KLAUS OUTSHINES THE OTHER OSCAR CONTENDERS

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW OF KLAUS

SHORT TAKE:

The animated feature Klaus cleverly and adorably postulates the origins of the Santa Claus story.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Any age, though there are Looney Tunes level scenes of “violence” and some images no scarier then the chef scene in The Little Mermaid, they are all played for laughs even the littlest can enjoy.

LONG TAKE:

I do not believe in coincidence. And I do not believe the writer-director of Klaus, Sergio Pablos (who also lends his voice to two of the more caricature cast members, Pumpkin and Olaf) does either. I think that everything happens for a reason, as directed by the Divine hand of our Creator. The story Mr. Pablos has lovingly crafted during the last two and a half years, addresses one possible explanation of the origins of the Santa Claus story, and demonstrates this purpose-driven theory beautifully.

Klaus is one of five contenders for the best animated feature film Oscar. The others are: Toy Story 4 (SEE REVIEW HERE), Missing Link, I Lost my Body, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. I think Klaus should be the hands-down winner.

SPOILERS (THOUGH AS FEW AS I COULD)

The premise, without giving away too much, is about a spoiled little rich man who is forced to cope on the island of Smeerensburg, in the outer reaches of the north, among members of two feuding families who have made their community a generational war zone. The name “Smeerensburg” was chosen by Pablos, adopted from a city on the outskirts of the northern frontier with the name of Smeerenburg (without the middle “s”) which no longer exists, so is, in a way, itself now a myth.

While the violence is played for laughs, the oppressive gray scale, deliberately sharp intimidating ubiquitous icicle motiffs, angular houses and angry denizens make the point. This is not a place you want to stay.

But, unlike I Lost my Body, (which is about a severed hand trying and ultimately failing to reunite with the young man from whom it was cut), Klaus is not unrelentingly grim, dark and navel-mediatingly introspective. Klaus is funny, as animated films really SHOULD be. While there is a modicum of slapstick, the humor is mostly from the way people can be amusing just in interacting with each other. The writing in Klaus is warm, smart and clever, creating distinctive personalities amongst the cartoon creations. Klaus gives us likeable, interesting people, unlike one of the other Oscar contenders, the (ahem) abominable Missing Link, which latter movie, unsuccessfully relied upon star power and improv to write their failed script. Klaus is often amusingly unrealistic, especially as Jesper confronts obstacles and, of course, survives things that flesh and blood human beings would not. But much like the OLD Bugs Bunny shows, it establishes and follows its own Universal rules while tweaking real world ones. Missing Link, on the other hand, is all over the place, placing characters in “jeopardy” one moment then having them come away unscathed from other worse events.

Klaus, like any good fairy tale, has an ennobling theme repeated several times: “A true act of goodwill always sparks another.” As the movie plays out, the meaning of this phrase expresses itself more deeply – how great good can come from the most unlikely situations, even in the serendipitous meeting between one man suffering from deep grief and another so myopically selfish he can not see the good he is accomplishing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The animation while not 100% state-of-the-art, is solid and updated 2D, often clever and delightfully detailed, reminiscent of the artful Anastasia. In contrast, How to Train Your Dragon has some truly gorgeous visuals and the main characters are as endearing as they were in the first two, BUT the plot to Dragon is thin and really just a slightly mixed rehash of ground already covered. Also, Dragon‘s story is far too padded with superfluous characters inserted for laughs but who just come across as obnoxious. What Klaus lacks in cutting edge visuals, it more than makes up for in well developed characters and a subtly intricate plot.

Jason Schwartzman’s Jesper reminds me a lot of David Spade’s cocky, cynically hip Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove. Like Kuzco, Jesper languishes in prolonged adolescence as an unchallenged, indulged youth but who comes into his own and becomes a mensch in discovering previously untapped and unsuspected wells of determination, ingenuity and altruism.

The soundtrack is light and lovely, and, although not a musical, is sprinkled throughout with catchy background tunes intended to reflect the mood of the moment.

Klaus, the character, is voiced by JK Simmons, who stole scenes as the loud blustery editor in the old Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies.

The wonderful Joan Cusack (sister to and often co-star with John C.),  brings ever-angry Mrs. Krum, (reminding me a bit of a female Yosemite Sam) to life. She is an actress who has graced many lovely movies like: Instant Family (SEE MY REVIEW HERE), Raising Helen, the first Toy Stories, and Martian Child. I do not believe I have ever seen a movie with her in it that I did not at least enjoy her performance.

Will Sasso (guest star on The Orville (SEE MY REVIEWS HERE AND HERE)) is the cluelessly combative Mr. Ellingboe. Rashida Jones (Tag SEE REVIEW HERE and Cumberbatch’s Grinch SEE REVIEW HERE) plays Alva, the poster child for demoralized teachers, a young woman who idealistically arrived in Smeerensburg 5 years before and has been selling fish to earn enough money for passage out ever since.

Unlike the devastating betrayal of Toy Story 4 (SEE MY REVIEW HERE), which squandered a deep well of talent, creativity and fandom to put an ignominious end to the entire Toy Story franchise, Klaus gives us a story of altruism and family with a theme repeated often: “A true act of good will always sparks another.” This is a much better theme than Toy Story 4‘s pathetic rationalization for men who abandon their families and responsibilities for the shallow pursuit of their own selfish desires, in order to “follow their heart”. (gag me with a SPOON!)

Klaus, in contrast, harkens back to It’s a Wonderful Life, where one man, DYING to himself (instead of indulging himself) every day can impact so many lives, even if they do not anticipate or understand what they are doing while it is happening.

So while other films may have more money, tech, star power, or a franchise to back them up, Klaus more than outshines them all in superlative storytelling, characterization, theme, heart and … true acts of good will. Regardless of whether Oscar recognizes this or not, Klaus is the true winner.

 

A CHRISTMAS STORY – LOVELY NOSTALGIC REMINISCENCE AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely Christmas tale, set in 1950’s Americana, of a narrator’s look back on his childhood quest for the ideal present during the weeks leading up to Christmas morning.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone – children of all ages.

LONG TAKE:

A Christmas Story, which opened December 6, 2019  at ACTS Theatre and plays through December 15, 2019 (GET TICKETS HERE), is the stage play version, which premiered in 2000, based upon the charming classic holiday movie from 1983, which was, in turn, based upon the semi-autobiographical anecdotal book by Jean Shepherd, titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

The play tale is the same as the movie, narrated by the adult version of Ralphie, a little boy growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s during the weeks leading up to Christmas the year he desperately wanted and fantasized about having “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time”. Unfortunately his mother, his teacher and even the department store Santa gave the same litany response: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

While Ralphie’s ploys to obtain this forbidden item create the Christmas tree trunk of the story, the real gems, like ornaments on the branches, are the moments of true Americana which made up Ralphie’s childhood: the bundling up ritual before venturing into the bitter weather to get to school; Ralphie’s fantasies of protecting his family and friends with his BB gun; his father’s constant struggle with their old furnace accompanied by a string of invectives translated for the play into child-appropriate made up words; Ralphie’s friend Flick getting his tongue stuck on a lamppost subsequent to a triple dog dare; his fellow classmate Esther Jane’s obvious crush on him about which he is, at the time, completely oblivious; the eccentricities of his little brother Randy; and most importantly the close knit time he spent with his family. It didn’t matter that the dinners often suffered from routine or his father erroneously thought he was a mechanic. The magic was in the fact the parents and boys were together every night and the quantity of time they spent together AS a family which brings meaning to the real Christmas Story. The moments in a child’s life spent, as my own husband refers to them, MAKING memories.

A Christmas Story is a comedy, in as much as people are naturally funny. It’s not a series of one liners or gags but finds humor in the people we have in our lives, or even the people we are, all of whom find places in this story.  From Mother, “the Old Man” and brother Ralphie, to the bully Farkus and Miss Shields, his fifth grade teacher, all the characters will be quite familiar even to those who have never before seen the movie or this play. These are people who exist in all our lives in one form or another.

Noah Herbert is perfect as Ralphie, the young lead, sweet and ingenuous, he is the embodiment of that innocent time. Elizabeth Harper, as Mother, is the practical center of the family, kindly guiding her family through their antics like a loving human “face palm” of affectionate exasperation. Bobbie Guillory is “The Old Man”, a hard working devoted husband and father, whose amateur mechanics, whimsical commitment to contest entering, and attachment to a uniquely peculiar prize lamp inform many of the family events. Harper and Guillory create warm appealing characters with believable affectionate chemistry. Zac Hammon is the adult version of Ralphie looking back on his family and that particular Christmas with a fond nostalgia and warm wisdom, providing narration for the necessary exposition. Mila Alcantara is sweet and natural as Esther Jane, Ralphie’s crush. Hannah Miller chews the scenery as Scut Farkus, a comical version of the class bully. David Gustafson is adorable as Ralphie’s younger brother. Elliott Mitchell is the hapless Flick, constantly the butt of bad luck. Dorothy Thomason is fun as the stern but well meaning Miss Shields. And rounding out the cast is Dylan Freeman as Schwartz, and Jolie Leubner as Helen, Ralphie’s other classmates.

All the young actors do a magnificent job in their portrayals, timing and enthusiastic characterizations of these 1950’s children.

The set is appropriately always against the backdrop of the family kitchen. The kitchen was the heart and center of Ralphie’s home and life, with occasional forays to a nicely constructed upstairs bedroom to where Ralphie retires to think out loud, write essays of devotion about his Red Ryder gun and contemplate the mysteries of his life. Action outside the kitchen is set in front of the kitchen backdrop. This works on a conceptual as well as practical level, as the consequences of the outside world will eventually return and resolve to a satisfying conclusion there at the kitchen table anyway within the bosom of his family.

Director Clay Hebert, along with assistant Stan Morris and stage manager Lauren Manuel do a terrific job bringing this story together. Much of this stage incarnation echoes true to the film version but I must especially commend the director and his crew in what I personally perceive as a major improvement on the dynamics of the parents. In the 1983 movie Mother, as portrayed by Melinda Dillon, is a mousy creature and Darren MacGavin’s “Old Man” is kind of a clueless bulldozer. But Clay Hebert’s vision transforms those unappealing characters into the charming complementary couple of smart pragmatic Mother and energetic idealist “Old Man,” who we parents would not mind being remembered as. Plaudits go to all the cast and crew for successfully coming together as a troupe to offer this magical Christmas gift down memory lane to Lake Charles.

So go see this warm hearted show, which will conjure nostalgia for the past in the adults, ring true for children in the present, and light a unique lamp in the window for all families who look hopefully towards this Christmas and all the future Christmases to come.

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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THE LONG KISS GOOD NIGHT – INTENSE, BRILLIANT AND LITTLE KNOWN CULT CLASSIC WHICH PAVED THE WAY FOR ATOMIC BLONDE AND BLACK WIDOW

SHORT TAKE:

A rare example of a wildly successful, female-lead, action adventure about MOTHERHOOD — for adults only.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Any adult who enjoys James Bond or one of the reboot Mission Impossibles.

LONG TAKE:

With the quality-questionable Uncle Drew being the most promising of the new movie releases this week, I thought I might do a review of one of my favorite movies you've probably never heard of: The Long Kiss Goodnight.

In 1996, far before Charlize Theron became  Atomic Blonde, and back when Scarlett Johanssen was still a child, starring in low budgets like Manny and Lo, well before she grew up to be Black Widow, a unique cinematic excursion was released called The Long Kiss Goodnight. Geena Davis, from Stuart Little, A League of Their Own, The Fly, and Beetlejuice costarred with the truly ubiquitous and eternally youngSamuel L Jackson (who looks no different now than he did 22 years ago – see my comment about this in my review of The Incredibles 2) in a movie about a woman named Samantha Caine. Samantha washes up, two months pregnant, on the shores of Honesdale, PA, a sleepy New England town, with nothing but clothes on her back she doesn't remember buying, a few fighting scars and complete "focal retrograde amnesia". She remembers nothing about herself: not her identity, where she came from, her age, who the father of her child is, nothing, except her name and even that is a guess.

Honestly, the background pictures during the opening credits reveal WAAAAY more than they should or is necessary. So – if you rent or buy this movie, on first viewing, you should START AT THE THREE MINUTE MARK. You can go back and watch the opening credit images after you have finished the movie.

Eight years later, as the movie begins, Samantha is now a teacher in the local elementary school and a devoted mother to Caitlin. While riding in her adopted home town's Christmas parade, in what seems to be a complete non-sequitor, an inmate in a nearby prison, watching the event on a caged TV, suddenly goes into a fury. About the same time, Mitch, (Samuel L Jackson) the low rent detective Samantha hired then forgot about, unexpectedly comes up with a lead, and Nathan (Brian "Stryker" Cox), an old friend from Samantha's past, sets out to find her.

With the exceptions of Ms. Theron, Ms. Johanssen, and Gal Gadot, I generally find that action adventures featuring women protagonists fall pathetically flat. The Long Kiss Goodnight is the Gold Standard of exceptions and the predecessor to all the blockbusters in which the aforementioned ladies have starred.

Clever, rough, violent, funny, startling and profane, it is one of the most unusual, fascinating and memorable films about motherhood I know. It ranks right up there with Hotel Artemis (click to check out my previous blog) and Aliens. While the language, ironically, has even Mr. Jackson's character, Mitch, complaining, there is no blasphemy, and the sexuality is very low key for this genre. If you want to check the details of profanity and sexuality out for yourself click Screenit, if you are a member, before watching.

GENTLE SPOILERS

Geena Davis' slow transition from the sweet and charming, happily domestic Samantha to the fierce and indomitable Charley is a tour de force. Ms. Davis and Mr. Jackson make superb platonic team mates in the kind of movie relationship usually reserved for bromances. The plot is part James Bond, part North by Northwest, part Mission Impossible, with a little bit of Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde thrown in for good measure.

One of the things I find most commendably endearing and notably rare about this movie in general, and Samantha in particular, is that there is not even a hint she ever considered killing her unborn child, despite the desolateness of her situation as Samantha. Even while Charley, the most unlikely of mother candidates,  lurks in her subconscious, she has and embraces her natural and powerful maternal instincts. And after re-embracing her distinctly ungentle previous life Samantha/Charley remains a profoundly dedicated mother.  The idea that motherhood would trump everything else, even for the fully re-realized Charley, is a truly inspiring thought.

MODERATE SPOILER

To the point about motherhood, one of my favorite all time movie scenes is the way Samantha/Charley protects Caitlin and handles the "One Eyed Jack" when he invades her home. That's a heck of a mom. I can picture Weaver's Ripley giving Samantha a standing "O".

So if you're in the mood for something different than your usual film fare, be sure the kids are in bed and no where near close enough to hear Mr. Jackson as he chides Charley for HER language, and cue up The Long Kiss Goodnight.