COOKING IN THE TIME OF QUARANTINE

 

AUDIO OPTION OF ARTICLE ON COOKING DURING THE TIME OF QUARANTINE

Now that we’re stuck at home, with fewer and fewer restaurants – even take out – to choose from, and less and less money with which to buy from them, I suspect many of you are now digging into the bottom of your freezers playing “Ready Set Cook: The Home Version”.

For those of you unfamiliar with “Ready Set Cook,” it was a show wherein two opposing teams were given ingredients which had to be included to make an entire meal. For example Team A might choose something like: chocolate, asparagus and jalapenos. And Team B might have chosen: sugared breakfast cereal, liver and olives. A limited time later, the team which came up with the most edible dish(es) won.

When all of our six homeschooled kids were over five we decided to give this a try – WITH the added caveat that the Team who gave the ingredients to the other team had to be willing to EAT whatever the other team came up with. (Saved on wasted food and disgusting items.) As we were almost evenly split between genders it was Boys versus Girls and we all UNANIMOUSLY agreed that the boys’ Three Stooges Spaghetti won out hands down over – whatever forgettable (possibly inedible) thing we girls had made.

With that in mind, and understanding that many people are doing more cooking for more people over a longer period of time and with fewer ingredients than they ever thought possible, I thought it might be fun to suggest some:

MOVIES WHICH INSPIRE YOU TO COOK

Now I am NOT going to include anything gross like: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover OR Sweeney Todd – which themes of revenge, violence and cannibalism would likely be offensive to 99% of even the adult audience. All of these chosen movies legitimately make me hungry and wanting to head to the kitchen either for a snack or to break out my pots and pans.

RATATOUILLE

This absolutely delightful, complex, funny and intelligently plotted movie about a French farm rat who could cook, was and is a favorite in our house. Remi is a rat who, unlike his VERY large family, and due to his intelligence and refined sense of smell, does not WANT to eat the garbage of which his family happily partakes. He also doesn’t want to steal from people any more. So, after a hilarious sequence of events, Remi finds himself not only separated from his brothers and sisters, but secretly tutoring a schlemiel in a multi-star Parisian kitchen on the art of fine cuisine.

Ratatouille features the truly delicious voice acting of: Patton Oswalt (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) as Remi, Brian Dennehy as Django, Remi’s Dad, Ian Holm as Remi’s nemesis, Lou Romano (pretty “cheesy”, right?) plays the young chef Linguini, Jeaneane Garofalo as Tatou, Linguini’s love interest, and the late legendary Peter O’Toole as the menacing and bitter food critic, appropriately named, Ego. To spice things up there are also the traditional Pixar voice cameos by Brad Bird, the director, and the Pixar-ubiquitous John Ratzenberger. To blend everything together the artistry of hundreds of talented animators and music composed by the creative versatility of Michael Giacchio (composer for dozens of incredible films from … The Incredibles to Jojo Rabbit and Star Trek Beyond) and you have a cinematic feast for the whole family.

JULIE AND JULIA

Working our way up the age ladder, this is a movie which, though without sex or violence, has a few “naughty” jokes between married couples and sexual references, as well as some profanity.

The premise of this very cute movie is based on a true experience of a young woman who decides to work her way through the ENTIRETY of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Much like the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which also starred Meryl Streep, it tells two couple’s stories, separated in time by decades, in a corresponding way. On the one hand is the love story of the marriage between Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her devoted husband Paul (Stan Tucci) covering the time right after World War II through the almost miraculous publication of her now famous book. Unable to have children and finding herself in France as the wife of a member of the OSS, predecessor to the CIA, she found herself with not a lot to do so threw herself into learning genuine French cuisine in order to pass it on to “regular” housewives in America.

The parallel story is of Eric and Julie Powell (Amy Adams and Chris Messina) in the early 2000’s. He is a magazine writer and she is a writer stuck in a job she hates at a call center. To relieve her dissatisfaction she decides to blog her way through cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s book. The results of both Julie’s efforts as well as the modern couple’s part of the movie were hit or miss, but Streep’s brilliant portrayal of Child and the beautiful chemistry filled scenes with Streep and Tucci are worth the price of admission alone.

CHEF

The next course is the charming Chef, written, directed and starring Jon Favreau (Happy, from the Marvel movies, especially the Iron Man franchise) with several of his Marvel friends, as well as some tasty performances from others. Favreau plays Casper, a creative and somewhat temperamental chef at a fine dining establishment owned and managed by Rive (played by the American cinematic treasure Dustin Hoffman), who does not appreciate Casper’s creativity spilled out all over his traditional menu.

With the financial and/or emotional support of his ex-wife (Sofia Veraga), her very eccentric ex-husband Marvin (Robert “Iron Man” Downey, Jr.), Sofia and Casper’s young teen son, Percy(Emjay Anthony), Casper’s best friend Molly (Scarlett “Black Widow” Johannsen), partner (John Leguizamo), and a harsh food critic Ramsey (Oliver Platt), Casper strikes out around the country in a food truck specializing in Cuban food.

The movie becomes far more than a comedy about a guy starting a new business, but rises, like yeast in homemade bread, into an analogy for relearning family love, having the faith to start over, the charity to mend relationships, and the courage to try something new. It’s a funny, endearing, and a lovely little movie.

BUT it has a LOT of bad language. And while there is no sexual activity it is talked about, sometimes in crude ways, usually for humor or guys “bragging” or joking with each other.

So mid-teens at least.

BURNT

Finally for the ADULT ONLY crowd is a movie about a difficult man seeking redemption from his alcoholism as well as wrestling with his inability to connect with others. A gifted chef, Adam (Bradley Cooper – voice of Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy), freshly from a self-created rehab in which he stays sober while shucking ONE MILLION oysters, aspires to gain Michelin stars for his new restaurant. He is confidant but manipulative, brilliant but verbally abusive. His greatest virtue is his self-honesty, slow to come to fruition but ultimately genuine – to accept responsibility for his sins, as he seeks to clean up the messes he has made.

The ersatz family with which he needs to make peace is populated by a wonderful ensemble cast. His talented second in command isHelene, (Sienna Miller). His boss and owner of the restaurant is Tony, with whom Adam has a complicated personal relationship, played by Daniel Bruhl, another Marvel compatriot – the nemesis in Captain America – Civil War. Adam hires Michel (Omar Sy – Intouchables) as part of a debt of honor. Montgomery (Matthew Rhys – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) is a rival with whom Adam has a complicated professional relationship. Dr. Rosshilde (Emma Thompson) is his therapist and confidante, hired by a very nervous Tony, who has the unenviable task of being sure he stays clean and reasonably sane.

The arc of Adam, as a person and in his relationship with his team, reminded me a bit of my own experiments in making a chocolate souffle. If, in your anxiety to succeed, you hurry the process, you will, more like than not, end up with something that is unfinished at its core and burnt and hard, crusty and unpleasant, on the outside. BUT if you take your time, adjust your expectations to the creation’s needs, in effect turn down the temperature and exercise patience, then you will end up with something that may not be what you initially planned, but will be delightful in its own unique brand of perfection.

There is a good deal of close to nude moments, as well as a LOT of bad language – more than a few referencing sex. There is also the issue of drug addiction – discussion, therapy and the negative results – so mostly under the umbrella of “bad warning” and certainly not as an example to be followed. Adam has emotional control issues and occasionally gets violent in bursts of anger.

Ultimately though, this is a movie about redemption and repentance, structured around the art of making edible masterpieces ….. but not on the menu for the kiddies.

So there you go – from Completely Family Friendly to Adults Only and a couple in between. If you are of the right culinary spirit (and age) try these delectable movies about people who would have no trouble staying home and spending the day – COOKING!

PICARD IS TASKED WITH SAVING THE UNIVERSE – AGAIN!!

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF STAR TREK: PICARD REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Newest Star Trek show, this one starring Patrick Stewart as the now aged and retired Admiral Jean luc Picard on a quest to rescue a friend’s daughter and, oh by the way, save the Universe while he’s at it. And while it’s not as good as Star Trek: Next Generation or most of the movies, it is more “Star Trek-ian” than Discovery.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Unfortunately, THIS Star Trek venture uncharacteristically includes: profanity, even blasphemies, drug use, and hints at alternate lifestyles, which makes this show inappropriate for younger teens.

LONG TAKE:

I just got finished watching the first season of Star Trek: Picard. And while I was delighted to see Patrick Stewart in the saddle again, especially with cameos from the Star Trek universe, if this is the best the writers can come up with, then maybe it’s time for Picard to hang up his stirrups for good.

Like Discovery and unlike Star Trek‘s original inception, it is not episodic but moves along like a 10 hour movie (10 episodes at about 1 hour each). That is good and bad. If the storyline does not appeal to you then your are out of luck. You can’t drop into the middle of the season. Unlike the original shows it does not always seek to demonstrate the best that mankind can do, but far too often sinks to its lowest level, from drug addiction to bureaucratic disregard for entire civilizations, resulting in prejudice and genocide by neglect.

Patrick Stewart and the troupe from the original show were wonderful. Stewart throws himself into every role he plays. To underline that in a comic way, see the hilarious Honest Trailers for Star Trek: Next Generation.

I did think the plot pretty compelling and grew organically, pun intended, (you’ll see what I mean if/when you watch the show), from previous plots and concepts from the Trek universe. But while everyone is so busy being excited about the overall story line they forgot to include one of the things that made the Trek universe so relatable – the human element.

They took a few broad-stroke shots at it – but much of it felt like last minute thrown together ideas put on paper from the first brainstorming session.

For example: I know – Let’s give each of the characters some cliched “brokenness”. Rios, the captain of the ship Picard hires, (Santiago Cabrera), is a former Starfleet officer with an unresolved trauma. Picard’s best friend, Raffi, (Michelle Hurd) whose name inevitably reminds me of the children’s entertainer,  looks and acts like a female Bob Marley – drug habit included. All she’s missing is the Jamaican accent. NOT to mention the fact that even the most hard core Trek fan knew nothing about her. Alison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) is Jurati, a scientist with a tragic personal relationship with another familiar scientist (who I will not mention in the name of avoiding spoilers). Throw in some subtle, politically correct, lesbian overtones and you have the making of a Star Trek that might embarrass even the fanboys from Galaxy Quest operating out of their garage.

Not all is lost.

Soji (Isa Briones) does a good job as the damsel in distress with a past which propels the rest of the story arc.

The space special effects are pretty cool. Nothing spectacular, groundbreaking, or anything to write home about, but definitely up to the standard Star Trek TV show.

Jeff Russo creates a music score which uplifts familiar themes and makes them fresh. Hauntingly appropriate for the space through which the characters travel as well as the space of isolation through which each of the characters move.

BUT! And here I come to one of the more egregious points of evidence proving the show makers did not really do their homework on the characters. What the heck did they do to Data? I understand Brent Spiner is, realistically, decades older and a number of pounds heavier than when last he played Data in 1992’s Nemesis. But the makeup job they did on Spiner must now be a relief to those who did the understandably maligned CGI job on Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy. The Data in Picard makes the creepy bad youthening of Bridges in Tron: Legacy look like the amazingly good job they did on Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Data, in Picard, was suspension of belief killing bad. Contrast Data from the original show.

Picard‘s Data’s contact lenses were too big, covering the whites of his eyes, and the wrong color. The pupils were too small and reptilian looking. The color of his skin made Data look as though he had spent his afterlife in a tanning booth. And do not get me started on the semicircular hair line which made him look like Spiner had just come from an audition to replace Shemp Howard in a movie about The Three Stooges. How hard would it have been to touch up Spiner’s hair, contacts and skin color to make him look better than that he had spent 15 minutes in a chair with somebody’s leftover makeup bag? To quote Sam Rockwell’s character, Guy, in Galaxy Quest: “Don’t you people WATCH the show??!!”

ALSO, and I’m trying to be as spoiler-free as possible, there were some rationalizations for decisions in the last show’s denoument which should have been run through a couple more rewrites. I hate being this obscure but do not want to give away MAJOR spoilers, so if you want to know the details to what I am referring before or instead of watching the show, I’ll explain way down below.

ALSO also, the acting wasn’t all it could have been. Sometimes the cast sounded like they only had one table reading under their belt before they were thrown in front of the camera.

The cameos were great, with the previous regulars stepping right back into character as though they had just wrapped up their previous season or movie last week, (for which I do not want to include pictures because, again, I don’t want to give spoilers). And while Patrick Stewart gives it his all, I cannot honestly say the same for his fledgling crew. The new kids on the block were really hit and miss ranging from: not bad and establishing the groundwork for a new character, to first season Deanna Troi weeping, to awkwardly inappropriate and dulled affect.

I’m not suggesting that Picard is terrible or that you shouldn’t watch it. And there are lots of surprises which I don’t want to give away. But I am saying I was periodically disappointed. To be fair many of the Star Trek shows needed to get their first season under their belt before they hit their stride, mature their characters and improve their special effects – INCLUDING Star Trek: The Next Generation from which Picard originally sprung in 1987 .

But, to be blunt, as fond as I am of Patrick Stewart and as much as I respect his Shakespearean grounded acting ability, he is 89 years old. They don’t have time for a practice run if they’re going to get any traction with this show. I would hate to think this was Patrick Stewart’s last hurrah with Star Trek.

While almost any Star Trek is better than NO Star Trek, Star Trek: Picard could have been better.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

Near the tip end of this season’s last episode, Picard collapses and dies from a brain anomaly in his parietal lobe, caused by Irumodic Syndrome first referenced in All Good Things (the ST: TNG finale). OK – ballsy move. So – Star Trek being what it is, and no one really dies if they’re super popular – they put Picard’s mind into a “golem” or super advanced android that looks like him (Is anyone surprised?) Great – fine and in keeping with the story line. BUT they explain that his new android body was given an algorithm to age and he will not have any more years than he otherwise would have.

No extra years?! This incredible new body and it’s given to Picard pre-aged like a pair of pre-distressed blue jeans??

Wait! WHAT? REALLY? On PURPOSE!? WHY?

Because, it is explained to Picard, they “knew” he would not want anything to change with the already 94 year old (character not Stewart) body he was used to. EXCUSE ME!? I think I would have put my android fist through his stupid face. Did they not think that maybe HE MIGHT want a few more years?

OK Back up. I understand the writers can NOT do that because Stewart really is old – 89 as I have said. So the fact Picard’s character has to stay old is a given. But they needed a better reason than THAT. Whoever came up with THAT dumb excuse should have been relegated to checking for typos in the script.

This is an unfortunate limit that would only be believable if it was forced on them by circumstance. How about they had no choice? Maybe something about how an extension of years would have taken adjustments in the algorithms already in the golem which they didn’t have time to accomplish because he was dying? Or they couldn’t add years because the golem was built for someone else and there were problems getting him IN the golem. How about an elf came along and held a phaser to their head to prevent them from adding extra years? ANYTHING but this bizarre rationale – that Picard was USED to his existing deteriorating body so they KNEW he wouldn’t want to make any changes……This is just a new level of casual bad writing and beneath the quality we expect from Star Trek. Hopefully they will do better in the future.

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS

Three I would NOT recommend at this time:

Saw invites a guy to hack his foot off.

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

Buried is just too grim to talk about.

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

REAR WINDOW

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

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

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

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

APOLLO 13 (1995)

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

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

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

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

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

SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1960)

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Appropriate for the whole family.

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

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

PASSENGERS

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

SPOILERS

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

I have a full review HERE.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

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

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

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

AIRPLANE (1980)

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

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

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

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

BEING STUCK IN ONE PLACE CAN BE JUST PLAIN OLD FUNNY

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

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

I RETRACT MY RECOMMENDATION FOR PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF MY RECONSIDERED OPINION ON PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, WHICH WAS MENTIONED IN MY ARTICLE “IT’S NOT THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE”

See this is what I get for recommending a movie before I finish watching the whole thing.

Not to take away any of the good things I said about the movie in my post “It’s Not the Zombie Apocalypse”. It is witty, stylish and probably the most entertaining version of P&P I’ve ever seen. Instead of falling asleep wondering idly if Darcy and Elizabeth will EVER get over their socially refined, ever so civil misunderstandings during a ball room dance (*snore*), we watch with bated breath to see if the social gathering will be disrupted by a zombie horde. We anticipate watching them yank out swords and go to town on the undead. Makes for FAR more interesting Austin.

BUT – I can not dismiss one very egregious scene. There are, at least for a while, a community of “civilized” zombies who manage to forestall the full-on mode zombie status by eating pig brains instead of human ones. OK Fine and good.

Elizabeth then witnesses the distribution of said pig brains in a perverse and blasphemous desecration of a Eucharistic ceremony!!! WITHOUT criticism!!!

This was totally unnecessary and offensive in the extreme, as well as either an obvious, or grotesquely clueless, dig at Christian beliefs in general and/or Catholic theology in particular. There was no need either logically or for the plot to include such a Satanic-imaged scene.

Had Elizabeth had, at least recoiled in horror at the sacreligious event, I might have a different opinion, but she takes it in stride, justifying it as part of the zombies’ attempt at staying human-ish.

As far as I can tell, from reading the book synopsis, this scene was not lifted from the source material. Had it been that would not have made the scene less offensive. But the fact it was NOT in the book (let me know if I’m wrong, just for accuracy’s sake) but gratuitously added to the movie makes it even worse.

In the movie Indian Jones and the Last Crusade one of my favorite scenes includes a blasphemy spoken by Indiana (Harrison Ford) followed by a slap in the face from his father (Sean Connery) with an explanation: “THAT’S for blasphemy.” Were the sacriligious scene in P&P&Z evaluated with a similar response by the purportedly other Christian humans, I could have understood its inclusion to underline the evil of the organizing bad guy behind the “civilized” zombies.

But there was no such criticism of this blatant affront to Christian imagery, theology, beliefs or practice. It’s a real shame too, because other than this scene, it’s a unique, classy, and engaging outing.

So, unfortunately, for this reason I RETRACT MY RECOMMENDATION FOR PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES – I RECOMMEND THIS MOVIE BE BOYCOTTED UNTIL AND UNLESS THIS BLASPHEMOUS SCENE IS REMOVED.

IT’S NOT THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. FIRST LESSON – THIS IS NOT THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE!!!

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION FOR MY ARTICLE “IT’S NOT THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE”

OBVIOUSLY – NONE of these movies are child fare. Gore, violence and profanity are frequently prevalent in these types of movies.

While people the world over freak out, hunker down, start fist fights over toilet paper, refuse to hug, make face masks out of bra cups (I kid you not. I saw it on a Youtube video), crash the stockmarket in panic selling, postpone the release of movies I want to see (Marvel Studios I am TALKING to you!!), and generally act as though this is the end of the world – let me tell you – it’s NOT the end of the world. Biblically speaking if someone says it IS then there is pretty much a guarantee that it is not. The Son of Man has not, to my knowledge, been witnessed coming down from Heaven. And while toilet paper and sliced bread remain as elusive as glimpses of the Yellow Bellied Sap Sucker, you can still buy Heineken Beer and Blue Belle Dutch chocolate ice cream.

As someone who stayed put at Ground Zero in Lake Charles, LA during the CAT 4/5 Hurricane Rita as she landed and through the 10 days aftermath without electricity – read no air conditioning – while we still had 6 kids, a dog and 2 cats under the same roof in 100 plus degree weather, I can safely tell you – this is NOT all that bad.

This is also NOT the zombie apocalypse. I have been SAYING that to calm people down for weeks now, so I think it is about time I make the official comparison. And – as the rest of the world is now HOMESCHOOLING! YAY! Let me take the opportunity to point out a few healthy –

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES

This is the filmed adaptation of the cult popular mashup novel by Seth Grahame-Smith combining Jane Austin with zombies and ninjas. It is an idea so bizarre that, like the first “found footage” The Blair Witch Project or the horror rock opera Phantom of the Paradise, you have to see just to honor the gutsy risk the film makers took. This weirdly satifying outing features a cast American audiences are more likely to recognize than be able to name: Lily James (Cinderella, Yesterday), Sam Riley (both Maleficients), Jack Huston (Angelica’s nephew, John’s grandson and Walter’s great-grandson, appeared in The Irishman, Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Matt Smith (The Eleventh Dr. Who, The Crown), Charles Dance (veteran actor in everything from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Game of Thrones and Godzilla: King of the Monsters).

I like this movie for its tongue-in-cheek attitude as it takes itself SO seriously you know the actors are giving you a “wink” without even having to break the fourth wall. It adapts the original P&P tale, keeping all the original witty story of misunderstandings, cross purposed good intentions and haughty indignation while steeping it in a world of zombie threats, reimagining the Bennett girls as skilled Ninjas of the martial arts. I KNOW this sounds weird – because it is – but it is also impossibly appealing.

LESSON: Don’t take your situation, no matter how dire you THINK it is, so seriously you can’t continue engaging in and with the things and people you truly love.

WORLD WAR Z

Brad Pitt stars in this Bourne meets War of the Worlds meets zombies. Pitt is Gerry Lane, an operative experienced in investigating dangerous war zones. He is caught, with his wife and daughters, in the middle of a crowded Philadelphia when, with no warning, a zombie virus cataclysmically breaks out. It is only his calm analytical mind and experienced quick thinking under extreme stress which give him and his family a chance for survival.

This film appealed to me, not only by showcasing Pitt as a protective father stepping up in the biggest way possible, but because he uses more mind than muscle, more savvy than strength against the implaccable hordes of semi-dead ravenous zombies. AND it ALSO has a small part with Peter Capaldi who BECAME Dr. Who only a few months after World War Z was released, credited as “the WHO Doctor”. (WHO – World Health Organization. Coincidence or extreme cheekiness on the part of the film makers I know not.)

LESSON: THINK before reacting to even the most horrific circumstances.

ZOMBIELAND and ZOMBIELAND TWO: DOUBLE TAP

(SEE REVIEW FOR DOUBLE TAP HERE)

I have never laughed so hard at gore. Please keep in mind I don’t normally like gory slasher movies, or even most zombie movies. But the Zombieland movies are SO over the top it becomes slapstick. The story is of a group of survivors loosely led by a delightfully cavalier Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson – from the adorably clueless Woody Boyd in the TV show Cheers, to the tragic alcoholic father in The Glass Castle (SEE REVIEW HERE) and everything in between), who disposes of zombies with such panache you can not help but be impressed by his infectious (excuse the pun) enthusiasm. Without spoiling too much, you HAVE to see the brief homage to Deliverance in the first Zombieland movie as Tallahassee takes out a zombie with a banjo. The rest of the troupe includes: Jesse Eisenberg (Social Network) who is Tallahassee’s side kick, Columbus. Emma Stone (La La Land) is Columbus’ love interest, Wichita. Abigail Breslin (the little water girl from Signs all grown up) is Wichita’s little sister, Little Rock.

LESSON: Use your natural skills to cope with any crisis, and while you’re at it – be enthusiastic and try to enjoy yourself.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD

One of the first of its kind, this gem is a parody of zombie movies as only the British can do it – with style and a dark humor pragmatism. SPOILER: For example, in order for Shaun’s group to pass safely through a mass of zombies one of the troupe teaches the rest how to imitate a zombie, by following the movements of a skewered/trapped zombie as though it were a Jazzercise class in a Richard Simmons video.

This clever cult film stars Simon Pegg as the titular schlub Shaun, the world’s most unlikely hero. Pegg’s best bud, Nick Frost, portrays Shaun’s best bud, Ed. Kate Ashfield is Shaun’s ex-girlfriend, who Shaun is desperate to save. Bill Nighy (About Time and Dr. Who alum from one of my favorites “Vincent and the Doctor”) is Philip, Shaun’s stepfather with whom Shaun is estranged. Penelope Wilton plays Shaun’s Mom. (Wilton is another Dr. Who alum, portraying Harriet Jones in a number of Dr. Who episodes. Harriet is a recurring character in Dr. Who, whose appearance is, at some point, reliably accompanied by a running gag – Harriet always introduces herself by presenting identification and declaring: “I’m Harriet Jones,” to which everyone else in the show, from Dr. Who himself to Daleks, replies: “Yes, we know who you are”). Jessica Hynes aka Stevenson (yet ANOTHER Dr. Who alum from”Human Nature”) is Yvonne, the leader of a group which Shaun’s group briefly encounters, and which bears an uncanny resemblance to Shaun’s ensemble group. Watch for Martin Freeman (our favorite Bilbo/Dr. Watson) in a cameo  as a member of the doppleganger group! (Note that Zombieland: Double Tap does a homage to the group meets echo group scene in Shaun when Tallahasse and Columbus meet THEIR dopplegangers.)

LESSON: Sometimes the best coping method is humor.

So – off you go. Immerse yourself in a binge of these Zombie movies. Then: continue doing the things you LOVE, THINK before you respond, find a way to enjoy what you have to do with ENTHUSIASM, and LAUGH!!!

And remember …… even though we still can’t buy toilet paper, at least IT’S NOT THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE!

WHAT TO WATCH WHILE WEATHERING THE WUHAN —–

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION FOR MY ARTICLE: “WHAT TO WATCH WHILE WEATHERING THE WUHAN”

BEFORE WE START – GO WASH YOUR HANDS!!!

Then – I offer you two thoughts.

#1 Whenever faced with an anxiety provoking situation I ask myself: What’s the worse thing that could happen? The answer usually does not warrant my initial visceral knee jerk to whatever the problem at hand is, and it makes me realize I’m overreacting. In short – I tend to be a worry wart and freak out if I let my emotions get the better of me.

#2 Disaster movies are great fun for a number of reasons. (READ Cataclysm as Marital Therapy). But the most relevant reason for this article is: perspective. Having to grit your teeth through another boring meeting at work seems like a paid holiday if you remember you don’t have genocidal aliens hovering in mile wide spaceships over your building waiting for the right moment to incinerate you (“Time’s up” Independence Day). Dealing with a flat tire isn’t so bad when you note you can do it while making all the noise you want without fear of attracting killer monsters (A Quiet Place). Watching a disaster movie can help one embrace the philosophy: “I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”

So given these two thoughts and while we’re all being denied: church services, sporting events, movie theaters, parties, festivals, and hugs, I give you:

FOUR MOVIES TO WATCH WHILE WILING AWAY THE WEEKS WAITING TO WEATHER THE WUHAN

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

One of my all time favorites. Understated and steeped in extrapolated current science fact, the story, based on the book by Michael Crichton, revolves around, not action heroes, but scientists at the top of their fields who tackle an unknown disease which turns blood to powder in moments. Arthur Hill is Dr. Jeremy Stone, expert bacteriologist and government attache who knows of certain hidden agendas. David Wayne is Charles Dutton, pragmatic and old school pathologist who always reminded me of Dr. McCoy. Kate Reid is Ruth Leavitt, curmudgeonly microbiologist with a secret that could endanger the team’s progress. James Olson is James Hall, slightly geeky surgeon, who you could easily believe spent a lot of his teen years playing Dungeons and Dragons. These people were no one’s idea of Avengers but worked as a team against time and an extraterrestrial virus which could cause global cataclysm.

Compared to The Andromeda Strain, the Wuhan is a wimp.

CONTAGION (2011)

Talk about jumping off today’s headlines! Contagion is a movie by Steven Soderburgh whose structure is much like Paul Haggis’ Crash! with multiple storylines woven, like a crocheted serviette, around a central issue which come together to form a whole picture. This movie is chock a block with familiar faces: Matt Damon (Bourne “fill in blank with a variety of nouns”, Good Will Hunting), Kate Winslet (Titanic, Hamlet), Gwenyth Paltrow (in so many Marvel movies with Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man they finally broke down and gave her her own suit, Sliding Doors), Elliot Gould (M*A*S*H, Oceans’ 11, 12, 13, and 8), Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts, Captain Marvel), Laurence Fishburne (Othello, Matrix), Marion Cottillard (Nine, MacBeth), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Argo), Chin Han (Dark Knight, 2012).

Paltrow is patient zero of a pandemic which has jumped animal DNA from bat to human to become a brain eating, lung congester which kills pretty much every victim we see within 2 days of showing the first flu-like symptoms.

Compared to the bug in Contagion, the Wuhan is a wussy.

OUTBREAK (1995 )

In one of the more formulaic thrillers, we have: the legendary Dustin Hoffman of MANY classic movies (Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Finding Neverland, Tootsie, Rain Man, The Graduate, Marathon Man, Lenny, Papillon, Hero … *whew*), Rene Russo (Lethal Weapon), the disgraced Kevin Spacey, Cuba “Show me the money!” Gooding, Jr. (Jerry Maguire), Donald Sutherland (with a list of 194 credits he’s been in everything from the slapstick Start the Revolution Without Me to Pride and Prejudice), and the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman (Batman, Shawshank Redemption, Bruce Almighty) all struggle to contain an Ebola-like virus which originated in an African jungle, but, through a series of mishaps, infects the town of Cedar Creek, CA. Our intrepid heroes are hampered in their effort to find a cure by forces which want to retrieve the virus so they can turn it into a bioweapon and incinerate the infected town, ostensibly to prevent its spread, but in truth to hide their nefarious plans.

Compared to the buggie in Outbreak, the Wuhan is a weakling, with the added fillip that no one is planning to nuke any towns to get rid of it.

THE STAND (1994)

Done as a miniseries, the book was far better BUT, like Contagion, there is a legion of distinguished standards of both large and small screens as well as theater who ensemble their way through this 6 hour and one minute marathon. Look them up on us.imdb.com and enjoy some of these classic actors’ iconic roles: Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13), Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink), Jamey Sheridan (Sully), Lara San Giacomo (Pretty Woman), the multi-talented stage and film legend Ruby Dee (The Jackie Robinson Story, Raisin in the Sun), another legend Ossie Davis (one of the kings of 1950’s and 1960’s American TV shows from Car 54 Where are You? to Night Gallery, plus films ranging from Do the Right Thing to Grumpy Old Men), Matt (Max Headroom) Frewer, Rob Lowe (The Orville, Saint Elmo’s Fire), Ray (My Favorite Martian) Walston, Ed Harris (The Rock, A Beautiful Mind), Kathy Bates (The Blind Side, Richard Jewell).

The Stand also has a unique twist – after the plague has swept through the world and humanity’s remnants are just starting to put their lives and a fledgling new civilization back together, God and the Devil begin a competition for their souls.

The source book, especially, presents a surprisingly complex and extensive examination of extreme medical phenomena, societal structures, theology, and the internal and external struggles every man faces in choosing between good and evil.

The miniseries begins with an Apocalypse level virus, nicknamed Captain Trips, which wipes out 999 out of every thousand people around the world. In the aftermath, the survivors become the unwilling soldiers in a battle between Hell, represented by Randall Flagg, who sets up shop, appropriately in Las Vegas, NV, and God, represented by Mother Abigail Freemantle, who leads her flock to Boulder, Colorado.

Although the acting is not of uniform quality, many of these veteran character performers, like Sinise, Dee and Davis, shine above the awkwardly truncated story and pedestrian technicals. The soundtrack, by the gifted and prolific Snuffy Walden, has a charming midwestern Americana feel.  

The movie even occasionally uses homages to classic literature such as Of Mice and Men.

Compared to Captain Trips, not only is the Wuhan a walk in the park, it’s a stroll you can take without the incarnation of the Devil himself chasing you in cowboy boots.

So — while you’re quarantined with no: sports, festivals, parties, restaurants, wedding receptions, theater events, movie popcorn, concerts, church fairs, handshakes, confirmations, church services, communal bowls of M&Ms, bridge nights, dances, sci fi conventions, bake sales, open air markets, live opera, or hugs – turn out the lights, choose one of these cathartic gems, confront your worst fears and … count your blessings.

AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT — GO WASH YOUR HANDS!

BEST OF ENEMIES – UPLIFTING HISTORIC DRAMA

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF BEST OF ENEMIES REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

They say the best way to conquer an enemy is to make them a friend. This engaging slice of historical life in 1970’s South, when equal respect for all races and socio-economic strata were taking baby steps, explores that theory. The story is based on a real event wherein a 10 day mediation was orchestrated to resolve a dispute on integration in Durham, NC after the black school in town burns down.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Mid teens and up. There is no overt sexuality but there is a smattering of profanity with a few blasphemes. In addition there is some violence and a couple of very tense, even frightening scenes, but no bloodshed. However, the topics of historic racism, as well as the profound strides we made to defeat it, should be discussed in advance with your children should you decide to screen it for them.

LONG TAKE:

Sam Rockwell is a fine actor, even a bit of a chameleon, and never better than when he is portraying a character who rises above the cards he has been dealt. In Galaxy Quest, Rockwell was a sci fi convention huckster, who tags along what he thinks is an employment opportunity, winds up in space,  overcomes his stark terror, bravely stands with the crew of the Protector, and ends up stealing scenes as the “plucky comic relief” .

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri features him as an abusive, racist, boob of a deputy, forced to confront a desperately evil crime and in way over his head, who becomes a repentant, self-sacrificing, erztaz hero.

Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis, in The Best of Enemies, is another shining example of unlikely paladin. Based upon the book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson, the screenplay is written by Robin Bissell who also directed this, his first feature film. Best of Enemies is the real life story of a charrette (a mediation between two irreconcilable social factions) held in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971 over the issue of school integration.

Ellis is the President of the KKK. Ann Atwater (Taraji Henson – Hidden Figures, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is a Civil Rights activist who worked for Operation Breakthrough. They come to loggerheads when the black school burns down and the children are left with no school. Both of these actors fearlessly launched into portraying people who, on their surface, are very unpleasant and abrasive.

I greatly admire actors who do not mind looking unattractive for the authenticity or betterment of a role. Henson is a beautiful woman and brings great force and dignity to her portrayal of Ms. Atwater, a poor, divorced single parent, known as “Roughhouse Annie” for a reason.

Rockwell can convincingly portray anything from an urbane playboy to a burnt out choreographer, but here he is Ellis, a poor good ole boy from the wrong side of the tracks barely hanging onto his gas station by the skin of his teeth.

Anne Heche (Wag the Dog, Six Days Seven Nights) plays Ellis’ no nonsense and supportive wife, Mary. John Gallagher, Jr. plays Lee Trombley, a Vietnam vet and friend of C.P.’s who finds not all the battles were left behind him in Southeast Asia

Babou Ceesay (Rogue One) is Bill Riddick, who is hired to keep this civil rights conflict…civil. Paraphrasing what Dorothy said of the Scarecrow, I think I liked him the best. This man had the toughest job of all – repressing his own point of view and keeping an upbeat, optimistic atmosphere while bringing two volatile individuals together, AND keeping them from killing each other or igniting a city wide riot. The emotional cost he must have paid and discipline Riddick mustered was inspiring, as he digs deeply to find the nuggets of reason and commonality in these two diametrically opposed representatives of the Durham community.

Riddick, both in real life and in this “reel” life, required that each side hear each others’ opinions calmly and created for these two diametrically opposed sides exercises in compromise. An example: he negotiated an agreement during the charrette in which the white members agreed to end each meeting with Gospel music, which was seen by the white community as distinctly representative of the black community, and in return the black members accepted a display of Ku Klux Klan recruiting paraphernalia in the hallway of the meeting building. No issue was off limits and all arguments were accepted as long as they were presented…civilly. Eyes were opened on both sides and through the experience, many were led, on both sides of the aisle, to recognize their own, often unfair, socio-economic and racial biases.

Music by Marcelo Zarvos is haunting and historically eccumenical. By that I mean it did not evoke any particular place or time, and did not lean on what could easily have been the crutch of a Southern or Gospel base. I thought it a wise choice. As a result of this cosmopolitan style, the music provides an emotional link to any audience of any time, avoiding the distancing which can sometimes happen when music becomes too era specific.

This is a beautifully written odd couple story of two people who think they have absolutely NOTHING in common, but who find their commonality in order to bring sense to a difficulty situation with Christian charity. It is a warmly told moment in history of two brave people who put their differences aside long enough to discover they have become the “Best of Enemies”.

A NEW LEAF – DECIDING BETWEEN MATRIMONY AND MURDER

AUDIO OPTION OF A NEW LEAF REVIEW:

*SHORT TAKE:

Classic dark comedy of a destitute playboy who plans to marry  wealthy and then…murder.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

While there is little profanity and no sex, the topics of living desolutely and planning homicide are somewhat unseemly for children, though, with parental discretion, perhaps younger teens.

LONG TAKE:

I would venture to say that none of you have ever heard of the movie A New Leaf. Penned, directed and starring Elaine May, co-starring the iconic Walter Matthau, this is a small budget film made in 1971 based upon the short story, The Green Heart, by Jack Ritchie. The protagonist, Henry Graham, (Matthau) is a self-absorbed, self-indulgent aristocratic heir who runs through his family fortune until, in his late thirties, finds himself without friends or fortune. There is only one person in the world who cares anything about him, Harold (the delightful singer and Shakespearean theatrical actor, George Rose), Henry’s valet, who sums up the basis for his loyalty to Henry in this one speech: “How many men these days require the services of a gentleman’s gentleman? How many men have your devotion to form, sir? You have managed, in your own lifetime Mr. Graham, to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.”

Of course, Harold tempers this with the warning that if Mr. Graham continues to be poor, he immediately tenders his two week notice.

Henry quickly realizes that, for him, there are only two options: suicide…………….or marrying rich. With Harold’s aide Henry embarks on a quest to find a rich widow or single heiress who would be tolerable to his refined tastes and isolated ways. He soon discovers that while there are MANY candidates, he can’t stand any of them…until he finds the least suitable one of all. An extremely wealthy but ugliest of ugly ducklings, Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May – also the author and director of this brilliant story) is shy, socially awkward, clumsy, naive, and gullible. She is everything Henry would NOT want in a mate… aside from the money. However, it suddenly occurs to him, she would be quite easy to —— murder.

So begins the courtship and honey-murder, I mean —moon of one of the most charming little comedies I have ever seen. It is ultimately a film about the power of love, redemption and poetic justice, but told in the singularly most UN-conventional and UN-sentimental way I have ever seen demonstrated.

I REALLY am not going to spoil this one for you. You can now find it on Amazon HERE.

I recommend this movie as one of my all time favorites. As I mentioned before,  A New Leaf COULD be appropriate, with parental supervision, for young teens, and worth the trouble given the moral and theme of the story. Henry is quite chaste. There is very little profanity and no sex. Henry’s SOLE vice is avarice. The only questionable moment is when one socialite attempts to seduce him and Henry, in a breathtaking moment of humor, literally runs screaming from her.

Walter Matthau is at his finest in a brilliant example of miscasting gone right. Aside from Hello Dolly, I can’t think of a less appropriate vehicle for Matthau. But – as in Hello Dolly – he is such an amazing actor that he pulls off the deliciously arrogant and thoroughly self-centered Henry while making him – somehow – adorable.

Elaine May is perfectly terrific as the totally INcapable Henrietta Lowell. Vulnerable, dependent, socially oblivious and educated to the point of being a blithering idiot in everything except her one field of interest – botony – May creates a child-like character who is both endearing and extremely annoying at the same time. You come to understand why Henry would consider killing her yet dread her disappearance.

May is probably not very familiar. She made her biggest mark with Mike Nichols as half of an improvisational comedy duo and did a good deal of stage work. She was in only about a dozen films, including a teensy part in The Graduate, wrote only 10 screenplays and despite her obvious talent directed only four movies, probably because of her tendency to go way over budget. As an aside, one of her directorial efforts was Ishtar, the biggest and most expensive flop in history at that time.

But she did manage to produce this beautiful blossom of a movie. And that, alone, should be enough to decide on… A New Leaf.

  • NOTE: This is a re-release of a post from 2015. Since then I have added photos and the movie has become available on streaming services.

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL – CLEVER AND LOADS OF FUN

SHORT TAKE:

Clever latest installment in the Jumanji franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up because of unnecessary profanity, including blasphemy, as well as some extreme cartoon gory violence.

LONG TAKE:

Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin the way my high school teacher did with any recalcitrant students: “Experience is a hard teacher but some will have no other.” This seems to be a thematic motto of the Jumanji franchise (and in that group I would include Zarathustra). Like a harsh fairy godmother teaching in The Wizard of Oz school of learning things, the Jumanji game seeks out unsatisfied people to grant their wishes … but makes them earn it.

The General Studies program at the Jumanji School of Insanely Hard Knocks focuses on maturity, altruism, loyalty and the priorities of friendship and family which can overcome any obstacles no matter how off-the-wall: from eagle size mosquitoes to malicious bands of monkeys, carnivorous hippopotami and lethal semi-sentient poisonous vines, bonding comes from teamwork, accepting others weaknesses, and making the best use of your own strengths to help those you love.

Excellent lessons to learn and, as Mary Poppins might have said, it helps that the sugar to make the medicine go down is wildly funny scenarios, and great actors who are very good sports and don’t mind taking pokes at their own famous reputations.

The original Jumanji and its two sequels excel beautifully in all of the above points. Zarathustra, (the step-child of the group, as it uses a similar scenario and themes but is not strictly part of the Jumanji franchise) follows in those footsteps as well.

For those not up-to-date, Jumanji is a wild game of crazy challenges: stampedes, instant localized monsoons  which fall only where you are, monster crocodiles, a homicidal big game hunter of people, malevolent monkeys — and places you IN the game. Not virtually, but in the real world. In the original Jumanji the creatures came into our reality. In the subsequent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the players are pulled into the game and manifest as Avatars. Spencer, a slight bookish boy with no appreciable upper body strength becomes Dwayne Johnson. Bethany, a narcissistic “Valley” girl becomes Jack Black. Martha, a girl with no inherent athletic abilities becomes Karen Gillian with preternaturally gymnastic fighting skills. And Fridge, an egotistical football player becomes the much shorter wand weaker Kevin Hart.

This latest Jumanji, Jumanji: The Next Level mixes it up, starting only a few years after the first reboot. All the original team: Fridge, Bethany and Martha have gone to college, done well and look forward to a reunion. Spencer is in a funk, and finds himself longing for the days when he was the size of Dwayne Johnson with extraordinary powers of strength and speed. The temptation gets too much and without consulting his worried friends goes back into the game.

I don’t want to tell you much more and spoil things so I will shy away from specifics. But I will say Next Level has all the humor and inventive scenarios of the original, keeps to the same themes, brings back all the familiar faces but does not just rehash the old. There are lively and justifiable (for that universe) variations which make Next Level as new and intriguing as the very first 1995 incarnation.

The acting is A level and a lot of fun. Not an enormous amount of subtlety but each of the actors do a wonderful job performing multiple characters outside of what you might think is their comfort zone. Returning are: Dwayne Johnson (burly muscle in WWE, and the likes of Scorpion King, GI Joe and Fast and Furious) who truly shines in comedies like Get Smart, The Other Guys, The Tooth Fairy and here in Next Level, where he shamelessly and hilariously makes fun of himself as Dr. Bravehouse/Eddie and Spencer. I was genuinely impressed at the enthusiasm with which he launched into characters way outside of his usual fare. Karen Gillian returns as Martha/Ruby Roundhouse as well as Fridge (you’ll see). She was most notably known before this as Matt Smith’s Dr. Who‘s companion Amy Pond and here does a marvelous job with not only multiple personalities but an authentic American accent. Kevin Hart (The Upside SEE REVIEW HERE) is delicious as Fridge and Milo. Jack Black is delightful as Bethany and Fridge. In addition there are some wonderful small role/cameos by short, growly voiced iconic comedian Danny DeVito (TV classic series Taxi, Throw Mama From the Train, Romancing the Stone, Twins) as Eddie, Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon franchise) as Milo, original Jumanji veteran Bebe Neuwirth as Eddie’s friend Nora, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reprise Nick Jonas (memorable in Midway SEE MY REVIEW HERE) as Alex, and Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians SEE REVIEW HERE) as Spencer and Eddie (again – go to the movie to see what this means).

Portraying the young versions of the “real” people are Morgan Turner as Martha, Madison Iseman as Bethany,  Ser’Darius Blan as Fridge, and Alex Wolff as Spencer. Colin Hanks (Tom’s oldest son) plays grown up Alex.

The soundtrack by Henry Jackman channels Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars in very clever and appropriate moments, as if unable to resist the retro and multi personality motifs that the actors get to play.

Jake Kasden, writer/director (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) who is of significant lineage (son of the famous writer/director Lawrence Kasden who brought us both Indian Jones, many of the Star Wars reboots, and The Big Chill), with cinematographer Gyula Pados, and the other writers Jeff Pinkner and  Scott Rosenberg, do a terrific job creating multiple extreme scenarios. I was especially impressed with the realism in a ridiculously harrowing one with …let’s just say geometry was important.

I would love to recommend this for all ages. And while there is no sexuality the writers unwisely decided to “enhance” a couple of the characters’ personalities with a smattering of profane and even blasphemous language: (*cough cough* Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart, Jack Black). Therefore I would recommended only to mid-teens and up and then only those who will have the sense not to parrot-repeat things they should not. That is a shame because it is the only limiting proviso to this otherwise charming film.

JUMANJI!!!!

PLAYING WITH FIRE – CLEAN FAMILY FARE BUT DOESN’T EVEN HOLD A CANDLE TO OTHER SIMILAR MOVIES

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family (SEE REVIEW HERE) meets The Three Stooges.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone can go.

LONG TAKE:

There are a number of entertaining films about unlikely parental figures left to care for children. They range from comedies like Little Miss Marker and The Pacifier to serious ones like Gloria and Leon the Professional. Playing With Fire should have been in this list. While it has the same premise as the other movies it lacks a basic essential ingredient – enough plot to carry a feature length film.

Smoke jumpers rescue three children Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), Will (Christian Convery), and Zooey (Finey Rose Slater) left alone in a burning cabin then find they are stuck with them at the station due to a storm and the fact their parents are away on vacation. This was a cute promising premise. Unfortunately they apparently started shooting with no more script than above described. Instead of fleshing out some story they decided to fill most of the time with fart and poop jokes, extended kitsch and twee bits from Key and Leguizamo who adlib long drawn out scenes of: responding to the smell of baby poo, gloat dancing, failed attempts at responding to smart aleck responses from Brynn, and spying/eavesdropping on their boss.

The acting is minimal. The music by Nathan Wang sounds like the canned standards from old cartoons and cheap TV shows. The cinematography features shockingly bad cheap throw backs to 1970’s sitcoms, especially egregious given these were choices made by Dean Semler who was responsible for the spectacular visuals in such varied fare as Dances with Wolves, 2012 and We Were Soldiers. There are an abundance of close-ups during action sequences where the performer “responds” while they are supposedly: slipping through oil, falling, flying on an out of control fire hose, being spun, etc. – an obvious excuse to minimize filming risks or stunt men expenditure.

The amount of poop and fart jokes as well as slip and slide scenes were excessive and lazy attempts to fill the running time.

The finale winds things up in a happy ending with Judy Greer (Ant-Man, Jurassic World and Planet of the Apes) as Amy, a forced love interest, which might have been believable with WAY more back story to the main characters. It looked like the director basically filmed the first draft extended treatment you present to a brainstorming group instead of a well thought out screenplay.

John Cena (WWE and Ferdinand SEE REVIEW HERE) is smoke jumper chief Jake who leads the motley crew. John Leguizamo (who is usually a very good actor in everything from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to action films like Executive Decision and voice acting in kid movies like Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age franchise) is Rodrigo, the antic bad cook and reluctant pilot. Keegan-Michael Key (of the very funny Key and Peele Youtube shorts) is Mark, Jake’s kitschy-twee right hand yes-man. Tyler Mane (pre- Liv Schreiber Sabretooth from X-Men franchise) is Axe the (almost) completely silent crew member.

I don’t blame the actors though. It looked as though the screen writers (Dan Ewen with pretty much NO other screen credits and Matt Lieberman whose few credits include the weakly scripted Addams Family SEE REVIEW HERE) and director (Andy Fickman who directed a very similar plotted B movie The Game Plan in 2007) told them: “We have a threadbare script and don’t feel like putting in the effort to write a better one so – ADLIB!”

It’s a shame too as there were a few moments which show what could have been done. In one, for example, Key tones it down to a human level and explains to Brynn why he became a smoke jumper – that he had been an accountant, saved from certain death by Jake and decided to join. There’s some good lines in there too, such as when he mentions that his family is full of accountants who are heroes to him. It was Key’s best moment in the movie. In another notable spot Cena tells the kids a biography-revealing bed time story, which was nice, but would have been more effective had they not done the big reveal on his father’s death earlier.

There are also some REALLY poorly thought out and more than questionable events such as deciding two adult men are appropriate to change a girl toddler’s diaper when her teenaged sister is available. Also, how is it OK to leave a little girl alone with a full grown male stranger, even if he is a smoke jumper, to play tea party? To say the scenes were awkward would be an understatement. (And WHERE, in the middle of the night when trapped by a storm at a fire station did they get baby wipes much less replacement diapers??!!)

For all its flaws I will give it this: There was no sex or bad language and the movie does a good job of emphasizing the importance of a Dad in a child’s life whether the child is a boy, girl, teen or toddler. The little girl missed her Dad and glommed onto the first male role model available. The kids all mentioned how their Dad used to tell them bed time stories. Brynn, the teenager, puts herself and siblings into life threatening situations because she won’t listen to Jake, who in turn risks his life to save them more than once. The best moments in the movie are when Jake tones it down and acts like a person instead of a cliche joke magnet.

So – Playing with Fire is harmless, brainless fun but, honestly, if you are in the mood for this kind of movie, The Pacifier with Vin Diesel does it SO much better.