STAN AND OLLIE – A PEEK BEHIND THE SMILES

 

SHORT TAKE:

A biographical look at the final reunion tour of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

WHO SHOULD GO:

This is family friendly – anyone can watch who is interested in Laurel and Hardy or even just a behind the scenes look at a theatrical legend.

LONG TAKE:

Stan and Ollie is about an arranged marriage that goes well for quite some time until a betrayal derails the relationship for fully 16 years. The marriage to which I refer is the professional relationship between the two geniuses of comedy Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Starting at the turn of the century in vaudeville they knew more about how to make their audiences laugh than anyone in the business except perhaps the Marx Brothers. Their mismatched, on-screen combination of slapstick, malapropisms and good-natured hostilities set the format for bromance comedies for decades and generations to come.

Linked together by Hal Roach while independently under contract to his studio, they made hundreds of movies and shorts together over decades. The riff comes when the stronger willed Laurel fights the studio machine to get better terms for the team but Hardy does not have the courage to back him up. Though they continued to work together after the dust up there remains bitter baggage and a distance in their friendship. The arc of the movie picks up almost two decades later as their careers are waning and they embark on a European tour in hopes of rejuvenating their box office appeal as they wait anxiously for word from a producer on financing for a Robin Hood parody they are writing.

In the movies, Hardy  played the blustering bully to Laurel’s shy sometimes weepy and conciliatory foil. However, contrary to their screen personas, Hardy was actually a meek and anxious-to-please gambling addict, while Laurel was the engine of the duo: ambitiously creative, insightful, and the lead writer.

The production values and rhythm of Stan and Ollie is a bit like a TV movie-of-the-week but the acting is excellent. Reilly and Coogan, respectively, get everything from accents to body language and singular physical quirks right as Misters Hardy and Laurel, both in their on and off screen personalities – which, admittedly, seemed to blur even for the real people involved.My dad, who was 40 years older than I was, loved Laurel and Hardy, having seen the original shorts in the movie theaters when they first came out. There were many a late TV night spent listening for the signature tune of Marvin Hatley’s “Dance of the Cuckoos” preceeding the ludicrous antics and long drawn-out sight gags which always had my father in stitches. Truth be told, with a few exceptions, I found their humor a bit dry and dated but loved watching my Dad enjoy them even more than I enjoyed watching the duo’s formulaic comic gags. As a result I can be pretty objective. And the evocations by John C. Reilly (Chicago and the voice of Wreck-it Ralph) and Steve Coogan, respectively, as Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel are spot on. It’s fascinating to watch their portrayal of the real men who could and would kindly switch their alter egos on for even the most transient and spontaneous audiences – at parties, for checking hotel clerks, at bars, at the race track, and for passing fans.

Shirley Henderson, most famously known as Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter series, sweetly plays the furrowed brow Mrs. Hardy, who fusses after “Babe,” as Hardy was known to his loved ones, like a mother hen. Nina Arianda, though born and raised in New York, taps into her Ukranian heritage for her  Russian-accented portrayal of the tough but staunchly devoted Mrs. Laurel. And Rufus Jones plays Delfont, their manager during this, their last hurrah.

It’s a compelling story and I only wish they had presented the beginnings of these famous icons of comedy from their first meeting, much as Yankee Doodle Dandy followed the relationship of George M Cohan with his partner Sam Harris from first handshake to retirement.

Much like looking behind the magician’s curtain, while there is a sadness to be disabused of the mystery as well as a satisfaction of curiosity to see where the “magic” comes from, in exchange there is also the endearingness of intimacy which comes from a deeper understanding of the motives and methods of the men when we take — a peek behind the smiles. Find Stan and Ollie on Amazon.com.

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.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS: PLOT AND CHARACTERS HUGELY FLAWED BUT…. EMILY BLUNT IS SUPERCALI….OH YOU KNOW THE REST

SHORT TAKE:

Emily Blunt knocks it out of the ball park in an otherwise flawed descendant of the original and timeless classic: Mary Poppins.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older kids with the presence of their parents to explain some rather egregious character flaws and plot points. AND be advised of some questionable lyrics during a “Dance Hall” scene; but they go by so fast I do not think most children will have any idea what they are saying, though they are easy enough to find online.

LONG TAKE:

Nothing can replace Mary Poppins. But one might have hoped a successor would have met Mr. Disney’s approval. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins Returns falls short of that expectation.

On the PLUS side, Blunt is amazing. Taking on a roll as iconic as Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins takes real guts . Doing it well takes real talent. But Blunt soars with the part – “up to the highest heights!” managing the same panache which Andrews brought. Blunt adds a certain individuality but without losing any of the impish charm and magnetic self confidence, optimism, and demeanor of wisdom that exuded from every pore of the 1964 Mary Poppins character. The prim, stern and no nonsense exterior hiding the old soul and the big, soft, kind and wise heart within is all there as you might remember her.  Blunt sings, dances, comports herself with the personality, body language and all the expressions of her sister Mary Poppins from 1964 but still manages to make it her own iteration.

For example, Blunt adopted a fun vocal pattern reminiscent of Andrews’ prim, proper, posh and practically perfect in every way Poppins accent but tweaked it with her own unique style, describing her choice as a combination of Rosalind Russell’s patter in His Girl Friday and Princess Margaret. It is an unusual combination but I thought it worked really well for the evocation of the worthy successor to the Poppins throne.

I love Blunt’s take on Mary Poppins (could you tell?). And I’m not alone. No less an authoritative personage than Julie Andrews weighs in and was apparently quite pleased with Blunt’s performance. So impressed was she with her young successor to the umbrella that when offered a cameo Andrews graciously declined saying she did not want to distract from “Emily’s show”.

SPOILERS!!

As Jane and Michael are grown, this updates the setting from turn of the century to a time just before World War II. Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack, the faithful and ever-present chimney sweep who sings, dances and escorts Mary and the children around London. Meryl Streep is Topsy, Mary’s cousin with strange house problems. The colors are vibrant, the singing strong and done by the actors, not subbed. These are all to the good.

SPOILERS!!!

The premise of Mary Poppins Returns, however, is ridiculous. And I’m not talking about the idea that a nanny can fly on a kite, or that her cousin’s entire house turns upside down every other Wednesday, or that there is an entire ocean through which they can swim and breathe and sing and play in, in the bathtub, or that they can enter the painting on a ceramic bowl in the children’s room. That is all the stuff of Mary Poppins and well within her universe.

The problems I have are with the “real” world in the movie. This Mary Poppins is dark: Michael’s wife is dead, he is about to lose the family home, the bank they relied on is corrupt, Mary Poppins goes “native” at a dance hall, one of the children is kidnapped by animated animals with a frightening (for small children) chase including fire and falls and overturned carriages, and the weather is often threatening.

The characters have massive flaws which should not be there. For example, the movie begins with Jack riding about town singing Underneath the Lovely London Sky on his bicycle, then…steals an apple. What kind of example is that supposed to teach children in a supposedly child-friendly movie? Much criticism has been flung at Dyke’s British accent but one of the reasons Disney hired the famous hoofer in the original for Bert was his compatible world-view of the entertainment business. Both were concerned about the sliding descent of values being reflected in movies even then. I do not think Mr. Disney would have thought much of the first impression of  Returns chimney sweep.

In the original Mary Poppins, Michael is, according to Mary Poppins, “extremely stubborn and suspicious”. He is full of mischief and outspoken. In Mary Poppins Returns we find the same Michael (Ben Whishaw – voice of Paddington Bear in Paddington and the adorably geeky new Q in Skyfall) has grown up to be a pathetic loser who can’t seem to hold down a full-time job or get over the death of his wife, even to support his three children played by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson. Michael’s sister Jane as a child was “Inclined to giggle. Doesn’t put things away”. She is a little shy and somewhat prim always trying to keep her brother in check. Now, as an adult (Emily Mortimer – The Kid),  she has, anachronistically, become an outspoken, pants-wearing labor organizer at a time when women maintained a far more genteel decorum.

Furthermore, it stretches credulity more than a talking parrot to believe that Mr. George Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, (David Tomlinson) who we met as a very savvy, responsible and thrifty investment banker, has died leaving both the children with no financial security whatsoever aside from ownership of the family home,  apparently without instilling in them any world-wise life advice whatsoever, without being sure they are very aware of the bank shares or…other assets the family has (revealed later). WHY would he keep this a secret?! As a result of both his incompetence and ignorance, barely-employed-artist Michael is on the verge of bankruptcy with a budgetary plan which includes having his wife and children scrounge just to obtain old bread for the table. I was actually insulted by the idea that the pater familia Mr. Banks of the original story would have raised his children so poorly.

In the original Mary Poppins George Banks is reminded that he is engaged at the bank to provide FOR his family, not instead of engaging WITH his family.  This did not mean he threw out all concepts of responsibility.

In addition, there is no universe in which Mary Poppins would have taken the three Banks children to a dance hall where she would dress and sing like an extra from a PG version of Chicago and perform a song featuring lyrics about how it is tough to tell whether a naked woman is rich or not, and about a wooden naked woman who sprouted seedling when “Mr. Hickory took root despite her bark”. Are we making light of a cleverly worded analogy for a forced sexual encounter? In a children’s movie? These are not lyrics I really would want my young children repeating.

In the original Mary Poppins the bank managers are honest men of integrity who genuinely want to help the Banks’ family children learn thrift and economics. In Returns Colon Firth is a corrupt bank administrator, Wilkins, who probably should be twirling a handle bar mustache like Snidely Whiplash rather than sporting a pencil-thin one. His business model consists of bending rules to rob customers out of their homes, including the Banks’. Unless you are a card carrying Socialist or completely ignorant of banking practices, you would know that banks make their money on INTEREST paid by people who borrow from a bank, NOT from keeping a stable of foreclosed houses. Most of the time banks LOSE money on foreclosures. And in some places they are not allowed to sell the home for more than the value of the mortgage. So HOW, as Wilkins claims, they have doubled profits foreclosing on their customers’ homes is a financial improbability verging on the ludicrous and just plain old STUPID.

While the singing is excellent, the songs themselves get redundant. In the original 1964 Mary Poppins, each of the cheerful songs had a specific identity. Chim Chim Cheree did not have the same feel or rhythm as Let’s Go Fly a Kite which was distinctly different from Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. However, in Mary Poppins Returns the Trip a Little Light Fantastic feels the same as Turning Turtle which is hard to recall differently from Nowhere to go But Up. They are cute but I do not suspect many left the theater humming them. Lovely London Town was very nice and The Place Where the Lost Things Go was touching, but again, nothing to write home about.

And while Mary Poppins was almost officious she was never condescending or cruel. But in Mary Poppins Returns the leeries (chimney sweeps)  risk their lives to climb the outside of Big Ben to push the clock hands back – which technically is cheating and potentially creating problems for other people – in order to buy Michael and Jane enough time to get to the bank before midnight with their bank shares. But when even Jack can not make the last leg of the trip up, Mary Poppins simply floats up with her umbrella to efficiently push the hands back 5 minutes making us all wonder why on EARTH she didn’t do that to begin with, making the leeries courageous and very dangerous attempt pointless.

The movie has no character arc. The Banks family members learn nothing except where the family inheritance is.

BIG SPOILER!!!

There is a delightful cameo and a tie-in to the first movie that resolves the money problem which I won’t reveal until the end of this review so if you want to be surprised don’t read any more. I will say the small part alone was worth the price of admission. But this cameo-ex-machina, like Mary’s float up to Big Ben, makes what the Banks family endured just cruel. The resolution is revealed in a charming surprise near the end, which presumably Mary Poppins knew about, which, again, makes all the trials the family endures pointless and cruel.

In addition, there is a point by point reinventing of pretty much every scene in the original. I am all for a homage or two, but Light Fantastic was just a rehash of Chim Chim Cheree. Travel to the Royal Daulton Bowl was even drawn in the style of the jump into the chalk drawing from the original, with the only creative aspect being lyrics inappropriate for little ears. Topsy was a reimagined Uncle Albert with both scenes ending up on the ceiling. In both movies the main plot point takes place at the bank late at night. And although I am delighted for the casting of the balloon lady as Dame Angela Lansbury, she was just another form of Bird Lady from the first movie.

Overall I enjoyed the movie despite all this but do not think I could recommend it for small impressionable children. It would likely be OK for older kids who would understand the flaws in the plot and characters when explained to them by parents. Blunt’s performance is amazing and the cameo revealed in the following photos was my favorite part of the movie.

BEYOND HERE BE A BIG SPOILER!!

SPOILER!!!

Yes, that IS Dick Van Dyke, Bert from the first movie and at 91 years old did HIS OWN DESK TOP DANCE!!!

But how HE fixes the Banks’ financial woes is a spoiler even I won’t tell. You’ll just have to watch at LEAST the last 10 minutes of the movie as no one can tell this story better than Dick Van Dyke.

KUDOS TO CINEMASINS FOR BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL TO SAVE LIVES

Jeremy Scott, the primary narrator at CinemaSins about whom I have written in another post created the persona of someone who enjoys finding every possible trivia sin and piccadillo in every movie he reviews. The videos are primarily for fun, occasionally somewhat bawdy, often profane, frequently very funny, but the result is always insightful.   He spends 15 or so minutes showing video clips which point out clichés, newspaper text which has nothing to do with the headlines being used for exposition, wildly incorrect timers, continuity goofs, historical anachronisms, just plain bad acting or terrible CGI, and his two FAVORITE sins – too many opening credit logos and narration which substitutes for plot. And he rarely condemns politely, which is part of his humor schtick. This is a site for older mature teens and up, certainly. But his commentary, while biting, is usually both quite accurate and mostly played for laughs

However, during his “Everything Wrong With A Star is Born” send up video, after he does his usual nit picky comic but precise routine, he calls out the movie’s plot for its attempts to paint the lead male character’s suicide “…as almost chivalrous, and I’m just never getting on board with that.”

Well, Jeremy, neither am I. And good for you. As I pointed out in my post: “A Star is Born: Masterful Variation on an Inherently Dissonant Theme” I make a similar argument against lionizing this behavior.

Jeremy THEN does something that in the hundreds of his videos he has never done before, he breaks the “Fourth Wall” – that barrier between the audience and himself which maintains the suspension of disbelief. Jeremy Scott posts a great big notice for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and their phone number.

This was an admirable and bold move in a culture of death which has even rationalized the wholesale savage slaughter of unborn infants. He has opened himself up to criticism but it will certainly not come from me.

Thank you Jeremy.

Your instincts are good and this is one of the many things on the list of what I would call Everything Right with CinemaSins.

CAPTAIN MARVEL – GOOD IN SPITE OF ITSELF

SHORT TAKE: Latest and fun addition to the Marvel Universe of super heroes and the bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Captain Marvel is a super hero who just happens to be a female, re-discovering her real identity while meeting Young Nick Fury and Young Phil Coulson.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Family friendly: Young teens and up should be fine, perhaps even middle schoolers with parental discretion. A handful of mild profanities but otherwise pretty clean. The violence, albeit mostly cartoonish, one alien autopsy, and threats to a family with small children might upset the littler members of the family depending on disposition.

LONG TAKE:

Mark Twain is incorrectly thought to have said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But much like Rick’s famous misquote from Casablanca: “Play It Again, Sam” or Jimmy Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” or Oliver Hardy’s “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” while close, are famously – not… quite… accurate. It just goes to show how persistent mistakes can be carried on into posterity if quoted often enough.

And just so, I had read in a number of early pre-opening screening reviews that Captain Marvel was rife with promotions of feminist propaganda and an anti-male manifesto. After watching the movie I discovered all this hype to be wrong. On the contrary I found Captain Marvel quite charming, a fitting addition to the Marvel superhero universe, and most importantly – FUN. Not at all the feminist manifesto it was touted to be.

However, I understand how the misunderstanding arose.  For example, what some people, women in particular, perceived as examples of women being treated with negative bias in the military, I saw as the quite natural hazing common to ALL military newbies.

If you remember back to Captain America, Steve Rogers pre-superhero serum, was the butt of a lot of disrespect in both civilian life as well as boot camp. No one at the time complained that it was an example of discrimination against slightly built men, but appropriately just defined his backstory and provided a dramatic comparison for Steve Rogers’ transformation, as well as defining his character traits of courage, persistence and dignity in the face of adversity.

Similarly, Carol Danvers, aka Vers aka Captain Marvel, like any other human, faces obstacles specific to her background and physique before she can become the hero that is needed. Everyone has limitations as well as challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals and dreams. For reviewers to see logical challenges in the very competitive field of Air Force pilot training as discrimination is to have a ridiculous prejudice against men and a foolish bias in favor of women, which assumes that no woman should fail just because she’s a woman. That is inherently stupid. And it’s all just throwaway McGuffin background anyway.

Where did the feminist rumor come from? Like most rumors – from half truths. It is true that Brie Larson made some rather blunt and rude comments about white male reviewers. Personally I wouldn’t take offense were the playing field equal and white men were allowed to make similar comments about women. Her dismissive comment that she is not interested in hearing what a white male has to say about a movie with a female lead does not bother me half so much as the thought that if a white male said something in reverse he would be eviscerated. Can you imagine someone getting away with saying they are not interested in hearing what a minority woman has to say about Justice League since there were no minority women in the lead roles? The liberals would have lost they’re narrow little minds. Yet Brie Larson is lauded for her equally offensive remark. The inequity truly rankles the reasonable mind. How about: I’m not interested in what a woman has to say about 12 Strong because there were no women in the lead roles? Or I’m not interested in what an Eskimo has to say about West Side Story? Or ANYONE other than a white middle class male has to say about Castaway because Tom Hanks was just about the only one IN the movie? You see how ridiculous this liberal, politically correct, so-called “mentality” quickly becomes?

Larson simply expressed herself boorishly in voicing a reasonable desire to include a more interesting combination of reporters, like: the disabled, women, and minorities. I only wish she’d included homeschoolers, and faith-based reporters. But, of course, good luck with that one.

Regardless of all that CAPTAIN MARVEL IS A GOOD MOVIE.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS – BE WARNED

Captain Marvel is about a military pilot, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson who knocked it out of the ball park in The Glass Castle – see my post here) who mysteriously ends up believing she is a member of an alien race’s warrior class, fighting the Skrulls, a race of extremely dangerous shape shifters who threaten the Universe in general and Earth in particular. On an investigative mission she winds up on Earth, meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury and starts unraveling the mystery of her past.

Captain Marvel was co-directed by the established team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who, up to now, have done Sundance award winning shorts and indies. They were chosen because of their insightful enthusiasm for the character of Carol Danvers. The duo have created a very solid and entertaining bridge between the two Avengers movies.

The CGI was interesting but, possibly deliberately, of checkerboard quality. Danvers in full bore Captain Marvel mode looked a bit like a highly rendered cartoon – a nice homage, I thought, to her comic book origins.

As to the youthened Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, either Jackson has a picture of Dorian Gray tucked somewhere in his attic or they did a masterful job with the special effects. Jackson looks legitimately 20 years younger in the movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Clark Gregg, whose younger Phil Coulson looked like a creepy, unnaturally smooth-faced caricature. Even were this choice purposeful due to the nature of the Skrulls and the part they play, other Skrull “imitations” looked far more natural and, assuredly, Fury would have picked up on it far before he did.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, a Skrull adversary. Mendelsohn usually plays flat, two-dimensional bad guys, like the evil mad scientist Orson Krenic, in Star Wars: Rogue One or the diabolical businessman Sorento in Ready Player One. Mendelsohn’s Talos has a bit more to him, even a sense of humor, and it is nice to see Mendelsohn tackle a character with a bit more complexity.

Jude Law, the third man up to bat as Dumbledore, plays Yon Rogg, Captain Marvel’s mentor.

Annette Benning plays both Dr. Wendy Lawson, as well as a manifestation of the Kree Supreme Artificial Intelligence, which serves as teacher to the Kree.

As a side note, I thought the choice of Annette Benning in an important supporting role in a superhero movie was odd, familiar as we are with her in emotion-driven interpersonal dramas, like her shrewish unfaithful wife in American Beauty. Casting Benning in a major sci-fi is a peculiar fit which I am not completely sure works. She is a decent actress. She did manage a very serviceable Queen Elizabeth in a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third some years ago, after all. Science fiction is just not the genre I normally associate her with. However, her screen time is fairly small, so this casting choice is not a big drawback.

And then – MOST importantly – there’s Goose the cat played, depending upon the demands of the scene, by: Reggie, Gonzo, Archie and Rizzo – all of whom got along famously with both Samuel L. and Ms. Larson despite the fact Jackson is self described as not a cat person and Larson is actually allergic to them. Obviously all six of them are consummate professionals. LOL

Pinar Toprak (who, with Danny Elfman, also did the soundtrack for Justice League, and has composed for other films, TV shows and video games) wrote the soundtrack, which stays in the vein of the triumphant and inspirational themes in other Avengers movies. Toprak also intersperses songs like Crazy on You by Heart, Man on the Moon by R.E.M. and Only When it Rains by Garbage, which, similar to the casting of Annette Benning, is another unusual creative choice by this film team, requiring some getting used to, but is not off putting.

In conclusion:

Is Captain Marvel a good movie and a worthy inclusion to the Marvel Universe in general and the Avengers franchise in particular? Yes.

Do I wish they had left the gender politics drivel out of the equation? Most certainly.

But when it comes to marketing, as my Dad used to say: “Say something good about me, say something bad about me, but don’t say nothing about me.” Still, someone should inform Ms. Larson that perhaps it would be sensible, if not just courteous, to avoid deliberately alienating the fundamental demographic which has, frankly, built the financial empire of the comic book industry: THE WHITE MALE – especially since Captain Marvel was created AS a male, so the incarnation as a female is really borrowing off the male pioneered territory. She should be saying an appreciative: “Thank you,” instead of starting a snide spitting contest.

Most comic book hero authors were men: Stan Lee, Bob Kane, William Marston, Jerry Siegel, Bill Parker to name only a meager few.

And without the WHITE TEENAGED MALES there would be no comic book industry such as it is. Up until recently the vast majority of the comic book reading/buying demographic WAS male.

Am I the only one who can see that if the odds were so terribly stacked against woman, as the gender-victim baiters and pseudo politician-community agitators would have you believe, that this movie would never have been made?

Larson should consider that she has made it to the top of what is currently considered the Hollywood Mountain. Her movie is going to make a bazillion dollars. She should learn a little etiquette and be gracious in her win.

That being said, I DO think, thematically,  it WAS a wise decision to make Captain Marvel a female, if for no other reason than there is already a VERY well established MALE super hero with a “Captain” nomenclature against which she would NOT want to compete in a popularity contest. (To paraphrase a wise Black Widow – “That’s a question she just  does not need to get answered.”)

Meanwhile – I think we would all have a much better time if everyone, Miss Larson included, and perhaps especially, should just chill out.

Thankfully and ultimately, Captain Marvel is about the creation of a super hero who just happens to be a woman, NOT about the creation of an expressly female super hero.

I must admit that a surprising homage to Stan Lee in the opening credits had me a bit choked up. Without him none of these creations: Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Ant Man, Yondu, Peggy Carter, Dr. Strange, Magneto, Loki, Ronan, Professor X, T’Chala, Groot and the plethora of others that populate most of the Marvel Universe (See the list of Stan Lee’s creations on Wikipedia here)  would exists and for that we all owe Mr. Lee a tremendous debt of gratitude. I pray he finds the joy and inspiration he brought to millions while he was alive awaiting him in eternity. The film makers gave him a lovely appropriate epitaph send-off just before the opening credits to Captain Marvel, as well as a delightful posthumous cameo, almost breaking the fourth wall, in the middle of the movie. Thank you Stan, you will indeed be missed.

GREEN BOOK – MUST SEE COMEDY-DRAMA LESSON ON HISTORY AND HUMANITY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GREEN BOOK REVIEW

 

SHORT TAKE:

Excellent buddy dramedy based closely on the real life friendship between a black gifted but haughty pianist and the thuggish but fundamentally noble white bouncer he hires to chauffeur him during a concert tour through the Deep South in the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Any mature mid-teen and up but with parental discretion due to language, the examination of extreme racism during this time period and some conversation topics.

LONG TAKE:

Green Book is one of the most delightfully charming movies I’ve seen in a long time. The story is about a New York Copacabana bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, conventionally bigoted for the 1960s, hired as the driver for a brilliant black pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, for a concert tour through the Deep South.

Based on a true story, Tony Vallelonga was already a part of Hollywood. The real Vallelonga appeared in movies like Goodfellas. His son, Nick, wrote and helped produce this movie based upon interviews with him and Dr. Shirley about this road trip taken when Nick was a little boy.

The title refers to the name of the catalogue the men use as a guide for the places that black people were allowed to go – the hotels, vacation spots, tourist areas, bars, and gas stations where black people could stay without fear of harassment from regional authorities and punitive local ordinances. The title comes from its author, Victor Hugo Green, a New York postman and a black man. The book was published yearly from 1936 until 1966, when Civil Rights Law made it, thankfully, obsolete.

The unlikely pair are wonderful to watch. An entire play could have been made just out of their time in the car together as they exchange observations of the world from their own unique perspectives. Tony is white, tough, with a mediocre education, naive in his own way, and world-wise in others, who lives in a simple small house with his devoted wife and two boys,  living somewhat hand to mouth, between jobs, even willing to engage in a hot dog eating contest for an extra $50 towards the soon-to-be due rent. Shirley also grew up poor, but after being recognized for his gifted playing has become an effete, sheltered, black man residing in an artfully appointed apartment literally above Carnegie Hall. He distances himself from his black heritage in particular and most people in general. Both have much to teach the other.

We get a tour of 1960’s Americana, from the gift stands at the local gas stations to the tough bars, and the “coloreds only” seedy hotels to which Dr. Shirley is relegated because of the color of his skin.

The acting is Oscar-worthy. Mortensen, stepping, chameleon-like into the skin of this gruff and uneducated but likeable and protective bodyguard, is almost unrecognizable in physique, mannerisms or even speech patterns from such previous characters as the seduced professor Halder from Good or the incorruptible hero Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Along with the accent, the body movements and facial expressions of Vallelonga, which surviving son Nick claimed were so accurate they brought him to tears, Mortensen gained 45 pounds to get into character. Mortensen’s Vallelonga is a three-dimensional character from moment one on the screen throughout. Brutal and thoughtful, principled and amoral, loving father, devoted faithful husband, and violent bouncer, Mortensen creates a completely recognizable person from characteristics which could have lent themselves to a cliched caricature.

Mahershala Ali (small parts in Hidden Figures and Hunger Games) does an excellent job of portraying the stiff and defensive Shirley while incorporating the subtle chinks in his armor through which the unassuming Vallelonga connects. His Shirley is sensitive and subtle with a tough core of dignity, principle, and determined courage.

Linda Cardellini (Daddy’s Home) is lovely as Tony’s devoted wife, Dolores. In real life the Vallelongas were happily married for 41 years until her death in 1999.

In addition there is the fantastic music, and delightful songs played in classical mode by Dr. Shirley. The background soundtrack was written by Karol Bowers whose hands, through the miracle of CGI, physically sub for the gifted Dr. Shirley piano performances. Much effort went into blending Ali’s physical performance with Bowers piano playing prowess and it works very convincingly.

Peter Farrelly, whose credits up until now mostly amounted to questionable  movies such as Three Stooges, Movie 43 and Shallow Hal, has really found his inspiration in this script. Green Book is masterfully crafted – balancing the natural humor that comes from people simply interacting with each other against the tragic drama of abuse, condescension and indignities which black people endured all over the country during the 1960’s. Every detail is complete and period – from the gas station gift stands full of trinkets to the chandeliered restaurants and the florid night clubs.

By all accounts the script details both their trip and their characters very accurately, coalescing experiences described in interviews with both Vallelonga and Shirley. The only liberty taken was that the road trip lasted, not two months, but a year and a half! While taken directly and in detail from real life, the story still serves as an allegory. Vallelonga is an  example of the transformation America was making from the caricature perceptions of minorities to the informed friendships and respect which would soon be crafted, blossom and become commonplace all over the country.

Historically educational, were it not for the rough language, admittedly appropriate to the characters, their occupations, times and places, and one scene depicting a massive character flaw of Shirley, this movie would be family-appropriate. As it is, while I very highly recommend this movie, it is only for midteens and up and even then only upon the discretion of a pre-informed parent. The language is not confined to profanity, but is littered with historically accurate racial epithets often casually included in conversation.

This is a movie both men should be very proud of having made. It touches on very sensitive racial issues from the ’60’s but does so with politically incorrect good natured humor, an acknowledgement of the past with both its virtues and its mistakes, and attention to detail in authenticity which would have made any history professor proud.

With its slice of the past, the inspirational character learning curves, the marvelous music, and the splendid performances, time going to see Green Book is time well spent.

THE UPSIDE – ACCURATELY NAMED, UNEXPECTED AND INSPIRATIONAL BUDDY COMEDY-DRAMA

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE UPSIDE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Wonderful and beautifully acted movie, based on a true story, about a quadriplegic and the unlikely friendship he forms with an untrained and world-wise ex-con who is hired to be his caretaker.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up only – for language, topics of conversation, a bit of  bawdy behavior with a couple of paid female companions, and some realistic though mostly unseen necessaries involving the care of a paralyzed man.

LONG TAKE:

The Upside is a remake of the French film The Intouchables. The story is based on the real relationship between the wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caretaker Abdel Sellou. In the movie, respectively, the characters names are Phillip Lacasse, (Bryan Cranston most famously of Breaking Badand Dell Scott (Kevin Hart most recently of the Jumanji remake), the latter a down-on-his-luck ex-con who is behind in his child support and broke. Though Dell has no skills in taking care of anyone, let alone a disabled man, Dell’s blunt, un-indulgent and pragmatic personality appeals to Phillip who is weary of having everyone walk eggshells around him and treat him like a fragile hothouse flower. Each man has been broken in their own way by their own mistakes.

One would not, on first glance, think that a movie about a man so severely disabled and a caretaker with a ill-functioning moral compass, would be funny. But it IS very funny — and very human, as well as delightfully inspirational. Everyone faces obstacles in life and Dell and Phillip exemplify the near extremes of challenges, respectively, of upbringing and the physical.

Courage is not the lack of feeling fear but of experiencing every painful moment of it and pressing forward anyway. And this is what Dell and Phillip learn to do with the aid of each others’ examples as well as their friends and family, even when those supports are initially pushed away. Everyone will be able to related to at least some feature of these brave men’s disadvantages.

Cranston is brilliant in the kind of performance I haven’t seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot or Joaquin Phoenix’ Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Cranston performs the entire movie using only facial gestures and the occasional head gesture, but you quickly forget his movement limitations in Cranston’s compelling and versatile performance. The normally frenetic Kevin Hart modulates his talents into the breath of fresh air that Phillip desperately needs. The two friends together make up one really good man. And they teach each other to face their fears and face the world with courage, determination and a renewed sense of purpose.

Nicole Kidman, in a turn that is way better than her teeth grittingly breathy and campy Atlana in Aquaman, here in Upside is absolutely adorable as Phillip’s fussy and protective executive assistant, Yvonne.

Much of the movie takes place in Phillip’s apartment, and I couldn’t help thinking that this could easily be converted into a lovely theatrical play.

The songs incorporated into the structure of the script are delightful and as eclectic as the combination of Dell’s and Phillip’s personalities. Tunes range from Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin to Rigoletto and Carmen. The background soundtrack is intense and reflects the longing of the characters to be better men regardless of their ultimately superficial limitations. The movie, especially considering it is based on a true story, is inspirational.

I highly recommended this movie but for mid-teens and up only because of language, topics of conversation, mostly unseen illicit sexuality, and some quite humorous and genuine situations brought about by the circumstances of Phillip’s infirmity.

So, major kudos to Hart and Cranston for tackling this project with such tact, respect and skill, and hopefully some award wins for Cranston, at least, in this captivating, charming, and truly compelling story of a beautiful platonic friendship and the strength those unlikely friends give each other.

GOSNELL: THE TRIAL OF AMERICA’S BIGGEST SERIAL KILLER

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GOSNELL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Documentary-style bio pic about Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist who violated even Pennsylvania’s liberally permissive abortion laws, extending his convictions to include manslaughter of a mother and murder of three full term infants, and the people who brought him to justice.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only – for the topics and many of the visuals of the abortion mill. But of those adults who seek truth or justice, a MUST SEE.

LONG TAKE:

In the movie Jacob’s Ladder, Tim Robbins plays a military veteran suffering from such extreme PTSD that he has visions of hell. One of those manifestations is of a hospital of filth and gore staffed by demons indifferent to his suffering. While watching that 1990 surreal film, I never dreamed I would one day see real-life footage of the actual place. But footage of a real place, just like Jacob’s visions, were included in Gosnell, the movie about the exposure and trial of Kermit Gosnell, (portrayed by Earl Billings, a familiar face from many TV shows all the way back to the 1970’s), the perpetrator of the cold blooded killings-for-hire of full-term infants and the casual death of one of his “patients,” who was, to quote Bernard Hughes’ character in the dark satire The Hospital, “neglected to death”.

The film, Gosnell, tracks the investigative and legal activities that stopped Gosnell’s Eichmann-like casual killing business. If you see Operation Finale, (to read my blog on Operation Finale click here), you will note the similarities between Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Eichmann and Earl Billings’ Gosnell. Both men had an affluent, family-oriented life.

While Eichmann’s personal obsessions wandered into the fastidious, Gosnell wandered onto the other end of the bell curve with profound levels of filth. While Eichmann behaves like Lady Macbeth, figuratively (and sometimes literally) trying to wash the guilty stains from his hands, Gosnell wallowed gleefully in the depravity, denying its existence. Both men swam in the blood of others to achieve their goals of career security in an environment and culture which protected their activities for years regardless of the heinousness of the crimes they committed.

The acting in both cases was amazing. Kingsley will likely, and deservedly, be up for awards for his portrayal as the cold, tunnel vision author of the deaths of millions, who wore blinders and chose to see himself as merely a clerk or cog in a machine convenient to his advancement. Billings, despite his equally subtle rendition, because of the politically protected nature of Gosnell’s occupation as abortionist, will likely be ignored for his cine-magic contribution. Billings plays a man who, in other surroundings, could be mistaken for a genial, grandfatherly, old-fashioned doctor. It is only the subtle body language, quirks, facial tics and tiny contradictory gestures which visualize Gosnell’s fundamentally broken, corrupted and rotted moral view.

Were the director creating this monster out of whole cloth, he might have been lauded for the extremely effective, visually poetic symmetry of the man’s life. Gosnell lived in a beautiful suburban home, in a Biblical sense the outside of the vase. But the house’s rooms reflected Gosnell’s inner corruption in the piles of trash, the chaotic disorder, Gosnell’s personal hygiene, and the dead animal rotting in a cellar of aggressively flea infested debris. Gosnell’s clinic, while purportedly there to serve the poor, gave preference to white customers, regularly employed underage untrained teenagers to administer dangerous levels of anesthesia, and  housed garbage bags full of decomposing infant parts, casually discarded in hallways, up stairwells, and in so-called operating rooms.

Likely the only reason this abattoir was not over run with four legged rats was because there was a plethora of irregularly cared for cats who roamed at will using the entire clinic as their kitty box.

Like the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, Gosnell kept trophies in small jars of body parts. So insulated was Gosnell from the rest of the world, humanity, or his own culpability, that he did not understand he was actually displaying evidence against himself.

None of this was manufactured by the filmmakers. The stomach-churning images were re-created, and in some cases simply copied directly onto the film, from actual footage made by the investigating police officers, there initially to pursue probable cause of the death of one of Gosnell’s victims/patients. The police entered planning a drug bust. They left with evidence of a serial killer whose murders had been covered up for over two decades by a corrupt Pennsylvania Department of Heath, the steaming environment of political correctness, and the permissive Pennsylvania abortion laws.

Despite the heinousness of Gosnell’s activities, the repeated complaints, and the obvious incompetence and flagrant disregard for even the most basic sanitation much less safety of his patients Gosnell was left alone to continue his habits for decades.

It came up in trial that the health department of the state was for at least 17 consecutive years forbidden from pursuing even the most serious of complaints against him because of his status as a black abortionist in a poor neighborhood. But there was no protection for the unwary, vulnerable, scared and defenseless inhabitants that served as Gosnell’s prey.

Gosnell had no respect for the mostly poor minority women who came to see him, nor the tenants of basic common sense medical sanitation, nor even the law which had closed its eyes to his behavior for so long. Given his protected status it is perversely understandable why he legitimately believed he could get away with murder with impunity. He admitted as much to his attorney when he laughed at his solicitor’s concerns about his legal vulnerability, saying that he was certain no one would question his personal determination of what constituted a human life regardless of the law which forbade abortion passed 24 weeks.

The director, Nick Searcy, who also plays the defense counsel, Mike Cohan, creates a calm, even somewhat sterile atmosphere for the investigations and courtroom. This makes for a relieving counterpoint to the simple video walk-throughs of the “clinic” which view like the abandoned labyrinth of a series of dystopian torture chambers. The supporting characters, from the initially reluctant Asst. D.A. Lexy McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris) to the immediately invested and likeable lead detective James Wood (Dean Cain) to the computer geek/blogger Molly Mullaney (Cyrian Fiallo) do wonderful jobs in solid performances. And the screenwriters, Andrew Klavan, Ann McElhinney, and Phelim McAleer, used composites of real people to flesh and round out the cast. But Billings, as I said, is a standout in the lead with his restrained but utterly creepy portrayal of a man who would fit in a horror movie about a grandfather who hands out razor filled apples and cyanide laced candy on Halloween night.

Evidence showed Gosnell murdered seven born alive infants. He was convicted of three with an unknown tally of death on his belt over the previous two decades. Gosnell was convicted of one count of manslaughter in the death of a “patient” but who knows how many others died directly from his hands or indirectly from his gross negligence and malpractice. There was evidence of 21 late term abortions, even illegal in Pennsylvania. But who knows how many he committed? And he was convicted of hundreds, out of the likely thousands, of violations of the rules concerning 24 hour informed consent, which are, themselves, but pathetically thin attempts at some common sense to this horrific practice. And all this doesn’t even touch the thousands of babies in the womb he murdered under the auspices of “legal abortion”.

While Gosnell was held to account for his crimes, he was, in truth, merely a symptom of the greater evil of the governmentally, not just allowed, but protected, murder of millions of unborn children.

While this is a difficult movie to watch, we must all stand, like the Jews who survived the Holocaust and their descendants, as witnesses to atrocities which should not be happening now and, once defeated, must never happen again. It is our duty to testify against the laws and institutions which allow monsters like Gosnell to exist and thrive, for those already lost and those at risk and yet to be born.

INSTANT FAMILY – A TALE OF THE TRUE SUPER HEROES

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF INSTANT FAMILY REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family is the charming, inspirational and humorous story of a DINK (double income no kids) couple who decide to foster three children. The film manages to be smart, brutally honest, funny and even whimsical all at the same time.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Must see! BUT only for older teens and up for language and story content.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!!

Instant Family COULD have been called Foster Parenting for Dummies. This is no one’s idealized version of a blended family. This is not The Brady Bunch, Three Men and a Baby, Despiccable Me or even……… The Blind Side (and you’ll see why that’s funny when you see the movie). But the movie is honest and very funny, miraculously achieving that delicate balance between comedy and drama which many movies attempt but at which few succeed. The innate parity between laughter and tears, which exists in the human condition but is rarely found in movie scripts, comes naturally to this script because the story was inspired by writer/director Sean Anders and his wife’s real life experiences of adopting. All of the characters, from the kids to the support group members to the social workers, are based on the real people Anders met through the process – normally flawed humans with the usual awkward family dynamics trying to do their best under difficult circumstances..

Instant Family soft pedals nothing as it follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg – Mile 22, Deep Water Horizon and Lone Survivor), and Ellie (Rose Byrne – Moira from the X-Men reboot and Bea from Peter Rabbit, and who, though from Australia, does a spotless American accent) from their naive, romantic visions of fostering a child, through the often hilarious mandatory support group meetings, the spotty support of their doubtful relatives, through the decision making and then to the realities of trying to support, protect, guide and raise three at-risk and traumatised children of different ages.

Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny.

The movie occasionally wanders gently into slapstick and slight caricature but only in a way one might, with the humor and affection gleaned from the wisdom of retrospection, remember an experience that did not seem funny at the time but ends up being one of your favorite memories. Instant Family reminds me a lot of last year’s equally brilliant Wonder, about a family coping with a severely handicapped child. There are no bad guys, only the challenge, tackled by adults and children alike, to interact with the people who love you as best you can.

And if you ever wondered, as the PSA querries, that you had to be perfect to foster a child, the characters in Instant Family will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly.

The support group scenes are especially funny, populated, as they are, by every possible combination of would be foster parents, from: single wanna-be super mom, to idealistic fundamentalist Christians, to an infertile interracial couple, to a gay couple, and to our protagonists – an upwardly mobile self employed couple, who initially think of these children the way they do the houses they renovate for a living. All come with a unique set of priorities and preconceived, often conflicting, sometimes counter-intuitive notions. Some are even portrayed as ridiculous or annoying. But, fundamentally, ALL of them have one thing in common: A core desire to provide a loving stable home for children who have none, and who are often at risk of abuse, addiction and even death at the hands of their biological parents and the environment to which they are subjected.

These foster parents, for all of their differences, flaws, quirks, and even errors in judgment, are the living life rafts on the treacherous and stormy seas of our broken culture, desperately trying to rescue survivors who sometimes don’t even want to be saved. I love movies about: The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ant Man, Batman, Justice League and Agents of SHIELD. But these disparate, sometimes awkward, occasionally clueless foster parents are the true super heroes.

The acting is terrific, never succumbing to the easy temptation to sink into saccharine or false empathy, but neither does it avoid showing the warts of the torturous foster process.

Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent and never shy away from any of the very strong emotions of the moment, but don’t dwell on them either. And there is a constant balance of the solemn with the naturally evolving moments of humor that always arise from even the grimmest of circumstances. For example, the social workers, Sharon and Karen, played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and Zootopia) are very funny as odd couple co-workers. Notaro is the prim, proper, white, reserved, rule follower while Spencer is the outspoken, blunt, pragmatic, black counterpart. But they both have a realistic view of their jobs. When Pete asks Sharon and Karen about the foster children’s father the only answer he gets is uncontrolled laughter. This humorously speaks serious volumes without belaboring the tragic point. In another scene, after learning of a significant hitch in their plans, Pete and Ellie come home to discover Ellie’s mother, Jan, being decorated with permanent ink sharpies. There was no malice involved. Children and Jan alike had mistaken them for washables. Jan, performed by Julie Hagerty, whose unforgettable stint in Airplane made her synonymnous with ditzy characters, solemnly offers good and sage advice but, of necessity, while indelibly and distractingly face painted.

The music is a cheerful and delightful sprinkling of songs like Wings’ “Let ’em In,” George Harrison’s “What is Life,” and Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now”. The perky upbeats also help soften the more somber moments. You can get the individual songs streaming on Amazon here.

The children are very natural. Isabela Moner, singer and actress, is Lizzy, the teenager who is simultaneously grateful for the safe haven Pete and Ellie provide for herself and her siblings and understandably resentful of these same people as interlopers to her “real,” incarcerated, drug-addicted mother. Moner has a truly beautiful voice and sings the credit song, “I’ll Stay,” at the end of the movie. Gustavo Quiroz is adorable as Lizzy’s clutzy, well meaning and inept younger brother, Juan. And Julianna Gamiz is the youngest and precocious sister, Lita.

The two younger kids act with the normal and very believable open ingenuousness, quick impulsive affection, manipulative behavior, and selfish temper tantrum demands of normal kids. But the writing skillfully runs a thread of abnormality underneath these kids’ otherwise normal veneer. For example, Lita happily plays with Ellie when they first meet until Lita begins play-acting with her doll, calling her doll racial epithets and interacting with the doll  in ways she is obviously imitating from her previous foster parents. It’s nothing sinister but casually cruel. And it gives the audience a taste of what every precarious day can be like for these kids whose parents have abysmally let them down  and are in a system which can sometimes fail them. But again the serious tone is undercut by the humorous way the failed foster couple insist she must have heard it on TV.

A lovely cameo is of Joan Cusack as an elderly, awkward, but concerned neighbor who helps to deflate another scene which could have degenerated into mawkishness but for her delightfully eccentric presence.

The filming style itself is very straightforward, almost like professionally made home movies, as we see quite intimate moments of Ellie and Pete with each other, with their families, and with the foster kids, and the support group sessions.

While there is no sexuality shown on screen, there are sexual topics which come up necessarily and inevitably with the raising of a 15 year old girl from a bleakly broken background who has severe daddy issues. In addition, under stress, there is some humorously interjected but understandable profanity that crops up sprinkled throughout the movie. This, with the serious topic of abandoned and at-risk children, make this movie suitable only for older teens and up. However for that demographic for which is appropriate it is a must-see movie.

GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB: FROM ANGSTY BOOK TO ACTION ADVENTURE MOVIE

 

I am delighted to present another review by my sister, Wynne, this time co-authored with her friend Mike.

Click on the title to check out Wynne's previous review of another unusual movie, The Florida Project.

SHORT TAKE:

Action adventure based on the fourth of five books from the Millenium series and sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for violence, sexual content, and language.

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LONG TAKE:

The Girl in the Spider's Web is based on the fourth book in the Millennium series. The first three books were written by Stieg Larrson. After his death the series was continued by David Lagercrantz. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is Lagercrantz’ first installment in the series. This is the second American movie from the series, the first was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book and the movie follow the same characters but the movie does have a different story line.

Lagercrantz seems to have studied the Larrson books. The characters have perhaps evolved but not changed. Where there is evolution in the characters or relationships, it is natural, as any author might do with characters created in previous books, such as Michael Connelly's detective creation Harry Bosch. Lagercrantz emulates Larrson's complex and intriguing plots quite well.

Three actresses have played Lisbeth Salander, and each brings a slightly different take on the character. Naomi Rapace starred as Lisbeth in the Swedish production of the first three books: The Girl: With the Dragon Tattoo, Who Played with Fire and Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, as well as the TV miniseries Millenium. Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth in the Hollywood production of the first book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Now Claire Foy takes on the role of Lisbeth in the Hollywood production of the fourth book in the Millennium Series, The Girl in the Spider's Web. We have read four of the books in the Millennium Series. There is a fifth book, An Eye for an Eye, which we have not read yet. All three actresses are similar physically to the Lisbeth in the book: slight in stature, tough, dark figures, who can effectively convey plenty of angst.

Naomi Rapace, in the 2009 Swedish production of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, portrays a more vulnerable Lisbeth, with angst and grit. The movie had thirty-five nominations and eighteen wins from various awards, with Rapace winning BAFTA’s Best Leading Actress award in 2011. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie 86%. Reviews in Rotten Tomato applauded: "Rapace's gripping performance makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo an unforgettable viewing experience" and admired that she was a "haunting, enigmatic Lisbeth".

We have not seen the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so we will rely on reviews. Rooney Mara won an Oscar as Best Actress in 2012. The movie had a total of ninety nominations and twenty-eight wins for various awards. Rotten tomatoes gave the movie an 80%. Reviews in Rotten Tomatoes stated that Mara gave "total role commitment" and a "brilliant, revelatory performance".

When a re-boot of the Millennium Series, with The Girl in the Spider's Web, was considered, the Swedish actress, Naomi Rapace, decided to pass. Rooney Mara said she wanted to return as Lisbeth, but the studio decided to go with a different director and cast.

In the latest production, Lisbeth Salander is brilliantly portrayed by Claire Foy of The Crown. Foy has played three different roles in movies that we have seen. In The Crown she plays The Queen, Elizabeth, as a young woman. She portrays Neil Armstrong's wife, who supports her husband in his endeavor to be an astronaut in First Man, giving a strong performance depicting the stress of being an astronaut's wife. And now she is Lisbeth Salander.

SPOILERS

Lisbeth and Camilla Salander are fraternal twin sisters, raised by their father, a Russian crime lord and head of the Spider Society. He physically and psychologically abused them both. Lisbeth wants them both to escape, but Camilla chooses to stay with her father. So Lisbeth escapes alone. The choices made at that moment result in the twin sisters taking different life paths. Much like in the old classic Angels With Dirty Faces, the question hangs over both the characters' lives and the movie of: had they both escaped (in Angels, from the police, in Spider, from their abusive father) would their lives have been different?

In the first book, Lisbeth's first guardian is a kind man. When her first guardian becomes ill, she is turned over to a second guardian who sexually and physically abuses her. As a teen she decides to take matters into her own hands and not be abused any more. With her abilities as a tech genius and computer hacker she becomes a vigilante, taking the law into her own hands. She will stop at nothing to bring justice to the abused and mistreated. She chooses the path of good.

Left alone with a sadistic and abusive father, Camilla evolves into a cold-blooded killer, becoming the head of the Spiders, following in her father's footsteps. The Spiders are a ruthless group that will stop at nothing to get what they want, including murder. She chooses the path of evil.

Camilla did not enjoy the few short years of kindness that Lisbeth had. Did this difference push each into the direction that their lives went? Camilla blames Lisbeth for the years of abuse she underwent with her father and questions why Lisbeth did not rescue her. Camilla cannot understand that the real villain is their father.

The movie's main theme revolves around who can get control of the computer program, Firewall, a program that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide. There are four groups in the race. One of the players is Lisbeth working for Frans Balder, played by Stephen Merchant, (mostly known for his comedy in shows like The Big Bang Theory and the British version of The Office), whose autistic son, August (Christopher Convery), is gifted and sought after by competing interests. Another is Camilla Salander, played by Sylvia Hoeks, (the evil replicant Luv from Blade Runner 2049) who is hired by the Swedish Security Police (SAPO). Then there is deputy director of SAPO, Gabriella Grane, played by Synnove Macody Lund (previously a model, journalist and film critic). Finally, an American National Security Agent (NSA) programmer and sniper, Ed Needham, played by Lakeith Stanfield, (appearing in the acclaimed Get Out and recently in Sorry to Bother You) is also in the hunt. All want to obtain Firewall for different reasons.

Frans Balder wrote the program, then was fired from the NSA. He hires Lisbeth Salander to steal it back. Camilla, the leader of the Spiders, the bad guys, wants control of the program to launch nukes and frame Lisbeth. The Swedish Security Police wants the program because Sweden has not been in a war in recent history and considers itself a neutral country, which will keep the world safe. The American NSA programmer and hacker, Ed Needham, wants the program returned to the United States.

It would be difficult to compare the book with the movie because they are so different. The characters are the same, Frans is still murdered, and poor August is still the pawn going back and forth between the groups. While the book’s plot has no computer program like Firewall, it does include a chase after government secrets. We liked both the movie and the book. We did think the movie had more action. The book was more mental.

August in the book and the movie has two savant talents. One is mathematics and another is drawing. In the book, August’s talent as an artist is used to help find his father's killer. In the movie, his talent as a mathematical genius is the key to cracking the code that will open Firewall. We thought it was interesting that each version highlighted a different talent.

When the two sisters come face to face, toward the end of the movie, Camilla blames Lisbeth for how her life evolved and the years of abuse she endured. She is out for revenge. Lisbeth tearfully replies that Camilla chose to stay with their father. Again, if Camilla had chosen to escape with Lisbeth as children would her life have been different? Would Camilla still be a psychopath? The debate of nature vs. nurture plays out with the two sisters.

The movie got a 41% from Rotten Tomatoes. They felt that the movie had an "uninspired story and poor character development," and that the movie turned Lisbeth into a "generic action hero". Rolling Stone noted that Claire Foy was "killer good" as Lisbeth Salander.

We liked seeing Lisbeth come to life on the big screen, done especially well by Claire Foy. The movie had plenty of special effects – lots of explosions and fires, stabbing people with needles delivering different serums to sedate or blind or kill, and the use of a cattle prod is very popular in the movie. The sequence with the sniper, Ed Needham, shooting the thermal images of men inside the walls of a building shown in 3-D was truly exceptional. There are car chases over beautiful Scandinavian scenery, with dark old buildings giving an eerie affect in contrast. Many special tech devices are used and you wonder if they really do exist somewhere. Lisbeth has an endless supply of devices that can operate just about anything electronically, any of which would inspire envy among the Star Trek crew.

In an interview by Aubrey Page on HUFFPOST done with the director Fede Alvarez, he states, "It's not Lisbeth Salander the assistant or Lisbeth Salander the muse. This time it's Lisbeth Salander the main character that really drives the story". He wanted to place Lisbeth in the forefront and not as Blomkvist sidekick.

Reviews compare the movie to the James Bond series. Except for the massive explosions and techy gadgets, We did not make the connection. The two characters are very different. James Bond is a suave, martini drinking, secret agent, who always ends up with the woman. Lisbeth is a dark, bisexual, tech savvy loner whose only friends are Mikael Blomkvist, a former lover, played by Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason, and a computer geek, Plague, played by Cameron Britton.

In reviews there is also reference to Lisbeth being portrayed as an action figure. This somewhat trivializes her abilities and makes her appear as a comic book character. Will there be action figures coming out for Christmas? This would be sad because there is a lot more to Lisbeth than that.

Another complaint from reviewers is that Camilla's character is not fleshed out more, that she should be presented as a more interesting and complex character than Lisbeth. But Camilla only even shows up in the second half of the movie. The movie missed an opportunity in this regard. Nor does the movie portray Lisbeth with as much depth as do the books. We believe the movie was more into action and special effects than character portrayal. But we really enjoy action movies, so this is why we enjoyed both the movie and the book for different reasons.

In the book, Camilla did not die at the end. Maybe she didn't in the movie, we only see her step off a cliff and fall through the clouds.

Another reference in reviews is made to the #METOO movement, but remember the book was written in 2015 before #METOO. A scene near the beginning of the movie does show Lisbeth has become: "the girl who hurts men who hurt women". But in the rest of the movie she is on a different quest.

As we stated earlier, we like the book and we liked the movie. For the movie, you have to turn your brain off a bit and live in her world and just believe she can do all she does. We agree with critics that this is mainly an action movie and characters could have been developed more. But good special effects on the big screens are great fun. Of course, (this is Wynne now) my favorite kind of movie has bad ass dinosaurs creating havoc in the world. But that is not in this movie.

The movie is rated R because of violence, language and sexual content. So, take your older teens to go see this movie but leave the kiddos at home.