THE GIVER – AN ORWELLIAN TALE FOR THE YOUNGER AUDIENCE

SHORT TAKE:

Dystopian, cautionary tale of the quietly, dysfunctional society, which has chosen the security of “Sameness” over independent thought, strong emotions, or variety, and the boy tasked to be the new “Receiver” of all the memory experiences everyone else has rejected.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Appropriate for any and all ages but the sophisticated concepts and deliberately monochromatic presentation may be unengaging for younger audience members.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Giver, is a societal fiction parable based on the children’s novel of the same name by Lois Lowry, which follows the character arc of a boy named Jonas. Jonas, played by Abram Conner, lives in a society which has rejected individuality and Free Will for the unquestioned “security” of Sameness. They believe that to be given a choice is to risk making a mistake and enduring pain.

To that end there are no strong emotions, memories of anything except what needs to be known for their chosen jobs, or even color. Differences are not tolerated and those who fall outside of the exacting parameters of what is acceptable: the old, the lame, the unhappy, even twins for the “confusion” they could bring – are relegated to Elsewhere by an unseen but loudspeaker commanding “Committee”. No one is to ask where “Elsewhere” is, there is no reference to any higher authority than the Committee, and God, as well as His gift of Free Will, by default, has been excluded as well. As a result, morality is what the Committee says it is and all acts commanded by them are accepted. A chilling thought with chilling consequences.

Jonas is surprised, (which surprise is apologized for by the Chief Elder), by being chosen as the next Giver. The Giver’s job is to hold, then pass on to the next Giver, the unwanted knowledge and experiences of the human race. The Giver is an advisor to the unseen but unquestionably obeyed, Committee, providing them with perspective they do not have, when faced with situations for which they are unprepared. For example, his is the voice of reason to not shoot down a plane which has accidentally overshot their air space.

But while there is no violence or discord, there is also no mercy or love. Babies are produced by what one might consider “brood mare” humans and then assigned to a parental unit constructed and assigned by the “Committee”. No natural births or normal intimacies are permitted but routinely squelched with medication. Only Jonas and the Giver feel anything deeply.

This is a brave and difficult to play to produce as emotions, interactions, and even colors are muted to beige and gray. The only meaningful actions take place in Jonas’ mind as the Giver gifts him with memories of things like snow and hills, which have been eliminated with “climate control” and geographical obliteration.

Director Kris Webster had the challenging task of creating a world without hues or music and few sounds outside of the actors subdued voices. Only as Jonas learns of the world “before” does he emote or perceive color.

Abram Conner, as Jonas, carries a large load on his young shoulders as the primary conveyor of emotion and personal complexity, having to act out what neither the other characters nor the audience can see. Scott Holtzman, as the Giver, is the weary voice of one who has been burdened too long with all the joys and woes in the troubled past of the world and functions as the one source of true fatherhood to Jonas. Jordan Gribble plays Jonas’ “assigned” father, Taylor Novak-Tyler his chosen mother and Annie Hachtel as his selected sister. Kane Todd and Ashley Dickerson are Jonas’ school companions, Aaron Webster is the Chief Elder and Margaret Martin is one of the aging members of the community. The troupe has the imposing task of having to rein in every actors’ instinct to emote, in order to portray this Orwellian environ, which has more in common with 1984 than you might expect in a child’s story.

The props are minimalistic as in Our Town with chairs and tables and a sled being brought on and off as the needs be. The mood is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery with an air of over-supervised gloom hanging over the story. The clothes are gray and unadorned, the furniture is drab and featureless, even the books are (at first) without color.

A play which includes veiled topics of euthanasia, failed tries at utopian societies, and Free Will is strong fare for a story aimed at a youth demographic, but The Giver playing February 8 – 18, 2019 at ACTS Theatre, will lend (see what I did there?) itself to spirited conversation in the debate about the cost of relinquishing one’s Free Will in the name of what appears to be the Ultimate Nanny State.

So, the moral might suggest, when thinking about the possibilities of a world without conflict or pain, without discord or obstacles to overcome ….. be careful what you wish for.

THE CARPENTER – NEW DARK COMEDY OF ERRORS PREMIERING AT THE ALLEY THEATRE, HOUSTON, TX – COULD HAVE USED A BIT OF – RECONSTRUCTION

SHORT TAKE:

Clever, amusing and dark comedy of errors, Texas-style, which would have benefited from a couple more runs through the drafting process.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for gratuitous profanities and bawdy behavior.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Carpenter, making its world premiere run now through February 10, 2019 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas is a clever but flawed play. Written by Houston’s own Rob Askins as part of the Alley’s All New Festival in 2017, the play is a loose — a very VERY loose version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper – though that is only my observation. I did not see that reference in any of the interviews with the playwright.

 

First let me say that the Alley Theatre is a GORGEOUS venue where there are NO BAD SEATS! And I admire the Alley for staging and lending so much time and effort to new innovative plays. So kudos and plaudits to one and all involved with this production.

The story is about two half-brothers who meet for the first time as adults in a bar. The older brother, Gene, is a hard drinking, womanizing, bad-decision-making ne’er do well who introduces himself to the audience Our Town Stage Manager-style at the beginning of the play with a soliloquy espousing his own personal, somewhat profane, world view. The younger brother, Dan, is an up and coming programmer about to make the sale of his life. Despite never having met they bear a significant resemblance in the way they look and dress and their personal preferences in beer. Dan lets slip he is getting married that weekend and with vague promises of getting together again some time makes  a hasty retreat. Gene, slyly winking to the audience, justifies his ominously referenced future actions with an analogy about the envy one primitive must feel for his sibling who has learned to climb, being able to thereby achieve a spot closer to the sun.

Gene’s predictable and unwanted appearance at the pre-wedding festivities in Dan’s soon-to-be in-laws, very posh, Dallas, Highland Park home, is compounded by Dan’s humiliation-inspired fabrications about Gene being the Carpenter who will build for his bride, Terry, a gazebo for the wedding.

I won’t tell more above the SPOILER warning sign because I don’t want to ruin the fun for those who want to be surprised, but I suspect Mr. Askins, to his credit, was informed in his plot choices by many of Shakespeare’s comedies of error and mistaken identities.

Before I launch into a Cinema-Sins style critique let me advise that The Carpenter IS a lot of fun and I enjoyed the romp, but was frustrated by the fact it could have been so much better.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

I understand the desire modern playwrights have to make cheap emphasis with expletives and even bawdy sexual references, but the plethora of them in this play is not only lazy writing and off putting, but undermines those moments when a carefully chosen profanity or innuendo might have had the impact the author was looking for. But by the time those chosen moments arrive we are numb to any effect.

The stage was gorgeous. I was not privy to the script so do not know how much of the stage craft was dictated by the playwright’s instructions and how much was the director’s responsibility. On first glance it was stunning. A bright white, elegantly appointed living room with an embarrassment of evidence that a wedding was being planned in a wealthy Texan home: couple photos and balloons, a stuffed paper mache ostrich and a box of stuffed white doves, and a large framed photo of their (probably prize winning) horse Bodacious. Large cushioned foot rests by a large sofa would serve as a collection spot for the actors to lounge and play on. And right in the middle was a dazzling gold festooned curved staircase leading up to an ample second floor. Eight openings in the stage, up and down stairs and into the audience area, provided an enormous amount of flexibility for the performers, which served well as the action heated up and the exits and entrances became flights and chases.

The trouble is that the staircase blocked a lot of the action. Had it been far downstage it would have served the same purpose but not gotten in the way. There is nowhere in the audience where some of the action wasn’t obscured, no matter how clever the blocking for the actors.

SERIOUS SPOILER

The mood throughout the play is slapstick humorous with a teensy touch of the sinister while promising that all will be well in the end – sort of like Noises Off meets Two Gentlemen From Verona. But nowhere in the play does the author or director prepare you for the sharp left turn into film noir, Agatha Christie territory it takes in the last five minutes. To its credit there is a Thornton Wilder touch of moralizing, tying Gene’s speech in the beginning to a warning about the inevitability of fate that comes, in one form or another, to us all – that we must be prepared because it can come when we least expect it. But in a turn as twisty as the elegant stairs in the Alley Theater itself, but more fitting to the middle of Deathtrap than the much lighter play The Carpenter leads us to believe it is, we suddenly jumped to the end of a far darker story. Kind of like finding out the comedian who you thought was playing a heart attack for laughs really — died. (Which actually happened to Dick Shawn).

But even this would have worked had the denouement occurred in the middle of the play with time to incorporate the event into the warp and woof of the story OR had there been any indication that one or the other of the brothers had had a darker past than was inferred. I, frankly, fully expected one more twist to rectify this contradiction in mood before blackout, but none came. Instead it was a payoff without adequate set up.

When you call something The Carpenter, especially when the main character wags on in a homiletic fashion, it is not unreasonable to expect a few Christian themes or at least a nod in that direction, but despite the backdrop of a marriage there was none. Even the ceremony was thrown at the couple by the bride’s best friend during a particularly ridiculous action scene as a dressed up civil ceremony with delusions of New Age druidism.

Then there’s Terry, the rich and indulged but confused and sweet fiancée who really only wants to love and be loved by Dan. But in the play’s final minutes, and without sufficient justification or provocation Terry goes from being like the loveable but ding batty Gracie Allen to Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd.

The reaction of Venus, Gene’s stripper girlfriend, to the climactic scene is uncharacteristically, but plot conveniently, bland, exiting without real purpose, leaving us wonder where the firebrand we initially met went.

While perhaps Mr. Askins is suggesting that we all wear masks under which are monsters, the transformation is unexpected, under prepped and jarring.

If it was supposed to be a comedy, the characters should have all received a certain justice. If a tragedy, then they all get some kind of comeuppance, even if that is death. But there was only a little of both and not enough of either to be satisfying.

There are also a LOT of “in-jokes” about Google in particular, the tech world in general and the current political scene, which will age very poorly. Granted, this kind of nod to a contemporary audience dates from Greek plays (Aristophanes’ ribald Lysistrata was written as a protest against what he saw as the waste of life in the Peloponnesian War), to Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers – whose song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” was titled as a lampoon of a notorious Hollywood coke dealer). But where those classics used such frippery as decoration, throw-away lines which a modern audience can ignore and still enjoy the play, Mr. Askins leans so heavily on current events that ticketholders 20 years from now may be scratching their heads in confusion at half of the jokes.

The acting was fun as Gene and Dan imitated the mannerisms and eccentricities of each other, first in jest and sarcasm and latter in more earnest. Everyone else was a broad caricature: Terry, the Texan equivalent of a Valley girl, Claire her promiscuous best friend decked out like a walking fashion extravaganza, Kip as Terry’s rich Texas father drunkenly shooting at the ceiling with his ever present oversized rifle, Steve as Dan’s best friend-promoter in his golf outfit-style mismatching clothes. They were funny and heroically gave it their all, but the script lent them insufficient material. (Upper left reading clockwise: Cass Morgan – Cheryl – Dan’s mom, Ken Wulf Clark – Dan, Wade McCollum – Gene, Jessica Savage – Claire, Buddy Haardt – Steve, T. Ryder Smith – Kip, Brooke Wilson – Venus, Valeri Mudel – Terry, Molly Carden – Dan’s down-to-Earth sister).

If I have mentioned a lot of other stories: Our Town, Noises Off, Sweeney Todd, Deathtrap, it is because this play feels more derivative that it should have. It is as though Mr. Askins did not have the courage of his fundamentally interesting convictions and hid behind a lot of references. That is a shame because I believe he had something fairly important to say – that life is short and death will one day come for all of us. But his heavy handed awkward treatment of this message got a bit ….. buried, if you’ll excuse the pun.

While I was glad I went and it IS worth the ticket price, I think Mr. Askins has promise but it was not completely …. nailed down… in The Carpenter.

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LUTCHER THEATER – A FONT OF THEATRICAL TREASURES AND A REVIEW OF SOMETHING ROTTEN

SHORT TAKE:

Go to the Lutcher Theater in Orange, Texas to take advantage of all its theatrical delights.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone, depending on the age appropriateness of the play being offered.

LONG TAKE:

Something Rotten has come and gone from the Lutcher Theater, but more about that later.

My husband and I have been to this lovely performing arts venue, the Lutcher Theater, many times. They are nestled in Orange, Texas at 707 W. Main Ave. and their season never disappoints.  You can get tickets here for the shows remaining season and for information for seasons to come.  We highly recommend you frequent this treasure. From the well chosen plays to the building itself, where there are no bad seats, we suggest you discover for yourself the Lutcher Theater and all the theatrical magic it has to offer.

Recently we traveled to see Something Rotten. I mean, it isn’t rotten. Well, the play we saw IS Something Rotten, but it is not, in fact, ANY kind of rotten. It really is, actually, wonderful. Nominated for dozens of awards, the play garnered Christian Borle the 2015 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Cleverly conceived and amusingly told, Something Rotten’s title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s most well known play, Hamlet, when Marcellus, a soldier who has seen the ghost of their deceased king, warns that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” But the play Something Rotten is most definitely NOT – rotten.

Something Rotten musically tells the story of the two Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, who are rather good playwrights. However, they have the great misfortune of being contemporaries of, and therefore, competitors with — Shakespeare.

The tone is self-parody but the execution is erudite. While the whole thing is a hoot and laugh out loud funny in the witty lyrics and energetic pacing, it is steeped – DEEPLY – as you might expect, in Shakespearean language.

HOWEVER, EVEN if you’ve never heard a word of Hamlet, or Much Ado; if you think of Othello as only a board game and MacBeth may as well be in Swahili for all the sense it makes to you, you will still find Something Rotten very entertaining, but then you’ll miss the rich pudding of inside jokes. Almost every line, situation, and concept is referential to a Bardian play, and skewed by droll songs into a reflective parody. It’s comical and self-aware, often skating right up to that fourth wall but never quite breaking it.

And if that were not enough, there are homages to dozens and dozens of other Broadway shows. In the song, “A Musical,” for example, there are at least 20 allusions to other Broadway outings from Suessical to Sweeney Todd, from Annie to Evita. But you have to be quick to catch all the lines of lyric or iconic musical phrases.

And anachronisms abound. It’s a translation, if you will, of what the Renaissance might have been like in London, seen through modern eyes. Shakespeare is treated like a rock star, holding MTV-style stage performances of his sonnets and signing autographs on women’s bosoms. In “It’s Hard to be The Bard”  he moans of his own self-doubts in having to one-up himself with every play – a sentiment which I’m sure can be shared by every high performing actor and director in Hollywood. While the Bottom brothers moan their financial doldrums and the older brother loathes the far more successful Will Shakespeare in “I Hate Shakespeare,” his younger brother Nigel is a fan.  Frustrated and desperate, Nick seeks out the fortune teller, Nostradamus, who sings his predictions of the future, in “A Musical.”

Meanwhile, Nick’s wife, Portia, decides to dress up like a man and go out to earn some much needed rent money in “Right Hand Man,”and Puritans seek to close Nick down or have him beheaded. If the names and some of the situations ring a Shakespearean bell, that is because they are supposed to.

To get a delectable taste of the show watch here as the Broadway cast performs two songs on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The costumes are period, the performers we saw were child-on-a-sugar-high, contagious level energetic. I do not know what troupe you might see but the musical lends itself to an upbeat, feel-good time for all.

But it is not FOR all audience members. The language can get rough and, while nothing is seen or done, the topics of conversation occasionally veer into the bawdy.

While no longer, at the moment, in Beaumont, you can catch this little gem on its tour around the country. And if you can’t catch up to it geographically, do not dismay. I predict that some day soon this will be transformed into a movie. It’s too delicious not — to be. (See what I did there?)

 

GREEN BOOK – MUST SEE COMEDY-DRAMA LESSON ON HISTORY AND HUMANITY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GREEN BOOK REVIEW

 

SHORT TAKE:

Excellent buddy dramedy based closely on the real life friendship between a black gifted but haughty pianist and the thuggish but fundamentally noble white bouncer he hires to chauffeur him during a concert tour through the Deep South in the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Any mature mid-teen and up but with parental discretion due to language, the examination of extreme racism during this time period and some conversation topics.

LONG TAKE:

Green Book is one of the most delightfully charming movies I’ve seen in a long time. The story is about a New York Copacabana bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, conventionally bigoted for the 1960s, hired as the driver for a brilliant black pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, for a concert tour through the Deep South.

Based on a true story, Tony Vallelonga was already a part of Hollywood. The real Vallelonga appeared in movies like Goodfellas. His son, Nick, wrote and helped produce this movie based upon interviews with him and Dr. Shirley about this road trip taken when Nick was a little boy.

The title refers to the name of the catalogue the men use as a guide for the places that black people were allowed to go – the hotels, vacation spots, tourist areas, bars, and gas stations where black people could stay without fear of harassment from regional authorities and punitive local ordinances. The title comes from its author, Victor Hugo Green, a New York postman and a black man. The book was published yearly from 1936 until 1966, when Civil Rights Law made it, thankfully, obsolete.

The unlikely pair are wonderful to watch. An entire play could have been made just out of their time in the car together as they exchange observations of the world from their own unique perspectives. Tony is white, tough, with a mediocre education, naive in his own way, and world-wise in others, who lives in a simple small house with his devoted wife and two boys,  living somewhat hand to mouth, between jobs, even willing to engage in a hot dog eating contest for an extra $50 towards the soon-to-be due rent. Shirley also grew up poor, but after being recognized for his gifted playing has become an effete, sheltered, black man residing in an artfully appointed apartment literally above Carnegie Hall. He distances himself from his black heritage in particular and most people in general. Both have much to teach the other.

We get a tour of 1960’s Americana, from the gift stands at the local gas stations to the tough bars, and the “coloreds only” seedy hotels to which Dr. Shirley is relegated because of the color of his skin.

The acting is Oscar-worthy. Mortensen, stepping, chameleon-like into the skin of this gruff and uneducated but likeable and protective bodyguard, is almost unrecognizable in physique, mannerisms or even speech patterns from such previous characters as the seduced professor Halder from Good or the incorruptible hero Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Along with the accent, the body movements and facial expressions of Vallelonga, which surviving son Nick claimed were so accurate they brought him to tears, Mortensen gained 45 pounds to get into character. Mortensen’s Vallelonga is a three-dimensional character from moment one on the screen throughout. Brutal and thoughtful, principled and amoral, loving father, devoted faithful husband, and violent bouncer, Mortensen creates a completely recognizable person from characteristics which could have lent themselves to a cliched caricature.

Mahershala Ali (small parts in Hidden Figures and Hunger Games) does an excellent job of portraying the stiff and defensive Shirley while incorporating the subtle chinks in his armor through which the unassuming Vallelonga connects. His Shirley is sensitive and subtle with a tough core of dignity, principle, and determined courage.

Linda Cardellini (Daddy’s Home) is lovely as Tony’s devoted wife, Dolores. In real life the Vallelongas were happily married for 41 years until her death in 1999.

In addition there is the fantastic music, and delightful songs played in classical mode by Dr. Shirley. The background soundtrack was written by Karol Bowers whose hands, through the miracle of CGI, physically sub for the gifted Dr. Shirley piano performances. Much effort went into blending Ali’s physical performance with Bowers piano playing prowess and it works very convincingly.

Peter Farrelly, whose credits up until now mostly amounted to questionable  movies such as Three Stooges, Movie 43 and Shallow Hal, has really found his inspiration in this script. Green Book is masterfully crafted – balancing the natural humor that comes from people simply interacting with each other against the tragic drama of abuse, condescension and indignities which black people endured all over the country during the 1960’s. Every detail is complete and period – from the gas station gift stands full of trinkets to the chandeliered restaurants and the florid night clubs.

By all accounts the script details both their trip and their characters very accurately, coalescing experiences described in interviews with both Vallelonga and Shirley. The only liberty taken was that the road trip lasted, not two months, but a year and a half! While taken directly and in detail from real life, the story still serves as an allegory. Vallelonga is an  example of the transformation America was making from the caricature perceptions of minorities to the informed friendships and respect which would soon be crafted, blossom and become commonplace all over the country.

Historically educational, were it not for the rough language, admittedly appropriate to the characters, their occupations, times and places, and one scene depicting a massive character flaw of Shirley, this movie would be family-appropriate. As it is, while I very highly recommend this movie, it is only for midteens and up and even then only upon the discretion of a pre-informed parent. The language is not confined to profanity, but is littered with historically accurate racial epithets often casually included in conversation.

This is a movie both men should be very proud of having made. It touches on very sensitive racial issues from the ’60’s but does so with politically incorrect good natured humor, an acknowledgement of the past with both its virtues and its mistakes, and attention to detail in authenticity which would have made any history professor proud.

With its slice of the past, the inspirational character learning curves, the marvelous music, and the splendid performances, time going to see Green Book is time well spent.

THE MULE – HARD EARNED ADVICE FROM CLINT EASTWOOD

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE MULE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Rough but insightful view of the true story of an 88 year old man’s experiences as a mule for a drug cartel, with some autobiographical overtones for Eastwood in the foolish sacrifice the main character makes of his family in preference for his business life.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language, topics, and environments which include wild parties, drugs and scantily clad prostitutes.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS

I admire those who make movies that are completely politically incorrect. It takes great big brass bowling, base, golf, and basket ones to do so in this day and age. And that’s what I love about Clint Eastwood – and he must have a large collection of sports equipment. At the age of 88, with a repertoire of films including cultish Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, action icons like Dirty Harry, directorial accomplishments like American Sniper, even comedies like Paint Your Wagon (did you know before The Mule he could sing…well carry a tune) and masterpieces which he has directed and starred in like  Gran Torino and Unforgiven, I do not think Clint Eastwood has anyone to prove himself to or fear but God.

There is a wise saying: If you can’t be a good example, be a horrible warning, and Eastwood’s main character, Earl, is that person who, by his own warning, is not someone whose behavior you would want to adhere.

The Mule is about an elderly man, Earl Stone who, at the end of his rope financially and anxious to make amends with his estranged family, becomes a transport for a cartel of drug dealers. Earl has spent his love and devotion on an ultimately unsuccessful day lily nursery instead of his family. With this in mind, the movie becomes a horrible warning against living a misdirected life with the day lily as a wonderful symbol of the brevity of our time on Earth which, like our lives, blooms for a day then fades.

While Earl’s motives in the movie may be noble and the money he earns is spent on worthwhile events: his daughter’s wedding and the renovation of the local Veterans Lodge, it does not excuse his participation as one of the links in the drug trade which destroyed so many other people’s lives, even as he was reinvigorating his own. The story is based upon the real life Leo Sharp, featured in a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick.

I heard it speculated that there was an element of autobiography for Eastwood in this story. Not that Mr. Eastwood has ever conveyed illegal pharmaceuticals for Mexican drug lords, but that Eastwood, much like the character he portrays, in his pursuit for fame, financial security and business success may have felt he traded his family life for an ambitious career. It is a fine line to walk, between working hard to care for your family and to trade your family for your work.

Eastwood is a fine character actor, who has made a career of portraying the same interesting, likeable character in a wide variety of movies. There’s little difference among the likes of the cheroot chewing Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, looking down the barrel of the very big gun of Inspector Calahan in the Dirty Harry franchise, the singing Pardner in Paint Your Wagon, the scheming eponymous character in Kelly’s Heroes, the stubborn but surprisingly kind Walt Kowalsski in Grand Torino or Earl in The Mule. All of them face the world with the same gritty, teeth grinding, begrudgingly amused side long view. All of them are tough guys who mean well at their core even when doing something they know is wrong. All are portrayed with the gravel-voiced determination of a man with whom you do not want to cross swords.

But in The Mule, Eastwood is willing to openly show the fragility of his old age which, even so, does not stop either Earl, the Mule or Eastwood, the director, from soldiering on in this slice of life movie.

The acting is wonderful. Dianne Wiest portrays his wife, Mary, with all the intimacy of betrayal in a failed marriage between two people who have loved each other for decades. Bradley Cooper plays the determined DEA agent who pursues Earl to the exclusion of family events, and in this way discovering, perhaps in time, he has much to learn from the misaligned Earl. And Andy Garcia portrays the deceptively likeable drug lord Laton.

If this happens to be the last movie the aging Eastwood is in, it would be a fitting denouement and ties in some of his most recent accomplishments. For example, Cooper, who plays the DEA agent in pursuit of Earl, and Eastwood, worked together before on American Sniper. Eastwood had once offered to direct Cooper again in Cooper’s then planned remake of A Star is Born, but Cooper wasn’t ready for the role. Eastwood later encouraged Cooper to direct A Star is Born himself and history was made with that interesting film, which I reviewed here.

In another tie-in with old friends, the credit’s song, Don’t Let the Old Man In, was written expressly for this movie by Eastwood’s friend and golf buddy Toby Keith, inspired by a comment Eastwood made to Keith about how to keep going despite age. Keith wrote and sang the tune as a demo and sent Eastwood a copy. So anxious was Keith to have Eastwood hear it that Keith sang it while struggling with a bad cold. Eastwood loved the rough, dark, weary feel of it and used it exactly as Keith had recorded it for the movie.

And most touching, Eastwood’s own real life daughter Alison came out of acting retirement at the behest of her Dad to play Iris, Earl’s estranged daughter.  Alison commented in one interview that the most difficult part of playing Iris was pretending to be estranged from the man who played her character’s father, her own Dad.

Filmed with a certain fatalistic feel, knowing this can not end well, we ride along and are seduced into empathizing with the amoral Earl as he bounces from attending his granddaughter’s wedding to a multi-hooker party at his cartel boss’ mansion.

Other reviewers have noted that Eastwood, with Mule, is signaling his bestowal upon Bradley Cooper of his outre mantle, a blessing of sorts to Cooper, the accomplished and busy actor and director who still finds the time, energy and whimsical playfulness to bring Rocket’s voice from Guardians of the Galaxy to life.

In medical school there is a name given to the prize for the student who made the top grade in Anatomy – “The Ball and Chain”. The implication being that you have set yourself up for a high bar to continue to have to leap over. In The Mule there is a telling and touching scene where Earl, the mule which Cooper’s character, Colin Bates, has been doggedly pursuing, sits down next to Colin in a diner. Colin has no idea who Earl is, so underestimated is Earl for the better part of 10 years of drug running because of his age and otherwise clean record. Earl knows who Colin is and proceeds to give what appears to be off hand advice about not committing himself to his career to the exclusion of his family. In retrospect was this Earl to Colin or Clint to Bradley…or both?

I find it courageous that Eastwood not only exposes his own human aged physical frailty to an audience which has grown up and grown old watching him move from an action hero to an increasingly fragile man, but makes himself vulnerable to inquiries about his own interpersonal failures. Much like most in Hollywood he has had his share of failed relationships and left a trail of at least 7 children.  And it takes a measure of brave self-perception to admit, even if only tangentially, that you may have failed to do your best to put your familial ties ahead of your own ambitions.

While not for a younger crowd due to topics, language, and sexuality, for the adult crowd it is a fascinating examination of how easy it is, one daily mistake at a time, to lead your life down a long wrong path in a way that can do permanent and irreparable damage to those you might find too late you love most.

Kudos to Mr. Eastwood. And while I hope this is not his last film, if it is, it is not a bad bookend to his cinematic legacy, and a fitting epitaph to a man whose devotion to and accomplishments for the cinematic world, have been remarkable, even if it may have come at great personal sacrifice.

THE UPSIDE – ACCURATELY NAMED, UNEXPECTED AND INSPIRATIONAL BUDDY COMEDY-DRAMA

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE UPSIDE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Wonderful and beautifully acted movie, based on a true story, about a quadriplegic and the unlikely friendship he forms with an untrained and world-wise ex-con who is hired to be his caretaker.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up only – for language, topics of conversation, a bit of  bawdy behavior with a couple of paid female companions, and some realistic though mostly unseen necessaries involving the care of a paralyzed man.

LONG TAKE:

The Upside is a remake of the French film The Intouchables. The story is based on the real relationship between the wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caretaker Abdel Sellou. In the movie, respectively, the characters names are Phillip Lacasse, (Bryan Cranston most famously of Breaking Badand Dell Scott (Kevin Hart most recently of the Jumanji remake), the latter a down-on-his-luck ex-con who is behind in his child support and broke. Though Dell has no skills in taking care of anyone, let alone a disabled man, Dell’s blunt, un-indulgent and pragmatic personality appeals to Phillip who is weary of having everyone walk eggshells around him and treat him like a fragile hothouse flower. Each man has been broken in their own way by their own mistakes.

One would not, on first glance, think that a movie about a man so severely disabled and a caretaker with a ill-functioning moral compass, would be funny. But it IS very funny — and very human, as well as delightfully inspirational. Everyone faces obstacles in life and Dell and Phillip exemplify the near extremes of challenges, respectively, of upbringing and the physical.

Courage is not the lack of feeling fear but of experiencing every painful moment of it and pressing forward anyway. And this is what Dell and Phillip learn to do with the aid of each others’ examples as well as their friends and family, even when those supports are initially pushed away. Everyone will be able to related to at least some feature of these brave men’s disadvantages.

Cranston is brilliant in the kind of performance I haven’t seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot or Joaquin Phoenix’ Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Cranston performs the entire movie using only facial gestures and the occasional head gesture, but you quickly forget his movement limitations in Cranston’s compelling and versatile performance. The normally frenetic Kevin Hart modulates his talents into the breath of fresh air that Phillip desperately needs. The two friends together make up one really good man. And they teach each other to face their fears and face the world with courage, determination and a renewed sense of purpose.

Nicole Kidman, in a turn that is way better than her teeth grittingly breathy and campy Atlana in Aquaman, here in Upside is absolutely adorable as Phillip’s fussy and protective executive assistant, Yvonne.

Much of the movie takes place in Phillip’s apartment, and I couldn’t help thinking that this could easily be converted into a lovely theatrical play.

The songs incorporated into the structure of the script are delightful and as eclectic as the combination of Dell’s and Phillip’s personalities. Tunes range from Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin to Rigoletto and Carmen. The background soundtrack is intense and reflects the longing of the characters to be better men regardless of their ultimately superficial limitations. The movie, especially considering it is based on a true story, is inspirational.

I highly recommended this movie but for mid-teens and up only because of language, topics of conversation, mostly unseen illicit sexuality, and some quite humorous and genuine situations brought about by the circumstances of Phillip’s infirmity.

So, major kudos to Hart and Cranston for tackling this project with such tact, respect and skill, and hopefully some award wins for Cranston, at least, in this captivating, charming, and truly compelling story of a beautiful platonic friendship and the strength those unlikely friends give each other.

AQUAMAN – FROM LAMEST COMIC STRIP SUPERHERO TO AQUADUDE!!

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF AQUAMAN REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Super cool and buff version of Aquaman/Arthur Curry who must challenge his bellicose brother Orm for the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis to prevent a war with the human race.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up for some language, a great deal of cartoon violence which might be scary for younger children, the topic of adultery and a LOT of cleavage.

LONG TAKE:

When I was growing up, Aquaman was arguably the lamest superhero on the block. Justice League re-presented Jason Momoa (the ill-fated Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones  as a long haired hard-drinking rockstar/biker-dude Aquaman and it WORKED! This watery super hero has all the battle finesse of the Hulk and the smart aleck attitude of Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy. He was fun to watch and the highlight (with Gal Gadot’s long cameo as Wonder Woman) of the otherwise fairly anemic Justice League movie. This new installment to the struggling D.C. Universe reestablishes Aquaman’s origin as a comic book hero.

The bright vibrant colors, a complex but nonsensical plot, the ooh aah largely unexplained but visually exciting weaponry and pseudo technology, thecharacters with semi-magical abilities, the scene-chewing hammy handed acting from even the likes of  an over-breathy Nicole Kidman, and the posturing dialogue all underscore the comic book source material.

The story begins as Queen Atlanna (Kidman) of Atlantis flees an unwanted arranged marriage with a king we never meet. Wounded but still pretty battle-feisty she washes up on the shore of a lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry, (Temuera Morrison) with whom she falls in love. Several years later, she has born Tom a son, who they name Arthur, purportedly after the hurricane raging about them at the time, (foreboding anyone?) but obviously as a nod to Camelot, one of the many derivative references used to cobble together the script. Atlanna is soon forced, for the sake of her baby and his father, to return to Atlantis. The Once and Future King Arthur, (of the ocean not Camelot), is trained periodically by visits from Vulko (Willem Dafoe).

Fast forward to Arthur’s Biblical 33rd year and a war is set to break out between the about-to-be-blindsided human race and Queen Atlanna’s younger and legitimate son, Prince Orm (Patrick Wilson, mostly known for supernatural scariest like The Conjuring and Insidious series), who blames his mother for having brought shame to their family by bearing a half-breed bastard with a human. Orm strives to bring Unity to the nine Realms of Asgard, I mean the Seven Kingdoms under the ocean. He also wants revenge on the human race for the human waste dumped into the ocean. (Can anyone say Captain Planet?) No mention is made, of course as to: how the Atlantians and their hordes of sea critters handle their bathroom issues any differently, the fact that the dumpage is biodegradable, that the ocean is incredibly vast, Atlantis is pretty darn far from any coastal areas, and the other six realms don’t really seem to have any bone to pick with the human race. Sounds like Orm simply has mommy issues and brother envy to me.

Princess Mera, (Amber Heard, mostly eye-candy in previous films such as The Playboy Club and Magic Mike XXL) the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, as the rough tough guys in Rocky IV, Creed II and The Expendables franchise – keep in mind this man has a chemical engineering degree!), seeks Arthur out to stop the war by encouraging Arthur, the eldest son, to take his place as the rightful King. Arthur is reluctant as he aligns himself with humans and seems sure Atlantis is a nice place to visit but doesn’t want to live there. He is also mad about the fate of his mom … but I won’t give any spoilers here.

Mera and Arthur set out to find a special Excalibur-like Trident whose power is so strong it will not only defeat baby brother Orm, but bring all the realms together in a peaceful coalition. The rest of the movie is taken up with so many quests, including: duels, long treks through wastelands, battles with armies of inhuman monsters, underwater labryinths, and lessons in humiility, that Hercules’ patience would have been put to the test.

The whole thing is a big, bloated, but ultimately fun hoot. I can see why it was a huge hit in China. A lot of time is spent in meaningful stares, posturing in action figure stances, and dramatic appearances. There were times when the stilted language, bright colors and poised settings made it easy to envision the comic strip frames each scene could have been inspired by.

There’s no hanky-panky, although Atlanna lives with Arthur’s father out of wedlock, eschewing her obligations and fiancé. Arthur, in turn, spends most of the movie having “managed to get his shirt off” (thank you Galaxy Quest). There are a handful of minor profanities, which parents of minor children might not want repeated, and topics of war, adultery, and murder which parents might deem inappropriate for younger children. So, honestly, not much worse than your average Grimm’s fairy tale.

The CGI in the early scenes with Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison is pretty creepy. While not Tron: Legacy-level disturbing nor Henry Cavil’s Justice League Superman-mustache ridiculous, it’s distractingly noticeable. And CGI Willem Dafoe, in the training scenes, looks cut directly from a high-quality video game.

The music is darker and more ominous than it should be for a kids’ superhero movie, but then the topics of adultery, murder, treachery, betrayal, and incitement of global warfare are all pretty dark topics as well.

The character of Arthur / Aquaman is the highlight of the show, with his genial, protective giant personality, who rarely takes anyting completely seriously. With the size of Drax, the impulsive nature of Peter Quill, the fighting skills of Gamora, and the snarky attitude of Rocket, his D.C. hero is almost the entire Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy crew in one.

The bright vibrant colors in almost every scene clues you, right away, that we are here for a comic-book good time. And, ultimately, what do you want? As I have admonished before in other blogs about similarly themed movies: this is not Hamlet, or Chekov. It’s a superhero movie. Enjoy.

 

GOSNELL: THE TRIAL OF AMERICA’S BIGGEST SERIAL KILLER

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GOSNELL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Documentary-style bio pic about Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist who violated even Pennsylvania’s liberally permissive abortion laws, extending his convictions to include manslaughter of a mother and murder of three full term infants, and the people who brought him to justice.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only – for the topics and many of the visuals of the abortion mill. But of those adults who seek truth or justice, a MUST SEE.

LONG TAKE:

In the movie Jacob’s Ladder, Tim Robbins plays a military veteran suffering from such extreme PTSD that he has visions of hell. One of those manifestations is of a hospital of filth and gore staffed by demons indifferent to his suffering. While watching that 1990 surreal film, I never dreamed I would one day see real-life footage of the actual place. But footage of a real place, just like Jacob’s visions, were included in Gosnell, the movie about the exposure and trial of Kermit Gosnell, (portrayed by Earl Billings, a familiar face from many TV shows all the way back to the 1970’s), the perpetrator of the cold blooded killings-for-hire of full-term infants and the casual death of one of his “patients,” who was, to quote Bernard Hughes’ character in the dark satire The Hospital, “neglected to death”.

The film, Gosnell, tracks the investigative and legal activities that stopped Gosnell’s Eichmann-like casual killing business. If you see Operation Finale, (to read my blog on Operation Finale click here), you will note the similarities between Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Eichmann and Earl Billings’ Gosnell. Both men had an affluent, family-oriented life.

While Eichmann’s personal obsessions wandered into the fastidious, Gosnell wandered onto the other end of the bell curve with profound levels of filth. While Eichmann behaves like Lady Macbeth, figuratively (and sometimes literally) trying to wash the guilty stains from his hands, Gosnell wallowed gleefully in the depravity, denying its existence. Both men swam in the blood of others to achieve their goals of career security in an environment and culture which protected their activities for years regardless of the heinousness of the crimes they committed.

The acting in both cases was amazing. Kingsley will likely, and deservedly, be up for awards for his portrayal as the cold, tunnel vision author of the deaths of millions, who wore blinders and chose to see himself as merely a clerk or cog in a machine convenient to his advancement. Billings, despite his equally subtle rendition, because of the politically protected nature of Gosnell’s occupation as abortionist, will likely be ignored for his cine-magic contribution. Billings plays a man who, in other surroundings, could be mistaken for a genial, grandfatherly, old-fashioned doctor. It is only the subtle body language, quirks, facial tics and tiny contradictory gestures which visualize Gosnell’s fundamentally broken, corrupted and rotted moral view.

Were the director creating this monster out of whole cloth, he might have been lauded for the extremely effective, visually poetic symmetry of the man’s life. Gosnell lived in a beautiful suburban home, in a Biblical sense the outside of the vase. But the house’s rooms reflected Gosnell’s inner corruption in the piles of trash, the chaotic disorder, Gosnell’s personal hygiene, and the dead animal rotting in a cellar of aggressively flea infested debris. Gosnell’s clinic, while purportedly there to serve the poor, gave preference to white customers, regularly employed underage untrained teenagers to administer dangerous levels of anesthesia, and  housed garbage bags full of decomposing infant parts, casually discarded in hallways, up stairwells, and in so-called operating rooms.

Likely the only reason this abattoir was not over run with four legged rats was because there was a plethora of irregularly cared for cats who roamed at will using the entire clinic as their kitty box.

Like the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, Gosnell kept trophies in small jars of body parts. So insulated was Gosnell from the rest of the world, humanity, or his own culpability, that he did not understand he was actually displaying evidence against himself.

None of this was manufactured by the filmmakers. The stomach-churning images were re-created, and in some cases simply copied directly onto the film, from actual footage made by the investigating police officers, there initially to pursue probable cause of the death of one of Gosnell’s victims/patients. The police entered planning a drug bust. They left with evidence of a serial killer whose murders had been covered up for over two decades by a corrupt Pennsylvania Department of Heath, the steaming environment of political correctness, and the permissive Pennsylvania abortion laws.

Despite the heinousness of Gosnell’s activities, the repeated complaints, and the obvious incompetence and flagrant disregard for even the most basic sanitation much less safety of his patients Gosnell was left alone to continue his habits for decades.

It came up in trial that the health department of the state was for at least 17 consecutive years forbidden from pursuing even the most serious of complaints against him because of his status as a black abortionist in a poor neighborhood. But there was no protection for the unwary, vulnerable, scared and defenseless inhabitants that served as Gosnell’s prey.

Gosnell had no respect for the mostly poor minority women who came to see him, nor the tenants of basic common sense medical sanitation, nor even the law which had closed its eyes to his behavior for so long. Given his protected status it is perversely understandable why he legitimately believed he could get away with murder with impunity. He admitted as much to his attorney when he laughed at his solicitor’s concerns about his legal vulnerability, saying that he was certain no one would question his personal determination of what constituted a human life regardless of the law which forbade abortion passed 24 weeks.

The director, Nick Searcy, who also plays the defense counsel, Mike Cohan, creates a calm, even somewhat sterile atmosphere for the investigations and courtroom. This makes for a relieving counterpoint to the simple video walk-throughs of the “clinic” which view like the abandoned labyrinth of a series of dystopian torture chambers. The supporting characters, from the initially reluctant Asst. D.A. Lexy McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris) to the immediately invested and likeable lead detective James Wood (Dean Cain) to the computer geek/blogger Molly Mullaney (Cyrian Fiallo) do wonderful jobs in solid performances. And the screenwriters, Andrew Klavan, Ann McElhinney, and Phelim McAleer, used composites of real people to flesh and round out the cast. But Billings, as I said, is a standout in the lead with his restrained but utterly creepy portrayal of a man who would fit in a horror movie about a grandfather who hands out razor filled apples and cyanide laced candy on Halloween night.

Evidence showed Gosnell murdered seven born alive infants. He was convicted of three with an unknown tally of death on his belt over the previous two decades. Gosnell was convicted of one count of manslaughter in the death of a “patient” but who knows how many others died directly from his hands or indirectly from his gross negligence and malpractice. There was evidence of 21 late term abortions, even illegal in Pennsylvania. But who knows how many he committed? And he was convicted of hundreds, out of the likely thousands, of violations of the rules concerning 24 hour informed consent, which are, themselves, but pathetically thin attempts at some common sense to this horrific practice. And all this doesn’t even touch the thousands of babies in the womb he murdered under the auspices of “legal abortion”.

While Gosnell was held to account for his crimes, he was, in truth, merely a symptom of the greater evil of the governmentally, not just allowed, but protected, murder of millions of unborn children.

While this is a difficult movie to watch, we must all stand, like the Jews who survived the Holocaust and their descendants, as witnesses to atrocities which should not be happening now and, once defeated, must never happen again. It is our duty to testify against the laws and institutions which allow monsters like Gosnell to exist and thrive, for those already lost and those at risk and yet to be born.

INSTANT FAMILY – A TALE OF THE TRUE SUPER HEROES

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF INSTANT FAMILY REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family is the charming, inspirational and humorous story of a DINK (double income no kids) couple who decide to foster three children. The film manages to be smart, brutally honest, funny and even whimsical all at the same time.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Must see! BUT only for older teens and up for language and story content.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!!

Instant Family COULD have been called Foster Parenting for Dummies. This is no one’s idealized version of a blended family. This is not The Brady Bunch, Three Men and a Baby, Despiccable Me or even……… The Blind Side (and you’ll see why that’s funny when you see the movie). But the movie is honest and very funny, miraculously achieving that delicate balance between comedy and drama which many movies attempt but at which few succeed. The innate parity between laughter and tears, which exists in the human condition but is rarely found in movie scripts, comes naturally to this script because the story was inspired by writer/director Sean Anders and his wife’s real life experiences of adopting. All of the characters, from the kids to the support group members to the social workers, are based on the real people Anders met through the process – normally flawed humans with the usual awkward family dynamics trying to do their best under difficult circumstances..

Instant Family soft pedals nothing as it follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg – Mile 22, Deep Water Horizon and Lone Survivor), and Ellie (Rose Byrne – Moira from the X-Men reboot and Bea from Peter Rabbit, and who, though from Australia, does a spotless American accent) from their naive, romantic visions of fostering a child, through the often hilarious mandatory support group meetings, the spotty support of their doubtful relatives, through the decision making and then to the realities of trying to support, protect, guide and raise three at-risk and traumatised children of different ages.

Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny.

The movie occasionally wanders gently into slapstick and slight caricature but only in a way one might, with the humor and affection gleaned from the wisdom of retrospection, remember an experience that did not seem funny at the time but ends up being one of your favorite memories. Instant Family reminds me a lot of last year’s equally brilliant Wonder, about a family coping with a severely handicapped child. There are no bad guys, only the challenge, tackled by adults and children alike, to interact with the people who love you as best you can.

And if you ever wondered, as the PSA querries, that you had to be perfect to foster a child, the characters in Instant Family will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly.

The support group scenes are especially funny, populated, as they are, by every possible combination of would be foster parents, from: single wanna-be super mom, to idealistic fundamentalist Christians, to an infertile interracial couple, to a gay couple, and to our protagonists – an upwardly mobile self employed couple, who initially think of these children the way they do the houses they renovate for a living. All come with a unique set of priorities and preconceived, often conflicting, sometimes counter-intuitive notions. Some are even portrayed as ridiculous or annoying. But, fundamentally, ALL of them have one thing in common: A core desire to provide a loving stable home for children who have none, and who are often at risk of abuse, addiction and even death at the hands of their biological parents and the environment to which they are subjected.

These foster parents, for all of their differences, flaws, quirks, and even errors in judgment, are the living life rafts on the treacherous and stormy seas of our broken culture, desperately trying to rescue survivors who sometimes don’t even want to be saved. I love movies about: The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ant Man, Batman, Justice League and Agents of SHIELD. But these disparate, sometimes awkward, occasionally clueless foster parents are the true super heroes.

The acting is terrific, never succumbing to the easy temptation to sink into saccharine or false empathy, but neither does it avoid showing the warts of the torturous foster process.

Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent and never shy away from any of the very strong emotions of the moment, but don’t dwell on them either. And there is a constant balance of the solemn with the naturally evolving moments of humor that always arise from even the grimmest of circumstances. For example, the social workers, Sharon and Karen, played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and Zootopia) are very funny as odd couple co-workers. Notaro is the prim, proper, white, reserved, rule follower while Spencer is the outspoken, blunt, pragmatic, black counterpart. But they both have a realistic view of their jobs. When Pete asks Sharon and Karen about the foster children’s father the only answer he gets is uncontrolled laughter. This humorously speaks serious volumes without belaboring the tragic point. In another scene, after learning of a significant hitch in their plans, Pete and Ellie come home to discover Ellie’s mother, Jan, being decorated with permanent ink sharpies. There was no malice involved. Children and Jan alike had mistaken them for washables. Jan, performed by Julie Hagerty, whose unforgettable stint in Airplane made her synonymnous with ditzy characters, solemnly offers good and sage advice but, of necessity, while indelibly and distractingly face painted.

The music is a cheerful and delightful sprinkling of songs like Wings’ “Let ’em In,” George Harrison’s “What is Life,” and Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now”. The perky upbeats also help soften the more somber moments. You can get the individual songs streaming on Amazon here.

The children are very natural. Isabela Moner, singer and actress, is Lizzy, the teenager who is simultaneously grateful for the safe haven Pete and Ellie provide for herself and her siblings and understandably resentful of these same people as interlopers to her “real,” incarcerated, drug-addicted mother. Moner has a truly beautiful voice and sings the credit song, “I’ll Stay,” at the end of the movie. Gustavo Quiroz is adorable as Lizzy’s clutzy, well meaning and inept younger brother, Juan. And Julianna Gamiz is the youngest and precocious sister, Lita.

The two younger kids act with the normal and very believable open ingenuousness, quick impulsive affection, manipulative behavior, and selfish temper tantrum demands of normal kids. But the writing skillfully runs a thread of abnormality underneath these kids’ otherwise normal veneer. For example, Lita happily plays with Ellie when they first meet until Lita begins play-acting with her doll, calling her doll racial epithets and interacting with the doll  in ways she is obviously imitating from her previous foster parents. It’s nothing sinister but casually cruel. And it gives the audience a taste of what every precarious day can be like for these kids whose parents have abysmally let them down  and are in a system which can sometimes fail them. But again the serious tone is undercut by the humorous way the failed foster couple insist she must have heard it on TV.

A lovely cameo is of Joan Cusack as an elderly, awkward, but concerned neighbor who helps to deflate another scene which could have degenerated into mawkishness but for her delightfully eccentric presence.

The filming style itself is very straightforward, almost like professionally made home movies, as we see quite intimate moments of Ellie and Pete with each other, with their families, and with the foster kids, and the support group sessions.

While there is no sexuality shown on screen, there are sexual topics which come up necessarily and inevitably with the raising of a 15 year old girl from a bleakly broken background who has severe daddy issues. In addition, under stress, there is some humorously interjected but understandable profanity that crops up sprinkled throughout the movie. This, with the serious topic of abandoned and at-risk children, make this movie suitable only for older teens and up. However for that demographic for which is appropriate it is a must-see movie.