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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

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

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

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

FOR MATURE ADULT AGE TEENS AND UP ONLY!!!

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

SPOILERS – BIG, CASUAL SPOILERS – SO BE FORWARNED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALADDIN – FANTASTIC LIVE ACTION VERSION AND, DARE I SAY, BETTER THAN THE ANIMATED CLASSIC

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALADDIN REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fantastic live action remake of the 1992 animated Aladdin.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone.

LONG TAKE:

I walked into the movie theater fully expecting, nay planning, not to like this new version of Aladdin. I dreaded a cheap imitation of the original.

Happily, I could not have been more wrong. This live action Disney Aladdin musical is absolutely adorable and Smith is wonderful in it. It is both fresh and familiar, telling the same story, touching all the same plot points and featuring all of our favorite music, moments and lines, yet does not merely imitate. This Will Smith-led Aladdin does respectful homage and even honor to the memory, not only of its animated predecessor in general, but of Robin Williams in particular, and brings Smith’s own unique tone to the story.

It’s obvious that Smith loved and respected Robin Williams’ Genie. He is playful with the character that Williams invented yet gently puts his own spin on the character.

Robin Williams was frenetically comedic, exuding an ambiance of anxious-to-please humor, whereas Smith is more self-confident and wryly witty. Robin Williams excelled at impersonation, jumping effortlessly from character to character – that was his style. Smith stays Smith as Genie – that’s his style. Both are two variations on the same theme. Like Tchaikovsky’s tribute to Mozart in his Mozartiana, Smith hits all of his predecessor’s brilliant notes and rhythms but applies his own personal talents to this clever musical take on the Arabian Night tale.

The 2019 live action version, directed by Guy Ritchie (Robert “Iron Man” Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes features) even resolves plot holes and improves character arcs in ways that were not necessarily required of an animated feature, but meet one’s heightened expectations of a live-action movie.

The songs are all there with the same energy and comedy and touching moments portrayed by performers with whom, other than Smith, I have very little familiarity, but who are terrific in their roles.

Naomi Scott, an openly devout Christian and child of pastors, has an incredible voice and does an amazing job as Jasmine. Mena Massoud is charming and personifies the thief with a heart of gold (or diamond as the case may be). Marwen Kenzari (Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, Cruise’s Mummy and the very peculiar dystopian What Happened to Monday), avoids a caricature “mustache twirler” Jafar and instead is portrayed as the flip side of Aladdin, with chilling effect. Navid Negahban (12 Strong, Fringe and American Sniper) creates a far more realistic portrait of a troubled and stern but fair and caring father and ruler in the Sultan than in the animated version. Comedian Nasim Pedrad (SNL and Despicable Me 2) creates the new character of Dalia, at once handmaid and confidante to the princess and focus of an unlikely suitor to adorable affect. Frank Welker reprises his voice acting talents as both Abu and the Cave of Wonders.

The color palette used was appropriately bright and well-defined, like the beloved cartoon feature brought to “real” life. The music was just as we remembered, with amazing singing from both Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud. There is also a terrific Bollywood-style courtship dance number which has been added to the proceedings. One of my only criticisms of this Aladdin is that there was not two or three more of them.

While I would love to wax eloquent about the zillion ways in which they have successfully and entertainingly brought this classic animated feature to life, I do not want to ruin a minute of it for anyone with spoilers. However, from the very first setup in the very first scene it will become obvious the thought, care and affection with which they have invested to recreate this story.

So go enjoy this delightful re-creation of the animated movie we grew up with. And, since you’re going anyway …. bring your kids.

SHAZAM – ADORABLE SUPER HERO FROM THE POV OF A KID

SHORT TAKE:

Adorable view of the super hero world from the POV of its most ardent demographic – the barely pubescent teenaged boy.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid teens and up because of “boy” language with a large helping of the English word for “merde” and a couple of crass throwaway lines. All totaled this movie is only 30 seconds of cuts away from a G rating.

LONG TAKE:

In age swapping movies like Big or 13 Going on 30 or the most recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, wherein you briefly meet the characters then spend the bulk of the movie with the doppleganger(s), by the denouement, when the original versions re-emerge, it’s a let down because you miss the avatar with whom you have explored the character arc.

Not with Shazam.

Director David F Sandberg wisely chose a different structure and the writer, Henry Gayden did a very good job of neatly bouncing back and forth between the two, so you never lose attachment to either. Shazam feels like a buddy movie wherein the buddies are the same person.

I have often maintained that men have an easy time accessing their inner child and Shazam makes my point in spades.

Zachary Levi (voiced Finn for Tangled and a cross between Peter Pan and Robin Hood as Fandral in the last two Thor movies) brilliantly channels his inner pubescent in Shazam, endowing his Shazam with all the sheer joy and wonder of a youth just discovering powers he didn’t know were possible (apt and clever analogy for maturation anyone?), but recognizing that this super hero is still just an inexperienced kid.

A lot of movies featuring kids have really cringy moments, either from bad acting or bad writing from people who, apparently, have no kids and don’t remember what it is like to be a kid. Star War: Phantom Menace, A Wrinkle in Time, and After Earth all come to mind.

Not in Shazam.

Asher Angel is great as the foster kid who is the surprised recipient of these gifts. I have two sons past this age now as well as a brother, husband and a torrent of boys who have graced our house as friends of all six of our kids, and Angel is, on the screen, as Billy Batson.…… a kid. No posturing, no trying to play older than he is, just a young teen who plays a young teen. And he does it beautifully: funny, intelligent, wide-eyed one minute and pretending to be worldly-wise the next.

Jack Dylan Grazer is his best friend Freddie Freeman and, while echoing his obnoxious character from It, does a splendid job of being … an obnoxious kid.

Together Grazer and Angel…and Levi and Grazer are kids who do thoughtless, selfless, stupid, heroic, sly, blunt, brave and courageous things – often within minutes of each other.

The three of them have great chemistry together and are a lot of fun to watch.

Billy’s foster siblings: Faithe Herman as Darla, Grace Fulton as Mary, Ian Chen as Eugene, Jovan Armand as Pedro, do great jobs as well in the supporting cast of kids, and each are given their moment to shine.

The adults like Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews’ foster couple who care for the kids are treated with respect and shown as good role models and caring people.

Then, of course, there is Dr. Sivana, the bad guy, played by Mark Strong (both Kingsmen movies and Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes), who hams up his super villain with a horde of evil minion gargoyles,  creating a sense of menace but with just enough camp to take the edge off and prevent the movie, despite some cartoon-horrifying scenes, from going down the Dark Knight path. Solid actor that he is, Strong confidently takes Dr. Sivana to the edge of that envelope without ever ruining the good time for the audience during his haunted house-like scenes. This is, after all, a mostly teen-intentioned super hero movie.

From the Superman theme, to Rocky‘s “Eye of the Tiger” and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” the songs interlaced with the soundtrack work to create an upbeat mood and place.

The style is a combination of realistic with comic book colorful and no holds are pulled in recognizing how ridiculous his costume at first appears (can’t resist this quote – the first night Batson transforms, talking to Freddie: “Super powers!? Dude, I can’t even figure out how to pee in this thing!”)

As I alluded to above, Shazam can easily be seen as an allegory for a youth, who is just coming to terms with the demands of adulthood, newly encountering “powers” for which he must assume responsibility, and battling – wait for it – the Seven Deadly Sins represented by one of each of the gargoyles!

It is hard to believe that Wonder Woman and Shazam! are in the same universe, so vastly different are their tones. Be that as it may, along with Wonder Woman, D.C. FINALLY now has another big success in the super hero genre. So, as Gomer Pyle might have exclaimed: SHAZAM! (couldn’t resist that either).

 

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.

THE (“CUMBER”) GRINCH – WELL DONE UPDATE TO BELOVED CLASSIC STORY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE GRINCH REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

The new The Grinch is entertaining for adults and children alike and respectful to its source material, but still manages a fresh take on this most beloved of children’s Christmas tales.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ANYBODY! EVERYBODY!

LONG TAKE:

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss was published in 1957, two years before I was born, and the first and most famous filmed animated version, narrated by Boris Karloff, was released in 1966 when I was 7. So the story of The Grinch has been on my radar my entire life, not to mention the fact that I have read probably every other Dr. Seuss story to my kids about a hundred times.

There have been several adaptations, including a musical and a Jim Carrey movie in 2000, the latter of which I did not much care for, as Carrey’s Grinch was a little too reminiscent of   Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s It for my taste.

BUT – those of us who grew up with the original 1966 version need fear nothing about this latest version of The Grinch. The epynomous character is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Smaug from Lord of The Rings, Khan from the Star Trek reboot). Danny Elfman, Tim Burton’s go-to composer, deftly incorporates not only traditional Christmas music but songs from the 1966 animated film, including the Whoville Christmas song. The set ups for the story are the same, only a bit more flushed out and funnier.

The voice acting was smart and cute, even featuring a cameo from the grande dame of theater Angela Lansbury as the Mistress of Ceremonies at the Whoville tree lighting. Cindy Lou Who was performed by the charming Cameron Seely (The Greatest Showman).   Prolific composer Pharell Williams did the narration. Rashida Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones performs Donna, Cindy Lou’s mom. And Keenan Thompson voices the eternally optimistic and joyful (even for a Who) Mr. Brickelbaum.

One thing I actually like better in this version than I did in the original 1966 one, was the inclusion of several Christmas songs which reference the Nativity. Unlike other modern “Christmas” movies, this one highlights lyrics which refer to the birth of Christ, such as in “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”: “…remember Christ Our Savior was born on Christmas Day….” Granted, it was sung by an overly enthusiastic Whoville, flashmob, Pentatonic-style choir who (pun intended) unintentionally chased the flinching Grinch through Whoville in a rather comedic scene, but the song was beautifully done.

There are a number of other similarly respectful moments in the film, which makes this 2018 version even more endearing than it otherwise would have been.

And do not be concerned about the occasional “Happy Holidays” that you will hear, because there are plenty of “Merry Christmas!” salutations to be heard, especially after the Grinch’s conversion. This might not have been a casual decision, but a deliberate script writing device. Either way it works nicely.

Benedict Cumberbatch does one of the best American accents by a Brit that I know. The only one who does it as well, I think, is Kenneth Branagh (Dead Again). Of course, I could just be biased because I am admittedly a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch. Like Mr. Branagh, Cumberbatch is not a movie star, he is an actor. (Don’t believe me – watch his Hamlet.)

The original film short was only 26 minutes. This 2018 runtime of 90 minutes uses the extra time well, investing the story with more about the Grinch’s backstory, as well as providing more credibility to his conversion, without eliminating any of the original elements from either the book or the 1966 movie.

. This movie is absolutely and completely suitable for everyone.There is no innuendo or profanity of any sort. It’s funny for adults, charming for children, enhances the original theme, and maintains the intent of the original story.

So – bravo to directors Yarrow Cheney (Despicable Me) and Scott Mosier (who, up to now has NOT been a maker of child-friendly films), scriptwriters Michael LeSieur (You, Me and Dupree), Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings, Snow Dogs) and, of course Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel. Congrats also to music composer, Danny Elfman, and especially Mr. Cumberbatch for lending their talents to create this newest and very successful rendering of this most charming of Christmas stories for children of every age.

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A SECOND LOOK AT THE NEW DR. WHO, A LOOK BACK AT AN OLD STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION AND THE PRO-LIFE MESSAGE

SHORT TAKE:

The recent Dr. Who shows have been FAR better than the pilot and rely on puzzles, history, and most importantly, in The Tsuranga Conundrum, features — a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Anyone.

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LONG TAKE:

I was not wrong. The first of the new Doctor Who's was terrible. Click HERE to see why. However, the stories immediately began improving and I had already intended to write a revised blog. But episode 5, The Tsuranga Conundrum, put me over the top and inspired me to get it done.

Let me first say a little bit about the other improved episodes. Rosa, much like TOS Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever", where one person's decision changes the course of history, revolves around whether or not Rosa Parks will refuse to stand for a white person on a bus in the 60s. Her act of civil disobedience, striking a blow for the dignity of every human, sparked the Civil Rights Movement. The antagonist for the show was a fellow time traveler who wished to interrupt this key event. The Doctor and company were there to protect the time line. Rosa was a lovely story and the theme harkened back to Doctor Who's original 1963 intent of being a time-traveling historian and scientist.

The other shows highlighted the female Doctor Who's natural strengths of intellect and puzzle-solving. As a woman, she does not have the upper body strength to physically handle altercations. The other doctors, aside from Christopher Eccleston, though of  "academic" builds, were still far stronger physically than this one could be. So her strength lies in her being, as David Tennant put it often, "clever". And this comes off very well again in this story.

While her companions are still not especially noteworthy, you kind of get used to them, and they have the virtues of neither being bossy nor abrasive as previous companions have been. Neither is there some long game arc with them as the linchpin to the mysteries of the universe, which is pretty refreshing. So the shows have definitely improved.

But the most recent Dr. Who episode was the icing on the cake and deserves special commendation. Doctor Who has always been pretty pro-life, much like Star Trek was pro-life. The value of sentient life was recognized,  regardless of how they looked. And there was respect for life and Creation in general, (even though there was only rarely a reference to a Creator). And Doctor Who is very much in the same vein. Enemies' lives are respected, valued and protected with as much alacrity as friends' lives. Character arcs are often about redemption, and rarely does the concept of revenge in any form rear its head.

Acknowledgement of life's importance in all forms is an understood thread that weaves itself though both shows. But only once before this most recent Dr Who show have I seen the pro-life position so clearly and plainly stated as it was in "The Child," from Star Trek the Next Generation.  In "The Child" Deanna Troi finds herself pregnant from an unknown entity. The consensus from the rest of the command crew was extreme caution and Worf, the Klingon security officer, even recommended abortion of the "fetus". But Deanna, not even knowing how she got pregnant, not knowing what was the intent of the entity who, frankly, raped her, flatly stated to her captain: "Do whatever you feel is necesssary to protect the ship and the crew, but know this, I'm going to have this baby". Not fetus, not product of conception, but "baby".  The only issue to Deanna was protection of the child that she carried and an acknowledgement that it was indeed a baby.

DR WHO SPOILERS

I am so very pleased to commend this new Doctor Who, and obviously the writer, Chris Chibnall, for making the same clear pro-life statement. In episode 5, "The Tsuranga Conundrum", the premise is that The Doctor and her companions are trapped on a hospital ship without her TARDIS. Their literal deus ex machina is temporarily out of reach on a planet several days travel away. The main storyline revolves around an attack on the hospital ship by a new mysterious alien, the Pting. But that is not really relevant to the point of this blog, so I will let you enjoy that part on your own. 

Their subplot, partially intended for comedy, is really the most important part of the story. Yoss is a young unmarried man, in the last stages of pregnancy. Now bear with me. Though the young man looks human, he is a different species and this IS a science fiction show. When asked how he knows the child will be a boy, he responds matter-of-factly: "Boys give birth to boys and girls give birth to girls. That's how it is." So – yeah – alien. Somehow this struck me as especially funny, as I am sure the writer intended. When two of The Doctor's companions, understandably confused, ask him how this could have happened, meaning – how could he, a man, become pregnant?!!! the scared new dad misunderstands and explains that it was the result of an ill-thought out one night stand.

Here is where the pro-life begins. There was never any mention of Yoss considering abortion even though he makes clear that pregnancy was the LAST thng he wanted at this time in his life and that he feels woefully underprepared to be a parent. In addition, the writer, through Yoss, goes out of his way to show the companions what his unborn baby looks like in a series of 3D ultrasound images. There was no plot purpose to this slide show, but it made a brilliant point and, I thought was the highlight of the episode. His species' gestation takes only 5 days, therefore the pictures he shows are a succession of developmental shots only a few hours after conception, then after the first day, the second day, third, and fourth, all of which show dramatic gestation of a species that looks just like a normal human child. The last picture of his unborn baby, taken three hours earlier, shows a full-term, perfectly beautiful,  baby boy to the awe and delight of the attending companions.

I thought this masterfully done. Whether the writer intended to or not, he makes it clear, even to the most uninitiated, that it takes no time at all to get from "conception" to "baby".  And giving this species a five day gestation brings that thought home in a very condensed way.

There are some predictable but still funny moments of two squeamish human men in a delivery room assisting with the C-section birth of a baby. But all the concepts are treated tactfully, so not to worry. The rest of the subplot is cute as well and involves his decision whether or not to keep his baby or give him up for adoption.

And there's a bit of lagniappe. Usually Doctor Who, and even my own beloved Star Trek, avoid religion at best and take sly jabs at it at worst. But in this Doctor Who, during the funeral for one of the guest characters, prayers are requested from saints! While, unfortunately, no mention of God was there, reference to saints, a distinctly Catholic spiritual concept, was a delightful and blessed breath of fresh air.

As I have not been shy of doing in the past, I have re-evaluated the show. I hereby backtrack on my previous overall negative impression of the new female Doctor Who. While I continue to maintain that the first was poorly done, it did not put her best foot forward. The steep incline of improvement has been quite a pleasant surprise.

So, I recommend for all of you Doctor Who fans who have not tuned in yet, to give Miss Whitaker's Doctor Who a try. Based upon shows 2 through 5 she deserves another chance.

And bravo to our new MISS Doctor Who for her profoundly pro-life message. I will be tuning in again.

DR. WHO: THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – SHAVE AND A HAIR CUT…………….???

 

SHORT TAKE:

Disappointing, lackluster reboot of Dr. Who into the first female incarnation of the main character, in a plot that is a routine set up without any real payoff.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone CAN go see this DR. WHO, but…(to use a different interrogative pronoun)…WHY?

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LONG TAKE:

I went with an open mind, I really did. After all, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that, contrary to my long held opinion, a good superhero could be made featuring a woman when Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot knocked the socks off me with her powerful but feminine portrait of a righteously heroic super woman.

So it was with high hopes that I went to go see the premiere of the very first show featuring the very first woman Dr Who – that is with the exception of The Curse of Fatal Death, the parody filmed for the charity Comic Relief with Rowen Atkinson who ultimately morphs into Joanne Lumley in 1999.

If you like the cheap waxy chocolate in your Easter basket; if you make your milkshakes out of fat free ice milk; if you prefer plain unsweetened rice cakes for breakfast; if your refreshment of choice is a clear sugar free diet soda (why don't you just drink water?); if your musical taste runs to the elevator music version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" — then this is the Dr Who for you. All promise and little delivery.

SPOILERS

To start with, the pronouns present a challenge, but let’s do this – if I’m referring to Jody Whittaker’s Dr Who it seems fair to use the feminine. BUT if I refer to any previous incarnation, then the masculine grammatical reference should apply.

For those of you NOT familiar with Dr Who, please refer to my previous blog on Dr Who: Twice Upon a Time, which gives a quick "cheat sheet" introduction to the Whovian Universe.

For those of you already familiar with Dr Who, the premise of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, is that the first female Doctor (literally) falls to Earth – and physically – through a train roof, just as the passengers are being terrorized by an energy ball of tentacles. Companions happen upon her and follow like dust motes in the wake of a guppy and they decide to figure out what it is and its connection to another alien with teeth imbedded in its face. Meanwhile, an entire more interesting and better acted subplot involving a missing girl and her murdered brother are brushed aside like so much flotsam and the story drags to a conclusion with manufactured tension and a lead who can not even smile convincingly.

None of this is remotely quality Who.

Even the beginning flies in the face of the basic mechanics of the Who-verse. Everyone knows or suspects strongly that Dr. Who’s TARDIS gets him/her to where they are most needed. From the get go, as explained by Whittaker's Who, the TARDIS was wounded and dematerialized leaving the new Who to the tender ministrations of gravity. So Who's propitious appearance at the train to save the passengers seems more like coincidence than it should.

Next, while the Doctor has shown himself to be physically resilient, and crashing bodily into Earth like a thrown bowling ball is not necessarily the most injurious event he has ever survived, to fall to Earth from near outer space and crash THROUGH a train roof without so much as mussed hair is a bit much for even my considerable suspension of disbelief. 

Tennant, having burst through a skylight in The End of Time Part II looks like he's been on the wrong side of a blender.

And her adaptability to her new body misses SO much. Tennant noticed new teeth immediately before collapsing from the regeneration effort. Matt Smith examined his whole body in a humorous frenzy even as the TARDIS was exploding around him: "Legs! I've still got legs! Good. Arms. Hands. Oo! Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears. Yes. Eyes two. Nose. I've had worse. Chin. [Noting its size]  Blimey. Hair. [presciently] I’m a girl. [feels Adam’s apple] No no. I’m not a girl. [Pulling a lock of hair forward to look at it, grumps] And still not ginger." When River Song morphed from young black teen to middle aged but shapely white woman we got more brilliant acting with Alex Kingston as she admires her own new hair then hollars from the bathroom: "Oh, that’s magnificent! I’m gonna wear lots of jodhpurs!" 

Jody Whittaker's Dr. Who's only comment is "Brilliant" and we're not even sure she's reacting to her new gender. Granted this is a flaw in the writing, but there's no indication from her acting or movements that she is: awed, amazed, dismayed, confused, curious, intrigued, or turned on by the fact that for the first time she is whole new GENDER! When in the past your previous selves have been surprised and dazzled by hair color and teeth size, and another Time Lord by the size of her own booty, you'd THINK a change in your entire sex would merit SOME attention. Even the spoof skit showed Lumley impressed with her new found…upgrades. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth her responses COULD have been tastefully done and REALLY funny. But it was like "Shave and a hair cut…………….." WHERE was the overwhelm? Where was the curiosity?

And her acting is – to put it kindly – bland. To NOT be so kind, she demonstrates all the emoting variations of an indulgent second grade school teacher.

Don't believe me? Let's take a trip down memory lane:

Tennant:

Smith:

Eccleston:  

Hurt:

Capaldi:

Now here's the new Dr Who: Her busy face,  her studious face  her surprised face. Is she afraid to move her eyebrows? Or show any genuine enthusiasm? Or risk looking silly?

Where is the humor? Where is the childlike enthusiasm to which we can all relate? And while, again, this is largely the fault of the script, it's not even that the show takes itself too seriously. I've often told our kids – it's not necessarily WHAT you say, but HOW you say it that makes all the difference. And I can't help but nostalgically wonder how a previous doctor (pick one – ANY one) would have done the reading on these same fairly uninspired lines and what desperately needed, resuscitating life they might have given them.

The writing is mundane and pedestrian. The trailer even features a good example: "I'm The Doctor. When people need help I never refuse." This is not only lazy writing but it is said with all the conviction of a PSA.

There's a scene where she jumps dramatically and dangerously (in Capaldi's slippery ill-fitting dress shoes) from one crane to another about 15 stories off the ground, then simply talks and tosses something to the bad guy to win the day. It would have been far more interesting if she had realized she did not have the upper body strength in the female body she now has, admitted that and worked around it. Realistically she could have done exactly what she ended up doing – talking and tossing – only without the death defying leap. This is just manufactured suspense.

Even the title is not particularly creative, merely a take on an old David Bowie sci fi vehicle The MAN Who Fell to Earth. There's no connection except the paraphrase.

Her companions are ginned up from what looks like the politically correct pool of the week: an elderly white man, married to a caricature of the pushy black woman, with a black teen grandson and a young woman whose last name is Khan who used to be a classmate of the grandson. They are all intimately related to each other yet we are to believe it is all coincidence. It was so unlikely a group of connections that I thought, surely the links must be part of the plot twist. But no, again just lazy writing to avoid having to introduce these characters to each other and endure the arduous task of creatively writing ways and events for them to get to know each other. Yet none of them has any real chemistry with either each other or the Doctor. And when one of them dies…..

SORRY – SPOILER – BUT HONESTLY, "WHO" CARES?

…….I wanted to feel badly about it but the show gave us little emotional investment to spend.

The direction was unremarkable but adequate – sort of like a high end shampoo commercial.

There is no vision. There was no rhyme or reason. Dr. Who started out over a half century ago as Britain's answer to Mr. Wizard – a science show which presented interesting facts in an entertaining way. It has – up to now – held to the tradition of teaching …. something: how to treat your fellow sentient creature, clever ways to solve puzzles, return evil with kindness, self sacrifice to protect the innocent, theories on effects of time travel, how other creatures from entirely different perspectives might react to the human culture, simply – thou shalt not kill. But I got the impression Mr. Chibnall, the show's new writer, has not yet gotten the memo on this one. He wrote a couple of the mini-shorts "The Power of Three" and "Pond Life" as well as some pretty decent other shows: 42, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Cold Blood/Hungry Earth. But being able to pick up a basket of pecans does not mean you have the strength to carry the entire TREE. And carrying a FOREST is what shouldering the work of creatively moving forward with this formerly imaginative show, with more than 50 years of history and backstory demands from WHOever thinks they can captain this ship. Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat or Russell T. Davies, Chibnall is not.

There IS a lot of running, some red herring puzzles and a so-so denoument with forced tension and nothing to learn in the end. We don't even really find out what happens to the person she set out to save. And when the survivor moves in self-defense she chides him: "You shouldn't have done that." We go to an awkward visual cut to somewhere else on the soundstage and that's the last we ever see of him. Huh?

She preposterously builds a new sonic screwdriver out of dust, gizmos and a bag of metal coffee spoons lying around a cluttered human workshop. It might have been vaguely believable if she had used the tech that WAS potentially available from a discarded space "eggshell" but even that McGuffin wasn't utilized. If they are THAT easy to make why doesn't she make LOTS of them? Hand them out like party favors to her companions?

And to top everything else off they went out of their way to dis Christianity. Mostly, Dr Who, like Star Trek, leaves religion alone. But when one of their crew dies, the funeral is held in a church, but the cross beam of the cross behind the altar area is deliberately covered by carefully placed…balloons! Balloons? At a FUNERAL? And why HAVE the funeral in a Christian church if you are going to cover up the primary symbol of that institution unless you: A. Want to go out of your way to thumb your nose at the Christian faith, or B. You don't want to be bothered to think of any place else and you're too cheap to actually take the cross down. So disrespectful or indolent, take your pick.

And the death was stupid ANYway. The character threw themself into a dangerous situation unnecessarily then died clumsily. The death served no real purpose other than to cut the number of companions from four to three. "Thrift, Horatio, thrift." Fewer paychecks I suppose.

There are a zillion other dumb plot decisions: did she really wear that manky suit to the funeral? She doesn't even TRY to negotiate for the captured sister that one of the subplot characters died horribly trying to find. Since when does a Time Lord stick their finger up their nose to determine when they are going to faint? Did Chibnall think this was funny? Why on Earth would someone touch a glowing grid that appears out of nowhere? How DID he get his bike out of the tree? Did she not even CONSIDER her "friends" might be sucked into space with her using her jury rigged spit and bailing wire transporter? Why would she run on a wet crane in slippery dress shoes a couple sizes too big when she could have at least taken them off? What are the chances ALL the companions, randomly found, knew each other already without that fact being a plot point?

It all felt  – as though you were given Peter Davison's celery stalk with no dressing as your entire dinner or you were expected to warm yourself with only a bit of fringe off of Tom Baker's scarf – underdone, incomplete, ill-thought out, unfulfilling and unfinished (kind of like the way we all felt about the actor Christopher Eccleston's career as Dr. Who after he refused to be in the 50th Anniversary Special for no particularly good reason). So watching this Dr. Who I now know how Roger Rabbit felt when Judge Doom knocked on the wall and "inquired": "Shave and a hair cut," and he wasn't allowed to yell "TWO-BITS!"

So finally we are left with yet another interrogative pronoun and a burning question: WHERE is the real Dr. Who?! And will SOMEONE please say "TWO-BITS!"

LITTLE WOMEN – ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN YEARS

SHORT TAKE:

Artfully modernized, faithfully told beautiful adaptation for the contemporary audience of the classic story, Little Women.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Anyone. All ages. Please go, bring friends.

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LONG TAKE:

We know this story extremely well, inside and out. I’ve read the book. I’ve taught it as part of our curriculum several times over the span of homeschooling six kids.  I have seen a number of filmed versions including the appalling one where Katherine Hepburn was way too old to play Jo and a lovely one with Susan Sarandon as Marme. Our family was IN the danged play at our local community theater 12 years ago. My second oldest daughter played the lead, Jo, and the rest of our family either had parts on stage, behind the scenes or were present for every rehearsal cheering their siblings on. We’ve incorporated lines and expressions like "love lornity" and how French is a "silly slippery language" from the play into our traditional family sayings. Shoot, with four girls of our own, there were times I've felt as though we were LIVING scenes from Little Women…but I had never truly appreciated the story of Little Women until I saw this 2018 modernized film.

Little Women, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the source book, has been refurbished to modern day and is arguably one of the best movies I have seen in years. The film makers have adapted this Civil War era story to the 21st century with the same skill as the innovative Cumberbatch-Freeman Sherlock updated the original Conan Doyle invention, or Steve Martin refreshed Cyrano de Bergerac into the whimsical Roxanne – that is to say with both seamless, creative invention and great respectful affection for the source material. It is a testament to the timelessness of the concepts foundational to Louisa May Alcott’s novel that it translates so well, but it is the talent of the gifted screenwriter Kristi Shimek, newbie director Clare Niederpruem and the actors that makes it blossom onto the screen.

For the benefit of anyone suffering the misfortune of not being familiar with the story, the premise of Little Women follows Jo March from childhood to womanhood as she and her sisters grow and mature together in the warm embrace of loving parents and stalwart friends through joys, embarrassments, mistakes, misunderstandings, and the other comedies and tragedies of life.

For those who are blessed with a familiarity of the subject, rest assured the writer and director have a love and respect for the material. The tale has not been changed by the displacement in time, but is transformed into an image more familiar and therefore more accessible to 21st century audiences, without altering a single iota of character development, story arc, or theme. John Bunyan’s famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is as notable here as it was in the original script and novel, forming the underlying themes of passage from human frailty and sin to redemption, suffering the travails of life with forgiveness, courage, and love. Instead of the Civil War, the father is deployed overseas. Instead of letters they have Skype. The charity the original characters perform for a starving mother and children next door is done at a homeless shelter. The children are homeschooled and the social faux pas are appropriately updated to reflect the unwiseness of modern youth. As many lines as can be are pulled directly from the book, but updates, where needed, are appropriately made.

I’ve known Lea Thompson was a fine actress ever since I first saw Back to the Future at the theater in 1985. I was floored to discover, some 20 minutes into the movie when Marty goes back to the past, that the same woman who played a dowdy, overweight, burnt out, disillusioned and embittered alcoholic was NOT in fact 50 years old but a brilliant little 24 year old actress who nailed the tragic first version of Lorraine in the opening scenes of that now famous movie. She hits the bull's eye again in Little Women as Marme, the gentle, warm and archetype maternal figure of the March family.

I was honestly not familiar with any of the other cast members before seeing this Little Women. Most harken from TV shows and B movies, but every one of the performers is not only tremendous in their roles, but fit into and shape their characters so perfectly I will have difficulty ever thinking of these March family members and friends as anyone but them (with the except of our own family members, of course).

Sarah Davenport is perfect as the high strung, impulsive, often unthinking and deeply emotional Jo. Allie Jennings ditto as Jo’s favorite sister and alter ego, the gentle, kind and resolute Beth. Melanie Stone is lovely as Meg, wanting nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy playing the younger and older Amy, respectively, do a great job of the self absorbed and easily smitten youngest sister without losing Amy’s vulnerability. Lucas Grabeel steps into the part of Laurie with just the right combination of awkward and delightful as the lonely young man next door anxious to join a family. Ian Bohen as the caring and insightful Professor Freddie Bhaer, Bart Johnson as the warm and loving Papa March, Michael Flynn as Laurie’s kind and thoughtful grandfather Mr. Lawrence, Stuart Edge as Brooke, Barta Heiner as Aunt March and even Goober the cat contribute their support to this brilliant and beautiful film adaptation for the contemporary audience.

The dress and sets are simple and fit the time and place of a family of well cared for and spiritually sound young women. The sweetly fitting soundtrack is decorated with modern day songs which accurately reflect the needs of the film's moods. Most of the action takes place in and around the March and Lawrence homes. The filming style is of flash – backs and forwards – as time moves on and memories are rekindled by events in Jo’s dynamic present. And I really enjoyed the cinematically creative and tasteful way Ms. Niederpruem conveyed the passage of time.

Go see this wonderful version of Little Women. Read the book either before or after…or both…and gain a fresh new appreciation for this enchanting, inspiring and enduring tale of spiritual growth, family strength and the power that love and faith have over the buffets and trials of life. Bring Kleenex.

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS – MEDIOCRE FANTASY WITH A POSSIBLY SINISTER UNDERTONE

SHORT TAKE:

Mediocre fantasy, under utilizing what should have been a winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blachett, with scenes which may just have some truly disturbing motivations behind them.

WHO SHOULD GO:

To be safe – adults only.

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LONG TAKE:

The House with a Clock in its Walls made me sad, but not in the way that movies are supposed to make you sad, like in Titanic, or Old Yeller, or at the end of Funny Girl.

Maybe it was because it wasn't nearly as good as I thought it was going to be, or maybe it was something more sinister. 

SPOILERS

The premise is of an orphaned boy, Lewis, who is sent to live with his only remaining relative, a reclusive eccentric uncle, Jonathan, (Jack Black), who, it turns out, is a warlock seeking a dangerous magical item, buried within the house, placed there by the house’s previous owner, Isaac, (Kyle MacLachlan). An interesting idea but not well carried out.

First off, there is the acting. I have liked Jack Black ever since he started doing kid and youth films. He is a goofy pleasure in movies like Kung Fu Panda, King Kong and Goosebumps. Cate Blanchett, who plays Jonathan's best friend and antagonist-neighbor Florence, brings an element of class to everything she's in, even the terrible Oceans 8. And of course Blanchett was spectacular as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings.

However the main character, Lewis, (Owen Vaccaro) was just plain old not very good. Perhaps it was the directing but, for example, when the subject of Lewis' parents' death in a car crash comes up, he tears up and wails so much and unexpectedly, it is as though he is faking it and we're all left waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He is unconvincing in other key moments as well, such as when he is supposed to be desperate enough for a friend that he would break his uncle's one rule about not going near a cabinet which contains a forbidden book. There was no effort to convince the audience that Lewis would want to risk his new relationship with his magical uncle.

Maybe it was the inconsistent characters. Lewis comes to the attention of a school favorite named Tarby (Sunny Suljic), who genuinely seems to want to be kind to this new little outcast. But then, suddenly, Tarby is running for a school office, and after getting elected, Tarby becomes a bully. One of the other kids tells Lewis they are not surprised because Tarby does this every election season. This doesn't make any sense because there is very little Tarby has to gain from the friendship with Lewis. 

This turnabout is so awkward, sudden and confusing that I thought, surely, there was more to this character. Is he possessed by the evil ghost of Isaac? IS he the evil Isaac in disguise, and was just using Lewis to gain access to the house? This latter theory seemed to be further encouraged by Tarby's instant and pointed desire to open the one cabinet in the house Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan told him he must never go near, as though Tarby knew all along the forbidden book was there. But no, Tarby is just a mean kid who likes to be nice randomly but only for a few days and serves as a convenient shoe-horned plot device. Sorry, but that's just bad writing.

Then there is Jonathan’s back story. Jonathan left home because he wished to pursue magic and simply assumed his little sister, Lewis' mother, did not want anything to do with him. So much so that Jonathan did not even go to her funeral. Yet without question Jonathan accepts that his sister would have sent her only child to live with him. These two points are inconsistent. Jonathan never has a real moment or explanation as to why he would be so deeply alienated with his sister. And no explanation as to why he would, without question, believe his sister would leave her only child in his care. Which is it? Did Jonathan believe his sister hated him or not?

The movie has so many misdirections, without purpose, that I got the feeling it was written backwards, with the ending in sight but little attention to making sure the path to it from the introduction made sense. And whenever the writer had to get from point A to Point B he just sewed on a patch to make the two plot points connect.

AND – OH YEAH – the clock turns out to be "under the boiler". I'm sorry, but in what universe does "under the boiler" put it therefore "— in the Walls"?

Also, I’m not sure what demographic audience they were going for. It’s silly enough that it should attract a young child crowd – fart jokes and Addams Family-like purple monster snake-tarantulas, standing up to bullies in middle school and ooh aah moments of solar systems coming to life in the living room.

But then there are extremely creepy scenes which would make the movie unacceptable for that same young group: poisoning evil anthropomorphized mannequins to death, violent repeated shaking preceding transformations much like the very disturbing way Penny-Wise the Clown shook in the modern It, a dead mother, (portrayed by Lorenza Izzo, now the estranged wife of the director Eli Roth) appearing in her son’s dreams to get him to seek out a forbidden book, necromancy, having truck with a forked tongued demon who actually licks blood off one of the character’s hands – basically a 7th book Harry Potter aimed at first Harry Potter book-aged children.

Then there is the more sinister aspect of the flaws.

There is an expression I learned in business: The Appearance of Impropriety. That is when, even if your motives are pure as a newborn baptized baby, there are just some things you should avoid doing. For example, whenever my husband drove our babysitters home, he would always tell our kids, "Come on! Let's all go for a ride!" and away a pack of them would go to keep the baby sitter company on the ride. He and I rightly believe that an adult male alone in a car with a young person not his own child is just not appropriate.

And, we do not much care for casinos in our community, so we boycott them. When a close friend held his daughter's wedding reception at one of the casinos’ restaurants, it was with great regret that we had to decline to attend the party. Had we gone, it would have seemed as though we were endorsing the casino. In both cases, we were avoiding The Appearance of Impropriety.

In The House, I am not saying that the character of Uncle Jonathan is doing anything wrong. He keeps his distance, had not sought out the child but was assigned the responsibility of raising his dead sister's son. But the writers left certain bread crumbs that perhaps it would have been better in the current environment not to have sown.

For example, near the end Jonathan is youthened to a baby but left with an adult head. This puts Lewis in a position of carrying around a naked adult in miniature. After Jonathan is restored, while hiding behind some equipment, he asks Lewis to throw him his pants, but more damningly, asks Lewis not to tell anyone that he, Jonathan, was left naked.

Given the circumstances, this is awkward at best. In the current climate of heightened awareness of an epidemic of underage inappropriate sexual predation by authority figures, this was, even in the best light, ill thought out and in very poor taste. Much like the scene in the dog movie Show Dogs, where an animal was coerced into allowing inappropriate touching for judging purposes, even if the circumstances made the behavior objectively understandable, this is not something you want to use as an example for children to follow. Moreover, as book stories are fantasy and so can be written any way the film makers want, there was ZERO reason to put in scenes where Lewis is carrying around a naked man OR to be sworn to secrecy by that same adult male concerning his nakedness in front of the child.

Even assigning innocent motives to the writers, these scenes smack of grooming for pedophiles and should be cut or re-written AS the makers of Show Dogs said they would do. (Though I have not personally confirmed whether or not they actually HAVE re-edited Show Dogs to eliminate or change the offending genital-touching/judging scenes).

Did the writer, Eric Kripke and director Eli Roth, deliberately set up scenes where a young boy is in a compromising situation with an adult male who swears him to secrecy in order to help desensitize millions of children to a similar real life scenario with far more corrupted, ugly and disgusting motives? Or was this just an ill-thought out, ignorant gag by Kripke and Roth, because neither, best I can find out, have any children so did not fully consider the implications?

I don’t really know. But, as I have inculcated to our own children a zillion times: I have never known anyone who regretted being too careful, but I have known a LOT of people who regretted not being careful enough.

What makes me sad, though, is that a movie which could have and should have been a somewhat fluffy entertainment must be analyzed in this way. Fifty years ago we could have easily attributed the innocent motives of the film makers at face value and shrugged off the possibility of any nefarious underlying motives – ALTHOUGH perhaps fifty years ago pedophia grooming could have been perpetrated in this way and we just would not have known to watch for it because its prevalence was not what it is today. Either way, the fact we live in a culture wherein it becomes necessary that even light fare today MUST be scrutinized so carefully in order to protect children makes me very sad.

So – while it’s fairly brainless amusement for adults, it might just be "Stranger Danger" level inappropriate for the kids – whether the film makers intended it to be or not.

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.

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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.