THE MEG – MORE LIKE THE MEH – FORGETABLE POPCORN FLICK – JAWS STILL REIGNS!!!

SHORT TAKE:

Enjoyable, but immediately forgettable, popcorn Jaws near-parody which could have been and, given the improved technology, SHOULD have been better.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up for language and violence, though there was not a lot of graphic gore. While a few audience members brought their younger kids, I would not have wanted the "nightmare" duty later.

LONG TAKE:

When I was 16, my brother-in-law joined the military. After his signing in, he, my sister and I all went to celebrate by going to see Jaws, which had just opened at the downtown theater. After the end of the very memorable opening scene, my brother-in-law, a dentist and one of the calmest people I have ever met, stood up and with his usual dry wit straight-faced announced: "O.K. I'm ready to go." He was only half serious and we stayed to watch the rest of this classic.

Although it has kept me well away from the idea of scuba diving for the last 40+ years, I have been hooked, so to speak on Jaws and other disaster-type movies ever since – be they good, bad or indifferent

So, I think I can say with some credibility, the Meg is Jaws Lite. While it has the virtues of a certain parody-like charm, it neglects, with apparent obliviousness, a couple of important features required of a really good monster movie.

SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!

It's not all bad. The Meg is based on a series of five books with the same base name, all researched and written by Steve Alten. At the publication of this review I am part way through the first one and it is fairly engrossing and provides some interesting background.

On the plus side, The Meg has, in abundance, one of the features important in most disaster movies in general, and specifically in the sub genre of monster movies – a sense of humor and/or self-awareness. Examples of where this works is in the quippy lines in Aliens (watching their only escape ship burn, "Maybe we can build a fire, sing a couple of songs, huh? Why don't we try that?") or the entirety of Shaun of the Dead. The director of The Meg, Jon Turteltaub, had the Meg's tongue planted firmly in cheek, (though, technically, almost no shark actually USES its tongue – called a basihyal. ed).

And how can it not evoke a few chuckles with Rainn Wilson as one of the major players? A veteran of such notables as The Office, Galaxy Quest and as the "new" Harry Mudd in Star Trek: Discovery, Wilson has carved a niche out as one of the princes of dead pan egocentric humor, like Sam Rockwell and Jim Carrey. 

In addition, there is a small flavoring of homages to the Meg's predecessors. For example, Statham's character quotes Martin Brody from Jaws to "chew on this" and he even references Finding Nemo. There are a few well deserved and needed grins earned throughout the movie. So to its credit, The Meg does NOT take itself overly seriously.

That's a good thing, because, everything else about the movie does not fare so well.

The premise is a string of glued together cliches: Jason Statham (Furious movie franchise)  is Jonas, and no traction is made of his name, which in nautical circles would refer to Jonah – from the Bible – someone considered unlucky to have on a ship. Jonas is a discredited deep sea rescue diver who saw a monster (the Meg) during a mission which everyone attributed to deep diving delusions and panic. He is brought back to his old job when a monster, such as he described, is found and he has to rescue some people. Of course, the fact he has been boozing it up and out of practice for the last 5 years has had no effect on his abilities or physique whatsoever. His ex-wife is in danger. He meets a new cute scientist with an even cuter child (Shuya Sophia Cai), who immediately takes to him. Someone heroically sacrifices himself to save his friends. Random people are devoured after citing Sedgwickisms (after General Sedgwick who was killed by a sharpshooter during the Battle of Spottsylvania Court House right after saying "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.") A greedy CEO (along with the military, CEO's are one of the go-to scapegoats of the lazy liberal screenwriter) abandons people in danger to prevent having to meet financial liability exposure. A kid paddles out into a crowded beach surf just as the Meg decides to smorgasbord the shallows under the watchful eye of his mother (ala Jaws but with a happier ending).There's even an adorable dog, who you know won't be eaten, who jumps into the mix, or rather literally, the water. There is little or nothing new that The Meg contributes to the genre, though it pays decent respect to its brethren films.

The Meg's most serious problem is with its rhythm and structure. Specifically, it lacks two essentials for a scary movie: a sense of urgency and intimacy which can be summed up as: trapped in a ticking time bomb. In Jaws, Brody, Hooper and Quint, who you come to care about,  were all stuck out in the ocean, on a sinking boat, being stalked by a monster white shark. In Jurassic Park, Alan Grant and his plucky band of survivors were stuck on an island, while being chased by dinosaurs. In The Towering Inferno, people were trapped in a high-rise above a fire line. In The Poseidon Adventure (both versions) the ensemble spent the entire movie trying to escape an overturned and sinking cruise ship. The Core had a bunch of scientists stuck miles underground trying to re-spin the Earth's core before all life on the surface was vaporized. You see the pattern. But in The Meg, although people are trapped briefly different places, for most of the film the cast can come and go as they like on boats and in helicopters. There is no sense of a confined space from which emergence would mean victory

In spectacularly successful monster movies, there is a cast who we get to know and with whom we empathize, and while there is often a bad guy involved, such as Paul Riser's corporate weasel in Aliens or Murray Hamilton's self-serving mayor in Jaws, and really great challenges, the primary antagonist is often … time. Something must be done before time Runs Out. And to heighten the sense of urgency, the scenario, as I mentioned above, is usually played out in a confined space from which our intrepid heroes must escape.

In The Meg, the time factor is played with and sprinkled around like random lampreys on a shark, but it is not THE shark. For example, Jonas' wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee) and her crew, are stuck in a bathyscope, running out of air and stalked by the monster. But this is resolved within the first half-hour of the movie. Later, the scientists have to race the Meg to a crowded beach, but none of the people are characters we know, so we don't really care that much. The people in danger are more like NPCs, or non-player characters in a video game, which are only there to populate the scene, but in which we have no investment.

There is no structural time critical deadline which defines the arc of the movie, as there was in the sinking Titanic or the burning Towering Inferno or the Jurassic-Dino-Park-Hunted-Alan-Grant party.

The lack of a temporal framework, the want of an urgent deadline, deflated much of what would have injected a sense of mortally important immediacy into the movie.

And it doesn't help that the suspense is undermined with the trailers. Not only did they give away the most spectacular visual –  the shark bite in the window of the underground bio habitat in front of the little girl, but showing the mom during that scene completely eliminates any tension in the opening shots where she is put in danger by a prehistoric squid. We KNOW she is not in any danger with the squid because she shows up in the Meg-bite scene later in the movie.

In addition there are plot holes. The most egregious is in the premise. The big issue that drives most of the movie is the entry of the Meg from a protected sub ocean into our part of the world. The implication is that this has never happened and would not have happened had the subs not gone to investigate creating a gateway through the cold gas layer acting as a barrier between the Meg world and our own. However, Jonas was fired and in "exile" BECAUSE he claimed he had seen the results of one of these creatures on a ship during a deep ocean rescue FIVE YEARS before. How did it get out BEFORE the deep sea rescue?

Granted this is a popcorn movie but I hate to see distracting holes in plots where a sentence or two could have closed them. For example, they could have mentioned that Jonas' previous mission had taken place near where the research scientists were investigating. Or they could have admitted the possibility these Megs had another entry way into our world. I mean they want a sequel anyway, right?

The Meg was neither more nor less than what I expected it to be. A fun, occasionally scary, popcorn movie. But, especially with the heightened CGI opportunities, it could have been so much more.

There is some youth inappropriate language (understandable as one is being stalked by a 70 foot shark, but still not for children's ears) and a lot of jump scares and violence. Though the majority of the human gore is left unseen in a flurry of action, things like a severed arm and terrified people being pushed and swallowed up by the Meg, again, make it unsuitable for all but mid to older teens and up, at a minimum.

But if you want an excuse to get your date to snuggle closer while she's hiding her eyes in your sleeve, then, by all means, go and have yourself a good shiver — but don't plan on any scuba trips in the near future.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN – HIS LAST NAME WAS MILNE!!! AND OTHER STUPID FILMMAKING DECISIONS

SHORT TAKE:

Christopher Robin attempts to show how a grown up with an intimate connection to a famous child's fantasy book, deals with adulthood in a British version of the equally weak Hook. Dull, ponderously slow, with a poorly thought out plot, while there's no reason NOT to take your child, there is very little to recommend it.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone CAN go.

LONG TAKE:

I REALLY wanted to like Christopher Robin. I had been looking forward to it for months, but the over trailer-ing should have given me a clue. Advertising too much is often a sign the film makers know they have an underachiever and throw everything up on the screen hoping it will attract enough audience to pay for itself.

The good news is there is nothing, per se, wrong with the movie and you can, I think, safely take a child of any age to see it. The biggest danger you run is that they will fall asleep.

The acting is excellent and special kudos go to Ewan MacGregor, the grown up Christopher Robin, who, like Bob Hoskins before him in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, had to perform with … nothing. There was never a moment when these stuffed animals did not seem alive.

The voices were all very familiar. Jim Cummings, the only veteran in the crew, who has been speaking lines for Winnie the Pooh and Tigger since 1988 reprises the voice roles with his very familiar tranquil-laconic Pooh and loquacious-over excitable Tigger. The others re-create the other characters' voices almost flawlessly.  I only wish the story had been as well conceived.

Brad Garrett is the eighth person to groan the apathetic donkey, since Disney’s original featurettes. Nick Mohammed is the fourth Piglet. Peter Capaldi, the twelfth Dr Who (thirteenth if you count John Hurt), is the sixth Rabbit. Kanga is voiced by Sophie Okonedo (Liz Ten, the Queen in Dr Who), Roo by Sara Sheen. And Toby Jones, character actor from Sherlock, Dr. Who, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and an Avengers baddie, does a kiddie movie turn as Owl.

Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter, Captain America's first girlfriend) is lovely as Christopher’s wife and Bronte Carmichael is very sweet as Christopher’s little girl Madeleine. The performers acted their little hearts out.

The bad news is that the resulting film was so disappointing it made me mad. So I hereby present to you:

SEVEN REASONS WHY CHRISTOPHER ROBIN, THE MOVIE, MADE ME MAD:

Where should I begin?

How about with a list?

1. Winnie gave me the creeps; 2. the theme was stupid; 3. there were a LOT of missed opportunities; 4. poor character development; 5. profoundly stupid historic inaccuracies; 6. man abuse; and 7. the crowning jewel of all ignorant decisions.

SPOILERS

1. WINNIE AND FRIENDS GAVE ME THE CREEPS

The animals gave me the creeps. They were dirty and old and used looking. Not at all the way a small child would see them or an adult in fond memory. They looked as you might find them mouldering away in some old attic. And, save, for some reason, Rabbit, their faces barely moved. They were virtually expressionless. This all would have made some sense if, as time went on and Christopher spent more time with them, they started appearing cleaner and newer and more alive. But, alas, they continued in their bedraggled state throughout the course of the movie. A child would not have noticed them being dirty so if we, the audience and Christopher are looking at them through his child eyes, then they would have seemed fresh and new. If we are looking at them REALISTICALLY, through the eyes of the jaded and adult Christopher why were they animated at ALL? And, if we are looking at them realistically, why do any of the other humans see them move or talk? If this was all part of Christopher’s delusions, no one else would have seen them animated.

The stuffed animals in Christopher Robin all had more in common with Sid’s toys in Toy Story than in a visit to the Hundred Acre Woods.

2. THE THEME WAS STUPID

The theme was "sometimes you have to do nothing to do something" ….uuum? What? Christopher takes this to heart and brings it to his employer, the owner of a luggage manufacturing company, as a solution to their economic woes. That they should give all of their employees two weeks paid leave so they will buy luggage … to go on holiday. This would be like giving someone $100 to spend $25 in your store and then calling that $25 a profit. Based on this, NO one should put Christopher in charge of a business. NOW – he ALSO, as an offhand comment, suggests they should have a line of luggage for the "common" folk, rather than exclusively produce for the wealthy. Well, OK, that’s a good idea but not when linked to the other one.

3. MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

With three screenplay writers, two "story by" credits and based on the works of A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard, you would think Disney could have come up with a tight clever plot. Instead, it plays out exactly what it is – a story mashed together by committee.

Why didn’t Christopher bring his daughter with him when he followed Pooh to the Hundred Acre Woods for the first time in 30 years? Or have the writers have her follow him in? She was available having just seen the red balloon Christopher left her on her bike. He knew she would eventually figure out he had been there. His balloon gift made it no secret he had been in the vicinity, so why did he not just bring Madeleine with him?

From a plot point of view, this would have thematically helped establish a bridge between his youth and adulthood, AND allowed him to see his favorite playground from a fresh set of youthful eyes, AND provided Christopher with someone to bounce dialogue off of aside from talking to himself, of which he does a lot.

Why didn’t he see his reflection in a pool of water as a Heffalump? The idea is casually alluded to but the writers ignored the chance to bring this to the forefront and make it part of his character arc.

There is ONE good line in Hook, when the aged Wendy, finding out Peter has grown up to be an attorney specializing in corporate takeovers quips: "Peter, you’ve become a pirate!" Similarly, an image of the heffalump in place of the grown Christopher’s reflection could have been a touchstone moment. Instead he flails about with an unseen imaginary invisible heffalump to deliberately fool his stuffed animal friends.

Why couldn't, for example, each of the Hundred Acre inhabitants represent a change Christopher needed to make or an issue he had to resolve? Winnie could be his need to relax. Tigger to inspire finding the joys of childhood. Eeyore his insecurities. Kanga and Roo to renew and deepen his relationship with his wife and daughter, etc.  Nope they were just dirty tag overs, apparently abandoned in a dust covered corner of his attic.

4. POOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

There is little transition for Christopher from becoming a man so business oriented he reads hard economic texts to his daughter for bedtime stories to someone talking to an animated bear. Bruce Willis' character, Russ, in the comedy The Kid is inexplicably faced with the incarnation of his 10 year old self. Like the appearance of Winnie the Pooh in Christopher Robin, this manifestation forces the protagonist to confront some unpleasant truths about his grown up self. However, Russ, in The Kid, does not accept the little boy's identifty or even existence right away. Russ, first, seeks professional counseling, takes medication, and enlists the help of his personal assistant, all to simply prove to himself the kid is actually there and that others can see him. Putting aside that this was just a better movie by several factors of ten, this single point is a more realistic portrayal of someone coming to grips with an unknown. And Russ was only faced with a child, not a walking talking stuffed animal.

Alas, Mark Gatiss, we thought he knew better, Horatio. Mark Gatiss, (writer and actor from Sherlock and Dr Who) was roped into embarrassing himself, with a bad toupee, in the thankless task of a caricature bad boss. His Giles Winslow is so shallow it could have been replaced by a drawn stick figure. Gatiss is a wonderful actor but he was given little to do but tell Christopher to work on the weekend, knock over the same display several times in an incomprehensible show of clumsiness, which was neither amusing nor set up for any later pay off, and sulk when thwarted.

5. PROFOUNDLY STUPID HISTORIC INACCURACIES

The movie Christopher Robin shows the father as anxious to send the boy Christopher to boarding school and the mother sympathetic. Goodbye, Christopher Robin, the far superior biopic about the relationshiop between A.A. Milne and his son, was much more historically accurate, based upon the verifying documentation of the real Christopher's interaction with his mother and the fact he wouldn't have anything to do with the fortune made from the Winnie the Pooh stories. It was the MOTHER, in real life, who was callous and cold and couldn’t wait to be rid of the boy. OK, this is a Disney movie. I can overlook that alteration.

In C.R., his father dies while he is in boarding school, making him the "man of the house" when he was about 11. In fact, as accurately portrayed in Goodbye, Christopher Robin, his father didn’t die until after Christopher had grown, been to war, declared MIA, returned, and reconciled with Christopher. Christopher was 36 years old when A.A. Milne died. There was no particular reason for the premature "killing off" of Christopher Robin's father in this Disney misadventure except, perhaps, to explain why Christopher was in an unfulfilling job at a luggage factory. Reality would have provided a better plot point here too. In fact, Christopher rejected all of the money made from his father’s books and ran his own bookstore instead. This could easily have been worked in as a far more interesting character development issue.

Christopher detested his boarding school days and would NEVER have considered sending a beloved daughter there.

Christopher’s obsession with turning his daughter into a career woman was massively anachronistic for the early 1950's.

The real Christopher DID indeed marry but to a Leslie, not an Evelyn. And he did have a daughter but her name was Clare not Madeleine and she had cerebral palsy.

While I completely understand taking creative liberties for the sake of a story, if you are going to diverge THAT MUCH from an established and well known historic figure, why don’t you just create a NEW person out of whole cloth who has, perhaps, been INFLUENCED by the Winnie the Pooh stories and not concoct this absurd confabulation of made up "facts" about a real human whose past was rather well documented and easy to confirm.

6. MAN ABUSE

Here's a quiz for you. What doClick, Jingle All The Way, Kramer vs Kramer, Hook, and even Mary Poppins to a certain extent – all have in common? ANSWER:  Hard working, faithful husbands who are painted as the bad guy because they are busting their buns to provide for their families. In return, all they get is guilt from unappreciative wives and whiny children. I am sick to death of movies who cast men, who deny themselves fun and recreation, who proudly provide for their families, as negligent, solely on the grounds of that hard work.

What do these women WANT? Homer Simpson? Then, if a man is portrayed as fun loving, as in Mrs. Doubtfire, this behavior is presented as grounds on which to dump him and trade up to a rich established guy. And in Christopher Robin they do it again. Christopher is chided by his wife, raled at (behind his back) by his daughter and threatened (subtly) with divorce (I think we'll stay out here at the cottage for a while LONGER). Why? Because he had to forego a vacation when faced, by his superior, with two days to figure out how to cut 20% of the costs in his department without FIRING 20% of his people. I do not think his wife had any sense of proportion.

7. THE CROWN JEWEL OF IGNORANCE

And finally, the most egregious, most nonsensical, most distracting transgression was that the protagonist of the movie, acknowledged as the son of the author of Winnie the Pooh, was called Christopher Robin. His boss, who refers to everyone by their last names, calls him Robin. His WIFE is referred to as Mrs. Robin!!! This is not only wrong, it is profoundly STUPID, and worse, without purpose!! The name of the son of the author of Winnie the Pooh was NOT Christopher Robin!!! It was Christopher Robin MILNE!!! His father, the author of Winnie the Pooh was A.A. MILNE!!! The name "Milne" is never even mentioned!!! It is as though the screenwriters relied for accuracy on someone whose only experience with Winnie the Pooh was to watch one Disney short, for the first time, as an adult. And, I checked, there is no evidence to indicate that Christopher Robin MILNE, though he distanced himself from his father’s books and even his father’s money, EVER distanced himself from his family name. Christopher MILNE even wrote a book himself, The Enchanted Places, under the name Christopher MILNE!!!

You know, even wikipedia knows more than this. Pick up a BOOK why don’t you, Disney screenwriters, and look on the edge for the author's name!

So — take a small child if you must. There’s nothing really WRONG with the movie. But there is little right with it either. Personally, I think you’d be better off digging out one of the books by A.A. MILNE and reading the original to them. Or go back and watch The Kid.

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN – A GUILTY PLEASURE

SHORT TAKE:

Simultaneously a sequel/prequel to the first movie as Sophia and we, the audience, find out the details, in flashback, of how Donna got into her self-inflicted predicament.

WHO SHOULD GO:

If you're a mature adult – sure. Go! Enjoy! But don't take the kids. I really wouldn't, personally, want to explain to my child why Donna didn't know which OF THREE MEN was her daughter's father.

LONG TAKE:

 

You're going to need a scorecard to keep track of this one.

As much as everyone praised the first Mama Mia, let's face it – the story lionizes a promiscuous, irresponsible woman whose only real virtue – granted it is considerable – is that she did not, even for a moment, consider murdering her baby. This one details how she met the three men who became candidates for father. I'm ashamed of myself – but I loved it.

Imagine a two hour music video of ABBA's greatest hits performed by Academy Award winning actors, James Bond, an Avengers regular, a rock and roll icon, and an Untouchable. Don't hurt yourself thinking too hard … all you have to do is go see Mama Mia! Here We Go Again.

Mamma Mia Numero Uno was a movie, based on a play, created out of wholecloth from the songs of ABBA, a Swedish pop band with hits like "Dancing Queen" (Yes – ABBA is the guilty party), active from 1972-1982. Much like The Who's Tommy, the story Mamma Mia was cobbled together from tying together the threads of the band's hit songs, themes and lyrics. The FIRST Mama Mia tale is told of Donna who gave birth to a daughter and raised her alone, on a Greek Island, while running a villa. Sophie, the daughter, now a grown women and preparing to marry, wants her father to walk her down the aisle. She finds her mother's diary and discovers there are THREE candidates. Without telling Donna, her mother, Sophie sends invitations to all three men, signing her mother's name. If it sounds like a Mozart Opera Buffa, you'd be right. And despite my better judgment I really enjoyed the first installment.

After all, Pierce "the BEST Bond" Brosnan, Stellan "crazy Avengers scientist" Skarsgard, and Colin "Kingsman, King's Speech and Importance of Being Ernest" Firth are the three men. The music is ALL ABBA, ALL the time. AND   Meryl (can play pretty much anything) Streep plays Donna, the indecisive lady … correction … woman in question. The singing was terrific, the dancing joyous, the colors bright. It's a feel good movie —– until you consider the foundational premise of the first movie is that of a woman who has three men —- THREE MEN —- in such a short span of time that she does not know who the father is. I mean – come ON – she would have had to…within merely a couple of days, HOURS! – with THREE different guys – and she only MET two of them the SAME FREAKING DAY she became .. friendly! There are professional ladies of indeterminate virtue who are more discerning than that. ARGH! Penny on The Big Bang Theory wasn't THAT slutty.

BUT – if you can put the main character's immorality aside, the original Mamma Mia IS a lot of nonsensical fun as songs are belted out, romances are rekindled, laughs are had and there's a marriage at the end – though not the one we started out with, as the daughter wanders off to start the whole series of mistakes over again. (frustrated *sigh*). Really!?

HERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!!! I TRIED TO DO THIS WITHOUT SPOILERS BUT IT WAS POINTLESS, SO ——- SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!

Which brings us to the sequel Mama Mia: Here We Go Again! Donna is dead – to begin with (apologies to Dickens). Little Miss Sophie has FINALLY gotten around to getting married … and is now pregnant. Donna has been dead for a year and EVERYONE converges back to the island to sing all the hit songs ABBA wrote which did NOT appear in Mamma Mia! number one, WITH the addition of Cher AND Andy "Untouchables" Garcia. The set up is patently unfair. To paraphrase Marlon Brando's Godfather Corleone, it is an offer I just can not refuse. More equitable to ask me to evaluate, objectively, an ice cream Sunday with Hershey's syrup, sprinkles, whipped cream AND mini M&Ms on it. I do not see how I could possibly NOT like it.

If nothing else, this movie carries some serious casting pedigree. Because half the movie is flashbacks, most of the major characters are played by two people each – the younger and the current. So let me help you out:

Pierce Brosnan plays Sam, the second of the three and the one who Donna eventually marries in the first Mamma Mia! Brosnan, along with being more Bond than even Sean Connery, has a varied resume including the lead in the very popular 1980's TV dramedy Remington Steele, reworked the Steve McQueen part in the latest Thomas Crown Affair and was the target of Robin Williams' foil in the blockbuster comedy hit Mrs Doubtfire. The character of Sam, as a young man, is portrayed by Jeremy Irvine – which is REALLY odd because Jeremy Irvine ALSO played a younger version of another member of the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again cast, Colin Firth. Irvine was the 20 year old Firth in the World War II drama The Railway Man. I do not know why they did not choose Irvine to portray Firth in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, but they did not.

The honor of playing Mr. Firth as a younger version this time went to Hugh Skinner, "suitor" as it so happens, number one, as a … pity romance. Skinner is notable for playing one of the barricade boys in Les Mis. Colin Firth meanwhile is ONLY the man who won the Best Actor Oscar for his stunning performance as King George VI in The King's Speech, not to mention stealing every scene he is in, in The Kingsmen semi-parody spy movies, Mr. Darcy in the EXTREMELY long BBC version of Pride and Prejudice AND one of the leads in the wonderful send up of The Importance of Being Ernest.

Then Skellan Skarsgard's youthful doppleganger is played by Josh Dylan who, aside from a small part in Allied, is fairly new to the acting scene. He is "date" number three. Along with being one of the Avenger scientist side kicks, Mr. Skarsgard has also been Bootstrap Bill in the Pirates franchise, a baddie in the Branagh Cinderella opposite Ms. James, and a friend of Firth's Eric in The Railway Man.

Lily James (Branagh's Cinderella) is the early incarnation of Meryl Streep's Donna. Meryl Streep is an icon of the acting business. Chamelon-like she has done everything from the Holocaust survivor tragedy of Sophie's Choice to the wildly eccentric comedy, undead evil heroine in Death Becomes Her. She can sing, dance, and like Dustin Hoffman does not shy from looking really ugly, if necessary for a role. And I bet I know something even the most ardent Streep fan does not. Guys and Dolls, the famous romantic comedy musical about a Salvation Army leader, Sarah Brown, who goes toe to toe with a gangster, Sky Masterton, was based – before Damon Runyon took credit – WAAAY back on a 1929 musical play by Bertolt Brecht called Happy End. A 1977 production at the Chelsea Theater in North Carolina featured Meryl Streep in the role of Sister Lilian, the original name for Sarah and Bill Cracker, who later morphed into Sky, was performed by none other than Back to the Future's Christopher Lloyd. Just in case it comes up in a trivia game……..

Christine Baranski (Leonard Hofstadter's blunt and intimidating, emotionally unpresent mother in The Big Bang Theory) is the older version of Tanya and Jessica Keenan Wynn the younger Tanya.

Ms. Wynn needs a special shout out right here. If her last two names Keenan Wynn, ring a bell, it is because she is the fifth in a generation of actors and the granddaughter of THE Keenan Wynn. Keenan Wynn's rich and varied 44 year acting span included everything from the early 1960's TV show The Untouchables to Stanley Kubrick's  Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to The Twilight Zone and Disney movies. And if that's not enough, Ms. Jessica's GREAT-grandfather was Ed Wynn, who you might just recognize from  Twilight Zones and as Uncle Arthur in the ORIGINAL Mary Poppins.

Harry Potter's Mrs. Weasley aka Julie Waters shares the character of Rosie with Alexa Davies.

Meryl Streep reduces Donna's part to a supporting role. This is the first sequel Streep has ever agreed to, so ANY appearance in this movie is of note. She comes on, near the end, in one of the most touching scenes you can conjure. (See below for my list of favorite moments.)

. Amanda Seyfried (Les Mis) plays Sophie, the girl with THREE Dads, and Sky, played by Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark in Captain America), is her husband.

Andy Garcia, who I will always remember for his acrobatic, athletic and amazing save on the steps of a Chicago staircase in The Untouchables, plays Fernando, the manager of the inn Sophie now owns. Garcia is actually a musician in his own right, a bongo and guitar player who gratefully and openly thanks America in general and Miami in particular for all the blessings bestowed on his Cuban-origin family, at the Cuban music festivals in which he plays and sings. And if you know anything about ABBA music (which you must if you want to see this movie) then his name alone give you a MASSIVE hint for his presence in this movie.

And then there's Cher who plays Grandma Ruby. At 72 years old she continues to have a powerhouse voice. Her roughly 53 year musical career started in the 1970's as the Cher part of Sonny and… which produced the hit Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour when I was a kid (note the song that haunts Bill Murray's Phil Conners in Groundhog Day is "I Got You Babe" – their break out hit). She moved on to the quirky rom com Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage and the heartbreaking Mask to the suspenseful whistleblowing Silkwood also with Meryl Streep. Her hit songs include: "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves", "The Way of Love", "If I Could Turn Back Time", "Half-Breed", "Believe", "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot me Down)", "The Beat Goes On", many of which she performed with Sonny Bono.

And now that we know WHO we are dealing with in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the premise is quite simple. Sophie and widowed Dad are restoring Donna's villa into a premiere hotel. Switching back and forth in time, we also follow along as Donna the Younger sleeps her way to and through the Greek Island, eventually getting pregnant with Sophia and decides to stay.

But the sheer jubilance that pervades the movie is irresistible. All practicality and common sense aside, this movie has the charm of every enthusiastic "Put on a Show" musical from Shirley Temple to White Christmas. I feel like Tevya. On the one hand the movie revolves around the behavior of a young flighty woman who treats sex like a sport or party favor BUT once pregnant she devotes her life to her child. There are raunchy jokes and throw away lines but nothing is seen or even acted out. A lot of sexually reckless behavior is considered acceptable but both babies – infant Donna and Donna's infant – are baptized in a (presumably Eastern Orthodox since it is Greece) Catholic church before an altar with a crucifix by a cassocked priest, celebrated by the entire town, as a ghostly Donna sings her blessing. The plot is threadbare and ridiculous but the song and dance numbers are completely charming and whimsical. It is obvious that the storyline is awkwardly cobbled together from the songs and the songs crowbarred into the action but are reworked in creative and appropriate ways as lullabies and nostalgic poetry. Donna was absurdly promiscuous but eventually married, as did her daughter. And as Sophia, herself, points out: "At least this time we know who the baby's father is." That's progress. Sky at first contemplates abandoning his marriage for a lucrative job, but quickly comes to his senses and goes back to his wife to fulfill the promises he made to her and assure her there would never be anything more important to him than his wife and child.

MY FAVORITE MOMENTS:

I Have a Dream sung by Amanda Seyfried as she and her Dad walk through the newly restored hotel as we cut back and forth in flashbacks to Lily James' Donna during her first impulsive trespassing tour of the originally ramshackle estate.

Brosnan speak/singing a snippet of S.O.S. as he mourns his deceased wife, Donna, especially considering that he really did lose his first wife, Cassandra Harris.

Sophie singing a duet of My Love My Life with her ghostly/imagined mother, Donna, in the church just before Sophie's baby's baptism. Sophie recognizes in song that Donna would have wanted Sophie to accept her mother's death, knowing the joy and contentment motherhood had brought Donna, and that her mother, Donna, could rest in peace knowing she had raised her daughter well and left a legacy of love.

As to my FAVORITE favorite moments – I went for a matinee but would have paid a LOT more just to see the scenes where Bond, King George, Selvig, Leonard's mother and Mrs. Weasley sing and dance to Supertrooper and Dancing Queen – SO worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Ultimately – despite its flaws it has an undeniable, albeit nostalgic, palpable charm.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT – IF YOU LOVED ANY OF THEM YOU’LL LOVE THIS ONE TOO

SHORT TAKE:

If you liked ANY of the other Mission Impossible movies, or were a fan of the old TV show, you will love this one.

YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO: THIS YOUTUBE WHILE YOU READ THIS BLOG!!!

WHO SHOULD GO:

Middle teens and up for the suspense and violence. No naughty behavior. While the language is mostly mild for an adult movie, they just HAD to put in ONE profound profanity which sticks out like a sore thumb.

LONG TAKE:

I wonder how many of the audience members in the latest Mission Impossible: Fallout movie know that the entire Cruise franchise was built on the shoulders of a show which debuted in 1966 – precisely 30 years prior to the first Tom Cruise MI vehicle and 52 years before today’s release?

The TV sculpted the inception of this story concept, which features a group of spies, each with unique skills, who infiltrate, uncover, and disassemble the maniacal schemes of megalomaniacs, terrorist countries, and other super villains using disguises, staged events, clever dialogue, magic tricks, seduction, faked deaths, and intricately devious plot devices. Often irony is involved wherein the bad guys are caught in the webs of their own spiderian constructs.

The founding company included Peter Graves (most notable to the current generation as the ill fated pilot with poor judgement in food choices featured in Airplane), Martin Landau (Bela Legosi in Ed Wood) with his real life wife Barbara Bain, Peter Lupus as Willie whose singular talent was to be real real strong, Greg Morris who had a long career in TV appearances, and Steven Hill – a staple character actor in everything from Yentl to The Firm. Hill started out as the leader of the pack but turned the baton over to Graves when filming interfered incompatibly with his devout Orthodox Jewish practices of not working on the Jewish Sabboth, a decision for which I will always admire him.

There were also a string of TV and supporting film actors who studded the MI set for its seven year run, like: Lesley Ann Warren, William Windom, Robert Conrad and Sam Elliott. But, saving the best for last was the regular appearance of our own Leonard Nimoy – the one, the first, the original Spock. Interestingly, Mark Leonard who played his father Sarek, and William Shatner, Captain Kirk, of course, were also veterans of the Star Trek universe and made guest appearances on the TV show Mission Impossible. So MI has a long and illustrious history of establishing the world in which Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible gang exists.

And the MI movies are no piker when it comes to history either.

It has been 22 years between today’s Mission Impossible: Fallout and the first Mission Impossible movie, the latter which debuted with an opening scene sporting Tom Cruise in prosthetics so campy it could have been mistaken for a Saturday Night Live skit – or the original TV show. The opening of the 1996 Tom Cruise hit, complete with fuse burn and the iconic rhythmic theme song, was the same year as Jerry MacGuire and only 2 years after the embarrassing Interview with a Vampire.

Poetically, 22 years (the same period of time betweem the first MI movie and Fallout) before the first Mission Impossible movie opened, we saw the end of the seven-year run of the Mission Impossible television show. There have been six MI movies and I have seen all but Mission Impossible III. No particular reason, except that I haven’t gotten around to it. They are all both very similar and completely distinct from each other at the same time. All six relate to each other but stand alone, like siblings in a close knit family. So I can, with some personal assurance, say, that if you liked any of the Mission Impossible movies you will like this one, and if you have not seen them all you won’t feel like you missed anything.

I HAVE made it my business to see all of the Mission Impossible movie intros. While they all do fitting and respectful homages to the Mission Impossible TV show none encapsulates quite so completely the traditional and iconic opening sequence format of the original Mission Impossible TV show as does this Mission Impossible movie Fallout. The retro style sets the tone for the entire movie. Not to say that it in anyway is a throwback, but squarely, firmly and proudly stands on the TV show grandfather’s shoulders.

On that note – BE AWARE – in keeping with the TV show format, the intro-credits throw in "spoiler-y" clips from the entire movie you are about to but have not yet seen. These clips are shown very quickly and out of context. If you watch hard you might recognize some of the scenes later when they happen in the movie. However, if you watch that carefully and are thinking that much during a movie like this then … you’re working too hard and not enjoying yourself enough. But, honestly, the scenes shown are not likely to give too much away.

The premise of Fallout, around which I must delicately dance to avoid spoiling the spider web threads of plot which are beautifully characteristic of the entire Mission Impossible concept, revolves around the search for three balls of plutonium.

MILD SPOILERS BUT WOULD ONLY BE GIVEAWAYS TO THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE TRAILERS OR HEARD ANY OF THE MOST NOTABLE SCUTTLEBUTT ABOUT THE FILMING

Without giving away too much, I can promise you will find all of the delightful Tom Cruise reboot Mission Impossible features that we have come to expect and love, including: spectacular stunts performed by Mr. Cruise, which I am fairly certain raise the blood pressures of the Essential Element Cast Insurance agents to dangerously high levels. And it’s not much of a spoiler, given the amount of P.R. it has received, to mention that Cruise snapped his ankle during one gig. And, I did not know this until doing the research for this blog but, Cruise did his own flying during the helicopter scenes. He not only has a license to fly the birds but has a masters which allows him to fly the very dangerous stunts as well —- which he did. I’m glad I’m not his mom.

The cast includes, of course, Tom Cruise who plays Ethan Hunt, the leader of the IMF team, our heroes. Alec Baldwin reprises his role as their Superior, Simon Pegg appears again as Benji, the techie who wants field work. Benji has a line I can't help but laugh at based on my own interpretation of the meaning. In the trailer, Benji and Ilsa watch as Ethan is getting set to do yet another crazy death defying stunt. Ilsa asks: "What is he doing?" To which Benji quips: "I find it best not to watch." I couldn't help wonder if that line was really an ad lib by actor Simon Pegg as he watched his fellow actor Cruise prepare to do — yet another crazy death defying stunt —- for real.  Henry Cavill (Superman) makes his debut in the franchise as August, the blunt instrument representative of the CIA. Cavill and Cruise created fight scenes I haven't enjoyed so much since I watched Dave Bautista beat the living snot out of Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Spectre.

It's kind of a hoot in Fallout to see Superman and Hunt go toe-to-toe in a bathroom-wall shattering, finesse-less, jackhammer fisticuffs confrontation with an extremely capable martial arts opponent. That is, if someone likes that kind of thing … which I confess I really do. The scene is featured in the trailer and it's even more fun to watch on the big screen as Cavill outshines even Tom Cruise who, in his turn, graciously allowed the scene to demonstrate that after 22 years of this, he is slowing down just a little bitty tad bit. No big surprise as Henry Cavill is half a foot taller, 30 pounds heavier, and 21 years younger than Tom Cruise. Despite Cruise’s apparent eternal youthfulness, boundless energy and teenage-style recklessness, he is old enough to easily be his co-star's father. And yet, though Cavill is bigger and faster, Cruise still believably keeps up with him in every scene.

Angela Bassett (Black Panther) plays Erica Sloan, head of the CIA and August’s boss. Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Hunt’s Jiminy Cricket. Rebecca Ferguson reappear as Ilsa. In a surprise but delightful cameo is Vanessa Kirby as White Witch, a character of gray area motives. Kirby most recently appeared as Elizabeth II's younger and scandal loving sister, Princess Margaret, in The Crown. And Christopher McQuarrie does double duty in Fallout as the screenplay writer and the director, a dual position he also held for MI: Rogue Nation AND Jack Reacher. In addition, McQuarrie wrote Edge of Tomorrow/Life, Die, Repeat, Valkyrie and The Usual Suspects. To say McQuarrie already has an astonishing resume, not to mention a long standing, obviously successful professional relationship with Cruise, would be redundant.

No evaluation of any Mission Impossible movie would be complete without mention of the classic theme written by Lalo Schifrin from the original TV show (which I hope you are listening to as you read this): bum, bum, BUM BUM, bum, bum, bum bum. Doodle ooooo doodle oooo doodle ooooo – do do………is planted and threaded whimsically and delightfully throughout the entire musical score.

The special effects and action sequences are as amazing as you might like to ever see, the dialogue quick, snappy and classic. The acting solid, and shows the actors comfortable in their character’s shoes. And the plot is as contrived, complex and convoluted as you can possibly want in a Mission Impossible movie. The only issue I really have is in an annoying subplot.

However I'm not going to say anything about that unless you plow through my…

ONE REAL SPOILER ALERT. FEEL FREE TO JUMP TO "END OF SPOILER" FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.

So, if you made it this far – my big problem with the movie is with the appearance of Ethan Hunt's wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). To the best of my knowledge they were never divorced, she just faked her death, as Lois Lane might have done to avoid the clutches of the superheroes evil villainous nemeses. So when Julia introduced her new "husband" to Ethan, two simultaneous thoughts occurred: Julia is committing adultery and bigamy, and Julia is putting this poor schmuck at the same risk she was avoiding by faking her own death…….!?!

My husband pointed out that it would have been so much more fun, noble, in keeping with their initially selfless characters, and just plain old more romantic, for Julia and Ethan to continue the charade of her being dead, but clandestinely having intermittent rendezvous. Like other star crossed lovers: River Song and the various guises her husband, Dr Who, takes on, married and meeting over the centuries as they move through time in opposite directions from each other, but find each other when they can. Or Bobby and Lance Hunter in Agents of Shield who have a turbulent marriage but stick with it, meeting to get "reacquainted" from time to time. Or The Time Traveler's Wife, wherein the couple are separated often and for long periods of time because of his affliction of being "unstuck" in time? Or, how about your average married and deployed military man or police officer? They take great risks and endure long separations all the time but still managed to stay faithful for decades.

Instead, Ethan and Julia get to shallowly have their cake and eat it too. She gets to play dead but have a second functioning regular playmate she can call a husband and he gets to continue thinking of her as his and yet still pursue, tease and nurture a new relationship with Ilsa. I almost half expected there to be a planned menage a quatra. Thankfully, not.

END OF SPOILER

So, using the usual parental discretion, go see Mission Impossible: Fallout, bring your mid and older teens. Then, if you are like me, a fan of the original show, go home and introduce all your kids to the granddaddy TV show. BUM, BUM, BUM, BUM – TA DAHHHHHHH!

TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – ASTONISHING ACCOMPLISHMENT AND WELL WORTH THE TRIP TO CHARMING KILGORE, TEXAS

In Kenneth Branagh's brilliant comedy A Midwinter's Tale, about a disparate group of actors trying to put on Hamlet during the Christmas season in a very short period of time, Joe Harper pep talks to his discouraged cast: "In Shakespeare's theater, a six week season would have produced 35 performances of 17 different plays including, at times, four world premieres."

Well, theTexas Shakespeare Festival, outdoes even the Bard in their 33rd season, managing the Herculean task of 47 performances of six plays in a scant four and one-half weeks, plus accomodating a guest company from China who does a 7th one-night-only show.

Graciously hosted by Raymond Caldwell, the Founder and Artistic Director, and John Dodd, the Managing Director, the TSF company started June 28 and closes July 29. They give nine performances each of two different Shakespearean plays, and three other classics, plus seven showings of a new children's show. This year they did a 1920's musical version of Shakespeare's romantic comedy Love's Labour's Lost about a King and three of his friends who forswear women for 3 years just before political circumstances require they meet with the lovely princess of France and her three equally lovely attendants. They also did the rarely seen Shakespeare play King John, covering this seminally incompetent and often cruel king in the best possible light Shakespeare could muster. The other classics were Moliere's Tartuffe, a comedy exposing the hazards of entertaining hypocricy, and, the musical version of the old classic serio-comic The Rain Maker, about a man who comes to a drought stricken town promising to change the weather, only to change the dynamics of the townspeople instead. They also did four performances of The Belle of Amherst about Emily Dickenson and 7 showings of the children's play The Lovely Stepsister.

While only the four major plays are left and then only this weekend, it is worth noting that the TSF is well worth the distance you might have to travel to get to this small, friendly, spotlessly clean, theater-geared and devoted Texas town. The food in the restaurants is varied and great, the hotels comfortable, plentiful and inexpensive. If you want to combine a theater vacation with an outdoorsy flavor you can also rent a cabin in nearby Tyler. The theater, itself, has stadium seating where there is no bad view.

The crew and staff at the Ann Dean Turk Center, where the festival resides, are extremely accomodating, resourceful, and very attentive to all the patrons' needs. Ice cream, snacks and coffee are available before the show and during intermission. The gift shop is small, quaint and stuffed with wonderful, high-quality memorabilia at reasonable prices. Blankets are provided for the more easily chilled visitors as the powerful air conditioning keeps the Texas summer heat forcefully at bay.

Along with the plays, the festival also features: live orchestral music, a talent showcase of the actors' musical and varied gifts, backstage tours, "open change-overs" where a docent explains the balletic process as the crew can transform the entire set from from a small country town to an 18th century parlor in under 90 minutes, panel discussions and more.

And if you want to audition – COME ONE COME ALL – as they make the rounds starting in the not too distant future, constantly looking forward to always making the next season better than the one before. You can come audition in person, catch the scouts as they tour the country or submit a video and resume. Get the details from their website: Texas Shakespeare Festival auditions.

I was privileged to be granted an interview with Briana (Bri) Thomas who played: a singing Jaquenetta in Love's Labour's Lost, Mariane, the put upon daughter of the foolish Orgon in Tartuffe, and the delightfully perky gal Snookie in 110 in the Shade. Her parents and grandparents came to celebrate and encourage her as she made her exciting and talented debut with the TSF. The beautiful and delightful Ms. Thomas graciously agreed to allow me to record our talk. Please enjoy the videos below.

 

So wherever you are coming from, it is worth the trip to attend the TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – and if not this year, clear your calendars to attend the 34th season starting in June 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

EQUALIZER 2 – STARFISH ON A BEACH

SHORT TAKE:

Death Wish – style movie with a more sophisticated philosophy and more intelligent presentation than most.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only. Little sexuality but a lot of harsh language and extreme amounts of violence.

LONG TAKE:

w friendOne of the rules of good scriptwriting is SHOW DON’T TELL and I think Equalizer 2 did a (excuse the pun) bang up good job on this point.

I’ve gotten rather fond of Jeremy Scott’s eviscerative observations on Cinema Sins. Although replete with profanity and spiced with the occasionally mildly raunchy comment, his analysis of movies, and disclosure of poorly written, clichéd weaknesses and foibles are not only usually very funny but spot on. When writing screen and stage plays, I now pointedly try to avoid the fallback easy positions like: heavy handed exposition, predictable setups, and stereotype characters, with a small voice in the back of my head optimistically warning that if ever this is produced, you don’t want to hear that bell count out ill-advised boiler plate tropes.

And while watching movies, I find myself predicting what Jeremy will catch. Citing “Narration” as the self-explanatory critique and reason for the “sin,” one of his pet peeves is excessive expositing. In the beginning of even blockbuster or well respected movies, such as Black Panther or Lord of the Rings, a chronicler will spout a long garrulous anecdote, covering decades or centuries worth of background.

That does not happen in Equalizer 2.

SPOILERS BUT ONLY FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE TRAILER

The premise, building upon the original, is that an ex-CIA operative, Robert McCall, now thought dead, lives a quiet life as a Lyft (read Uber) driver, doing good deeds where he can. w beared guyThe main storyline of Equalizer 2 follows McCall when, about a half hour into the movie, his friend is brutally murdered. standing by picturesMcCall announces, is expected to, and eventually does, take violent retribution against the perpetrators.  But I found the subplots, and the way the narrative is handled, far more interesting.

muslimFor example, the movie starts, (and not properly a spoiler as it is in the trailer) with a Muslim-costumed Denzel Washington confronting Turkish thugs on a train. Only later, as he goes about his normal routine back in Chicago do we OBSERVE how he knew of a problem and what it would take to fix it. The set up and solution were very quietly and subtly handled. And this small subplot did not even directly relate to the main action, but only served to establish McCall’s abilities and personality.

imagesVNIP61L9The most compelling part of the screenplay was how McCall exercises that platitude of doing random acts of kindness using the gifts we have. For us ordinary mortals, it might be holding someone’s door open or even paying for the coffee of the stranger in line behind you. fight in trainFor McCall it’s beating the tar out of dangerous, abusive men then making them call the cops on themselves afterwards. When asked why he would take on the job of cleaning spray paint graffiti off of a wall when anyone else could do it, he responds that, although anyone else COULD, no one else DOES, so he does. This is the mantra from which he lives and a motto which raises the bar on what could otherwise have been just another Death Wish vigilante violence porn clone. While I’m not advocating vigilantism, often the mentality is a “kill them all and let God sort them out” philosophy.

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It’s refreshing to see this hero, in this genre, genuinely attempt to mete out justice, even often allowing the bad guys an opportunity to “do the right thing” on their own first.

Another of McCall’s “projects” is a neighborhood kid who shows some promise as an artist, but is tempted by the quick money and allure of drug running. When asked by the boy, “Why me?” as in: why would you care or why risk your safety for me or do this for me, McCall answers simply, “Why NOT you?”

I was reminded of the parable of the Starfish. Traditionally attributed to an inspiration from the St. Augustine philosophy of doing what you can for those whom God puts in your path, the short tale is of an adult coming upon a child throwing starfish into the ocean. When asked what the child thinks he will accomplish, the child responds that the tide is going out and those left on shore will die. Surveying the thousands of starfish which littered the shore, the adult cautioned the child that he would make little difference given the overwhelming job facing him. The child responded with a smile as he threw another starfish into the ocean: “But I made a BIG difference to this one.”

So go see Equalizer 2, not for the overused, familiar vengeance fueled chaos, or even for the nicely handled “show don’t tell” exposition. Go to watch Washington’s McCall use his singular gifts to save what starfish he can.

NOTE: As I was out of town for the writing of this one I was limited in the pictures I could add but will be updating, God willing, upon my return.

EARLY MAN – LAUGH AS WALLACE AND GROMIT MEETS EVERY SPORTS MOVIE CLICHE KNOWN TO MAN

SHORT TAKE:

Adorable, funny, family friendly, typical sports outing about an underdog cavemen team playing soccer against a more sophisticated "Bronze Age" team to win their valley back, all brought to us by Nick Park and friends, the creators of SHAUN THE SHEEP!!!

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

If you like Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep or Chicken Run or The Wrong Trousers or…. oh EVERYBODY!!!

LONG TAKE:

What do the fantasy franchises: Harry Potter, The Avengers, Game of Thrones and……. Wallace and Gromit have in common? Wallace and Gromit????!!!!

The answer is: Early Man.

Early Man is an adorable plasticine animation feature length movie brought  to you by the same instigators, led by Nick Park, who created The Wrong Trousers, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the story is spun about the lives of a group of Cavemen who were forced into the lone habitable spot by a meteor which devastated the rest of the known Earth. Their valley is lush and green, where all about them is the Badlands: with dangerous mutant animals, harsh rocky ground, and volcanos. The Badlands looks a bit like I'd imagine the Wembley Stadium parking lot after an EFL Championship game. But there are a couple of silver linings. Not only did the meteor strike carve out at least this one fertile area but the meteor, itself, also gave them the template for history's first football. By that, for those of you reading in America, I mean soccer. But the Brits call it football, so there it is.

Fast forward a couple "eras" and Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne – Newt Scamander from the "Harry Potter" world of Fantastic Beasts) and the tribe of which he is a member, happily lives on fruits, nuts and the odd rabbit (which said presented rabbit is about as catchable as Bugs Bunny so, in effect, they are de facto vegetarians). But Dug is ambitious – he wants to hunt mammoths………!

But that's not what the story is about. Their idyll is interrupted when Lord Nooth (voiced by The Avengers' Tom Hiddleson) sporting an impenetrable guise of Italian accent, comes upon the scene with equipment made of the bronze which he has mined from his nearby kingdom.

Dug challenges them to a game of soccer/football to win their valley back. Completely outmatched, Dug's group has no equipment, no training, no experience and doesn't even know the rules, but his chutzpah gets the attention of a local girl, Goona (voiced by Game of Thrones' Maizie Williams) from the Bronze kingdom who coaches Dug's tribe in exchange for a spot on the team. Nick Par, the creator, even lends a hand — or voice — for the emotive and communicative grunts and snorts of Dug's intelligent pig, Hognob.

The story is a pretty formulaic case of underdog team goes up against much better players with nothing but a good cause, lots of heart, and a ringer. We've seen the like in everything from The Karate Kid (karate) to Facing the Giants (American football) to Bad News Bears (baseball) to Mystery Alaska (hockey) and Balls of Fury (ping pong), and it works — every — time because, as Patton put it so well – "Americans love a winner" and everyone loves the underdog because in them we all  find inspiration. But this time it's played for laughs, parodying the sport, the genre, diva professional players, sports announcers, a "win one for the Gipper" moment, a hen pecked husband, you name it.

It's a clean, gentle, lovable movie that kids will enjoy for the claymation/plasticine animation and adults will appreciate for the pokes at the cliches. While there is a good deal of spoofing and teasing, there's not a mean spot in Nick Park's entire imaginative brain.

The cast list is like an old home week of favorite kids' characters, especially from the Harry Potter franchise. So when you take your kids you can happily point out that Eddie Redmayne is both Dug andNewt Scamander.  Timothy Spall, who voiced Chief Bobnar also moonlighted as Peter Pettigrew. Mark Williams, who does the voice for Barry, was also Mr. Weasley.

Miriam Margolyes, who voices Queen Oofeefa was also Professor Sprout. And Tom Hiddleson is Lord Nooth andLoki! I'll let you figure out how to explain Maisie Williams' stint in Game of Thrones. But, if it helps, she was also in a handful of Dr. Whos.

Early Man is available on Amazon now. So go watch this cute movie that will be delightful to kids, footballers, adults, fans of Wallace and Gromit, Harry Potter afficianados, pig farmers, rabbits, cavemen ………………

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR – THE STORY OF FRED ROGERS AND HIS NEIGHBORHOOD

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely, delightful and moving documentary covering the life of both Fred Rogers and his Neighborhood.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Absolutely everyone. No really – unequivocally, no holds barred, universally, unabashedly, and without even the smallest reservation – EVERYONE!!!!

LONG TAKE:

When I was a kid, I had a brother and sister who were 9 and 10 years older, respectively, than I. Come to think of it, they STILL are 9 and 10 years older. Also, my Dad and I were buddies. I’d go to the hardware store with him, and I would hang around and “help” him with construction projects around our house. He was 40 when I was born. My point is that when we turned on the TV it was “Fractured Fairy Tales” on Rocky and Bullwinkle, Star Trek, Hogan’s Heroes, Abbot and Costello, The Great Escape, Wagon Train and The Magnificent Seven. The quiet and gentle wisdom of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and his cardigan sweaters was just not on my radar. So later, when I had kids, while I respected the show, and thought he was doing something nice for kids, I just wasn’t that interested.

So I was surprised by my own emotional reaction to Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I realized then that Fred Rogers had seeped, ever so slowly, into my consciousness with his gentle, joyful manner over the last 50 years. He was simply a kind and decent man who both advocated as a motto of his show and lived by the personal  ethic: “I like you just the way you are.” Fred Rogers spent his life wisely, as the personification of Jesus' answer to the question which preambled the parable of The Good Samaritan: "Who is my neighbor?" There is no doubt in my mind that the name of his show was intended as an incarnation of that answer – that, to Mr. Rogers, everyone was his neighbor. And Fred Rogers' personal Inspired ministry was to bring God's Love to all people in a very practical, first hand way – by demonstration.

St. Francis famously advocated to: “Preach always, sometimes even with words.” Fred Rogers, through his actions, showed himself to be an avid disciple. Though the subject of Fred Rogers’ specific spiritual beliefs came up sparingly in the documentary, aside from the fact of his ordination as a minister, his adherence to the foundational Christian belief that all men are brothers, beloved of and equal in God’s eyes, comes out boldly and profoundly in everything Fred Rogers did, or said.

The documentary dips into the very deep well of video on which he appears. Not just the copies of almost 1,000 shows, but his personal appearances on interview programs, at schools, and even before Congress! There is no lack of documentation of Fred Rogers’ progress from his early philosophical musings before a piano on teaching children about serious issues, probably filmed by his wife, in 1962, all the way through the blooper video clips from his very last show in 2001 and his PSA in 2002 on 9/11.

The documentary interviews his wife, his sons, John and Jim, his co-workers, friends, associates, and other interviewers. They come from many walks of life, and life styles. But all people were equal in Fred Rogers’ eyes. Rogers maintained a tight ship, monitoring every aspect of the show, and required understandably scrupulous behavior, watching over the reputation of the show with care and affection for everyone involved in the production. Mr. Rogers, for example, forbade one actor from frequenting a particular bar and Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin) from appearing in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, Rogers’ fatherly supervision of his cast and crew did not discourage a certain level of good-natured juvenile behavior amongst those Mrs. Rogers remembered he called his “playmates”, such as practical jokes on set or a poster made from a tasteless but amusing photo clandestinely left on Rogers’ camera by a mischievous member of the crew.

SPOILERS

Back in the 1960's, there were topics, it was understood, that children’s programming just would not explore. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’s stock in trade was the places where angels would fear to tread. He tackled issues head on that many adults avoided: death, divorce, lost children, serious illness, and disabilities. He had guest stars, wrote books, made appearances, did interviews, and performed puppet plays intended to translate these complex topics in ways which children could understand, talk about, and express their confusions and concerns.

The cast and crew were close and the show was very personal to everyone involved. Daniel the Tiger, the avatar most close to Fred Roger's heart and personality, according to those who knew him best, often spoke of insecurity and self doubt. King Friday XIII and his Queen dealt frequently with parental concerns. Everyone on the cast was known by a real name. Lady Aberlin's name was Betty Aberlin, Officer Clemmons was, in real life, the powerhouse singer, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, and the name Mr. McFeely, though played by David Newell, was Fred Rogers' middle name.

In the ‘60's, when black people were forced out of public pools, Fred Rogers pointedly invited Francois Clemmons, a black man portraying Mr. Rogers’ local police officer, to come join him on a hot day as he soaked his feet in a child’s plastic pool and to share his towel. Fred Rogers went out of his way to rinse Officer Clemmons' feet with his hose and offer him his towel. There is no mistaking the reference to Jesus' washing of his disciples feet nor of the point Mr. Rogers made. I couldn’t help but laugh as Mr. Rogers looked up at the camera from contemplating their cooling feet. There was an expression I'd never seen on the face of this usually sweet, impeturbable man –  just a glimpse of his righteousness anger at the injustices which inspired this demonstration, as though, for a moment, he was staring down anyone who would dare question his actions. I hoped those at the time, he was silently addressing, had seen and squirmed in shame. Mr. Roger and Mr. Clemmons re-enacted the event some years later.

When Bobby Kennedy was murdered, Fred Rogers’ show had Lady Aberlin and Daniel the Tiger discuss what the word “assassination” meant. When the Challenger blew up in front of millions of kids, Fred Rogers was there to confront the topic with his beloved puppets in ways small children could understand. When the horrific attack on our country was made by Islamic terrorists on 9/11, Fred Rogers came out of retirement, ill with only months left before he would pass away, to offer comfort to 33 years of children who had grown up watching him.

Mr. Rogers was the personification of kindness and the exemplification of Jesus’ instruction to his apostles as he sent them to preach, to be: “…wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Rogers  loved and put at ease everyone he met, but was uncompromising in his beliefs and could talk anybody into anything he believed was right.

Rogers’ powers of persuasion were legendary. Mr. Clemmons, during the documentary, explained that just portraying a police officer as a black man at the time was initially out of his comfort zone, because he had grown up afraid of police. But Clemmons put on the uniform and gave good example, portraying this character for decades. Mr. Rogers could reason anyone into doing the right thing, including convincing an extremely prejudiced and skeptical Congressman Pastore out of the 20 MILLION dollars needed in 1969 to keep a fledgling Public Broadcast System afloat, by simply being reasonable. See the Youtube of Rogers' appearance before the subcommittee here.

Mr. Rogers recognized what a force for good the power of the television medium could be and how its worth was being wasted on frivolous, violent and brainless assaults on children’s senses. His mind set was to minister to children of all ages by taking their feelings and thoughts seriously, and help them cope with the normal struggles of life. He featured everyone from the profoundly physically challenged Jeffrey Erlanger to a young Wynton Marsalis to the famous Julia Child to Koko the Gorilla. Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist, not only appeared several times on the show, but was a friend, was interviewed for the documentary, and is credited by the director, Morgan Neville, as being the inspiration for the documentary. While interviewing Mr. Ma for a different project, Mr. Neville asked Mr. Ma how he dealt with fame. Ma's response surprised him – that he learned it from Mr. Rogers who, it turned out, assured Mr. Ma that fame was not an inherently bad thing, and mentored him on the appropriate ways to use this gift.

Like Colonel Pickering, who treated even a flower girl like Elisa Doolittle as though she were a lady, Mr. Rogers treated everyone alike, to be valued as a child of God. His love for every man was carried out in his prison ministry, and his outreach to adults, Old Friends, New Friends which aired during the hiatus of his Neighborhood during 1967-8.

He was a missionary of fraternal love to mankind and The Good Samaritan to the world. I am so glad his ministry lives on in his shows, in the memories of his friends, family, co-workers and those children, now adults, who watched him and were positively influenced.  The picture of humility, his wife remembered how on his death bed he wondered if he would be accepted into Jesus' sheepfold. Known world wide, recognized and admired by celebrities, all he thought of himself was God's unworthy servant.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of his show’s debut, not only will a commemorative U.S. postage stamp featuring Fred Rogers be released, but work has begun on a biopic of the legendary minister, starring Tom Hanks, planned for release in 2019.

Jesus said the second half of the greatest law is to: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rogers was an ordained minister, so it was obviously not a coincidence that in the world of his “Neighborhood,Fred Rogers' declared, by word and action, daily, that he liked his fellow man, with a Christian love, just the way they were. St. Francis should be proud.

UNCLE DREW – SURPRISINGLY GOOD SPORTS FILM BASED ON A PEPSI COMMERCIAL

SHORT TAKE:

Charming and gentle, entertaining, though formulaic, sports comedy about the value of family and respect for an elderly generation with much to teach, set on the basketball court.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Young teens and up, or anyone with a lively enthusiasm for basketball, as long as parents go with them to caution against the good natured smack talk and the fact one of the protagonists begins the movie living with his very unpleasant girlfriend.

LONG TAKE:

My expectations were not high for Uncle Drew. After all, it was based upon a series of Pepsi advertisements masquerading as faux infomercials about an elderly retired basketball player who goes to different street courts to surprise the neighborhood kids with his skilled prowess and spread his sage advice on the game.

The fact that the elderly man is actually a young active professional ball player in prosthetic makeup makes the shorts seem more like Candid Camera stunts than any legitimate effort to convey life experience advice to a younger generation of basketball players.

However, in approaching the movie, Uncle Drew, I felt there was a glimmer of hope, as the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was created with checkerboard success from the ephemeral beginnings of a singular feature in a Disney theme park ride. But, then again, I was also aware of the pathetic sequel failures Disney has milked out of that dying series.

So it was much to my surprise that I discovered Uncle Drew is a lovely, charming, entertaining, fairly family friendly movie for  teens and up, directed by Charles Stone, thoughtfully written, acted to the best of the performers' abilities, and espousing a number of admirable virtues. The Pepsi commercials were written by Kyrie Irving but the screenplay was written by Jay Longino who does an excellent job of creatng a smart and warm story.

The premise of Uncle Drew concerns Dax (Lil Rey Howery who steals the show in both Get Out and Tag), an enthusiastic, and overly optimistic, coach of a street basketball team, who spends his life savings outfitting and entering his team, Harlem's Money, into the Rucker Park Tournament, a tournament now known as the Entertainer's Basketball Classic. The prize money is $100,000 but Dax is more concerned about proving his worth in the game he loves but doesn't feel worthy to play. His long time rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll), steals both his team and his mercenary girlfriend out from under him.

Desperate, Dax discovers Uncle Drew, an elderly but skilled basketball player, on a court during a one-on-one challenge with a young player in an effort to teach this younger generation how basketball should be played. Dax prevails upon/begs Drew to play for him. Drew agrees on the condition that he can choose his own teammates. Dax and Drew proceed to travel around the country in his formerly hippie van picking up his old teammates. The first is Preacher (Chris Webber), aptly named and married to a woman, Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie), who does not wish him to return to the court. Without giving any spoilers here, the scene during the baptism is worth the price of admission alone. And, of course, Preacher, goes anyway. Lights (Reggie Miller) can't see and  Boots (Nate Robinson) is at first confined to a wheelchair. The last is Big Fella (the one the only Shaquille O'Neal) a karate teacher with a grudge against Uncle Drew which will serve as a plot point later in the movie.

Acting as counterpoint to his former girlfriend is Maya (Erica Ash), the granddaughter of Boots who tags along as a gentle and caring companion for her grandfather.

The rest of the movie is a pretty standard, formulaic sports movie of an underdog entering an important competition, confronting old rivals, resolving past conflicts, improving themselves, and becoming more than the sum of their parts or their surface appearance.

This does not take away from the fact that the movie is quite funny, and features opportunities to demonstrate forgiveness, repentance and taking responsibility for sins even when the offenses are decades-old, loyalty, altruism, respect  and appreciation not only for what the elderly can teach us, but for their past experiences and accomplishments, familial bonds, and kindness. There is even a very cute dance off – believably pulled off as older men by these young athletes.

I especially want to note the effort and lengths these young men go to, to portray older men. The acting, while not especially subtle, was obviously taken quite seriously by these basketball players. All took great pains with the makeup and to genuinely convey with dignity and understanding the challenges that elderly people often face physically and emotionally. For example, I read that Nate Robinson, who performed Boots, and who went throughout the first half of the movie as mute and almost immobile, is himself normally an extremely high energy and active person. He portrayed, quite effectively and convincingly, a man who had almost given up on life and himself, until he has the opportunity to work again with friends and do what he loves best.

I also admired the care and detail with which Mr. Irving portrayed his Uncle Drew. Irving, as Uncle Drew, moved convincingly, with the painful care, and conveyed the slow, cautious steps, affected gestures, and challenged movements of an elderly person. The warm ups on the court, as these older men become inspired once again to engage in the game they all love so much, and to watch them slowly blossom on the court, was both believable and inspiring.

Uncle Drew is a credit to its sports genre, and exemplifies the best of what that kind of movie can be and teach in a light-hearted, comedic but respectful way.

My cautions about a minimum age or parent-attended audience, comes primarily from the the fact that the main character lives with his girlfriend instead of being married, and the language, which is really just good-natured smack talk between elderly close friends and former teammates, who chide and tease each other about intimate behaviors.

As always, use parental discretion for younger teens, but if I had a child who was especially fond of basketball, I would accompany them with plans to admonish them about language use, and explain that living together without marriage is wrong and a sin. Otherwise, Uncle Drew is a delightful little film with a lot to commend it, and keeping the provisos in mind, I would definitely endorse it. Pepsi, you did good.

 

SUPERFLY – MORALLY TOXIC AND OFFENSIVE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Remake of a bad 1972 movie of the same name which lionizes a drug dealer.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

NO ONE!

LONG TAKE:

Coined by the French critic Nino Frank in 1946, the dictionary defines a "FILM NOIR" (literally French for "film dark") as: a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. This title applies to such movies as: The Third Man, Chinatown, Scarface, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sin City, Bladerunner, The Big Sleep, White Heat, and Strangers on a Train. In all of these movies, superior by several factors of ten, there is a cautionary tale in which we expect the protagonist of questionable motive and character to get his comeuppance through repentance, death, prison or some combination.

Not so with Superfly. It is a bewilderment to me why someone thought remaking a particularly bad movie from the 1970's was a good idea. But they did. This year's Superfly is an exact replica of the movie from 1972. The original Super Fly's iconic, though dated, funky, Motown music by Curtis Mayfield was the only thing that could even marginally recommend it and is a certainly better soundtrack than the excessively profane, garish, unnecessarily loud, repetitive technopop nonsense that prevades the 2018 version. Although admittedly, the 2018 version has much higher quality production values and slightly better acting, the story, and a goofy choice for the lead character's hair, remains precisely the same.

SPOILERS

The story, written by Alex Tse and directed by Julien Christian Lutz who, understandably, goes by the pseudonym Director X (I would not want my real name on this piece of trash either), revolves about a young man who goes by the name of Youngblood (so dubbed because he was the youngest of his gang when he was a kid) Priest (because he wears a cocaine spoon in the shape of a cross), also inexplicably known as Superfly (Trevor Jackson). Superfly sports a hairdo, of which he is inordinately proud, which bears a comedic and distracting resemblence to the skull piece worn by Alan Rickman's Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest.  Superfly is also the leader of one of several cocaine dealer gangs in Atlanta. He plans on one final score to fund his retirement. All the gangs co-exist in relative peace until one day Juju (Kaalan Walker), a member of the Snow Patrol (laughably outfitted in white EVERYTHING), inexplicably becomes jealous of Youngblood's money and women, despite the fact Juju's own boss assures him that he has all the money and women he could possibly ever desire.

When leaving a strip club one night Juju picks a fight then takes a pot shot at Priest, misses and hits a bystander. This starts a chain of events which will ultimately lead, after a labrynthian trail of carnage and graphic sexuality, to Youngblood getting everything he wants. During the course of the movie his best friend, Eddie (Jason Mitchell) gets Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent), Youngblood's enforcer killed, and the Snow Patrol wiped out. Youngblood ingratiates himself with the corrupt Mayor of Atlanta by plying him with cocaine and his own girlfriend. Youngblood also betrays Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), Youngblood's mentor and supplier, by cutting a deal with Scatter's supplier, a Mexican cartel drug lord, (Esai Morales), eventually getting Scatter killed.

Youngblood gets all the parties with whom he has done deals to turn on each other, LOTS of people get killed, after which Youngblood buys a yacht and sets sail in luxury with his surviving girlfriend. Not that any of the "victims" in this travesty have clean hands, but instead of a protagonist, Youngblood is more of a very clever King Rat standing on a pile of corpses, including, but never ever mentioned, his cocaine snorting customers.

In short, we have a drug dealer and thug who has made millions by destroying the lives of untold thousands of other people, who gets away with a lifetime supply of sex and money.

In a previous blog I exposed  Ocean's 8, in which we are supposed to side with a group of career criminals who steal, destroy and sell priceless historic jewelry from a donation-funded museum, in order to fund their own private vanity projects.

Both Superfly and Ocean's 8 ask the audience to applaud the "cleverness" of egotistic, sociopathic criminals, who harm the innocent and whose only "virtue" is that we see the proceedings from their point of view. The appalling parade of immoral, ruthless, selfish activites we are expected to cheer on in both cinematic obscenities is nauseating and offensive. If you are curious about the plot just read the wikipedia.org version of Super Fly from 1972 and you will get a pretty detailed idea of what the 2018 movie is about. Don't bother to watch any of them.

Cast and crew of all three movies should be ashamed of themselves. Keep your children away from these toxic movies.