SAM AND ELVIS: EXCELLENT PRO-LIFE INDIE ABOUT A TEEN, HER AUNT AND A STUFFED DOG *

SHORT TAKE:

Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, with the screenplay written by a collaboration between Monnot and Ault, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.

This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.

The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.

Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.

People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.

What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.

There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.

* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED – THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS: PLOT AND CHARACTERS HUGELY FLAWED BUT…. EMILY BLUNT IS SUPERCALI….OH YOU KNOW THE REST

SHORT TAKE:

Emily Blunt knocks it out of the ball park in an otherwise flawed descendant of the original and timeless classic: Mary Poppins.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older kids with the presence of their parents to explain some rather egregious character flaws and plot points. AND be advised of some questionable lyrics during a “Dance Hall” scene; but they go by so fast I do not think most children will have any idea what they are saying, though they are easy enough to find online.

LONG TAKE:

Nothing can replace Mary Poppins. But one might have hoped a successor would have met Mr. Disney’s approval. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins Returns falls short of that expectation.

On the PLUS side, Blunt is amazing. Taking on a roll as iconic as Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins takes real guts . Doing it well takes real talent. But Blunt soars with the part – “up to the highest heights!” managing the same panache which Andrews brought. Blunt adds a certain individuality but without losing any of the impish charm and magnetic self confidence, optimism, and demeanor of wisdom that exuded from every pore of the 1964 Mary Poppins character. The prim, stern and no nonsense exterior hiding the old soul and the big, soft, kind and wise heart within is all there as you might remember her.  Blunt sings, dances, comports herself with the personality, body language and all the expressions of her sister Mary Poppins from 1964 but still manages to make it her own iteration.

For example, Blunt adopted a fun vocal pattern reminiscent of Andrews’ prim, proper, posh and practically perfect in every way Poppins accent but tweaked it with her own unique style, describing her choice as a combination of Rosalind Russell’s patter in His Girl Friday and Princess Margaret. It is an unusual combination but I thought it worked really well for the evocation of the worthy successor to the Poppins throne.

I love Blunt’s take on Mary Poppins (could you tell?). And I’m not alone. No less an authoritative personage than Julie Andrews weighs in and was apparently quite pleased with Blunt’s performance. So impressed was she with her young successor to the umbrella that when offered a cameo Andrews graciously declined saying she did not want to distract from “Emily’s show”.

SPOILERS!!

As Jane and Michael are grown, this updates the setting from turn of the century to a time just before World War II. Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack, the faithful and ever-present chimney sweep who sings, dances and escorts Mary and the children around London. Meryl Streep is Topsy, Mary’s cousin with strange house problems. The colors are vibrant, the singing strong and done by the actors, not subbed. These are all to the good.

SPOILERS!!!

The premise of Mary Poppins Returns, however, is ridiculous. And I’m not talking about the idea that a nanny can fly on a kite, or that her cousin’s entire house turns upside down every other Wednesday, or that there is an entire ocean through which they can swim and breathe and sing and play in, in the bathtub, or that they can enter the painting on a ceramic bowl in the children’s room. That is all the stuff of Mary Poppins and well within her universe.

The problems I have are with the “real” world in the movie. This Mary Poppins is dark: Michael’s wife is dead, he is about to lose the family home, the bank they relied on is corrupt, Mary Poppins goes “native” at a dance hall, one of the children is kidnapped by animated animals with a frightening (for small children) chase including fire and falls and overturned carriages, and the weather is often threatening.

The characters have massive flaws which should not be there. For example, the movie begins with Jack riding about town singing Underneath the Lovely London Sky on his bicycle, then…steals an apple. What kind of example is that supposed to teach children in a supposedly child-friendly movie? Much criticism has been flung at Dyke’s British accent but one of the reasons Disney hired the famous hoofer in the original for Bert was his compatible world-view of the entertainment business. Both were concerned about the sliding descent of values being reflected in movies even then. I do not think Mr. Disney would have thought much of the first impression of  Returns chimney sweep.

In the original Mary Poppins, Michael is, according to Mary Poppins, “extremely stubborn and suspicious”. He is full of mischief and outspoken. In Mary Poppins Returns we find the same Michael (Ben Whishaw – voice of Paddington Bear in Paddington and the adorably geeky new Q in Skyfall) has grown up to be a pathetic loser who can’t seem to hold down a full-time job or get over the death of his wife, even to support his three children played by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson. Michael’s sister Jane as a child was “Inclined to giggle. Doesn’t put things away”. She is a little shy and somewhat prim always trying to keep her brother in check. Now, as an adult (Emily Mortimer – The Kid),  she has, anachronistically, become an outspoken, pants-wearing labor organizer at a time when women maintained a far more genteel decorum.

Furthermore, it stretches credulity more than a talking parrot to believe that Mr. George Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, (David Tomlinson) who we met as a very savvy, responsible and thrifty investment banker, has died leaving both the children with no financial security whatsoever aside from ownership of the family home,  apparently without instilling in them any world-wise life advice whatsoever, without being sure they are very aware of the bank shares or…other assets the family has (revealed later). WHY would he keep this a secret?! As a result of both his incompetence and ignorance, barely-employed-artist Michael is on the verge of bankruptcy with a budgetary plan which includes having his wife and children scrounge just to obtain old bread for the table. I was actually insulted by the idea that the pater familia Mr. Banks of the original story would have raised his children so poorly.

In the original Mary Poppins George Banks is reminded that he is engaged at the bank to provide FOR his family, not instead of engaging WITH his family.  This did not mean he threw out all concepts of responsibility.

In addition, there is no universe in which Mary Poppins would have taken the three Banks children to a dance hall where she would dress and sing like an extra from a PG version of Chicago and perform a song featuring lyrics about how it is tough to tell whether a naked woman is rich or not, and about a wooden naked woman who sprouted seedling when “Mr. Hickory took root despite her bark”. Are we making light of a cleverly worded analogy for a forced sexual encounter? In a children’s movie? These are not lyrics I really would want my young children repeating.

In the original Mary Poppins the bank managers are honest men of integrity who genuinely want to help the Banks’ family children learn thrift and economics. In Returns Colon Firth is a corrupt bank administrator, Wilkins, who probably should be twirling a handle bar mustache like Snidely Whiplash rather than sporting a pencil-thin one. His business model consists of bending rules to rob customers out of their homes, including the Banks’. Unless you are a card carrying Socialist or completely ignorant of banking practices, you would know that banks make their money on INTEREST paid by people who borrow from a bank, NOT from keeping a stable of foreclosed houses. Most of the time banks LOSE money on foreclosures. And in some places they are not allowed to sell the home for more than the value of the mortgage. So HOW, as Wilkins claims, they have doubled profits foreclosing on their customers’ homes is a financial improbability verging on the ludicrous and just plain old STUPID.

While the singing is excellent, the songs themselves get redundant. In the original 1964 Mary Poppins, each of the cheerful songs had a specific identity. Chim Chim Cheree did not have the same feel or rhythm as Let’s Go Fly a Kite which was distinctly different from Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. However, in Mary Poppins Returns the Trip a Little Light Fantastic feels the same as Turning Turtle which is hard to recall differently from Nowhere to go But Up. They are cute but I do not suspect many left the theater humming them. Lovely London Town was very nice and The Place Where the Lost Things Go was touching, but again, nothing to write home about.

And while Mary Poppins was almost officious she was never condescending or cruel. But in Mary Poppins Returns the leeries (chimney sweeps)  risk their lives to climb the outside of Big Ben to push the clock hands back – which technically is cheating and potentially creating problems for other people – in order to buy Michael and Jane enough time to get to the bank before midnight with their bank shares. But when even Jack can not make the last leg of the trip up, Mary Poppins simply floats up with her umbrella to efficiently push the hands back 5 minutes making us all wonder why on EARTH she didn’t do that to begin with, making the leeries courageous and very dangerous attempt pointless.

The movie has no character arc. The Banks family members learn nothing except where the family inheritance is.

BIG SPOILER!!!

There is a delightful cameo and a tie-in to the first movie that resolves the money problem which I won’t reveal until the end of this review so if you want to be surprised don’t read any more. I will say the small part alone was worth the price of admission. But this cameo-ex-machina, like Mary’s float up to Big Ben, makes what the Banks family endured just cruel. The resolution is revealed in a charming surprise near the end, which presumably Mary Poppins knew about, which, again, makes all the trials the family endures pointless and cruel.

In addition, there is a point by point reinventing of pretty much every scene in the original. I am all for a homage or two, but Light Fantastic was just a rehash of Chim Chim Cheree. Travel to the Royal Daulton Bowl was even drawn in the style of the jump into the chalk drawing from the original, with the only creative aspect being lyrics inappropriate for little ears. Topsy was a reimagined Uncle Albert with both scenes ending up on the ceiling. In both movies the main plot point takes place at the bank late at night. And although I am delighted for the casting of the balloon lady as Dame Angela Lansbury, she was just another form of Bird Lady from the first movie.

Overall I enjoyed the movie despite all this but do not think I could recommend it for small impressionable children. It would likely be OK for older kids who would understand the flaws in the plot and characters when explained to them by parents. Blunt’s performance is amazing and the cameo revealed in the following photos was my favorite part of the movie.

BEYOND HERE BE A BIG SPOILER!!

SPOILER!!!

Yes, that IS Dick Van Dyke, Bert from the first movie and at 91 years old did HIS OWN DESK TOP DANCE!!!

But how HE fixes the Banks’ financial woes is a spoiler even I won’t tell. You’ll just have to watch at LEAST the last 10 minutes of the movie as no one can tell this story better than Dick Van Dyke.

UNPLANNED: THE SCHINDLER’S LIST OF OUR TIME

SHORT TAKE:

Based upon her own testimony, the powerful biography of Abby Johnson’s conversion from Director of Planned Parenthood to passionate and eloquent pro-life advocate.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults and mature older teens only! There are brutally honest and accurate scenes of the trauma women go through when they are enduring an abortion, including blood, pain and one ultrasound viewed suction abortion of a 13 week old unborn baby. BUT THIS MOVIE MUST BE SEEN BY THOSE WHO CAN, TO BEAR WITNESS AS THE NAZI DEATH CAMP SURVIVORS DID – so these atrocities will cease and never happen again.

LONG TAKE:

God loves to MacGyver us. You remember that guy with the old 1985 TV show who could stop a sulfuric acid leak with a chocolate bar or a nuclear bomb with a paper clip? MacGyver would take stuff that you would find in a garbage dump and make amazing things out of it.

Well, God took mud and made creatures that He would die for and call His children. He took a farm girl named Joan and put her at the head of a successful army.  He took a Christian-persecuting Pharisee named Saul and made him one of the most famous disciples of Christ.

SPOILERS!

abbyAnd he took a woman named Abby Johnson, one of the youngest directors and Employee of the Year of a large Houston Planned Parent abattoir and converted her into one of the most passionate and resolute pro-life advocates in the world.

Unplanned is about Abby’s transformation from a dekudedPlanned Parenthood functionary, who self-deludes into believing she is protecting “women’s rights,” to the modern equivalent of the afore-referenced Saint Paul. The movie starts with the morning of the event which removes the “scales” from her eyes. covert2The title refers, not just to the pregnancies on which Planned Parenthood feeds, but the sudden and unexpected illumination of Abby’s soul.

This is not a movie for children or the faint of heart. But it is required watching for anyone concerned about the butchering of millions of children through the abortion factory known as Planned Parenthood.

Ashley Bratcher, who was, ironically, almost aborted herself, IS Abby Johnson, in a measured and powerful performance, despite being warned by friends that if she accepted this part she might never get another acting job. Brooks Ryan portrays Doug, Abby’s second husband. As presented in the movie, Doug is a Hosea figure: married, devoted and unconditionally loving to a spiritually broken woman, and doug comnfortingwho is instrumental in her healing through God’s grace and his commitment to their marriage. 40 days 3Jared Lotz plays Shawn Carney and Emma Le Roberts portrays Marilisa, his wife, who head up 40 Days for Life. Marilisa befriended Abby despite their diametrically opposed positions on abortion, as she and the other 40 Days members prayed outside the fence.40 days2In reality, representatives from 40 Days were a constant presence, praying daily and for years, outside of Abby’s abortion mill, from the day Planned Parenthood broke ground on the property they bought under the false pretense of an assumed name, until the day they finally closed their doors over eight long years later.

The film pulls no punches. Planned Parenthood hands out RU-486, the glibby nicknamed “Morning After” pills, like one might Tylenol and Unplanned is not shy about showing the effects on a pregnant woman. Abby, herself, was a personal victim of this horror, taking one to “get rid of” her second child by her first husband. The crippling pain and profuse bleeding are accurately portrayed as she writhes in agony on the bathroom floor. The pill is not at all the gentle “flushing” of her uterus that was described to her by the very Planned Parenthood clerks with whom she later works. The scene is brutal but accurate and honest.

In addition, be aware that a suction abortion on a 13-week old baby is viewed through an ultrasound. ultrasoundAlthough “sanitized” by the “animated” nature of the ultrasound, it is, nonetheless, difficult to watch.

These are not pretty sights, but they are as necessary as a walk through the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or a viewing of Schindler’s List. Any community who does not bother to be aware of what goes on behind those blood soaked doors, who does not have the courage to bear witness, and who does not speak out against abortion, is a community of accessories to infant slaughter. What Jesus said of those who would not hear the words of His disciples come to mind and I wonder if: “… it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that town.”

40 daysThe writers/directors/producers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, friends since childhood, experienced Hollywood film makers and Catholics, had to walk forward on faith. At no one time did have all the money they needed, only receiving funding a week at a time, but trusted that God would provide,  as He did with manna for the Israelites in the desert. But provide He did in the commitment of the cast and crew regardless of whether or not they thought they would be paid.

A real life convert is in the film as well: Dr. Anthony Levatino, a certified OBGYN, portrays the doctor performing the abortion at the time of Abby’s conversion moment. He, by his own estimation, is guilty of committing over 1,200 abortions before becoming a pro-life advocate.

But for all this the movie is not grim. There are many heroes and examples of positive relationships which obviously informed Abby’s decision: abby familyAbby and Doug’s love story for one; Abby’s steadfast pro-life parents, who prayed unceasingly for her conversion, wereportrayed beautifully by Robin DeMarco and Robert Thomason; Kaiser Johnson as Jeff, their gaudy-billboard, but staunchly pro-life and center-of-calm attorney, brings humor to the script when it is most needed; and little Andee Grace Burton, who adorably portrays Grace, Abby and Doug’s oldest child.

On set, during the filming, knowing, as they put it, there would be spiritual warfare going on during the making of the movie, there was a prayer team made up of Catholic priests and nun, evangelicals and other denominations. The film makers found this devotion so effective in creating a calm and peaceful work environment that they now include this as a line-item budget in all of their movies!

Lila Rose is a long standing pro-life advocate who has done courageous undercover investigative reporting for years, exposing Planned Parenthood’s complicity in facilitating statutory rape.  Rose appears in a cameo as a reporter who interviews Abby’s malignant boss, Cheryl, who, in turn is played with creepy authenticity by Robia Scott.

So – go see Unplanned if it is in your community. Request it if it is not. Buy the DVD. Show it to friends. Be a witness. Save a life. Save a soul.

SCREWTAPE LETTERS – A RIVETING LIVE PERFORMANCE OF THE C.S.LEWIS CLASSIC

 

SHORT TAKE:

A fascinating one-man play based on the C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters – the letters from a senior demon to his nephew/student demon.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to read and understand the source book: The Screwtape Letters. As a rule of thumb….13 years old and up.

LONG TAKE:

My husband and I spent a disturbingly delightful and entertaining 70 minutes with a demon the other afternoon. The demon’s name was Screwtape and he is the creation of one C.S. Lewis. Lewis is the author of the children’s Narnia series as well as deeply philosophical books like The Four Loves, science fiction like Out of the Silent Planet, religious apologetics like Mere Christianity, theological guides like The Problem of Pain and self-mortifying confessions like A Grief Observed.

Lewis was a prolific writer and a deeply committed, practicing Christian who made the long, arduous and painful, but soul fulfilling journey from casual Christian to atheist to devout believer.

For those unfamiliar with the book, The Screwtape Letters is a precursor to the “found footage” movies so prevalent today but created for far more ennobling reasons. The preface to the book Screwtape warns of the dangers of either denying the existence of devils or, contrarily, indulging in an “unhealthy and excessive interest” in them. The first half of the warning reminds me of the line in The Usual Suspects by “Verbal” Kint who admonishes his listener that: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The latter half of the warning brings to mind a comment by C.S. Lewis that this book was the easiest for him to write but also the one that made him most uncomfortable – so much so that he resisted the urgings of his publisher and the general public to write a sequel. He did, some years later, write a short piece entitled Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which, in a condensed version opens the play.

In any event, C.S. Lewis in his preface to Screwtape Letters, states he will not explain how these letters “fell into my hands”. Suffice to say they are a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Hell, to his nephew/student/lesser demon, Wormwood. In these letters Screwtape attempts to instruct Wormwood in the fine art of seducing a soul (referred to as his “patient”) away from “the enemy” (God) to be food for the denizens of Hell.

During the course of his instructions, Screwtape exposes many of the subtle fallacies and self-delusions to which people who call themselves atheists, as well as those who think of themselves as Christians, can fall prey (my choice of phrase here both gruesomely punny and deliberate).

One would not think that a one-man play dramatizing what amounts to a series of theologically themed short essays could be either interesting or funny. But this play is both. This is a credit to both the wry, dry wit of Mr. Lewis as well as the construction of the play itself. The set is fairly sparse, creating the allusion to a well-to-do Englishman’s smoking room, (smoking – like brimstone. See what I did there?), with two unusual additions. One customization is the twisting ladder which reaches up to the ceiling upon which one can climb to retrieve and send posts via an attached pneumatic tube. The second inclusion is of Screwtape’s wordless, androgynous assistant demon, Toadpipe, who, in the production we saw, is costumed like an evil Papagano from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, all in artificially colorful feathers from head to toe. He/she has no lines but grunts and growls and pantomimes his/her obsequiousness and occasional little mutinies.

The performance was riveting, compelled as we are to breathlessly await the determination of whether the man about whom they communicate will succumb to Wormwood’s ministrations or successfully resist the abyss of Hell.

There is an interesting tension created by Lewis, in that the protagonist, the one with whom audiences, in the overwhelming majority of plays, are naturally manipulated into sympathizing, is a demon from Hell. Resisting the impulse to root for Screwtape, as the protagonist of the tale, is similar to the same pull of temptation which each of us must continually struggle. This odd conundrum reminds us how easy it would be to find ourselves in the clutches of a Wormwood – or that we might already be in this danger. Fortunately, in Screwtape’s commentaries on his increasing frustrations with the failures of his nephew, we are also shown how to extricate ourselves.

We saw Screwtape at the beautiful Jeanette and LM George Theater in Houston, but it is only playing through March 17, 2019. However,  it will be playing at many future theaters to come and you should catch it when you can. OR a community theater in your locale should contact the Dramatic Publishing Company and see about performing it.

In addition, I must compliment the A.D. George Theater whose self-proclaimed mission is:

To produce compelling theatre, from a Christian world-view, that engages a diverse audience.

Screwtape was our first experience with this theater and it promises to most definitely NOT be our last.

BRAVO to the George Theatre and C.S. Lewis!

KUDOS TO CINEMASINS FOR BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL TO SAVE LIVES

Jeremy Scott, the primary narrator at CinemaSins about whom I have written in another post created the persona of someone who enjoys finding every possible trivia sin and piccadillo in every movie he reviews. The videos are primarily for fun, occasionally somewhat bawdy, often profane, frequently very funny, but the result is always insightful.   He spends 15 or so minutes showing video clips which point out clichés, newspaper text which has nothing to do with the headlines being used for exposition, wildly incorrect timers, continuity goofs, historical anachronisms, just plain bad acting or terrible CGI, and his two FAVORITE sins – too many opening credit logos and narration which substitutes for plot. And he rarely condemns politely, which is part of his humor schtick. This is a site for older mature teens and up, certainly. But his commentary, while biting, is usually both quite accurate and mostly played for laughs

However, during his “Everything Wrong With A Star is Born” send up video, after he does his usual nit picky comic but precise routine, he calls out the movie’s plot for its attempts to paint the lead male character’s suicide “…as almost chivalrous, and I’m just never getting on board with that.”

Well, Jeremy, neither am I. And good for you. As I pointed out in my post: “A Star is Born: Masterful Variation on an Inherently Dissonant Theme” I make a similar argument against lionizing this behavior.

Jeremy THEN does something that in the hundreds of his videos he has never done before, he breaks the “Fourth Wall” – that barrier between the audience and himself which maintains the suspension of disbelief. Jeremy Scott posts a great big notice for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and their phone number.

This was an admirable and bold move in a culture of death which has even rationalized the wholesale savage slaughter of unborn infants. He has opened himself up to criticism but it will certainly not come from me.

Thank you Jeremy.

Your instincts are good and this is one of the many things on the list of what I would call Everything Right with CinemaSins.

CAPTAIN MARVEL – GOOD IN SPITE OF ITSELF

SHORT TAKE: Latest and fun addition to the Marvel Universe of super heroes and the bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Captain Marvel is a super hero who just happens to be a female, re-discovering her real identity while meeting Young Nick Fury and Young Phil Coulson.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Family friendly: Young teens and up should be fine, perhaps even middle schoolers with parental discretion. A handful of mild profanities but otherwise pretty clean. The violence, albeit mostly cartoonish, one alien autopsy, and threats to a family with small children might upset the littler members of the family depending on disposition.

LONG TAKE:

Mark Twain is incorrectly thought to have said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But much like Rick’s famous misquote from Casablanca: “Play It Again, Sam” or Jimmy Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” or Oliver Hardy’s “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” while close, are famously – not… quite… accurate. It just goes to show how persistent mistakes can be carried on into posterity if quoted often enough.

And just so, I had read in a number of early pre-opening screening reviews that Captain Marvel was rife with promotions of feminist propaganda and an anti-male manifesto. After watching the movie I discovered all this hype to be wrong. On the contrary I found Captain Marvel quite charming, a fitting addition to the Marvel superhero universe, and most importantly – FUN. Not at all the feminist manifesto it was touted to be.

However, I understand how the misunderstanding arose.  For example, what some people, women in particular, perceived as examples of women being treated with negative bias in the military, I saw as the quite natural hazing common to ALL military newbies.

If you remember back to Captain America, Steve Rogers pre-superhero serum, was the butt of a lot of disrespect in both civilian life as well as boot camp. No one at the time complained that it was an example of discrimination against slightly built men, but appropriately just defined his backstory and provided a dramatic comparison for Steve Rogers’ transformation, as well as defining his character traits of courage, persistence and dignity in the face of adversity.

Similarly, Carol Danvers, aka Vers aka Captain Marvel, like any other human, faces obstacles specific to her background and physique before she can become the hero that is needed. Everyone has limitations as well as challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals and dreams. For reviewers to see logical challenges in the very competitive field of Air Force pilot training as discrimination is to have a ridiculous prejudice against men and a foolish bias in favor of women, which assumes that no woman should fail just because she’s a woman. That is inherently stupid. And it’s all just throwaway McGuffin background anyway.

Where did the feminist rumor come from? Like most rumors – from half truths. It is true that Brie Larson made some rather blunt and rude comments about white male reviewers. Personally I wouldn’t take offense were the playing field equal and white men were allowed to make similar comments about women. Her dismissive comment that she is not interested in hearing what a white male has to say about a movie with a female lead does not bother me half so much as the thought that if a white male said something in reverse he would be eviscerated. Can you imagine someone getting away with saying they are not interested in hearing what a minority woman has to say about Justice League since there were no minority women in the lead roles? The liberals would have lost they’re narrow little minds. Yet Brie Larson is lauded for her equally offensive remark. The inequity truly rankles the reasonable mind. How about: I’m not interested in what a woman has to say about 12 Strong because there were no women in the lead roles? Or I’m not interested in what an Eskimo has to say about West Side Story? Or ANYONE other than a white middle class male has to say about Castaway because Tom Hanks was just about the only one IN the movie? You see how ridiculous this liberal, politically correct, so-called “mentality” quickly becomes?

Larson simply expressed herself boorishly in voicing a reasonable desire to include a more interesting combination of reporters, like: the disabled, women, and minorities. I only wish she’d included homeschoolers, and faith-based reporters. But, of course, good luck with that one.

Regardless of all that CAPTAIN MARVEL IS A GOOD MOVIE.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS – BE WARNED

Captain Marvel is about a military pilot, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson who knocked it out of the ball park in The Glass Castle – see my post here) who mysteriously ends up believing she is a member of an alien race’s warrior class, fighting the Skrulls, a race of extremely dangerous shape shifters who threaten the Universe in general and Earth in particular. On an investigative mission she winds up on Earth, meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury and starts unraveling the mystery of her past.

Captain Marvel was co-directed by the established team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who, up to now, have done Sundance award winning shorts and indies. They were chosen because of their insightful enthusiasm for the character of Carol Danvers. The duo have created a very solid and entertaining bridge between the two Avengers movies.

The CGI was interesting but, possibly deliberately, of checkerboard quality. Danvers in full bore Captain Marvel mode looked a bit like a highly rendered cartoon – a nice homage, I thought, to her comic book origins.

As to the youthened Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, either Jackson has a picture of Dorian Gray tucked somewhere in his attic or they did a masterful job with the special effects. Jackson looks legitimately 20 years younger in the movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Clark Gregg, whose younger Phil Coulson looked like a creepy, unnaturally smooth-faced caricature. Even were this choice purposeful due to the nature of the Skrulls and the part they play, other Skrull “imitations” looked far more natural and, assuredly, Fury would have picked up on it far before he did.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, a Skrull adversary. Mendelsohn usually plays flat, two-dimensional bad guys, like the evil mad scientist Orson Krenic, in Star Wars: Rogue One or the diabolical businessman Sorento in Ready Player One. Mendelsohn’s Talos has a bit more to him, even a sense of humor, and it is nice to see Mendelsohn tackle a character with a bit more complexity.

Jude Law, the third man up to bat as Dumbledore, plays Yon Rogg, Captain Marvel’s mentor.

Annette Benning plays both Dr. Wendy Lawson, as well as a manifestation of the Kree Supreme Artificial Intelligence, which serves as teacher to the Kree.

As a side note, I thought the choice of Annette Benning in an important supporting role in a superhero movie was odd, familiar as we are with her in emotion-driven interpersonal dramas, like her shrewish unfaithful wife in American Beauty. Casting Benning in a major sci-fi is a peculiar fit which I am not completely sure works. She is a decent actress. She did manage a very serviceable Queen Elizabeth in a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third some years ago, after all. Science fiction is just not the genre I normally associate her with. However, her screen time is fairly small, so this casting choice is not a big drawback.

And then – MOST importantly – there’s Goose the cat played, depending upon the demands of the scene, by: Reggie, Gonzo, Archie and Rizzo – all of whom got along famously with both Samuel L. and Ms. Larson despite the fact Jackson is self described as not a cat person and Larson is actually allergic to them. Obviously all six of them are consummate professionals. LOL

Pinar Toprak (who, with Danny Elfman, also did the soundtrack for Justice League, and has composed for other films, TV shows and video games) wrote the soundtrack, which stays in the vein of the triumphant and inspirational themes in other Avengers movies. Toprak also intersperses songs like Crazy on You by Heart, Man on the Moon by R.E.M. and Only When it Rains by Garbage, which, similar to the casting of Annette Benning, is another unusual creative choice by this film team, requiring some getting used to, but is not off putting.

In conclusion:

Is Captain Marvel a good movie and a worthy inclusion to the Marvel Universe in general and the Avengers franchise in particular? Yes.

Do I wish they had left the gender politics drivel out of the equation? Most certainly.

But when it comes to marketing, as my Dad used to say: “Say something good about me, say something bad about me, but don’t say nothing about me.” Still, someone should inform Ms. Larson that perhaps it would be sensible, if not just courteous, to avoid deliberately alienating the fundamental demographic which has, frankly, built the financial empire of the comic book industry: THE WHITE MALE – especially since Captain Marvel was created AS a male, so the incarnation as a female is really borrowing off the male pioneered territory. She should be saying an appreciative: “Thank you,” instead of starting a snide spitting contest.

Most comic book hero authors were men: Stan Lee, Bob Kane, William Marston, Jerry Siegel, Bill Parker to name only a meager few.

And without the WHITE TEENAGED MALES there would be no comic book industry such as it is. Up until recently the vast majority of the comic book reading/buying demographic WAS male.

Am I the only one who can see that if the odds were so terribly stacked against woman, as the gender-victim baiters and pseudo politician-community agitators would have you believe, that this movie would never have been made?

Larson should consider that she has made it to the top of what is currently considered the Hollywood Mountain. Her movie is going to make a bazillion dollars. She should learn a little etiquette and be gracious in her win.

That being said, I DO think, thematically,  it WAS a wise decision to make Captain Marvel a female, if for no other reason than there is already a VERY well established MALE super hero with a “Captain” nomenclature against which she would NOT want to compete in a popularity contest. (To paraphrase a wise Black Widow – “That’s a question she just  does not need to get answered.”)

Meanwhile – I think we would all have a much better time if everyone, Miss Larson included, and perhaps especially, should just chill out.

Thankfully and ultimately, Captain Marvel is about the creation of a super hero who just happens to be a woman, NOT about the creation of an expressly female super hero.

I must admit that a surprising homage to Stan Lee in the opening credits had me a bit choked up. Without him none of these creations: Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Ant Man, Yondu, Peggy Carter, Dr. Strange, Magneto, Loki, Ronan, Professor X, T’Chala, Groot and the plethora of others that populate most of the Marvel Universe (See the list of Stan Lee’s creations on Wikipedia here)  would exists and for that we all owe Mr. Lee a tremendous debt of gratitude. I pray he finds the joy and inspiration he brought to millions while he was alive awaiting him in eternity. The film makers gave him a lovely appropriate epitaph send-off just before the opening credits to Captain Marvel, as well as a delightful posthumous cameo, almost breaking the fourth wall, in the middle of the movie. Thank you Stan, you will indeed be missed.

TOM CRUISE – ONLY THE MOST RECENT BATON HOLDER IN A LONG LINE OF DEATH DEFYING STARS

I was watching  Cinema Sins on Mission Impossible: Fallout the other day and a thought hit me. (No injury was sustained from said impact though, despite the lack of a stunt double for me. Thanks for asking.)

There is much deserved notoriety in Tom Cruise’s penchant for doing his own stunts in many of his movies –                 his spinning helicopter ride, careening his ubiquitous motorcycle against traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, his snapped ankle acquired – on camera – jumping from one high rise to the next – all JUST in his most recent M.I. outing. These events, while generating a LOT of publicity, are not the first in his career. Cruise is notable for doing his own stunt work as much as he can get away with.  And while he does – and it IS noteworthy – it is neither unique nor new. He follows in the illustrious and dangerous footsteps of others who stood in equally brilliant limelight in previous generations doing, arguably, even more foolish tricks.

I am immediately brought to mind of Steve McQueen who, like Cruise, LOVED his motorcycles and performed almost all of his own riding stunts in The Great Escape. He tried to perform his own driving in the famous chase scene from Bullitt, but one spin-out, which almost took a cameraman with it, convinced Mr. McQueen to let the professional driver do the yeoman’s part of the work.

Gene Hackman did some of his own driving in the famous chase scene from The French Connection, which was so dangerous that the director Friedkin, himself, manned the camera stationed in the backseat because the other cameramen were married with children and he was not. (Though for the MOST dangerous shots, pro-stunt man Bill Hickman did the driving.)

And not all actor-stunt events end so happily. Vic Morrow and two children died when an effects explosion caused the tail-rotor on a low-hovering helicopter to crash on top of them.

And the insanity did not begin there.

Going back a bit further, Errol Flynn did most of HIS own stunts and sword fighting, most famously in Against All Flags, Captain Blood and Robin Hood. Basil Rathbone, playing the evil Guy of Gisbourne in that 1938 version of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest was, purportedly, terrified of Flynn, because he was SURE Flynn was  REALLY going to skewer him, so into the role the master swashbuckler would get.

1923’s silent comedy Safety Last starring Harold Lloyd features an iconic shot of Lloyd hanging precariously from a bending clock arm high above street level. Though precautions were taken, obviously, for the star’s safety, as proven in the tragic case of Mr. Morrow, bad things can happen.

1922’s Robin Hood was the biggest hit in the career of Douglas Fairbanks. He too, was famous for insisting on doing his own stunts and Robin Hood was no exception.

Of those I have mentioned, only Morrow perished attempting a stunt. Steve McQueen died during surgery for cancer, and both Flynn and Fairbanks died of heart attacks; all tragically in their 50’s. Harold Lloyd lived to be 78, but eventually succumbed to cancer. Hackman, thankfully, has made it to the ripe old age of 89 and is still chugging along. Cruise is, to date,  only 56.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the fact Cruise jumps – literally – into the fray. Though, honestly, if he were my son or brother I would NOT be nearly as amused. I’m not critiquing, just observing he is not the first. Cruise is but the most recent in a long line of men who have put their bodies where their money was; movie stars refusing the assist of stunt doubles and graying the hair of many a director who, I’m quite certain, found God, even if only for a moment, while watching their star defy death for the sake of a movie’s authenticity.

Cruise has been quite fortunate that he has, so far, walked – or limped – away from all of his grandstanding. And I pray for his sake, the sake of his family and the movie going public in general, who have enjoyed his movies for decades, that his luck continues to hold out.

ALITA – BATTLE ANGEL – A WELL TOLD, BUT ADULT, TALE OF A CYBORG HERO IN A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE SOCIETY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fascinating animation/real action mix story based on a long-running Japanese manga series,  about a cyborg girl reconstructed and “adopted” by a human and the dystopian society they both must navigate to survive.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens/young adults minimum for language, and extreme violence.

LONG TAKE:

BEYOND HERE BE OCCASIONAL SPOILERS

This first heads up is more of a warning than a spoiler. Alita: Battle Angel is nowhere near a completed story. James Cameron takes a page from Peter Jackson’s playbook – giving us great character introductions, wonderful interpersonal relationships, interesting and fearsome enemies, exciting battle scenes …. and an abrupt unfinished ending. OK – technically the titular director is Robert Rodriguez but with James Cameron as the scriptwriter you know many of the decisions in the filming of this movie were done as a collaborative effort.

A musical analogy would liken it to ending a symphony on a dominant chord instead of the tonic chord, meaning a note that does not feel complete. Another way to look at it would be to begin the phrase ” shave and a haircut…”

Anyone who has seen the brilliant three-part Lord of the Rings series or the bloated Hobbit trilogy knows that Mr. Jackson likes to end his first story not exactly with a cliffhanger but with a temporary break in the action, taking Donald O’Conner’s advice to: “Always leave your audience wanting more,” to heart. Jackson ends his movies at about the place where one might choose to hit the pause button in the middle of the movie after one has had too many sodas.

And Mr. Cameron and Robert Rodriguez have done exactly the same thing with Alita – starting with an involving, well told story which then drops off a cliff. To be fair, this is on purpose.

HOWEVER, this is not surprising as Alita: Battle Angel is based, in whole and in part, on the first four of a NINE VOLUME manga series written between 1990-1995 by Yukito Kishiro called Gunnm (translated literally as “Gun Dream”). Alita: Battle Angel, the movie, like the manga series before it, is about a cyborg girl rescued from a dumpster and reconstructed by a cybernetics physician in a dystopian society set about 500 years from now.

The CGI was astonishing. James Cameron, who has been enamored of this manga series for about 10 years, said that he was waiting for the technology to become advanced enough to meet the demands of how he saw the film should be made. And he does not disappoint.

Rosa Salazar who plays the eponymous character is quoted to have said: “I’m a walking piece of technology, so that made it actually quite easy to fall into the physicality of a cyborg.” Photos of her show her dressed literally from head to foot in motion capture, including the unusual addition of two cameras on her face. Watching the behind-the-scenes was amusing as the actress would have to subtly duck and weave around the other actor’s head when coming close to avoid clobbering them with the extra headgear (which technology was, of course, CGIed out in post production). But the slight dance goes smoothly in the final product due to Ms. Salazar’s skillful body language and the technical prowess of the computer geniuses who brought Alita to life.

It’s interesting to see Christoph Waltz as a good guy. Usually he plays very rough, sometimes cold blooded or downright evil characters – such as being the most recent incarnation of James Bond’s antagonist Blofeld in Spectre, or the chilling psycho-Nazi Landa in Inglourious Basterds (sic), or the abusive plagiarizing husband in Big Eyes – the list goes on. But in Alita, Waltz is a nurturing protective creator/father-figure, his normally scary edge giving believability to his “side job”.

Jennifer Connelly, whose pedigree dates all the way back to David Bowie’s 1986 fantasy, Labyrinth, is Ido’s estranged wife and, therefore, Alita’s “mother”.

Mahershala Ali (Green Book – see my post on that brilliant movie) is the lead baddie’s main henchman.

Keean Johnson does a delightful job of charming Alita as the shady boyfriend, Hugo, in a mixed motivational character with shifting alliances that Clark Gable might have played way back when. And I MUST note that Mr. Johnson is a HOMESCHOOLED KID!!! Check out his bio here on us.imdb.com.

There are also some VERY fun cameos, which are designed for Mr. Cameron’s hoped for sequel. Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys – and don’t laugh at me, I REALLY LIKED that movie – see my post on it here) plays Jashugan, a champion in Motorball, the gladiatorial game played in Alita. Edward Norton (he is to Hulk as Tobey Maguire was to Spiderman – close but no cigar, also in Collateral Beauty – see post here, Fight Club, and American History X), appears in a couple of  – don’t blink or you’ll miss it – moments as Nova the ULTIMATE controller of the sky city of Zalem, who becomes Alita’s nemesis and the target of her future goals to storm said city. Both have uncredited parts. Mr. Cameron explained that even if they never make the sequel, that those characters were must-haves in the story and essential to show. And, he said, if they did make a sequel that they wanted heavy hitters for those roles. Both men, Courtney and Norton, are friends and work colleagues of Cameron’s, so were more than willing to participate even in these tiny roles to help further the prospect of a sequel.

The soundtrack, written by Antonius B. Holkenborg, who goes by Junkie XL, is gorgeous and positively symphonic, creating a delightful variety of emotions from Alita’s sweetly, almost fairy-like awakening in Dr. Ido’s home to Terminator-feel violent reflections of her experiences in the Motorball battles against homicidal cyborgs during the Rollerball-level lethal game.

For anyone who is not old enough or geeky enough to remember the 1975 movie Rollerball, starring James Caan (whose credits date from the iconic tear-jerker sports game Brian’s Song, to the ill-fated Corleone son in The Godfather, to the voice of the tech-befuddled Dad in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), it is worth taking note.  Motorball, as presented in Alita is a DUPLICATE of the murderous gladiatorial eponymous game played in the movieRollerball,   set in another dystopian ultra-violent society. It is obvious Mr. Kishiro is familiar with this story.

There has been some controversy over the use of oversized eyes in Alita. Some say they are disturbing and off-putting. I strongly disagree with the naysayers. Alita’s unusually large orbs perform a multiplicity of plot functions. For one, it highlights Alita AS a cyborg. There is no mistaking her for a natural born full human. For another, if windows are the eyes to the soul, then Alita wears hers not just on her sleeve right next to her heart but right there on her face for all the world to see. Between the fine acting and the quality CGI every subtlety of Alita’s growing and changing emotions and character are there for the audience to relate. Large,  disproportionate eyes are also a feature of small young creatures, including humans. It is one of the designations which mark an inchoate being, not just inspiring protective feelings of those around them but signaling their fundamental innocence. While Alita does do some horrific things it is from her training in her previous life and only done for the protection of others – Ido, her human friend Hugo, even a stray dog.

Alita has a couple of obstacles to hurdle to gain the attention and affection of a Western audience. The first and most obvious is, of course, the manga origin, which is a subset of an already limited demographic of comic book sales. The second is her identity as a warrior cyborg, which could have been an automatic bias against her given the Terminator series. I think her preternaturally large eyes help create an almost instant connection to this character, helping break down those barriers. I thought the device clever, without being (IF you will excuse the VERY deliberate pun) “in your face” and quite effective.

While animated AND based on a comic book character, Alita is NOT for children. There is EXTREME violence, which includes dismemberment, crushed heads, and death. It is likely the movie might have been saddled with an R rating had Cameron and Rodriguez not had the simple foresight to make cyborg “blood” obviously manufactured blue instead of gory red. There is at least one gratuitous “F” bomb uttered by Alita, herself. And they even violate one of MY personal taboos – they KILL A DOG! Though this happens, admittedly, out of sight, Alita smears the dog’s red blood under her eyes like war paint before beginning her quest to defeat the tyrannical forces which have been unleashed against her and her ersatz family.

As a result this is not a movie either for the young nor the faint of heart.  For a more mature audience, however, it is a spectacular and creatively told outing. It is interesting to almost “feel” the Japanese manga origins in the way the characters react in more restrained, almost “Vulcan” ways than an America audience might be used to.

In addition, the plot moves along quickly and efficiently. It does not dawdle on relatively trivial points on which many similar genre American movies might languish. For example, there is a bit of tension created from Ido not telling Alita initially that the name he chose for her was that of his murdered daughter. (In the original manga series it was Ido’s cat, but Cameron’s script, wisely, I thought, decided on a more emotionally compelling attachment). Honestly, in an America movie this omission might have been held on to for a prolonged period then left as a mid-first act or even mid-second act “reveal”. Instead, Alita establishes this “secret” only long enough for the audience to find out, then has Ido explain it to Alita fairly expeditiously.  To avoid spoilers I won’t give any more examples, but suffice to say this style is adapted throughout the movie. Such choices clear the way for a more intelligent plot.

I do recommend Alita but only for an older audience of late teens/young adults and up. It is refreshingly different and well written. It features excellent acting, especially considering the massive amounts of green screen in the landscape and motion capture equipment on the people with which the actors must contend. The music is worth listening to all by itself. But DO keep in mind the ending is VERY unsatisfying – albeit contrived purposefully so – as a build up for the next installment.

THE GIVER – AN ORWELLIAN TALE FOR THE YOUNGER AUDIENCE

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

LONG TAKE:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for gratuitous profanities and bawdy behavior.

LONG TAKE:

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

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

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

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

SERIOUS SPOILER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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