TOY STORY 4 – A PRIMAL LOSS

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TOY STORY FRANCHISE

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

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

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

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

This latest installment also involves the issue of family.

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

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

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

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

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

OK FAIR WARNING WAS GIVEN

FIRST – THE GOOD STUFF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN EXCUSE FOR THE ABANDONING, DEAD BEAT PARENT

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

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

What if Woody left his child?

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

WOODY LOSES HIS CONSCIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

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

LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MIRACLE SEASON – INSPIRING TRUE LIFE EXAMPLE OF OVERCOMING GRIEF THROUGH PURPOSE AND FAITH

SHORT TAKE:

The Miracle Season accurately and lovingly recounts the 2010 Iowa City West High School volleyball state champions' attempt to win the trophy a second time after the tragic death of their team captain and town’s indefatiguably optimistic and joyful Caroline Found.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everybody and anybody. Especially anyone interested in sports in general and volleyball in particular. Completely clean without a single bad word, zero hanky panky, and a genuine respect for religion. However, the youngest in the family might get bored.

SOME INDIRECT BUT UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS

LONG TAKE:

Movies have three big vehicles they use for bonding people together: putting on a show, sports, or a disaster (See my article on "Cataclysm as Marital Therapy"). The Miracle Season uses two of them, sports and disaster, to recreate a series of events which bond and heal a small town in Iowa, a heartbroken high school team, and friends and family near the epicenter of a tragedy.

The story recounts the real life events of the Found family and those who love them. Ernie Found (the versatilely talented William Hurt of everything from General and Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross in the Marvel movies to Nick the self destructive drug dealer in The Big Chill) is the devoted husband to his dying wife Ellyn (Jilliam Fargey) and the father of three young adults. The youngest, Caroline, "Line" to those who know her, (played by Danika Yarosh), is the Captain of the team and a loving, free-spirited, open hearted, energetic, joy-filled young woman whose wholesome enthusiasm for life and people is infectious and makes her a natural leader both of her team and in life to her friends. There is no spoiler, as it is the feature of the trailer that Caroline’s life was cut short by a vehicular accident.

Grief is the most challenging opponent for everyone in the film. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life Clarence reminds George that: "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" The Miracle Season recounts how those touched lives heal from the terrible wound left by the loss of this young lady.

Directed by Sean McNamara, who has concentrated on true-life inspirational stories like Soul Surfer and Hoovey, The Miracle Season centers around the 2010 Iowa City State Volleyball Champions. Caroline Found is the Captain of the team and the start of their season in 2011 is off to a slow start. They lose their first few games even before the tragedy. After Caroline’s death they forfeit the next game, as their coach notes that, "They can barely brush their teeth," let alone practice or compete. Appealing to Caroline’s best friend Kelley, (Erin Moriarty) long time Coach Kathy "Bres" Bresnahan (the terrific Helen Hunt who is at home in comedies like the charming TV show "Mad About You," dramedies like As Good as it Gets, dramas like Pay it Forward, and other inspirational films like Soul Surfer) encourages her not to give up in a "Win one for the Gipper" theme, which, ultimately falls short of what the team needs.

To add insult to injury, Dr. Found’s wife succumbs to her long illness the night after Caroline’s wake, Dr. Found’s faith sinks to a lifetime low, Bres' husband has left her, Kelley feels woefully unprepared to replace Caroline as Captain, and the girls can’t even get through practice without crying. With no where to go but up the rest of the tale addresses a courage subsequently shown by Dr. Found, the girls on the team, Kelley, and Coach Bres that all of us would be blessed to have. (NOTE: As a small but significant FYI, Dr. Found states he did not have a crisis of faith but understood the need to dramatize this point. Dr. Found's character in the movie gave voice to all of us who might question our beliefs when required to face such calamatous wrenching events, acknowledging the need to address this deep wound along with the others inflicted in terrible situations such as these, as well as the courage and resilience to think of others instead of one's own pain.)

Ultimately, everyone must learn to wrestle their own anger, pain, and self doubt before healing can truly begin. This would all seem like so much soap opera tear wringing, except that it really happened. Not many movies are made about this kind of event because, thankfully, it doesn’t happen that often. But, watching The Miracle Season, I was reminded of another movie that dealt with a similar tragedy.

United was a BBC film starring David Tennant (best Dr. Who EVER!) about the 1958 football season which followed a take-off air crash that claimed the lives of half the Manchester United football team, leaving two of the remaining team members too injured to ever play again. Nonetheless, the chief coach and assistant manager (Tennant) managed to pull together a team from the survivors, reservists and a few new signers which made it to the FA Final Cup in 1958.

Both United and The Miracle Season are beautifully and movingly done memorials to the tragedy and the stalwart perseverance, courage and fortitude shown by the survivors and their loved ones.

Rarely, outside of a Marvel movie, have fellow audience members stayed through the credits, the way I normally do. Although patrons sounded as though they had come down suddenly with a slight head cold and kleenexes were pulled out, to a person they stayed put as video clips, biographical notes, photos and interview bites were displayed alongside the cast and crew credits. Photos of Caroline Found, interview segments with Dr. Found, video of Mrs. Found’s trembling courageous smile as she painfully walked down the church aisle at her daughter’s wake,  sports announcers who did color, clips of the real team, and headlines about the team during this incredible season all testified to the detail accuracy of the film we had just watched. And, in what I thought was justifiable pride, the clip of the final point from the real game was played – and showed it had been dead on accurately and honestly re-created in the movie.

I have played volleyball in both high school and college. I was not very good. But I played enough to at least recognize good when I see it. The girls in the news clips were amazing and the actresses who played the girls in the movie did a fine job re-enacting some very tricky plays. I really enjoyed the presentation of the games. The writer neither dwells on nor avoids obscure minutia of playing techniques but employs volleyball-ese routinely in the dialogue. The director, McNamara, respects the audience and trusts his own editing and filming choices to believe that we viewers will get it – and we do.

They do not make the mistake of over-using the trope of players' overcoming flaws as pivot points of the story but doesn't ignore them either. He allows those small victories to organically build to the final outcome of the Championship moments.

Much like the effective scene in A Chorus Line where the same dance move is repeated in quick succession by a variety of the participants, we see the West team members at various times spike, serve, block, and  bench press. This visual exercise both exemplifies the unity of the teammates as well as serves to demonstrate their individual characters, and serves the pragmatic purpose of adding face time to each player, helping identify each player instead of having them blend unrecognizably into one blur of "team".

There is no Karate Kid bad guy. The only antagonists are illness and accident – the everyday ordinary crises we all face in one form or another, to one degree or another. The winning, as The Miracle Season so beautifully points out, is in how we handle the disasters we are given to face, the gratitude to God with which we face them, and the ability we show to continue to do our best regardless of the odds.

The Miracle Season is an inspiration, not just as a well made sports movie but as an example of shining through even the most terrible of personal tragedies for the benefit of others, if not for yourself.

Sports, at its best, pushes our personal limits, tests our spirit, challenges us to overcome our weaknesses, and reveals the best within us that perhaps we didn't even know was there. Sport champions, at their best, demonstrate these exercises in obtaining virtue. The champions in the Iowa City West high school volleyball team not only had to push through the physical pains of the game but had to learn to deal with the far more brutal agony of grief. Those who loved Caroline Found were champions, not for any accomplishments on the court but because they learned to face all of their pain and showed us how it's done in The Miracle Season.

The Foreigner – a compelling departure from “type” for both Chan and Brosnan

 Given that The Foreigner stars Pierce "best James Bond since Sean Connery" Brosnan and THE Jackie "most brilliant and funniest martial artist to ever live"  Chan, about a dad with special abilities beating up bad guys, there have been so many speculative anticipations of what The Foreigner might be that I think it best to start off with what The Foreigner is NOT.

The Foreigner is not comedy Kung-fu master versus James Bond. Nor is The Foreigner a version of Taken-Chan style.

The Foreigner IS a movie which proves that Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan are not just movie stars.

I remember the first time I ever saw Jackie Chan. B.C. (Before children) when we actually had time to kill, my husband would flip through channels and occasionally watch a kung fu movie. I found them dull but would sit next to him and either read a book or doze off. But then one day he found a movie which featured a guy using martial arts and beating up bad guys…with a LADDER! Who fights with a LADDER!? Of course it was Jackie Chan. The fluidity with which he fought, the cleverness with which he parried blows and attacked his foes were a pleasure to watch. AND he was FUNNY! Watching Jackie Chan fight was the martial arts equivalent of watching Gene Kelly dance!

I have been a big fan of Pierce Brosnan for decades. First saw him in the TV show Remington Steele. In this clever old TV show Brosnan plays a con man who impersonates the head of a private detective agency actually owned by a woman. Her business had not been going anywhere because people wanted to trust a male detective. So she invented a masculine boss and Brosnan's character, in a North by Northwest homage, accidentally becomes the flesh and blood front man. Brosnan's Steele was, at the same time, both suave and adorably bumbling, seeing every case as some version of an old classic film. Then eight years after the close of the show, when FINALLY given the shot at James Bond, Brosnan ramped up the suave but kept just a touch of the cheek with him, making Brosnan's the best Bond next to Connery they ever had.

…………………..The Foreigner features NONE of the above – nothing of the simpler and lighter personalities we have come to associate with either Brosnan or Chan are in evidence in The Foreigner. The Foreigner instead showcases Brosnan's and Chan's talents as ACTORS. Both, to their admirable credit,  play strongly against the type we have come to expect and love. Chan plays Quan Minh, a father devastated by the loss of his only surviving daughter to an IRA bomb in London. Shuffling humbly from police station to political representative, he personifies an almost stereotype Chinese man. Without giving away anything you wouldn't know from the trailers, it is not long before grief and frustration peels away the onion thin layers that hide the dangerous man he has hidden beneath this carefully cultivated, easy to underestimate, persona. Brosnan, for his part, plays Liam Hennessy, a weasely slick Irish Deputy Minister who is also both more and less than he first appears. A political animal, Hennessy superficially sympathizes with Chan's character but clearly has his own agenda forefront in his mind and plans.

In the beginning, we watch Chan as his catastrophic loss seems to gut him. Then we follow him as this emptying out process becomes a metamorphosis. Meanwhile, the writer, in a fascinating twist, carves out the background with Brosnan's Hennessy, which explains how this collateral damage came to be. We see a bigger more complex picture through the eyes of the innocent bystander, Minh, who will stop at nothing to get justice for his daughter. The explanation of the intrigue which casually took Minh's daughter's life takes on a life of its own so that we end up with two movies in one.  The two stories begin like strands from separate balls of yarn, but become knitted inextricably together in an unexpected and fascinating pattern.

This is not to say that Chan doesn't kick some serious booty – because he does. As my husband is wont to say – they should have never have left him with nothing to lose. And one of the many applaud worth aspects of The Foreigner is that the story does not attempt to turn Chan's Minh into a super hero. Minh's age is even mentioned several times, as in (paraphrasing) "How can we be getting our a***es handed to us by a 60 year old man!"

And Chan, the actor, doesn't hide his age either. When Minh takes on two 35 year old men in their prime, it takes its toll on Chan's character, as, I imagine it really did on his now 63 year old body in a realistic way.

Over the years Jackie Chan has let it be known how dangerous his stunts were. Chan always was one for letting the audience, especially the kids in the crowd, understand what he does has a price. I always found it laudable that he would make a point of demonstrating in the end credit sequences of his lighter films the bloopers wherein he incurred obvious injuries. He wanted to be sure others knew: when you try to run up a wall and flip over or slide through a small opening or jump kick or slid down a 5 story pole – things happen even to professionals and they get hurt. Chan has broken almost as many bones as has the daredevil motorcyclist Evil Knievel. OK that may be an exaggeration inasmuch as Knievel holds the world record for the most bones broken by a surviving human being at 433. But Chan has had broken bones, concussions, a slash with an unexpectedly unblunted sword, dislocated cheek bone, sternum, and pelvis (I didn't even know you could DO that!), and his thighs crushed between two cars. Chan even has a hole in his skull from a misadventure jumping to a tree in Armour of God. But Chan still is a pleasure to watch, performing martial arts with his signature balletic grace despite his age and previous injuries. Chan's  acrobatic martial arts in a fight scene is as much a thing of beauty as watching Mikhail Baryshnikov performing a grand jete .

The story of The Foreigner is fascinating and both of these men deserve big kudos for gutsy performances quite different from the meat and potatoes style most people have come to expect. And they do it well.

I have a friend, Stuart White, a retired journalist, who covered the appalling violence of what the Irish called "The Troubles" – that period of time when the Irish and English were constantly and mortally at each others throats – when terrorist attacks became so horribly prevalent that public trash cans vanished as too convenient for depositing bombs. Stuart wrote a brilliant book about an IRA terrorist called Shamrock Boy which was turned into a screenplay called Crossmaglen now in pre-production. While watching The Foreigner it felt like the same world, so from my limited perspective I can say The Foreigner came across to me with the power of tragic authenticity.

Go enter the dark labyrinthian world of The Foreigner, then come back with a new appreciation for the talents of the men we previously knew, respectively, as Pierce "Remington Steele" Brosnan and the comic martial arts master Jackie Chan.

There is realistic violence and some rough language and sexuality from the terrorists. And the human assault which begins the story is terrifying. So mid to late teens would be my minimum age and then only with parental attendance.

NOT YOUR MOM’S FREAKY FRIDAY – THIS IS A FABULOUS PLAY!!!

In 1976 Disney came out with a really dumb movie called Freaky Friday starring Barbara Harris and a VERY young Jodie Foster about a mother and daughter who get their wish to be each other for a day. It’s the old – careful what you wish for. The daughter thinks her mom has it easy because she has all the control. The mom thinks the daughter’s position is a toddle because all she has to do all day is go to school, come home and snack. Both are, of course, wrong. But the story, as presented, is silly and superficial, trite and leans heavily on all the cliched generation gap misunderstandings. They didn’t do any better with the Shelley Long version in 1995 or the Jamie Lee Curtis version in 2003.
 
So when my husband bought tickets to go see the new musical version I had to laugh. Why not? On vacation, let’s be brainless. By intermission my husband and I turned to each other almost simultaneously and said “Our kids have GOT to see this!!!” The music is catchy with clever lyrics, the script is funny and fast paced. The acting in the one we saw with Heidi Blickenstaff as mother Katherine and Emma Hunton as daughter Ellie were absolutely brilliant and totally believable. The singing was stunning and powerful but nuanced with “attitude” and comic timing. And most importantly it has a really good PLOT! I guarantee you will see yourself somewhere in this play – as the parent, as the child, as the sibling – older or younger – or as all at some point in your life. To see yourself as others see you. Prepare to laugh – a LOT – but bring some kleenex too.
 
Instead of a throw away one-note gimmick, the tale here is of a widowed mom, Katherine, on the eve of remarriage trying to hold together her fledgling catering company and her fragile family – still traumatized and battered by the untimely death of the father 6 years before. (AGAIN underlining the importance of the DAD!!!) The father leaves his wife and daughter each a “magic” hourglass, as though knowing this day would come. And at the apex of the stresses from the wedding preparation, a journalist about to do a story on the mom’s business, the daughter’s crush on Adam, the popular guy in class, and a simple conflict in scheduling – well, they get their respective wishes. Fleshing out the cast is: an adorable 10 year old little brother, Fletcher, who is looking forward to having a Dad again; Mike, the deeply patient and understanding fiance; Katherine’s underappreciated assistant; Katherine’s oblivious parents; a timely parent-teacher meeting; some teenaged angst; a class cutting up frogs in biology class and….a treasure hunt. And yes all these elements work together like gears in a clock to make a funny, warm, insightful, catchy, brilliant little musical. I think this the best thing Disney has done in years.
 
While focusing mostly on the mother and daughter, the supporting cast is not forgotten. Each gets a moment to shine. And the ensemble group is utilized to the full as well. There are some moments in the play which would have done Mozart proud – as at times there are upwards of 6 people singing in the same song about their different agendas or perspectives – and it all makes sense (think the ensemble song “Tonight” in West Side Story or the Act II and IV octet finales in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro).
 
The songs each have a personality of their own as well – from the cocky “I Got This” where Katherine and Ellie assume pretending to be each other will be a breeze, to the lyrical heartbreaking “After All of This and Everything” which Ellie, in Katherine’s body sings to a sleeping Fletcher, to the bitterly funny “Parents Lie”, and the just plain old cute “Women and Sandwiches” which Adam sings to Fletcher in an attempt to explain the fascination women have for him and will one day have for Fletcher.
 
If you want to get a preview of Freaky Friday you can hear the songs on Youtube.
The play opened October 4, 2016 in Arlington, VA and we were blessed with being able to see the original cast leads in Houston. This play will, no doubt, make the rounds around the country – or be filmed at some point. But don’t let the previous original versions put you off. This is a truly “magical” play.
FIND and go see this play SOMEWHERE!!!!!!