STEEL MAGNOLIAS BLOOM AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely production of Steel Magnolias running at ACTS Theatre in Lake Charles, LA from August 2, 2019 through August 11, 2019.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With parental discernment – probably mid-teens and up. A slight bit of language and serious topics, but mostly because the nature of the format – six ladies talking in a single stationary set – while engrossing to the more mature audience members  would bore the little ones.

LONG TAKE:

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the dress rehearsal of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias at ACTS Theatre. This comedy-drama is set in a 1980’s Louisiana beauty parlor and performed with great affection for the Southern women about whom this play revolves. The six ladies in the cast nailed it. Their timing, their energy, and their easy camaraderie the night before opening felt as though they already had several weeks of performances under their belts and were only tweaking for the weekend run.

The blocking was artfully choreographed, allowing easy access to all the characters, always a concern with an ensemble cast.

The stage for Truvy’s Beauty Parlor was terrific in all its brightly lit, lightly cluttered and detailed natural realism. For anyone who has ever spent time in a beauty parlor, you could almost smell the familiar hair care products and feel the warm breath of the hair dryers ubiquitous to ladies’ salons.

The director of this all female cast, Zach Hammons, is male. He, with his terrific back stage crew,  did a tremendous job with the style and technique of an experienced director. Veteran of the stage as an actor for many years and winner of performing awards, he is fairly new to the role of director.

I found his masculine behind-the-scenes influence a great advantage to this show, helping subtly inform the extensive, but never seen, male supporting players, whose actions are talked about, affect and are occasionally heard by the females on stage: Shelby’s Dad and M’Lynn’s husband, Drum, Tommy and Jonathan, Shelby’s brothers, Truvy’s husband, Spud, Ouiser’s boyfriend, Owen, and Annelle’s husband, Sammy. These men are all actively present in their women’s lives but are never present on stage. Zac confided to me that where most plays have two months to prepare, because of the exigencies of scheduling, they only had one month, but you would never know it to see the show. It’s tight and well timed, brisk in tempo, maintaining its intensity in both comedic and tragic moments from opening line to closing curtain call.

Ashley Dickerson plays Shelby, the optimist who does not let anything get her down and is the center of the play. Ms. Dickerson has performed both at ACTS and Lake Charles Little Theatre on many occasions.

Kathy Heath plays Shelby’s mom in a very challenging role of varied, and occasionally intense, often subtly repressed, emotional turmoil. Ms. Heath has lent her experience to both ACTS and McNeese Theatre, the latter from which she graduated with both a BA in theatre as well as a BS in Mass Com.

Joy Pace literally bursts onto the stage as Ouiser, the curmudgeonly neighbor to M’Lynn’s family. Fiercely loyal and sometimes merely fierce, her bark is always worse than her bite as she frequently steals scenes while providing comic relief. Ms. Pace has extensive experience as director for ACTS, and Artistic and Executive Director for the Itinerant Theatre, with a BA in Speech, and an MFA in directing, but this is her performing debut with ACTS Theatre.

Veronica Williams is Truvy, the energetic Eveready Bunny and the owner of the  shop in which all the action takes place. This is only Ms. Williams’ second stage outing, her first as Rosie in Mama Mia! garnering her an ACTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Taylor Novak-Tyler is Clairee, the sweet and lovable widowed dowager who provides advice and acts as a mediator and peacemaker to the sometimes tense female interactions. Ms. Novak-Tyler is another generous contributor to the stages both at ACTS and Lake Charles Little Theatre.

Shelby Castile plays Annelle who starts as the gentle and shyly fragile newbie to town who has the greatest character arc in the show. No newbie to ACTS Theatre though, she has been on stage here many times before.

So head on out to ACTS Theatre to see this terrific rendition of these very familiar women who are, indeed, Steel Magnolias – but, similar to the juxtaposition of opposites in the very title of the play – be prepared to both laugh until you cry and cry until you laugh.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS – WONDERFULLY POLITICIALLY INCORRECT COMIC BOOK-STYLE CREATURE FEATURE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION FOR REVIEW OF GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

SHORT TAKE:

If you are a fan of Godzilla then you will love this contribution to the now 65 year old franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

At youngest, younger teens, for: frightening and extensively violent images of city-wide destruction, human peril and cataclysmic fight scenes with other monsters. There is also some language including one “f” word and blasphemy. And while there is no sexuality shown, there are a small handful of sexual innuendos spoken, which will probably go over the head of most younger teens. There is also a confusing mish mash of paganism and Christian religious symbols and references which could confuse a spiritually immature child.

LONG TAKE:

In 1954 Godzilla inexplicably and emphatically became a cult hit. A rubber suited man emitting a now iconic shriek (created by Akira Ifukube rubbing a resin coated leather glove across the strings of a double bass) wrecks havoc, clumping awkwardly as he lazer-breathes his way through towns and countrysides behind fleeing crowds of (mostly) Japanese victims.

35 films later (all but 3 made by Toho, a Japanese-based film company), the franchise is still going strong. The latest, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a loose sequel to the 2014 Hollywood film which firmly established Godzilla to mainstream American audiences as a “good guy” ally to humanity. In point of fact, some Japanese philosophies even see Godzilla as an indifferent “god” of destruction in a cycle of death and rebirth.

At one point a scientist, upon seeing the monster in full, interjects the name of the Lord, to which Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford – Get Out, Saving Mr. Banks, Cabin in the Woods) punnily follows up with “zilla”. In fact the name Godzilla was never meant to refer to our Creator. It was actually a Europeanized mispronunciation of the Japanese, Gojira, which, in turn refers to an animal which is akin to both a whale and a gorilla.

SPOILERS – but, I mean, come on, this is Godzilla and there’s not that much plot to spoil.

In this outing, Godzilla is a bit of both ally and destructo-machine, as he tromps over the Earth with 16 other “Titans”. The human subplot, which is supposed to keep us grounded to the big critters, involves scientists Mark and Emma Russell, (Kyle Chandler – Game Night, Argo, King Kong and Vera Farmiga – The Nun, Conjuring 2) who lost their son in the first Godzilla movie, (flashback) then divorced. Emma is now brainwashing, I mean raising, their remaining child Madison (the clearly talented Millie Bobby Brown who is the amazing “11” from Stranger Things) to follow in her tunnel vision footsteps, putting her research of the Titans above everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) else.

Rounding out the cast is Ken Watanabe (Inception, Last Samurai, previous Godzilla, Pokémon Detective Pickachu), Charles Dance (staple in film and TV for 45 years, bringing a wicked class and style to everything from Game of Thrones to Shakespeare and a villain in the James Bond franchise), Sally Hawkins (in both the offensively awful Shape of Water and the extremely delightful Paddington movies), and Joe Morton, (whose career dates all the way back to 1951 including the innovative cult sci fi Brother From Another Planet and the classic Terminator 2: Judgement Day).

The rest of the run time is spent watching CGI monsters destroy each other in admittedly spectacular fashion, although a lot of cheating is done in the details by holding all the fights at night, under water or in a Cat 6 (???) hurricane manufactured by one of the “bad guy” Titans.

It occurred to me as I perused a Youtube which did a quick survey of all the Godzilla movies, that the phenomenon of Godzilla has much in common with the Lego movies. Aside from the 1998 Matthew Broderick contribution, which envisioned Godzilla as a more “realistic” mountain-sized Komodo Dragon, Godzilla reminds me of an action figure. Despite all the CGI available, the director, Michael Doughtery, (Superman Returns and a couple of X-Men movies) chose to stick with the stilted, squat, awkwardly moving Godzilla instead of the 1998 lithe, quick and sinuous monster which chased Matthew Broderick through New York City. Similarly to the Lego Movie, which sees the world from the point of view of the toys, Godzilla strikes me as inspired by the imaginations of every child who had a monster toy with which they liked to terrorize their surroundings. The traditional Godzilla MOVES like an action figure with an inverted triangle body, whippy tail with which to bludgeon objects, and tiny useless arms, clumping from side to side as it stomps forward crushing everything under foot in its path – except the “important” actors. The end credits even camp it up, featuring a cover by Bear McCreary of the 1977 Blue Oyster Cult novelty song “Godzilla”.

This is a pulp funny book brought to full Technicolor life with all of the shallowness of plot, disjointed explanations, magic-style “science”, inconsistent character motivations, and single note personalities of a comic book and its denizens. Even so, this is not meant as a criticism or failure of the movie. I suspect this is what the film makers were after. And it succeeds, as such, admirably, throwing in a little wry humor dialogue now and again just to keep things “real”.

As a matter of fact, there is one special reason why I, personally, like this movie. In a delightfully refreshing turn of events, a truth is demonstrated. The monsters have been deliberately set forth to destroy mankind by a recognizably legitimate force for evil, one which wrecks havoc on us in the real world on a daily basis – the Environmental Wacko. The bad guys here boldly state that humans are a “virus” on the Earth which must be scoured off, in their way of thinking, to allow the world to return to its “natural” state. But, of course, in true and honestly portrayed, narcissistic liberal hypocritical fashion, the villain, after murdering tens of thousand of men, women and children with these behemoths, she willing puts all her plans on hold when it is her child at risk. No one else’s child is important though, only hers and hers alone.

Her insane scheme to find and release the Titans upon the Earth is understood by the rest of the characters in the movie as: ridiculous, evil, short sighted, cruel, and – ultimately, flat out wrong. This, of course, can sum up the entire mentality of the extreme environmentalist movement, which wants to put animals above people, prefers human suffering for OTHERS (who are not members of their extreme club) to widespread use of modern inventions, ignores common sense science (like the fact that carbon dioxide is GOOD for the environment as plants LOVE it), proposes hoaxes which further their agenda with NO verifiable evidence (like human caused climate change) but continue to jet around the world using up fossil fuels at a rate the rest of us can only dream about. It’s nice to see the blame placed at the feet of those to which it really belongs for a change.

Godzilla also leans heavily on paganism, reverencing and even calling to some worship of the monsters. That being said there is also some comparisons of Godzilla to Christian motifs – that he died trying to save us, descended to the depths of the Earth and was reborn to arise and defeat an evil monster (well two if you count the environmental wacko). While this has been done appropriately and respectfully in stories like Narnia (NOT that Godzilla even belongs in the same solar system with Aslan), it is a fair point to say not all of Godzilla is pagan, but that there are at least some superficial nods to a Christ-like theology, though it is obvious that the writers neither understand it nor fully embrace it.

So if you are familiar with and are a fan of the mythos of Godzilla then you will not be disappointed in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But while you should be advised of the heavily pagan-favored worldview, it will at least provide a breath of politically incorrect but common sense-accurate fresh air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the insanity did not begin there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

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

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LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WEEK OF – A CRASS ADAM SANDLER MOVIE WITH A GEM AT ITS HEART

SHORT TAKE:

Adam Sandler semi-slapstick about a working-stiff middle class Dad trying to provide the kind of wedding for his daughter which will impress the family of his wealthy son-in-law to be.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Only for adults and then only for those who do not take offense at tasteless humor, raunchy sight gags, strippers, or bad language.

LONG TAKE:

The pickings were very thin this week at the movie theater so I decided to think outside the box and try a Netflix original.

There's an old Jewish folk tale called "It Could Always be Worse" wherein a poor farmer, grieved that his house was too small and his pantry too bare, seeks advice from his Rabbi. The Rabbi advises him to invite his lazy brother to come visit and open his house to his obnoxious neighbors and demanding friends. Reluctantly the farmer went home and told his wife, who, desperate to cheer her husband up, agreed. Soon every room in the house was taken up with noisy people who raided their pantry and slept in their beds and on their sofas and sprawled on their floor. Soon losing his mind the farmer returned to the Rabbi.

This time the Rabbi shocked the farmer by advising he bring all of his animals into the house as well – the chickens, the goats, the cow, the family dog, and all the cats. Soon even the obnoxious neighbors were complaining about the crowding and having their toes stepped on by cow hooves, the mooing and the barking in the middle of the night, and the smell.

After a full week the farmer was at his wits end and more miserable than he was before. Angrily, the farmer returned to the Rabbi who simply smiled and said now go throw everyone and everything out. Send your neighbors back to their own homes, kick your brother out, and put the animals back in the barn.

After sweeping up behind all of their departed guests the farmer and his wife discovered, much to their astonishment, how much bigger their house was, and how much more food they had.

At the height of the Rabbi's lesson for the farmer, while the house was full of neighbors and relatives and animals, Kirby, the visiting father of the groom, in the movie The Week Of, would have noticed little difference between staying at the farmer's house or staying at the home of Kenny, the father of the bride.

SPOILERS

In the premise of The Week Of, Kenny, played by Adam Sandler, is a working stiff who makes a very modest living bringing dilapidated hotels up to passing health inspector levels. Despite his limited resources, he is determined to pay for his oldest daughter's wedding without the proffered help of the much wealthier Kirby, played by Chris Rock.

Unable to provide adequate housing for the multitude of guests and finding the hotel completely unsuitable despite his best efforts, many of the relatives on both sides end up staying at his modest-sized home. Amongst the participants are Seymour (Jim Barone – a real double amputee) his uncle, Noah his emotionally fragile cousin fresh out of rehab, Charles (Steve Buscemi) his raunchy cousin, loud obnoxious elderly deaf ladies and the monster sized German Shepherd owned by one of his visiting kin.

I normally do not watch this kind of movie and likely would have turned it off had I not been planning to review it. So watching to the end, imagine my shock to discover a tiny gem buried in the bottom of this pond full of less than subtle sex jokes and caricatures.

In classic Adam Sandler comic style, there's something to offend everyone. Sandler and Robert Smigel, the screenwriters, make fun of Jewish culture, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, and the elderly. It's hard to tell which is more cringey, the often crude and tasteless jokes or the fact that Chris Rock plays a straight man and is old enough to be someone who has a groom-aged son. But somehow, The Week Of still manages to make all these characters approachable, even likeable, giving each moments that makes them relatable and human. Part of it, I think, is that even though the situations make fun of these vulnerable and sometimes inherently ridiculous people, Adam Sandler's Kenny treats them all with genuine affection and respect.

At different points in the movie, Kenny, literally, carries his legless Uncle Seymour around. Kenny never acts as though it is a burden. And this becomes an interesting analogy for the entire movie. Despite Kenny’s lack of financial resources, despite his pride, and despite his occasionally bad judgment, everyone looks to Kenny whenever there is a problem. He is the one with the heart to usually do what he genuinely believes is the right thing for his family, has the cleverness to get it accomplished, and the determination to see it through to the end no matter how ridiculous some of the plans are. It eventually becomes obvious that it is not just Seymour he cheerfully carries on his willing back.

In a side note, despite the fact the story pivots around an interracial marriage, absolutely NO references are made to this, cliche or otherwise, and refreshingly, race is the ONLY thing about which Sandler does not shark up a cheap laugh. The race of the two families ends up merely being a convenience for the audience to help keep track of which of the dozens of characters are likely to be from which side of which family – like wearing different jerseys at a sports event or using shirts versus skins at a pickup game of basketball.

Chris Rock's character, Kirby, is an extremely successful cardiac surgeon who lives out of very swanky hotels with a succession of mistresses. Kenny on the other hand has three kids who he adores and dotes on, but for whom he can provide "only" a middle-class lifestyle. Kirby's life is reflected in the swanky hotels he stays in, his clean, quiet, organized, unencumbered, glass and steel life without distractions. Kirby's life, on the other hand, is cluttered, messy, noisy, and full of humanity, conversation, hugs, arguments, interactions and affection.

Kenny is always there, always in the mix, always doing his best and keeping a calm, optimistic perspective on even the wildest moments. So – despite all of the epic fails in Kenny's attempts to provide for his daughter's wedding, despite: the leaky ballroom, the poor choice of a magician to entertain the guests, using his 11 year old nephew as a wedding reception DJ, feeling shown up by the sumptuous wedding rehearsal dinner provided by Kirby, the crude bachelor party at a stripper trampoline exhibit, the death of one of the guests and a fire – it is Kirby who ultimately feels both overwhelmed and outclassed by the modestly resourced Kenny.

In one example, representatives of both families meet at the emergency room as a result (trying not to spoil TOO much) of one of the "high jinx". Tyler (Roland Burch, III), the groom, feels responsible and Kenny explains to him how the outcome would have been worse had the group not done what they did, then embraces him comfortingly. Kirby can be seen in the background watching this exchange, and in a lovely but easily missed moment, Kirby realizes he is the outsider – that his son sought advice naturally and first, not from him, but from his future father-in-law, who seems to understand how everyone ticks.

In a funny repeat motiff, whenever Kenny and his wife Sarah (Allison Strong, who played a very strange secretary in another and similarly themed Sandler movie, Click) disagree, both put on a happy face, retreat to their bedroom and audibly yell at each other, believing no one can hear them. One of the cousins asks one of Kenny’s younger children if they are getting a divorce. With the exhausted confidence that every child should have in their parents' marriage, he says, "They NEVER do."

The wealthy Kirby ends up: sleeping on the floor, suffering the indignities of living with about 50 strangers at Kenny's house, being made fun of during a Parcheesi game in Kenny's asbestos infected basement, and is conscripted to help catch bats in one of Kenny's crazy plans to save face. Kirby as a result, comes to understand that the sum of all this lunacy is a close-knit family that will suffer through and with each other because of a love based on a lifetime of intimacy. Kirby threw money at every problem his family encountered. Kenny throws himself into the line of fire whenever someone in his family needed him.

Kirby comes to realize that Kenny is indeed the much richer man. Realizing what a bad father and poor husband he has been Kirby apologizes to his ex-wife, begins to make amends with his children for his neglect, and looks forward to spending real time with his grandchildren. It’s a little like Mary Poppins for the Zohan crowd.

And meanwhile all this is set against some appropriately chosen Billy Joel songs. The ending genuinely had me choked up, and not just because I was sick to death of all the bad jokes. I can forgive a lot in a movie if it makes a good end. And I have to say that in spite of the raunchy humor, the borderline offensive caricatures, and the repetitive visual jokes – for the sake of the movie’s final couple of scenes ….. all is forgiven.

 

 

 

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE – BASED ON THE PERSONAL AND POWERFULLY INSPIRATIONAL SONG

 

SHORT TAKE:

I Can Only Imagine is the beautifully told biography, not just of the challenging life of Bart Millard, who was both the product of an abusive father, and the composer of the inspirational song, but a biography of the song, itself. The song "I Can Only Imagine" is unique in the annals of Christian music, crossing Christian music boundaries to become a number one hit in mainstream markets nationally. This song, on which the movie is based, achieved a unique triple platinum status and is the most popular Christian music song in history.

WHO SHOULD SEE THIS MOVIE:

Young teens on up. Caution should be used in bringing children due to the portrayal of Bart Millard’s father, who was an angry, physically abusive man. Though most of the abusive behavior is only talked about there are some disturbing episodes of violence.

LONG TAKE:

Earl Swain was one of my husband’s best friends. He was also one of the kindest, gentlest, most faith filled man I ever met, whose favorite way to start a sentence was: "I'm so thankful that…". Earl gave up his life, repeatedly, during the course of his adulthood in many ways to many people.

Bryan met Earl while working in the emergency room. Originally from New York, then a southern transplant, Earl was a gifted nurse and would work in our home town, Lake Charles, Louisiana long enough to earn sufficient money to set out to nurse and preach the Gospel in countries hostile to Christianity. He would work as a medical missionary in places like Saudi Arabia, where even declaring your Christianity could get you thrown in jail or executed, until he needed to go back to Louisiana to make enough money to return to his missionary work. Earl continued with these acts of corporal and spiritual mercy until he met a lovely widow with three boys. He married the lady and adopted the sons. Then, on April 22, 2003, while out fishing in the Gulf with two of the kids, their cousin and Earl’s father, the boat was swamped by a rogue wave. The cousin was washed away and drowned. His father died of a heart attack as they tried to stay afloat together. Left with only a waterlogged life jacket and a styrofoam ice chest to cling to Earl prayed with the boys, kissed them goodbye and swam away to be sure that he would not be tempted, in his extremity, to latch onto one of the children. Miraculously, the boys were saved by an oil rig crew boat changing shift in the middle of the night as one of the boys held his brother above water and barely clung to consciousness himself.

Earl spent his life offering it to others and his final act of love saved the life of two of his children.

The song "I Can Only Imagine" was released in 2001, but I first heard it as it crossed station genres into the mainstream in 2003. I remember at the time it reminded me of Earl and they played it at his funeral. I can not hear it without thinking of him.

So when I tell you the song is personally important to me, you now can understand why.

The song has a story of its own. Bart Millard, the composer, was inspired to write the song in the wake of his father's death. He sings of imagining what it would be like in Heaven when he first meets Jesus: "…will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall, will I sing HALLELUJAH! Or will I be able to speak at all, I can only imagine…." But it quickly becomes obvious that Bart is envisioning his repentant and recently deceased father’s first encounter with Christ.

The music video of Mercy Me singing "I Can Only Imagine" bears this out as well as person after person is shown during the song with pictures of their longed for lost loved ones.

The movie recounts Bart’s tragic and crushing childhood through to his early adult years under the brutal hand of his physically, emotionally and verbally abusive father after his mother’s abandonment. The first miracle is that Bart's soul came away only bruised and not broken. Bart is the kind of person that never met a stranger and his enthusiasm and optimism infectiously help ingratiate him into a struggling band, then convince a jaded but wryly amused music agent to become their manager.

J. Michael Finley, a pastor’s son in his first film acting role, does a marvelous job of portraying this struggling young man and inspirationally powerhouses his way through the singing. His renditions of everything he sings will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Finley's bubbly personality, physique, humble but outgoing interactions with other people and confident singing prescence reminds me of a combination of Sean Astin and Hugh Jackman.

The supporting cast is full of familiar faces, including Dennis Quaid who is remarkable as the alternately horrifying and touching father. Cloris Leachman has a small role as Bart’s adorable grandmother Memaw. Priscilla Shirer, who we last saw in the Kendrick brothers’ War Room takes on the life changing instrumental (pun intended) role of Mrs. Fincher, the music and theatrical teacher who recognizes Bart’s potential and literally pushes Bart on to stage work. The other members of Mercy Me – Jim, Mike, Nathan & Robby – are played, respectively, by Randy McDowell, Jason Burkey, Mark Furze, & Cole Marcus. And rounding out the troupe is Trace Adkins, the baritone country western singer from Springhill, Louisiana, who plays Brickell, Mercy Me’s initially reluctant agent and ersatz father figure.

So bring your hankies and open your hearts and ears to this wonderful, spiritually cleansing, musical biography about brokenness and God's ability to redeem those who have given up on even themselves. As Earl might have said: I'm so thankful that they have made such a lovely movie out of such a beautiful song. I pray that it continues to inspire for many generations to come.

NOTE: There is no sex or nudity and no bad language and certainly no blasphemy.