SMALLFOOT – CLEVER AND SWEET WITH A SURPRISINGLY THOUGHTFUL UNDERLYING MESSAGE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF SMALLFOOT REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Clean, genuinely funny, very kid-friendly movie about the sequence of events which results when a village of yetis is revealed to a “smallfoot”/human.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anybody can go but be advised, at 96 minutes, it is about 20 minutes too long for the average pre-kindergartner.

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LONG TAKE:

Fides et Ratio was an encyclical by Saint Pope John Paul II in 1998. Translated, the title means “Faith and Reason”. In it, then Pope, now Saint John Paul II explains that faith without reason leads to superstition and reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism. Smallfoot, surprisingly, tackles the former of these heady, complex philosophical musings.

While I do not normally like to lead with a lot of spoilers, when analysing for a movie whose demographic is young children, as a parent, I would want full disclosure before bringing MY smallfoot, so I offer the same to you readers.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

This children’s tale begins with a colony of yetis who live high up on a mountain, cut off visually from the rest of the world by a constant ring of clouds. Our protagonist is a good natured, happy-go-lucky yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) whose personality almost exactly parallels that of Chris Pratt’s eternally optimistic Emmett from The Lego Movie. You almost expect him to burst out with “Everything is Awesome” as he strolls through the yeti village. This is not meant as a criticism. It’s actually quite cute as he observes the seemingly pointless Rube Goldberg occupations to which everyone is assigned, but which are explained later.

The songs are, BTW, quite catchy and one in particular, sung by the female protagonist and Migo’s love interest, Meechee (Zendaya from The Greatest Showman), “Wonderful Life”, features some thoughtful lyrics:

Take a look around
And see the world we think we know
Then look closer
There’s more to life than meets the eye
A beauty to behold
It’s all much bigger than we know.

She sings this as she shows things to Migo he never noticed, like a small butterfly crystalized in a frozen stalactite, and the details in a snowflake. Beautiful imagery for a lovely idea: that the more we see, the more we realize the grandeur in Creation.

Their belief system, literally written in stone, is a seemingly random collection of unquestioned statements, including the command that if you feel the urge to question one of the stones you should “push it down” and not think about it. The stones describe strange and mythical beasts which must be fed or cooled or tended to in odd ways. One stone commands an absolute dismissal of the possibility that there could be anything below the cloudline. The stones are worn like scale armour by the tribal leader, Stonekeeper, (Lonnie Rashid Lynn aka the rapper Common). Migo, the son of Gorgle, the Gong Ringer (Danny DeVito) is one of the biggest stone-trusting advocates in the village, until one day Migo, by chance, observes a plane crash and the ejection of a smallfoot from this flying metal object. Problem is: the existence of smallfoot is absolutely denied by one of the earliest stones. No one will believe Migo as the evidence is quickly blown off the mountain.

Meanwhile, Percy, James Corden (voice of Peter Rabbit and guest companion in a couple of Matt Smith Dr. Who’s) is the host of an animal show which is on the decline. The ejected pilot happens upon Percy with his story of sighting a yeti, and before Percy, desperate for ratings, can take advantage of this knowledge, Migo appears, looking for the pilot and proof of his smallfoot story. Their first contact is cute and clever and takes full advantage of their inability to immediately communicate.

Tatum and Corden do a wonderful job of voicing the life into their respective characters and the writers do an excellent job with the miscommunications which arise from their inability to understand each other.

The movie is occasionally laugh out loud funny. It is completely clean – no bad language and, a rarity, totally innuendo free.

As the plot progresses it is revealed that the Stonekeeper is wearing a set of lies, deliberately created to protect the village because of previous lethal encounters with humans, generations ago. The stones’ commands all begin to form a pattern: If smallfoot does not exist then there’s no reason to go look for them. The ring of clouds is manufactured for camouflage by the steam generating machine deep within the mountain which the ice ball production and turning gears on the surface facilitates. The other stones which describe a sky snail and mammoths under the clouds which are cooled by the ice balls all were made up and commanded to be accepted without question to protect the villagers from leaving and revealing their village.

There are plot points in Smallfoot which harken back to other movies, certainly: the hidden city of Wakanda in Black Panther, and a concept accepted without question which keeps two potentially friendly but very dissimilar groups apart, but which is a complete lie, as in Monsters, Inc. for example, that children are dangerously toxic. (I won’t even discuss The Village because Smallfoot is a much better movie). But Smallfoot is not a derivative of any of them.

If I make the movie sound like it is heavily philosophical, it is not. The movie plays out like any normal child friendly film with lots of slap stick, goofy looking characters, Bugs Bunny-level pratfalls, bright colors, and non-lethal force. (Exs: an angry mama bear appears to be attacking, but when translated is just loudly chiding Migo for disturbing her family from their hibernation when it took her WEEKS to get her cubs to sleep. A crashing helicopter’s propellors are caught in trees spinning the body of the copter and the pilot emerges unscathed but incredibly dizzy.)

But it is the thoughtful story and clever characters that put Smallfoot above the general mishmash of kid movies which usually populate the screen. Inevitably the yetis’ faith without reason in the commands on the stones, about which Saint Pope John Paul II cautioned, breeds a mindless superstition requiring blind belief, and when challenged by truth, falls apart. It is only when reason and faith come together – when truth is combined with some earned trust between Migo and Percy, that a peaceful diplomatic solution is possible.

I liked Smallfoot. It has all the charm of a harmless silly kid movie, adds sly but innocent humor for the adults, and has an intelligent underlying theme. The characters are well fleshed out for the cast of an elementary school level movie. Plus the songs are catchy and cute without being heavy handed and are sparingly used. And best of ALL – it did NOT go for the STUPID, almost UBIQUITOUS “female empowerment” message with which we are regularly bludgeoned and which has ruined entire franchises (I’d sneeze the words Star Wars if I was standing right in front of you to make the point, but I’m not so you’ll just have to imagine that.)

My only real complaint is that it was a bit too long, by about 20 minutes, for the primary school demographic to which the producers were aiming. My two year old grandson loved it and was mesmerized until the last bit and wanted to walk around while watching the denouement. At 96 minutes it really should have gone through one more trimming.

Aside from that very small criticism, Smallfoot is a delightful film with a bit more meat on its bones than you might expect or is carried on your average kid movie. It will entertain even the littlest kids, but still provide mom and dad with something worthwhile to mull over with even the oldest.Arguably the best kid movie I’ve since in 2018 yet(i)…..sorry couldn’t resist.

GUEST REVIEWER FATHER TREY ANGE’S ALL SAINTS’ DAY HOMILY REFERS TO MOVIES ABOUT – WHAT ELSE? – SAINTS

If you are a regular reader you know I enjoy posting guest-written reviews. This morning I had the singular privilege and pleasure of hearing a homily from Father Trey Ange which I thought would make a DELIGHTFUL guest post on saints, appropriately enough, for All Saints' Day. I added the pictures, so any inaccuracies, errata, or plain old dumb mistakes in the visuals are NOT Father Ange's fault but entirely my responsibility.

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So – without further ado, please enjoy this guest review from Father Trey Ange, Parochial Vicar, Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Lake Charles, LA:

Our Lady Queen of Heaven Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018

Solemnity of All Saints Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; Matthew 5:1-12

So, I’m a big movie fan. I enjoy movies and there’s SO many great stories! Yes, most get recycled, re-made & re-booted. But some of the best true stories are the stories of the saints. Some saints movies are incredible! Becket, A Man For All Seasons, and The Reluctant Saint are just a few. But to be honest, the majority of movies about saints are just …terrible, low budget, not well done – at all, unfortunately.

I do enjoy other movies too, like a good superhero movie! This summer, my brothers and Fr. Jeff Starkovich watched the new Avengers Infinity War which was fantastic and lots of fun! Now just imagine if ALL of the Avengers AND the Justice League characters were all together in one place! Let’s throw in X-Men, and ALL the superheroes from the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe and every comic hero ever! It would be a pretty incredible gathering, wouldn’t it?

Not compared to Heaven. Just imagine all of the SAINTS together in one place. Jesus’ disciples, the apostles, religious sisters, popes, the many martyrs who were killed for their faith – they are our real heroes. And they are already together in one place singing God’s praises. And since THEY are so close to God in Heaven, since THEY can intercede to God for us, – together, their prayers have far more power than ALL of the combined Superheroes EVER. The power of God is greater than anything we can EVEN imagine in fiction. And this is actually REAL.

Our first reading paints this picture for us! John receives this revelation – this "vision of a great multitude… from every nation, race, people, and tongue… wearing white robes and holding palm branches" crying out in a loud voice. These are the saints in Heaven. "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb." Where did they come from? And how do WE get to be – in that number? That number when the saints go marching in? The Gospel gives the answer.

BLESSED ARE: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers, and ones persecuted for the sake of righteousness. When we are persecuted for our faith, – take it. Take it like the saints. "Rejoice and be glad" Jesus tell us, "for your reward will be great" not on earth necessarily. He says: they will be comforted, satisfied, shown mercy, inherit the land, called children of God, and the Kingdom of HEAVEN will be theirs. Not earth. Saints don’t seek glory on this earth.

Although their stories might not be as action-packed as superhero films, the lives of the saints are far more real and inspiring than any superhero. Because they lived life with virtue, many of them survived some of the worst conditions on earth, and they made it to Heaven. We come to Mass today to celebrate their triumphant glory, and we ask for their intercession. We here on earth – give thanks to God for the lives of the saints, who inspire us and pray for us. We hope to live like they did.

Do we have a chance to become a superhero? Possibly. Someone may already look up to us as their hero. But the reality is: we have an even greater chance to become a saint! A saint is someone who is in Heaven. And in his Gospel, Jesus gives us many instructions on how to become a saint with Him in Heaven. Our Church teaches and preaches how to become a saint. Don’t let the enemy convince you that you’ll never make it, or that you should just aim for Purgatory. Don’t be content with Purgatory, aim for Heaven. Don’t believe any lies that tell you to be mediocre or worldly. Look to the life of Christ – like the saints did – STRIVE for virtue and holiness – and become a saint. – Father Trey Ange

 

DR. WHO: THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – SHAVE AND A HAIR CUT…………….???

 

SHORT TAKE:

Disappointing, lackluster reboot of Dr. Who into the first female incarnation of the main character, in a plot that is a routine set up without any real payoff.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone CAN go see this DR. WHO, but…(to use a different interrogative pronoun)…WHY?

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LONG TAKE:

I went with an open mind, I really did. After all, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that, contrary to my long held opinion, a good superhero could be made featuring a woman when Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot knocked the socks off me with her powerful but feminine portrait of a righteously heroic super woman.

So it was with high hopes that I went to go see the premiere of the very first show featuring the very first woman Dr Who – that is with the exception of The Curse of Fatal Death, the parody filmed for the charity Comic Relief with Rowen Atkinson who ultimately morphs into Joanne Lumley in 1999.

If you like the cheap waxy chocolate in your Easter basket; if you make your milkshakes out of fat free ice milk; if you prefer plain unsweetened rice cakes for breakfast; if your refreshment of choice is a clear sugar free diet soda (why don't you just drink water?); if your musical taste runs to the elevator music version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" — then this is the Dr Who for you. All promise and little delivery.

SPOILERS

To start with, the pronouns present a challenge, but let’s do this – if I’m referring to Jody Whittaker’s Dr Who it seems fair to use the feminine. BUT if I refer to any previous incarnation, then the masculine grammatical reference should apply.

For those of you NOT familiar with Dr Who, please refer to my previous blog on Dr Who: Twice Upon a Time, which gives a quick "cheat sheet" introduction to the Whovian Universe.

For those of you already familiar with Dr Who, the premise of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, is that the first female Doctor (literally) falls to Earth – and physically – through a train roof, just as the passengers are being terrorized by an energy ball of tentacles. Companions happen upon her and follow like dust motes in the wake of a guppy and they decide to figure out what it is and its connection to another alien with teeth imbedded in its face. Meanwhile, an entire more interesting and better acted subplot involving a missing girl and her murdered brother are brushed aside like so much flotsam and the story drags to a conclusion with manufactured tension and a lead who can not even smile convincingly.

None of this is remotely quality Who.

Even the beginning flies in the face of the basic mechanics of the Who-verse. Everyone knows or suspects strongly that Dr. Who’s TARDIS gets him/her to where they are most needed. From the get go, as explained by Whittaker's Who, the TARDIS was wounded and dematerialized leaving the new Who to the tender ministrations of gravity. So Who's propitious appearance at the train to save the passengers seems more like coincidence than it should.

Next, while the Doctor has shown himself to be physically resilient, and crashing bodily into Earth like a thrown bowling ball is not necessarily the most injurious event he has ever survived, to fall to Earth from near outer space and crash THROUGH a train roof without so much as mussed hair is a bit much for even my considerable suspension of disbelief. 

Tennant, having burst through a skylight in The End of Time Part II looks like he's been on the wrong side of a blender.

And her adaptability to her new body misses SO much. Tennant noticed new teeth immediately before collapsing from the regeneration effort. Matt Smith examined his whole body in a humorous frenzy even as the TARDIS was exploding around him: "Legs! I've still got legs! Good. Arms. Hands. Oo! Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears. Yes. Eyes two. Nose. I've had worse. Chin. [Noting its size]  Blimey. Hair. [presciently] I’m a girl. [feels Adam’s apple] No no. I’m not a girl. [Pulling a lock of hair forward to look at it, grumps] And still not ginger." When River Song morphed from young black teen to middle aged but shapely white woman we got more brilliant acting with Alex Kingston as she admires her own new hair then hollars from the bathroom: "Oh, that’s magnificent! I’m gonna wear lots of jodhpurs!" 

Jody Whittaker's Dr. Who's only comment is "Brilliant" and we're not even sure she's reacting to her new gender. Granted this is a flaw in the writing, but there's no indication from her acting or movements that she is: awed, amazed, dismayed, confused, curious, intrigued, or turned on by the fact that for the first time she is whole new GENDER! When in the past your previous selves have been surprised and dazzled by hair color and teeth size, and another Time Lord by the size of her own booty, you'd THINK a change in your entire sex would merit SOME attention. Even the spoof skit showed Lumley impressed with her new found…upgrades. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth her responses COULD have been tastefully done and REALLY funny. But it was like "Shave and a hair cut…………….." WHERE was the overwhelm? Where was the curiosity?

And her acting is – to put it kindly – bland. To NOT be so kind, she demonstrates all the emoting variations of an indulgent second grade school teacher.

Don't believe me? Let's take a trip down memory lane:

Tennant:

Smith:

Eccleston:  

Hurt:

Capaldi:

Now here's the new Dr Who: Her busy face,  her studious face  her surprised face. Is she afraid to move her eyebrows? Or show any genuine enthusiasm? Or risk looking silly?

Where is the humor? Where is the childlike enthusiasm to which we can all relate? And while, again, this is largely the fault of the script, it's not even that the show takes itself too seriously. I've often told our kids – it's not necessarily WHAT you say, but HOW you say it that makes all the difference. And I can't help but nostalgically wonder how a previous doctor (pick one – ANY one) would have done the reading on these same fairly uninspired lines and what desperately needed, resuscitating life they might have given them.

The writing is mundane and pedestrian. The trailer even features a good example: "I'm The Doctor. When people need help I never refuse." This is not only lazy writing but it is said with all the conviction of a PSA.

There's a scene where she jumps dramatically and dangerously (in Capaldi's slippery ill-fitting dress shoes) from one crane to another about 15 stories off the ground, then simply talks and tosses something to the bad guy to win the day. It would have been far more interesting if she had realized she did not have the upper body strength in the female body she now has, admitted that and worked around it. Realistically she could have done exactly what she ended up doing – talking and tossing – only without the death defying leap. This is just manufactured suspense.

Even the title is not particularly creative, merely a take on an old David Bowie sci fi vehicle The MAN Who Fell to Earth. There's no connection except the paraphrase.

Her companions are ginned up from what looks like the politically correct pool of the week: an elderly white man, married to a caricature of the pushy black woman, with a black teen grandson and a young woman whose last name is Khan who used to be a classmate of the grandson. They are all intimately related to each other yet we are to believe it is all coincidence. It was so unlikely a group of connections that I thought, surely the links must be part of the plot twist. But no, again just lazy writing to avoid having to introduce these characters to each other and endure the arduous task of creatively writing ways and events for them to get to know each other. Yet none of them has any real chemistry with either each other or the Doctor. And when one of them dies…..

SORRY – SPOILER – BUT HONESTLY, "WHO" CARES?

…….I wanted to feel badly about it but the show gave us little emotional investment to spend.

The direction was unremarkable but adequate – sort of like a high end shampoo commercial.

There is no vision. There was no rhyme or reason. Dr. Who started out over a half century ago as Britain's answer to Mr. Wizard – a science show which presented interesting facts in an entertaining way. It has – up to now – held to the tradition of teaching …. something: how to treat your fellow sentient creature, clever ways to solve puzzles, return evil with kindness, self sacrifice to protect the innocent, theories on effects of time travel, how other creatures from entirely different perspectives might react to the human culture, simply – thou shalt not kill. But I got the impression Mr. Chibnall, the show's new writer, has not yet gotten the memo on this one. He wrote a couple of the mini-shorts "The Power of Three" and "Pond Life" as well as some pretty decent other shows: 42, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Cold Blood/Hungry Earth. But being able to pick up a basket of pecans does not mean you have the strength to carry the entire TREE. And carrying a FOREST is what shouldering the work of creatively moving forward with this formerly imaginative show, with more than 50 years of history and backstory demands from WHOever thinks they can captain this ship. Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat or Russell T. Davies, Chibnall is not.

There IS a lot of running, some red herring puzzles and a so-so denoument with forced tension and nothing to learn in the end. We don't even really find out what happens to the person she set out to save. And when the survivor moves in self-defense she chides him: "You shouldn't have done that." We go to an awkward visual cut to somewhere else on the soundstage and that's the last we ever see of him. Huh?

She preposterously builds a new sonic screwdriver out of dust, gizmos and a bag of metal coffee spoons lying around a cluttered human workshop. It might have been vaguely believable if she had used the tech that WAS potentially available from a discarded space "eggshell" but even that McGuffin wasn't utilized. If they are THAT easy to make why doesn't she make LOTS of them? Hand them out like party favors to her companions?

And to top everything else off they went out of their way to dis Christianity. Mostly, Dr Who, like Star Trek, leaves religion alone. But when one of their crew dies, the funeral is held in a church, but the cross beam of the cross behind the altar area is deliberately covered by carefully placed…balloons! Balloons? At a FUNERAL? And why HAVE the funeral in a Christian church if you are going to cover up the primary symbol of that institution unless you: A. Want to go out of your way to thumb your nose at the Christian faith, or B. You don't want to be bothered to think of any place else and you're too cheap to actually take the cross down. So disrespectful or indolent, take your pick.

And the death was stupid ANYway. The character threw themself into a dangerous situation unnecessarily then died clumsily. The death served no real purpose other than to cut the number of companions from four to three. "Thrift, Horatio, thrift." Fewer paychecks I suppose.

There are a zillion other dumb plot decisions: did she really wear that manky suit to the funeral? She doesn't even TRY to negotiate for the captured sister that one of the subplot characters died horribly trying to find. Since when does a Time Lord stick their finger up their nose to determine when they are going to faint? Did Chibnall think this was funny? Why on Earth would someone touch a glowing grid that appears out of nowhere? How DID he get his bike out of the tree? Did she not even CONSIDER her "friends" might be sucked into space with her using her jury rigged spit and bailing wire transporter? Why would she run on a wet crane in slippery dress shoes a couple sizes too big when she could have at least taken them off? What are the chances ALL the companions, randomly found, knew each other already without that fact being a plot point?

It all felt  – as though you were given Peter Davison's celery stalk with no dressing as your entire dinner or you were expected to warm yourself with only a bit of fringe off of Tom Baker's scarf – underdone, incomplete, ill-thought out, unfulfilling and unfinished (kind of like the way we all felt about the actor Christopher Eccleston's career as Dr. Who after he refused to be in the 50th Anniversary Special for no particularly good reason). So watching this Dr. Who I now know how Roger Rabbit felt when Judge Doom knocked on the wall and "inquired": "Shave and a hair cut," and he wasn't allowed to yell "TWO-BITS!"

So finally we are left with yet another interrogative pronoun and a burning question: WHERE is the real Dr. Who?! And will SOMEONE please say "TWO-BITS!"

A STAR IS BORN – MASTERFUL VARIATION ON AN INHERENTLY DISSONANT THEME

SPOILERS!

SHORT TAKE:

Artistic, excellent, and faithful (4th) version of a A Star is Born, a story with a destructive message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only, let me count the ways: language (I think there is only one adjective they knew and they used it with abandon), sex outside of marriage, excessive drinking, illicit drug use, nakedness, and a bar frequented by those with drastically alternative lifestyles.

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SPOILERS!!!

LONG TAKE:

There is great wisdom in 1 Corinthians 13:11:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child."

A lot of movies seen in one’s teens and early twenties, seem like a good idea at the time, but do not stand up well under the scrutiny of age and experience.

One of those is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). When it came out, it seemed like a sci fi fantasy of a man in search of his dream to confirm the existence of extra-terrestrials, who flies off, like Peter Pan, into the stars with them. In fact, the movie is about a man who abandons his wife and children to go off on a lark. Regardless of the circumstances, he is a cad of extra-ordinary proportions. Then Pretty Women (1990), which holds itself out as a modern Cinderella story, actually Disneyfies prostitution, making it look appealing with a prize at the end instead of a body and soul destroying meat grinder (pun intended). Ditto for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). It holds itself out as a musical comedy but really sets up a madam and a corrupt politician as the main protagonists. (Haven’t any of these people seen East of Eden? I suspect Kate’s cold, calculating and cruel flesh peddler is a more accurate version of a madam than Dolly Parton’s cutesy songstress Mona.) You get the idea.

The third manifestation of A Star is Born (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson seemed, in the theater, to a 17 year old, a romantic, tear jerking, self sacrificing love story. I have seen all of versions 1937, 1976, and 2018 and enough of 1954 to realize that that one is just a badly done and unrelatable Judy Garland vehicle. The names change slightly with each movie. All the men have the surname of Maine, and in this one his given name is Jackson. Gaga's character's name this time around is Ally. In truth A Star is Born – all of them – is about of a man who destroys the person he loves … twice …. because he is a self-indulgent, self-pitying, weak and arrogant coward.

Please don’t get me wrong. I loved A Star is Born when I first saw it in theaters right out of high school. And before I launch into my criticisms of the story, let me say that, on one level, I thought this 2018 Bradley Cooper auteur production the best of the litter – a magnificent bit of cinema (the plaudits for which I will get to later) ………. but of an inherently bad story.

IF I HAVE NOT MADE MYSELF CLEAR HERE YET, THERE ARE SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

The premise presents itself about a man who is a great star (either singer or actor depending upon which decade’s movie you are talking about) with VERY bad habits, on his way down, who gives "THE FIRST BIG" shot at stardom to a promising female artist. When he realizes he cannot (or will not) cease his destructive behaviors, he kills himself, allegedly, to protect his former protégé, now wife from being held back. What is really happening is that an addicted, boorish, self-indulgent loser, who has achieved his dreams, does indeed generously provide a boost to the extremely talented woman of his dreams. BUT instead of doing the TRULY heroic act of changing his own life FOR her, drags her down. When he decides he will not cease his addictions or his self-destructive behavior, this narcissistic, self-absorbed waste of space tries very hard to destroy her again by committing suicide. In all four cases, this second act of destruction almost succeeds. In all four cases, we are left at the end of the movie wondering when, not if, it will be her turn to follow in her husband's footsteps.

A very big deal is made in the movie about saying something with your art. I must wonder what it is that this movie is trying to say: "When you hit rock bottom you should grab a shovel and dig it deeper by killing yourself?"

BUT – having said my piece on this point —–

Putting this massive flaw aside, the movie is still a masterfully done piece of art. I cannot place blame on Mr. Cooper for the ending because that IS the way it has always played out. I suppose I could blame him for expending his efforts on a story with a terrible message, but once having chosen this project he does an excellent job with its composition. This IS the way A Star is Born was written 81 years ago. (The first version was in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, both BARELY out of the silent film era.)

Kudos to Cooper’s commitment to the project. He mastered guitar playing for this role in an 18 month Blitzkrieg, including performing live at a festival, singing his own original songs, on the same stage with Kris Kristofferson, who previously played the same role for which Cooper was training – all while keeping the movie under wraps! AND Cooper is not just the star of the movie, but also was one of the adapting screenwriters, is the director, one of the producers, did all of his own playing and singing and wrote four of the movie’s songs. I admired the way Cooper approached the story. This Star’s incarnation hits all the high notes, the low notes, the musical arcs and has the same finale as all the others.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, I was shocked to discover, is quite a talented actress. Not a big fan before hand, I liked "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance," but was not familiar with her videos. I was jaw dropped to see her name in the trailer credits. She, more than a little, resembles a young Barbra Streisand in her manner, looks and singing talent. (She even complains about her nose.) This fits, as Bab’s manager/boyfriend at the time of Streisand's Star was Jon Peters, whose production company made Cooper's Star.

There were a few amazing surprises among the actors, not the least of which was Lady Gaga herself, as already mentioned, who did an incredible job. There is one scene in particular where in she finds herself on stage with Jackson Maine and her subtle and delicate transformation from newbie, frightened singer to confident but still terrified performer whose potential is glimpsed and then blossoms and matures throughout movie is subtle, transformative and deserves recognition. Other stand out performances include Sam Elliott as the REAL hero of the movie who stands by Jackson as long as he can as his manager, confidante, keeper, and older brother.

Andrew Dice Clay made a perplexingly successful career as a stand-up comic by being blunt, vulgar and every –ist you can think of. When you are boycotted by Sinead O'Connor and a regular cast member, Nora Dunn, for a Saturday Night Live appearance, and then from MTV for 18 years for being too offensive, you should consider that perhaps there are some issues with your routine. In A Star is Born he is pleasantly unrecognizable as Ally's gentle and supportive father, who whimsically reminisces about how he could have been a crooner "like Frank Sinatra".

The songs are – in a word – excellent. Catchy and communicative with a readily accessible emotional core, they were all the more surprising in that four of them were written by Bradley Cooper, not heretofore known as a musician.

I was very impressed by some of Mr. Cooper’s directorial decisions. For one thing there is no soundtrack except for the songs being performed or played on the radio or jukebox. There is none of the emotional manipulation, which is almost ubiquitous in other movies’ accompanying score. Don't get me wrong, I love a good soundtrack which often enhances or forewarns the audience in a particular scene. I have often wished I personally had a soundtrack to my life so I would know in advance what was coming.

Mr. Cooper plays his scenes with no such safety net. Some of the movie even feels somewhat documentary. Not in the dry, dusty, awkward way in which we appear as unwanted guests into other people's lives, but as a welcome friend sitting across the table watching the interchange between these two friends, lovers, and musical partners who must inevitably part.

All in all, I enjoyed this incarnation of A Star is Born. I had looked forward to it with a lot of expectation and most were fulfilled. I was sorry they had cut out one particularly appealing scene from the trailer where Jackson tells Ally she is beautiful and her eyebrows rise precipitously in surprise. But in the end I was a little disappointed, but not really surprised. I had hoped against hope, knowing the story, that with this fourth variation on a theme Mr. Cooper would have found a way to make the story more uplifting. It is a faithful telling of the story, but it is unfortunate that the story itself is fatally flawed. So I do not fault Mr. Cooper for the ending.

Just as you are not likely to turn Anna Karenina into a musical comedy, it would be very difficult to alter a classic tragedy without making it unrecognizable. (Although Steve Martin did just that with Roxannecreatively found a way to forge a happy ending with Cyrano de Bergerac but still keeping the essence of the tale intact.)

I just can’t help musing that a truly noble heroic Mr. Maine would have manned up to his own weaknesses, sent his protege on her way, and done something meaningful with the rest of his life: mission work in Africa, volunteer for at-risk kids in inner cities, used his notoriety to become an example of what could happen in Scared Straight programs, done PSA's against drugs and drinking. But alas the Roxanne ending was not to be.

I'll give it this, it is not Singing in The Rain. There is no soft peddling, sanitizing or making light of the music profession. And I suspect this Star is an accurate account of the insides of the industry, where one is lucky to get a guest spot at a bar for drag queens while holding down a job as an unappreciated waiter at a local restaurant. That even if you are lucky enough to "make it," the experience is just as likely to make you an addicted, deaf, jaded wreck as it is to provide you with wealth and power and fame. Star does not paint a pretty picture. What it lacks in virtue it makes up for in honesty. If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.

I look forward to Mr. Cooper's next project. I hope it involves some singing because he is quite good. I also look forward to seeing Lady Gaga act again. The relationship between the two was electric and portrayed with a natural chemistry. All of the elements were beautifully crafted and fit like an intricately harmonious chord. I just hope Bradley Cooper finds a more noble project to lend his considerable talents to in the future.

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

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

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LONG TAKE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS – MEDIOCRE FANTASY WITH A POSSIBLY SINISTER UNDERTONE

SHORT TAKE:

Mediocre fantasy, under utilizing what should have been a winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blachett, with scenes which may just have some truly disturbing motivations behind them.

WHO SHOULD GO:

To be safe – adults only.

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LONG TAKE:

The House with a Clock in its Walls made me sad, but not in the way that movies are supposed to make you sad, like in Titanic, or Old Yeller, or at the end of Funny Girl.

Maybe it was because it wasn't nearly as good as I thought it was going to be, or maybe it was something more sinister. 

SPOILERS

The premise is of an orphaned boy, Lewis, who is sent to live with his only remaining relative, a reclusive eccentric uncle, Jonathan, (Jack Black), who, it turns out, is a warlock seeking a dangerous magical item, buried within the house, placed there by the house’s previous owner, Isaac, (Kyle MacLachlan). An interesting idea but not well carried out.

First off, there is the acting. I have liked Jack Black ever since he started doing kid and youth films. He is a goofy pleasure in movies like Kung Fu Panda, King Kong and Goosebumps. Cate Blanchett, who plays Jonathan's best friend and antagonist-neighbor Florence, brings an element of class to everything she's in, even the terrible Oceans 8. And of course Blanchett was spectacular as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings.

However the main character, Lewis, (Owen Vaccaro) was just plain old not very good. Perhaps it was the directing but, for example, when the subject of Lewis' parents' death in a car crash comes up, he tears up and wails so much and unexpectedly, it is as though he is faking it and we're all left waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He is unconvincing in other key moments as well, such as when he is supposed to be desperate enough for a friend that he would break his uncle's one rule about not going near a cabinet which contains a forbidden book. There was no effort to convince the audience that Lewis would want to risk his new relationship with his magical uncle.

Maybe it was the inconsistent characters. Lewis comes to the attention of a school favorite named Tarby (Sunny Suljic), who genuinely seems to want to be kind to this new little outcast. But then, suddenly, Tarby is running for a school office, and after getting elected, Tarby becomes a bully. One of the other kids tells Lewis they are not surprised because Tarby does this every election season. This doesn't make any sense because there is very little Tarby has to gain from the friendship with Lewis. 

This turnabout is so awkward, sudden and confusing that I thought, surely, there was more to this character. Is he possessed by the evil ghost of Isaac? IS he the evil Isaac in disguise, and was just using Lewis to gain access to the house? This latter theory seemed to be further encouraged by Tarby's instant and pointed desire to open the one cabinet in the house Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan told him he must never go near, as though Tarby knew all along the forbidden book was there. But no, Tarby is just a mean kid who likes to be nice randomly but only for a few days and serves as a convenient shoe-horned plot device. Sorry, but that's just bad writing.

Then there is Jonathan’s back story. Jonathan left home because he wished to pursue magic and simply assumed his little sister, Lewis' mother, did not want anything to do with him. So much so that Jonathan did not even go to her funeral. Yet without question Jonathan accepts that his sister would have sent her only child to live with him. These two points are inconsistent. Jonathan never has a real moment or explanation as to why he would be so deeply alienated with his sister. And no explanation as to why he would, without question, believe his sister would leave her only child in his care. Which is it? Did Jonathan believe his sister hated him or not?

The movie has so many misdirections, without purpose, that I got the feeling it was written backwards, with the ending in sight but little attention to making sure the path to it from the introduction made sense. And whenever the writer had to get from point A to Point B he just sewed on a patch to make the two plot points connect.

AND – OH YEAH – the clock turns out to be "under the boiler". I'm sorry, but in what universe does "under the boiler" put it therefore "— in the Walls"?

Also, I’m not sure what demographic audience they were going for. It’s silly enough that it should attract a young child crowd – fart jokes and Addams Family-like purple monster snake-tarantulas, standing up to bullies in middle school and ooh aah moments of solar systems coming to life in the living room.

But then there are extremely creepy scenes which would make the movie unacceptable for that same young group: poisoning evil anthropomorphized mannequins to death, violent repeated shaking preceding transformations much like the very disturbing way Penny-Wise the Clown shook in the modern It, a dead mother, (portrayed by Lorenza Izzo, now the estranged wife of the director Eli Roth) appearing in her son’s dreams to get him to seek out a forbidden book, necromancy, having truck with a forked tongued demon who actually licks blood off one of the character’s hands – basically a 7th book Harry Potter aimed at first Harry Potter book-aged children.

Then there is the more sinister aspect of the flaws.

There is an expression I learned in business: The Appearance of Impropriety. That is when, even if your motives are pure as a newborn baptized baby, there are just some things you should avoid doing. For example, whenever my husband drove our babysitters home, he would always tell our kids, "Come on! Let's all go for a ride!" and away a pack of them would go to keep the baby sitter company on the ride. He and I rightly believe that an adult male alone in a car with a young person not his own child is just not appropriate.

And, we do not much care for casinos in our community, so we boycott them. When a close friend held his daughter's wedding reception at one of the casinos’ restaurants, it was with great regret that we had to decline to attend the party. Had we gone, it would have seemed as though we were endorsing the casino. In both cases, we were avoiding The Appearance of Impropriety.

In The House, I am not saying that the character of Uncle Jonathan is doing anything wrong. He keeps his distance, had not sought out the child but was assigned the responsibility of raising his dead sister's son. But the writers left certain bread crumbs that perhaps it would have been better in the current environment not to have sown.

For example, near the end Jonathan is youthened to a baby but left with an adult head. This puts Lewis in a position of carrying around a naked adult in miniature. After Jonathan is restored, while hiding behind some equipment, he asks Lewis to throw him his pants, but more damningly, asks Lewis not to tell anyone that he, Jonathan, was left naked.

Given the circumstances, this is awkward at best. In the current climate of heightened awareness of an epidemic of underage inappropriate sexual predation by authority figures, this was, even in the best light, ill thought out and in very poor taste. Much like the scene in the dog movie Show Dogs, where an animal was coerced into allowing inappropriate touching for judging purposes, even if the circumstances made the behavior objectively understandable, this is not something you want to use as an example for children to follow. Moreover, as book stories are fantasy and so can be written any way the film makers want, there was ZERO reason to put in scenes where Lewis is carrying around a naked man OR to be sworn to secrecy by that same adult male concerning his nakedness in front of the child.

Even assigning innocent motives to the writers, these scenes smack of grooming for pedophiles and should be cut or re-written AS the makers of Show Dogs said they would do. (Though I have not personally confirmed whether or not they actually HAVE re-edited Show Dogs to eliminate or change the offending genital-touching/judging scenes).

Did the writer, Eric Kripke and director Eli Roth, deliberately set up scenes where a young boy is in a compromising situation with an adult male who swears him to secrecy in order to help desensitize millions of children to a similar real life scenario with far more corrupted, ugly and disgusting motives? Or was this just an ill-thought out, ignorant gag by Kripke and Roth, because neither, best I can find out, have any children so did not fully consider the implications?

I don’t really know. But, as I have inculcated to our own children a zillion times: I have never known anyone who regretted being too careful, but I have known a LOT of people who regretted not being careful enough.

What makes me sad, though, is that a movie which could have and should have been a somewhat fluffy entertainment must be analyzed in this way. Fifty years ago we could have easily attributed the innocent motives of the film makers at face value and shrugged off the possibility of any nefarious underlying motives – ALTHOUGH perhaps fifty years ago pedophia grooming could have been perpetrated in this way and we just would not have known to watch for it because its prevalence was not what it is today. Either way, the fact we live in a culture wherein it becomes necessary that even light fare today MUST be scrutinized so carefully in order to protect children makes me very sad.

So – while it’s fairly brainless amusement for adults, it might just be "Stranger Danger" level inappropriate for the kids – whether the film makers intended it to be or not.

OPERATION FINALE – DOING THEIR PART TO HELP THE WORLD “NEVER FORGET”

 

SHORT TAKE:

Film about the search for, capture and trial of one of Hitler's most notorious henchmen and architect of the Final Solution, Adolph Eichmann, by an Israeli group of special forces not long after World War II.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and adults for language and difficult content.

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LONG TAKE:

The list of top 20 movies that I would want, were I stranded on a desert island, would include My Favorite Year. It is a loose autobiographical event in the life of Mel Brooks, incarnated as the character Benji, when he was working on Sid Caesar's Show of Shows and Errol Flynn was a guest host. The movie is delightful and comedic and full of extremely memorable lines. One of them is spoken by Alan Swann played by the brilliant Peter O'Toole who, used to declaiming before the relatively small venue of crew and cast members on a movie set, when confronted with the realization that he would be performing on live TV before an audience of hundreds and broadcast out to millions, has a panic attack. Preparing to run out the building, he pronounces to Benji, as though incredulous that they had not understood this before: "I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!" meaning that he believes himself to be all flash and dazzle and not an artist.

My husband and I have used Swann's pronouncement to distinguish amongst performers. While there are many movie stars, there are only a handful of actors. Some actors of distinction include hoffman1hoffmanDustin Hoffman, theronCharlize Theron, and streep1streepMeryl Streep, all of whom display an exceptional craft along with an unhesitating commitment, which includes not minding making themselves look ugly, should the roll require it.

SPOILERS BUT ONLY TO THOSE WHO ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE BASICS OF THE HISTORY

kingsleyBen Kingsley falls into this category. Kinglsey is a versatile and mesmerizing actor. From the titular historic Kingsley - ghandiGhandi to the ridiculous kingsley mandarinMandarin in Iron Man 3, from the wise and genlle kingsley schindlerItzhak Stern, Schindler's Jewish accountant, in Schindler's List, to the brutal gangster kingsley sexy beastDon Logan in Sexy Beast, Kingsley displays a repertoire which few could master.

Now, adding to the many suits in Kingsley's closet, is the portrayal of Adolph Eichmann, the focus of Operation Finale. Kingsley, whose mother's family was Jewish, brilliantly crafts a chillingly normal portrait of a man who superficially appears like anyone else but on closer examination reveals a hollowness to his soul which he filled with a prosaic ambition to advance a career which only happened to require the systematic murder of millions of innocent people. The morality of his actions did not seem to matter to him one way or the other.

Directed by Chris Weitz, whose family members were Holocaust survivors, (previously known for writing or directing far lighter material such as  Nutty Professor II, Twilight Saga: New Moon, Rogue One, and Antz), Operation Finale is a film about the location, identification, capture, and trial dock2 dockof one of Hitler's most notorious henchmen, the architect of The Final Solution, the genocidal slaughterer of millions of Jewish families, eichmann and kingsleyAdolph Eichmann. Eichmann is the person about whom the expression "the banality of evil"  Hannah Arendt, reporting on Eichmann's trial, referred. Arendt recognized these horrific deeds were performed not out of sadism or any evil intent, ditchEichmann by ditchbut by a merely bureaucratic routine functionary going through motions which he thought would advance his career, without any thought or care for the consequences of his actions. To my mind, this is perhaps more horrifying than a serial killer who gets his jollies from inflicting pain and suffering. A serial killer can be temporarily satiated. A Nazi bureaucrat could continue daily for decades without a thought or need to slow.

Forget Regan in The Exorcist or Heath Ledger's Joker or Michael Myers' Halloween killer – the frightening matter-of-factness about Kingsley's Eichmann is as close to an accurate portrayal of the demonic as I hope to ever see.

malkin isaacsOscar Isaac portrays the real life Peter Malkin, a member of the Mossad and survivor of the Nazi genocide, instrumental to this historic Israeli organized clandestine operation. isaacsPresented as historic drama, Operation Finale begins with one of Malkin's failures and proceeds primarily through his point of view as ephemerally loose threads are found and woven into the net which unearths this man who committed some of the most evil acts in all of mankind's history – which, given mankind's propensity for evil acts is saying something.

Also supporting Isaacs' Malkin are Jewish performers: Melanie Laurent (of both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry) as Hannah, Nick Kroll (raised in a Conservative Jewish family) as Rafi, Michael Aronov as Zvi, Lior Raz  (born in Jerusalem) as Isser, head of the operation, and Ohad Knoller (born Tel Aviv) as Ephraim. Obviously a construct of love and respect for the memories of those slaughtered at the hands of unthinking, unfeeling functionaries, these men and women bear testament to the horrors committed in the name of arrogant totalitarianism, in particular, Nazism.

The film is a re-enactment of the heroic events by the images371MHE58men and women imagesT0P6TZIAwho risked capture, torture and death membert2themselves in Argentina, a country which happily welcomed notorious high ranking Nazis imagesGU3392RLand was still rife with open anti-Semitism.

During the course of Eichmann's captivity, as the group awaited delayed extraction,  it became necessary for Eichmann to agree in writing to be a willing accomplice to his own extradition. The task evolves from a snatch and grab Mission Impossible adventure to a mental game of cat and mouse. IsaacsAs time begins to run out and the increasingly frustrated and tightly strung agents, some last remaining members of their families, endure proximity to their former tormentor, now prisoner, Malkin takes it upon himself to get inside of Eichmann's head. We, and they, start to wonder if one side or the other  – Eichmann or the Mossad members – is succumbing to what would later be known as Stockholm Syndrome.

This opportunity to get inside the rationalizations of one of the world's most notorious people is one of the most valuable aspects of Operation Finale – to remind ourselves that the deeply fundamentally wicked often presents itself as the common and mundane, much like the feral hunters who camouflage themselves in order to get close to their prey. Ted Bundy seemed ordinary, charming and intelligent. Jeffrey Dahmer had a pleasant forgettable face, nothing you'd associate with a serial killer and cannibal. Rarely do those who perform dramatically horrifying actions wear a sign around their neck proclaiming themselves to be masters of evil. Eichmann, as dramatized by Kingsley's amazing presentation, is no exception.

There is a wise saying by George Santayana in his Reason in Common Sense: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Operation Finale does justice to this moment in history with a film that seeks to help us avoid this perilous omission.

ALPHA – ENGAGING AND BEAUTIFUL PRE-HISTORIC “BOY AND HIS DOG” STORY

SHORT TAKE:

Family friendly (with provisos) pre-historic tale of an injured and lost teen who partners with a wolf for his perilous journey home.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With cautions, anyone.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS (but only for those who have seen no trailers)

A boy and his dog – a classic pairing that dates back all the way to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf, and written into classics such as Kipling's Jungle Book and London's Call of The Wild. Movies have been made about this dynamic relationship from the family friendly Lassie franchise featuring such luminaries as Roddy McDowell to the R-rated cult favorite oddity starring Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, when he was himself a puppy, called A Boy and His (telepathic) DogAlpha is yet another installment in this litany of (how my friend Franklin describes all movies as) a love story with a twist. And I am a sucker for a well done dog movie.

The trailer for Alpha, as is unfortunately the case with most movies nowadays, gives away more than it should. So if you have seen any trailers there will be no additional spoilers. However, I did not find, having seen the trailer and the previews of scenes, take away from the suspense, or enjoyment of the movie.

The premise is about a teenage boy, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the new Kurt Wagner/NightCrawler), the only child and son of Chief Tau (Johannes Johannesson, Lem Lemoncloak from Game of Thrones), is taken on his right of passage into manhood buffalo hunt. He is injured, separated from the tribe, and left, thought dead.

In a series of miraculous but plausible events he survives and begins his long and extremely perilous trek home, finding an unlikely partner in a wolf he calls Alpha,  portrayed by Chuck, a Czechoslavakian Wolfhound.

Set 20,000 years ago, in what would eventually be known as Europe, unlike other movies about prehistoric man, Alpha appropriately portrays these characters as perfectly recognizable, modern-looking humans, only without our tech. They are intelligent, with a close knit family structure, established spiritual philosophy and able to communicate complex thoughts with a detailed language. They're courageous problem solvers, in a defended village, who live in large dome-shaped thatched and mud reinforced wigwams – perfectly recognizable modern humans only without the modern conveniences.

I really like the dynamic portrayed between the wise and gentle, big and burly father as he attempts to train and teach his much gentler son to be the next chief of their tribe. It is a universal, even cliche, conflict and eventual resolution between the expectations of a loving father and the inherent predispositions and abilities of an anxious to please son, played out in what I thought was a new and interesting way.

And I thought especially well played out how the father's teachings provided the boy with invaluable assistance to confront the overwhelming challenges when on his own, how the boy used his father's wisdom, in combination with his own unique approach and instincts, to confront the harrowing trials he had to endure through his long, seemingly impossible journey home – how the unprepared boy, faced with almost certain death, embraces his father's lessons to meet these unplanned tests. Both the audience and he realize along the way, that if he survives his adventure, he will become the capable man and leader he otherwise would not have been.

A number of movies have been made about prehistoric man. The introductory music and landscape for Alpha reminded me of the first 15 minutes of Kubrick's 2001. And the premise of a long silent journey of hazard over primitive terrain without hope of outside rescue I found very reminiscent of Quest for Fire.

But this is where the similarities end.

The characters in Quest for Fire were brutish, and almost comically animalistic as they fell out of trees and laughed at injuries they inflicted on each other, taking food and sexual favors in behavior more akin to a tribe of gorillas than a tribe of humans.

Quest for Fire, though well made and interesting, was a very adult film full of graphic cruelty and casual sexuality, portraying humans as projections of the unproven and largely discreditable Darwinian fallacy of a descendance from apes, which nonetheless is still forced into our schooling system. It was refreshing that the makers of Alpha saw pre-historic homo sapiens as virtually identical to our current men, in all of the fundamental ways that unite us as humans.

Though Alpha does include some violence, most of it happens very quickly, and either in the dark or off screen. In addition, there are a few scenes with maggots and dead rotting animals. As a friend of mine noted, however, nothing you would not see on a hot summer day when you go to take out the trash in my hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Depending, of course, as always, on parental discretion and the temperament of your child, I would even venture to say this movie could be appropriate for the very young child, especially if they like dogs. I would not recommend it for a child who was upset unduly by jump- scares, or gross out images.

The cinematography is gorgeous, even occasionally breathtaking, in the panoramic vistas of undeveloped Canada, masquerading as prehistoric Europe.

So, go check out Alpha. Would make a wonderful first date movie for people who like dogs. And don't discount this even for the youngest members of your family, but do check it out first.

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME – A FUNNY TAKE OFF OF BOND MOVIES

SHORT TAKE:

Lighthearted romp from the point of view of a discarded Bond girl.

WHO SHOULD GO:

To paraphrase a Bond title: For Adult Eyes Only. Ears too. Language, violence and adult situations but surprisingly and thankfully little inappropriate sexual content.

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LONG TAKE:

You know all those girls who have been bedded and shedded by the Bonds over the last 26 years? To paraphrase a line from Lion in Winter – you could populate a fair city with the fair number of girls who have borne with Bond.

And neither we nor he ever hears from them again. Now imagine that one of them does NOT go quietly into the night.

Mila Kunis (Jupiter Rising, Oz the Great and Powerful and Black Swan) is Audrey, the heartbroken reject of Drew (Justin Theroux) who quite literally loved her and…left. Kate McKinnon (pathetic gender swap Ghostbusters) is Morgan, her more than slightly insane best friend. The two women are very ordinary people. Audrey is kind of quiet and underestimates her own abilities but, egged on by Morgan, takes it upon herself to seek revenge on Drew by burning all of his stuff. Little does she know this includes a trophy which contains something that could get them all killed. And since Audrey's angry vindictive ex-girlfriend texts, mostly written by Morgan, are being monitored by a number of different lethal interests, everyone converges on the shocked Audrey and Morgan. Through what Audrey admits is plain dumb luck they escape to begin the most unplanned of adventures.

One of the things I enjoyed about The Spy Who Dumped Me was that neither of these women had any special abilities, but simply reacted the way any one of us normal mortals might – screaming, running and trying to simply get out of the way. No planned heroics, no endurance of torture, just: "Get me the Heck away from all of this." But fortune has other ideas. Luckily for them, they have a few Guardian Angels: Sebastian (Sam Heughan) a friendly agent and Morgan's marvelously unflappable parents – Arnie, a very successful trial attorney (Paul Reiser, who has a resume which includes the unlikely duo of both Mad About You and Aliens) and Jane Curtain (SNL veteran, Coneheads and Third Rock From the Sun). When informed their daughter has killed someone, Arnie assumes blasely, "Self defense, right? We can fix that." 

If I were to use one word to describe why I liked this movie it would be  "balance." I loved the tone of the movie which balanced just the right amount of realism with comedy.

It followed the straight vertical "rules" of a Bond movie with its intrigue and mystery, guns and car chases, superhuman feats of deering do and gorgeously athletic men and women, but smoothly incorporated the odd angles of the "everyman" perspective. Audrey and Morgan want to do the right thing BUT would very much like to drop this entire mess in someone else's hands.

The characters are all a lot of fun. I thought the yin and yang of Audrey's mousey start with Morgan's literal bouncing off the wall worked really well. Morgan kick starts Audrey's odyssey and Audrey keeps Morgan from running off too many cliffs. Like a human Push Me Pull You from Dr. Doolitte, they made a great pair that kept the tone light but exciting. Kunis is beautiful, McKinnon kinetic, Reiser and Curtain are warm and funny, Heughan is just the right combination of cool and unsure of his new "partners of necessity". And Gilian Anderson (X-Files) has a small role as Wendy, their version of "M".

There's nothing deep and meaningful about The Spy Who Dumped Me, but it is a treat to watch.

I would not want to spoil the plot any more than I would want to remove the chocolate chips out of your freshly baked cookie.

BUT – let's just say: Forget Julius No, Auric Goldfinger, Jaws and Oddjob. Instead, perhaps Drew should have suggested the famous Double "O" watch out for some of the women he left behind.  Hell hath no fury like a woman who is dumped.

THE MEG – MORE LIKE THE MEH – FORGETABLE POPCORN FLICK – JAWS STILL REIGNS!!!

SHORT TAKE:

Enjoyable, but immediately forgettable, popcorn Jaws near-parody which could have been and, given the improved technology, SHOULD have been better.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up for language and violence, though there was not a lot of graphic gore. While a few audience members brought their younger kids, I would not have wanted the "nightmare" duty later.

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LONG TAKE:

When I was 16, my brother-in-law joined the military. After his signing in, he, my sister and I all went to celebrate by going to see Jaws, which had just opened at the downtown theater. After the end of the very memorable opening scene, my brother-in-law, a dentist and one of the calmest people I have ever met, stood up and with his usual dry wit straight-faced announced: "O.K. I'm ready to go." He was only half serious and we stayed to watch the rest of this classic.

Although it has kept me well away from the idea of scuba diving for the last 40+ years, I have been hooked, so to speak on Jaws and other disaster-type movies ever since – be they good, bad or indifferent

So, I think I can say with some credibility, the Meg is Jaws Lite. While it has the virtues of a certain parody-like charm, it neglects, with apparent obliviousness, a couple of important features required of a really good monster movie.

SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!

It's not all bad. The Meg is based on a series of five books with the same base name, all researched and written by Steve Alten. At the publication of this review I am part way through the first one and it is fairly engrossing and provides some interesting background.

On the plus side, The Meg has, in abundance, one of the features important in most disaster movies in general, and specifically in the sub genre of monster movies – a sense of humor and/or self-awareness. Examples of where this works is in the quippy lines in Aliens (watching their only escape ship burn, "Maybe we can build a fire, sing a couple of songs, huh? Why don't we try that?") or the entirety of Shaun of the Dead. The director of The Meg, Jon Turteltaub, had the Meg's tongue planted firmly in cheek, (though, technically, almost no shark actually USES its tongue – called a basihyal. ed).

And how can it not evoke a few chuckles with Rainn Wilson as one of the major players? A veteran of such notables as The Office, Galaxy Quest and as the "new" Harry Mudd in Star Trek: Discovery, Wilson has carved a niche out as one of the princes of dead pan egocentric humor, like Sam Rockwell and Jim Carrey. 

In addition, there is a small flavoring of homages to the Meg's predecessors. For example, Statham's character quotes Martin Brody from Jaws to "chew on this" and he even references Finding Nemo. There are a few well deserved and needed grins earned throughout the movie. So to its credit, The Meg does NOT take itself overly seriously.

That's a good thing, because, everything else about the movie does not fare so well.

The premise is a string of glued together cliches: Jason Statham (Furious movie franchise)  is Jonas, and no traction is made of his name, which in nautical circles would refer to Jonah – from the Bible – someone considered unlucky to have on a ship. Jonas is a discredited deep sea rescue diver who saw a monster (the Meg) during a mission which everyone attributed to deep diving delusions and panic. He is brought back to his old job when a monster, such as he described, is found and he has to rescue some people. Of course, the fact he has been boozing it up and out of practice for the last 5 years has had no effect on his abilities or physique whatsoever. His ex-wife is in danger. He meets a new cute scientist with an even cuter child (Shuya Sophia Cai), who immediately takes to him. Someone heroically sacrifices himself to save his friends. Random people are devoured after citing Sedgwickisms (after General Sedgwick who was killed by a sharpshooter during the Battle of Spottsylvania Court House right after saying "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.") A greedy CEO (along with the military, CEO's are one of the go-to scapegoats of the lazy liberal screenwriter) abandons people in danger to prevent having to meet financial liability exposure. A kid paddles out into a crowded beach surf just as the Meg decides to smorgasbord the shallows under the watchful eye of his mother (ala Jaws but with a happier ending).There's even an adorable dog, who you know won't be eaten, who jumps into the mix, or rather literally, the water. There is little or nothing new that The Meg contributes to the genre, though it pays decent respect to its brethren films.

The Meg's most serious problem is with its rhythm and structure. Specifically, it lacks two essentials for a scary movie: a sense of urgency and intimacy which can be summed up as: trapped in a ticking time bomb. In Jaws, Brody, Hooper and Quint, who you come to care about,  were all stuck out in the ocean, on a sinking boat, being stalked by a monster white shark. In Jurassic Park, Alan Grant and his plucky band of survivors were stuck on an island, while being chased by dinosaurs. In The Towering Inferno, people were trapped in a high-rise above a fire line. In The Poseidon Adventure (both versions) the ensemble spent the entire movie trying to escape an overturned and sinking cruise ship. The Core had a bunch of scientists stuck miles underground trying to re-spin the Earth's core before all life on the surface was vaporized. You see the pattern. But in The Meg, although people are trapped briefly different places, for most of the film the cast can come and go as they like on boats and in helicopters. There is no sense of a confined space from which emergence would mean victory

In spectacularly successful monster movies, there is a cast who we get to know and with whom we empathize, and while there is often a bad guy involved, such as Paul Riser's corporate weasel in Aliens or Murray Hamilton's self-serving mayor in Jaws, and really great challenges, the primary antagonist is often … time. Something must be done before time Runs Out. And to heighten the sense of urgency, the scenario, as I mentioned above, is usually played out in a confined space from which our intrepid heroes must escape.

In The Meg, the time factor is played with and sprinkled around like random lampreys on a shark, but it is not THE shark. For example, Jonas' wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee) and her crew, are stuck in a bathyscope, running out of air and stalked by the monster. But this is resolved within the first half-hour of the movie. Later, the scientists have to race the Meg to a crowded beach, but none of the people are characters we know, so we don't really care that much. The people in danger are more like NPCs, or non-player characters in a video game, which are only there to populate the scene, but in which we have no investment.

There is no structural time critical deadline which defines the arc of the movie, as there was in the sinking Titanic or the burning Towering Inferno or the Jurassic-Dino-Park-Hunted-Alan-Grant party.

The lack of a temporal framework, the want of an urgent deadline, deflated much of what would have injected a sense of mortally important immediacy into the movie.

And it doesn't help that the suspense is undermined with the trailers. Not only did they give away the most spectacular visual –  the shark bite in the window of the underground bio habitat in front of the little girl, but showing the mom during that scene completely eliminates any tension in the opening shots where she is put in danger by a prehistoric squid. We KNOW she is not in any danger with the squid because she shows up in the Meg-bite scene later in the movie.

In addition there are plot holes. The most egregious is in the premise. The big issue that drives most of the movie is the entry of the Meg from a protected sub ocean into our part of the world. The implication is that this has never happened and would not have happened had the subs not gone to investigate creating a gateway through the cold gas layer acting as a barrier between the Meg world and our own. However, Jonas was fired and in "exile" BECAUSE he claimed he had seen the results of one of these creatures on a ship during a deep ocean rescue FIVE YEARS before. How did it get out BEFORE the deep sea rescue?

Granted this is a popcorn movie but I hate to see distracting holes in plots where a sentence or two could have closed them. For example, they could have mentioned that Jonas' previous mission had taken place near where the research scientists were investigating. Or they could have admitted the possibility these Megs had another entry way into our world. I mean they want a sequel anyway, right?

The Meg was neither more nor less than what I expected it to be. A fun, occasionally scary, popcorn movie. But, especially with the heightened CGI opportunities, it could have been so much more.

There is some youth inappropriate language (understandable as one is being stalked by a 70 foot shark, but still not for children's ears) and a lot of jump scares and violence. Though the majority of the human gore is left unseen in a flurry of action, things like a severed arm and terrified people being pushed and swallowed up by the Meg, again, make it unsuitable for all but mid to older teens and up, at a minimum.

But if you want an excuse to get your date to snuggle closer while she's hiding her eyes in your sleeve, then, by all means, go and have yourself a good shiver — but don't plan on any scuba trips in the near future.