LITTLE WOMEN – GERWIG-STYLE 2019 – BEAUTIFULLY TOLD, DEEPLY FLAWED, NOT FOR CHILDREN

SHORT TAKE:

Well told but fatally flawed as its ultimate intent is to brutally undercut the original theme of the classic story with a harsh feminist agenda.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for its twisted theme revealed at the end of the movie.

LONG TAKE:

This 2019 version of Little Women, by extremely talented director/adaptor Greta Gerwig (Ladybird SEE REVIEW HERE), is the latest of 3 in three years based upon the titular novel. These three latest are only a few of many versions available on celluloid. There are LOTS more, including the 1994 version with none other than Batman’s Christian Bale in the role of Laurie and Stranger Things rehabbed Winona Ryder as Jo – but that would be a review for another time.

SPOILERS – EVEN FOR THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE STORY

Little Women is based upon the classic children’s novel of the same name, about the Marches, a family of four girls and their mother living in Massachusetts on very moderate funds during the Civil War waiting for the family patriarch chaplain to return from the front lines. Included in the cast are the March’s very wealthy maiden Aunt March, their rich neighbor Mr. Laurence and their pitifully poor neighbors, the Hummels.

This 2019 Little Women tells the tale in period costume. However, the 2018 version told in modern day is far far closer to the book’s original theme and intent. The author of the source material, Louisa Mae Alcott had a very unpleasant childhood of poverty under the hands of a tyrannical and irresponsible penniless spendthrift father. Louisa became the breadwinner of the family in part due to her writing of this classic story, idealistically shaped from her wretched family life. Alcott’s autobiography would have been fascinating. Another retelling of Alcott’s story would have been lovely.

Unfortunately, Ms. Gerwig strove to have her reality and fake it too. We, members of the audience, are lead to believe the woman we see in the beginning of the movie is Jo. In fact, we find out at the end, she is Alcott, who holds in contempt the values of marriage which she is “forced” to insert into her book to get it published. This attitude is not only offensive but a sucker punch to everyone who went to see Little Women or, worse, unwittingly brought an innocent girl to view what should have been a delightful retelling of this classic.

That being said, and before I get to the ugly parts of the movie, the acting was splendid. Everyone did an excellent job. Notable were: Chris Cooper (recently in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood SEE REVIEW HERE) is terrific as Mr. Laurence. Timothee Chalamet (victimized in the pedophile advocating Call me by Your Name SEE REVIEW HERE) is heartbreaking as Laurie.

And Meryl Streep’s Aunt March stole every scene she was in. Streep was the perfect subtle combination of blunt and cynically gruff personality, offering criticism freely and offering no holds barred advice but hiding a genuine affection for her poor relatives about whom she is impatient and condemnatory of what she sees as their poor life choices, but about and for whom she cares deeply.

The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux is gorgeous – evoking the soft feel of two hundred years ago yet inserting bright colors to prevent any feel of drabness.

Alexandre Desplat is no stranger to writing soundtracks for off-the-wall movies, writing for bizarrely fascinating Isle of Dogs (SEE REVIEW HERE), the offensive Shape of Water (SEE REVIEW HERE), the eccentric Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets (SEE REVIEW HERE). And he doesn’t disappoint here, constantly evoking the feel of young women running or dancing, using a variety of instruments to color the moment.

But all of these positives could not offset the serious negatives of this movie.

Instead of being honest about an eventual “reveal” that the woman we have been watching is not Jo, the character, but Alcott the author, Gerwig has Alcott masquerade as Jo. But in the end Gerwig has “Jo” remain a spinster, complain that she is forced to “sell” her heroine into marriage to sell her book, and insert a “fantasy” scene which portrays an idealized ending to her book in what can only be described as a backhanded, sarcastic middle finger to the audience, as though demonstrating how far Alcott had to condescend to the masses to get her genius in print – that a happy ending with marriage and family is merely a trite and commonplace mechanism with which to make money, not a noble example of what millenia of people have found to be a blessing.

Ms. Gerwig was true to neither the classic nor to what could have been an autobiographical historic drama. Given that so many versions of Little Women have come out recently it would have made sense to go complete bio and tell the story, not of Jo again, but of Louisa Mae Alcott and her sisters. Alcott’s sisters closely mirrored her literary characters. Elizabeth (Beth) did indeed die young. Youngest sister May (anagrammed into Amy) married, not the boy next door, but a businessman violinist. Anna (Meg) married one John, not Brooke, but Pratt who, like Mr. Brooke died unexpectedly young and not that well off.,

Ms. Gerwig placed one foot firmly in the familiar tale and the other in reality just enough to makes smarmy digs at the notion that women “had” to marry to be able to support themselves. Given Alcott’s success, this was obviously not entirely true, and only succeeded in making the March girls hypocritical and tipping Ms. Gerwig’s condescending hand towards the institution of marriage. Shoehorning political correctness into this otherwise lovely tale is unbecoming of this otherwise talented director.

Had she wanted to tell an honest tale of Ms. Alcott’s life story I think that would have been a far more worthy effort than to create a mish mash blend of reality and fiction that satisfied and did no true justice to either tale or genre.

There is much to commend this latest vision. But easy accessibility is not one of its virtues. This is Little Women: intermediate studies level. If you are not completely familiar with the story, you could easily get lost. The movie starts near the end of the story as “Jo” (who later turns out to really be Alcott but going by Jo) is in New York trying to get her stories published. Beth is already dying. Mr. Bhaer’s interest and honest friendship are going mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. The story then jumps back and forth, not only from there to Jo’s early life with her family in flashbacks, but back and forth between the script as written based upon the classic novel and “reality” as Jo changes her story while negotiating with her would be publisher, “shoehorning” in a love story for herself to make the book more marketable, which life event did not really happen. Alcott actually died a spinster.

Even if you ARE familiar with the story it will be very confusing. The characters are not identified right away so who they are gets muddled and is not aided by the frequent flashbacks. It is an interesting though ultimately very flawed perspective. Our family studied it while homeschooling, saw multiple versions over the years and even appeared as a family at a local community theatre production of the stage play. So I know the story well but still had to pay attention to be sure I got the characters right.

There are incongruities which are relatively trivial but VERY distracting. For example, the actresses’ ages chronologically match up to their respective March characters, but they don’t LOOK the right ages. The girl who plays Amy, Florence Pugh, LOOKS and acts the oldest but plays the youngest March. Emma Watson’s Meg (the oldest March girl) looks and acts as young as Amy should be. The actor playing Mr. Bhaer, Louis Garel, is 9 years older that Saiorse Ronan (Jo), but looks Ronan’s (Jo’s) age. He SHOULD look and act about 15 years older than Jo.

Attributed to everyone from Samuel Goldwyn to Humphrey Bogart, referring to people who want to propagandize movies, is the statement: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Whoever said it first, Ms. Gerwig did not get the memo and has decided to create a hit piece on men and marriage in general and the themes of Little Women in particular.

Ms. Gerwig made the men as weak as possible. When Odenkirk’s pathetic Mr. March finally makes his appearance, far from the joyous relief of having their strong male protector back, as he should have been, I had the overwhelming impression that he was just going to be another weak dependent mouth for Marmee to somehow have to find a way to feed. In Bart Johnson’s Mr. March from 2018’s Little Women we see the backbone from which all these Little Women get their strength.

While it is understandable that Alcott would have experienced the Odenkirk version, she WROTE the Johnson version into her book – the man she likely would have wanted to be her father. But Gerwig, again, wants to merge the two to destroy the beautiful story Alcott wrote and simultaneously muddles her opportunity to tell a more true to life biography by awkwardly merging Alcott’s ugly truth with Alcott’s beautiful written literary vision.

Gerwig also made the sisters appear very cold and Machiavelian at times. As the three surviving sisters walk through the recently deceased Aunt March’s spacious home, which she has generously bequeathed to Jo, all Jo says is that she thought Aunt March didn’t like her, to which Amy comments she can dislike Jo and still give her the house.

The sisters never mention how, despite their Aunt’s cold exterior, Aunt March was incredibly philanthropic toward them, took Amy on a trip which secured her marriage to Laurie, invented work for the girls with which Aunt March could give the family money and retain their dignity, paid for Meg’s wedding despite her own misgivings about the wisdom of the marriage, and for all the many other generosities she surely provided her poor brother’s family. None of the things Aunt March did for them were mentioned, only a cool assessment of what she could still do for them now that she was dead.

Even worse, the faith in God upon which the Marches relied in the book was given little and nebulous short shrift lip service in this version.

Miss Gerwig is more intent on propaganda than telling a good story. Along with her obvious distaste for, dismissal of and contempt for men, she doesn’t seem to like America much either.

Mrs. March (Laura Dern) volunteers at the Civil War equivalent of the USO. This was only shown once and then only to provide a vehicle for a propagandistic hit piece as Mrs. March expresses how ashamed she is of her country, despite the fact it is literally bleeding to near death to make amends for its sins. This horrifying comment was not in the book. The only time anyone mentioned being ashamed in the book was of themselves for a fault or NOT being ashamed of hard work.

At one point Amy tells Jo that Jo’s writing about something makes it important, explicitly saying that things do not have inherent importance in and of themselves. This is the acme of hubris on Ms. Gerwig’s part. Apparently Miss Gerwig believes things are not relevant or of any significance unless they come out of the mouth of people like her – the professional writers who believe they can shape the world, not by proof or truth or real life experience, not by faith in God or inherent credibility, or common sense. Gerwig believes that truth comes only from the pen of those, like her, who have a self-assessment of their own importance. This is the essence of Fake News.

Ms. Gerwig has also decided on a PC perception of Jo as androgynous. Some on the left have even, fairly, interpreted many of the lines and attitudes Ms. Gerwig injected into Jo’s character as lesbian. Had Miss Gerwig wanted to examine that possibility concerning the author’s lifestyle in a legitimate adult oriented biography, I would have found that appropriate, interesting, and potentially insightful. But to distort Jo, the Jo from the source material this way, in this skewed version of Little Women is propaganda of the most base nature, inappropriately forcing an alternate sexual topic onto a children’s classic character.

So in conclusion, instead of either a faithful adaptation of the classic novel or an honest and what would have been truly fascinating examination of the real Miss Alcott’s life, Miss Gerwig has decided to work a classic children’s tale into a propaganda project of extreme feminism, anti-Americanism, and manifesto for alternate sexual lifestyles.

And for Miss Gerwig to present the story as an inextricable combination of the fact with the fiction with no disclaimer or delineation between the two, demonstrates that she wanted to have her credibility and fake it too.

Watch the far more delightful, faithful and faith FILLED 2018 version of Little Women instead.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD — TRULY BAD MOVIE, BUT WORTH SEEING AS A HORRIBLE WARNING TO IDEALISTIC SNOWFLAKES

 

SHORT TAKE:

Excessively violent without justifiable purpose, even for a Rambo movie, what feels like a first draft of what could have been a much better film had it been through a few dozen re-writes.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only! For extreme violence (not sure if Screenit has a scale measurement long enough), language, and graphic scenes of human sex trafficking victims.

LONG TAKE:

“They should not have left him with nothing to lose.” This is an expression my husband and I use to describe plots where the bad guys have put the protagonist in a corner, so our intrepid hero goes out to kill them “all”. Examples are: Live Free or Die Hard and ALL the John Wick movies.

Rambo movies, even at their mildest, are a guilty pleasure of revenge “porn” – titillation from violence, rationalized by the protagonist’s desire to mete out “justice”. Last Blood is extreme even for its type.

SPOILERS – BUT HONESTLY, THEY WILL NEITHER HURT NOR HELP THIS POORLY CONSTRUCTED OVERBLOWN MESS.

I cheered during the last fight scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, watched Saving Private Ryan with pride, once sat through the entirety of A Clockwork Orange, and enjoyed all of the Alien franchise movies multiple times, but during parts of Rambo: Last Blood, particularly the last twenty or so minutes, I often cringed and had to look away. Granted the movie set up the bad guys for deserving everything that happened to them, albeit in a VERY heavy handed way, but it was still hard to watch and, unlike Saving Private Ryan, there was no moral, educational or historic purpose to showing it.

Rambo: Last Blood is not for the faint of heart or even for someone with a reasonably strong stomach. This had all the dread of a Taken, the gory tragedy of Titus Andronicus and the violence of Saving Private Ryan‘s first 10 minutes. That being said, the violence was really not this installment’s biggest problem. More painful to sit through was the paper thin, poorly thought out plot and caricature performances.

The premise is that Rambo, (self-made-Sylvester “Sly” Stallone – Rambo I – IV, Rocky I – VI, Creed I & II, Expendables I – IV, this boy DOES love his franchises, not to mention everything from the brilliant screwball comedy of valises Oscar to Guardians of the Galaxy II – proving Stallone IS capable of SO much better) now lives out a quiet existence on a ranch with his friend Maria (Adriana Barraza – small part in Thor as the owner of the diner in which Thor, memorably and emphatically, “asks” for another cup of coffee) and her teenaged granddaughter, Gabriella (Yvette Monreal). Gabriella gets information from an old “friend” Jezel, (Fenessa Pineda) about her abusive father, Miguel (Marco de la O), who abandoned her family years before. Gabriella sneaks off to Mexico to confront Miguel and, predictable to everyone in the universe but Gabriella, after meeting her abusive sperm donor, is drugged by Gizelle and sold as a sex slave to a Cartel run by the Martinez brothers (Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Oscar Jaenada). Then Rambo sets off to rescue her.

The acting was hammy-handed and mono-chromatic, but it is hard to blame the cast for sloppiness when the writers made little effort to construct a coherent adventure or characters, with a script that makes video game NPC (non-player characters) seem relatable by comparison. Only a couple of steps further, and had the topic (human trafficking) not been so grim, it might have been the grist for parody.

The bad guys are cookie cutter bad guys with zero redeeming features, or even self-justifying rationalizations for their behavior, which shallowness makes them uninteresting. They were simply place holders where the script said “bad guys”. I should not have been surprised had they started twirling black mustaches.

Even the soundtrack by Brian Tyler is generic – Southwestern echo-y trumpets, deep cello borrowed from every spaghetti Western cowboy duel not scored by Ennio Morricone.

There is a myth that Sylvester Stallone wrote the classic, brilliantly simple and beautifully inspirational script for Rocky in three days. In fact what he wrote was a 90 page detailed treatment of which, by his own admission, only about a third was used in the final script. While even this is an amazing accomplishment, the fact that even Rocky, successfully conceived with preternaturally rare speed was MOSTLY written over the following months during pre-production and with the oversight of the financing production company, gives you an idea of how much work goes into a good shooting script. Unfortunately, Rambo: Last Blood is what a movie would look like if you actually DID film something you dashed off in a long weekend. Penned by Matthew Cirulnick and Stallone, the dialogue is a string of cliches and the story often makes no sense, as though they are only passing time, meandering about until they have enough justification to get to the over-the-top mayhem.

And the story is just – for lack of a more tactful word – stupid. Here are some of the dumber points:

1. When the niece confronts her father, Miguel first seems welcoming and invites her to ask any question she has of him. Then, like a bad tempered female cat he turns  vicious and sneeringly tells her that she and her mother meant nothing to him. But — if that were true why would he bother to speak with her at all? Why not just slam the door in her face or deny his identity? And if he truly did not care, why would he say so with such venom to an innocent young woman he hadn’t seen in 15 years? His response was so over-the-top that I thought it MUST be a ruse to get her to leave for her own safety. You would think Miguel might have at least escorted Gabrielle to the border, if for no other reason than to protect his own – ass-ets – knowing Rambo was helping raise her.

2. The writers made a big visual point about John taking medication, but they never explain what the prescriptions are for. Was he dying? Was it to help him suppress his more aggressive tendencies? He “symbolically” throws them away just before he goes off to kill the bad guys, but no one bothers to explain for what it was supposed to  symbolize? Releasing his “inner demons”? Resigning himself to death?

3. When John shows up at Miguel’s house and Miguel does NOT confess that he had only been trying to get her to go home, I was actually surprised. I fully expected Miguel to join up with John in a reconciliation quest and then go off together to rescue the girl. But that didn’t happen. Instead, John confronts the deadbeat contemptuous Miguel, the guy at the center of the mess, and then just leaves.

4. John pointlessly allows himself to be seen, captured, and hopelessly outmatched during his first attempt to rescue his niece. The resulting delay, along with the attention he brings to Gabrielle in particular, effectively condemns his niece to a horrible death.  Even a half-assed plan might have saved her. This is NOT in keeping with previous Rambo missions or movies.

5. It did not make sense that John would leave untouched the two people who were most responsible for putting Gabrielle in harm’s way: Gizelle who lured her to Mexico and Miguel who abandoned the family and then left his daughter to the mercies of a known dangerous city.  Rambo could have, with a flip of a knife, dispatched Miguel then even have just “dropped a dime” on Gizelle to the Martinez brothers who would have happily taken care of her for him. I’m not endorsing this behavior. I’m just saying it’s out of character for a man this steeped in violence to allow the two people, without whom this whole scenario would not have happened, to get off Scot free. It’s just bad writing.

6. The Cartel Army —-? Wind up GI Joe dolls would have demonstrated more survival skills. The Cartel’s arrival – preposterous in itself as they stream through the border with a long line of “bad guy” black vehicles loaded for bear, proceed to make a LOT of noise during which time NO ONE shows up even out of curiosity – is greeted with a demonstration of massive ordnance mines. You would think cartel king Mr. Martinez might now have cause to  rethink his frontal assault plan. But no – Martinez continues his World War II Russian front-style battle “plan”. His troops just throw themselves at John’s house accumulating the casualties you might expect. Then, even dumber, they descend into John’s home-made tunnels and search for him on his own turf, encountering booby trap after booby trap in an Aliens-level massacre and never ONCE attempt retreat, surrender, mutiny or escape but simply continue to run pell mell forward, as though John was tallying up frag points in Deathmatch and filming with all the same subtlety.

It’s as though Stallone and Cirulnick threw in a bunch of ideas but decided not to take the time to resolve them, in order to more (using a word homage to the INFINTELY better Stallone character, Angleo Provolone, from Oscar) “expeditiously” revel in all the bloody mayhem. Hey! We did our bit to create some human “drama” now LET’S GET TO SHOOTING PEOPLE AND BLOWING STUFF UP!!!

“Sly” Stallone has managed to accomplish a singular feat – I think he’s the first person to ever outlive his usefulness in TWO franchises of his own creation – Rocky and Rambo. He has become too old for either hand-to-hand combat or ring boxing.

He HAS creatively found ways to fit those weaknesses into the plot of both the Rocky and Rambo films. In the case of Rocky, Stallone has done a good job of passing the torch by “anointing” Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan – Black Panther‘s nemesis Killmonger) as Rocky’s protégé and replacement. I could go into how Adonis artfully fit into the franchise as Apollo Creed’s son and how Rocky’s mentoring does poetic justice to Burgess Meredith’s memory as Rocky’s coach, but that can be a post for another day. (Meanwhile go see Creed I and II).

In the case of Rambo, Stallone does not seem to know how to let go or end the franchise.

My husband remembers reading the book First Blood, upon which the first  Rambo movie was based. While Rambo: First Blood, the movie, diverges considerably from the source material, it still made for a fascinating and inspiring cult story of how a lone soldier suffering from PTSD responds when unwisely pushed into a corner. First Blood was a cult classic with legs. But oh how the mighty have fallen.

Putting all of my negative observations aside, I can’t help but applaud ONE  aspect of the movie. Last Blood highlights the extreme dangers of diving head first into situations for which you are unprepared. More particularly, the film points out to misinformed, feminist-propaganda fed young Millenial snowflakes, who have been foolishly taught by the PC crowd they can go anywhere and do anything as long as they are following their heart, that the world is a very tough and sometimes horrible place which can quite literally eat you alive. Gabrielle discovers, quickly and brutally, that all the empowerment brainwashing in the world will NOT save you from a horrible death. BUT the protective men in your life who care for you: your father, your husband, your brother, your uncle, your guardian – CAN protect you AND YOU SHOULD LET THEM!!!!!

In short, when someone who you have good reason to trust, tells you something is dangerous, MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T DO IT!!!

Rambo: Last Blood is a savage, unpleasant and ultimately unsatisfying experience, but if seeing it makes even one young adult hesitate to expose themselves to situations or people who, having seen the movie, might NOW look risky, then the movie would be well worthwhile to show them.

So, in short Rambo: Last Blood,  while not great cinema…not even good cinema, serves as an exemplary horrible warning, .

LAST Blood? LAST, as in this is the end of the franchise? Please, oh please, oh please, let Last Blood be the final Rambo entry, despite the ambiguous Shane-like ending. Or, the way they are heading, Rambo will next be creating grenades in a nursing home and tossing them from a Zimmer Frame based on a script scribbled on a napkin during a quick lunch at McD’s.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER – WORTHY CULMINATION OF 42 YEARS AND NINE FILMS

SHORT TAKE:

The culmination of 42 years and nine films, the “last” Star Wars installment, which follows Rey as she seeks out the truth about her parentage.

WHO SHOULD GO:

No inappropriate sexuality, tiny amount of mild profanities, no blasphemy, BUT there is a good deal of very intense and cartoon-violence fighting scenes in a variety of frightening landscapes: underground, in extremely high seas, space, etc. So young teens or, with parental discretion, any age.

LONG TAKE:

I had read a lot of bad press about this latest Star Wars installment: Disney princess-fied, rehashing of old storyline, feminist diatribe, devaluing of men. So two of my kids and I went in as fairly hostile audience members. Honestly, none of the complaints were truly justified. We all kept waiting for it to be bad or get bad and it never happened.

Now if repetition is your irritant of choice, certainly there was an avalanche of nostalgic homages in this (supposed) last installment of the 42-year franchise, but that was to be expected.  And director J.J. Abrams (contributor to Star Trek, Star Wars and Mission Impossible installments) with his team of writers does not disappoint with: exciting non-stop action, classically Star Wars-ian pseudo-science/fantasy, exotic species, deeply committed and self-sacrificing leads and smart aleck supporting cast dialogue.

The late Carrie Fisher appears thanks to CGI, left over footage and clever cinematography by Dan Mindel who has lent his talents to many franchises including Star Wars, Mission Impossible, and Star Trek. The most prominent of supporting cast members also include: Oscar Issacs (multi-talented actor whose resume includes The Nativity Story, Operation Finale, and X-Men) as Poe, the wisecracking pilot; John Boyega as Finn, former First Order (read new Storm Trooper) inductee and Rey’s best friend; Anthony Daniels reprising C3PO as the only cast member to be in ALL NINE movies (R2D2’s Kenny Baker having passed away); Domhnall Gleeson (About Time, the Cohen brothers True Grit, and Peter Rabbit) as the comically nefarious General Hux (whose success rate is about that of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes); Billy Dee Williams who cheerily reprises Lando with contagious enthusiasm; Ian McDiarmid returning as the oozy evil Emperor Palpatine; and the list goes on for miles. The majority of every character and actor who have ever appeared in a Star Wars movie show up regardless of whether they and/or their characters are currently dead or not.

Abrams’ writing team includes himself, Chris Terrio (D.C. universe and Argo), Derek Connolly (Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom SEE REVIEW HERE, and Kong: Skull Island), and Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). There is a lot of sci-fi fantasy credentials involved and it shows.

This – allegedly – last Star Wars film examines who Rey (Daisy Ridley – Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express) really is as she fights the last remnants of the Empire with a coalition of freedom fighters. As to having a female in the lead I saw nothing wrong with their handling of this story decision. Anyone who has read previous reviews knows I am adamantly against rewrites to crowbar in females where men had previously starred (ahem – Ghostbusters 2), and am on record for looking with a jaundiced eye at female led action movies. However, I also am equally vocal in praise of well done movies like Wonder Woman and characters like Black Widow, where the protagonist is awesome and the storyline well done and the lead just happens to be a female – hero first, woman second. Rey, here, is an action hero first who just happens to be a female. Well done her.

The music by John Williams (who else?!) blends smoothly with all the rest of the franchise music. It is but a variation on the same themes, but that is not a bad thing. (They don’t call the original soundtrack the “Star Wars Symphony” for nothing.) This iconic music is as much a character in all nine of the movies as Chewie or R2 or Lando or Leia or, for that matter, the Millennium Falcon.

The cinematography is visually spectacular – as you would expect from any Star Wars film. From a stark desert landscape to a fight surrounded by CAT 5 hurricane level waves, from a space dog fight to a duel underground, the screenwriters went out of their way to be sure we got the length and breadth of how a Jedi deals with hostile environments of all kinds.

If it were not for the fact this movie is supposed to be the wrap up to four decades of films catering to three generations of Star Wars fans, I would think they maybe had over egged the pudding. As it was there were both cheers and tears from the audience as the storyline went through its paces in a most satisfying effort to pull out all the stops.

I couldn’t help but see the parallel to the long running thread at the heart of  The Blacklist‘s seven-season (and still going strong) tale, wherein the FBI’s most wanted (James Spader’s Red Reddington) turns himself in to aid the FBI in hunting down criminals so dangerous and elusive the FBI doesn’t even know they exist. But Red will only speak to Elizabeth Keen, newbie Quantico grad, who has never even heard of Reddington aside from his rap sheet. Though the titular storyline involves pursuing bad guys in clever ways, who Keen is to Red is the engine that propels the core of the show.

Similarly, the Star Wars Saga’s wrap up films have explored Rey’s search for closure. Rey is their new version of Luke – the Padawan with inexplicably extraordinary Force abilities – who searches for her parents and is occasionally sorry she asked.

There is something eternally appealing to the quest to reveal our origins, harkening back to our search for our place in the Universe and ultimately our relationship with our Creator. The annals of cinema history is rife with examples of orphans searching for their place in the Universe: Little Orphan Annie, Oliver Twist, Heidi, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Cosette from Les Mis, even Billy Batson from Shazaam! and Peter Pan – all search for what they see as their missing piece. Some, like Billy and Dorothy discover they never truly lacked anything to begin with and there was no place like home with people who already loved them. Others were disabused of idealized fantasies. And this is the identity crisis with which both Rey and her antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver – Paterson SEE REVIEW HERE and Logan Lucky SEE REVIEW HERE) wrestle. Rey wants to know who her mom and dad are/were and why they left her. On the other hand, while Ren knows who his parents are, he is in a constant state of struggle in coming to terms with them and their beliefs. (And boy with 6 kids isn’t THAT a familiar theme.)

SPOILERS

Dove-tailing with the search for identity embarked upon by the lead antagonists, the resolution for Kylo Ren comes from a very Christian based theology. Ren has done terrible things: genocide, patricide, torture of innocents, random violence, all in the service of becoming a galactic tyrant.  All very NON-Jedi activities. For the 3 or 4 people in the solar system who might not know, a Jedi is a monk-like warrior who leads a fairly aesthetic existence while fighting, armed only with a light saber and his connection to the “Force” of life, to ensure freedom and protection for innocents, even at the cost of their lives. Ren is the polar opposite of this, despite his parentage of Princess Leia, twin sister to Luke, a powerful Jedi master-knight and Han Solo, Luke’s best friend. But when Rey fatally bests him in battle, then, in an act of mercy, shares some of her life force with him to heal his mortal wound, he turns his back on what he has become. Ren repents! And when  he dies, in a turn about to save Rey by re-offering ALL of his life force back to her, he disappears as Yoda and Obi Wan had done – a sign of ultimate acceptance by the Jedi Force of his worthiness.

So with Ren’s genuine repentance and his willingness to die for his one time enemy, to love his “neighbor” as himself, came true redemption. A laudable and admirable lesson with which to close out (if this truly IS the last) the Star Wars Saga.

On a completely different topic – A lot of ink has been spilled over a same-sex kiss. The film makers made a big deal about this but it is truly “much ado about nothing” and a ridiculous effort at some glad handing political correctness. It occurs during a World War II Victory-like moment of joyous abandonment and celebration of life so that everyone is hugging and kissing everyone else. The kiss was about a sexual as if, in the joy of the moment Poe had kissed Maz or Rey had smooched Chewbacca. It had the same feel as when Ernie kissed Burt on the forehead after they finish singing for George and Mary’s wedding in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Were it not for the hypersensitivity in this artificially created lame-stream media’s constant attempts at shoving politically correct agendas down mainstream audiences throats, I don’t even think anyone would have noticed. Noticing it and attributing any particular significance to it hints at a subtext. But the kiss comes out of nowhere and BECAUSE of the attention brought to it in advertising campaigns, it effectively commits the cardinal sin of breaking the suspension of disbelief, needlessly popping the viewer out of this otherwise wonderful moment which was 42 years in the making.

The only other significant critique I would give is the insufficient amount of time given to the, as my kids put it, non-“Emo” Kylo Ren. Ren spends the majority of his time in these movies growling behind a Vader-like mask, barking orders, destroying things in fits of anger, glowering, killing people, and generally  being a REALLY tough audience. Ren’s moments of slight gentle humor after his miraculous healing by Rey are a surprise and delight. They are simple and little but effective moments where Ren is FINALLY channeling his father, Han Solo – like saying “Ow” after a fall or giving a wry smile and shrug as he pulls a lightsaber from nowhere to school some opponents. These are the best moments in all of Ren’s appearances in the entire franchise. They are memorable but tragically ever so brief minutes before he dies. Would that they had made an entire feature film with this aspect of his character.

So after all the reveals and (sort of) character deaths and familial connections resolved within the Star Wars Universe, you might think they really mean it when they say this is the LAST Star Wars movie to ever be made. Everyone who believes that shout out loud. (*so quiet crickets can be heard*) I agree and that’s just fine. See you at the NEXT “final” Star Wars movie.

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL – CLEVER AND LOADS OF FUN

SHORT TAKE:

Clever latest installment in the Jumanji franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up because of unnecessary profanity, including blasphemy, as well as some extreme cartoon gory violence.

LONG TAKE:

Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin the way my high school teacher did with any recalcitrant students: “Experience is a hard teacher but some will have no other.” This seems to be a thematic motto of the Jumanji franchise (and in that group I would include Zarathustra). Like a harsh fairy godmother teaching in The Wizard of Oz school of learning things, the Jumanji game seeks out unsatisfied people to grant their wishes … but makes them earn it.

The General Studies program at the Jumanji School of Insanely Hard Knocks focuses on maturity, altruism, loyalty and the priorities of friendship and family which can overcome any obstacles no matter how off-the-wall: from eagle size mosquitoes to malicious bands of monkeys, carnivorous hippopotami and lethal semi-sentient poisonous vines, bonding comes from teamwork, accepting others weaknesses, and making the best use of your own strengths to help those you love.

Excellent lessons to learn and, as Mary Poppins might have said, it helps that the sugar to make the medicine go down is wildly funny scenarios, and great actors who are very good sports and don’t mind taking pokes at their own famous reputations.

The original Jumanji and its two sequels excel beautifully in all of the above points. Zarathustra, (the step-child of the group, as it uses a similar scenario and themes but is not strictly part of the Jumanji franchise) follows in those footsteps as well.

For those not up-to-date, Jumanji is a wild game of crazy challenges: stampedes, instant localized monsoons  which fall only where you are, monster crocodiles, a homicidal big game hunter of people, malevolent monkeys — and places you IN the game. Not virtually, but in the real world. In the original Jumanji the creatures came into our reality. In the subsequent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the players are pulled into the game and manifest as Avatars. Spencer, a slight bookish boy with no appreciable upper body strength becomes Dwayne Johnson. Bethany, a narcissistic “Valley” girl becomes Jack Black. Martha, a girl with no inherent athletic abilities becomes Karen Gillian with preternaturally gymnastic fighting skills. And Fridge, an egotistical football player becomes the much shorter wand weaker Kevin Hart.

This latest Jumanji, Jumanji: The Next Level mixes it up, starting only a few years after the first reboot. All the original team: Fridge, Bethany and Martha have gone to college, done well and look forward to a reunion. Spencer is in a funk, and finds himself longing for the days when he was the size of Dwayne Johnson with extraordinary powers of strength and speed. The temptation gets too much and without consulting his worried friends goes back into the game.

I don’t want to tell you much more and spoil things so I will shy away from specifics. But I will say Next Level has all the humor and inventive scenarios of the original, keeps to the same themes, brings back all the familiar faces but does not just rehash the old. There are lively and justifiable (for that universe) variations which make Next Level as new and intriguing as the very first 1995 incarnation.

The acting is A level and a lot of fun. Not an enormous amount of subtlety but each of the actors do a wonderful job performing multiple characters outside of what you might think is their comfort zone. Returning are: Dwayne Johnson (burly muscle in WWE, and the likes of Scorpion King, GI Joe and Fast and Furious) who truly shines in comedies like Get Smart, The Other Guys, The Tooth Fairy and here in Next Level, where he shamelessly and hilariously makes fun of himself as Dr. Bravehouse/Eddie and Spencer. I was genuinely impressed at the enthusiasm with which he launched into characters way outside of his usual fare. Karen Gillian returns as Martha/Ruby Roundhouse as well as Fridge (you’ll see). She was most notably known before this as Matt Smith’s Dr. Who‘s companion Amy Pond and here does a marvelous job with not only multiple personalities but an authentic American accent. Kevin Hart (The Upside SEE REVIEW HERE) is delicious as Fridge and Milo. Jack Black is delightful as Bethany and Fridge. In addition there are some wonderful small role/cameos by short, growly voiced iconic comedian Danny DeVito (TV classic series Taxi, Throw Mama From the Train, Romancing the Stone, Twins) as Eddie, Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon franchise) as Milo, original Jumanji veteran Bebe Neuwirth as Eddie’s friend Nora, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reprise Nick Jonas (memorable in Midway SEE MY REVIEW HERE) as Alex, and Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians SEE REVIEW HERE) as Spencer and Eddie (again – go to the movie to see what this means).

Portraying the young versions of the “real” people are Morgan Turner as Martha, Madison Iseman as Bethany,  Ser’Darius Blan as Fridge, and Alex Wolff as Spencer. Colin Hanks (Tom’s oldest son) plays grown up Alex.

The soundtrack by Henry Jackman channels Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars in very clever and appropriate moments, as if unable to resist the retro and multi personality motifs that the actors get to play.

Jake Kasden, writer/director (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) who is of significant lineage (son of the famous writer/director Lawrence Kasden who brought us both Indian Jones, many of the Star Wars reboots, and The Big Chill), with cinematographer Gyula Pados, and the other writers Jeff Pinkner and  Scott Rosenberg, do a terrific job creating multiple extreme scenarios. I was especially impressed with the realism in a ridiculously harrowing one with …let’s just say geometry was important.

I would love to recommend this for all ages. And while there is no sexuality the writers unwisely decided to “enhance” a couple of the characters’ personalities with a smattering of profane and even blasphemous language: (*cough cough* Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart, Jack Black). Therefore I would recommended only to mid-teens and up and then only those who will have the sense not to parrot-repeat things they should not. That is a shame because it is the only limiting proviso to this otherwise charming film.

JUMANJI!!!!

A CHRISTMAS STORY – LOVELY NOSTALGIC REMINISCENCE AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone – children of all ages.

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

 

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone can go.

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD – MATTHEW 22: 39

SHORT TAKE:

Matthew 22: 39

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE!

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIDWAY GOES ALL THE WAY

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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