not mean you have the strength to carry the entire TREE. And carrying a FOREST is what shouldering the work of creatively moving forward with this formerly imaginative show, with more than 50 years of history and backstory demands from WHOever thinks they can captain this ship. Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat or Russell T. Davies, Chibnall is not.

There IS a lot of running, some red herring puzzles and a so-so denoument with forced tension and nothing to learn in the end. We don't even really find out what happens to the person she set out to save. And when the survivor moves in self-defense she chides him: "You shouldn't have done that." We go to an awkward visual cut to somewhere else on the soundstage and that's the last we ever see of him. Huh?

She preposterously builds a new sonic screwdriver out of dust, gizmos and a bag of metal coffee spoons lying around a cluttered human workshop. It might have been vaguely believable if she had used the tech that WAS potentially available from a discarded space "eggshell" but even that McGuffin wasn't utilized. If they are THAT easy to make why doesn't she make LOTS of them? Hand them out like party favors to her companions?

And to top everything else off they went out of their way to dis Christianity. Mostly, Dr Who, like Star Trek, leaves religion alone. But when one of their crew dies, the funeral is held in a church, but the cross beam of the cross behind the altar area is deliberately covered by carefully placed…balloons! Balloons? At a FUNERAL? And why HAVE the funeral in a Christian church if you are going to cover up the primary symbol of that institution unless you: A. Want to go out of your way to thumb your nose at the Christian faith, or B. You don't want to be bothered to think of any place else and you're too cheap to actually take the cross down. So disrespectful or indolent, take your pick.

And the death was stupid ANYway. The character threw themself into a dangerous situation unnecessarily then died clumsily. The death served no real purpose other than to cut the number of companions from four to three. "Thrift, Horatio, thrift." Fewer paychecks I suppose.

There are a zillion other dumb plot decisions: did she really wear that manky suit to the funeral? She doesn't even TRY to negotiate for the captured sister that one of the subplot characters died horribly trying to find. Since when does a Time Lord stick their finger up their nose to determine when they are going to faint? Did Chibnall think this was funny? Why on Earth would someone touch a glowing grid that appears out of nowhere? How DID he get his bike out of the tree? Did she not even CONSIDER her "friends" might be sucked into space with her using her jury rigged spit and bailing wire transporter? Why would she run on a wet crane in slippery dress shoes a couple sizes too big when she could have at least taken them off? What are the chances ALL the companions, randomly found, knew each other already without that fact being a plot point?

It all felt  – as though you were given Peter Davison's celery stalk with no dressing as your entire dinner or you were expected to warm yourself with only a bit of fringe off of Tom Baker's scarf – underdone, incomplete, ill-thought out, unfulfilling and unfinished (kind of like the way we all felt about the actor Christopher Eccleston's career as Dr. Who after he refused to be in the 50th Anniversary Special for no particularly good reason). So watching this Dr. Who I now know how Roger Rabbit felt when Judge Doom knocked on the wall and "inquired": "Shave and a hair cut," and he wasn't allowed to yell "TWO-BITS!"

So finally we are left with yet another interrogative pronoun and a burning question: WHERE is the real Dr. Who?! And will SOMEONE please say "TWO-BITS!"

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE – A DELIGHTFUL COMEDY OF TERRORS AT OUR OWN LAKE CHARLES, LA ACTS THEATRE

 

 

 

 

The Addams Family was an endearing bunch of creepy oddballs. Appearing like zombies, witches and vampires they were actually a loving Mom, Dad, kids and extended family of rich and philanthropic homeschoolers.

The family of Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, in the classic Lion in Winter were not so companionable, and battled continuously with each other throughout the play. Different members bond with, then betray, each other, jockeying for power, land, revenge, attention, or love. At the end of a particularly vicious argument with her husband, Eleanor, left sitting on the floor in the doorway, gathers herself together and to self-console muses: "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"

The Guardians of the Galaxy is a band of violent and ethically questionable outlaws and vigilantes who come together as a family unit in part to (re)raise Groot, who is a sentient tree. (See my review on that one here .)

NONE of them have anything on the Brewsters.

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that Mortimer, a once cynical-of-romance theater critic, now totally smitten and freshly engaged to Elaine, the girl next door, goes to his sweet, loving, maiden aunts’ home for a visit and to break the good news.

In residence is his adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt, periodically charging up the stairs he knows as San Juan Hill and digging grave sized locks in the basement, which he thinks is the Panama Canal. Hovering in the background is the ominous, but so far absent, other brother, Jonathan. And so the stage is literally set for this very black and very funny slapstick comedy about a family which would put the Guardians on alert, make the Addams Family startle, and have both Henry and Eleanor running for cover. Bodies pile up and are switched like the plates of tuna in Noises Off or the suitcases from What’s Up Doc, identities are hidden and a good time is ultimately had by all…except for the corpses…in Arsenic and Old Lace.

I hesitate to say more for the benefit of those readers who have not seen either the play or the brilliant 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. If you don’t know the story it is just too delightful to spoil. If you do know some of the details then it will be like going back for seconds of your favorite ice cream.

Clay Hebert, the director and Officer Klein, is a familiar and welcome face from every stage Lake Charles offers. He has a resume which spans from McNeese's Theater to ACTS, and from Lake Charles Little Theatre to the Bayou Players and independent film productions all over Lake Charles. Clay artfully guides this fairly large cast through the quick draw and fast paced humor of Arsenic, which is to comedy what very dark and deliciously bitter semi-sweet morsels are to chocolate chip cookies, skillfully leading his troupe over that tightrope between horror and humor.

Louis Barrilleaux, another talented veteran of ACTS, LCLT and McNeese for over 20 years, is Mortimer, the eye around which this storm circulates.

Kelly Rowland and Sarah Broussard, respectively as Martha and Abbey Brewster, age themselves convincingly 50 years to play Mortimer’s adorably naive and unassuming aunts whose home is the site for some rather….unexpected events. Both ladies have degrees in performance, Kelly in music and Sarah in theater, with a wide and diverse range of acting credits.

Rebecca Harris, an actress with an impressive resume, is Mortimer’s confused but stalwart fiancee.

Aaron Webster, a self-described reluctant actor, is eminently creepy as Jonathan, the ne'er-do-well prodigal brother.

Brahnsen Lopez, another stage veteran, plays Jonathan’s would-be repentant colleague, Dr. Einstein (not Albert).

Matt Dye, local radio personality and frequently cast in small but scene stealing roles, does it again as Teddy.

Mark Hebert, Dusty Duffy, Dylan Conley and Kathy Heath round out the cast with memorable supporting characters.

 

The set is terrific, creating the authentically homey, gentle parlor of two elderly aunts, making the sinister events all the funnier for the contrast, complete with two sets of stairs and a landing up and through which Teddy has the freedom to charge with abandon, a window seat which can house…various and sundry… and French doors through which the characters are free to pop in and out.

I was privileged to interview Diki Jines, master electrician on the set and will have his interview clips up shortly below, talking about the set, its design and a little background.

Timing and blocking are very key, especially in this comedy of terrors and Clay has the tempo and coordinated actions and responses wound like a Swiss Cuckoo clockwork.

It’s a joy to watch a stage full of such talented veterans work smoothly together, and the fact most are old friends and/or fellow thespians, who have trod the boards often together, helps catalyze the chemistry that makes this play full of intimately connected characters work. These performers know each others’ rhythms and make the most of their considerable pool of experience to bring us a delightful evening of fun and fright, chills and chuckles, comedy and carnage, shocks and snickers, jocularity and jump scares.

So go warm up — or chill out — in anticipation of Halloween at ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. But be sure to BYOW. (Bring your own wine.)

BUY TICKETS HERE, OR CALL (337) 433-2287

A STAR IS BORN – MASTERFUL VARIATION ON AN INHERENTLY DISSONANT THEME

SPOILERS!

SHORT TAKE:

Artistic, excellent, and faithful (4th) version of a A Star is Born, a story with a destructive message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only, let me count the ways: language (I think there is only one adjective they knew and they used it with abandon), sex outside of marriage, excessive drinking, illicit drug use, nakedness, and a bar frequented by those with drastically alternative lifestyles.

SPOILERS!!!

LONG TAKE:

There is great wisdom in 1 Corinthians 13:11:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child."

A lot of movies seen in one’s teens and early twenties, seem like a good idea at the time, but do not stand up well under the scrutiny of age and experience.

One of those is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). When it came out, it seemed like a sci fi fantasy of a man in search of his dream to confirm the existence of extra-terrestrials, who flies off, like Peter Pan, into the stars with them. In fact, the movie is about a man who abandons his wife and children to go off on a lark. Regardless of the circumstances, he is a cad of extra-ordinary proportions. Then Pretty Women (1990), which holds itself out as a modern Cinderella story, actually Disneyfies prostitution, making it look appealing with a prize at the end instead of a body and soul destroying meat grinder (pun intended). Ditto for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). It holds itself out as a musical comedy but really sets up a madam and a corrupt politician as the main protagonists. (Haven’t any of these people seen East of Eden? I suspect Kate’s cold, calculating and cruel flesh peddler is a more accurate version of a madam than Dolly Parton’s cutesy songstress Mona.) You get the idea.

The third manifestation of A Star is Born (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson seemed, in the theater, to a 17 year old, a romantic, tear jerking, self sacrificing love story. I have seen all of versions 1937, 1976, and 2018 and enough of 1954 to realize that that one is just a badly done and unrelatable Judy Garland vehicle. The names change slightly with each movie. All the men have the surname of Maine, and in this one his given name is Jackson. Gaga's character's name this time around is Ally. In truth A Star is Born – all of them – is about of a man who destroys the person he loves … twice …. because he is a self-indulgent, self-pitying, weak and arrogant coward.

Please don’t get me wrong. I loved A Star is Born when I first saw it in theaters right out of high school. And before I launch into my criticisms of the story, let me say that, on one level, I thought this 2018 Bradley Cooper auteur production the best of the litter – a magnificent bit of cinema (the plaudits for which I will get to later) ………. but of an inherently bad story.

IF I HAVE NOT MADE MYSELF CLEAR HERE YET, THERE ARE SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

The premise presents itself about a man who is a great star (either singer or actor depending upon which decade’s movie you are talking about) with VERY bad habits, on his way down, who gives "THE FIRST BIG" shot at stardom to a promising female artist. When he realizes he cannot (or will not) cease his destructive behaviors, he kills himself, allegedly, to protect his former protégé, now wife from being held back. What is really happening is that an addicted, boorish, self-indulgent loser, who has achieved his dreams, does indeed generously provide a boost to the extremely talented woman of his dreams. BUT instead of doing the TRULY heroic act of changing his own life FOR her, drags her down. When he decides he will not cease his addictions or his self-destructive behavior, this narcissistic, self-absorbed waste of space tries very hard to destroy her again by committing suicide. In all four cases, this second act of destruction almost succeeds. In all four cases, we are left at the end of the movie wondering when, not if, it will be her turn to follow in her husband's footsteps.

A very big deal is made in the movie about saying something with your art. I must wonder what it is that this movie is trying to say: "When you hit rock bottom you should grab a shovel and dig it deeper by killing yourself?"

BUT – having said my piece on this point —–

Putting this massive flaw aside, the movie is still a masterfully done piece of art. I cannot place blame on Mr. Cooper for the ending because that IS the way it has always played out. I suppose I could blame him for expending his efforts on a story with a terrible message, but once having chosen this project he does an excellent job with its composition. This IS the way A Star is Born was written 81 years ago. (The first version was in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, both BARELY out of the silent film era.)

Kudos to Cooper’s commitment to the project. He mastered guitar playing for this role in an 18 month Blitzkrieg, including performing live at a festival, singing his own original songs, on the same stage with Kris Kristofferson, who previously played the same role for which Cooper was training – all while keeping the movie under wraps! AND Cooper is not just the star of the movie, but also was one of the adapting screenwriters, is the director, one of the producers, did all of his own playing and singing and wrote four of the movie’s songs. I admired the way Cooper approached the story. This Star’s incarnation hits all the high notes, the low notes, the musical arcs and has the same finale as all the others.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, I was shocked to discover, is quite a talented actress. Not a big fan before hand, I liked "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance," but was not familiar with her videos. I was jaw dropped to see her name in the trailer credits. She, more than a little, resembles a young Barbra Streisand in her manner, looks and singing talent. (She even complains about her nose.) This fits, as Bab’s manager/boyfriend at the time of Streisand's Star was Jon Peters, whose production company made Cooper's Star.

There were a few amazing surprises among the actors, not the least of which was Lady Gaga herself, as already mentioned, who did an incredible job. There is one scene in particular where in she finds herself on stage with Jackson Maine and her subtle and delicate transformation from newbie, frightened singer to confident but still terrified performer whose potential is glimpsed and then blossoms and matures throughout movie is subtle, transformative and deserves recognition. Other stand out performances include Sam Elliott as the REAL hero of the movie who stands by Jackson as long as he can as his manager, confidante, keeper, and older brother.

Andrew Dice Clay made a perplexingly successful career as a stand-up comic by being blunt, vulgar and every –ist you can think of. When you are boycotted by Sinead O'Connor and a regular cast member, Nora Dunn, for a Saturday Night Live appearance, and then from MTV for 18 years for being too offensive, you should consider that perhaps there are some issues with your routine. In A Star is Born he is pleasantly unrecognizable as Ally's gentle and supportive father, who whimsically reminisces about how he could have been a crooner "like Frank Sinatra".

The songs are – in a word – excellent. Catchy and communicative with a readily accessible emotional core, they were all the more surprising in that four of them were written by Bradley Cooper, not heretofore known as a musician.

I was very impressed by some of Mr. Cooper’s directorial decisions. For one thing there is no soundtrack except for the songs being performed or played on the radio or jukebox. There is none of the emotional manipulation, which is almost ubiquitous in other movies’ accompanying score. Don't get me wrong, I love a good soundtrack which often enhances or forewarns the audience in a particular scene. I have often wished I personally had a soundtrack to my life so I would know in advance what was coming.

Mr. Cooper plays his scenes with no such safety net. Some of the movie even feels somewhat documentary. Not in the dry, dusty, awkward way in which we appear as unwanted guests into other people's lives, but as a welcome friend sitting across the table watching the interchange between these two friends, lovers, and musical partners who must inevitably part.

All in all, I enjoyed this incarnation of A Star is Born. I had looked forward to it with a lot of expectation and most were fulfilled. I was sorry they had cut out one particularly appealing scene from the trailer where Jackson tells Ally she is beautiful and her eyebrows rise precipitously in surprise. But in the end I was a little disappointed, but not really surprised. I had hoped against hope, knowing the story, that with this fourth variation on a theme Mr. Cooper would have found a way to make the story more uplifting. It is a faithful telling of the story, but it is unfortunate that the story itself is fatally flawed. So I do not fault Mr. Cooper for the ending.

Just as you are not likely to turn Anna Karenina into a musical comedy, it would be very difficult to alter a classic tragedy without making it unrecognizable. (Although Steve Martin did just that with Roxannecreatively found a way to forge a happy ending with Cyrano de Bergerac but still keeping the essence of the tale intact.)

I just can’t help musing that a truly noble heroic Mr. Maine would have manned up to his own weaknesses, sent his protege on her way, and done something meaningful with the rest of his life: mission work in Africa, volunteer for at-risk kids in inner cities, used his notoriety to become an example of what could happen in Scared Straight programs, done PSA's against drugs and drinking. But alas the Roxanne ending was not to be.

I'll give it this, it is not Singing in The Rain. There is no soft peddling, sanitizing or making light of the music profession. And I suspect this Star is an accurate account of the insides of the industry, where one is lucky to get a guest spot at a bar for drag queens while holding down a job as an unappreciated waiter at a local restaurant. That even if you are lucky enough to "make it," the experience is just as likely to make you an addicted, deaf, jaded wreck as it is to provide you with wealth and power and fame. Star does not paint a pretty picture. What it lacks in virtue it makes up for in honesty. If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.

I look forward to Mr. Cooper's next project. I hope it involves some singing because he is quite good. I also look forward to seeing Lady Gaga act again. The relationship between the two was electric and portrayed with a natural chemistry. All of the elements were beautifully crafted and fit like an intricately harmonious chord. I just hope Bradley Cooper finds a more noble project to lend his considerable talents to in the future.

LITTLE WOMEN – ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN YEARS

SHORT TAKE:

Artfully modernized, faithfully told beautiful adaptation for the contemporary audience of the classic story, Little Women.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Anyone. All ages. Please go, bring friends.

LONG TAKE:

We know this story extremely well, inside and out. I’ve read the book. I’ve taught it as part of our curriculum several times over the span of homeschooling six kids.  I have seen a number of filmed versions including the appalling one where Katherine Hepburn was way too old to play Jo and a lovely one with Susan Sarandon as Marme. Our family was IN the danged play at our local community theater 12 years ago. My second oldest daughter played the lead, Jo, and the rest of our family either had parts on stage, behind the scenes or were present for every rehearsal cheering their siblings on. We’ve incorporated lines and expressions like "love lornity" and how French is a "silly slippery language" from the play into our traditional family sayings. Shoot, with four girls of our own, there were times I've felt as though we were LIVING scenes from Little Women…but I had never truly appreciated the story of Little Women until I saw this 2018 modernized film.

Little Women, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the source book, has been refurbished to modern day and is arguably one of the best movies I have seen in years. The film makers have adapted this Civil War era story to the 21st century with the same skill as the innovative Cumberbatch-Freeman Sherlock updated the original Conan Doyle invention, or Steve Martin refreshed Cyrano de Bergerac into the whimsical Roxanne – that is to say with both seamless, creative invention and great respectful affection for the source material. It is a testament to the timelessness of the concepts foundational to Louisa May Alcott’s novel that it translates so well, but it is the talent of the gifted screenwriter Kristi Shimek, newbie director Clare Niederpruem and the actors that makes it blossom onto the screen.

For the benefit of anyone suffering the misfortune of not being familiar with the story, the premise of Little Women follows Jo March from childhood to womanhood as she and her sisters grow and mature together in the warm embrace of loving parents and stalwart friends through joys, embarrassments, mistakes, misunderstandings, and the other comedies and tragedies of life.

For those who are blessed with a familiarity of the subject, rest assured the writer and director have a love and respect for the material. The tale has not been changed by the displacement in time, but is transformed into an image more familiar and therefore more accessible to 21st century audiences, without altering a single iota of character development, story arc, or theme. John Bunyan’s famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is as notable here as it was in the original script and novel, forming the underlying themes of passage from human frailty and sin to redemption, suffering the travails of life with forgiveness, courage, and love. Instead of the Civil War, the father is deployed overseas. Instead of letters they have Skype. The charity the original characters perform for a starving mother and children next door is done at a homeless shelter. The children are homeschooled and the social faux pas are appropriately updated to reflect the unwiseness of modern youth. As many lines as can be are pulled directly from the book, but updates, where needed, are appropriately made.

I’ve known Lea Thompson was a fine actress ever since I first saw Back to the Future at the theater in 1985. I was floored to discover, some 20 minutes into the movie when Marty goes back to the past, that the same woman who played a dowdy, overweight, burnt out, disillusioned and embittered alcoholic was NOT in fact 50 years old but a brilliant little 24 year old actress who nailed the tragic first version of Lorraine in the opening scenes of that now famous movie. She hits the bull's eye again in Little Women as Marme, the gentle, warm and archetype maternal figure of the March family.

I was honestly not familiar with any of the other cast members before seeing this Little Women. Most harken from TV shows and B movies, but every one of the performers is not only tremendous in their roles, but fit into and shape their characters so perfectly I will have difficulty ever thinking of these March family members and friends as anyone but them (with the except of our own family members, of course).

Sarah Davenport is perfect as the high strung, impulsive, often unthinking and deeply emotional Jo. Allie Jennings ditto as Jo’s favorite sister and alter ego, the gentle, kind and resolute Beth. Melanie Stone is lovely as Meg, wanting nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy playing the younger and older Amy, respectively, do a great job of the self absorbed and easily smitten youngest sister without losing Amy’s vulnerability. Lucas Grabeel steps into the part of Laurie with just the right combination of awkward and delightful as the lonely young man next door anxious to join a family. Ian Bohen as the caring and insightful Professor Freddie Bhaer, Bart Johnson as the warm and loving Papa March, Michael Flynn as Laurie’s kind and thoughtful grandfather Mr. Lawrence, Stuart Edge as Brooke, Barta Heiner as Aunt March and even Goober the cat contribute their support to this brilliant and beautiful film adaptation for the contemporary audience.

The dress and sets are simple and fit the time and place of a family of well cared for and spiritually sound young women. The sweetly fitting soundtrack is decorated with modern day songs which accurately reflect the needs of the film's moods. Most of the action takes place in and around the March and Lawrence homes. The filming style is of flash – backs and forwards – as time moves on and memories are rekindled by events in Jo’s dynamic present. And I really enjoyed the cinematically creative and tasteful way Ms. Niederpruem conveyed the passage of time.

Go see this wonderful version of Little Women. Read the book either before or after…or both…and gain a fresh new appreciation for this enchanting, inspiring and enduring tale of spiritual growth, family strength and the power that love and faith have over the buffets and trials of life. Bring Kleenex.

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS – MEDIOCRE FANTASY WITH A POSSIBLY SINISTER UNDERTONE

SHORT TAKE:

Mediocre fantasy, under utilizing what should have been a winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blachett, with scenes which may just have some truly disturbing motivations behind them.

WHO SHOULD GO:

To be safe – adults only.

LONG TAKE:

The House with a Clock in its Walls made me sad, but not in the way that movies are supposed to make you sad, like in Titanic, or Old Yeller, or at the end of Funny Girl.

Maybe it was because it wasn't nearly as good as I thought it was going to be, or maybe it was something more sinister. 

SPOILERS

The premise is of an orphaned boy, Lewis, who is sent to live with his only remaining relative, a reclusive eccentric uncle, Jonathan, (Jack Black), who, it turns out, is a warlock seeking a dangerous magical item, buried within the house, placed there by the house’s previous owner, Isaac, (Kyle MacLachlan). An interesting idea but not well carried out.

First off, there is the acting. I have liked Jack Black ever since he started doing kid and youth films. He is a goofy pleasure in movies like Kung Fu Panda, King Kong and Goosebumps. Cate Blanchett, who plays Jonathan's best friend and antagonist-neighbor Florence, brings an element of class to everything she's in, even the terrible Oceans 8. And of course Blanchett was spectacular as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings.

However the main character, Lewis, (Owen Vaccaro) was just plain old not very good. Perhaps it was the directing but, for example, when the subject of Lewis' parents' death in a car crash comes up, he tears up and wails so much and unexpectedly, it is as though he is faking it and we're all left waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He is unconvincing in other key moments as well, such as when he is supposed to be desperate enough for a friend that he would break his uncle's one rule about not going near a cabinet which contains a forbidden book. There was no effort to convince the audience that Lewis would want to risk his new relationship with his magical uncle.

Maybe it was the inconsistent characters. Lewis comes to the attention of a school favorite named Tarby (Sunny Suljic), who genuinely seems to want to be kind to this new little outcast. But then, suddenly, Tarby is running for a school office, and after getting elected, Tarby becomes a bully. One of the other kids tells Lewis they are not surprised because Tarby does this every election season. This doesn't make any sense because there is very little Tarby has to gain from the friendship with Lewis. 

This turnabout is so awkward, sudden and confusing that I thought, surely, there was more to this character. Is he possessed by the evil ghost of Isaac? IS he the evil Isaac in disguise, and was just using Lewis to gain access to the house? This latter theory seemed to be further encouraged by Tarby's instant and pointed desire to open the one cabinet in the house Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan told him he must never go near, as though Tarby knew all along the forbidden book was there. But no, Tarby is just a mean kid who likes to be nice randomly but only for a few days and serves as a convenient shoe-horned plot device. Sorry, but that's just bad writing.

Then there is Jonathan’s back story. Jonathan left home because he wished to pursue magic and simply assumed his little sister, Lewis' mother, did not want anything to do with him. So much so that Jonathan did not even go to her funeral. Yet without question Jonathan accepts that his sister would have sent her only child to live with him. These two points are inconsistent. Jonathan never has a real moment or explanation as to why he would be so deeply alienated with his sister. And no explanation as to why he would, without question, believe his sister would leave her only child in his care. Which is it? Did Jonathan believe his sister hated him or not?

The movie has so many misdirections, without purpose, that I got the feeling it was written backwards, with the ending in sight but little attention to making sure the path to it from the introduction made sense. And whenever the writer had to get from point A to Point B he just sewed on a patch to make the two plot points connect.

AND – OH YEAH – the clock turns out to be "under the boiler". I'm sorry, but in what universe does "under the boiler" put it therefore "— in the Walls"?

Also, I’m not sure what demographic audience they were going for. It’s silly enough that it should attract a young child crowd – fart jokes and Addams Family-like purple monster snake-tarantulas, standing up to bullies in middle school and ooh aah moments of solar systems coming to life in the living room.

But then there are extremely creepy scenes which would make the movie unacceptable for that same young group: poisoning evil anthropomorphized mannequins to death, violent repeated shaking preceding transformations much like the very disturbing way Penny-Wise the Clown shook in the modern It, a dead mother, (portrayed by Lorenza Izzo, now the estranged wife of the director Eli Roth) appearing in her son’s dreams to get him to seek out a forbidden book, necromancy, having truck with a forked tongued demon who actually licks blood off one of the character’s hands – basically a 7th book Harry Potter aimed at first Harry Potter book-aged children.

Then there is the more sinister aspect of the flaws.

There is an expression I learned in business: The Appearance of Impropriety. That is when, even if your motives are pure as a newborn baptized baby, there are just some things you should avoid doing. For example, whenever my husband drove our babysitters home, he would always tell our kids, "Come on! Let's all go for a ride!" and away a pack of them would go to keep the baby sitter company on the ride. He and I rightly believe that an adult male alone in a car with a young person not his own child is just not appropriate.

And, we do not much care for casinos in our community, so we boycott them. When a close friend held his daughter's wedding reception at one of the casinos’ restaurants, it was with great regret that we had to decline to attend the party. Had we gone, it would have seemed as though we were endorsing the casino. In both cases, we were avoiding The Appearance of Impropriety.

In The House, I am not saying that the character of Uncle Jonathan is doing anything wrong. He keeps his distance, had not sought out the child but was assigned the responsibility of raising his dead sister's son. But the writers left certain bread crumbs that perhaps it would have been better in the current environment not to have sown.

For example, near the end Jonathan is youthened to a baby but left with an adult head. This puts Lewis in a position of carrying around a naked adult in miniature. After Jonathan is restored, while hiding behind some equipment, he asks Lewis to throw him his pants, but more damningly, asks Lewis not to tell anyone that he, Jonathan, was left naked.

Given the circumstances, this is awkward at best. In the current climate of heightened awareness of an epidemic of underage inappropriate sexual predation by authority figures, this was, even in the best light, ill thought out and in very poor taste. Much like the scene in the dog movie Show Dogs, where an animal was coerced into allowing inappropriate touching for judging purposes, even if the circumstances made the behavior objectively understandable, this is not something you want to use as an example for children to follow. Moreover, as book stories are fantasy and so can be written any way the film makers want, there was ZERO reason to put in scenes where Lewis is carrying around a naked man OR to be sworn to secrecy by that same adult male concerning his nakedness in front of the child.

Even assigning innocent motives to the writers, these scenes smack of grooming for pedophiles and should be cut or re-written AS the makers of Show Dogs said they would do. (Though I have not personally confirmed whether or not they actually HAVE re-edited Show Dogs to eliminate or change the offending genital-touching/judging scenes).

Did the writer, Eric Kripke and director Eli Roth, deliberately set up scenes where a young boy is in a compromising situation with an adult male who swears him to secrecy in order to help desensitize millions of children to a similar real life scenario with far more corrupted, ugly and disgusting motives? Or was this just an ill-thought out, ignorant gag by Kripke and Roth, because neither, best I can find out, have any children so did not fully consider the implications?

I don’t really know. But, as I have inculcated to our own children a zillion times: I have never known anyone who regretted being too careful, but I have known a LOT of people who regretted not being careful enough.

What makes me sad, though, is that a movie which could have and should have been a somewhat fluffy entertainment must be analyzed in this way. Fifty years ago we could have easily attributed the innocent motives of the film makers at face value and shrugged off the possibility of any nefarious underlying motives – ALTHOUGH perhaps fifty years ago pedophia grooming could have been perpetrated in this way and we just would not have known to watch for it because its prevalence was not what it is today. Either way, the fact we live in a culture wherein it becomes necessary that even light fare today MUST be scrutinized so carefully in order to protect children makes me very sad.

So – while it’s fairly brainless amusement for adults, it might just be "Stranger Danger" level inappropriate for the kids – whether the film makers intended it to be or not.

OPERATION FINALE – DOING THEIR PART TO HELP THE WORLD “NEVER FORGET”

 

The list of top 20 movies that I would want, were I stranded on a desert island, would include My Favorite Year. It is a loose autobiographical event in the life of Mel Brooks, incarnated as the character Benji, when he was working on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows and Errol Flynn was a guest host. The movie is delightful and comedic and full of extremely memorable lines. One of them is spoken by Alan Swann played by the brilliant Peter O’Toole who, used to declaiming before the relatively small venue of crew and cast members on a movie set, when confronted with the realization that he would be performing on live TV before an audience of hundreds and broadcast out to millions, has a panic attack. Preparing to run out the building, he pronounces to Benji, as though incredulous that they had not understood this before: “I’m not an actor! I’m a movie star!” meaning that he believes himself to be all flash and dazzle and not an artist.

My husband and I have used Swann’s pronouncement to distinguish amongst performers. While there are many movie stars, there are only a handful of actors. Some actors of distinction include hoffman1hoffmanDustin Hoffman, theronCharlize Theron, and streep1streepMeryl Streep, all of whom display an exceptional craft along with an unhesitating commitment, which includes not minding making themselves look ugly, should the roll require it.

SPOILERS BUT ONLY TO THOSE WHO ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE BASICS OF THE HISTORY

kingsleyBen Kingsley falls into this category. Kinglsey is a versatile and mesmerizing actor. From the titular historic Kingsley - ghandiGhandi to the ridiculous kingsley mandarinMandarin in Iron Man 3, from the wise and genlle kingsley schindlerItzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish accountant, in Schindler’s List, to the brutal gangster kingsley sexy beastDon Logan in Sexy Beast, Kingsley displays a repertoire which few could master.

Now, adding to the many suits in Kingsley’s closet, is the portrayal of Adolph Eichmann, the focus of Operation Finale. Kingsley, whose mother’s family was Jewish, brilliantly crafts a chillingly normal portrait of a man who superficially appears like anyone else but on closer examination reveals a hollowness to his soul which he filled with a prosaic ambition to advance a career which only happened to require the systematic murder of millions of innocent people. The morality of his actions did not seem to matter to him one way or the other.

Directed by Chris Weitz, whose family members were Holocaust survivors, (previously known for writing or directing far lighter material such as  Nutty Professor II, Twilight Saga: New Moon, Rogue One, and Antz), Operation Finale is a film about the location, identification, capture, and trial dock2 dockof one of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen, the architect of The Final Solution, the genocidal slaughterer of millions of Jewish families, eichmann and kingsleyAdolph Eichmann. Eichmann is the person about whom the expression “the banality of evil”  Hannah Arendt, reporting on Eichmann’s trial, referred. Arendt recognized these horrific deeds were performed not out of sadism or any evil intent, ditchEichmann by ditchbut by a merely bureaucratic routine functionary going through motions which he thought would advance his career, without any thought or care for the consequences of his actions. To my mind, this is perhaps more horrifying than a serial killer who gets his jollies from inflicting pain and suffering. A serial killer can be temporarily satiated. A Nazi bureaucrat could continue daily for decades without a thought or need to slow.

Forget Regan in The Exorcist or Heath Ledger’s Joker or Michael Myers’ Halloween killer – the frightening matter-of-factness about Kingsley’s Eichmann is as close to an accurate portrayal of the demonic as I hope to ever see.

malkin isaacsOscar Isaac portrays the real life Peter Malkin, a member of the Mossad and survivor of the Nazi genocide, instrumental to this historic Israeli organized clandestine operation. isaacsPresented as historic drama, Operation Finale begins with one of Malkin’s failures and proceeds primarily through his point of view as ephemerally loose threads are found and woven into the net which unearths this man who committed some of the most evil acts in all of mankind’s history – which, given mankind’s propensity for evil acts is saying something.

Also supporting Isaacs’ Malkin are Jewish performers: Melanie Laurent (of both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry) as Hannah, Nick Kroll (raised in a Conservative Jewish family) as Rafi, Michael Aronov as Zvi, Lior Raz  (born in Jerusalem) as Isser, head of the operation, and Ohad Knoller (born Tel Aviv) as Ephraim. Obviously a construct of love and respect for the memories of those slaughtered at the hands of unthinking, unfeeling functionaries, these men and women bear testament to the horrors committed in the name of arrogant totalitarianism, in particular, Nazism.

The film is a re-enactment of the heroic events by the images371MHE58men and women imagesT0P6TZIAwho risked capture, torture and death membert2themselves in Argentina, a country which happily welcomed notorious high ranking Nazis imagesGU3392RLand was still rife with open anti-Semitism.

During the course of Eichmann’s captivity, as the group awaited delayed extraction,  it became necessary for Eichmann to agree in writing to be a willing accomplice to his own extradition. The task evolves from a snatch and grab Mission Impossible adventure to a mental game of cat and mouse. IsaacsAs time begins to run out and the increasingly frustrated and tightly strung agents, some last remaining members of their families, endure proximity to their former tormentor, now prisoner, Malkin takes it upon himself to get inside of Eichmann’s head. We, and they, start to wonder if one side or the other  – Eichmann or the Mossad members – is succumbing to what would later be known as Stockholm Syndrome.

This opportunity to get inside the rationalizations of one of the world’s most notorious people is one of the most valuable aspects of Operation Finale – to remind ourselves that the deeply fundamentally wicked often presents itself as the common and mundane, much like the feral hunters who camouflage themselves in order to get close to their prey. Ted Bundy seemed ordinary, charming and intelligent. Jeffrey Dahmer had a pleasant forgettable face, nothing you’d associate with a serial killer and cannibal. Rarely do those who perform dramatically horrifying actions wear a sign around their neck proclaiming themselves to be masters of evil. Eichmann, as dramatized by Kingsley’s amazing presentation, is no exception.

There is a wise saying by George Santayana in his Reason in Common Sense: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Operation Finale does justice to this moment in history with a film that seeks to help us avoid this perilous omission.

ALPHA – ENGAGING AND BEAUTIFUL PRE-HISTORIC “BOY AND HIS DOG” STORY

SHORT TAKE:

Family friendly (with provisos) pre-historic tale of an injured and lost teen who partners with a wolf for his perilous journey home.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With cautions, anyone.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS (but only for those who have seen no trailers)

A boy and his dog – a classic pairing that dates back all the way to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf, and written into classics such as Kipling's Jungle Book and London's Call of The Wild. Movies have been made about this dynamic relationship from the family friendly Lassie franchise featuring such luminaries as Roddy McDowell to the R-rated cult favorite oddity starring Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, when he was himself a puppy, called A Boy and His (telepathic) DogAlpha is yet another installment in this litany of (how my friend Franklin describes all movies as) a love story with a twist. And I am a sucker for a well done dog movie.

The trailer for Alpha, as is unfortunately the case with most movies nowadays, gives away more than it should. So if you have seen any trailers there will be no additional spoilers. However, I did not find, having seen the trailer and the previews of scenes, take away from the suspense, or enjoyment of the movie.

The premise is about a teenage boy, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the new Kurt Wagner/NightCrawler), the only child and son of Chief Tau (Johannes Johannesson, Lem Lemoncloak from Game of Thrones), is taken on his right of passage into manhood buffalo hunt. He is injured, separated from the tribe, and left, thought dead.

In a series of miraculous but plausible events he survives and begins his long and extremely perilous trek home, finding an unlikely partner in a wolf he calls Alpha,  portrayed by Chuck, a Czechoslavakian Wolfhound.

Set 20,000 years ago, in what would eventually be known as Europe, unlike other movies about prehistoric man, Alpha appropriately portrays these characters as perfectly recognizable, modern-looking humans, only without our tech. They are intelligent, with a close knit family structure, established spiritual philosophy and able to communicate complex thoughts with a detailed language. They're courageous problem solvers, in a defended village, who live in large dome-shaped thatched and mud reinforced wigwams – perfectly recognizable modern humans only without the modern conveniences.

I really like the dynamic portrayed between the wise and gentle, big and burly father as he attempts to train and teach his much gentler son to be the next chief of their tribe. It is a universal, even cliche, conflict and eventual resolution between the expectations of a loving father and the inherent predispositions and abilities of an anxious to please son, played out in what I thought was a new and interesting way.

And I thought especially well played out how the father's teachings provided the boy with invaluable assistance to confront the overwhelming challenges when on his own, how the boy used his father's wisdom, in combination with his own unique approach and instincts, to confront the harrowing trials he had to endure through his long, seemingly impossible journey home – how the unprepared boy, faced with almost certain death, embraces his father's lessons to meet these unplanned tests. Both the audience and he realize along the way, that if he survives his adventure, he will become the capable man and leader he otherwise would not have been.

A number of movies have been made about prehistoric man. The introductory music and landscape for Alpha reminded me of the first 15 minutes of Kubrick's 2001. And the premise of a long silent journey of hazard over primitive terrain without hope of outside rescue I found very reminiscent of Quest for Fire.

But this is where the similarities end.

The characters in Quest for Fire were brutish, and almost comically animalistic as they fell out of trees and laughed at injuries they inflicted on each other, taking food and sexual favors in behavior more akin to a tribe of gorillas than a tribe of humans.

Quest for Fire, though well made and interesting, was a very adult film full of graphic cruelty and casual sexuality, portraying humans as projections of the unproven and largely discreditable Darwinian fallacy of a descendance from apes, which nonetheless is still forced into our schooling system. It was refreshing that the makers of Alpha saw pre-historic homo sapiens as virtually identical to our current men, in all of the fundamental ways that unite us as humans.

Though Alpha does include some violence, most of it happens very quickly, and either in the dark or off screen. In addition, there are a few scenes with maggots and dead rotting animals. As a friend of mine noted, however, nothing you would not see on a hot summer day when you go to take out the trash in my hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Depending, of course, as always, on parental discretion and the temperament of your child, I would even venture to say this movie could be appropriate for the very young child, especially if they like dogs. I would not recommend it for a child who was upset unduly by jump- scares, or gross out images.

The cinematography is gorgeous, even occasionally breathtaking, in the panoramic vistas of undeveloped Canada, masquerading as prehistoric Europe.

So, go check out Alpha. Would make a wonderful first date movie for people who like dogs. And don't discount this even for the youngest members of your family, but do check it out first.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS – ADORABLE CAPRA-ESQUE ROM COM CHINESE-STYLE

SHORT TAKE:

In a word Crazy Rich Asians is … adorable. 1950'S style American rom com – mix of fish-out-of-water and Cinderella – set in Singapore.

WHO SHOULD GO:

I'd have to say this was a very good first date movie. For older teens and up because of a little bit of language mostly from Awkwafina and the idea that the two main characters are sleeping together and not married, as well as some of the shenanigans that Nick's friends get up to, especially when at the wedding and the bachelor party. Nothing grotesque but really for an older crowd.

LONG TAKE:

I have long admired Oriental movies because of their "throwback" attitude which heavily favors family, marriage, and a "clean", profanity-light script. Jackie Chan movies and the Bollywood entries like Spyder (click on the name for the review) being excellent examples. Though made by Warner Brothers and considered an American film, the cast of Crazy Rich Asians is mostly Chinese (the first such movie released from a major American company since the Joy Luck Club in  1993). And CRA follows the same template.

CRA is one of the cutest movies I have seen in a long time. The premise is that a young Chinese couple, Nick (Henry Golding) and Rachel (Constance Wu) go to Singapore for Nick's best friend's wedding. While an intelligent accomplished woman in her own right, Rachel is the daughter of a single working-class mom. Up to this time Nick has lived modestly, even attending a YMCA which, according to Rachel, smells bad, so Rachel thinks he is just a working class stiff like herself.  In the course of the trip over, Rachel discovers Nick is extremely wealthy, from a celebrity family, and considered royalty in Singapore. The first class tickets with champagne and a full sized bed on the overnight flight are dead giveaways. If anyone remembers the old 1981 Dudley Moore-Liza Minnelli movie Arthur, they would find a lot of similarities, only Nick is not an alcoholic and Rachel is not a shoplifter.  The superficially polite but snobby, cruel friends, his vicious ex-girlfriend, the poor girl's plain talking friend and ally, the conflicts, and the ultimate resolution, are all variation of this familiar Moore-Minelli theme. And in truth, BOTH movies really harken back to Pride and Prejudice, the story of a young woman who marries for love DESPITE, not because of, the fact the object of her affection is rich and she is poor. (Nice of her to forgive him that little peccadillo, eh?)

I love the clever title. Does it refer to Nick's family being "crazy rich," as in Tony Stark rich? Or does it means that rich Asians tend to be crazy? Or both? Probably both.

As I mentioned, CRA harkens back to the values and rhythms of the old 1950s romantic comedies. Honor, marriage, family, hard work, altruism, and a Judeo-Christian philosophy are all virtues to be admired and make the main characters successful. Even the Warner Brothers logo looks pretty retro.

Crazy Rich Asians has a very Frank ("It's a Wonderful Life") Capra-esque feel to it with its simple straightforward storyline, a certain romantic idealism, and the presumption in the goodness of our main characters. Perhaps it would be one of Capra's lesser works, but definitely has that wonderful Capra aftertaste to it which makes you walk out of the theater feeling good. The story is populated with a plethora of interesting side characters both nice and treacherous. There is Nick's controlling mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Nick's preternaturally kind sister Astrid (Gemma Chan), Rachel's very eccentric best friend Peik (Awkwafina from the awful Ocean's 8), Nick's flamboyantly lovable cousin Oliver (Nico Santos, one of the few non-Chinese, as he is Filipino), and Lisa Lu as the matriach and Nick's grandmother.

Lisa Lu's film pedigree is the most impressive of the cast, dating back to 1958. Primarily in TV all the way back to Shirley Temple's Storybook, her diverse small screen career has covered ground from Cimarron City to The Odd Couple. She has also been in a number of ecclectic and well known films including 1988's Academy Award sweeping The Last Emperor, the blockbuster 2012, and the critically acclaimed Joy Luck Club.

MAJOR SPOILER

There's really only one sour note in this charming tune – and that's the subplot concerning Astrid and her self-described "commoner" husband Michael (Pierre Png). The relationship problems felt awkward and crowbarred in, as if to chide us with the caution that love is not always the fairytale we'd like it to be. But the set up is not fully convincing and the "pay-off" unsatisfying. If we are to be persuaded that Michael would cheat on someone as gorgeous and alluring, affectionate, considerate and kind as Astrid, we must be given more than his casual annoyance of her shopping habits. In a film with a similar set up – Funny Lady, the Fanny Brice bio-pic sequel to Funny Girl, when Brice's second husband, Billy Rose, leaves the famous Ms. Brice for another woman, there is reason. Fanny, for one, had taken off on a ludicrous jaunt to reconnect with her first husband, Nicky Arnstein. When Fanny returns, she finds Billy in bed with someone else. Billy gently explains to Fanny that while he still loves Fanny, this other woman looks at him, Billy, the way Fanny does at Nicky. OK – THAT'S a good reason to be unhappy in your marriage. I'm not saying that they did not BOTH act like complete idiots instead of healing their marriage, but it is a satisfyng REASON which the audience can understand, even if not agree with. Michael, in Crazy Rich Asians just comes off as a disposable random McGuffin.

Aside from that, Crazy Rich Asians is a lovely, funny, sweet movie.

There's no big agenda, no underlying score to settle with any demographic or socially (ir)relevant issue, like the kinds of time wasters pumped out by the likes of Michael Moore, which clog up our cinemas today. Crazy Rich Asians is just a good, old-fashioned, funny modern view of Chinese life in both America and in Singapore set against the background of a lovely romance.

And if you, like I do, want the cinemas to be graced with more movies like this in the future – GO SEE Crazy Rich Asians… Or is it Crazy-Rich Asians? Perhaps CRAZY Asians who happen to be rich? As opposed to rich Asians who are NOT crazy?

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME – A FUNNY TAKE OFF OF BOND MOVIES

SHORT TAKE:

Lighthearted romp from the point of view of a discarded Bond girl.

WHO SHOULD GO:

To paraphrase a Bond title: For Adult Eyes Only. Ears too. Language, violence and adult situations but surprisingly and thankfully little inappropriate sexual content.

LONG TAKE:

You know all those girls who have been bedded and shedded by the Bonds over the last 26 years? To paraphrase a line from Lion in Winter – you could populate a fair city with the fair number of girls who have borne with Bond.

And neither we nor he ever hears from them again. Now imagine that one of them does NOT go quietly into the night.

Mila Kunis (Jupiter Rising, Oz the Great and Powerful and Black Swan) is Audrey, the heartbroken reject of Drew (Justin Theroux) who quite literally loved her and…left. Kate McKinnon (pathetic gender swap Ghostbusters) is Morgan, her more than slightly insane best friend. The two women are very ordinary people. Audrey is kind of quiet and underestimates her own abilities but, egged on by Morgan, takes it upon herself to seek revenge on Drew by burning all of his stuff. Little does she know this includes a trophy which contains something that could get them all killed. And since Audrey's angry vindictive ex-girlfriend texts, mostly written by Morgan, are being monitored by a number of different lethal interests, everyone converges on the shocked Audrey and Morgan. Through what Audrey admits is plain dumb luck they escape to begin the most unplanned of adventures.

One of the things I enjoyed about The Spy Who Dumped Me was that neither of these women had any special abilities, but simply reacted the way any one of us normal mortals might – screaming, running and trying to simply get out of the way. No planned heroics, no endurance of torture, just: "Get me the Heck away from all of this." But fortune has other ideas. Luckily for them, they have a few Guardian Angels: Sebastian (Sam Heughan) a friendly agent and Morgan's marvelously unflappable parents – Arnie, a very successful trial attorney (Paul Reiser, who has a resume which includes the unlikely duo of both Mad About You and Aliens) and Jane Curtain (SNL veteran, Coneheads and Third Rock From the Sun). When informed their daughter has killed someone, Arnie assumes blasely, "Self defense, right? We can fix that." 

If I were to use one word to describe why I liked this movie it would be  "balance." I loved the tone of the movie which balanced just the right amount of realism with comedy.

It followed the straight vertical "rules" of a Bond movie with its intrigue and mystery, guns and car chases, superhuman feats of deering do and gorgeously athletic men and women, but smoothly incorporated the odd angles of the "everyman" perspective. Audrey and Morgan want to do the right thing BUT would very much like to drop this entire mess in someone else's hands.

The characters are all a lot of fun. I thought the yin and yang of Audrey's mousey start with Morgan's literal bouncing off the wall worked really well. Morgan kick starts Audrey's odyssey and Audrey keeps Morgan from running off too many cliffs. Like a human Push Me Pull You from Dr. Doolitte, they made a great pair that kept the tone light but exciting. Kunis is beautiful, McKinnon kinetic, Reiser and Curtain are warm and funny, Heughan is just the right combination of cool and unsure of his new "partners of necessity". And Gilian Anderson (X-Files) has a small role as Wendy, their version of "M".

There's nothing deep and meaningful about The Spy Who Dumped Me, but it is a treat to watch.

I would not want to spoil the plot any more than I would want to remove the chocolate chips out of your freshly baked cookie.

BUT – let's just say: Forget Julius No, Auric Goldfinger, Jaws and Oddjob. Instead, perhaps Drew should have suggested the famous Double "O" watch out for some of the women he left behind.  Hell hath no fury like a woman who is dumped.

DARKEST MINDS – DERIVATIVE TEEN ROMANCE DRESSED UP AS WEAK DEPRESSING SCI FI

SHORT TAKE:

Paint-by-numbers teen-romance/sci-fi full of plot holes and borrowed ideas.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to older teens only, for language, X-Men style violence and a couple of aggressive advances by pervy bad guys.

LONG TAKE:

Combine Divergent with the new/retro X-Men then flavor with a teaspoon of Children of Men and you have Darkest Minds.

Based on a series of books by Alexandra Reagan, the premise is that a virus infects all children. Most die but the survivors are left with superpowers. The government is afraid of them so, on the pretext of looking for a cure, rounds them up into prison-like camps, where they are overseen by abusive soldiers, given menial tasks to do and occasionally euthanized. One of the internees, Ruby, (Amandla Stenberg from Hunger Games) gifted with mind control, escapes with the help of a sympathetic doctor, Cate (Mandy Moore) and seeks sanctuary with other runaways.

There are so many weak, illogical and unappealing features to this movie that I will only hit upon the highlights.

The two favorite whipping boys of the lazy liberal screenwriters are corporate CEOs and the military. Our military are the scapegoats in this one. All are seen as cruel and abusive to the last remaining children on the planet. Not only is this stupid, but would be an enormous waste of incredible powers displayed by the children. For example, heightened intelligence children are sent to polish shoes. Why? Why are they not put to work creating super gizmos?

Set ups are never paid off. In one scene, our protagonist is cornered by a pervy-acting soldier and another girl deliberately makes him angry to distract him. She is taken away, presumably for punishment, but we never see her again.

Ruby sends a bounty hunter off into the woods to walk herself to death. Then the kids walk off into the same woods without ever mentioning her again. Also, this is almost exactly the punishment Wolverine's dying girlfriend, Kayla, metes out to Stryker at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Along with enhanced intelligence, powers of other children in the camp include telekinesis and the ability to control electricity.

Children who demonstrate more powerful abilities such as mind control or fire breathing are euthanized.

If a corrupt military had access to this kind of firepower, the idea that these children would be either killed or corralled and simply housed is ludicrous. Why would they not at least weaponize them?

There is no reveal as to what was going on in the rest of the world. If it was only in the United States, we would have a significant advantage with a race of super children. Was the virus a pandemic? Where did the virus come from? Was it manufactured ? of alien origin? Was it supposed to be a natural part of humans' development? The writers seem more interested in making the military look inherently evil and jumping right to the teen drama than writing a solid coherent story.

The performances of the children are adequate but fairly banal and what you might expect in a teen romance film dressed up as a Sci-Fi.

It's a shame because they had the skeleton ideas for a really good movie. One thread they could have followed was when the runaways come upon an abandoned farm and one of the older kids mentions simply but insightfully: no children, no economy.

This is common sense the global warming cultists and the abortion mentality fanatics fail to grasp. Putting aside the Holocaust level atrocity of the philosophy that there are too many of us and that children, thereby, are at best an inconvenience and at worst a plague to be minimized or eliminated, it is a basic fundamental of economics that a population does not grow also does not thrive.  This is a concept that the far superior Children of Mendid not just glance at but understood and embraced.

The devastated and abandoned areas in Darkest Minds the children come across are one of the few accurate portrayals of the outcome of the loss of our next generation. To do a crossover moment, this is the landscape that Thanos and those others who believe in overpopulation, would create. Darkest Minds could have been a kind of Children of Men spinoff but this point was never followed up.

Another really good idea which was little utilized was Watership Down, a brilliant story by Richard Adams seen from the point of view of a group of adventuring rabbits. The idea of a group of intrepid outcasts, wandering from one dysfunctional society to another in the wake of a massive catastrophe, rejecting them all, seeking sanctuary and finding it in family would have been a real upgrade to this plot. Instead, Ruby, the main protagonist, finds this book to read to the youngest child in their group. The blessing that God gives to rabbits is quoted: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning." Ruby applies it to her love interest, Liam (Harris Dickinsen), but this is unearned. "The Prince with A Thousand Enemies" is a clever trickster leader who brings his family through a series of dangerous adventures. Liam, while a nice young man, is merely one of a group of kids trying to survive. He's not an especially strong leader, nor shown to be particularly adept at thinking outside the box. If they wanted to make this Watership Down analogy work they should have set it up properly, instead of just throwing it in hoping it would stick by virtue of having been mentioned. This tactic does not work.

Ruby kills somewhat randomly, though not without reason.  She forces soldiers to shoot into an opposing group, gets a helicopter pilot to do a suicide dive, and makes the pervy soldier shoot himself in the head. I only bring this up because elsewhere in the movie the group she is with objects to the idea of joining an anti-government group call the Children's League. They are afraid the League would train them to be soldiers and kill people. Seems a bit inconsistent without at least some espoused rationalization. The screenwriters need to pick a side and stick to it. Is it okay to use these powers lethally or not?

Essentially, this is a so-so forgettable teen romance with about as much originality as Eragon, set against a background of sci-fi which plays out like a first treatment idea instead of a fully fleshed-out screenplay.

Finally, I must wonder why screenwriters almost always see the future as dystopian. Granted a conflict is useful in the creation of an interesting story, but there's no reason a functioning healthy society couldn't be challenged, instead of starting from the assumption that life sucks. Star Trek, Dr. Who and the Avengers – three of the most profitable and long lasting frachises in all of cinematic history – all celebrate more often than not, the advances, achievements, creativity and essential goodness of humanity – and that sentient life is the most valuable thing in the material Universe. You'd think the writers of such depressing movies as Hunger Games, Divergent, Ready Player One, The Road, Book of Eli, 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451, Clockwork Orange, and Brazil would start from a more optimistic threshold. After all, what is the point of fighting for a world which will not get any better? Not that these are all bad  movies – on the contrary many on the list are classics. It's just you'd think the truly creative might come up with a more positive outlook on life and our future. As Trek and Who, in particular, have shown, it is possible to have conflict and even make intelligent social commentary and still have a more optimistic view of life. Just sayin'.

WARNING: A little bit of language, some X-Men style violence of gunshots, fire breathing, explosions and people being thrown around, along with the pervy antagonist scenes, makes this suitable really for older teens and up only. If you were comfortable with your kids seeing X-Men, this would likely be fine.