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.

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.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: A MIXED BAG – BUT ANOTHER PUZZLE PIECE IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE OVERALL PICTURE

SHORT TAKE:

Flawed selfish characters in a plot full of holes, but even faulty Marvel hero films are fun. If you do go – STAY FOR TWO IMPORTANT END CREDIT SCENES!

WHO SHOULD GO:

I'd advise parental discretion here. There is a lot to commend it as a fun action-adventure. But while Ant-Man is altruistic and focused on his family, the Pyms are selfish and unconcerned about the damage they do to others. And there is a sprinkling of mild "cuss" words as well as one very inappropriate strong profanity, especially for a child's film, uttered by Hank in a moment of stress.

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LONG TAKE:

Before I start my review, let me just say that I LIKED Ant-Man and The Wasp. The story and characters are very flawed, but like the oddly cut, and hard to place piece in a jigsaw puzzle, it fits into its own little niche.

TRIED NOT TO SPOIL BUT SOME REFERENCES INEVITABLY IMPLY THINGS SO HEREBY BE FOREWARNED

The Pyms are the singularly most flawed enhanced individuals in the Marvel Universe. I don't call them "heroes" because during the course of the entire movie they don't do one heroic thing. Lang and his ex-cons are another story, as they risk their lives, livelihood and freedom to help the Pyms. But outside of Loki and pretrained Dr. Strange, the Pyms are the most selfish "good guys" we've met. Strange reforms and Loki is at least witty and has spectacular style.

Even Thanos THINKS what he's trying to do is for the good of the Universe and is willing to make personal sacrifices for others – no matter how colossally and tragically misguided Thanos' intentions are.

And DEADPOOL! While, admittedly, Deadpool has an agenda of vengeance, his goal is to take out bad guys, which is to the benefit of innocents everywhere, AND he is willing to sacrifice his otherwise potentially immortal life for a kid he hardly knows. When Deadpool is a better moral example than the Pyms, you know the Pyms have issues.

Here's another way to look at it.

Whether Ant-Man AKA Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the Wasp AKA Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly), and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are good guys or bad guys kind of depends upon whether or not their universe is full of NPC's. For those of us not video gamers, an NPC is a non-player character, a critter or human which is really just part of the landscape serving as a decoration, target, or information access. Their deaths are irrelevant to the game's outcome.

The premise of Ant-Man and The Wasp concerns the Pyms who are trying to retrieve Janet Pym, (Michelle Pfeiffer), the wife of Hank and mother of Hope, from the quantum realm in which she was lost three decades before during a mission to disarm a nuclear weapon.

To accomplish this they kidnap Scott from his house arrest 3 days before he will have served his full term, which sentence resulted from his participation in the events of Captain America: Civil War. This kidnapping puts Scott at risk of getting him thrown in jail for the next 20 years and missing his daughter's entire youth. During the course of the movie the Pyms shrink and enlarge everything from cars to buildings to Pez dispensers and humans. In the real world many of these activities, especially when accomplished during car chases on busy highways and in populous areas, would have resulted, inevitably, in the collateral deaths of many bystanders.

All this in order to rescue one adult human, who, though lost performing a heroic act, volunteered knowing exactly what would happen to her. While their goal is admirable, the lengths to which they go are not. I understand WHY they do what they do but it does not justify their actions.

There is a Biblical truism which warns that no goal, no matter how good, can be justified with even a single evil act. While granting that rule must be temporized with common sense, someone committing a small sin to further the noblest goal would still have to take responsibility for their actions. And there is no doubt that wrecking havoc on an entire city and putting hundreds, if not thousands, of other people's lives in danger for the benefit of a single person, is neither a small sin nor an admirable plan.

In addition, Hope Pym is another in a growing list of tiresome, condescending, feminist, "I can do anything better than you can," chip-on-their-shoulder, self-absorbed, female characters which have most notably reared their ugly heads in the Star Wars franchise, as well as movies like Oceans 8. (Click on the names to access those reviews.)

All that being said Ant-Man and The Wasp is, kind of obviously even from the title, a fantasy science fiction. If we can keep that in mind, for the sake of this review, and the fantasy in which such stories live, let us presume that at least no innocent person, by some miracle, was harmed during the course of the movie and that all property damage was duly compensated by the Pyms using some kind of techno gizmo.

If you think that's absurd, then consider that we are discussing a movie wherein the characters can shrink themselves down to quantum level size and enlarge themselves to the height of tall buildings in a moment and with no permanent ill-effects.

I can live with that.

Moving forward from there, I can safely say that Ant-Man and The Wasp is a very fun movie. It is a family-friendly action adventure with a couple of provisos. Scott Lang and his crew of lovably goofy but well intentioned fellow ex-cons, Luis (Michael Pena), Kurt (David Dastmelchian), and Dave (Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr. aka T.I. shortened and altered into initials from the nickname "Tip" which his grandfather gave him), appropriately enough, run a security company. Who better would know how to stop a thief than another thief? They risk their new business to help the Pyms.

The dialogue is often tongue and cheek, such as when cliche comments are taken literally and responded to in kind. An example is a prolonged and funny discussion between Luis and the villain Sonny (Walton Goggins) as to whether or not the torture drug they are about to administer to Luis should be properly referred to as truth serum and then the Shrek style Pinocchio recitation Sonny gets from Luis of irrelevancies in response to asking where Scott is.

Little is taken really seriously so I suppose the car chases and suddenly and constantly expanding and shrinking buildings and people shouldn't be either.

The plot is interesting, especially as there are multiple sets of conflicting interests. The Pyms wish to save Janet. Scott wants to help the Pyms but stay out of jail. Sonny wants the Pym's tech to sell. Ava (Hannah John-Kamen) needs the Pym tech to solve her chronic state of quantum flux inflicted on her as a child when her father's experiment goes awry, an accident she blames on Hank Pym. Foster has his own agenda. The Fed, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), wants to catch SOMEbody — ANYbody!. And the ex-con friends are just simply agog to be involved with super hero "stuff". Frankly, given all the contrasting interests involved, the ONLY thing that maintains Hank's priority of use of the tech is the fact that he invented and owns the technology.

Everyone believes their cause justifiable but only Sonny is seen as the real bad guy . Hwever, since Scott, the Pyms and their friends are the ones through whose eyes we see the proceedings, they are the ones for whom we are supposed to root.So we are to ignore when bystanders are put at risk……………??

OK.  I'm fine with that. This is, after all, a science fiction fantasy. I mean, come on, the guy's riding an ant.

Violence is cartoonish and the language is pretty clean until Hank lets loose with at least one over the top profanity I could have done without in a child's movie. For parental guidance I am quick to seek information from www.screenit.com. Membership is cheap and well worth it.

The rest is what we've come to expect from a Marvel Superhero Movie, with lots of exciting special effects which worked really well with 3D by the way. I'm not normally a big 3D fan but the flying-fighting scenes were ratchted up at least a half a notch by the glasses. The flashbacks featuring a younger Michelle Pfeiffer were the best I've ever seen, though Douglas suffered from the typical overly smoothed face and peculiar facial expressions common to this cinematographic magic trick. I think it is something about the mouth that just doesn't look right most of the time. I'm not singling out Douglas. I am aware of his medical issues and that is not the problem because this is universal to any time older actors are "youthened" by CGI.

 Also, Pfieffer's character is the point of one of the biggest plot holes – how did she survive 30 years in a hostile environment with zero resources? Food? Water? Bathroom? She aged and referenced being aware of the passage of 30 years time. She didn't even have a pack of cards so even if she didn't have to eat or drink, how did she manage not to go insane? This is completely glossed over without mention and I've found no precedent for answers even from comic book geeks on the net.

Another one that bugged (sorry about the pun) me was the physics which operated conveniently to the plot. On the one hand, being shrunk seems to afford some survivability not usually possible – like falls and impacts which would destroy a normal unshrunk human. This would imply a certain enhanced density. Granted, the suit they wear must help a lot but does not account for every instance – such as when their helmets are off. If the humans had been tiny but undense they could have been swatted like fairies or butterflies. Instead they carry an enormous amount of momentum and punch in fights. This implies the matter is all there but concentrated. On the other hand, Hank can pick up an entire shrunken building and people carry it around as though it was made of styrofoam. Even a scale model of that building would have been heavier than presented had it been made of the same unconcentrated steel girder and concrete materials, much less how many thousands of tons it should weight even in its shrunken but dense state. So which is it guys?

On the positive side, the jokes are funny, Scott doing his best as a father was refreshing, and I enjoyed the lighter tone of the movie, especially since the previous one I saw was Infinity Wars. However, on that note, and without giving any spoilers — hold onto your seat. Let's just say it is important to sit through all of the credits and that the FIVE screenwriters (talk about a story written by committee!): Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd (the Ant-Man, himself), Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari, as well as director, Peyton Reed, were definitely aware of the aforementioned movie.

In short, without a score card, it is difficult to tell whether the Pyms or Sonny is the "bad guy" team. The Pyms' goals are exclusively personally, relatively trivial in the grand scheme considering what they are willing to do to others, ignore the desperate needs of others, like Ava, casually put the safety and security of Lang's family and friends at risk by yanking Scott out of his house arrest a mere three days before he will be free, dismissively ignore Hank's possible culpability in Ava's condition, and put thousands of innocent bystanders in mortal danger.

It is not their best Marvel movie, nor does it try to be but it does hold its own and finds its place in the Marvel universe. I especially enjoyed the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer as new blood into the mix and the return of Scott's motley crue of comic convicts led by Michael Pena (Collaterol Beauty), who is always a pleasure, especially when he is telling one if his overly convoluted stories.

So, you older geeks (like me) – go see Ant-Man and the Wasp, if for no other reason than to put another puzzle piece into the overall picture that is the Marvel Universe, but I'd see it before deciding whether or not to bring impressionable kids.

INCREDIBLES 2 – AND NOW YOU KNOW THE REST OF THE STORY

SHORT TAKE:

The second act of a two part story which began as The Incredibles in 2004. No more, no less as delightful, fulfilling, family friendly, exciting and fun as the first half.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Absolutely everyone! ESPECIALLY if you are a fan of the first installment. (Though I can not say the same about the short in the beginning, Bao, which has nothing to do with the main movie and which you might want to give a miss. I explain why in a spoiler-filled overview of Bao at the end of this The Incredibles 2 review.) Incredibles 2 VERY child friendly, (Bao not so much).

LONG TAKE: 

"And now you know the rest of the story."

Paul Harvey was a radio personality who used to tell stories on air about little known facts or anecdotes, leaving some key element out until the end – like one about a war hero who turned out to be Lee Marvin, why the passengers on the Titanic didn't have to die, what really happened to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – that kind of thing. So as I watched the beginning of The Incredibles 2 pick up IMMEDIATELY as Incredibles (1) had ended, that tag line came to mind.

If you have not seen Incredibles 2 yet please do not read any further. I don't want anything I have to say influence your fresh impression of the movie. It's bad enough trailers give away too much nowadays. I do not want to compound that affront for anyone who has not yet enjoyed the sequel to the original Incredibles. For those of you who HAVE seen I2, READ ON!

SPOILERS – REALLY SERIOUSLY – DON'T READ ANY MORE UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE!!

Okay for those of you who have already seen the movie I have a confession to make. I was just a little bit disappointed, but really it was my own fault. Please do not get me wrong – I LOVED The Incredibles 2. It's a terrific movie. But let me give you some examples – for those of us living in the south do you remember the first time you ever saw snow? The experience of seeing it again can never match up to the anticipation you have built up from your original encounter with the frozen fluffy stuff.

OR – When you're a kid, no matter how amazing Christmas is, there is always a little teensy part of you that is just a little bit disappointed that it's not as amazing as you expected it to be. Build up and eager high hopes can do that to you. FOURTEEN YEARS worth of anticipation cannot help but handicap the real item when it finally comes along. And, yes folks, it has been 14 years since writer/director Brad Bird hatched the first Incredibles and introduced us to the Parr family of superheroes.

All our favorite characters are back!! And despite the time passage, all the voices are the same: Holly Hunter with her growly, lispish, Texas-twanged Helen, Craig T. Nelson, the occasionally bombastic Bob, Samuel L Jackson, the smooth crooning voice of Lucius, Sarah Vowell returns as Violet whose vocal mannerisms echo an individual variation on her mom. Jonathan Banks returns as Rick Dickers, the exhausted, put-upon government agent assigned to help hide the existence and whereabouts of the Supers. And Brad Bird, the director, writer and father figure to the entire Incredibles Universe returns to voice my all time favorite character – Edna Mode, the adorably abrasive, diminutive costume designer to the Supers, whose own super powers are: mega-confidence, an almost mystical calm, extraordinary talent, and a forcefully maternal, protective, preternatural insightfulness into the Supers themselves. She was conceived by Bird as the solution to the eternal question: since when do super powers automatically make you a gifted tailor? Where DO those awesome suits COME from?! AND contrary to popular opinion, according to Bird, himself, he did not create the inimitable "E" from any one or combination of real life designers – at least not consciously. She is simply a mismash of the cultures of Japan and Germany – two, he thought, countries who were very small in relation to their cultural impact – much like Edna herself. Therefore, her house decor is a combo of Japanese and German, as is the clothes she herself wears, her odd accent, and even her personality – swinging wildly from imperturbability to wildly forceful and persuasive as the occasion demands.

Unfortunately, Spencer Fox’ Dash’ boisterous reflection of his Dad’s commanding vocals had to be replaced with the younger Huck Milner, but you will not notice the difference. Fox is the only one to be replaced. According to interviews and articles the decision seems to have been arrived at from a combination of Fox’ puberty, (like in the lyrics of "Puff the Magic Dragon" warns: "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys"),  Fox’ committments with his punk band Charley Bliss, and a certain nostalgic ennui Fox had for the entire project – that it was something great he did in his childhood to which he didn’t really want to revisit.

AND NOW FOR SOME SERIOUS SPOILERS – THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING.

First off, calling it a sequel really isn’t accurate. Incredibles 2 is actually a continuation of the first movie. Literally. We pick up in the first moment of Incredibles 2 after the last second of The Incredibles (1). The Underminer has arrived and the family Parr (the word "par" meaning average) becomes the family of Incredibles. (Anyone notice the name significance before this? Very clever underscoring by Bird, I thought.) They go into action as a group and avert a massive casualty list of people but rack up a lot of collateral property damage in stopping the mammoth runaway drill.

Once again they are unjustly blamed and sent off in disgrace, reinforcing to the public, through the willing accomplices in the media, why Supers were banned to begin with.

Helen is summoned by a Super-Hero-loving industrial magnate, Winston Deavor, (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn Deavor "Evil Endeavor" – geddit? (Catherine Keener) to be the face the Supers need to become accepted again. For any of you who have seen the trailer, the movie plot largely revolves around Bob adjusting to a Mr. Mom status while Helen goes off to be the poster child for Super Heroes. And the fish-out-of-water aspect to the movie is wonderful – fun, touching and eminently relatable to any parent ever. Bob trades fighting collassus killing machines, saving people from building fires, and wrestling with super villains for math homework, meals and a metapowered baby – oh yeah and exhaustion:

It is the genius of Brad Bird that he creates a reflection of a modern family and places it into a Super Hero framework.  The Parrs/Incredibles is a fairly young family – mom, dad, children. The kids cover the spectrum too – early teen, adolescent and infant. One of the things, I believe, which made The Incredibles such a universally loved movie was that people intuited the metaphor. In an interview with Bird prior to the release of the sequel, Bird makes this clear. Bob, the father, is given incredible strength, as a father must have in one way or another: physically, mentally, and morally, to the best of his ability, he must stand strong in the eyes of those he has sworn to protect. Helen, the mom, stretches in impossible ways, much like your average mother who must be psychologist, chauffeur, chef, teacher, and judge, all while carrying a baby on her hip and breast feeding. Dash, the adolescent, has just GOTTA MOVE, so is super fast! Violet suffers the normal angst teens go through – is standoffish and sometimes wants to disappear, so has the powers of invisibility and force fields. Jack Jack is an unknown but delightful baby – which pretty much fits the description of every infant.

Everyone who has ever been in a family, which is, of course, everyone, can relate to one or more of each of these characters. And every family has challenges and threats which come at them, against which they are best advised to confront together. 

In what is really only the first half of a 3 hour movie, in the 2004 installment of The Incredibles, Bob comes to understand he has allowed his desire for the limelight to overpower the real center stage he should be occupying – that of Super Hero in his own home. The kids learn their parents really are the heroes in their lives and step up to the plate to emulate and obey their parents. Together they learn this lesson in spades and the family is triumphant.

The second half of the movie – aka Incredibles 2 – puts this newfound unity, affection and understanding immediately to the test. A familiar tune, as there is not a day goes by that the family in general is not under attack.

It is (if you’ll excuse the pun) INCREDIBLY refreshing to have a movie where the Dad is and wants to be the man of the house, but is still confident enough as the leader to step aside, when that is the right thing to do. That he will do the right and manful thing for his family, EVEN IF, as in this unusual situation, he must temporarily suppress his own natural, and very powerful, normal desires and instincts to protect and provide for his family, to allow someone else to take point. The wife is a considerate partner, without either being submissive or dominating – conferring with her husband on important issues, but being wise enough to leave the final decision up to her husband, knowing and trusting his judgement. The husband is wise enough to put his own needs, wants and desires aside for the good of the Supers in general, sure, but primarily for his own family and his own children. The parents' first thoughts are for their children – even if it means leaving their own comfort zones, or putting aside their own goals and wants.

In other words, the Incredibles  have their priorities straight!! And their nom de plume – Parr, the average – points out that this is and should be the structure of every successful family. That every family should aim for this healthy functional dynamic. And that is a wonderful thing to see.

I do have a few quibbles with the plot. This is not meant to be a negative but a hope that the next movie will be even better. They may be smnall quibbles, but they did have 14 LOOOONG years to think of a script and it seems some of these things could have and should have been worked out:

1. The first one dates back to the first installment – Jack Jack got away from Syndrome because he expressed some heavy duty powers: turned into a monster, caught fire, became metal – but at the end of the first movie no one knows he has powers. And in the beginning of the second movie Bob is shocked that Jack Jack has powers when he starts to display them and Helen later makes it clear she didn’t know either. NONE of them saw any of what Jack Jack did to Syndrome? Granted it was a traumatic moment and they were pretty high up in the sky but the Parr family is used to crises and they have super powers!

2. Their living arrangements. Their house is destroyed by Syndrome’s crashing plane. At the end of the first movie some time seems to have gone by. Violet makes headway with Tony – gets noticeed, he asks her out on a date; Dash has accepted he must restrain his abilities and the family has developed a certain code with him about holding back at events like track meets; there seems to have been some time to adjust, become comfortable with their new found unity and must be living somewhere. But when we see them in the beginning of the second movie they are still living in a second rate government sponsored hotel.

3. The Parrs, at the beginning of Incredibles 2 are broke and unemployed. Bob can’t get a job as a security guard? Bank teller? Dock Worker? Secret service??!! They’ve already run through the insurance money for their house? And don’t tell me Bob wouldn’t have had insurance to cover the unlikely eventuality of a plane falling on his house. He WORKED for an insurance company.

4. The no-show Supers were never addressed. Why did Gazorbeam and Dynaguy not answer the Deavors' phone when they were under attack? Were they already dead at Syndrome's hands? The parent Deavors were elderly and the siblings only barely seem to have had time to adjust to running the company, so maybe a year or two? So the timing would be about right. If so, why did no one explain that to Evelyn? The Supers who did not come to their parents aid were likely DEAD, and ironically, at the hands of Syndrome, someone who, like Evelyn, wanted to de-power the Supers for their own selfish, shortsighted reasons.

5. I find it odd that none of the Super Heroes questioned the motives of yet another mega-rich entity interested in hiring them. Wasn't the last movie about exactly that? Granted it turned out Winston was the real deal, but aside from Lucius assuring them  Winston was on the up and up after a single interview, no doubts are shared or intentions dissected by any of a group who should have been extremely sensitive to this scenario, coming so close on the heels of a very similar one from which they just finished extracting themselves.

More of an observation than a critique, this is also kind of a dark movie – more so than the first. Whether you like it or not, and I did like it, there is an element of reality infused into this "kids’" movie. People do die. Ethical and legal debates are had around the Parr dinner table. And there are complex cultural issues to wrestle with, along with physically fighting bad guys. Much like the Sokovia Accords in The Avengers Universe, the ban on Supers smacks of an unjust legalese stemming from an urge to place blame on the easy marks of Super Heroes instead of the real villains. It is easier to rein in people who willingly abide by and enforce the law than it is the criminals who break them.The issue of breaking a law in civil disobedience and leaving her family to save it, are ironies which are discussed and will be of interest to the adults in the audience, but will go over the heads of most of the youngsters. Bird, himself, said in an interview that he eschews the term "kid" movie but simply makes animated films he would enjoy seeing. His is obviously a winning prescription, but it makes for a movie which might lose the attention of younger viewers in places.

Which talk of Sokovia Accords and the ban of Supers brings me to the REAL villain of the Incredibles. It’s not really Screenslayer or even Evelyn. It’s the media.

In the aftermath of the Underminer escapade, which bridges the two movies, the visual presence of the Parr family as Incredibles in the mountain of rubble is not portrayed as heroes mitigating and managing a catastrophe for minimal damage, but as the cause of the mess. Sadly, these talking heads, the REAL villains of BOTH movies, are the same media who defined Mr. Incredible in the 2004 movie not as a rescuer, but as someone who ruined a disturbed man’s attempted suicide. This is a typical example of how news bias and "fake news" reports are fashioned – a classic example of what happens in the real world – to give their audience, not news, but their own prejudiced view. These real evildoers are never showcased as such. That might have been an interesting aspect to pursue, especially as it ties in with the bad rap the heroes in The Avengers got in Captain America: Civil War from the misguided and grossly civil-rights-violating Sokovia Accords. But while we see the "news" people at work, either blankly vapid or ginning up anger towards the Supers (without the excuse of being hypnotised), no serious criticism is ever laid at their feet where that blame belongs.

In an interesting note, the actors who voice the main characters – Holly Hunter, Craig T Nelson, and Samuel L Jackson, are given a small intro at the beginning of the movie, mentioning how grateful they are for the patience of the audience over the past 14 years and how glad they are to be working together again as this family of Supers. Fourteen years is not a small span of time and both Ms. Hunter and Mr. Nelson are not exceptions to reflect this span of a half – generation of years between movies. I only mention this because, strangely, Samuel L. Jackson does not look a DAY older than when he did in the year the first Incredibles came out.  He’s in many super hero universes as well: The Avengers and Agents of Shield as Nick Fury, Mr. Glass in Shymalon's alternate super universe, and here as Frozone, as well as super, almost indestructible characters in movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard. And the actor, much like most super heroes — never…. seems…..to age. Hmmmm. Is there something you’re not telling us avid super hero fans Mr Jackson? LOL

In conclusion on The Incredibles 2 – I just want to say PLEASE DO NOT WAIT ANOTHER 14 YEARS TO DO A FOLLOW UP FILM!!! We want to know more of — the rest of the story.

Bao

Finally, just as a side note, there is a strange little short at the beginning of The Incredibles 2 called Bao (meat or vegetable filled dumpling) about a dumpling which comes to life for a lonely woman, so is spared from being eaten, until it grows to an age where he wants to leave home and marry, at which point the mom EATS the dumpling! The movie has nothing to do with The Incredibles 2 plot, except perhaps as a counterpoint DYSFUNCTIONAL family dynamic, making the strong family of Incredibles look even better. This is some fairly disturbing imagery, softened very little by the revelation that the "dumpling" is merely a reflection of her real life son, an only child, who left his parents to marry. While there is reconciliation with said son in the end, brought about by his understanding father, and acceptance of the non-Asian wife as she learns dumpling making from her mother-in-law, I could not get the unsettling imagery out of my head of the mother willingly eating her child rather than allow him to mature and leave home. This is a short you may want to either get in late enough to avoid or prepare to discuss with your kids later.