BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE ISN’T ALWAYS A BAD THING

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF MY ARTICLE BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE ISN’T ALWAYS A BAD THING

I am kind of a homebody. I love staycations, contemplating a fire in our fireplace, watching a home movie and enjoying the ability to pause for a snack or bathroom break (even with TP being a growing scarcity), or just reading a book with a cat in my lap. BUT nothing makes me want to leave faster than being told I CAN’T leave. And our governor has decreed that there is now a MANDATORY requirement to VOLUNTARILY self isolate.  Putting aside the inherent oxymoron, I more than understand everyone else’s anxiety.

So I decided, rather than fret over this bizarre situation, to suggest a few movies about being stuck in one spot.

Now, as you peruse my choices, know that I am aware of other movies which might seem more obvious.

SPOILERS

Three I would NOT recommend at this time:

Saw invites a guy to hack his foot off.

Cast Away is an a-theized version of Robinson Crusoe. I’m not saying Cast Away openly advocates for an atheistic philosophy, but the original Robinson Crusoe, on which the writers draw heavily in concept, was about a spiritually damaged man who comes to realize his enforced isolation as Providence. Crusoe uses his time as an opportunity to rediscover his relationship with God. On the other hand Cast Away is just about Tom Hanks surviving on an island.

Buried is just too grim to talk about.

So without further ado these are what I think are five great movies that show BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE ISN’T ALWAYS A BAD THING.

REAR WINDOW

This classic gem from Alfred Hitchcock stars the icon of cinema, Jimmy Stewart, in one of his historically memorable performances as a man with a broken leg, before the age of ubiquitous air conditioning, internet, cell phones or streaming movies, stuck in his apartment during a hot summer and bored out of his mind. The only things he has to occupy himself with are peeping at his neighbor across the way from his apartment and the occasional visits from his girlfriend Grace Kelly. Point of trivia and irony: One neighbor is played by Raymond Burr. Two years later Burr would become Perry Mason, the eponymous lead in an extremely popular courtroom drama TV show, in which this part brilliant lawyer part inquisitive detective, would weekly successfully and justly defend an innocent man who everyone else thinks guilty.

Stewart’s character peeps in on his neighbors and surmises from circumstantial evidence that Burr has murdered his wife. Getting anyone to believe him or prove it becomes a rather tall order as he is stuck in his apartment at a time long before the term handicapped access was even created.

The movie was later remade into a vehicle for the paralysed and wheelchair bound Chris Reeves, who, in an act of sheer inspiring determination, not only lead but, incredibly, directed the film. While I have not yet seen Superman’s version, it is on my bucket list.

BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE MIGHT HELP YOU SOLVE A MURDER!

APOLLO 13 (1995)

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

This one has some profanity including blasphemy and a few instances of verbal sexual innuendo meant comically. Also, for those old enough to understand the jargon and circumstance, though the men involved face this grimmest of situations with calm and dignity, it is quite tense. So young teens at earliest, especially since younger crew who did not fully appreciate the gravity (or lack thereof) of the space hazards would likely get bored.

This is the telling of the historical and harrowing event which took place from April 11 through 17, 1970 known as the Apollo 13 mission, which was to have been the third lunar landing by the United States. When an oxygen tank catastrophically failed the mission parameters changed to simply trying to return the crew alive.

Even those familiar with the story will be on the edge of their seats as most of the movie is seen from inside the claustrophobically small cabin. Starring Tom Hanks (Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Sully, and many more terrific movies, many also biopics), Kevin Bacon (most famous for Footloose), Bill Paxton (Aliens, Twister), Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump) and Ed Harris (The Rock, The Right Stuff) – these men portrayed those who really DID have The Right Stuff with a courage, patriotism and dignity which helped a new generation understand why the space race is worth the risks we take.

BEING STUCK IN ONE  PLACE CAN HELP DEMONSTRATE THE COURAGE, DETERMINATION AND INGENUITY OF THE AMERICAN SPIRIT

SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1960)

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Appropriate for the whole family.

This is a wholesome and inspiring CLASSIC Disney movie based on the Pastor Johann David Wyss’ book about a family, anxious to start a new life in a far away home, who become shipwrecked on an island. The story is of their ingenious survival for a decade with reliance only on their faith in God, each other, and the abundance of raw resources of the uninhabited land far away from any known charts. They tame wild animals, rescue a fair damsel, fight pirates, build a multistory home, and conquer their environment with a plethora of ingenious inventions.

BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE WITH THOSE YOU LOVE TO CONQUER CHALLENGES CAN DEMONSTRATE YOUR STRENGTH AS A FAMILY

PASSENGERS

I know this movie has gotten a lot of flack over the years for lionizing Stockholm Syndrome and I might have agreed except for one thing:

SPOILERS

Jim gave Aurora an out. He repurposed a biobed into a cyro chamber for her.

I have a full review HERE.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mid teens and up for mild profanities, some semi-comic bare buttocks, some stressful life threatening scenes, and an episode in which the main character becomes so depressed he contemplates suicide.

The story is about a colony ship that glitches 30 years into an 120 year trip leaving one passenger stranded and completely alone among hundreds of other people – who are all asleep in cryogenic chambers. Knowing he is condemned to die alone, after a year he becomes desperate and begins what can be looked at as a parable of marriage.

BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE CAN TEACH YOU A LOT ABOUT YOURSELF, BOTH GOOD AND BAD

AIRPLANE (1980)

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

NOT FOR THE KIDDIES. Everything from bad language, fart jokes, crude humor and a pair of bare breasts almost LITERALLY thrown in for a moment JUST to achieve an R rating, it’s a classic but for adults only.

OK Let’s go full bore comedy here. This is the prince of parodies, the founder of funny, the superfilm of spoof. On the heels of a decade of airborne disaster melodramas, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams wrote a movie which incorporated as many clichés, parodies, homages and pokes at this genre as they could possibly stuff into one film. Additionally it featured TV and cinematic legends like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges (father of Jeff and Beau), Barbara Billingsley (Leave it to Beaver), and Leslie Neilsen, who had previously been primarily in serious roles, as well as a host of other very familiar faces from old movies and TV Land shows, NOT to mention the Zuckers and Abrahams, the writers. Especially for its time and place, especially for those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and/or were disaster movie afficianados, this was a recipe for rare hilarity. It also stands the test of time. Even if you don’t recognize any of the actors or references this will still tickle your funny bone with its outrageous dead pan deliveries, great timing, unexpected warping of clichés, and the wonderful actors totally committed to turning their comfort zones on their heads.

Many have tried to recapture this lightning in a bottle of mocking a very successful film genre, and many have met with a measure of success – Police Squad, Reno 911 (police TV shows), Disaster Movie (disaster movies), Vampires Suck (Twilight saga), Shaun of the Dead (zombies), Saturday the 14th (Friday the 13th), Spaceballs (Star Wars) –  even using and reusing Leslie Nielsen in some of the ventures. But Airplane was the grand daddy of them all – at least the ancestor with the most fame and clout for their efforts – leading the way with the guts to take on an established genre powerhouse and openly make fun of it.

BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE CAN BE JUST PLAIN OLD FUNNY

So enjoy your time at home. We usually never have enough of it.  And relish this, what I genuinely believe we will come to later understand as precious moments to:

Be alert, be brave, appreciate your family, learn something about yourself and…laugh.

KLAUS OUTSHINES THE OTHER OSCAR CONTENDERS

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW OF KLAUS

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

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

LONG TAKE:

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

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

SPOILERS (THOUGH AS FEW AS I COULD)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A CHRISTMAS STORY – LOVELY NOSTALGIC REMINISCENCE AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone – children of all ages.

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MOST RECENT FAST AND FURIOUS – MORE LIKE FARCICAL AND INFURIATING

SHORT TAKE:

Waste of time – see the Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2 (linked here and at end of post) for all the best bits.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language and extreme (though really cartoonish) levels of carnage. Not a lot of blood but you wouldn’t want the kids to try these stunts at home.

LONG TAKE:

I have nothing against brainless entertainment and I try to judge a movie only within the genre for which it was intended. So when you go see one of the Fast and Furious franchise films (try to say THAT three times quickly) you don’t expect much beyond good old escapist fun. I even applauded Fate of the Furious in a previous post as a welcome entry.

I love buddy movies and have extolled all kinds from The Great Escape to The Hitman’s Bodyguard. And I have no problem with franchises doing semi-parodies of themselves. I am on record many times for complaining that a movie takes itself TOO seriously. And I think the break from tradition Thor: Ragnarok, for example, is one of the best Avenger movies.

But you gotta give the audience SOMETHING of substance. Sadly, in the case of  director David Leitch’s Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, it’s like trying to make an entire meal out of day old cotton candy.

SPOILERS – BUT THE PLOT IS SO THREADBARE IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER

I’m afraid the writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce thought they could punch quality into a movie with just star power. But Spielberg’s 1941 or Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or Bay’s Pearl Harbor could have warned them otherwise. I understand it is doing well at the box office and good for them. A friend of mine once taught me an expression – No one sets out to make a bad movie. But, unfortunately, despite what the film makers intended, this one is just not very good.

Not that the cast was trying very hard. Johnson and Statham spend most of the movie either posturing like WWW competitors or trading childish barbs with all the finesse of opposing players in a grade school gym locker room. Dwayne Johnson was funnier in Jumanji, Statham more invested in The Expendables, and Vanessa Kirby, a “legit” actress (amazing as Princess Margaret in The Crown and fun as the White Widow in MI: Fallout) is simply wasted. I really liked her Hattie in this, a variation of Atomic Blonde, (also a David Leitch directed movie), but then her scenes had to be spliced back into the fatiguing Hobbs-Shaw bickering man measuring show.

Ryan Reynolds appears in a cameo with dialogue that could have been made of rejected adlibs from Deadpool 2. Helen Mirren walks through her reprised role as Shaw’s mother, Queenie. At one point Queenie assures Shaw that she is happy in prison and could break out any time she wanted – that it was quiet and she could just sit in her room, and spend her time reading – that it was like retirement. I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms. Mirren was talking about Queenie’s stint in the pen or Ms. Mirren’s actual presence on the set of this movie.

Kevin Hart pops up in a couple of random moments as Dinkley, the air marshal, to be used like duct tape on a leaky hose to solve a couple of plot holes. In return, Hart is allowed to ramble  interminably in an improvisational-style soliloquy in lieu of any proper exposition for his character.

Idris Elba as main cybernetically enhanced bad guy Brixton gives it everything he has, carrying the weight of what little gravitas the movie has. By far the most interesting character, it was a sore temptation not to root for him to win.

The premise of the story is that they are trying to prevent Idris Elba’s bad guy, Brixton, from getting ahold of an extinction-level virus for his unseen super villain boss. But it becomes obvious early on this is really just an excuse to create a string of cartoon quality violence fight scenes and car stunts. And while I do not fundamentally MIND that, the film makers have to at least TRY to hide this fact. But like a sloppy magician who yells “Look over there” before every clumsy trick, it just doesn’t work for long.

Instead of providing character and plot earned enthusiasm, the chase scenes strove to outdo all the F&F chases put together and as a result became preposterous. I’m not giving spoilers as the scene where a line of linked trucks are holding down a flying fortress helicopter is in the trailer. The chase scenes from The French Connection, Bullitt, The Great Escape, the beginning of The Rock (“Oh why NOT!”), or even the escape at the start of The Avengers from a collapsing building complex were exciting because the audience was led to believe the characters were potentially in danger.

Well, I can easily imagine Jeremy Scott from Cinema Sins doing a bonus round of “They survived this”. The F&F movies are supposed to take place (more or less) in the real world and the leads, aside from Elba, are not supposed to have unusual supernatural powers – Dwayne Johnson’s mountain-sized physique notwithstanding. But the repeated walk aways from cataclysmic-sized vehicle crashes, which would have killed Bugs Bunny, stretched and eventually broke the suspension bridge of disbelief out from under the viewers. (And, I’m sorry, but it was tough for even my loyal Marvel-fan heart to believe that Cap could hold back the small helicopter Bucky flew duringCaptain America: Civil War. Johnson is just NOT holding down a military grade bird.) It did not take long for there to be zero investment in the outcome of the rides, knowing the main characters would likely to come out the right end of a freight train to the face.

Then there is the storyline.

We’re talking Adam West’s Batman level of contrivances and clunky dialogue, where guest stars appear out of nowhere and backstories are pulled from whole cloth to justify prior franchise installment plot holes.

For example, the fact that Hattie, Shaw’s spy sister, never came up in conversation is explained away by him having been framed for treason in the master plan of a heretofore unknown and currently still unseen megalomaniac bad guy. Hobbs’ extensive Samoan family was previously non-existent because he had alienated everyone by turning in his crime lord father to the authorities.

Hobbs’ brother Jonah (Cliff Curtis), who lives on a remote island in Samoa, with only the technology of a classy chop shop at his disposal, is decided to be the ONLY person and place in the world they can go to fix cutting edge virus extracting bio equipment……? Huh? So I guess I can ask my car mechanic to do some gene splicing on the side. Easy peasy.

I did like the “importance of family” theme, which is one of the more endearing F&F tropes, including Shaw’s mom and sibling and Hobbs’ daughter, mother and brothers into the mix. And it was nice they found a way to include Johnson’s actual Samoan heritage into the story. But it was shoe-horned in, superficial and paint by numbers – Hobbs doesn’t want to go home, brother punches him on sight, mom intimidates all the big boys into cooperating. Shaw’s mother, Queenie, fondly recounts, in flash back, how the previously unknown and unseen sister and Shaw concocted scams and committed felonies as children. What a mom.

I guess it’s cute that they shoot parallel scenarios of these two men who can’t seem to stand each other doing pretty much the same things at the same time with their own styles. It might have even been funny had the repertoire between them sounded better than first day of shooting improvisation, created by two uninspired high school freshmen.

Supporting characters are dispatched or ignored with little fan fare. Professor Andreiko (Eddie Marsan from better movies like The World’s End, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2) is a heroic scientist who save our intrepid heroes, but then gets left behind without a thought, killed by Brixton with no consideration for how useful he might be in the future, with no attempt by the heroes to save him, and not so much as a “I wonder what happened to that little guy who saved our butts?” This callousness does nothing to shore up the already, by this time, flaccid investment the audience has in these characters.

While there’s no overt sex, the language is unnecessarily crude and contains a good deal of profanity and blasphemy.

If you REALLY think you want to see this latest and weakest F&F you can – LITERALLY – see a Reader’s Digest version of the ENTIRE movie via abridged cuts of all the best scenes in the official Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw trailer #2. It’s free, short and eliminates all the bad language.

But – if you want to see a GOOD car chase, adventure, buddy movie, try out one of the other better ones I’ve mentioned in this post or even go see one of the previous Fast and Furious installments. Sadly, this contender didn’t make it to the finish line.

 

LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

SHORT TAKE:

Put this in the column of WELL done, and astonishingly realistic, live action remakes of a classic Disney animated movie.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone – though, for a kid movie, the subjects of fratricide, murderous hyenas, and fights to the death might (and did in the showing I went to) upset the younger kids. That’s going to have to be a parental call on a kid by kid basis. There were certainly scenes in this one which were even harder to watch than in the animated movie because of the VERY life-like CGI.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS BUT ONLY FOR THOSE 3 OR 4 PEOPLE IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM OVER 10 WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE ORIGINAL ANIMATED VERSION

Chalk another one up for The Mouse. Before I launch into my review, I’ll say it right now, the CGI IS ASTONISHING. It’s actually just a teensy bit frightening how authentically film makers can now manufacture real life. The animals seem very very life-like.

Aside from allowing the animals to speak, the director, Jon Favreau has had the animators keep the facial and body movement as close as possible to the authentic musculature of real animals, including, of course, their limitations. Real animals don’t smile. Real animals can’t manipulate things which require an opposable digit — unless they have an opposable digit. Real animals don’t dance or pull hula skirts out of thin air. Favreau’s team respects these natural and inherent limitations, bringing an added reality to the characters which was different from the animated version. Audiences generally allow an extra layer of suspension of disbelief not usually afforded a live action and Favreau’s team obviously kept that in mind – creatively working within those limits, making the almost athletically energetic vocals of the human actors all that more important to achieve. And achieve those goals they do.

Despite the early reviews which did not have a lot of love for the (then) upcoming 2019 Lion King, this one deserved all the (literal) applause it got during the credits. I’ll admit to some trepidation, as while Aladdin was well done, Dumbo was an overblown flop. And as Lion King is one of their most enduring and intelligently created stories, I had some reservations. But from the opening scenes I was enchanted.

The entire original animated story is there, as this live action tracks about 90% of the original animated version scene for scene and image for image, notable from the opening sequence as the animals gather to welcome the newly born Prince Simba. The only notable differences throughout the 2019 version were that some of the quips were missing and some of the more ridiculous slapstick was excised. For example, and in keeping with the aforementioned recognition of the natural limitations of real animals: Zazu was not left under a pile of rhinoceroses as cubs Simba and Nala escape his watchful eye, and Timon did not don a hula skirt as a distraction for the hyenas just before the climactic battle. (Do I know the original well? With 6 kids, I have probably seen this movie over a dozen times, so yes.)

Only one scene, in my analysis, suffered slightly from lack of (if you’ll excuse the pun) impact in a diversion from the original. When Rafiki counsels Simba to return to his pride, in the original animated version Rafiki whacks Simba on the head with his club to make the point that: Yes, some history is painful, but once endured, it is then in the past and must be overcome in order to move forward. I can think of some stupid PC reasons why they did not include this part of Rafiki’s argument, but maybe they had a legit plot consideration. In any event this scene is not used in Rafiki’s counsel to Simba in the 2019 version.

Along with why this scene and some of the more memorable quotes were not included, another thing the film makers do not explain is their casting choices. Of the main cast: James Earl Jones who majestically voiced Mufasa, Matthew Broderick who played Simba, Madge Sinclair who voiced Sarabi, Robert Guillame who charmingly gave life to Rafiki, Jeremy Irons who chillingly voiced Scar, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who stole every scene they were in as the comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa, Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg who lent their comic talents to the hyenas, and Rowen Atkinson whose brilliant dry wit was conveyed into Zazu, Jones was the only actor asked back.

There was some ink spilled in the media effusing about how Jones links the movie back to the traditional version and I, personally, was delighted to have him revisit the voice of Mufasa. He has all the timbre of the majestic leader plus his age adds a wonderful, almost foreboding to his character. But I could find very little info on why they did not call the entire cast back. Aside from the tragic death of Guillame, taken by cancer in 2017, and Madge Sinclair who passed away from leukemia not long after The Lion King came out, all of the performers are not only still alive but still active and have ongoing projects. And, aside from the child actor voices from whom replacement by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph is understandable, as they now will obviously sound too old for those roles, when acting the adult characters, the ages are irrelevant since they are all doing vocal performances.

The only info I could get on the casting issue was in an interview with Jeremy Irons. When asked why he did not reprise his role as Scar in the new version all he could say was: They didn’t ask me. He then, graciously and diplomatically went on to praise the choice of Chiwetel Ejiofor .

There is NOTHING wrong with the performances in the movie, and had they been the first ones I heard doing these roles I could have been quite content. BUT having heard Broderick, Atkinson, Irons, etc in their respective roles, it was a constant distraction to actively miss the original cast, especially when Jones’ terrific performance was a continuous reminder that the others were not there.

But don’t let my complaints dissuade you from the movie. Despite the differences, I thought this a very well done version. I am merely expressing an, admitted, bias for the details about the one our kids grew up with. I understand some of the changes omitting the more obvious cartoonish slapstick but while I do not understand some of the other choices, can accept them as not being in this version’s vision.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Dr. Strange and Children of Men) takes on Scar. Donald Glover (The Martian, Solo and Spider-Man : Homecoming) takes over for Simba. John Oliver voices Zazu. Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, Captain America: Civil War) speaks for Sarabi. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner carry Pumbaa and Timon on their respective vocal backs, for which director Favreau wisely arranged for extended improv sessions, much like what was allowed for Lane and Sabella by directors Rogers Allers, and Rob Minkoff for the original, some of which lines were added to the final script.

The Lion King, is heavily influenced by the story of Hamlet. For those not familiar with that theatrical acme, Hamlet is a young prince who must overcome his own insecurities, immaturity and indecisiveness when faced with the prospect of leading his people, after his uncle secretly kills his father, making it appear to be an accident, and marries his mother. (Plug here: BEST Hamlet ever – and ONLY one, to date filmed in its entirety – best of my knowledge – is Branagh’s which you can buy or rent from Amazon – HERE.)

A couple of decisions brings the newer version closer to the 500 year old play. As an example, the original Lion King defined Uncle Scar as grasping only for the crown. This 2019 interpretation hits a bit closer to the Shakespearean home, referring to a past wherein  Scar fought to take Sarabi as his queen and lost to Mufasa. But, unlike Hamlet’s mother, Sarabi has a bit more sense and turns Scar down. This interaction adds more texture to the plot and depth to the character of Scar.

Jon Favreau takes on the daunting task of bringing to life a new version of a beloved classic. Favreau is a very gifted and talented film maker. Favreau is responsible as a director for Iron Man 1 and 2, Jungle Book live action 1 and (the future) 2, an Orville episode, Cowboys and Aliens, Chef, and Zathura: A Space Adventure. He was producer for, among others, Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War. And his long list of acting credits include: creating the adorable sidekick to Iron Man, Happy Hogan, whose character arc has matured with the Avengers movies, as well as playing the titular character in the movie he both wrote and directed in Chef.

As a short digression, and in a lovely taste of poetic symmetry, Favreau, as Happy Hogan, plays his own kind of Rafiki to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Far From Home, counseling the young “Prince” to assume the mantle left for him by his de facto father, Stark, just the way Rafiki counsels Simba in Lion King.

Hans Zimmer returns to refresh the soundtrack he composed for the original Lion King. There are also a couple of additional songs, one of which is performed by Beyonce (who voices Nala) called “Spirit”. While the Shakesperean influence in Lion King, as I have already explained,  is obvious, this 2019 versions also draws from the Biblical story of Moses, who went into exile, crossing the desert to spend years away, only to be called back to bring his people out of bondage. Similarly, Simba crosses the desert that separates his kingdom from the idyllic forest into which he is adopted, until, like Moses, upon his coming to maturity, is called to overcome his own fears and doubts and return – again back across the very Biblically symbolic desert – to free his people from the slavery of Scar and his hyenas. Emphasizing this connection is lyrics from Beyonce’s “Spirit” which includes the line: “So go into that far off land, and be one with the Great I Am, I Am….” The reference to God, the Great I Am, is unmistakably reverent to the Book of Genesis. This was an added depth to the story I hadn’t anticipated but admire about this new version very much.

So go see the new Lion King. But to be fair to this lovely outing, see it with the fresh eyes that Jon Favreau and company have given it.

 

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME – A HOME RUN

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Terrific newest contribution to the Marvel cinematic Universe, FFH is supposedly the last movie of Phase III which began in 2008 with Ironman. It is also the third of, hopefully, many more Marvel-version Spider-Man movies, its quality credited as much to the perpetually youthful and delightfully appealing Tom Holland version of Peter Parker as it is to the clever writing, great music and amazing special effects.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With some cautions, pretty much anyone. But be advised, while the story is clean and the romances innocently portrayed, there is a bit of language, and the violence, while cartoonish, is often intense and could frighten very young children.

LONG TAKE:

What if super powers and access to billions of dollars of tech were given to a kid – a really great and very intelligent kid who was humble and wanted to do the right thing but still was – a kid. You’d have Spider-Man: Far From Home. Spider-Man: FFH is one of the best coming of age stories I’ve ever seen – coming of age, as in a youth being faced with circumstances that allow or force him to step from the safe confines of childhood out into the deeper, more treacherous waters of adulthood.

Although the movie stands firmly on its own, the more Marvel genre films (including TV’s Agents of Shield) since 2008’s Ironman, with which you are familiar and the more you know about Marvel, the more you will enjoy Spider-Man: FFH.  Visual, verbal and circumstantial homages to that larger universe abound.

SPOILERS FOR FFH AND OTHER MARVEL MOVIES (mostly referential but I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone – so be warned)

Spider-Man: Far From Home burst forth with a crisis for which Nick Fury wishes to recruit Peter Parker.  Now while in our modern culture it may seem unreasonable to ask a 16 year old teenager to step up in the way Fury wishes, keep in mind that there is abundant precedent for this in our own human history. Henry II, father of Richard the Lion Heart was forced, by the untimely death of his father Geoffrey of Anjou, to lead his troops against competitor armies for the possession of England and a big chunk of what we now consider France, when he was only 17. (P.S. Henry won). However, regardless of what the inimitable Mr. Fury demands, Peter doesn’t want anything to interfere with his school European trip and planned courting of the aloof M.J. – not even the potential end of the world.

Along with this humorous and all too human motivation of the main character, which is one of the wings that propels this story, FFH has a smart underlying theme cautioning objectivity to media – a very “meta” concept given the massive green screens used by the film makers in EVERY Marvel movie.

Tom Holland is again, and still, wonderful as the absolute best and perfect Spider-Man – all youthful confident enthusiasm but with an irresistibly humorous boyish naivete.

Zendaya (Greatest Showman) portrays her own unique “Goth” brand M.J. without becoming annoying. The adorable Jake Batalon returns as Peter’s best friend Ned. Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan, providing the much needed father figure Peter lost in Endgame. Marisa Tomei is great as Peter’s youthful Aunt May (who says Aunt May has to be old, gray and grandmotherly!!). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio/Quentin Beck, the unknown factor in the plot. And there are a few cameos I would hate to ruin by divulging here but suffice to say they are well placed and fun.

The movie opens with the bang you would expect from any Marvel movie, touches briefly and with some amusement on the practical effects of the “blip” which “undusted” everyone from the end of Infinity War, then carries the audience on the crest of the story wave through to the end, leaving clever bread crumbs along the way, and beyond to all THREE end credit scenes (guess they were making up from not having a proper end credit Easter Egg after Endgame).

And, again, leave it to Marvel to have the perfect blend of story character arc, humor, and tension all placed against a complex backstory which fits with all the other movies like one of the overlays which made up the secret blueprints Tony cobbled together clandestinely in the cave where he had been held hostage in the first Ironman movie.

The colors are bright and vibrant, as they should be for a movie based on a comic book. The story is clean and wholesome, the romances gentle and age appropriately innocent, but the dialogue does contain a small handful of words you would not want younger children repeating. The violence is cartoonish but can be very intense. However, if they can handle any of the previous Marvel movies released since 2008 they can handle this one.

The music by Michael Giacchino is, at turns, bright and lively, romantic and lyrical, and tense and suspenseful, but always maintaining that Marvel hero-flavor.

Spider-Man: FFH works on multi-levels – as a classically formula-ed Marvel action adventure, as a cautionary talent of believing too quickly what you THINK you see because it is in the media, and as the story of a genuinely good young man on the cusp of becoming an adult who must choose when and how to grow up.

So swing right over at your earliest opportunity to see your friendly neighborhood – Spider-Man: FFH.

 

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

 

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALADDIN REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fantastic live action remake of the 1992 animated Aladdin.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone.

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAM AND ELVIS: EXCELLENT PRO-LIFE INDIE ABOUT A TEEN, HER AUNT AND A STUFFED DOG *

SHORT TAKE:

Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, with the screenplay written by a collaboration between Monnot and Ault, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.

This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.

The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.

Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.

People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.

What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.

There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.

* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED – THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.

THE MULE – HARD EARNED ADVICE FROM CLINT EASTWOOD

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE MULE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Rough but insightful view of the true story of an 88 year old man’s experiences as a mule for a drug cartel, with some autobiographical overtones for Eastwood in the foolish sacrifice the main character makes of his family in preference for his business life.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language, topics, and environments which include wild parties, drugs and scantily clad prostitutes.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS

I admire those who make movies that are completely politically incorrect. It takes great big brass bowling, base, golf, and basket ones to do so in this day and age. And that’s what I love about Clint Eastwood – and he must have a large collection of sports equipment. At the age of 88, with a repertoire of films including cultish Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, action icons like Dirty Harry, directorial accomplishments like American Sniper, even comedies like Paint Your Wagon (did you know before The Mule he could sing…well carry a tune) and masterpieces which he has directed and starred in like  Gran Torino and Unforgiven, I do not think Clint Eastwood has anyone to prove himself to or fear but God.

There is a wise saying: If you can’t be a good example, be a horrible warning, and Eastwood’s main character, Earl, is that person who, by his own warning, is not someone whose behavior you would want to adhere.

The Mule is about an elderly man, Earl Stone who, at the end of his rope financially and anxious to make amends with his estranged family, becomes a transport for a cartel of drug dealers. Earl has spent his love and devotion on an ultimately unsuccessful day lily nursery instead of his family. With this in mind, the movie becomes a horrible warning against living a misdirected life with the day lily as a wonderful symbol of the brevity of our time on Earth which, like our lives, blooms for a day then fades.

While Earl’s motives in the movie may be noble and the money he earns is spent on worthwhile events: his daughter’s wedding and the renovation of the local Veterans Lodge, it does not excuse his participation as one of the links in the drug trade which destroyed so many other people’s lives, even as he was reinvigorating his own. The story is based upon the real life Leo Sharp, featured in a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick.

I heard it speculated that there was an element of autobiography for Eastwood in this story. Not that Mr. Eastwood has ever conveyed illegal pharmaceuticals for Mexican drug lords, but that Eastwood, much like the character he portrays, in his pursuit for fame, financial security and business success may have felt he traded his family life for an ambitious career. It is a fine line to walk, between working hard to care for your family and to trade your family for your work.

Eastwood is a fine character actor, who has made a career of portraying the same interesting, likeable character in a wide variety of movies. There’s little difference among the likes of the cheroot chewing Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, looking down the barrel of the very big gun of Inspector Calahan in the Dirty Harry franchise, the singing Pardner in Paint Your Wagon, the scheming eponymous character in Kelly’s Heroes, the stubborn but surprisingly kind Walt Kowalsski in Grand Torino or Earl in The Mule. All of them face the world with the same gritty, teeth grinding, begrudgingly amused side long view. All of them are tough guys who mean well at their core even when doing something they know is wrong. All are portrayed with the gravel-voiced determination of a man with whom you do not want to cross swords.

But in The Mule, Eastwood is willing to openly show the fragility of his old age which, even so, does not stop either Earl, the Mule or Eastwood, the director, from soldiering on in this slice of life movie.

The acting is wonderful. Dianne Wiest portrays his wife, Mary, with all the intimacy of betrayal in a failed marriage between two people who have loved each other for decades. Bradley Cooper plays the determined DEA agent who pursues Earl to the exclusion of family events, and in this way discovering, perhaps in time, he has much to learn from the misaligned Earl. And Andy Garcia portrays the deceptively likeable drug lord Laton.

If this happens to be the last movie the aging Eastwood is in, it would be a fitting denouement and ties in some of his most recent accomplishments. For example, Cooper, who plays the DEA agent in pursuit of Earl, and Eastwood, worked together before on American Sniper. Eastwood had once offered to direct Cooper again in Cooper’s then planned remake of A Star is Born, but Cooper wasn’t ready for the role. Eastwood later encouraged Cooper to direct A Star is Born himself and history was made with that interesting film, which I reviewed here.

In another tie-in with old friends, the credit’s song, Don’t Let the Old Man In, was written expressly for this movie by Eastwood’s friend and golf buddy Toby Keith, inspired by a comment Eastwood made to Keith about how to keep going despite age. Keith wrote and sang the tune as a demo and sent Eastwood a copy. So anxious was Keith to have Eastwood hear it that Keith sang it while struggling with a bad cold. Eastwood loved the rough, dark, weary feel of it and used it exactly as Keith had recorded it for the movie.

And most touching, Eastwood’s own real life daughter Alison came out of acting retirement at the behest of her Dad to play Iris, Earl’s estranged daughter.  Alison commented in one interview that the most difficult part of playing Iris was pretending to be estranged from the man who played her character’s father, her own Dad.

Filmed with a certain fatalistic feel, knowing this can not end well, we ride along and are seduced into empathizing with the amoral Earl as he bounces from attending his granddaughter’s wedding to a multi-hooker party at his cartel boss’ mansion.

Other reviewers have noted that Eastwood, with Mule, is signaling his bestowal upon Bradley Cooper of his outre mantle, a blessing of sorts to Cooper, the accomplished and busy actor and director who still finds the time, energy and whimsical playfulness to bring Rocket’s voice from Guardians of the Galaxy to life.

In medical school there is a name given to the prize for the student who made the top grade in Anatomy – “The Ball and Chain”. The implication being that you have set yourself up for a high bar to continue to have to leap over. In The Mule there is a telling and touching scene where Earl, the mule which Cooper’s character, Colin Bates, has been doggedly pursuing, sits down next to Colin in a diner. Colin has no idea who Earl is, so underestimated is Earl for the better part of 10 years of drug running because of his age and otherwise clean record. Earl knows who Colin is and proceeds to give what appears to be off hand advice about not committing himself to his career to the exclusion of his family. In retrospect was this Earl to Colin or Clint to Bradley…or both?

I find it courageous that Eastwood not only exposes his own human aged physical frailty to an audience which has grown up and grown old watching him move from an action hero to an increasingly fragile man, but makes himself vulnerable to inquiries about his own interpersonal failures. Much like most in Hollywood he has had his share of failed relationships and left a trail of at least 7 children.  And it takes a measure of brave self-perception to admit, even if only tangentially, that you may have failed to do your best to put your familial ties ahead of your own ambitions.

While not for a younger crowd due to topics, language, and sexuality, for the adult crowd it is a fascinating examination of how easy it is, one daily mistake at a time, to lead your life down a long wrong path in a way that can do permanent and irreparable damage to those you might find too late you love most.

Kudos to Mr. Eastwood. And while I hope this is not his last film, if it is, it is not a bad bookend to his cinematic legacy, and a fitting epitaph to a man whose devotion to and accomplishments for the cinematic world, have been remarkable, even if it may have come at great personal sacrifice.

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

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LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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