TOY STORY 4 – A PRIMAL LOSS

SHORT TAKE:

Despite a brilliant start, clever plot, continued great acting, wonderful cameos, and magical animation, the story abandons its own raison d’etre.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone can go but I can’t recommend it for the target young audience because of very dark imagery and multiple scenes of loss and childhood trauma involving being separated from one’s family and justifiable fears of a child losing her toys  which could seriously distress small children. And I can’t recommend it for the older crowd because of the final message.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TOY STORY FRANCHISE

Full disclosure – this is a long post, even by my standards, but the Toy Story franchise has always been the beneficiary of some truly good writing, and the theme has always been that of family, so, it breaks my heart, but I have to make the case ….. against Toy Story 4, and that’s going to take some explaining.

In the first movie the question was the choice between ego or family, when Woody’s seniority and favorite status is threatened by Buzz Lightyear. Woody chose family by placing the needs of his fatherless owner, Andy, above his own wants and even risking his own life to rescue Buzz and incorporate Buzz into their group.

Toy Story 2 dealt with the idea of fame versus family when Woody has the opportunity to be admired from afar as a classic toy in a Japanese museum but instead chooses to return to Andy, even telling Buzz that he no longer fears Andy outgrowing him because he has the family of toys “for [sic] infinity and beyond”.

Toy Story 3 addresses the inevitable time when Andy, like Little Jackie Paper in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”, does outgrow the magic and the toys are sent to another child.

This latest installment also involves the issue of family.

Aside from the amazing computer animation, the sterling voice acting of terrific actors, the astonishingly complex characters, the jokes both obvious and inside which parents and even the youngest can understand on a variety of levels and the complex and interesting plot lines, the real brilliance of the films has always been that the stories are really about parenthood – selflessly being there when your child needs you, even if they don’t know they do, even if you do it knowing the goal is for them to eventually not need you any more.

To be a good parent one must choose their children’s happiness, safety and sense of security over the expediences of the parents’ own wants, desires and even needs. Woody, the de facto Dad in each of the movies, chooses to protect his toy family for the benefit of his child. And this is the way to which the ownership is referred – that the toy has a child, which is always viewed as the ultimate and Xanadu of existence for any toy. And the lack of a child is always seen as a tragic circumstance and even one which can, like Lotso or Stinky Pete, lead to a bitter expression of their baser and negative personality traits.

Woody chooses to share the lime light in the first, to forego fame in the second, and accept when his child no longer needs him but accepts the responsibilities of another child who does in the third.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR TOY STORY 4 – SEROUSLY I AM GOING TO BE DISCUSSING THE ENDING SO IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT YET AND WANT TO LET THE STORY UNVEIL ITSELF IN THE MOVIE THEATER PLEASE BAIL OUT NOW.

ALSO SPOILERS BY IMPLICATION FOR IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS IN PETER PAN, LION KING, ALADDIN AND STAR WARS – A NEW HOPE.

OK FAIR WARNING WAS GIVEN

FIRST – THE GOOD STUFF

While I have rarely seen a franchise manage the same quality throughout all of its films, Back to the Future being the only one that springs to mind at the moment, Toy Story seemed to conquer that artistic challenge with grace and a strong sense of its own universe. The writers respect these characters and recognize the intricate personalities of each toy, especially the major players. Each has flaws and virtues. None are treated as black and white. They are very recognizably 3D humans. Part of the magic of these stories is that everyone in the audience, including the adults, can find a toy with which to identify, just as any child can, in real life, find a toy which speaks to them out of a well stocked toy box. And the one overarching and abiding principle which has provided the strength of backbone to all of the stories is that their child means everything to the toys about whom the tale is woven.

Toy Story 4 is no exception. At least not at first and not for most of the movie. Woody steps aside as Jessie and other toys are regularly chosen as playmates over him because that is what Bonnie wants. He is the only one who recognizes Bonnie’s need for a champion and secret guardian when she is taken to kindergarten for orientation. Not even her parents apparently fully wish to understand that the little girl is too young to be left at an institution when she is devastated by her separation from home. Woody sneaks into her backpack and secretly assists her throughout the day, proving abundantly that he was right. Woody then steps up to promote a “toy” given life by Bonnie’s imagination and love which is made from a spork and some art supplies. Forky’s determination to be trash instead and his constant attempts to throw himself away are played for laughs and every parent who has had to deal with a self-destructive toddler (but I repeat myself) understands what Woody is up against.

And for anyone who has raised a child to adulthood, Woody’s consistent leadership, even when not wanted, and loyalty even when not appreciated, are part of the definition of true parenthood. You want kids to grow up and not need you any more but it is a painful process. In Woody’s case Bonnie still needs him but doesn’t even know it.

They have brought to the acting table all of the previous actors: Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear, the ubiquitous Ratzenberger as Hamm, Wally Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie, Annie Potts as Bo Peep, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly, and even, using posthumous archival clips, the late Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, even dedicating the film to his memory. And in a delightful spate of celebrity castings they have added: TV legend Carol Burnett in a small part as a talking child’s chair named Chairol Burnett, the one and only incredible Mel Brooks as Meliphant Brooks, and Betty White as Bitey White, the infamous web-short duo of Key and (Academy Award winning) Peele as Ducky and Bunny, Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers as three action adventure versions of Combat Carl (possibly take-offs of real toys based on his role in Predator), the Shakespearean actor and former James Bond Timothy Dalton in a reprising role as Mr. Pricklepants, Carl “basically invented TV sitcoms” Reiner as the little pink Carl Reinerocerous , and saving the most surprsing for laughs – Keanu “John Wick” Reeves as Duke Caboom – a Canadian based (in honor of Reeves home country) daredevil toy.

As a small digression: for anyone who has read my review of John Wick will note, I have mentioned that, despite Reeves omnipresence in bloody action flicks might otherwise suggest, Reeves calling is comedian – and if this stint as the voice of the wheelie posturing motorcyclist doesn’t prove that, then not even Bill and Ted could.

NOW THE BAD – TO BEGIN WITH IT IS VERY DARK AND CREEPY

I wish I could tell you that the film makers took this final installment to the Toy Story adventure to a brilliant conclusion… AND THEY WERE sooooooo CLOSE… but in truth they stumbled and fell badly at the finish line – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they just quit the race altogether.

I won’t reveal the details of the plot journey in THIS part of the post, except to say this is a darker movie than the others. Even Toy Story 3 with the accidental abandonment of the toys and Lotso’s dystopian nursery is not as unsettling as Toy Story 4. Bo Peep reemerges but her porcelein arms have been broken, are held on by tape and occasionally fall off. Some time is spent in an antique store which might as well have been labeled “Haunted House” from the toys’ point of view. A band of shuffling, very creepy, perpetually smiling, voiceless ventriolquist dolls protect, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) the nemesis, providing jump scares and kidnapping and assaulting different characters. Worse, Bonnie is beset almost the entire film with having to face loss. Loss of her home to kindergarten, loss of security as the other children treat her with casual indifference and her teacher does nothing about it; constant and repeated episodes of losing Forky, a traumatic (and I mean for the observing audience as well) scene where she is beside herself over Forky’s disappearance on a trip.

I HOPE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN, BUT WOODY — LEAVES — HIS CHILD

But the darkest parts of this Toy Story is Woody’s decision to become a “lost toy”. By choice.

Our younger son who went with us, an adult now, but a child when the first one came out, mentioned he was glad they had not gone to the well again of making another toy the “bad guy” as they had done with both Toy Stories 2 and 3 with Stinky Pete and Lotso, respectively. In retrospect, I’m afraid he was wrong. And I’m not talking about Gabby who ultimately repents, but Bo Peep. like the song about the temptress Lola in Damn Yankees, whatever Bo wants she gets and Woody, little man, she wants you.

Bo even expresses bitterness at having never truly been played with but ultimately rejected and discarded as an eventually unneeded nightlight. She shows her true colors in the opening scene of TS4,  in a flashback event which took place nine years before, (and retroactively explains why Bo was not in Toy Story 3), when she tries to get Woody to abandon Andy, when Andy was still just a little boy. Woody wisely resists the temptation and stays with his child. But Bo finally gets her revenge through Bonnie, by enticing Woody to abandon his sworn responsibilities to Bonnie, his child now, to run off with her. It is a stunningly sad epitaph describing the fall of a once noble character.

The narrator in a famous Bruce Springsteen song defiantly declares: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back….” This is all we need to know about this manure ball – that he abandoned his family because he had a “hungry heart”. Sorry, but that’s a pathetic reason to turn your back on your kids – your KIDS! Never mind breaking the most important oath he will ever make – to his wife. This is an evil perpetrated that can never be fully healed.

In the end, and contrary to everything that has gone before in all four movies, Woody walks away from his heretofore all important vocation of being his child’s toy in order to stay with Bo Peep. Bonnie, his child, has not given him up. She plays with him sometimes, knows he’s around, obviously needs him whether she knows it or not, and will eventually realize he is gone.

In the somewhat realistic universe in which the Toy Story characters exist it is even possible that Andy, who gave Woody up with great reluctance at the end of Toy Story 3 and then only because he thought Bonnie loved Woody so much, that Andy might one day find out that Woody has been lost. So Woody’s abandonment of Bonnie is a betrayal not just of Bonnie but of Andy as well.

ALSO also, the toys live in a background of realism where their actions did effect the humans around them. Al from Al’s Toy Barn, for example, ended up near bankruptcy when he lost his valuable toys – but could be seen to deserve it because he had stolen Woody. Bonnie’s parents are stopped by the police when the van they are driving moves erratically because of toy hi-jinx. So, when in the end of TS4 the mission of Woody, Bo and company seems to be stealing from carnival barkers to give toys they do not own to children, this has a disastrous effect on the humans. From the horrified expression of the game attendant on which this scheme was perpetrated, this was not a good thing. His stall would not survive long and he might even be accused of stealing the merchandise himself.

If Toy Story is a reminder to parents to not let their ego get in the way of being good parents, if Toy Story 2 is a reminder not to let the lure of fame and attraction of money (presumably representing one’s job) keep them from being there for their kids, and if Toy Story 3 is a reminder to parents that one day they will have to take a step back and let their kids grow up but perhaps parent (read grandparent) a new generation , then what exactly is Toy Story 4 trying to tell us?

AN EXCUSE FOR THE ABANDONING, DEAD BEAT PARENT

Are the Toy Story 4 film makers saying one should put personal romantic attachments ahead of their family? Is this a subtle message to imply that a Dad who abandons his responsibilities for a girl friend is OK? Is this finally, an attempt at justifying behavior of the actual Hollywood culture which is responsible for the creation of this franchise, to say that it is acceptable to leave their children behind like goose droppings or unwanted furniture for a selfish fling? Yes, Bo Peep is an old friend, but this is still not reasonable. Woody’s behavior in the final moments of this four movie franchise flies in the face of everything Woody has said, done and believed up to now INCLUDING what he has said in this very movie – that a toy’s most noble cause and purpose is to help their child. Instead Woody, in a completely unexpected 180 degree turn around ABANDONS his child, who is still a little girl demonstrably in need of his aid, even if it is behind the scenes, for Bo Peep, a now wild toy who he has not seen for 9 years.

This is, frankly, an appalling and disappointing break in an established noble character –  What if Simba had decided to stay in his comfy hobo existence? What if Wendy had chosen to not leave Neverland with her brothers? What if Aladdin had decided to tuck Genie back into his lamp for a rainy day? I know I’m crossing universes here but Disney will eventually own everything, so what if Han had decided to book it out of town with the gold in the first Star Wars and never come back?

What if Woody left his child?

The Woody we know would not leave Bonnie. But he does. It’s a shame that the Toy Story franchise had to end with a tag line that should have read: And so Bonnie lived precariously, never knowing what loss she would suffer next … ever after.

WOODY LOSES HIS CONSCIENCE

Now all this being said, my husband made a VERY interesting point. A lot of  rather clever and playful reference is made about one’s conscience. Woody understands the abstract concept well but when trying to explain it to Buzz, Buzz mistakes it for his pre-programmed sayings, which actually end up being very appropriate. This was actually quite a cute way to broach this ethereal topic for a very young crowd and amuse the older people at the same time. Woody’s pre-programmed voice box works perfectly, but the voice box of Gabby Gabby, the antagonist, does not – because she was manufactured incorrectly.

Before the exchange near the end of the movie in order to save Forky, Woody’s spiritual conscience works with selfless clarity of purpose, while Gabby’s behavior stems from a desperate selfishness born of loneliness and a sense of never experiencing what non-defective dolls get – unconditional love (her  appropriately used term).

AFTER the transplant, though we never hear the defective version of Woody’s pre-programmed “inner voice”, we get to hear Gabby’s now much improved inner, pull string, voice. So we know the exchange was made, with Woody getting Gabby’s flawed “inner voice”.

We quickly see a subtle but significant change in behavior. Gabby gives up a sure home to risk helping a lost child, while Woody … chooses the vagabond life of a “lost” toy to be with his “honey,” Bo Peep, abandoning his fellow toys and Bonnie, the little girl who is SELF-DESCRIBED AS HIS CHILD. It used to be considered an abominably shameful thing to turn your back on the spouse to whom you promised fidelity and the child you produced, in order to engage in selfish pursuits.  Now, tragically, it is applauded and the children left behind are treated like old furniture at a garage sale to be shuffled to whomever might still want them.

IS TOY STORY NOW ADVOCATING IN FAVOR OF THE DIVORCE CULTURE ?

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And where were Jessie and Buzz? I can not fathom why the writers think we would accept either of them letting Woody go. But it fits in with the popular divorce routine where all the adult friends are supposed to rally around the abandoning parent and encourage them to “follow their heart”. I think if I hear that phrase used to justify another self-indulgently destructive behavior in a movie I’m going to stand up right there in the theater and scream in frustration. While they do not actually SAY it in TS4 Woody certainly DOES it.

Were the film makers saying they think it is OK to justify the “divorce” culture dad who leaves his child to start a new life with another woman (or less frequently but just as horrible, wife who leaves to be with another man) and we’re all supposed to be OK with it? OR – is this a subtle remonstration that those who behave in such a cruelly callous, irresponsible and self indulgent manner have broken inner voices – defective consciences? If the latter, it wasn’t nearly made clear enough … perhaps because the writers were afraid to ruffle a few feathers whose plumage was way too close to the guilty fire on this one.

I’m more than a little confused so can only imagine the perplexing message being conveyed to the youngest members of the family to whom these movies are primarily aimed.

The Toy Story we know and loved might have allowed Woody to be tempted but one of his most trusted confidantes would have slapped him, questioned his sanity, and made Woody recognize what a terrible mistake he was making. THAT would have been a good and fitting ending to this franchise. Anyone can be tempted. Even Jesus was tempted in the desert. It is what we fallen creatures do in the face of that temptation which separates the wheat from the chaff. And the film makers tossed every bit of good will the audience had invested in this character into the wind.

I would rather have seen Woody destroyed or fade into inanimacy from Bonnie’s loss of interest than see him betray everything for which he was created, everything he espoused and every principle he upheld for the last 24 years through the first three and most of this fourth movie.

The writers, lead by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, had so much going into this movie: a rich treasure of talent, an invested audience, well developed characters and plot back ground, and they gave it all away for a potage of politically correct propaganda to help justify succumbing to the lure of romantic adventure at the expense of a small trusting child. Shame on them.

JOHN WICK (THE FIRST CHAPTER) – A VIOLENT REVENGE MOVIE WHICH TAKES ITSELF WAY TOO SERIOUSLY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE REVIEW OF JOHN WICK (THE FIRST CHAPTER)

SHORT TAKE:

Ultra-violent movie which skates on a thin excuse for revenge to create large piles of dead bodies.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adults only, and then only those with a stomach for violence: intense weapon and martial-art combat lethal force, and  extreme language. Its only “virtues” are a minimal amount of sexuality, mostly limited to bikini clad escorts, and the fact that the protagonist is a devoted and faithful, albeit grieving, husband.

LONG TAKE:

I know I’m probably the last one on the train here with John Wick (2014) as it has been out so long there is now a third installment. Having just seen the first one and with the John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum in theaters now, I felt compelled to make some comments about the “origin” story.

SPOILERS FOR JOHN WICK, TURNER AND HOOCH, A DOG’S PURPOSE, AND MARLEY AND ME

The premise, in case you have been on a prolonged abstinence from movies, is that a retired assassin goes on a massive killing spree after someone shoots his dog.

Now there is more to it but that is what it boils down to. John Wick verges on, if is not steeped in, what one might label as violence “porn” ( by which I mean senseless and gratuitous violence for the purpose of cathartic schadenfreude* brutality), though of a certain attractive elegance, which takes itself way too seriously. Don’t get me wrong , I am sympathetic to Wick’s righteous anger over the unnecessary killing of a puppy. As I have mentioned before in other posts, while I can tolerate an awful lot of violence in an action movie, I cringe at the thought of something happening to a dog. That point has actually prevented me from ever watching a couple of movies, including:

SPOILERS

Turner and Hooch, and Marley and Me. I have even been putting off watching A Dog’s Purpose even though the dog gets reincarnated multiple times, because I know the viewing will require a couple boxes of kleenex.

My point being, from a cinematic point of view, I am quite sympatico with a lead whose motivation, which propels the entire running time, is the death of his dog.

However, even by my rather indulgent parameters of an average action movie, wherein the protagonist is given nothing to lose, I could not help but yell at the screen occasionally, wondering why his opponents did not handle the situation quite differently.

The mutt murderer was, Iosef, (Alfie Allen best known as Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones), the son of John’s previous employer, Viggo, a Russian mafia Don,  (Michael Nyqvist from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the Naomi Rapace version of the Dragon Tattoo girl). Iosef had come to steal John’s hot car – and the dog just got in the way.

As Viggo, the Slavic Vito Corleone points out, it was bad luck that brought them back together in this way. But a little common sense and a teensy bit of courtesy could have mitigated the situation, if not established an easy detente.

The dog was the last gift from John’s dying wife. From the reaction of wiser heads than the aforementioned Iosef, the dog dispatcher, everyone knew about this and what the legendary assassin, John’s, response was likely to be. A hitman with nothing to lose and a lot of grief anger to expend, is a recipe for a bloodbath.

Therefore, I thought, had I been Viggo, (and keep in mind I am stepping into the shoes of a Mafia Don), I would have arrived with a new car, a new dog, a profuse apology, a chastised son with a black eye, and an offer to set up an entire charity Animal Hospital in the name of his deceased wife.

Instead, Viggo, knowing his son was stupidly in the wrong, as evidenced by the beating he gave Iosef after the fact, puts a contract out on the man to whom he refers as the best of the best, the one who was called Baba Yaga, not because he was The Boogeyman but because he was the one you sent out to kill The Boogeyman. This is a guaranteed plan for failure and Viggo’s downfall hereafter is from criminal (if you’ll excuse the pun) stupidity. I couldn’t help but think of Hawkeye in Thor. Watching Thor dispatch agent after agent in Thor’s path towards Mjolnir, Hawkeye quips to Coulson: “Do you want me to take him down, or would you rather send in more guys for him to beat up?” Because, that is what Viggo does – he sends in squad after squad to kill this unkillable killing machine. Viggo’s men are about as effective as Storm Troopers and were this a video game John would have the High Score. But WHY???!!!

Viggo is an intelligent man or wouldn’t have been able to create and keep his empire. He MUST have seen the results of his decreasing returns. And no explanation is given as to why he would commit his entire army in a fruitless and hopeless effort to take out the one man he knows he can not defeat, especially when it seemed obvious to me there were alternatives. It’s not even that he is so committed to the protection of his son. Viggo doesn’t like or love his son and Viggo ultimately gives Iosef up to Wick as bait to save his own skin.

90% of the movie is John’s body count which quickly exceeds the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan.

I get the use of the MacGuffin. I even get stories where you put the protagonist in a corner with nothing to lose and watch them fight their way out. Movie franchises like Taken, Die Hard, Jack Reacher and even a few of the James Bonds are good examples of a protagonist who resolved knotty conundrums with fists and firefights. And I am the first to admit they are guilty pleasures. But the motivations are usually more compelling, as in: protection of a vulnerable family member, a national danger, or the righting of a grave injustice. AND the protagonist usually is witty, relieving the unremitting gore and violence a bit with dry one liners.

But, despite the fact I have often maintained that Keanu Reeves has missed his calling as a comedian, Reeves’ Wick parkours his way through the movie on the backs of dead bodies with the somber deadpan of a mini-Lurch from The Addams Family. Don’t get me wrong, I like Keanu Reeves. I just wish someone would DO something with him which entails more EXPRESSION!!!

When I refer to Keanu Reeves’ comedies, I’m not talking about the unintentionally – so bad they are funny – like Constantine, and his insult to the classic Day the Earth Stood Still. Nor am I referring to his well done stint as the singular dry villain in Branagh’s Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing.  I’m talking about Reeves roles in legitimate comedies. If unfamiliar with Keanu Reeves’ comedies, I recommend the slapstick ridiculous Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the wryly observant ensemble piece Parenthood. Both are for an older crowd though.

Reeves can be really amusing and cute with good timing. And while I’m not suggesting that a former assassin who has just lost his wife to cancer and his dog to a home invasion should be light-hearted, John Wick is unrelentingly grim where it perhaps did not have to be. I mean, Wick is SUPPOSED to be human, right?

I have often maintained that the best loved action films often have a sense of their own humor. Good examples are Jaws, Aliens (but only the second as the first and third are even grimmer than John Wick and the fourth is best simply ignored) and all the Die Hard movies. Tongue is planted occasionally but firmly in cheek and there is an awareness in the script of its own cliched vulnerability.

But Wick‘s level of constant violence with no emotional offsetting balance is just exhausting.

The cinematic atmosphere is dark and poetically sympathetic, as most of the movie takes place in dark interiors, at night, or in conjunction with bad weather.

There is an interesting juxtaposition with another film I have previously reviewed, which DOES have a sense of humor, called  Hotel Artemis. Much of the third act of John Wick takes place in the Continental, a hotel renowned as a high-class refuge for people in John Wick’s line of work. Like the Artemis, a hospital for the underworld with questionable aesthetics, the Continental has a primary rule: you are not supposed to kill any of the other guests. A certain neutrality is supposed to be enforced there amongst society’s lethal predators. These two – the titular Hotel Artemis and the Continental in John Wick – exist in a consistent universe where you could put them on a double bill or even together in the same movie. But Hotel Artemis, unlike John Wick, has a heart and knows when to recognize the grin in even the darkest human comedy, and is a far better movie for that.

Small parts and cameos from the action-adventure pool abound in Wick from both TV and film. Ian McShane, who has added his talents to everything from westerns to British and American cop shows to Pirates of the Caribbean, plays the owner of the Continental. Willem Dafoe who has appeared in movies as divergent as Platoon and Spider-Man 3 is a mysterious colleague / competitor. Adrianne Palicki, most notably the indominable Agent Bobby Hunter in Agents of Shield and Kelly Grayson in The Orville, is Perkins, a female assassin. Lance Reddick from Fringe and Blacklist is Charon, the concierge of the Continental. John Leguizamo, from Executive Decision and Baz Lurhmann’s ultra-violent version of Romeo and Juliet, is Aurelio, the chop shop owner to whom Iosef brings Wick’s stolen car and who is the first to clue Iosef in to his mistake with a punch in the mouth. There were so many cameos from the action adventure genre that I would not have been surprised to see Samuel L Jackson show up. Sadly, that was not to be.

The acting is good and the shoot-‘em-up-bang-bang with combined martial arts is well-choreographed and interesting as Wick dispatches his targets with precision and no innocent bystanders to the count.

Wick is obviously an anti-hero with a ledger redder than Black Widow’s. As action adventures go it was brainless fun and emotionally cathartic to watch a bunch of bad guys being blown away with incredible efficiency and expertise by another, but sympathetic, bad guy. It is always a pleasure of sorts to see anyone do their job with such skill and excellence whether they are a pastry chef, a ghost hunter, or a paid assassin. But still I couldn’t help perseverate on the plot point of the missing opportunity to mitigate. Had Viggo tried to placate Wick but been rebuffed I would have found the scenario far more believable at least within the universe of that genre.

But what I truly do not understand is how the film makers can justify one sequel much less two. I mean, in this first one John killed …….. EVERYBODY. And I wonder about the movie’s core world-view. Iosef, for all his being a completely cruel jerk, was not responsible for the death of John’s wife nor did he attempt to kill John. Therefore, John’s reaction to the theft of his car and slaughter of his puppy without at least an attempt at peaceful and equivocal recompense, to me seemed over the top even for this kind of movie, making it hard for me to empathize with a protagonist who creates this much mayhem.

Compared to similarly set up movies like the aforementioned Die Hard, Taken, or from a HUGE variety of styles where the protagonist goes on a mission to avenge a terrible wrong with extreme prejudice, like: True Grit, Death Wish, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Dirty Harry – even for me, even for this genre of movie – John’s reaction was too extreme and with insufficient reasonable motivation, making this a (if you’ll excuse the pun) fatally flawed story.

  •  schadenfreude – a German word for which there is no English equivalent, meaning: pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune.

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for gratuitous profanities and bawdy behavior.

LONG TAKE:

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

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

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

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

SERIOUS SPOILER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE – A DELIGHTFUL COMEDY OF TERRORS AT OUR OWN LAKE CHARLES, LA ACTS THEATRE

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The Addams Family was an endearing bunch of creepy oddballs. Appearing like zombies, witches and vampires they were actually a loving Mom, Dad, kids and extended family of rich and philanthropic homeschoolers.

The family of Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, in the classic Lion in Winter were not so companionable, and battled continuously with each other throughout the play. Different members bond with, then betray, each other, jockeying for power, land, revenge, attention, or love. At the end of a particularly vicious argument with her husband, Eleanor, left sitting on the floor in the doorway, gathers herself together and to self-console muses: "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"

The Guardians of the Galaxy is a band of violent and ethically questionable outlaws and vigilantes who come together as a family unit in part to (re)raise Groot, who is a sentient tree. (See my review on that one here .)

NONE of them have anything on the Brewsters.

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that Mortimer, a once cynical-of-romance theater critic, now totally smitten and freshly engaged to Elaine, the girl next door, goes to his sweet, loving, maiden aunts’ home for a visit and to break the good news.

In residence is his adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt, periodically charging up the stairs he knows as San Juan Hill and digging grave sized locks in the basement, which he thinks is the Panama Canal. Hovering in the background is the ominous, but so far absent, other brother, Jonathan. And so the stage is literally set for this very black and very funny slapstick comedy about a family which would put the Guardians on alert, make the Addams Family startle, and have both Henry and Eleanor running for cover. Bodies pile up and are switched like the plates of tuna in Noises Off or the suitcases from What’s Up Doc, identities are hidden and a good time is ultimately had by all…except for the corpses…in Arsenic and Old Lace.

I hesitate to say more for the benefit of those readers who have not seen either the play or the brilliant 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. If you don’t know the story it is just too delightful to spoil. If you do know some of the details then it will be like going back for seconds of your favorite ice cream.

Clay Hebert, the director and Officer Klein, is a familiar and welcome face from every stage Lake Charles offers. He has a resume which spans from McNeese's Theater to ACTS, and from Lake Charles Little Theatre to the Bayou Players and independent film productions all over Lake Charles. Clay artfully guides this fairly large cast through the quick draw and fast paced humor of Arsenic, which is to comedy what very dark and deliciously bitter semi-sweet morsels are to chocolate chip cookies, skillfully leading his troupe over that tightrope between horror and humor.

Louis Barrilleaux, another talented veteran of ACTS, LCLT and McNeese for over 20 years, is Mortimer, the eye around which this storm circulates.

Kelly Rowland and Sarah Broussard, respectively as Martha and Abbey Brewster, age themselves convincingly 50 years to play Mortimer’s adorably naive and unassuming aunts whose home is the site for some rather….unexpected events. Both ladies have degrees in performance, Kelly in music and Sarah in theater, with a wide and diverse range of acting credits.

Rebecca Harris, an actress with an impressive resume, is Mortimer’s confused but stalwart fiancee.

Aaron Webster, a self-described reluctant actor, is eminently creepy as Jonathan, the ne'er-do-well prodigal brother.

Brahnsen Lopez, another stage veteran, plays Jonathan’s would-be repentant colleague, Dr. Einstein (not Albert).

Matt Dye, local radio personality and frequently cast in small but scene stealing roles, does it again as Teddy.

Mark Hebert, Dusty Duffy, Dylan Conley and Kathy Heath round out the cast with memorable supporting characters.

 

The set is terrific, creating the authentically homey, gentle parlor of two elderly aunts, making the sinister events all the funnier for the contrast, complete with two sets of stairs and a landing up and through which Teddy has the freedom to charge with abandon, a window seat which can house…various and sundry… and French doors through which the characters are free to pop in and out.

I was privileged to interview Diki Jines, master electrician on the set and will have his interview clips up shortly below, talking about the set, its design and a little background.

Timing and blocking are very key, especially in this comedy of terrors and Clay has the tempo and coordinated actions and responses wound like a Swiss Cuckoo clockwork.

It’s a joy to watch a stage full of such talented veterans work smoothly together, and the fact most are old friends and/or fellow thespians, who have trod the boards often together, helps catalyze the chemistry that makes this play full of intimately connected characters work. These performers know each others’ rhythms and make the most of their considerable pool of experience to bring us a delightful evening of fun and fright, chills and chuckles, comedy and carnage, shocks and snickers, jocularity and jump scares.

So go warm up — or chill out — in anticipation of Halloween at ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. But be sure to BYOW. (Bring your own wine.)

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