GODSPELL – EVANGELICAL FLASH MOB ON STAGE AT LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE!!

SHORT TAKE:

Lake Charles Little Theatre closes out this season with Godspell, the musical of vignettes from the New Testament, which is performed like a theatrical troupe flash mob.

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE!!!

LONG TAKE:

Have you ever seen a flash mob? They’re all over Youtube. A bunch of people, appearing to be from all walks of life, converge on a public area: an airport lobby, a playground, a mall – and someone starts to play an instrument or sing a song or dance. Then, one by one, others in their group, camoflaged as passersby, join in with voice or a flute or guitar or in tap shoes and before you know it, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people singing the "Ode to Joy" or Christmas Carols or tap dancing their hearts out, or like in the faux flash mob with actors from  The Greatest Showman, act out medleys from a Broadway show.

I am always pleased and delighted to watch these coordinated groups who, of a single mind, have the nerve and verve to perform for total strangers. And judging by the smiles, the photographs, and the applause from the suddenly blessed impromptu audience, I am not alone.

While I have never seen one in person, I would travel a considerable distance to be either a participant or an audience member, but by the very nature of the "show," most beneficiaries of these live exhibitions do not know about them ahead of time.

Musicals, like La La Land, have employed this concept since…well, since the advent of the musical. Random strangers all suddenly are inspired to break into song and  hoof coordinated complex dance routines. It's a wonderfully infectious and entertaining trope.

Now, imagine you are minding your own business at an empty baseball field – throwing a ball with your son, having a picnic, walking the family dog.  Suddenly a group of Catechism teachers from various eccumenical branches,  dressed for all walks of life, happen to converge and, inspired, cobble together a series of seemingly impromptu mini-plays, acting out stories and parables from the New Testament – from Jesus' baptism by St. John the Baptist through to Jesus' death. This is Godspell as the actors at Lake Charles Little Theatre truly personify the admonition from Matthew 18:20 that: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Godspell, literally from the Anglo-Saxon meaning "Good Story," refers, obviously, to the Gospel or Good News of the New Testament. The show is written as though the characters arrive together by chance unprepared and without anything but the clothes they wear, whatever happens to be lying around on the baseball field, a fervour for the Lord, and a desire to preach and teach the Gospel, enacting "on-the-spot" demonstrations of lessons from the Bible.

The show begins with the chant: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," and features songs you will find very familiar from your high school years, if you are over forty, and might have heard your parents play or on an elevator somewhere, if you are younger. But THIS is the way you SHOULD hear these songs – live and on stage, sung by people, some of whom I know personally, who are of great faith and mean every word they sing and say.

Unlike the play Jesus Christ Superstar or movies like The Passion, where individual actors step into roles and assume the mantle of that character for the duration of the story, in Godspell the actors are NOT supposed to BE that person, but are only vehicles for the communication of the Gospel message. Ordinary people going about their daily business are inspired to teach the Word. Therefore, there is no disrespect intended when Apostles are dressed in running shorts, or for ballet practice, or in a leather jacket or lab coat, because that is how they are supposed to have showed up for this "come as you are" exercise in missionary work. The actors, thereby, communicate an additional underlying message, that EVERYONE – young, old, whatever gender, whatever your gifts, are all called to evangelize. That when the moment calls to speak up for your faith, you are not to let formality stand in the way, but just jump right in and strike while you have a receptive audience. 

And there is no "gender agenda," but only a "necessity of convenience agenda" when a group of ladies ham it up with fake beards as Pharisees or a young lady responds as Peter – there are simply not enough men in the available cast. (MORAL TO THIS PART OF THE STORY – You guys in Lake Charles – MAN UP AND AUDITION!!!)

Clay Hebert, a staple in both local independent films and community, high school and college theater for over three decades, speaks on behalf of Jesus in an Astros shirt. Unsurprisingly, he has the command of both the stage and the Gospel message. I've known Clay since he had hair and have always been impressed by him as a brilliant example of the RIVER of talent that flows through our city. Kirsten Bush, Heather Partin, Zoe LeBeau and Joseph Comeaux are very familiar figures on our Lake Charles stages. And the rest of the performers shine as well: Clay Corley, Rebecca Harris, Virginia-Kate Jessen, Theresa Hay Needham, Taylor Novak-Tyler, Liz Rentrop Trahan, and Jaylin Williams all round out a cast which embodies a wide variety of roles: from the fallen woman Jesus saves from stoning, to the wealthy merchant who will not live to enjoy their earthly treaures, to the rich man who ignores Lazarus; from Caiaphas, to a temptress Devil, to the ungrateful servant, and those healed by Jesus. All the stories these delightful actors tell will be well known and beloved to even a casual student of the Bible. It is a joy to see these stories play out and hear the  beautiful singing. These very familiar songs, which can grow stale over time with indifferent repetition, come alive with the energy of immediate re-enactment that this talented troupe brings to the stage.

Greg Stratton, with a resume longer than my arm, gifted actor and director, corrals all this enthusiasm into the Godspell that we enjoyed, masterfully inspiring his cast, bringing out the best of their vocal and acting talents, making the challenge of directing so many performers constantly on stage look effortless. I have had the privilege of watching Greg direct up close and his creativity, love for the theatre and respect for his performers comes through clearly. Greg has an enormous repertorie, wearing the hats on and off the stage in comedies and dramas alike.  

A theatrical master magician who, like Prospero in The Tempest, is able to make his audience weep or laugh, Greg manages to do both in this funny, joyful, and emotional modern re-presentation of Bible stories.

So go see Godspell at Lake Charles Little Theatre as soon as you can – the run is only through April 29th – and be uplifted as only a live retelling of the Bible can be where two or more are gathered in His name.

AND I APOLOGIZE FOR THE PAUCITY OF PHOTOS FROM THE SHOW – MY ACCESS TO PICTURES WAS VERY LIMITED. IF ANYONE FROM THE CAST WOULD LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE PHOTOS FROM THE PRODUCTION PLEASE SEND THEM TO MY E-MAIL AT: KBARRILLEA@SUDDENLINK.NET AND I WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO ADD THEM TO THIS BLOG IF AT ALL POSSIBLE.

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I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE

OK BOYS AND GIRLS – I HAVE A CONFESSION. I wrote a two minute short and entered it into a competition – the challenge: what story could you tell in two minutes if your characters had only hours, or minutes before an Earth shattering – no last minute reprieve – meteor was going to hit Earth? I won one of the 50 spots. Stuart White, one of my guest reviewers, and, I am very pleased to say a good friend, won a spot as well. There are 50 shorts – 2 minute spots from 50 different screenwriters were or will be filmed and compose one 100 minute movie.

Although the video will not be out for a while yet as not even all the shorts have been finalized, Chris Jones – the orchestrator of the project – just released the trailer. Here it is.

So — the movie reviewer has had a hand in writing a movie. I am only one of fifty but win, lose, or draw I am complicit in Impact 50's creation.

While you won't be able to see my short until the film comes out, tell me what you think of the idea of the project in general and this trailer in particular. FYI none of the filmed portions of my short are in the trailer but there are some truly stunning bits shown.

 

 

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO – COMPLETELY FAMILY FRIENDLY ANIMATED HISTORICALLY ACCURATE DELIGHT ABOUT A FOUR LEGGED WORLD WAR I SOLDIER

SHORT TAKE:

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is a wonderful animated history of American Sgt. Stubby, a small mixed pitbull, the only dog to achieve rank and combat advancement, who followed his master’s Yankee Division regiment into the desperately dangerous front line trenches of World War I France.

WHO CAN GO:

With rare unequivocalness, I can recommend this movie for EVERYONE of any age.

LONG TAKE:

Years ago my brother, Bill, and I watched Lethal Weapon 2 on TV. There was a scene where Gibson as Martin Riggs, his dog Sam and Riggs' girlfriend du jour were under attack – helicopters, guns, lots of shooting. Bill turned to me and knowing what my primary concern would be said, "Don’t worry the dog survives." So rest assured to any parents concerned about bringing their small children to a movie about a cute dog on the front lines in World War I trenches, I have no compunction about a spoiler to let you know Sgt. Stubby is VERY child friendly.

Directed by Richard Lanni, in his first non-documentary feature film, and written by Lanni and Mike Stokey, the latter a combat vet and experienced film consultant on everything military, Sgt. Stubby is a mostly historically accurate telling of a stray miniature pit bull mix who attached himself to the 102nd Infantry Regiment Yankee Division, especially one Private Robert Conroy. Conroy is voiced by Logan Lerman, known for Fury, the Percy Jackson movies, 2011's steam-punk version of The Three Musketeers, and the most recent (and vastly underappreciated) Noah. (As a side note see Word on Fire’s Bishop Barron’s review of Noah before coming down too hard on Noah.)

In a delightful surprising supporting role, the amazing French actor, Gerard Depardieu brings Gaston Baptiste to life. Depardieu, with over 233 credits to his name is, to my mind, of note for the best Cyrano de Bergerac (short of the updated romantic comedy by Steve Martin, Roxanne), the funniest Porthos from 1998's Man in the Iron Mask, and the almost unique appearance of the character Reynaldo in Branagh’s unabridged Hamlet. Depardieu, leading man in both French and American movies, accomplished winemaker and restauranteur, has appeared mostly in historical dramas and romantic comedies. Baptiste, drawn to loosely look like Mr. Depardieu, is a large gentle giant of a veteran Frenchman who, in his civilian life, is a chef and takes Conroy, Stubby and Conroy’s closest human friends under his wing to help them survive in the trenches.

Stubby became the mascot of the Yankee Division, wandering onto the grounds of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut where the troops were training. Stubby ended up going with the men to the front lines in France for 18 months – in the trenches, raising morale, chasing out vermin, locating the injured, alerting the men to incoming bombs and impending gas clouds, and warning of approaching Germans. He was the most decorated dog in World War I and the only dog to ever achieve rank and then a combat promotion which he won for heroics during battle, including receiving a war wound.

Sgt Stubby is told through the medium of letters written home to Conroy’s sister Margaret, voiced by Helen Bonham Carter. Carter is best known for her scary roles including Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter franchise, the Red Queen in 2010's Alice in Wonderland, and Madam Thenardier from Les Mis. She is not quite as well known for some truly lovely and far gentler roles, such as the devoted wife of George VI in The King’s Speech. Her narration as Margaret in Sgt. Stubby ranks with her performance as Queen Elizabeth.

Sgt. Stubby reminded me of the old Disney and Warner Brothers animated shorts made during World War II promoting patriotism, explaining rationing, and cautioning against "loose lips". It was delightful to see that kind of straight forward common sense view of America and her allies against a common enemy AND with all the benefits of beautiful modern animation, all structured by the genuinely amazing events of this little dog.

From what I have read there were SOME historical liberties taken – for example Stubby does not manage to get onto the ship alone through sheer will and determination to find his master, but was smuggled onto the ship by Conroy. However, MOST of the other notable adventures really occurred – of which I hesitate to mention for fear of spoilers and ruining some surprises.

This is a VERY VERY child friendly movie. Even the battle injuries sustained by the soldiers are "shown" through mild reactions of other soldiers, or occur off screen or simply are just not shown but spoken of as one might during a stage play without actually showing any blood or wound. My two year old grandson, who ADORES dogs and is especially fond of our American Staffordshire mix, was not upset by any of the proceedings. During suspenseful moments he occasionally spoke a word of encouragement to Stubby but was otherwise transfixed. Two ten year old little girls who came with us and all the moms found the movie equally enjoyable. My ten year old "co-reviewers" both gave Stubby a definite "two thumbs up".

One of the other moms noted to me that, not only was Stubby a good and wholesomely entertaining movie, but it was genuinely educational. Maps of France, the trenches, the battle front lines, the advances and retreats were clearly drawn and animated, making it quite easy to follow the progress of the war. Details of uniforms and weaponry, the barbed wire, insignia on the bombs, movement of weaponry and conditions of the trenches seemed to be very carefully considered.

So I’d say – bring your dog obsessed two year old, bring grandma whose grandfather might have fought at Chemin des Dames, bring your older teen majoring in history at college, bring a girl on a first date, bring your friends to watch a feel good patriotic movie about the true exploits of brave American and French soldiers – both two and four footed, who fought selflessly to protect their countries and each other.

BISHOP BARRON: A QUIET PLACE – MODERN BOOK OF REVELATION

While my review of A Quiet Place focused on the monsters as allegory for all of the evils from which we, as parents, try desperately to protect our children, Bishop Barron, in breathtaking insightfulness recognizes the allegory of Revelation used by the Polish/Irish Catholic raised Krasinski to structure the story.

PLEASE READ BISHOP BARRON'S FAR SUPERIOR REVIEW:

(PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THERE ARE A LOT OF MAJOR SPOILERS IN BISHOP BARRON'S REVIEW)

BISHOP BARRON'S REVIEW OF A QUIET PLACE

CLEO – WHERE REEL LIFE AND REAL LIFE EXPLOSIVELY COLLIDE ON THE ALLEY THEATER STAGE

SHORT TAKE:

Cleo is a brilliant stage dramedy, playing through April 29, 2018 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas – written by Lawrence Wright and directed by Bob Balaban, about the filming of the movie Cleopatra as seen from the perspective of the explosive affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who play the cinematic lovers Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults. Burton, Taylor and their relationship became the short hand definition of a passionate, torrid love affair. In addition, the movie they were filming, Cleopatra, pushed the MPAA ratings of that time to the edge of the envelope. So to show less than Mr. Balaban does would be like trying to demonstrate an atomic bomb with a birthday candle. But this means it is not appropriate for youths.

LONG TAKE:

I have rarely seen life so poetically and entertainingly imitate art and that art so analogously reflected back than in the play Cleo currently running at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. And I have NEVER seen such a story more skillfully manifested. Masterfully written by Lawrence Wright and brilliantly directed by the multi-talented Bob Balaban, Cleo is about the romance that volcanically erupted between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the shooting of the movie Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, for anyone under 40 and not an old movie aficionado, is a classic, epic, bombastic, spectacular that was filmed in 1963 with three of the heaviest hitting stars in Hollywood at the time – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison, and populated with some of the most solid and talented supporting actors of their era including   Martin Landau, Carroll O'Connor, Roddy MacDowell and Hume Cronyn.

The stories surrounding this legendary moving disaster area are legion. However, Messieurs Wright & Balaban tackle the central fuse that wove its way through the making of the movie – the romance that began between the couple who for the next two decades would be known in one breath, almost as one word – Liz and Dick. Married and divorced twice to each other and many times to others they became inseparable. Toxic to each other but unable to stay away from each other, they remained close for the rest of their lives, whether married to each other or not. Cleo tells the story of the beginning of this incendiary relationship.

Cleo is funny, bittersweet, bawdy, fascinating, historically interesting, and somehow also whimsically endearing. Lisa Birnbaum, as Elizabeth Taylor, radiates all of the subtleties of Taylor's voice and body mannerisms without creating the caricature that could have so easily emerged. The same for Richard Short as Richard Burton. I loved the accents Short was able to swing into and out of – Burton's normal Welsh versus the high British posh that we are so used to hearing him speak. 

All the subtlety but unmistakable familiarity of these personalities reincarnated on stage for us is a massive credit to both the skillful writing of Mr. Wright whose dialogue lends itself to revelations and foretelling, and to the insightful direction by Mr Balaban. In other hands this could have ended up as a farce. But the affection and respect Wright and Balaban have for these subjects shines through. Mr. Balaban's understanding and perceptive observation of these creatures of Hollywood who are also deeply human beings is personified in the choices which he has made with these actors in particular and the production in general.

Mark Capri portrays Rex Harrison and is given a bit broader license to portray the man who was both Dr. Dolittle and Henry Higgins. Capri's larger than life performance offers a counterpoint and some comic relief to the intense proceedings sparking around him. Brian Dykstra as Joe Mankiewicz occupies a Machiavellian type father position, who both struggles to keep peace amongst his cast but also tends to stir the pot just enough to elicit the dialogue and performance of which he knows these intensely talented movie stars are capable. Adam Gibbs as the cuckolded clueless Eddie Fisher, the man who left his wife Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, provides just the right combination of posturing famous singer and schlemiel who is the last one on the train to recognize that he has lost his wife. Gibbs' Fisher reminds me of the sad clown husband character from Chicago who devotedly would have kept his straying wife but is ultimately abandoned. But unlike the husband in Chicago we know Fisher's hands are not at all clean and that there is a certain poetic justice to the affair lighting up between his erring wife and the Welsh actor.

Bob Balaban, the director, is one of those faces you recognize but don't always remember his name. He has been in a wide range of movies, as a wide range of characters – from the oddly named but sweetly thoughtful Dr. Chandra in 2010, to the corrupt federal investigator in Absence of Malice, to the charmingly out of his depth cartographer in Close Encounters, to the ill-fated film critic in Lady in the Water and the art connoisseur in The Monuments Men. Mr Balaban has had a long career in Hollywood as a gifted actor, director, writer and producer. He even has a singing credit in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. But this directorial outing of Cleo will stand out as one of his best works.

There is no whitewashing or lionizing of Taylor and Burton's scandalous behavior, the drunkenness, or the betrayal of their spouses. There is a scene in the stage play Lion in Winter in which Queen Eleanor reminisces to her son Richard about the first meeting between herself and his father, Henry II. Eleanor had been married, at the time, to King Louis of France. However, Eleanor recounts of Henry: "He came down from the North to Paris with a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot." This line echoed in my head as I watched Cleo. The violent passion between Taylor and Burton washes over the audience, exposing both their strengths as well as their all too human weaknesses. We see behind the Wizard's curtain and much like the fascination one might have for a slow motion train wreck, it is not always pleasant to see but it is absolutely captivating and mesmerizing to watch.

The movie, Cleopatra, destroyed the careers and health of two directors, wrecked at least two marriages and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Cleopatra was drastically behind schedule and grostesquely over-budget when Joseph Mankiewicz took over the director's chair from Rouben Mamoulian. Without a viable shooting script to this disaster on wheels, rewrites were occasionally not completed until the night before, organization was poor and money was thrown willy-nilly at problems that should never have arisen. The entire cast and crew, trying to recreate the hot dry Egyptian climate in chilly damp London was moved to Rome. One scene was to be shot on the beach at Anzio. Rights were obtained, permissions were granted, and construction workers were killed from the detonation of a live mine left over from World War II. Shooting was once again delayed as a minesweeper had to be hired to prevent another tragedy. Elizabeth Taylor almost died from double pneumonia during the shoot. Established famous character actors had to be hired and paid for, in some cases months beyond the time for which they were originally contracted, as delays mounted one upon another.

BUT, as amusing as these scenarios and anecdotes are, most are wisely not addressed in Cleo. They do, howeverprovide a fitting backdrop of catastrophic ambiance to the Ground Zero of this nuclear romance.

During a Q&A before the performance, Mr. Bob Balaban spent an hour giving generously of his time to provide some background about the making of this play, spin stories about his personal life in New York as his family founded a string of movie houses, and field questions from an appreciative audience. He was extremely gracious, patient, open, warm, articulate, and friendly. Sort of like how you might imagine Mr. Rogers were he a theatrical director. He very kindly agreed to allow photos, videos and audios be made of the mini seminar. He also waited for anyone who wished afterwards to have a word and a photo. I was one of those who benefited from his affability, and assuming my technical crew can make the transfer, I will have audio and video excerpts up soon.

For the record, I used to think Elizabeth Taylor was a bubble-headed movie star. And to some extent, yes, she was. She made some very bad choices in her life, she drank, she took drugs, she lived to excess. However there was another part of her which I did not know about until doing research in anticipation of seeing the play and writing this blog. Elizabeth Taylor was a convert to Judaism. She was quite devoted to Israel and her outspokenness actually got her banned from Egypt even for the production of Cleopatra so that scenes were filmed in Rome with her and exterior shots only were filmed in Egypt without her. She spent the latter part of her life, after her film career, in well known philanthropic projects, including AIDS research, children's education, and raising money for Israel. However the most astonishing and courageous thing that I discovered she did was something I had never even heard a whisper about before. 

In 1976 Muslims hijacked an airline carrying 248 passengers. They rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda and threatened all the passengers with murder unless fellow terrorists were released. All of the non-Jewish passengers were released. Elizabeth Taylor, then one of the most famous faces on Earth, offered herself in exchange for the remaining 100 Jewish hostages. The terrorists refused the offer. Not just a PR stunt, the Israli Ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz publically thanked her at the Jewish National Fund Gala, presenting her and her then husband Jack Warner with a certificate for a forest which would be planted in her honor, saying: "The Jewish people will always remember." It was an extremely brave thing to do. Had these Muslim terrorists accepted there is no telling what they would have done to her. Instead Israeli Defense Forces successfully released almost all of the hostages safely and took out the terrorists.

While the events in the play Cleo take place over a decade before this real life drama at Entebbe, Cleo's backstage pass look at one of the most infamously known, adulterous affairs in history, reminds us that there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known. Thanks to Mr. Wright and Mr. Balaban, we have an opportunity to warm our hands by a still shot, an intimate and affectionately humorous peek, at the megaton conflagration that was Taylor and Burton

In 90 minutes the craft of this play is such that we, as the audience, come away feeling we have known these people for years, not just because we have read critiques, seen the movies, scanned articles and sadly noted obituaries about them. But we know these people because we have been given a look at them in their smallness, in the sinful activities of which we are all subject in this Fallen World. Great literature makes one feel that one is a better person after having seen it. That can come in two forms. The story can be of either a good example or a horrible warning. I think you can probably guess into which category this amusing, sad, bittersweet and mesmerizing play falls. As the play Cleo demonstrates, in this backstage pass look at one of the most infamously well known adulterous affairs in history, there is often much more to the players involved than is commonly known.

I predict Misters Wright and Balaban have a justifiably massive hit on their hands. Cleo will only be playing at the Alley Theater through April 29, 2018 so hurry to see it there. It will, undoubtedly find a national run in the near future as word gets out about this emotionally expressive and delightful play, but why wait??!! Treat yourself to a one-of-a-kind experience in Cleo as stars in reel life and real life collide on the Alley Theater stage.

A QUIET PLACE – BLESS YOU FOR THE REMINDER JOHN KRASINSKI

SHORT TAKE:

Brilliant and terrifying sci fi analogy to the terrors every parent faces in trying to protect their children from this dangerous world.

WHO SHOULD GO SEE IT:

Older teens and up ONLY, and then only ones who can manage Alien without having to use a nightlight for a month.

LONG TAKE:

Parent World – where everything can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong… (apologies to Michael Crichton), where a simple accident, a misjudgement or even a well-intentioned but ill advised act of kindness can rain unintended and unanticipated disaster upon your family.

Some movies are quite difficult to watch but they should be seen anyway. Some because they are history and we should be witness to the events even if it can only be done from a vicarious distance, such as Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List. Some for the sheer artistry of the writer/director like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Others, and many of these are based on classic literature, because they teach us lessons – Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And some for the sheer roller coaster thrill of having the pants scared off of us – like Alien.

In a small way John Krasinski's A Quiet Place fits into all of those categories.

A Quiet Place is set. almost theatrically, within the confines of a small farm in an unnamed area, populated by a family of unnamed characters only identified in context by their relations to each other: Mom, Dad, Sister, Older brother, Younger brother. This is deliberate, I understand, in order that the message will apply to any family and every family. The members of this close knit family are survivors of a world wide cataclysm wrought by an invasion of creatures heretofore unknown on this planet. Where they came from – lab experiment gone awry like in Stranger Things, alien invasion, some critter from beneath the earth – is never explained. That too is on purpose, I think. These creatures are lightning fast, have skin of armour, razorsharp stilleto claws and multilayered teeth which would make your average Alien envious. As abandoned blowing newspapers declare they are impervious to bullets or bombs. But they are blind. They have astonishingly acute hearing and will only hunt you if they hear you. And the smallest noise – a cracked twig, a dropped glass, a clink of a belt buckle WILL be lethal, especially if you are out in the woods. So the family moves in total silence – walking on sand paths laid meticulously out, food served on lettuce and eaten with the hands, games of Moonpoly played lying on a floor with puff balls. No animals, little metal, no running machinery. The family communicates with sign language and code lighting strung around the farm.

John Krasinki and Emily Blunt, married to each other and parents to two daughters, usually known for their comedies – respectively entries likeThe Office and The Devil Wears Prada – have created a masterpiece of horror fiction which ranks up there with the classics. Bridging the gap between their comedy days and this have been some significant serious movies, almost as though in preparation for their roles in A Quiet Place, which have allowed them to portray bad-ass characters, such as, respectively 13 Hours and Live, Die, Repeat.  A Quiet Place tells not just a frightening story to scare the kiddies, it tells a story intended to reflect the terror that every parent feels about trying to protect their children from the vastness of horrors, evil, and dangers of this fallen world in which we live. I know this is deliberate because Krasinski has stated as such in interviews – it is a "love letter" to his and Blunt's two (and future) children – to show what lengths good and heroic parents must go to to protect their children.

Other authors have attempted similar stories. Stephen King, for example, wrote Pet Semetery (sic) as a cathartic exercise to help him deal with the possibility of losing a child. But in that story, the parents act selfishly in order to assuage their own guilt and grief, wrecking supernatural havoc in the process. They do not ever seem to think about what would be best for their children, or even each other. But in A Quiet Place, everything these parents do, everything they must suffer together, every choice they make, every precauition they take, every bit of research they do, every exercise they perform is geared to seeking ways to help their children survive in this cruel and lethal world – just as every good parent does even when not faced with superhuman horrors.

Mom and Dad homeschool their children. There is one almost whimsical scene in which Blunt's character as Mom is teaching her oldest son to divide. All communication is done through sign language. Dad wants the boy, rightly frightened to go outside the confines of his familiar home, to go out fishing with him so he can learn to feed himself and his siblings, as the Mom explains when she is aged and pitiful, miming being old and toothless. The underlying bittersweet message is that, as things stand, it is unlikely any of them will live to die of old age. It's a gentle scene but the point is made. Mom and Dad tell their Older Son in as light a way as possible: If and when we must die for you the legacy we leave is to have taught you how to provide and protect yourselves as best we can.

In an act of incredible bravery the Mom gets pregnant and they decide, as a matter of course without question, to bear the child. All provisions and plans are made to perform this extremely dangerous activity – child birth and caring for a newborn – in silence. If you have ever given birth, just imagine trying to do it without making a sound and you will have an appreciation of to what heroic lengths these parents will go to bring forth and protect their children's lives.

The acting is terrific. Almost ALL of the conveyance of emotion and communication are done with body language and expression. While they do have sign language subtitles you really don't need them to get the drift of what they are saying. The fourteen year old daughter (Millicent Simmonds) really is deaf and her performance is stunning. Noah Jupe plays the older brother and Cade Woodward plays the youngest child. All the kids have a natural affinity and chemistry with Blunt and Krasinski – so much so that I had to check to see if any of them really are their kids – they aren't.

This is a brilliant parable embodying in the form of a sci fi the dangers parents MUST try to protect their children from. I could imagine this being the fevered nightmare of a worried new parent – where, no matter how careful you are or what preparations you make, the slightest mistep can bring down calamity and catastrophy. A neighbor who makes an unwise decision, poisons in the medicine cabinet of a friend's house, predatory humans who masquerade as care givers, car accidents, wild animals, burst appendix, an unforeseen accident, a fall down a stairs. Then there is the concern of, even if you do everything right and protect them from all of the external terrors, what can you do to teach them the right things, educate them, guide them to being able to care for themselves spiritually and physically after you are gone. And blessedly there is at least SOME acknowledgment of God. The family joins hands in a palpably sincere and faith filled plea of thanksgiving and bequest for safety – without a word being spoken or even mouthed. 

The aliens represent everything and anything that can endanger your child and how quickly and unexpectedly tragedy can swoop down undeservedly upon them, until the only thing you can do is stand between them and catastrophe to the best of your ability, no matter how hopeless it sometimes seems. And that the only guarantee you can give them is your unconditional love.

This is a brilliantly artful movie Krasinski has written and directed  – gorgeous outdoor scenes which still remind you of the sword of Damocles over their heads by the silence with which they move in it, minimalizing the communication down to only that which is most essential and it works incredibly well to draw you into their family. Krasinski's thoughtful effectiveness in his use of sound and silence is occasionally breathtaking – taking advantage of the deaf daughter's vantage point where she hears nothing, playing counterpoint to the sounds and potential sound around her as she tries to navigate in a tremendously sound lethal world. As though she is blind in a darkened room but does not see the flashes of lights around her which can make her a target for the predators nearby.

Despite some plot holes in the premise, within the Universe Kransinski has created the story is airtight and skillfully crafted to maximum effect. The slightest sound is incredibly significant, a heartbeat has the impact of a drumroll in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and a single human scream has vastly more effect than even a Godzilla's roar in a "normal" movie. These noises, so casually easy to ignore, take on monumental importance, just as the intimacy of parent to child is magnified here in the visible incarnation of the intense constant danger which surrounds us in the real world. Careless driving drunks, rabid wild animals, cancer, lightning strikes on a sunny day, all coalesce into the nightmare vision of this one hideous monster, who can whisk your child away from you, before you can adequately react to protect them, and even as you look on in horror. It is as suspenseful as Hitchcock, as roller coaster of scares as you might ever want in a movie, and has all the earmarks of a classic – an endorsement of understanding to parents who are already watchful and alert, a slap of cold water reality of the terrible consequences which are possible to parents who may not be so attentive.

If this review alone has put you on edge and if the movie makes you just that much more concerned and wary for your children's safety, and a single child is rescued by a parent prodded even subliminally into a more wary watchfulness, then I think Krasinski has done the job he set out to do and is owed a grateful thank you. A small price to pay for the demonstration of watchful anxiety for his children to us, which mayhap makes us more watchful over our own. Thanks John.

PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

SHORT TAKE:

Moving and informative portrayals of Saints Paul and Luke in the last days before St. Paul's execution.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Everyone…eventually! But be advised that mid to younger teens should be taken with parental discretion because of the examples of Roman brutality and persecution against the Christians.

LONG TAKE:

Saint Dominic once declined an offer to go with his fellow monks for an outing in order to pray the rosary. Upon his friends' return, Dominic was still meditating. When they asked how much longer he could possibly be praying one rosary he replied he had not gotten past the Our Father. Upon exclaiming their surprise that he would spend so much time on one prayer he corrected them, explaining, that – no I have not gotten past being overwhelmed by the first two words – "Our Father".

Paul, Apostle of Christ is like that. The Bible is a vast library of stories, historical anecdotes, poetry, parables, love songs, love stories and wisdom. Each line contains an infinity of grace and one can spend lifetimes contemplating even the smallest part. Paul, Apostle of Christ invites the audience to join in just a few of the final days of St. Paul (James Faulkner – lifelong Angelican who started out as an in-demand chorister and soloist at the Royal College of Church Music at Addington Palace and who has graced the big and small screens in everything from Zulu Dawn to Game of Thrones and the voice of Severus Snape for video games) as he is visited by his disciple, St Luke (James Caviezel – devout Catholic and talented actor as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, Frequency, and The Count of Monte Cristo) .

St. Luke is so determined to glean even the tiniest bit more wisdom from his mentor in Christ, that he is willing to sneak INTO Mamertine Prison – a Roman dungeon, uninvited, to get it. This is Rome, in the days of the Emperor Nero, when Christians were thrown to wild animals in the Circus and burned alive to light the streets of Rome. This is the period after which Nero accused the Christians of burning down half of the city and persecutions were so rampant that even the soldiers questioned (very quietly) the public relations wisdom of the extremes to which their Emperor was expressing his hatred of Christians.

A small band of Christians live quietly on the outskirts of the city, living on the knife's-edge of discovery, reluctant to abandon Rome to the darkness into which it has plunged. Luke travels back and forth between the two worlds – the Christian community and the dungeon of St. Paul – the conduit of faith and hope each recipient of which sustains each other. He brings encouragement to St. Paul in his sufferings, assuring him that the Christian teachings will be passed on as The Acts of the Apostles even as St. Paul faces death. The Christian community bears witness to the sufferings of fellow Christians as well as nurturing, copying, and transporting the wisdom of St. Paul in the papyrus transcribed writings which will one day be known as letters from St. Paul to Galatians, Corinthians, Romans, Phillipians and Thessalonians, among others.

No doubt, some dramatic license has been given to this story – there is no definitive evidence, for example, of how St. Paul died but it is accepted Christian tradition based on history and logic that he was beheaded. But the essence of who St. Paul was and his impact and influence on the Jews, Gentiles and even Romans at the time is portrayed by director Andrew Hyatt with dignity and love of the subject matter.

For example, a subplot involving St. Luke's healing of the Roman prison commander's daughter using his natural gifts, (St. Luke is  one of the patron saints of doctors), may or may not have happened but the incident as portrayed in the movie is a beautifully dramatic vehicle to demonstrate the charity of the followers of Christ, as well as the influence that the Christian exercise of love had on even their jailers. It is also a clever construct for dialogue between St. Paul as representative of Christ and Mauritius as a representative of the Roman Empire, and how, utimately, the Roman Empire's future generations would eventually turn, in its sickness, to Christianity, for healing, not just of its body but its soul.

Paul's agony of regret for his former life as a fellow sinner, as Saul the persecuting Pharisee, (Yorgos Karamihos – Theo from Durrells in Corfu), is also reviewed in both Paul's tormented dreams and in the ecstacy of grace which he understands God so generously bestows on all of mankind.

Paul, Apostle of Christ is an inspiring moment in the vast storehouse that is the brilliant breathing lighthouse of Christianity in this darkened world; a glance at the Judeo-Christian theology and mankind's relationship with the Trinity of God, His Divine Son, and the Holy Spirit. And time spent contemplating this profound example of God as Our Father of forgiveness and mercy is more than worth our time.

READY PLAYER ONE – A GEEKATHON – WHEREIN ONE DYSTOPIAN SOCIETY IS REPLACED WITH ANOTHER

SHORT TAKE:

Forget HAVING Easter eggs in it – Ready Player One really IS one big Easter egg of visual and auditory memorabilia set against a virtual reality treasure hunt but leaves one wondering who the real bad guy is.

LONG TAKE:

The premise to Ready Player One follows Wade (Tye Sheridan – the new Scott Sommers/Cyclops), a participant in a global virtual reality treasure hunt with the prize of ownership of the virtual world Oasis and virtually (pun intended) unlimited wealth and power. Not only is he competing against all the other Gunters (Easter Egg Hunters), but finds himself up against an "evil" competitor company IOI, run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn who was both the doomed sinister scientist in Rogue One and delightful as King George VI in Darkest Hour), which produces the virtual reality equipment used in the Oasis and will stop at nothing in either the virtual world or the real one to win the prize.

If you thought the Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy had an abundance of references to other movies, wait – because the Collector's Showroom compared to Ready Player One is like comparing a birthday candle to a blowtorch.

I supposed it did all start with the 1979 Atari game Adventure. A departing employee placed his name in a video game, like the signature on a painting, which only appeared when a certain spot was hit. Atari management decided it was a good marketing ploy and started planning similar little "treasures" which eventually came to be known as "Easter eggs".

As time went on the same ploy began to be used in movies. Like product placement, subtle and not so subtle references to other movies started turning up in odd places. Pixar is famous for having the Pizza Truck from Toy Story in all of their movies – as an advertisement or a toy or some other clever way to implant the image. The same for the ball in the first animated Pixar lamp short, and the voice of  John Ratzenberger in EVERY Pixar movie – Hamm in Toy Story, the Flea circus manager in A Bug’s Life, a construction worker in Up, a crab in Finding Dory.  "Easter Eggs" all. And they can be both obvious and obscure in other movies. Stan Lee appears in all the Marvel movies with a cameo and one liner. Harry Dean Stanton from the doomed Nostromo in the original Alien movie portrays a security guard in The Avengers and asks a transformed Banner who just landed/crushed a building as the Hulk, if he is an "alien".

Easter eggs can manifest in a variety of ways – a musical theme or song, a toy, a picture or photo, the appearance of an entire character as a cameo. And I do not think it is a coincidence that the vast majority of movie Easter eggs occur in sci fi and animated movies because THAT is where the geeks are! And the geek world of video games is where they were birthed.

So, as a fellow geek, it is without fear of revealing any significant spoilers that I can safely say Ready Player One is pretty much one BIG Easter egg, or more accurately a Conga-line of familiar images, a plethora of homages, a virtual EXPLOSION of Easter eggs – and just in time for Easter.

If you took a snapshot pretty much anywhere in the virtual reality, Oasis, created by Ready Player One you could probably count 15 Easter eggs in any given random shot. I went with my sister, my mother-in-law, my son-in-law and my oldest daughter and each of us caught images or characters or houses or landscapes or music themes that others of us did not. And I feel certain that even if we pooled our collective observations there were dozens in every shot that none of us saw.

The homages in Ready Player One is an overload of nostalgia, almost an assault on the senses of little treasures: from Freddy Kreuger to the house out of the Wizard of Oz to the Charm of Making from John Boorman’s Excalibur to the Star Fleet insignia from Star Trek.

Not all the Easter eggs are quite so obvious. Some are thematic or even in the structure of the premise. The movie can be seen as a homage to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starting with the trailer's remix of "Pure Imagination". RPO's Halliday (Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall, Dunkirk), the co-inventor of the virtual reality world, Oasis,  has a mental candy factory which he plans, posthumously, to leave to the player who completes three challenges and assorted surprise trials which, like Charlie's decision about to whom to give the Unending Gobstopper at the end of Willy Wonka, tests the integrity as well as the video gaming prowess of the players.

There is also a magical whimsicalness and endearing awkwardness to Rylance’s Halliday, much like there is to Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka. Halliday is a kind of combination Bill Gates, Willy Wonka, and Rainman – all products of the 70s and 80s. There's also an evil competing Corporation who is out to get the secrets of Oasis at all cost, much like Slugworth is portrayed as being after the secrets to the Wonka Factory.

Then again, the main characters and their friends play out much like Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz who have real life counterparts in Kansas. The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow in Oz are farm hands on a ranch owned by Dorothy's aunt and uncle. In Ready Player One, similarly, Art3mis (not a typo) a fairy like character and Wade’s primary ally (Olivia Cooke), along with a Ninja, and a cyborg all have human counterparts in the real world.

BEYOND HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS – I MEAN REALLY – DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU

But seriously – how much spoiler can there be when you know this is a Steven Spielberg movie? Nice kid and his friends go up against an evil corporate Empire. Do you really think Spielberg is going to go Brazil on us? So the kids will win……………….sort of.

BUT

What if I told you about a movie featuring an opium addicted kid who is given the opportunity to win ownership of the Opium syndicate through a series of physical and mental challenges. When he wins, predictably, in the end, he frees the slaves made to work in the field but continues making the opium, thereby perpetuating the creation of voluntary slaves who willingly take his product. You would probably think this was some kind of Chinese film noir. And I'm not sure you would think the lead was much of a hero either – certainly not a role Jackie Chan would want.

Now replace opium with a virtual reality game and you have Ready Player One.

Keep in mind this kind of premise has been dealt with many times before: Logan’s Run – sheltered society where movement to the "next level" at 30 was a cover for the ‘60's Hippie Utopia of killing everyone over 30 (reference Who lyric: "Hope I die before I get old"). Or Total Recall where the ending is debated to this day as to whether Quaid really is on Mars as an operative or has had a psychotic breakdown in a virtual reality machine. Then there was a Night Gallery episode where a woman spent all her free time in a virtual reality with a family she couldn’t have in real life because she spent all her time in a virtual reality machine!!! – which eventually blew up, killing her and leaving her consciousness in the machine with her pretend family (happy ending?????). Then there was Wall-E in which mankind has left Earth a mess to languish in a space cruise ship doing nothing but playing videogames and getting fat. Or Star Trek: The Next Generation’s "The Game" in which the entire crew is hooked/enslaved to a VR game which rewards the pleasure centers of the brain. And Strange Days where people live others people's lives through virtual reality and it goes horribly wrong.

And I can’t help but remember the Simpson’s wisely self-cautionary tale titled Itchy & Scratchy & Marge wherein the only responsible adult in the Simpson family gets violence on the popular children’s program Itchy & Scratchy removed. This results in the now bored kids turning the TV off and going outside. Owlishly they blink in the sunlight, then one by one the children in the neighborhood start playing ball, swinging on the playground equipment and interacting like normal children, all to the tune of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony accompanied by a brilliant visual homage to Disney’s Fantasia’s imagined illustration of the same Symphony.

However, in all of these examples, the mental and emotional blight inherent in a society dominated by a cyber-arm’s length distancing from the real world is forefront. The bad guys are the ones who perpetuate the virtual reality. In Ready Player One it is not the total and continual emersion in a non-real framework that is at faulty, but only the ones who run it.

This philosophy, which dodges the foundational problem and focuses only on the people at the helm of the destructive juggernaut, eerily reminds me of the modern liberal Socialist mentality. Modern liberals contend that Socialism and its Big Brother (pun intended) Communism are not evil but that the problems which arise of: famine, totalitarianism, crushing state run conformity, depression, suicide, collapse of healthy societal and family structures, promiscuity as an escape, abortion as a result, and persecution of religion, all come about, not because the machine is fundamentally evil, but that the wrong person ran it. Modern liberals think that the brutal dictatorship of Stalin’s Russia would have been a Utopia had Nancy Pelosi been allowed to crush people, I mean run the country (into the ground).

Don't get me wrong I love video games. I’ve played p[lenty of them myself. So I can first-hand appreciate the dangers of the allure.

In Ready Player One there is apparently no other business. And much like in Wall-E ,there doesn’t seem to be anyone under eleven – what you might think a minimum age to negotiate the more complex virtual reality programs. Apparently unless you are old enough to play a video game in Ready Player One you aren’t important enough to exist in this "reality". There are certainly no babies in Ready Player One as they would take up way too much of your time from playing Oasis. There are no churches. There aren't any pets or wildlife…. or even vermin for that matter. No one cooks and pizza is delivered but there is no indication of anyone raising wheat or cows or cooking. The only thing that seems to exist is glass, metal and people playing this virtual reality game. There is no industry shown of ANY kind that does not revolve around the virtual world of Oasis. There are no grocery stores. There are no farms. Soylent Green anyone?

This kind of environment makes more sense in a dystopian reality which you are trying to condemn. And while there is some lip service paid to the idea that video games and virtual reality should not completely supplant reality, it's a bit like telling opium addicts they should go out for a burger a couple of times a week.

I had two opposing problems with the main bad guy, Sorrento. Biff in Back to the Future threatens dangerously but we never actually witness him kill anyone. (Yes, there is some history with the rich Biff and Mad Dog Tannen but one gets changed with history and the other kills people we do not know – not much of an ethical distinction in real life but important when defining a character in a movie). Sorrento and his henchwoman, the main bad guys in Ready Player One, do kill other people – not just their avatars – in the movie. However they are never treated like dangerous villains but more like Biff's comically evil character. But on the other hand – Sorrento at one point zeroes out all the players, throwing everyone on the planet back into the real world – like in Itchy & Scratchy & Marge. As the former Gunters and other VR players walk dazedly around looking at the sun and each other for the first time in who knows how long, the main characters note how "oddly" they are behaving – not glued to their virtual reality world. Wade, the titular good guy, eventually resurrects the Oasis through a bit of cyber legerdemain and the cycle will soon begin again. So I’m left to wonder – who is the REAL bad guy here?

I’m not saying this is a bad movie – it’s really a lot of fun to watch. One could go in with a clipboard and probably get a kick out of just jotting down the visual and auditory references. Some bright bunny ought to market a checklist or Easter Egg BINGO – where you mark off all the ones you see.

But for an upbeat kid-intended movie there is a very dark side to Ready Player One. I couldn’t help but walk out of the theater a little depressed and even disturbed by the fate of the world that had been created. I would have been far more impressed if, at the end, the street rat turned Slumdog Millionaire, who had seen first hand the flaws in sucuumbing to virtual reality addiction, had used his now considerable wealthy and power to start rebuilding the city – perhaps reimbursing the former slaves for their labors, melting down the mountains of rusted and abandoned cars to build actual factories that made real THINGS people could use, was shown with blueprints to build homes to replace the "Stacks" of mobile home parks which blighted the city, founded working farms, funded scholarships.

Instead we are treated to Wade snogging his girlfriend, (not even his wife) cuddled in a chair in a Penthouse apartment who notes with some self-satisfaction that he had turned off the Oasis on Tuesdays and Thursday. This would be a bit like a successful and less violent Scarface assuring us that he established meth rehab clinics for the worst of his addicted customers and doesn’t that make him a hero after all?

IN CONCLUSION:

I have some real mixed feelings about this one. If you go in with the intent to enjoy a cruise-line quantity banquet of nostalgia then this is the movie for you, but be aware you might be left with a very dystopian taste in your mouth after the feast.

WARNING NOTE:

I was a bit disappointed in the language used for what is primarily targeted to a young audience. There is casual use of some mild profanities but more disturbing are some specific uses of blasphemies for which there is really no justification and totally inappropriate for children to be saying. In addition there is some "just covered up" nudity but is a zombie creature and certainly not salacious. In addition there is some mild sexual innuendo. There is also extreme (expected) virtual violence but also some real world lethal force.

This all adds up to an appropriateness age of mid teens and up which is really older than what is being targeted in advertisements.

 

 

MIDNIGHT SUN – WHOLESOME STORY OF COMMITMENT BETWEEN TWO – LITERALLY – STAR-CROSSED LOVERS

SHORT TAKE:

Midnight Sun is a great first date movie about genuine love through commitment between two lovely young people despite challenges and tragedies.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Appropriate for anyone but younger kids would get bored.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS

Midnight Sun is a movie about two star-crossed lovers. A cliched term to be sure but in this case quite literally true. The star in question being our own Sol at the center of our solar system. The story is about a young lady, Katie (Bella Thorne – talented actress and singer) with XP, xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare but real genetic disorder wherein the sufferers are unable to repair DNA damage caused by UV radiation. XP makes even brief sun exposure life threatening from cancer and neurologic cascades. Any variation of XP occurs in only 1 of 250,000 people. The extreme kind necessary to the plot that Katie has is 1 in 1,000,000 and only 40% live beyond 20.

The acting is good. Ms. Thorne as Katie is quite adorable and has an excellent singing voice. Katie lives with her widowed father, Jack. Jack is portrayed by Rob Riggle, the real life American hero who I last saw in 12 StrongRiggle's performance of Jack is a kind, gentle but appropriately protective homeschooling dad. (As Katie walks out the door for the evening to play guitar at the train station in her small home town he playfully reminds her to text him when she gets there and that if she is not home in time he will be going down there and making Youtube history with a Why One Should Not Break Curfew video.)

Her best, and pretty much only regular, friend is the typically teen-emotional and humorously dramatic Morgan (Quinn Shepherd) who hangs out with Katie and works in a local ice cream parlor.

Katie has had a crush on a young man, Charlie, (Patrick Schwarzenegger – you guessed it, the progeny of Dad Arnold and Maria Shriver) that she has watched walk, skate and bike by her house every day for the last 10 years.

The movie deals with the fall out that occurs because of XP to Katie, her Dad and all those who care about her. This sounds like it could be depressing. In fact it's not. It's quite funny and delightfully charming. The young people involved seem very familiar to me. They remind me of our homeschooled kids and their friends. They're open, intelligent, honest, genuinely caring, subject to the normal foibles relating to hormones and impatience with the world to which any normal teenager is subject. These kids are portrayed as creative and wonderful young people with tremendous promise.

Because of Katie's condition and some natural shyness she is homeschooled, and aside from Morgan, lives a quiet sequestered life with her dad, writing music behind heavily tinted windows. The night of her graduation she goes out to play guitar at her favorite train station. Charlie hears her, they meet and the rest of the story is about their relationship.

The love story is certainly a wonderfully acted, well written but traditional tale which has been played out many times: Jenny and Oliver in Love Story, Camille and Armand in Camille, Fantine and Jean Valjean in Les Mis. Many publically viewed real life instances abound: Christopher Reeves' wife stood with and for her husband after he was paralyzed following a devastating fall from a horse, Gene Wilder cared for Gilda Radner through her ovarian cancer as did Pierce Brosnan through his wife's terminal illness.  Diane Cavandish kept her husband alive and thriving for 36 years longer than predicted after he contracted polio. CS Lewis married Joy Gresham knowing she had terminal bone cancer. And I am sure that everyone reading this blog knows of or has personally experienced a private example of this kind of self-giving love. My own mother cared for my father at home through his terminal illness.

Midnight Sun is a cinematic personification of Corinthians Ch 13: "…Love…does not seek its own interests…It bears all things … endures all things." I only wish Midnight Sun had more overtly acknowledged a basis in theology and an acceptance of God's Will. The closest we get is when Jack takes a picture of Charlie and Katie and requests humorously that they leave a little space for the Holy Spirit.

This is a story of real love. There is a moment in the musical 1776 when Abigail Adams reminds her husband, as he is experiencing a rare moment of low confidence, that one of the things she most loved and admired about him was his commitment. Charlie, in Midnight Sun, had lost his swimming scholarship because of an injury and wanted to give up. Katie reminds him to persevere and to re-commit to what he has worked so hard for, for so many years. Charlie, in turn, commits to Katie despite all the obvious obstacles, loves purely for the limited time they have and opens doors for her singing talents she did not think possible.

 

There is no easy resolution to a story of a young girl with a terminal illness. But there is a lot positive to be taken away from an example of commitment to a relationship despite the fears of the unknown – much like a marriage.  Nothing untoward happens, the boy is trustworthy and the father watchfully gives his blessing to their relationship. There is no gratuitous acts of casual sex as in other movies like The Fault in Our Stars where illness is used as an excuse to gratify yourself with someone else. And although these young people in Midnight Sun have but a brief time together, these characters, as written, demonstrate the kind of sacramental commitment one would pray for in any young couple.

 

Every one of the main characters is created as a powerful witness to the altruism in true love. Katie never complains or bemoans her fate. She is, instead grateful for what she has and her main concern is always for the people around her – she worries about her father's future lonliness, Charlie's scholarship and her best friend's budding romance. Jack only wants to see his daughter happy for as much and as long as he can make that happen and to that end never lets her know how devastated he really is but is the rock to which she can cling. Charlie only thinks of ways he can be strong for Katie and bring her comfort. These are good kind people.

 

CS Lewis wrote often of the problem of pain – why do bad things happen and the answer is always – to bring about a greater good. Midnight Sun implies this – that even in the darkness you can bring your own light with you. Katie is the Midnight Sun that radiates joy and inspires love in everyone around her through her gratitude for every day she has and in her genuine love of others.

 

There are no guarantees in life or in love. No one knows the hour or the day that God will call us home. And when we choose to love we step out on a limb in faith. All one can do is to commit to stand by those we love for as long as we are permitted. The script writer of all these lovely characters understands that and presents us with a beautiful example of what committed love should be. Not for gratification. Not for what you can get from the other person, but an altruistic self-giving love that lifts up and encourages the other person to strive for worthy dreams and to accept what God gives you after you have done your best. As Jack explains to Charlie – what you end up with is an understanding that everyday is a gift. I wish Jack had added the two words "from God," but there is nothing in the movie that would deny that truth either.

 

There can be no more stark contrast than between the altruistic "other"-focused genuine LOVE in Midnight Sun and the extreme self-gratification masquerading under the guise of the word "love" in movies like Love, Simon. Movies like Midnight Sun inspire us to aspire – encourage people to be more and stronger and more courageous than they might otherwise think possible for those they truly love: to sacrifice, forgive, accept and be grateful.

 

 For a positive and real/reel example of what young romantic LOVE should be – go see Midnight Sun and avoid the garbage that fakes it.

SHERLOCK GNOMES – FUN TAKE OFF ON THE CLASSIC HOLMES MYSTERY

 

SHORT TAKE:

Sequel to Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes version of Toy Story, this time combined with a Sherlock Holmes mystery and a cautionary tale about keeping your loved ones a priority in your life.

WHO CAN SEE THIS:

Everybody.

LONG TAKE:

A long time ago in the previous millennium – literally as I was a kid in the early 1960's – there was a segment within the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle series called Mr. Peabody and Sherman. The segment was a very tongue in cheek look at history. Mr Peabody was a genius dog who wore glasses and walked upright and who had a "boy" named Sherman. They would travel back in time, ala Dr Who, in Mr Peabody’s "WABAC Machine," meeting historic (Florence Nightingale) and mythologic (King Arthur) figures, go famous places (Great Wall of China) and experience historic events (Charge of the Light Brigade) to find instances where history has gone wrong and fix them.

They take Gallileo out into space to prove to him he is not the center of the universe. They help Mark Twain find his "lucky" typewriter and so on. These shorts were great fun and a charming whimsical way to introduce children to history – both humanizing the figures in history books and taking gentle humorous pokes at grand historic figures in a way which actually taught children what they were famous for: Franklin’s lightning rod, taking a first train ride with George Stephenson, teaching Alexander Cartwright (the inventor of baseball) the importance of good sportsmanship.

I only mention all these details to note that there is nothing wrong with taking a respectfully affectionate jibe at history or classic literature if it helps children remember and later understand it better.

Such is the case here with the Gnome movies. The first one took a stab at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, called, predictably Gnomeo and Juliet. A friend of mine, a teacher, thought it so effective that he used it for extra credit watching for his students, tasking them to find the similarities and differences between the original classic and the animated homage.

This time around they are after the inimitable Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Depp – Captain Jack in Pirates of the Carribbean, Gellert Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts, and Ed Wood) and Doctor Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor from 2012, Dr. Strange and The Martian) in (wait for it…you guessed it) Sherlock Gnomes.

The premise is that an entire culture of British Garden Gnomes live and function just outside of the sight of humans, utilizing similar rules to those that apply in Toy Story rules. When people are around they freeze. When out of the sight of humans they come alive and move freely but adhere to many of the same characteristics their inanimate versions have: just as Slinky the dog can stretch because his middle is a spring, garden gnomes can not drown but they can BREAK!

We begin the story with Holmes’ defeat of an evil gnome, Moriarty, who has kidnapped a dozen gnomes. Holmes turns Moriarty’s weapon against him who then appears to be crushed under his own device. We also note Sherlock has begun to take his friend Watson for granted.

(FYI This latter is a theme which has been explored in comedy films – Without a Clue, and mystery theater – Sherlock Holmes’ Last Case, but never before with garden gnomes!)

This is the point at which we pick up from the previous movie and follow Gnomeo (James McAvoy – the new Professor X, the newest super villain invented by M. Night Shyamalan and Mr. Tumnus from the Narnia series) and Juliet (Emily Blunt from Live, Die, Repeat) and their friends and family as they move, with their owners, to a new house in London. The young couple will be taking over the leadership of the garden as their respective mother and father retire, but Juliet then immediately begins to neglect her new husband for her budding leadership responsibilities. The movie also features the voice talents of such veteran actors as Dame Maggie Smith (Mrs. McGonagel from Harry Potter), Michael Caine/Sir Maurice Mickelwhite (Alfie, The Man Who Would be King, Alfred to Christian Bale’s Batman) and James Hong (Po's goose father in the Kung Fu Panda series).

Their worlds intersect when the garden gnomes all over the city begin disappearing, including the families of the bickering newlyweds.

For all of the silliness of the animated gnomes with oversized ears, or huge hats, the movie makes some relevant and timely points about how jobs and one’s quest for fame can distract you from what SHOULD be most important to us – our friends, our family and, by extension, our children. This is where the two stories truly start to intersect as we see Sherlock’s casual disregard of his friend reflected in Juliet as she allows her new job to take precedent over her husband.

Not only does the movie introduce a whole new generation to the classic Sherlock Holmes character in a way which is very child friendly but, like truly classic children tales, reminds the moms and dads who bring the little ones of some important lessons as well.

  There is no real violence, no bad language. The movie is played entirely against a background of cover and remix Elton John songs. Aside from a little bit of sly innuendo which will amuse the adults and go over the little kids’ heads, some fart jokes, a running gag about a gnome on a potty and an ugly male gnome in a body thong played for laughs, there is nothing even the youngest couldn’t see or hear. The most telling compliment was the fact that my two year old grandson walked into the theater grouchy but sat mesmerized through the entire movie.

So – well done. This time the game's a – ceramic – foot.