NOISES OFF – BRILLIANT MADCAP COMEDY ON STAGE AT LCLT

 

SHORT TAKE:

Inventively staged, skillfully acted, and adroitly directed British comedy, the classic Noises Off by Michael Frayn, a play within a play at Lake Charles Little Theatre, showing from September 13 through September 29, 2019. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE!

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to upper teens and older for mildly sexual topics done in (almost) completely innocent fun. Nothing is shown and language is very mild. Younger than mid-teens should be parentally previewed and depend upon the child.

LONG TAKE:

Move over James Brown. The hardest working people in show business are the  actors performing Noises Off at The Lake Charles Little Theatre from Friday night September 13 through Sunday matinee September 29, 2019.

I’m going to try hard not to give anything away because you need to see this fast paced, clever and hilarious play with the fresh eyes this dynamic and brilliant cast, crew and director deserve to get. Not only is there a lot going on but this is the kind of play which is so funny and well written, and this version so energetic and professionally conceived, you’ll want to see it more than once. I saw Noises Off on stage years ago and the movie with Michael Caine several times but familiarity only made this witty badinage funnier and this iteration had me laughing from curtain up to curtain call.

The set is incredible – probably the most challenging I have ever seen at LCLT – and I can’t think of a soul in the world I would have trusted more to build it than LCLT’s own Randy Partin. Built by Mr. Partin in 110 hours over six weeks as a labor of devotion to this Theatre, it is one of, if not THE most ambitious sets LCLT has ever used. Seven (or eight depending how you define them) crucial entrance/exit portals in a two story parlor of a large off season bed and breakfast provides the setting of this raucous comedy as an ensemble cast rehearse and perform the first act of a British sex farce called Nothing On – a play within the play. The set is as much of a character as the performers.

As though channeling Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”, Noises Off begins gently – or I should say with that certain inherent gentility of an innately British parlor comedy – as the characters and their quirks are introduced. Then slowly the action builds over three acts to Mad Mad World levels of freneticism as tempers flare, sleepless nights take their toll, personalities clash, and jealousies rage amidst the over worked, under prepared thespians, who desperately struggle to make some sense of a timing-crucial confusing play and their own even more befuddled love lives. A tagline I once read sums it up nicely: “The drama! The suspense! And the curtain hasn’t even gone up yet!”

It takes a truly brilliant actor to play the fool – Jerry Lewis, the stooge and buffoon on stage and screen, was actually the brains and organizer of the Lewis-Martin team. Stan Laurel, on film and in vaudeville the ever whining, clueless whipping boy for Oliver Hardy was, in truth, the author of most of the routines and genius behind their success. Similarly, it takes virtuoso coordination and intricately planned team effort to appear to get wrong a play which, itself, is suppose to require flawless timing.

The clockwork details require talented hands and this brilliant LCLT troupe manuever like the Blue Angels on stage with, collectively, over a hundred years of tenured experience amongst them. You will recognize most, if not all, of the performers.

Brett Downer is the brave soul who directed this enormously challenging Russian nesting doll of a play which relies on timing, entrances, exits, and … sardines.

Heather Partin is Belinda/Flavia, the mediator of the beleaguered troupe. If you have EVER been to LCLT or a community band concert you will likely have seen Heather. Her resume is impressive, ranging from Nunsense to MacBeth, devoted wife of Randy, and costume designer for the show.

Paula McCain, most recently from Mamma Mia! but debuting with LCLT here, she plays Dotty/Mrs. Clackett, financially desperate for Nothing On to succeed and the center about which much of the interpersonal friction is created amongst the cast.

Greg Stratton, playing to type, is Lloyd, the director of this play within the play, who is part teacher/father-figure, part chaos instigator, whose mind isn’t always on the job at hand.       Greg teaches Mass Com at McNeese, has been acting and directing for decades from the nostalgic comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor to the tongue-in-cheek mystery The 39 Steps.

The loveable and reliable but hopelessly insecure Garry/Roger is played by Michael Davis, a singer, actor, dancer and video producer, most recently in LCLT’s Pump Boys and Dinettes.

Rebecca Harris, having sparkled in ACTS Theatre’s Arsenic and Old Lace, is sweetly ditzy Brooke/Vicki who soldiers on no matter the obstacles in her own guileless way.

Angela Martin debuts with Lake Charles Little Theatre as Poppy, the devoted but under appreciated, both on and off stage, assistant stage manager.  While debuting here in her first speaking part Ms. Martin nonetheless has an impressive set of credentials which include a stint with London’s West End! not to mention being married to castmate Cary Martin.

Cary Martin is our own prodigal son, last at LCLT 20 years ago, but returning to the fold as Frederick/Philip, a well-meaning but daft and perpetually confused soul.

Cameron Scallon, veteran of LCLT and lately one of the leads in Bye Bye Birdie, plays Tim, of necessity the resident Jack of all trades, the exhausted and threadbare stage manager, who is constantly plugging up holes in this leaking levee with not enough fingers to go around.

Gary Shannon on stage is the amiable but constantly drunken Selsdon/Burglar and in real life is the morning drive show radio host for KHLA, host of KBYS’ Sunday morning Jazz Show, long time veteran of community theater and independent film makers here in Lake Charles, and who  some years ago, I saw perform an amazing Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman with only a scant few weeks preparation.

Accessories to the insanity are: James Johnson as set decorator, Dan Sadler as Technical Consultant, Jonathan in lighting, David Wynn from KBYS for sound, and Liz Trahan who was kind enough to put together the ingeniously crafted program.

Aaaaaaaaaaand not to discourage audience members from either buying concessions or hitting the “loo” but you’ll really want to stay for at least part of the scene changes during intermission.

So for the most fun you’ll have this side of your best friend’s wedding, go see Noises Off at Lake Charles Little Theatre. You can CALL 337433-7988, buy tickets at the door or get them HERE. And plan to go early in the run the first time, as you’ll likely want to see it again.

{NOTE: In an effort not to spoil the show I’m holding off on some of the photos, but will release them all after the run of the show.}

 

ODE TO JOY – LOVE STORY WITH A TWIST

 

SHORT TAKE:

How do you manage a romance if being happy makes you pass out? This is the conundrum with which a cataplexic man struggles when his perfect woman unexpectedly appears.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mature older teens and up for language, comedic miming of sex, and attempts by the main characters to physical intimacy, though there is no nudity or anything graphic.

LONG TAKE:

What do Sherlock, Deadpool, Big Bang Theory, Saturday Night Live and a Bob Fosse docudrama have in common? The best of the supporting cast of each of these film projects in an adorable little rom com, directed by Jason Winer and written by Max Werner and Chris Higgins called Ode to Joy.

A friend of mine has often teased that EVERY movie could be described as “a love story with a twist”. But Ode to Joy really is.

SPOILERS

Martin Freeman, (Watson from Sherlock) is Charlie, a man who suffers from a neurologic condition called cataplexy, a condition in which any strong emotion, but for him especially joy and happiness, will cause him to — basically faint. Watching a cute cat video could render him unceremoniously unconscious, and while it may initially seem funny, the movie points out how dangerous, both physically and emotionally, the condition can be for those who actually suffer from this condition.

The script is based upon a radio interview (which you can listen to HERE) with a man named Matt Frerkin, himself a neuroscientist, who discovered he had this condition after becoming unable to move whenever he experiences strong emotion.

So Charlie keeps himself in constant emotional check, leading a quiet life as a librarian — until the girl of his dreams storms in.

Jake Lacy (featured as Gwen Verdon’s second string love interest in the mini-series about the life of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, Fosse/Verdon) plays Cooper, his watchful but fun love ‘em and leave ‘em brother.

Morena Baccarin (Deadpool’s fiancee) is Francesca, the woman who breaks into Charlie’s well encapsulated life.

Melissa Rauch (the loud but loveable Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory) is Bethany, a mousy eccentric woman, who rounds out the quartet.

Jane Curtain (an SNL charter member) is Francesca’s Aunt Sylvia, who is full of life despite her terminal illness.

There’s more than meets the eye to this un petite affaire de coeur. At one point Charlie yells at his brother, plaintively wondering if he understands what it is like to live every day afraid of making a fool of yourself. The answer is, of course, yes. Everyone does. We all have our burdens to bear. And when anyone falls in love, as Charlie has, they expose themselves to the ultimate vulnerabilities.   It doesn’t take cataplexy to make you aware of the potential hurt and humiliation, rejection and risk of falling – in Charlie’s case literally – head over heels. Charlie’s cataplexy is merely an extreme physical manifestation of the chance we all take with that bold step out to admit we love.

What can leave us more exposed than being unconscious, especially unbidden and unexpectedly? And that is a perfect analogy for the leap you must take in a commitment. You lay your life, your heart and your unconditional willingness to accept rejection out on the floor, undefended to whatever might happen beyond your control. God, Himself, takes that risk with every human’s Free Will when He offers us Grace and unconditional Divine Love. Though there are consequences to turning our back on this Love, God never ceases to offer that Love. And ultimately this is what Charlie realizes he must do to pursue the good of another – genuine Love, Love without a sense of entitlement, what Plato would call philia born of eros, or a Catholic might call Charity – in order to find true — Joy.

There are scenes in which Charlie experiences true Joy, but is not “Happy” in the emotionally excited way which most of us think of as “happy” or which would trigger his cataplexy. Charlie, during these scenes, is noticeably joyful, pointed out by the other characters, even while we the audience members know he is sad, as Charlie attempts to bring Joy into the life of someone else even at his own expense. He unwittingly discovers what is true Love, even though neither his friends or even Charlie really understands this.

As for Francesca, she is a woman who prefers to set herself up for romantic failure. Having lost her mother to hereditary breast cancer and on the verge of losing her beloved Aunt to the same disease, she tends to keep things superficial, moving frequently and choosing shallow men uninterested in a permanent relationship. But Francesca too instinctively knows true Love and Joy as, though sad, she Joyfully visits and helps her Aunt, who she describes as her best friend. And counseled by her open-hearted, Bucket List accomplishing Aunt Sylvia, Francesca also wrestles with the idea of what it means to Love and commit.

It occurred to me that the characters were what an adult version of Inside Out might look like from the mind of someone “in love” who matures from adolescent infatuation to true altruistic Love. From Francesca’s often unfettered enthusiasm and Cooper’s libido, to Bethany’s confused obliviousness, Charlie’s hyper-awareness of his vulnerabilities, and finally the wisdom of Aunt Sylvia who, more than most, understands the ephemeral preciousness of life and the importance of altruistic Love, they rotate about each other examining the question of the importance of living well and FOR someone you love – even if you have to risk pain and loss.

The music by Jeremy Turner is simple, the cinematography by David Robert Jones uncomplicated, but the story is neither. Although Ode to Joy is in that familiar niche of quirky romantic comedies with some unique obstacle to the main couple’s happiness, Ode to Joy is also an intelligent and clever story which surprises, offering quite a bit to think about.

The language is occasionally adult with completely unnecessary profanity. And  two unmarried couples try to go to bed together, though no nudity and ultimately, and wisely, nothing happens because of — comic reasons.

My only real complaint about the movie is it leaves the outcome of one of the characters unresolved and unaddressed, especially frustrating as that character was unfairly treated and earned a conclusion.

But overall Ode to Joy was – a joy to watch. So if you have a rainy afternoon to spend with someone you love, you could do worse than spend it watching and talking about this lovely little film with the big heart that is an Ode to Joy.

IT: CHAPTER TWO – BETTER THAN THE BOOK & MORE THAN I EXPECTED BUT PLEASE DO NOT TAKE CHILDREN

SHORT TAKE:

Surprisingly thoughtful, intricately plotted, well acted and very effective but terrifying finale to the film version of Stephen King’s mammoth-sized book IT.

WHO SHOULD GO:

I would like to make one thing clear: STEPHEN KING STORIES ARE NOT CHILD FRIENDLY!!!

There is a warning at the beginning of the movie which declares flashing lights could trigger epileptic seizures in the photosensitive. But that is the LEAST of the problems. There is also sexually discussed content, a profound amount of gratuitous profanity, some of it blasphemous, a lot of lethal violence and gore with child victims in close up, homicide, patricide, people being burned alive, grotesque deformities, slit throats, an explicit scene of suicide, overt physical and implied sexual abuse, and brief but conspicuous demonstrations of alternative sexuality. The violence and bloodshed would have alarmed the Grimm Brothers, though this is to be expected in any movie about a child-eating monster.

I do not know what the parents in the audience were thinking but there was a group of under-chaperoned young teens in the audience next to me for whom I cringed, given the film’s content as well as the visuals in some of the trailers. An R-rated movie will attract R-rated trailers, which R-rated “coming soon” offerings will not be R-rated “ONLY” for gore. One of the movies previewed at the afternoon showing of IT: C2, which was viewed by these kids, included scantily clad pole dancers! Even more inexplicable was the presence of young children who, predictably, begin to cry almost from the outset. Bringing kids to an R-rated movie of any kind, much less a horror fest, is a face-palming level of stupidity, bordering on child neglect, if not abuse.

Let me repeat KING IS NOT CHILD FRIENDLY. DO NOT TAKE CHILDREN.

FOR MATURE ADULT AGE TEENS AND UP ONLY!!!

LONG TAKE:

I walked into IT: Chapter Two fully expecting not to like it. I can hardly be blame. I didn’t like the book and although the TV version had a – dare I say it – certain charm due to the talents of Tim Curry as Pennywise the sinister, extraterrestrial psycho killer clown, and the recent Part 1, IT, wasn’t bad, I still did not hold out much for Part 2, having read the book.  My youngest, now 21, pointed out an element that had not occurred to me about Part 1 – that instead of a straight up horror story it could be seen as an analogy for overcoming one’s childhood traumas and deepest wounds.

Although I thought this idea had merit I still dreaded what they would do with the second installment. After all it was based upon an excessively long, often deeply disturbing novel which catered to our darkest impulses and often relied heavily on caricature-level biases against small town citizens, authority figures, and parents.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. While it is, by no means, a great movie, it is far better than I thought it would be. IT: Chapter Two is the second half of Stephen King’s elephantine book IT about 7 children, outcasts in different ways, who bond as The Losers’ Club to fight an other worldly monster, and their adult selves who return 27 years later to kill IT. My review of the filmed version of the first half of the book – IT – is HERE and covers the child actor versions of the characters. The kids return in clips and flashbacks.

SPOILERS – BIG, CASUAL SPOILERS – SO BE FORWARNED

The adults include: James McAvoy (whose incredibly varied resume includes: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Split, Atomic Blonde, and the entire X-Men reboot series) is Bill, the stuttering leader of the group. Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game, Interstellar) is Beverly the grown up abused child who marries another abusive man. Bill Hader (who has done a lot of voice over acting) is Richie the comedian who as a child seems physically incapable of keeping his smart aleck bully-antagonizing comments to himself. Isaiah Mufasa is Mike, as a child one of the only black people in Derry and an orphan whose parents burned to death in a tragedy he witnessed, and as an adult is the librarian and self appointed guardian of Derry who stays to watch for the monster’s re-appearance. The significantly sleeker and athletic grown up Ben is played by born-Kiwi (native New Zealander) now Aussie Jay Ryan (who, in a note of incredible irony, before becoming established as an actor, used to perform in local supermarkets entertaining young children as —– a clown). Andy Bean is the adult Stan whose Jewish faith, when a child in Derry, made him the target of abuse by the town bullies. Finally, fatherless, hypochondriacal, mother-dominated Eddie has grown up to be played by James Ransone.

Bill Skarsgård (a worthy addition to the Skarsgard acting family which includes both brother Alexander from Melancholia, Battleship, and Tarzan, as well as his father Stellan from the Marvel movies) reprises his role as Pennywise. One might hate his performance as the psycho clown or be fascinated by his interpretation of King’s murderous mountebank, but no one can deny that Skarsgard puts his all into the character, going full out to invest Pennywise with as much horror as a harlequin can hold.

While Gary Dauberman, the scriptwriter, REALLY needs to learn the meaning of “less is more” (and yes, I know, people who live in glass houses….), he, with director Andy Muschietti, (whose only big credit up to now was another horror movie – Mama), made some VERY VERY good plot choices.

There were a number of circumstances in the source material they decided to leave out. Among the sensible deletions were, among a number of other smaller but improvement tweaks: Tom, Beverly’s abusive husband doesn’t pursue them into Pennywise’s lair in a last minute late third act conflict. They do NOT use a parody-level, laughable, King-invented creation myth of a turtle who vomits up the universe to defeat Pennywise. Derry did not blow up when the monster died, resulting in the group being heroes who save a town leaving hope in their wake instead of monster hunters who leave nothing but destruction behind them. Bill’s wife, Audra, did not show up needing to be saved which would have further padded an already excessively long run time. And they explicitly do NOT again lose their memories of Derry after the monster is vanquished, which retention implies they have learned to conquer their own inner demons as well as the extraterrestrial who externalized those fears. (NOT to mention the extremely wise excision in the first movie of the truly disturbed scene in the book where the boys “tag team” Beverly in a bonding ritual of intimacy.)

These cuts indicated a well considered re-evaluation of King’s original book. Dauberman and Muschietti kept what made a good horror story from King’s book IT and replaced the book’s failings with plot and character structures that provided IT with a deeper, layered and even subtle meaning over which King’s far more negative paper prose had steam rollered. Thankfully, and in a rarity, the filmmakers had a bit more sense and gentler hand than did the initiating author.

Dauberman also chose to craft the story around a continuation of the first film’s theme of conquering childhood fears. Each adult, who had formerly been a member of The Losers’ Club, contributes to the defeat of the fear-eating monster by facing and debriding some wound which fundamentally shaped their personalities. Bev once and for all denies her abusive father’s hold over her by embracing Ben’s unconditional genuine love for her. Ben, at one point, is trapped in their childhood underground clubhouse with its walls closing in on him, physicalizing how he was trapped in the fat of his own prepubescent body, but vanquishes this self-killing insecurity by declaring his love for Beverly in acknowledgment that he is not alone and is worthy of loving and being loved. Bill almost drowns in the same sewer water in which his brother Georgie died, then kills a younger self-accusatory version of himself, finally putting his misplaced guilt over his brother’s death behind him. Eddie uncovers Pennywise’s fatal weakness when he throws off his germophobia long enough to successfully wrestle a leperous manifestation of the evil clown.

And so it goes. As each member adds to the pot the Losers get stronger.

To defeat Pennywise they must all reduce him to a killable size. Metaphorically this makes perfect sense. One’s childhood fears can seem to increase proportionately as one gets older, towering over us unchecked and unconfronted to destroy us. But in the light of mature perspective, trauma can be reduced to manageable size from which one can learn, grow, and even benefit. This is a philosophy worth considering and manifests in a monstrously (if you’ll excuse the pun) dramatic way in Pennywise.

There are also a couple of fun cameos – Stephen King, himself, as an opportunistic second-hand shop owner, and Peter Bogdanovich (real life director of Noises Off, Paper Moon, and What’s Up Doc?) playing to type as a film director.

BUT for all of its successes as a horror film – IT is WAY too long – by about a third. Just having to accommodate a large ensemble cast will make for an inherently long story. Accommodating TWO ensemble groups – with present-time adults and childhood dove-tailing flashbacks – is one of the reasons this movie is almost a full 3 hours long. Its padding is mostly due to not trusting the average ticket buyers. Dauberman, et al, needn’t have worried that audience members would RANDOMLY wander into a movie house showing a movie titled IT: Chapter Two. We really did not need all the backtracking, and re-covering old childhood ground with “new” adult eyes to understand what was going on.

In addition, I do not think they understood the difference between pausing long enough for tension to build and holding on to the “punch line” so long you start checking your watch. There are a LOT of jump scares in IT. This movie practically parkours its way through the entire plot on jump scares. And every SINGLE jump scare endures a prolonged preview. For example, Rich and Eddie encounter a cute Pomeranian dog – probably because Rich had jokingly stated a wish that he hoped the monster’s true form would be in this shape. We all know the dog is going to jump scare into a monster-size zombie dog but far too many beats go by as Rich and Eddie comment about how cute it is before this happens. So, yeah, about an hour could have been chopped just by jumping, instead of dragging, their way to the jump scares.

The language is ridiculously and unnecessarily crude, using the “F” word like a baker does flour. Granted all of them subtly reverted back to elements of their childhood during the course of the movie – Bill’s stutter and Eddie’s psychosomatic asthma for examples. Childhood Richie had a marked dependence on profanity as a defense mechanism against his own insecurities, so adult Richie’s profane filled vocabulary should not surprise us, but even so, the repetition became gratuitous.

Benjamin Wallfisch returns to create yet another creepy musical backdrop which functions as a character in its own right. Heavy, and effectively random use of oppressive jarring percussions and wandering dissonant acrobatics on flute and violin provide a disjointed, otherworldly, off balanced and forcefully unsettling soundtrack for most of the movie accompanying Pennywise, which music occasionally, like brief moments of sunshine during a terrible storm, give way to lovely, lyrical, and melancholic passages representing the children and their adult dopplegangers.

IT: C2 is a solid horror movie with an intelligent sub-text but certainly appropriate only for older teens and up given the language, the extreme violence, and multiple scenes of physical, emotional, verbal and implied sexual abuse.

And as I have already mentioned – more horrifying than Pennywise’s presence on screen was the attendance by a number of early teens and even YOUNGER audience members, some of whom were with parents who REALLY should have known better. As if the movie IT: C2 was not inappropriate enough for these children, the previews certainly were, including stories which featured real world violence and pole-dancing strippers. If a movie is “R” rated, as IT is, then authority figures should realize previews are going to be “R” rated as well and often not just for gore and jump scares.

So if you liked Chapter ONE IT then you’ll find IT: Chapter Two very satisfying, with creatively gross monsters and an interesting underlying analogy about learning to heal from childhood trauma.

But PLEASE avoiding traumatizing your own child with this movie and leave the kids at home.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS – TAKE A ROAD LESS TRAVELED STARRING AMERICA’S FINEST ACTOR

 

SHORT TAKE:

This first is in a series of movies which I will review which are unlike any other films. I begin with a gentle comedy fantasy, starring the greatest American actor who ever lived, with a new perspective on Sherlock Holmes.

WHO SHOULD SEE THESE:

Depends on the movie – but the range for ones I have in mind are about mid-teen and up, for plot topics, or language, or because younger kids would simply be bored or frightened. As always, but especially with these since there is often little to compare them to – you should check them out first before showing them to your kids.

INTRODUCTION:

A preponderance of movies now-a-days are derivative. You can’t blame movie executives for it really. When you are sinking millions of dollars of other people’s money into a project it is a great comfort to know it is similar to another one that made a profit. And I love formula movies. There is an enjoyable reliability in the anticipation of a familiar theme – like listening to a variation of a song you love by a different artist. Like Buble’s upbeat jazzy version of the originally clunky Spiderman theme song. Or Sia’s creepily ominous version of “California Dreamin'” from the recent disaster movie San Andreas.

But every now and again I find a unique little one-off which makes it fondly to my list of favorite movies. By unique, I mean it has no sequels, no prequels, and no one (yet) has plans to remake it. They are not part of a franchise, few people have ever even heard of them, and if you go on Amazon to look for them the “Customers Who Watched This Item Also Watched…” you will not find a single item anything like it. Oh, you’ll find a list of other movies the actors have been in or the director has made or a stab at the genre, but NOTHING approaching these sparkling gems in the cinematic firmament.

Here is the first of my favorites in no particular order – aside from the fact it stars my favorite actor ….. ever.

LONG TAKE:

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971)

I think George C. Scott is probably one of, if not THE best American actor ever. (Sorry Marlon). His filmography spanned decades. He threw himself completely into every role but never lost sight of the idea it was a job and he a performer whose responsibility it was to entertain his audience the best way he knew how. His career was as varied as his thespian skills were intense. At home in comedies, mysteries, biographies, romances, classics, horror, dramas, you name it, he played cops and lawyers,  generals and sleaze-balls, gangsters and scientists. He was an attorney in Otto Preminger’s 10 Oscar nominee 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, and the off-the-wall General Turgidson in Kubrick’s 1964 classic 4 Oscar nominee Dr. Strangelove.  He was the man of choice in a version of Scrooge, Edward Rochester with a Jane Eyre played by Suzanna York (who later played Christopher Reeve’s Superman’s mom), the Beast opposite his then wife Trish Van deVere’s Belle, Fagin in Oliver Twist, Mussolini in a biodrama about the dictator, one of 12 Angry Men, the captain in a version of the Titanic, a hit man in a Stephen King movie, and the stalwart and heroic General George S. Patton in 1970’s amazing Patton, the latter a winner of 7 Oscars including best director, movie, screenplay, and lead actor.

Mr. Scott turned down both his Best Supporting nomination for The Hustler and stuck to his guns turning down even the Oscar for his win in Patton. He maintained the Oscars had morphed from a friendly dinner among compatriots to a “meat parade” with “contrived suspense for economic reasons,” and that he was not in competition with his fellow thespians.

THEN, right after his definitive turn as Patton, at what was then the height of his career, he made a little known film for a small budget, whose virtues rest squarely on the shoulders of the actors. They Might Be Giants was written by James Goldman, directed by Anthony Harvey, and with music composed by John Barry (who also scored 11 Bond films), were the same three men who crafted the brilliant Lion in Winter.

The premise of They Might Be Giants is that Judge Justin Playfair (don’t look at me, I didn’t make up the name, but this will give you a clue as to the film’s ambiance), is so stricken by grief over the loss of his wife that he has retreated into believing he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother, with motives other than Playfair’s best interests, seeks out a psychiatrist to have him committed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, her name just happens to be Mildred …. Watson. Dr. Watson is gently played by Joanne Woodward, who with a considerable acting track of her own, was the wife and long-time working companion of Paul Newman. Scott is (one viewer noted) “majestic” in this quirky mystery-romance, describing the film as a “delicate … comedy/fantasy”. I couldn’t agree more. Without giving ANY spoilers, I will admit this is not a perfect film, but what is there is creative, memorable, and delightful.

So, as Robert Frost might encourage, take the road “…less traveled by,” and check out this small movie aptly named They Might be Giants.

It is also available on Amazon HERE.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON – MARK TWAIN MEETS ST. AUGUSTINE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Delightful loose retelling of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with “shades” of St. Augustine’s philosophical wisdom.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up as, while there is no sexual content, the film contains some rough language, and brief scenes of violence and tension. Also, younger kids would probably be bored with the slow and thoughtful pace of the story.

LONG TAKE:

Some reviewers have noted the similarities in the The Peanut Butter Falcon to both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, especially Finn’s trip down the Mississippi with the run away slave, Jim. And while this is true, this aspect of the debut feature length script, as brilliantly and simply co-written and co-directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, inspired in part as a love letter to the people of the Outer Banks, is only the superficial structure to a story with far deeper and more complex theological implications.

St. Augustine once said: Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love, and the future to His Providence. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the embodiment of this lesson as it brings to life three unusual but very relatable people who collide in one of the most charming and delightful movies I have seen in a long time.

Tyler, namesake of the co-author, played by Shia LaBeouf, is a darker version of Huckleberry Finn‘s Jim. Tyler is a walking guilt trip, desperately in need of mercy, an unhappy man with a tragic history looking to punish himself for the regrets in his life. He is the only one for which we see flashbacks, underscoring Tyler’s obsession with the past. An unsuccessful fisherman, he is angry with the world, especially himself and runs away from his responsibilities, one step ahead of justice for his petty and vengeance-inspired crimes as well as the rough and dangerous men who he has infuriated.

But there is also a blunt honesty about the way he treats his fellow man. In Act 5 of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle rebukes her bombastic tutor Henry Higgins, complaining that the manners of Higgins’ friend Colonel Pickering are better than Higgins’ manners because:  “He [Pickering] treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.” To which Higgins retorts: “And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.” There is a bit more than a little of Henry Higgins in The Peanut Butter Falcon’s Tyler.

Tyler is the best role of LaBeouf’s career to date. His character looks at the world with sad eyes but squarely. When Zak, to garner a bit of sympathy, announces to Tyler that he has Down Syndrome, Tyler tells him he doesn’t care. And Tyler means it. With gruff respect for his new tag-along companion, Tyler genuinely does not care one way or the other that Zak has “special needs”, but treats Zak the way he does everyone, including a nervous grocery clerk, the blind preacher who gives them shelter, the lovely Eleanor, the man who gives him a hitch, the employer who has just fired him – all with the same respect – meeting everyone at eye level, not caring what they think of him,but offering each a measure of decency the best way he knows how.

Zak, the main character in this film with the quirky title, is a wonderful modern day Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn. Brave and adventurous, Zak even spends much of the first parts of his journey, like Tom and Huck, barefooted, walking down country roads with his ersatz “Jim”. Zak had been stuck in a nursing home as, abandoned by his family, no other place would take him. But Zak is also the personification of unconditional love, a sweet soul with an indefatigably happy outlook on life, who lives in every present moment with trust in God, unbounded enthusiasm and an open heart. Played brilliantly by a young man who actually has Down’s Syndrome, the clever and adorable Zack Gottsagen, some of whose clever ad-libs were included in the script, is charm personified.

The chemistry between the three leads is obvious both on and off screen. Gottsagen’s co-stars LeBoeuf and Johnson, in the “Making of” featurette HERE and interviews like the ones HERE, and HERE, and HERE, express what seems to be genuine fondness for their new fellow thespian, as well as admiration for his natural acting abilities and instincts.

The film’s titular Peanut Butter Falcon, Zak, also looks squarely and honestly at the world, but sees it very differently from Tyler. More than anything in the world Zak wants to be a professional wrestler like Salt Water Redneck, (Thomas Hayden Church) whose videos Zak watches ceaselessly with his friend and endlessly patient roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern – classic veteran of stage and screen whose now elderly and experienced presence I have been delighted to see cropping up in such divergent films as Chappaquidick and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Zak flees the nursing home in pursuit of his dream.

Eleanor stands in the place of Tom’s Aunt Polly. Like the Biblical Martha, Eleanor is worried and upset about many things, fearful of the bad things that can happen to the people about and for whom she cares, not the least of which is the “flight risk” Zak, as this escape is not his first. Eleanor is a young widow who spends her time volunteering at the elderly home. She worries over Zak like a mother hen, fretting exclusively about his future, blinding herself to Zak’s immediate needs and manifest abundant abilities. When Zak goes missing, Eleanor strikes out on the seemingly impossible task to find Zak and return him to what she believes is the best place for him – the safety of her ever watchful eye.

The actress who played Eleanor looked extremely familiar, though, in a rarity for me, I could not place her. Then I looked her up in the vast electronic cinematic library that is us.imdb.com only to find she had been in a trilogy for which her face was plastered everywhere, but which movies I had not seen. Dakota Johnson made her name as the notorious co-star of the rather infamous Shades of Gray films. But fear not, as my husband wittily suggested I assure you, this is NOT 50 Shades of Peanut Butter. However, there IS  a completely innocent but rather amusing Easter egg reference to the Gray films for those familiar with this portion of Ms. Johnson’s repertoire.  Assessing her filmography, I believe this is likely the best performance of her career and certainly the nicest movie she has ever been in.

Duncan, (John Hawkes who has appeared in such varied features as the comedy TV show Psyche, as the Union colonel Robert Latham in Lincoln, and the frighteningly abusive husband in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), is most obviously this version of Tom Sawyer‘s Injun Joe. Duncan hunts relentlessly for Tyler and, by extension, his companions, bent on revenge.

Together the three friends – Tyler, Eleanor and Zak – embark upon a Twain-ian adventure which literally places them, for a while, on a raft down a river.

The cinematography is like a stylized home movie. Beautifully filmed in Savannah, Georgia, making best use of the natural biodiversities from man-tall grasses and long stretches of sandy beaches to inviting swimming holes and Spanish Moss-covered oaks, much of the story is set along the Outer Banks – a series of barrier islands and spits along the east coast of North Carolina and Virginia, as our characters make their way to Florida.

The music is very reminiscent of O Brother, Where Art Thou? – a mellow  expression of Southern culture featuring a soundtrack of banjo picking and fiddle music, with folk songs and Gospel tunes sprinkled throughout, like stars in the black velvet sky of a summer night.

The language is occasionally quite rough, but not gratuitously so, and certainly in keeping with the customs of the financially precarious crab fishermen who live from hand to mouth on the outskirts of civilization, in the wilds of Georgia.

There is no sexual content aside from the underweared attire of the purely innocent Zak’s escape ensemble, and a chaste kiss between our other two protagonists.

So go enjoy this wonderful expression of both a modern Mark Twain tale and the personification of St. Augustine’s admonition to seek God’s mercy, love and Providence,  as seen through the eyes and adventures of a very special Huckleberry Finn and his two companions.

OVERCOMER – KENDRICK BROTHERS WIN THE RACE AGAIN

SHORT TAKE:

Another beautiful, faith-based, entertaining and inspiring movie from the Kendrick brothers, this one about cross-country running as an analogy for the search for faith as various members of a community deal with an unexpected economic catastrophe.

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE – though young children might become restless without talking animals or flying spaceships.

LONG TAKE:

The Kendrick brothers have a gift for making profound theological points using the most ordinary of human experiences. Much like the way an itinerant preacher some 2000 years ago Who taught using parables about those things with which his flock was most familiar: sheep, olive trees, pearls and wedding feasts, wine skins and goats, oil lamps and fishing, the Kendricks have followed the example of Jesus in more ways than one.

Their first offering to a spiritually starving world was 2003’s Flywheel, which humorously tackled a modern rendition of Zacharias, who Biblically was an unethical tax collector. Flywheel re-envisioned Zacharias as Jay Austin, an unscrupulous used car salesman. Written and directed by Alex Kendrick, then Pastor of Media at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, Kendrick also portrayed the very flawed Austin.

Intended originally as a cinematic lesson only for their congregation, the indie movie, with its homemade dolly and camera crane, volunteer actors, cars borrowed for 20 minutes, scenes shot in operating businesses, was a very DIY project. (And for any aspiring filmmakers you could learn a lot from their Making of Flywheel Youtube you can see HERE.) But the message and the skill of the storytellers overflowed far beyond their technical weaknesses and it instantly took off, becoming a cinematic sensation amongst the Christian community in such a big way that their profits paid for their next film, Facing the Giants.

Facing the Giants was about Grant Taylor, a failed football coach who, like Gideon in the Book of Judges, faced overwhelming odds. Gideon, self-described as the most insignificant in the poorest house of Manasseh, is put in charge of the Israelite troops to defeat the massive Midianite army. Both men, Taylor and Gideon, find their wins, as the newly Christ-committed Taylor tells his team, by following the instructions to: “…do the best you can and leave the rest to God,” as well as reminding them: “If we win, we praise Him. And if we lose, we praise Him. Either way we honor Him with our actions and our attitudes.”

Similarly Fireproof dealt with marital crises, Courageous (my personal favorite) with fatherhood, and The War Room with the power of personal pray on one’s family.

All the Sherwood films were written and directed by the Kendrick brothers, have won awards, broken box office records even amongst secular audiences, garnered critical acclaim, spun off books written by the Kendrick brothers which have made the New York Times Best Sellers’ lists, and made enough money to allow the brothers to start their own film company, Kendrick Brother Productions.

And now comes Overcomer, whose titular theme develops from various characters’ struggles, which emerge from lack of faith and who become inextricably intertwined with each other in their journey to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

The acting is excellent and professional standard – no cringy moments that occasionally plague the Christian based movies.

The Kendricks do what many Christian film makers can not manage – while they are as open about their message as Thornton Wilder, they never forget that for a film to be successful, in whatever genre, it must entertain. They remember that honey is a far better attractant than vinegar and always have a moving, engaging, often funny, always inspiring, and occasionally heart wrenching story to tell.

The central character is Hannah Scott, (played by newcomer Aryn Wright-Thompson), an aspiring cross country runner who must overcome both physical and familial challenges.

Like Kenneth Branagh, the Kendricks smartly use many of the same acting troupe from previous cinematic enterprises (including a dozen cast and crew whose last name is Kendrick) as well as new faces. Alex Kendrick (All the Sherwood films as well as other Christian based movies) again leads, this time as John Harrison, the coach and lynchpin of the several sub-plots in Overcomer. Shari Rigby (October Baby) plays his wife, Amy. Priscilla Shirer (War Room and I Can Only Imagine – see my previous review HERE) is the school principal and another point of intersection for the interwoven subplots.

The Kendricks choose their new faces wisely and carefully. Cameron Arnett plays Thomas Hill in a compelling performance, all the more impressive as it is done without making eye contact or moving from a bed. Arnett’s real life is an example of inspiration as well. A true moral hero, he renounced a rising career and lost everything when he refused to appear nude, even refusing the studio’s offer of a body double compromise. Like a modern day Eleazar, the God fearing and upright faith-filled elderly Jew in Maccabees who chose death rather than even pretending to do what he was forbidden in the sight of God, Arnett feared he might lead others to emulate him even if the nude was not him. Arnett thought his acting career over until he found the faith based film industry, or rather, it found him.

As in other Kendricks’ movies, there are really no “bad guys” per se, the struggles come from their own inner demons and flaws, rather than outer space aliens or megalomaniacal super villains, making the stories the Kendricks spin all the more immediately relatable to us mere mortals.

The Kendricks know how to make good use of their resources. Flywheel’s budget in 2003 was an astonishingly tiny $20,000. (And no, I didn’t miss a zero.) Their $5 million budget for Overcomer, is almost the total of the budgets of all the previous movies put together and every penny shows in their ever rising benchmark of excellent production quality. The cinematography startles with the opening drone uncut shot beginning far over head, focusing on a city, then a building, flying through a high gym window down to the floor of a court during the last few minutes of a championship basketball game. This production group has come a long way from camera dollies cobbled together from rollers and an auto “creeper” on glued together PVC pipe.

The music is inspiring and mostly made of songs from Christian artists like, among others: Casting Crowns, Mandisa and Paul Mills.

And it is with profound relief I can assure you of the family friendly nature of  this, as well as all their other films. The only caution I would give for ANY of the Kendrick movies is the intensity of the inherent nature of the subjects they tackle: marital infidelity, sudden death, unemployment and the confrontation of many other kinds of evil which emerge from our human sinfulness. But no violence is gratuitous, language will never treat blasphemy casually, or plots ever condone any form of licentious behavior. The main characters are as normally flawed as the audience who attends but are also as fundamentally decent and kind, just people trying to tend to their loved ones the best way they know how, but whose search for fulfillment will open a path to God.

So go see Overcomer. Of the film offerings available Overcomer comes in way ahead of the pack. Bring your kids, your pastor, your grandmother, your priest, your first date, your spouse, your best friend, or your drinking buddy. Like any good sermon, there’s something there which will reach everyone who listens.

Dora and The Lost Movie Badly Told

SHORT TAKE:

Disjointed mess of a movie based upon a cartoon with no real effort to make a live action worthwhile. Choppily written and poorly acted, what is not cliché looks like a weekend effort to produce an advertisement for the Dora the Explorer cartoon series.

WHO SHOULD GO:

There’s nothing inappropriate for children but nothing of merit to keep their attention either.

LONG TAKE:

In the movie Daddy Day Care, while meeting one of their newest six-year old charges, they discover the kid can speak Klingon. Steve Zahn’s character, Marvin, who plays the resident geek of everything television, translates then asks, shocked, “How much television does this kid WATCH?!” I wondered the same thing about the filmmakers of Dora. It felt written by someone whose childhood was spent absorbing WAAAAAY too many television visual and sound bites OR who had zero confidence in their audiences’ ability to maintain any attention span whatsoever. That, with the rushed weekend-shoot quality, bad acting from even the likes of Michael Pena and Eugenio Derbez, and the TV movie unrealism of wearing clean white pants after 2 days sleeping rough, made it impossible to relate to this movie.

The structure, such as it was, never settled down. I had whiplash 20 minutes in as Dora kept changing the direction of the story.

This movie is all over the place. Dora can’t decide if it wants to be The Lego Movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a kid version of Indiana Jones, a live action cartoon, or a spoof of her origin animation.

It opens as though you’re watching an episode of a live action Dora The Explorer, with a six year old Dora dancing and skipping in pristine clothes through a jungle full of arguably dangerous animals, like a poisonous frog. Then we cut to discover it was all in her imagination as she sits in a plywood race car with her cousin, Diego. Then during dinner she repeatedly looks off in the distance to empty air asking “Can YOU say _________” filling the blank in with a previous spoken word or scientific reference. Even her Dad thinks this is weird and her mom assures him she will outgrow it.

Diego leaves with his parents to America and we cut 10 years later to Dora, now played by Isabela Moner, (wonderful in Instant Family), whose talents are excruciatingly wasted in this movie, singing her way through the jungle with a talking monkey – which turns out NOT to be part of her imagination, even though the rendering of the chimp is decidedly unrealistic.

And then, despite everything else being more or less based on real life, there is the walking, talking fox with a thief mask who interacts with humans as though he wandered in from a sequel to the awful Incredible Mr. Fox. Even the chimp is not openly this anthropomorphized, except in one sequence alone with Dora, which COULD have been a moment of Dora’s overactive imagination. So the presence of Swiper among the troop of entirely human bad guys is just — odd — as though SOMEone had inhaled a bit too much of the hallucinogenic pollen which makes all the characters – for about 5 minutes of the movie – think they ARE cartoons.

For a while I kept expecting this to all be a continued figment of her imagination, ala Lego Movie. But it was just weird bad writing.

Dora is portrayed as an aggressively cheerful Pollyanna who seems oblivious to most social customs, all attributed to the fact she was homeschooled by her professor parents as they explored the jungle.

Then we switch to a “fish out of water” story as Dora is sent to live with her aunt, uncle and now grown and civilization-acclimated cousin, Diego (Jeff Walhberg) so her clueless parents (the usually scene stealing Michael Pena – adorable in Antman and heartbreaking in Collateral Beauty) and Eva Longoria can go look for the City of Gold. Pena tries over hard to quirk up the movie but an interminable minute of his beat box “Rave” music imitation is more painful than amusing.

Walhberg, nephew of Mark Walhberg, spends most of the movie looking embarrassed. It was hard to tell whether his pained expression came from his character’s embarrassment over his awkward cousin’s behavior, or the actor’s own personal humiliation for signing on to this poor outing. Dora is sent to a traditional institutional school where, despite her obvious education and intelligence she can not grasp the art of “fitting in”.

THEN, cobbling together an excuse for a Jumanji-style misfit group – the jealous class pet, Sammy (Madeleine Madden), the geeky infatuated boy, Randy (Nicholas Coombe), Dora’s cousin, Diego, and Dora – are all kidnapped and brought to the jungle as hostages to convince Dora’s parents to help the bad guy treasure hunter, ala Indiana Jones, find a lost city of gold. Dora’s parents are purist explorers who would never seek to prosper from their educational finds, yet never explain how they can afford to spend all their time in comparative luxury out in the wilds.

On top of everything else Dora sings her way through different moments – not like a musical but with the kind of singsong childish skipping pieces one might hear in a —- 10 minute cartoon.  She even makes up a “poo song” for a city friend who must abide by a call of nature outside for the first time in her life. 90 minutes of this had me rooting for the bad guys.

The last scene indulges in a Disneyfied-Bollywood dance sequence. The energetic choreography in Indian-sourced movies are usually my favorite parts. The dances in the true Bollywoods are meant to enhance the demonstration of emotional bonding which has progressed throughout the movie. In Dora, it’s more like sending disappointed kids off from a poorly planned and rained out celebration with soggy party bags, it just doesn’t help make anyone feel better about the event.

And it’s a shame because such a good movie could have been made out of the idea of a rugged homeschooled kid providing guidance literally and socially to a bunch of institutionalized kids to help them think outside of the box and become better people. Sadly, this is NOT that movie.

I suppose it could have been worse given the lead writers were Cliff Gifford who, as creator of the Dora cartoon,  has, previously, not really written for people and Matthew Robinson whose major screen credits up to now have involved movies titled Sex Surrogates and Jerked.

In short, don’t waste your time on this nearly two hours of drivel.

THE MOST RECENT FAST AND FURIOUS – MORE LIKE FARCICAL AND INFURIATING

SHORT TAKE:

Waste of time – see the Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2 (linked here and at end of post) for all the best bits.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language and extreme (though really cartoonish) levels of carnage. Not a lot of blood but you wouldn’t want the kids to try these stunts at home.

LONG TAKE:

I have nothing against brainless entertainment and I try to judge a movie only within the genre for which it was intended. So when you go see one of the Fast and Furious franchise films (try to say THAT three times quickly) you don’t expect much beyond good old escapist fun. I even applauded Fate of the Furious in a previous post as a welcome entry.

I love buddy movies and have extolled all kinds from The Great Escape to The Hitman’s Bodyguard. And I have no problem with franchises doing semi-parodies of themselves. I am on record many times for complaining that a movie takes itself TOO seriously. And I think the break from tradition Thor: Ragnarok, for example, is one of the best Avenger movies.

But you gotta give the audience SOMETHING of substance. Sadly, in the case of  director David Leitch’s Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, it’s like trying to make an entire meal out of day old cotton candy.

SPOILERS – BUT THE PLOT IS SO THREADBARE IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER

I’m afraid the writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce thought they could punch quality into a movie with just star power. But Spielberg’s 1941 or Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or Bay’s Pearl Harbor could have warned them otherwise. I understand it is doing well at the box office and good for them. A friend of mine once taught me an expression – No one sets out to make a bad movie. But, unfortunately, despite what the film makers intended, this one is just not very good.

Not that the cast was trying very hard. Johnson and Statham spend most of the movie either posturing like WWW competitors or trading childish barbs with all the finesse of opposing players in a grade school gym locker room. Dwayne Johnson was funnier in Jumanji, Statham more invested in The Expendables, and Vanessa Kirby, a “legit” actress (amazing as Princess Margaret in The Crown and fun as the White Widow in MI: Fallout) is simply wasted. I really liked her Hattie in this, a variation of Atomic Blonde, (also a David Leitch directed movie), but then her scenes had to be spliced back into the fatiguing Hobbs-Shaw bickering man measuring show.

Ryan Reynolds appears in a cameo with dialogue that could have been made of rejected adlibs from Deadpool 2. Helen Mirren walks through her reprised role as Shaw’s mother, Queenie. At one point Queenie assures Shaw that she is happy in prison and could break out any time she wanted – that it was quiet and she could just sit in her room, and spend her time reading – that it was like retirement. I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms. Mirren was talking about Queenie’s stint in the pen or Ms. Mirren’s actual presence on the set of this movie.

Kevin Hart pops up in a couple of random moments as Dinkley, the air marshal, to be used like duct tape on a leaky hose to solve a couple of plot holes. In return, Hart is allowed to ramble  interminably in an improvisational-style soliloquy in lieu of any proper exposition for his character.

Idris Elba as main cybernetically enhanced bad guy Brixton gives it everything he has, carrying the weight of what little gravitas the movie has. By far the most interesting character, it was a sore temptation not to root for him to win.

The premise of the story is that they are trying to prevent Idris Elba’s bad guy, Brixton, from getting ahold of an extinction-level virus for his unseen super villain boss. But it becomes obvious early on this is really just an excuse to create a string of cartoon quality violence fight scenes and car stunts. And while I do not fundamentally MIND that, the film makers have to at least TRY to hide this fact. But like a sloppy magician who yells “Look over there” before every clumsy trick, it just doesn’t work for long.

Instead of providing character and plot earned enthusiasm, the chase scenes strove to outdo all the F&F chases put together and as a result became preposterous. I’m not giving spoilers as the scene where a line of linked trucks are holding down a flying fortress helicopter is in the trailer. The chase scenes from The French Connection, Bullitt, The Great Escape, the beginning of The Rock (“Oh why NOT!”), or even the escape at the start of The Avengers from a collapsing building complex were exciting because the audience was led to believe the characters were potentially in danger.

Well, I can easily imagine Jeremy Scott from Cinema Sins doing a bonus round of “They survived this”. The F&F movies are supposed to take place (more or less) in the real world and the leads, aside from Elba, are not supposed to have unusual supernatural powers – Dwayne Johnson’s mountain-sized physique notwithstanding. But the repeated walk aways from cataclysmic-sized vehicle crashes, which would have killed Bugs Bunny, stretched and eventually broke the suspension bridge of disbelief out from under the viewers. (And, I’m sorry, but it was tough for even my loyal Marvel-fan heart to believe that Cap could hold back the small helicopter Bucky flew duringCaptain America: Civil War. Johnson is just NOT holding down a military grade bird.) It did not take long for there to be zero investment in the outcome of the rides, knowing the main characters would likely to come out the right end of a freight train to the face.

Then there is the storyline.

We’re talking Adam West’s Batman level of contrivances and clunky dialogue, where guest stars appear out of nowhere and backstories are pulled from whole cloth to justify prior franchise installment plot holes.

For example, the fact that Hattie, Shaw’s spy sister, never came up in conversation is explained away by him having been framed for treason in the master plan of a heretofore unknown and currently still unseen megalomaniac bad guy. Hobbs’ extensive Samoan family was previously non-existent because he had alienated everyone by turning in his crime lord father to the authorities.

Hobbs’ brother Jonah (Cliff Curtis), who lives on a remote island in Samoa, with only the technology of a classy chop shop at his disposal, is decided to be the ONLY person and place in the world they can go to fix cutting edge virus extracting bio equipment……? Huh? So I guess I can ask my car mechanic to do some gene splicing on the side. Easy peasy.

I did like the “importance of family” theme, which is one of the more endearing F&F tropes, including Shaw’s mom and sibling and Hobbs’ daughter, mother and brothers into the mix. And it was nice they found a way to include Johnson’s actual Samoan heritage into the story. But it was shoe-horned in, superficial and paint by numbers – Hobbs doesn’t want to go home, brother punches him on sight, mom intimidates all the big boys into cooperating. Shaw’s mother, Queenie, fondly recounts, in flash back, how the previously unknown and unseen sister and Shaw concocted scams and committed felonies as children. What a mom.

I guess it’s cute that they shoot parallel scenarios of these two men who can’t seem to stand each other doing pretty much the same things at the same time with their own styles. It might have even been funny had the repertoire between them sounded better than first day of shooting improvisation, created by two uninspired high school freshmen.

Supporting characters are dispatched or ignored with little fan fare. Professor Andreiko (Eddie Marsan from better movies like The World’s End, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2) is a heroic scientist who save our intrepid heroes, but then gets left behind without a thought, killed by Brixton with no consideration for how useful he might be in the future, with no attempt by the heroes to save him, and not so much as a “I wonder what happened to that little guy who saved our butts?” This callousness does nothing to shore up the already, by this time, flaccid investment the audience has in these characters.

While there’s no overt sex, the language is unnecessarily crude and contains a good deal of profanity and blasphemy.

If you REALLY think you want to see this latest and weakest F&F you can – LITERALLY – see a Reader’s Digest version of the ENTIRE movie via abridged cuts of all the best scenes in the official Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2. It’s free, short and eliminates all the bad language.

But – if you want to see a GOOD car chase, adventure, buddy movie, try out one of the other better ones I’ve mentioned in this post or even go see one of the previous Fast and Furious installments. Sadly, this contender didn’t make it to the finish line.

 

STEEL MAGNOLIAS BLOOM AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely production of Steel Magnolias running at ACTS Theatre in Lake Charles, LA from August 2, 2019 through August 11, 2019.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With parental discernment – probably mid-teens and up. A slight bit of language and serious topics, but mostly because the nature of the format – six ladies talking in a single stationary set – while engrossing to the more mature audience members  would bore the little ones.

LONG TAKE:

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the dress rehearsal of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias at ACTS Theatre. This comedy-drama is set in a 1980’s Louisiana beauty parlor and performed with great affection for the Southern women about whom this play revolves. The six ladies in the cast nailed it. Their timing, their energy, and their easy camaraderie the night before opening felt as though they already had several weeks of performances under their belts and were only tweaking for the weekend run.

The blocking was artfully choreographed, allowing easy access to all the characters, always a concern with an ensemble cast.

The stage for Truvy’s Beauty Parlor was terrific in all its brightly lit, lightly cluttered and detailed natural realism. For anyone who has ever spent time in a beauty parlor, you could almost smell the familiar hair care products and feel the warm breath of the hair dryers ubiquitous to ladies’ salons.

The director of this all female cast, Zach Hammons, is male. He, with his terrific back stage crew,  did a tremendous job with the style and technique of an experienced director. Veteran of the stage as an actor for many years and winner of performing awards, he is fairly new to the role of director.

I found his masculine behind-the-scenes influence a great advantage to this show, helping subtly inform the extensive, but never seen, male supporting players, whose actions are talked about, affect and are occasionally heard by the females on stage: Shelby’s Dad and M’Lynn’s husband, Drum, Tommy and Jonathan, Shelby’s brothers, Truvy’s husband, Spud, Ouiser’s boyfriend, Owen, and Annelle’s husband, Sammy. These men are all actively present in their women’s lives but are never present on stage. Zac confided to me that where most plays have two months to prepare, because of the exigencies of scheduling, they only had one month, but you would never know it to see the show. It’s tight and well timed, brisk in tempo, maintaining its intensity in both comedic and tragic moments from opening line to closing curtain call.

Ashley Dickerson plays Shelby, the optimist who does not let anything get her down and is the center of the play. Ms. Dickerson has performed both at ACTS and Lake Charles Little Theatre on many occasions.

Kathy Heath plays Shelby’s mom in a very challenging role of varied, and occasionally intense, often subtly repressed, emotional turmoil. Ms. Heath has lent her experience to both ACTS and McNeese Theatre, the latter from which she graduated with both a BA in theatre as well as a BS in Mass Com.

Joy Pace literally bursts onto the stage as Ouiser, the curmudgeonly neighbor to M’Lynn’s family. Fiercely loyal and sometimes merely fierce, her bark is always worse than her bite as she frequently steals scenes while providing comic relief. Ms. Pace has extensive experience as director for ACTS, and Artistic and Executive Director for the Itinerant Theatre, with a BA in Speech, and an MFA in directing, but this is her performing debut with ACTS Theatre.

Veronica Williams is Truvy, the energetic Eveready Bunny and the owner of the  shop in which all the action takes place. This is only Ms. Williams’ second stage outing, her first as Rosie in Mama Mia! garnering her an ACTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Taylor Novak-Tyler is Clairee, the sweet and lovable widowed dowager who provides advice and acts as a mediator and peacemaker to the sometimes tense female interactions. Ms. Novak-Tyler is another generous contributor to the stages both at ACTS and Lake Charles Little Theatre.

Shelby Castile plays Annelle who starts as the gentle and shyly fragile newbie to town who has the greatest character arc in the show. No newbie to ACTS Theatre though, she has been on stage here many times before.

So head on out to ACTS Theatre to see this terrific rendition of these very familiar women who are, indeed, Steel Magnolias – but, similar to the juxtaposition of opposites in the very title of the play – be prepared to both laugh until you cry and cry until you laugh.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – DEAD RINGER FOR THE REAL THING

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

A classically Tarentino revisionist history of a terrible event during the 1960’s seen through the prism of a fading TV star and his stunt double in an intricately detailed and brain shockingly familiar re-creation of the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ADULTS! ONLY ADULTS! And only adults who have fairly strong constitutions. While there really are no sex scenes, the language is frequently raw and occasionally vulgar topics are discussed in crude ways, but there are a few fight scenes and one long scene of extremely gory and prolonged violence.

LONG TAKE:

Allow me to begin this review by quoting GK Chesterton:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Reviewing this movie puts me in an awkward position for a number of reasons. For one, it is a typically Tarentino violent and sexually charged film but one I thought extremely well done and worth viewing. For another I don’t want to unduly spoil anything in the movie but need to set the stage for one of the most vile moments in American history without either scaring off prospective appropriate film goers or giving away too much.

So keeping all this in mind:

SPOILERS FOR OUATIH AS WELL AS IRON MAN, WONDER WOMAN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, AND X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

There’s a YouTube show called How it Should Have Ended, a PG if not G-rated comedy, which points out inconsistencies, crosses universe franchise storylines, and evaluates any plot flaws in movies which rely on nonsensical stupidity to set up the premise or move the story along. They animate scenes and do very credible voice impersonations showing, for better or worse, what is likely to have really happened had common sense prevailed in a given situation.

For examples, they: point out how a man as smart as Doctor Strange would not have texted on a winding road, going super fast, in the dark, but would have hung up the phone and planned to call later; demonstrate how Iron Man’s quicker, lighter and faster suit, along with his flying experience would have easily defeated Obadiah Stane at the end of Iron Man; introduced Wolverine to assist  Wonder Woman; clearly showed in a spoof of the theme song from Beauty and the Beast that Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome; and exhibit how Mr. Incredible probably would have loved Syndrome’s childhood inventions instead of shunning him with far more positive results.

Similarly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is aptly named, for it is a fairy tale, if you consider, as Joe Harper did in Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale that “most fairy tales turn out to be nightmares”, which explores the alternate possibilities in life.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the fictitious fading star Rick Dalton, a composite of every little known ’60’s TV show one trick pony and Brad Pitt is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (based loosely on Burt Reynold’s stunt double Hal Needham). Where Rick is a fragile bag of regrets and insecurities off camera, Rick exudes a tough cowboy presence 24/7.

Likely the best acting job of either DiCaprio or Pitt, and almost the only two people who do not play historically documentable figures, they avoid what easily could have been caricatures to create two very different but vulnerable men who are survivors at their core. Despite the background story, their downwardly spiraling respective careers and the omnipresent spectre of the looming profoundly malevolent event on the horizon, dreadful to anticipate for anyone familiar with this year, these two archetype examples of crank-’em-out TV show stars from the ’60’s manage to be likeable, interesting, relatable, appealing and, like yeast in a barrel of flour, lighten the mood of every scene they are in.

This is a very “META” concept outing – with actors portraying real people who portrayed characters in movies and TV shows similar to the ones being filmed withIN the confines of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Whew.

The acting of the supporting cast, most of whom do play real people, is terrific. Among a large cast: Margot Robbie is the sweet and gentle but vacuous Sharon Tate. Dakota Fanning does a gut clenching quietly evil rendition of Manson follower Squeaky Fromme. And Mike Moh has all the mannerisms down for what can only be described as a Bruce Lee caricature (for which his surviving daughter, Shannon Lee, has taken exception). But one of the most impressive was Damien Lewis’ Steve MacQueen (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair). With just his voice and gestures he brings this cinema icon back to life for just a few wonderful movie moments.

In addition, there are some wonderful cameos from Al Pacino (1972’s The Godfather), Kurt Russell (from Disney’s 1969’s Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to Snake Plissken in Escape From New York) who has a small part as stunt coordinator Randy and provides some V.O. narration, and Bruce Dern (1972’s eco-warning sci fi Silent Running), actors whose careers were pretty much “born” during this period of time.

And then there are little Easter Eggs that you might miss unless you look closely, like Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas who greets Tate at the Playboy Mansion, and someone who can only be Twiggy talking to Steve MacQueen. NOT to mention the resurrection of the old TV show Lancer, including Wayne Maunder (portrayed by Luke Perry) and cigarette commercials which are startlingly accurate dopplegangers to the ones we watched on TV as kids.

The songs are beautifully handpicked for the right moments like bouquets placed around a professionally decorated room featuring the likes of: “Good Thing” from Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, and “California Dreamin'” by Jose Feliciano.

And the sets, pacing of interviews, acting styles of the actors as they performed the shows within the movie, costumes, blunt and awkward dialogue all open a portal into a world I have not experienced in more than half a century. It was jarringly realistic. Tarantino even cleverly placed throughout the movie the awkward and jerky edits often experienced in watching a show from my youth, as the more humble equipment just did not produce the smoother transitions we all demand today, subtly evoking that era, as well as reminding us this is all just a fantasy, a wishful thinking creation of a cinematic mind.

If he has done nothing else, Tarantino has done a stunning job of disabusing me of any temptations to nostalgia for the era in his pinpoint accurate recreation of the world in which I grew up – the ’60’s with its emphasis on: the constant generation of cigarette smoke, plastic furniture, ridiculously high miniskirts, obnoxious self-aggrandizing hippies, sparse air conditioning, unchallenged snake oil salesmen, terrible TV shows, black and white monitors with Vietnam in the background, and condescending talking heads masquerading as newscasters (OK we still have those).

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it while I was living it but in the stark light of a Tarantino day – let’s just say that walks down Memory Lane should be taken sparingly.

And then there is the specific history of that particular “moment” in time.

In order to appreciate the pervasive sense of suspense and anxiety that hangs over the entire movie, you have to understand the backdrop in which the story plays out. The movie takes place during the year preceding the slaughter of Sharon Tate, her baby and guests on the night of August 9th 1969. On that terrible night, a cult leader name Charles Manson sent his followers out to kill everyone in the house on Cielo Drive. The people there were not just murdered they were savaged. A pregnant Sharon Tate, two weeks from delivery, was hung up and butchered like cattle. The rest were bludgeoned, shot, and stabbed dozens of times. Anyone old enough or well read enough to be familiar with this event knows it is coming — and protagonist Rick lives next door.

The next day, before their capture, Manson and his hippies did the same to a couple named LaBianca. It is hard to appreciate how this atmosphere of evil informed those days unless you lived through it…or watched this movie.

It was largely thought that the 1960’s “died” that day, (ignoring the fact that, well yes, 4-1/2months later it would be 19–SEVENTY, but I get the drift), replacing the open door “love is in the air” perception of the flower child with the reality that these people engaged in highly dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, who were predominantly a danger to themselves and those around them.

In OUATIH we get the true face of the hippie, free-love, Flower Power movement:  promiscuous, selfish, manipulative, filthy, violent, arrogant, condescending, narcissistic, slothful, parasitic, hypocritical, self-adoring, drug addicted anarchists with a sense of entitlement to other people’s property. The greatest horror to those who stylistically aligned themselves with these pet anti-establishment philosophies (while living otherwise) was that the Manson cult demonstrated to the world merely the logical extrapolation of the hippie mantras which included calling police names and advocating their destruction, extreme hostility to capitalism while living off the work of others,  and engagement in sexual debauchery without accepting consequences.

The aftermath of Woodstock alone demonstrates it takes a lot of someone else’s effort and money for one to appear to be living a life of freedom and independence from the drudgery of actually having to work for a living. (Of course, unfortunately, that is now the Democrat National Party goal – to be living off the hard work of other people, responsibility free – not surprising since many in their leadership fermented out of that intellectual cesspool —— but that’s a post for another day.)

Without any real job they lived, if you can call it that, on the largesse of family,  friends and community, that is when they weren’t begging, prostituting themselves or outright stealing.

As this is a Tarantino film one expects an extreme amount of violence and gore and OUATIH is no exception…..but not the way you might expect, or cringe fearfully. I am delighted to say that, through the magic of Tarantino pixie dust, I was inspired to clap and cheer during the last scenes.

Tarantino likes to play with “What if’s”. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained being his most telling examples. I had actually never seen an entire Tarantino movie before but only clips from the likes of Kill Bill, Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction. Sudden and ferocious bloodshed tend to jump out like ghouls from a haunted house, but OUAPIH is quite gentle for most of the movie in comparison, as the director manifests more suspense and extreme apprehension than actual violence…until the end.

Also stick around for a funny ending credits scene with a brilliantly on point faux cigarette commercial.

So if you want a head first dive into the deep end of nostalgia, and if you have the stomach for it, this is Tarantino at his best, if for no other reason than his masterful re-invention of a time gone by and for the cathartic satisfaction of seeing justice served in a Tarantino-flavored version of How it Should Have Ended.

God bless and R.I.P. Sharon Tate, baby Paul Polanski,  Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, and Rosemary LaBianca.