THE GIVER – AN ORWELLIAN TALE FOR THE YOUNGER AUDIENCE

SHORT TAKE:

Dystopian, cautionary tale of the quietly, dysfunctional society, which has chosen the security of “Sameness” over independent thought, strong emotions, or variety, and the boy tasked to be the new “Receiver” of all the memory experiences everyone else has rejected.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Appropriate for any and all ages but the sophisticated concepts and deliberately monochromatic presentation may be unengaging for younger audience members.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Giver, is a societal fiction parable based on the children’s novel of the same name by Lois Lowry, which follows the character arc of a boy named Jonas. Jonas, played by Abram Conner, lives in a society which has rejected individuality and Free Will for the unquestioned “security” of Sameness. They believe that to be given a choice is to risk making a mistake and enduring pain.

To that end there are no strong emotions, memories of anything except what needs to be known for their chosen jobs, or even color. Differences are not tolerated and those who fall outside of the exacting parameters of what is acceptable: the old, the lame, the unhappy, even twins for the “confusion” they could bring – are relegated to Elsewhere by an unseen but loudspeaker commanding “Committee”. No one is to ask where “Elsewhere” is, there is no reference to any higher authority than the Committee, and God, as well as His gift of Free Will, by default, has been excluded as well. As a result, morality is what the Committee says it is and all acts commanded by them are accepted. A chilling thought with chilling consequences.

Jonas is surprised, (which surprise is apologized for by the Chief Elder), by being chosen as the next Giver. The Giver’s job is to hold, then pass on to the next Giver, the unwanted knowledge and experiences of the human race. The Giver is an advisor to the unseen but unquestionably obeyed, Committee, providing them with perspective they do not have, when faced with situations for which they are unprepared. For example, his is the voice of reason to not shoot down a plane which has accidentally overshot their air space.

But while there is no violence or discord, there is also no mercy or love. Babies are produced by what one might consider “brood mare” humans and then assigned to a parental unit constructed and assigned by the “Committee”. No natural births or normal intimacies are permitted but routinely squelched with medication. Only Jonas and the Giver feel anything deeply.

This is a brave and difficult to play to produce as emotions, interactions, and even colors are muted to beige and gray. The only meaningful actions take place in Jonas’ mind as the Giver gifts him with memories of things like snow and hills, which have been eliminated with “climate control” and geographical obliteration.

Director Kris Webster had the challenging task of creating a world without hues or music and few sounds outside of the actors subdued voices. Only as Jonas learns of the world “before” does he emote or perceive color.

Abram Conner, as Jonas, carries a large load on his young shoulders as the primary conveyor of emotion and personal complexity, having to act out what neither the other characters nor the audience can see. Scott Holtzman, as the Giver, is the weary voice of one who has been burdened too long with all the joys and woes in the troubled past of the world and functions as the one source of true fatherhood to Jonas. Jordan Gribble plays Jonas’ “assigned” father, Taylor Novak-Tyler his chosen mother and Annie Hachtel as his selected sister. Kane Todd and Ashley Dickerson are Jonas’ school companions, Aaron Webster is the Chief Elder and Margaret Martin is one of the aging members of the community. The troupe has the imposing task of having to rein in every actors’ instinct to emote, in order to portray this Orwellian environ, which has more in common with 1984 than you might expect in a child’s story.

The props are minimalistic as in Our Town with chairs and tables and a sled being brought on and off as the needs be. The mood is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery with an air of over-supervised gloom hanging over the story. The clothes are gray and unadorned, the furniture is drab and featureless, even the books are (at first) without color.

A play which includes veiled topics of euthanasia, failed tries at utopian societies, and Free Will is strong fare for a story aimed at a youth demographic, but The Giver playing February 8 – 18, 2019 at ACTS Theatre, will lend (see what I did there?) itself to spirited conversation in the debate about the cost of relinquishing one’s Free Will in the name of what appears to be the Ultimate Nanny State.

So, the moral might suggest, when thinking about the possibilities of a world without conflict or pain, without discord or obstacles to overcome ….. be careful what you wish for.

DARKEST MINDS – DERIVATIVE TEEN ROMANCE DRESSED UP AS WEAK DEPRESSING SCI FI

SHORT TAKE:

Paint-by-numbers teen-romance/sci-fi full of plot holes and borrowed ideas.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to older teens only, for language, X-Men style violence and a couple of aggressive advances by pervy bad guys.

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LONG TAKE:

Combine Divergent with the new/retro X-Men then flavor with a teaspoon of Children of Men and you have Darkest Minds.

Based on a series of books by Alexandra Reagan, the premise is that a virus infects all children. Most die but the survivors are left with superpowers. The government is afraid of them so, on the pretext of looking for a cure, rounds them up into prison-like camps, where they are overseen by abusive soldiers, given menial tasks to do and occasionally euthanized. One of the internees, Ruby, (Amandla Stenberg from Hunger Games) gifted with mind control, escapes with the help of a sympathetic doctor, Cate (Mandy Moore) and seeks sanctuary with other runaways.

There are so many weak, illogical and unappealing features to this movie that I will only hit upon the highlights.

The two favorite whipping boys of the lazy liberal screenwriters are corporate CEOs and the military. Our military are the scapegoats in this one. All are seen as cruel and abusive to the last remaining children on the planet. Not only is this stupid, but would be an enormous waste of incredible powers displayed by the children. For example, heightened intelligence children are sent to polish shoes. Why? Why are they not put to work creating super gizmos?

Set ups are never paid off. In one scene, our protagonist is cornered by a pervy-acting soldier and another girl deliberately makes him angry to distract him. She is taken away, presumably for punishment, but we never see her again.

Ruby sends a bounty hunter off into the woods to walk herself to death. Then the kids walk off into the same woods without ever mentioning her again. Also, this is almost exactly the punishment Wolverine's dying girlfriend, Kayla, metes out to Stryker at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Along with enhanced intelligence, powers of other children in the camp include telekinesis and the ability to control electricity.

Children who demonstrate more powerful abilities such as mind control or fire breathing are euthanized.

If a corrupt military had access to this kind of firepower, the idea that these children would be either killed or corralled and simply housed is ludicrous. Why would they not at least weaponize them?

There is no reveal as to what was going on in the rest of the world. If it was only in the United States, we would have a significant advantage with a race of super children. Was the virus a pandemic? Where did the virus come from? Was it manufactured ? of alien origin? Was it supposed to be a natural part of humans' development? The writers seem more interested in making the military look inherently evil and jumping right to the teen drama than writing a solid coherent story.

The performances of the children are adequate but fairly banal and what you might expect in a teen romance film dressed up as a Sci-Fi.

It's a shame because they had the skeleton ideas for a really good movie. One thread they could have followed was when the runaways come upon an abandoned farm and one of the older kids mentions simply but insightfully: no children, no economy.

This is common sense the global warming cultists and the abortion mentality fanatics fail to grasp. Putting aside the Holocaust level atrocity of the philosophy that there are too many of us and that children, thereby, are at best an inconvenience and at worst a plague to be minimized or eliminated, it is a basic fundamental of economics that a population does not grow also does not thrive.  This is a concept that the far superior Children of Mendid not just glance at but understood and embraced.

The devastated and abandoned areas in Darkest Minds the children come across are one of the few accurate portrayals of the outcome of the loss of our next generation. To do a crossover moment, this is the landscape that Thanos and those others who believe in overpopulation, would create. Darkest Minds could have been a kind of Children of Men spinoff but this point was never followed up.

Another really good idea which was little utilized was Watership Down, a brilliant story by Richard Adams seen from the point of view of a group of adventuring rabbits. The idea of a group of intrepid outcasts, wandering from one dysfunctional society to another in the wake of a massive catastrophe, rejecting them all, seeking sanctuary and finding it in family would have been a real upgrade to this plot. Instead, Ruby, the main protagonist, finds this book to read to the youngest child in their group. The blessing that God gives to rabbits is quoted: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning." Ruby applies it to her love interest, Liam (Harris Dickinsen), but this is unearned. "The Prince with A Thousand Enemies" is a clever trickster leader who brings his family through a series of dangerous adventures. Liam, while a nice young man, is merely one of a group of kids trying to survive. He's not an especially strong leader, nor shown to be particularly adept at thinking outside the box. If they wanted to make this Watership Down analogy work they should have set it up properly, instead of just throwing it in hoping it would stick by virtue of having been mentioned. This tactic does not work.

Ruby kills somewhat randomly, though not without reason.  She forces soldiers to shoot into an opposing group, gets a helicopter pilot to do a suicide dive, and makes the pervy soldier shoot himself in the head. I only bring this up because elsewhere in the movie the group she is with objects to the idea of joining an anti-government group call the Children's League. They are afraid the League would train them to be soldiers and kill people. Seems a bit inconsistent without at least some espoused rationalization. The screenwriters need to pick a side and stick to it. Is it okay to use these powers lethally or not?

Essentially, this is a so-so forgettable teen romance with about as much originality as Eragon, set against a background of sci-fi which plays out like a first treatment idea instead of a fully fleshed-out screenplay.

Finally, I must wonder why screenwriters almost always see the future as dystopian. Granted a conflict is useful in the creation of an interesting story, but there's no reason a functioning healthy society couldn't be challenged, instead of starting from the assumption that life sucks. Star Trek, Dr. Who and the Avengers – three of the most profitable and long lasting frachises in all of cinematic history – all celebrate more often than not, the advances, achievements, creativity and essential goodness of humanity – and that sentient life is the most valuable thing in the material Universe. You'd think the writers of such depressing movies as Hunger Games, Divergent, Ready Player One, The Road, Book of Eli, 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451, Clockwork Orange, and Brazil would start from a more optimistic threshold. After all, what is the point of fighting for a world which will not get any better? Not that these are all bad  movies – on the contrary many on the list are classics. It's just you'd think the truly creative might come up with a more positive outlook on life and our future. As Trek and Who, in particular, have shown, it is possible to have conflict and even make intelligent social commentary and still have a more optimistic view of life. Just sayin'.

WARNING: A little bit of language, some X-Men style violence of gunshots, fire breathing, explosions and people being thrown around, along with the pervy antagonist scenes, makes this suitable really for older teens and up only. If you were comfortable with your kids seeing X-Men, this would likely be fine.

ISLE OF DOGS – A WES ANDERSON TAKE ON MAN’S BEST FRIEND

SHORT TAKE:

Peculiar stop-action animated dramedy about abandoned dogs and their nobility in a dystopian Japanese future and the boy who adventures out to rescue one of them.

WHO SHOULD GO:

The violence is, literally and figuratively, cartoonish, but unlike most cartoons, there are realistic outcomes: bitten off ear, bones of a starved dog, ripped eyes, missing fur – so mid-teens a minimum, and only then with parental discretion. As always, when in doubt, PARENTS YOU SEE IT FIRST before taking your kids.

Remember, they can not UNsee something.

LONG TAKE:

Isle of Dogs is a straight up tale of a boy searching for his lost pet.

But that is where the possibility of it being a kid movie ends. Isle of Dogs is really an animated stop action film for adults that most older kids could probably go see too. The premise of this very odd animated movie involves dog-hating corrupt politicians in a Japan 20 years into the future. (Not, according to Wes Anderson, necessarily OUR future or Japan's future but SOME future in the…future. Don't blame me, that is what Wes Anderson said.)

Acting on a thousand year old feud between dogs and cats, the evil Mayor of Megasaki gets his henchmen to devise and deliberately introduce a lethal snout flu into the dog population, making dogs both sick and more aggressive. To "protect" the population, all dogs from the fictitious Japanese town, (which name seems to stand for LOTS – mega – of very strong rice wine – saki), are sent to Trash Island, aptly named for the location to where all of the pollution, litter, industrial waste, radioactive discards, plastic bottles,

rusted car parts, broken glass and every day garbage are dumped from Megasaki.

The animation is almost entirely stop motion puppets, and the "making of" Isle of Dogs videos are fascinating. Each portion of this strange film is stylized:

a cave made of discarded soda containers, a mountain of black sand,

an island of tires. Anderson primarily uses bright colors in the peopled Magasaki and muted colors on Trash Island, not only to highlight and represent the desolation of Trash Island but to realistically reflect the fact that dogs are partially color blind and Anderson wanted the view of the place to be from the dog’s POV.

I wondered what would inspire Wes Anderson, the director of such disparate but equally quirky films as: the

Royal Tenenbaums,

The Grand Budapest Hotel,

The Fantastic Mr. Fox and

Moonrise Kingdom, (yes, Anderson likes that signature over-the-shoulder shot, doesn't he?), to make this rather odd film. It turns out after some research that the primary reasons are an amalgam of four disparate thoughts: a London street sign, a misunderstanding about him personally, a familiar trope, and 1960s Japanese directors.

It began apparently when Mr. Anderson was driving through London during the filming of The Fantastic Mr. Fox and saw a street sign "Isle of Dogs". Yes, it is a real place –

a suburban area built into a loop of the Thames. The name stuck with him. Further it's a bit of a play on words. Say it fast and it becomes "I love dogs". Which leads to the misunderstanding about him personally.

In Wes Anderson films, bad things often happen to dogs. This goes a long way to explaining why I'm not a big fan. See in my Sgt Stubby review where I talk about Lethal Weapon 2. This particular repeating motiff has led to the misunderstanding that he does not like dogs. However, according to Mr. Anderson, this is very much not true. So he has written a movie about a group of abused examples of these endearing creatures – which leads to the next reason I have uncovered.

Mr. Anderson likes to include the concept, in all of his movies, of the endearing Underdog.

The character up against seemingly overwhelming odds who surely cannot win but for whom everyone roots and who often overcomes the odds.

Mr. Anderson, in a conceptual pun, has written a screenplay about the ultimate Underdog – the downtrodden, less fortunate dog, who has become the under dog.

The abandon group of men's best friends, who are condemned to die alone on a trash island, who face seemingly insurmountable odds, but whom are very likeable and for whom we root are the very definition of the Underdog.

The ultimate underdogs.

Finally, Mr. Anderson simply is a fan of two Japanese directors.

Akira Kurosawa was the director of movies such as Ran, the Japanese version of King Lear, Rashomon, the brilliant classic film about an attack in a forest told consecutively from four points of view, and Kagemusha, (which translates to "political decoy") about a thief who is hired to be the body double of a king. For you Star Wars trivia buffs, just "so's ya' know," Kagemusha

was made possible through the influence and financial intervention of George Lucas. Lucas attributed inspiration for his breakthrough epic Star Wars from Kurasawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress. Shocked at finding out that Kurasawa could not get funding or attention to get Kagemusha filmed, Lucas pulled his now very thick and powerful strings – purse and studio – to get Kurasawa the backing he needed and the movie was a massive financial and critical hit.

Wes Anderson admits to being a big fan and was highly influenced in his use of style by Kurasawa as well.

The other Japanese director is

Hayao Miyazaki, an acclaimed manga animator of

Princess Mononoke, which Anderson says he admires for his use of nature and silence.

Therefore, Anderson set the location and the architectural styles of Japan

with a Frank Lloyd Wright flair.

The movie is not without humor. It is actually quiet funny in moments

with a dry wit often worthy of Steven Wright ("I woke up one morning to discover everything in my house had been replaced with an exact duplicate,") or George Carlin's "Hippy, Dippy Weatherman" routine, where he predicts that the nighttime would likely be "dark" with continued "dark" until the morning and that "the weather would continue to change for a long, long time."

Similarly, the dogs comment matter of factly on their tenuous, sometimes impossible, and seemingly hopeless situation with a jaunty optimistic naivety. Boss is voiced with

deadpan wryness by Bill Murray,

King with gentle common sense pragmatism by Bob Balaban,

Rex with a slight bit of snark by Ed Norton,

Duke as a gossipy worrywart by Jeff Goldblum, and Chief

with a straight man's frustration by Bryan Cranston. These dogs all have notably different personalities, despite the limited abilities of the puppets to express facially or look terribly individual.

Rounding out more of the cast are Scarlett Johansson's Nutmeg,

Leiv Schrieber's Spots,

Tilda Swinton as the TV interpreting Oracle,

Koyu Rankin as Atari, known to the dogs as the "Little Pilot"

for the daring way he arrived on Trash Island,

Greta Gerwig (the director of Ladybird, read about Ladybird in my Oscar Winners of 2018 review here) as

Tracy Walker, who takes up Atari's cause to the citizens of Megasaki, and

Frances McDormand who acts as narrator and occasionally Greek Chorus.

Incredible care and detail went into making each of the figures. For example, Andy Gent, working with 70 other artists, deliberately made the dogs' legs differently – they wanted to hit a "balance" between reality and "caricature," so to create that effect and for the convenience of the puppeteers, gave the dogs hind legs that look like front legs.

They brought in real dogs – sometimes pets from the cast and crew – and fashioned them according to certain actors they wanted to reflect, such as Charles Laughton's visage for Jupiter the St Bernard, voiced by F. Murray Abraham.

They also used

mechanical armature as a skeleton and crafted the fur from alpaca and merino wool.

There are virtues to be learned of: loyalty, redemption, fortitude and finding the purpose that God has given you. God IS mentioned in a positive way.

The dogs are at a loss until they are given the opportunity to once again serve humans and

humans have an obligation (defined Biblically as a stewardship) to care for, protect and respect the devotion lavished on us by dogs.

We are reminded often that dogs are supposed to be man's best friend and until that relationship is restored there is no real peace either in Megasaki or in the dog world.

While Isle of Dogs is aimed mostly at adults, despite its distinct peculiarities, this movie fits into that long honored list of films that remind us of the enduring relationship between humans and man's best friend.