A CHRISTMAS STORY – LOVELY NOSTALGIC REMINISCENCE AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone – children of all ages.

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

 

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone can go.

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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