JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM – FAMILY-FRIENDLY BUT FLAWED

SHORT TAKE:

Charming and interesting but missing significant parts of the story. Recommended for only those well versed in the complete Biblical account.

LONG STORY:

I do not mind creative retelling of Biblical stories as long as they are faithful (literally) to the source material, in spirit, if not in fact. Liturgical dramas have been documented all the way back to the 10th century. Many were performed in the church, although not part of the liturgy. And some wonderfully portrayed Biblical stories emerge from the most unlikely of places. In the 1990’s,  Ted Turner, who at the time was openly and aggressively agnostic, and who referred to Christians as “losers”, produced some truly magnificent, accurate and respectful TV movies portraying the Patriarchs, featuring a cavalcade of (at the time) “A” listers: Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey as Abraham and Sarah, Ben Kingsley doing double duty as Moses and Potiphar, Leonard Nimoy as Samuel and Jonathan Price as Saul, to name only a few. These Turner productions took a few liberties, which did nothing to disrespect or undermine the historicity or religious narrative.  The point being that there is a millenia-long, distinguished tradition of respectful, imaginative, interpretations of Biblical events.

So, I had high hopes for a musical version of the Nativity story in Journey to Bethlehem, especially having seen the talented Antonio Banderas in the trailers belting it out as King Herod.

There is much to recommend the movie, which is quite charming. The songs are catchy and lyrically emote the internal turmoil of the characters, as all good musical songs should. The performers had strong and energetic voices, the comic reliefs were cute, and the actors playing Mary and Joseph (Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim) sparked chemistry, convincingly portraying innocence without being saccharin.

There were even some inspired creative aspects. Antonio Banderas’s gleefully evil King Herod gives Shatner’s Kirk a run for his money in scene chewing. Herod’s conflicted first born was an interesting plot twist. And something that might be misinterpreted as inaccurate was appealingly depicted. The Archangel Gabriel paces nervously as he is about to greet Mary, practicing different ways he might introduce his mission to her. This is actually not as far out as one might think. In his Biblical greeting Gabriel says “Hail Mary FULL of Grace!” This has been interpreted by religious scholars to mean that Gabriel was, indeed, marveled by Mary, the human of perfect soul and the first person since Adam and Eve to be born without sin. So for Gabriel to be shown as just a bit nervous was not out of line and was kind of adorable.

There were aspects that did not fit the time period. The choreography, for example, was more Ballywood than Biblical, and the “romance” between Mary and Joseph reminded me more of La La Land than Luke’s Book. But anachronisms do not necessarily diminish the legitimacy of the presentation. Much Renaissance religious art showed Biblical figures in European garb, such as: the Donne Triptych, Madonna of the Meadow by Raphael and The Virgin Mary by Van Eyck. Even the controversially born Jesus Christ Superstar was endorsed by the Vatican on December 13, 1999, during the papacy of Saint Pope John Paul II, despite its anachronistic trappings.

I did think the writers pushed it to the edge of the envelope in the contrived dialogues between Mary and her parents, wherein Mary expressed her dismay both in being betrothed to a man she had never met (which was pretty much de rigeur then and would not have been a surprise) and that she would have preferred to become a teacher rather than “forced” into the more mundane obligations of wife and mother. This chronologically challenged, modernistic, angsty teenage attitude is simply out of character for Mary, who was without sin and would not have been confrontational with her obviously caring and attentive father. But as she ultimately agreed, I chalked it up to the writers showing how she was obedient despite her trepidations.

And, Joseph’s moaning about how his dream to be an “inventor” would somehow be thwarted by his nuptials was a bit ridiculous. Joseph was a carpenter and his modern age kvetching about unfulfilled daydreams was a bit silly.

Now, (SPOILER) I really do have an issue with a kiss between Mary and Joseph at the end of the movie, which implied there would be more than a chaste relationship between them in the future. While this kiss and its “promise” keeps to the rom com formula of the disparate couple finally falling in love, it is COMPLETELY inappropriate for the relationship between Joseph and Mary. Mary was God’s spouse, the Mother of His Son and Joseph was Jesus’ foster father and Mary’s protector, nothing else, (quite enough for one lifetime).

However, what troubled me most was not what was IN the movie but several things that had been left out. When Gabriel announces to Mary that God had chosen her to be the Mother of His Son, the writers left out Mary’s consent! Her last word as Gabriel departs is: “But I have so many questions.” That is a serious breach of Biblical narrative and context. Theologically, neglecting, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to Your Word,” is not a minor quibble. Leaving out Mary’s express and freely given consent is not only inaccurate but a dangerous misunderstanding of Scripture. This guts the infinitely important point of contrast between Mary’s obedience and Eve’s disobedience. It’s not as though these lines are under copyright protection AND,  these expressions of faith are in most Protestant as well as Catholic Bibles, so I do not understand why the writers failed to include them here.

Similarly, when Mary reaches her Cousin Elizabeth they embrace silently. No where are the lines: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” wherein Elizabeth acknowledges Mary’s position as Queen Mother of the Lord, and mentions John (the future Baptizer) leaping within her – a clear affirmation of the unborn disciple’s recognition of Our Lord and Savior even in the womb. Also neglected was Mary’s Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior,” additional acknowledgement of her understanding of her place in what Bishop Robert Barron consistently refers to as Mary’s place in God’s Theo-drama, to which Mary FREELY CONSENTED.

Sadly, these significant blemishes could have been so easily repaired by the insertion of just a few sentences lifted out of the Bible. The 2017 animated feature, The Star, FROM AFFIRM, THE SAME PRODUCTION COMPANY, which shows the Nativity mostly through the eyes of a sentient donkey, clearly included Mary’s express consent: “Yes. Let it be done just as you say.”

Over all I’d give Journey to Bethlehem a qualified approval. But, I regret it is not for the demographic for which I think the producers were aiming. This is an awful shame, as with but a couple of small additions it could have been SO much better and spiritually fulfilling for all audiences. Those of immature or incomplete religious teaching may find some of the issues I have mentioned, and for the reasons I have given, confusing and damaging to their spiritual formation. But for those who are well informed and reasonably mature, who can afford to turn their brain off a bit and overlook the deficiencies in the script, Journey to Bethlehem can prove a relaxing, if fluffy, dose of Advent entertainment.

For the more impressionable or less well-formed, despite the animated silliness, I would rather recommend The Star.

ALTERNATE ENDINGS TO OLD CLASSICS

 

 

MASSIVE SPOILERS – WE’RE PRIMARILY DISCUSSING ENDINGS – SO YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!

ALTERNATE ENDINGS TO OLD CLASSICS!!!

I hate to disabuse you of an illusion but:

Classic movies are not written in stone.

Nonetheless, every movie buff prides themselves on knowing the endings to their favorite old movies. Even a casual connoisseur at the cinematic buffet might know or recognize last lines to a famous movie they haven’t even seen!

“T’was beauty killed the beast” (King Kong); “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” and “Tomorrow is another day.” (Two of the last few lines in Gone With the Wind), “There’s no place like home.” (The Wizard of Oz), “Top of the world, Ma.” (White Heat).

Phrases like these and the endings they invoke have inveigled their way into the cultural vocabulary so firmly one would think that all celluloid masterpieces have amaranthine finales , unlike today’s market driven and screen tested denouements with roundtable  action figure consideration, directors’ cuts, and DVD  special edition options.

But you’d be wrong. Even movies decades old, but still popular today, occasionally went through rewrites for a variety of reasons. These are some of my favorites.

AGAIN – SPOILERS!!! LAST WARNING!

Our Town

This 1940 beauty was originally a famous play by Thornton Wilder about small town Americana life at the turn of the century, mostly focusing on the relationship of childhood sweethearts George and Emily. In the stageplay, Emily dies in childbirth. In the movie she lives. Thornton Wilder explained his approval of this change when the play transitioned to film. He said the theater piece is understood as an abstract so there is a certain emotional distance between the characters and the audience. But in the cinema there is a closeness to reality, an intimacy and familiarity developed between the movie patrons and the big screen personas, which would have made Emily’s death just cruel, so when the producers approached him to change it – he agreed.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Stanley Kubrick was known as both a brilliant cinematographer and an insufferably frustrating director. Infamous for telling his actors what he did not like, but notoriously stubborn in refusing to give them a clue as to what it was that he wanted, the filmatic and box office results were of checkerboard quality.

Anecdotes abound of Kubrick’s poor judgement as a director. Shelly Duvall broke down during filming of The Shining after a record approaching 127 takes of an intensely emotional scene. Kubrick routinely abused his cast to create a movie that even Stephen King, author of the source material, publicly stated he did not like, and who described it as: “…a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.”

Stultifyingly long scenes in Barry Lyndon, where performers appeared afraid to move, resulted in that massive flop being appropriately nicknamed “Bore-y Lyndon”.

But in 1964’s wild ride, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Kubrick was both great cinematographer and great director. With talents like George C. Scott, Peter Sellers (who almost died from exhaustion playing three key roles), Keenan Wynn and Slim Pickens invigorating the set, it is understandable that this deeply dark satire on a world teetering on the edge of global nuclear war would click along with the bizarre uniqueness of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, while still evoking the cautionary thoughtfulness of  Fail Safe, which Strangelove was parodying.

The theatrically released ending sees the world committed to all inclusive radiated destruction, a plan for a handful of survivors to go underground with LOTS of extra buxom females with which to eventually – ahem – repopulate the Earth, and a previously wheelchair bound former Nazi scientist of questionable sanity, the eponymous Dr. Strangelove himself, rising unexpectedly from his chair, give the Nazi salute and shout: “Mien Fuhrer, I can WALK!”

As provocative, quirky, memorable and blackly funny as this is…this WASN’T the original ending. It was supposed to have gone on for another 5 minutes with – of all things – a PIE fight in the war room amongst the President, his cabinet heads, military leaders and the Russian ambassador! However, with the assassination of JFK taking place as they were filming, the idea of a President being hit with anything was, wisely, determined to be a bit too close to the knuckle. On top of that the actors were having WAY too much fun throwing pies at each other to convey the bleak analogy for war Kubrick had intended. So the scenes were set aside for later editing and simply….lost.

The Birds

Then there is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 bizarre alternate reality horror movie about birds in Bodega Bay, which suddenly and for no apparent or explained reason, flock by the hundreds to commit sudden and lethal suicide attacks on people, resulting in fatal and gruesome “peckings” as car windows are shattered, gas stations are blown up, and people are driven mad by the clawing, poking, feathered beasts.

In the theatrical ending the main protagonists drive slowly away from the decimated town, watched by hundreds, if not thousands of birds perched ominously on rooftops and telephone wires.

However, Hitchcock’s initial vision ended the story with a scene showing the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds, hinting at the world wide spread of this cataclysm. BUT lacking the CGI of today, the shocking implications of nature gone – well – wild, was left limited mysteriously to Bodega Bay, as the more spectacular visuals would have been prohibitively expensive, and therefore ended up … at the bottom of the bird cage.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

This brilliant view into the emotionally wrenching family dynamics of a Southern patriarchy is the most complicated in this list, as, though the changes of the Broadway endings are thin and slight, they are pregnant (if you’ll excuse the pun given the plot of COAHTR) each with complexly nuanced different meanings.

The story of Tennessee Williams’ most well known dysfunctional love/hate family actually has FOUR endings, albeit all similar but differing in key subtleties.

COAHTR centers around the relationship between young couple, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and Brick (Paul Newman), at the birthday party for Big Daddy (Burl Ives), the wealthy head of a family whose interactions are strained, to say the least.  Brick and “Gooper” (Jack Carson)  are Big Daddy’s sons, who, like Esau and Issac, could not be more different. Gooper is the diligent, anxious to pleased progeny, whose demonstrably fertile wife’s child production is aimed at impressing Big Daddy into handing the dynasty on to her own husband.

Brick, formerly the fair haired boy and once favorite son, is now a broken down, alcoholic, ex-athlete, with a leg in a cast and a beautiful adoring wife who he disdains. The change in Brick is incomprehensible to his doting father, as Brick, like many of William’s characters, keeps a shameful secret, which would otherwise be quite revelatory, closely guarded.

Brick can not forgive Maggie (or himself) for the death of Skip, his best friend. The reason for this blame is both tragic and a bit convoluted. Maggie, completely devoted to Brick, would do ANYthing for Brick. So, in an attempt to warn Brick of Skip’s personal flaws, which she fears will hurt Brick, offered herself sexually to Skip, but Skip was unable to complete the act.

The first Broadway version included implications of Skip’s homosexual attraction to Brick. Revealed by Skip to Brick the same night as Maggie’s ineffective attempt to seduce him, it was Brick’s revulsion added to Skip’s inability to complete the act with Maggie that led to Skip’s suicide.

Brick not only is furious at Maggie for trying to sleep with Skip, but more so as Brick holds Maggie responsible for proving to him Skip’s seamier nature, which reveal, Brick concludes, resulted in Skip’s suicide.

The first ending of the stage play was dark, confirming Brick’s continued rejection of his desperate wife. Maggie: “I love you Brick.” Brick: “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was true?” callously implying that she is lying for financial gain and cruelly hinting that, even were it true, ironically, he no longer loves her.

The director who Williams’ wanted for the stage play, Elia Kazan (block buster director of both stage and screen, who brought us such movies as Streetcar Named Desire, Gentlemen’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden), did not like this bleak ending and insisted it end on a more hopeful note. Compliantly, but reluctantly, Williams added to the second stageplay version some softening dialogue and a gesture: MAGGIE: “…nothing’s more determined than a cat on a hot tin roof, is there?” Brick allows her to touch his face implying Brick might eventually soften to her.

The third version of the story was the 1958 FILM adapted from the play, and as the most positive is the one I personally like best. The director Richard Brooks and co-author of the screenplay James Poe, made two significant changes: it eliminated the homosexual undertones and made the reconciliation between Maggie and Brick crystal clear. MAGGIE: “Thank you…for backing me up in my lie. [that she was pregnant]” BRICK: “We are through with lies and liars in this house,” as Brick smiles and locks the door.

The third version of the STAGEplay and fourth version of the story overall, was written by Williams for a 1974 revival, and combines the first two stageplay endings. Brick tells Maggie he admires her. Maggie tells Brick she loves him. Brick says: “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was true?” but then allows Maggie to touch his face, making the formerly caustic line now more one of gentle sarcasm, hinting that he has forgiven her, or at least will soon.

Gone With the Wind

This gorgeous epic of the Civil War and the resulting destruction of the genteel Southern Plantation life mostly seen from the POV of Scarlett, a feisty, largely self absorbed woman, recalls one of the most famous ending lines in cinematic history. Scarlett’s husband, Rhett, finally fed up with years of Scarlett’s neglect, emotional infidelity, manipulative personality and rejection of him, leaves. Scarlett, at long last, but too late, recognizes her love for Rhett and determines to win him back. Though she is too exhausted with the traumatic events leading up to this moment right then, she will come up with a plan the next day because: “After all – tomorrow is another day.” This line from the eponymous book published in 1936 and from the movie adaptation released in 1939 reflected an assertive, self confident, pro active and independent (even if possibly delusional) woman – quite startling in that era.

BUT that was not the original last line. The first draft of the screenplay had Scarlett passively hoping that: “Rhett! You’ll come back. I know you will.” Love Scarlett or hate her, this line would have been abysmally out of character for the strong willed, bull-headed, wrecking ball we had watched survive the multiple disasters, admittedly many self-made, which formed the structure of her life.

The far more blindly confident and dauntlessly self-assured line that ended up as the well known last line of this classic is far more in keeping with the Scarlett we had come to know.

Suspicion

Simplest and most straight forward change of heart in this group. The end of the original version of this 1948 thriller/mystery, sees Cary Grant try to murder his wife. In the revised theatrically released edition he is “only” a thief, and a repentant one at that. Reason: The studio did not want to besmirch Grant’s genial good guy image.

The Jungle Book – animated, Disney – 1967

I was 8 when this movie came out in the theater and my Dad almost assuredly took me. As an adult and a now parent myself, one of my favorite Disney chuckles is the feminine eyes that eventually lure Mowgli away from the jungle and his animal friends and into the village – sort of an analogy for what happens to most men – leaving the less civil world of their singleness for the more gentile virtues of domesticity, beguiled by the enchantment of womanly wiles – a warning with which my husband and I enjoyed teasing our sons.

BUT this is not the way the first draft of the story went. Leaning more on the Kipling story, there was an entire third and LONG act which might have almost doubled the time and most certainly would have made it a darker film. In the initial concept Mowgli, upon returning to the village, was at once reunited with his human mother and challenged by an elder named Buldeo who eventually forces Mowgli into the forest in search of King Louie’s treasure, but is ultimately eaten by Shere Khan who is, in turn, shot and killed by Mowgli. Mowgli is then accepted by both villagers and jungle as a full fledged member of both. Whew! Honestly a bit much, I suspect, for the young crowd for which it was originally intended.

SO – quintessential movie endings – aren’t. They are often, as Ben Franklin described the creation of both revolutions and children born out of wedlock in the musical 1776: “half-improvised and half-compromised”. Not surprising as movies are rarely made alone. Even auteurs like Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Branagh must rely on a plethora of cast and crew to see their vision manifest itself into something tangible they can present to the rest of the world. As a result of: negotiation with a talent they wish to include, financial pragmatism, public relations, or just plain old common sense, story lines can be quite dynamic even as the movies are being filmed.

And it is a blessing when these serendipitous events, creative editings and pragmatic decisions end up producing the great films, like these, which grace the halls of cinematic legend.  

 

IT’S NOT THE THREE TENORS

AUDIO OPTION OF ARTICLE “IT’S NOT THE THREE TENORS”

Just a random thought —

I was singing in the shower, as I am wont to do …. please remember this point as your first clue … and a thought occurred to me which has led me to ask the following riddle:

What does a relatively current action adventure hero, a tall gangly comedian and the eponymous lead of a 1979 TV sitcom have in common?

The late and gravely voiced Emmy winning Robert Guillaume, with a sterling list of 100 stage, TV and film accomplishments is probably best known for his stint as the butler, Benson, in the 1979 TV sitcom of the same name.

Michael Crawford launched his film career as the tall, gawky, limber-limbed, nasal-voice, love-smitten store clerk in Hello Dolly.

Gerard Butler’s tough Scottish brogue-personality has enlivened the entertainment factor of many an otherwise generic action adventure flick.

What on EARTH could they possibly all have in common? To my knowledge they were never in any project at the same time.

Crawford is British, very white bread, old enough to be Butler’s father, and originally wanted to be a pilot or soccer player.

Guillame, the most senior of the three, was a black Missourian, born about the same time as Crawford’s parents, raised by his grandmother after being abandoned by his alcoholic mother, and was an army veteran.

Butler, the youngest of the trio, grew up a fatherless youth in Scotland and became a  lawyer before launching into his acting career.

Guessed yet?

Here’s a hint:

“In the dark…” such as in a movie or stage theater or even in a den watching a movie with your family with the lamps off, “…it is easy to pretend that the truth is what it ought to be.”

Give up?

They are the three best known Phantoms – that scarred, masked, probably psychotic, mysterious denizen of the opera theatre catacombs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Phantom of the Opera, who will kill to get his songbird protege on stage, and murder while belting out some of the most famous tunes in all of stage and screen. Crawford was first on stage in 1986, with Guillame taking over in 1990, in a controversial but proven brilliant move after Crawford moved on. Then Butler took that lead in the 2004 filmed version.

“Music of the Night”…”Phantom of the Opera”…”All I Ask of You”…”Angel of Music”. Any of these songs sung by any of these men will send chills down your spine, fire your imagination, and melt your heart.

There’s something about music that unites us more than almost anything else. Each of these very talented men come from completely different backgrounds, had vastly divergent career paths, and dramatically different personality and acting styles out of mask, yet —- and yet they all performed this heartbreakingly tragic, mesmerizing and deliciously vocalled character in a way that entranced audiences around the world.

Music and love – two of the only generators of real magic in the world.

So there you have it – A geeky Brit, an urbane sitcom star and a thuggish-looking action hero. Who’d’ve guessed it — three generations of actors who became – The Three Phantoms.

JUDY – A HORRIBLE WARNING BEHIND THE CURTAIN

AUDIO OPTION FOR REVIEW TITLED JUDY – A HORRIBLE WARNING BEHIND THE CURTAIN

SHORT TAKE:
Harsh look at the woman behind the magic of Judy Garland, aka Frances Ethel Gumm, in her waning professional months, near the end of her life.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Adult fare ONLY. Vulgar and blasphemous language, sexuality, implied pedophilia, scenes of alcohol and drug abuse.

LONG TAKE:

One of the things I’ve learned in writing movie reviews is that, once seriously analyzed, you never look at these celluloid miracles quite the same way. Not necessarily a bad thing, just different.

Like when Dorothy gets a peek behind the Wizard’s curtains. She discovers truths about him that perhaps she didn’t want to know but at the same time makes him more accessible.

This can be especially true about biographies, and Judy, a screenplay by Tom Edge, in turn based on the play The End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, is a prime example of learning more about the creation of a fantasy than is good for that imaginary world’s longevity.

I knew Judy Garland primarily for her unforgettable performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Judy gives a look into the industry that stole her childhood, made her feel betrayed by the adults who should have been protecting her, addicted her to pick me ups and barbiturates, and ultimately contributed to her death at a prematurely aged 47.

Renee Zellweger, (Miss Potter, Bridget Jones, Chicago) up for best actress for her astonishing performance in Judy, is mesmerizing. Zellweger has captured the look and essence of Judy Garland. Not just the easy to imitate woman at the height of her career, but someone who was at the top of her game and now at the bottom of her own self-dug well, who, history dictates, will die in but months from a lifetime of physical abuse and addiction. Yet she is also a woman who has moments of great dignity and kindness in comforting a disconsolate fan, and sparkles brilliantly showcasing her incredible talent. Zellweger shines forth as brightly in Garland’s singing as she demonstrates the desperate darkness of Garland’s personal lows in the last months of her life.

Judy Garland blasted into America’s consciousness with her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and never really left.

Zellweger looks, sounds and acts more like Judy Garland than Judy Garland. She demonstrates an incredible repertoire, performing Garland’s iconic songs: The Trolley Song, Over the Rainbow, You Made me Love You, Talk of the Town, By Myself, Get Happy, San Francisco, Zing Went the Strings, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Come Rain or Come Shine. These are worth seeing all by themselves.

But as good as Renee Z’s performance is, the same cannot be said for the other performers or the rest of the movie as directed by Rupert Goold, (mostly known for BBC mini-series filmings of Shakespeare). I could not shake the feeling, even while knowing better, that this was a made-for-TV weekly weeper. The close-ups, the episodic nature of the scenes, and the mediocre, caricature acting of the other performers made for a lukewarm film at best.

Renee Z appeared like a diamond sewn onto the waistcoat of a poorly fitting polyester suit from Walmart. The supporting structure is not terrible, and certainly serves its purpose but is nothing special.

The background soundtrack by Gabriel Yared is bland fare, applying fluffy disconnected tunes to scenes, seemingly chosen from a standard library of emotion emoting jingles.

The cinematography, as I have indicated, harkens back to boob tube “Scandal-of-the-Week” bio fodder which used to be sprinkled into the weekly TV Guide.

Judy’s greatest virtue, aside from Renee Z’s astonishing performance, is the horrible warning to parents who might have stars in their eyes. Releasing children into any industry without close parental supervision and protection is a disaster waiting to happen.

Miss Garland’s father cheated on Garland’s mother with men. Judy’s mother, according to the screenplay, as well as the prima facia evidence of Garland’s precipitous decline, sold her to the Hollywood System. Neither parent raised or responsibly watched over her. The child Garland (Darci Shaw) was tyrannically forced into eating and behavioral schedules torturous, inappropriate, and abusive to her slight frame. She was given pills to help her sleep and pills to wake her up so as to accommodate the brutal filming schedules. There were allegations of sexual advances from older men including Louis B. Mayer (portrayed by Richard Cordery from About Time and Les Misérables). In turn, Judy grew up pill addicted, fragile, cynical, and desperate for the attention of men. She crashed four marriages and died three months after marrying her fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock – La La Land, Unbroken, Noah).

Garland struggled desperately to be a better mother for her three children, Liza from her marriage to Vincent Minelli, and Lorna, and Joey, with Sid Luft (played by Rufus Sewell – Hamlet, The Illusionist) but they have suffered from the sins of their parents as well.

Ms. Garland died at the age of 47 looking like she was the wrong side of 70.

Liza Minnelli, Miss Garland’s oldest child, expressly disapproved of the script and I can understand why. Not only does it dig up dirt on poor Miss Garland like dirty underwear on a laundry line, but it serves no end but to satisfy curious titillation. Further, it tarnishes the idealized image of the little girl who went to Oz with which we all grew up.

In Bohemian Rhapsody Freddie Mercury admitted to his failings and, despite his sufferings, carried on, tried to make amends with those he had hurt and soldiered on writing music with his band until days before his death. Ms. Garland, as shown in Judy, continued binge drinking, even showing up drunk to sold-out performances, resulting in her being booed off stage more than once. She fought for her own preferences over what was obviously in the best interests of her children. She was often unappreciative of the help others tried to provide her, and was eventually fired by people who loved and respected her talent when even they couldn’t tolerate her unprofessional behavior any longer. As a result she died penniless.

There is something to said for being a horrible warning. If keeping innocents out of the Hollywood System is the theme, it certainly serves that purpose and is worth viewing for that. But, having grown up with one image of Dorothy, there is a part of me who, having now peeked behind the Wizard’s curtain, kind of wished I hadn’t.

R.I.P. Judy.

A CHRISTMAS STORY – LOVELY NOSTALGIC REMINISCENCE AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely Christmas tale, set in 1950’s Americana, of a narrator’s look back on his childhood quest for the ideal present during the weeks leading up to Christmas morning.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone – children of all ages.

LONG TAKE:

A Christmas Story, which opened December 6, 2019  at ACTS Theatre and plays through December 15, 2019 (GET TICKETS HERE), is the stage play version, which premiered in 2000, based upon the charming classic holiday movie from 1983, which was, in turn, based upon the semi-autobiographical anecdotal book by Jean Shepherd, titled In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

The play tale is the same as the movie, narrated by the adult version of Ralphie, a little boy growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s during the weeks leading up to Christmas the year he desperately wanted and fantasized about having “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time”. Unfortunately his mother, his teacher and even the department store Santa gave the same litany response: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

While Ralphie’s ploys to obtain this forbidden item create the Christmas tree trunk of the story, the real gems, like ornaments on the branches, are the moments of true Americana which made up Ralphie’s childhood: the bundling up ritual before venturing into the bitter weather to get to school; Ralphie’s fantasies of protecting his family and friends with his BB gun; his father’s constant struggle with their old furnace accompanied by a string of invectives translated for the play into child-appropriate made up words; Ralphie’s friend Flick getting his tongue stuck on a lamppost subsequent to a triple dog dare; his fellow classmate Esther Jane’s obvious crush on him about which he is, at the time, completely oblivious; the eccentricities of his little brother Randy; and most importantly the close knit time he spent with his family. It didn’t matter that the dinners often suffered from routine or his father erroneously thought he was a mechanic. The magic was in the fact the parents and boys were together every night and the quantity of time they spent together AS a family which brings meaning to the real Christmas Story. The moments in a child’s life spent, as my own husband refers to them, MAKING memories.

A Christmas Story is a comedy, in as much as people are naturally funny. It’s not a series of one liners or gags but finds humor in the people we have in our lives, or even the people we are, all of whom find places in this story.  From Mother, “the Old Man” and brother Ralphie, to the bully Farkus and Miss Shields, his fifth grade teacher, all the characters will be quite familiar even to those who have never before seen the movie or this play. These are people who exist in all our lives in one form or another.

Noah Herbert is perfect as Ralphie, the young lead, sweet and ingenuous, he is the embodiment of that innocent time. Elizabeth Harper, as Mother, is the practical center of the family, kindly guiding her family through their antics like a loving human “face palm” of affectionate exasperation. Bobbie Guillory is “The Old Man”, a hard working devoted husband and father, whose amateur mechanics, whimsical commitment to contest entering, and attachment to a uniquely peculiar prize lamp inform many of the family events. Harper and Guillory create warm appealing characters with believable affectionate chemistry. Zac Hammon is the adult version of Ralphie looking back on his family and that particular Christmas with a fond nostalgia and warm wisdom, providing narration for the necessary exposition. Mila Alcantara is sweet and natural as Esther Jane, Ralphie’s crush. Hannah Miller chews the scenery as Scut Farkus, a comical version of the class bully. David Gustafson is adorable as Ralphie’s younger brother. Elliott Mitchell is the hapless Flick, constantly the butt of bad luck. Dorothy Thomason is fun as the stern but well meaning Miss Shields. And rounding out the cast is Dylan Freeman as Schwartz, and Jolie Leubner as Helen, Ralphie’s other classmates.

All the young actors do a magnificent job in their portrayals, timing and enthusiastic characterizations of these 1950’s children.

The set is appropriately always against the backdrop of the family kitchen. The kitchen was the heart and center of Ralphie’s home and life, with occasional forays to a nicely constructed upstairs bedroom to where Ralphie retires to think out loud, write essays of devotion about his Red Ryder gun and contemplate the mysteries of his life. Action outside the kitchen is set in front of the kitchen backdrop. This works on a conceptual as well as practical level, as the consequences of the outside world will eventually return and resolve to a satisfying conclusion there at the kitchen table anyway within the bosom of his family.

Director Clay Hebert, along with assistant Stan Morris and stage manager Lauren Manuel do a terrific job bringing this story together. Much of this stage incarnation echoes true to the film version but I must especially commend the director and his crew in what I personally perceive as a major improvement on the dynamics of the parents. In the 1983 movie Mother, as portrayed by Melinda Dillon, is a mousy creature and Darren MacGavin’s “Old Man” is kind of a clueless bulldozer. But Clay Hebert’s vision transforms those unappealing characters into the charming complementary couple of smart pragmatic Mother and energetic idealist “Old Man,” who we parents would not mind being remembered as. Plaudits go to all the cast and crew for successfully coming together as a troupe to offer this magical Christmas gift down memory lane to Lake Charles.

So go see this warm hearted show, which will conjure nostalgia for the past in the adults, ring true for children in the present, and light a unique lamp in the window for all families who look hopefully towards this Christmas and all the future Christmases to come.

ALITA – BATTLE ANGEL – A WELL TOLD, BUT ADULT, TALE OF A CYBORG HERO IN A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE SOCIETY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fascinating animation/real action mix story based on a long-running Japanese manga series,  about a cyborg girl reconstructed and “adopted” by a human and the dystopian society they both must navigate to survive.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens/young adults minimum for language, and extreme violence.

LONG TAKE:

BEYOND HERE BE OCCASIONAL SPOILERS

This first heads up is more of a warning than a spoiler. Alita: Battle Angel is nowhere near a completed story. James Cameron takes a page from Peter Jackson’s playbook – giving us great character introductions, wonderful interpersonal relationships, interesting and fearsome enemies, exciting battle scenes …. and an abrupt unfinished ending. OK – technically the titular director is Robert Rodriguez but with James Cameron as the scriptwriter you know many of the decisions in the filming of this movie were done as a collaborative effort.

A musical analogy would liken it to ending a symphony on a dominant chord instead of the tonic chord, meaning a note that does not feel complete. Another way to look at it would be to begin the phrase ” shave and a haircut…”

Anyone who has seen the brilliant three-part Lord of the Rings series or the bloated Hobbit trilogy knows that Mr. Jackson likes to end his first story not exactly with a cliffhanger but with a temporary break in the action, taking Donald O’Conner’s advice to: “Always leave your audience wanting more,” to heart. Jackson ends his movies at about the place where one might choose to hit the pause button in the middle of the movie after one has had too many sodas.

And Mr. Cameron and Robert Rodriguez have done exactly the same thing with Alita – starting with an involving, well told story which then drops off a cliff. To be fair, this is on purpose.

HOWEVER, this is not surprising as Alita: Battle Angel is based, in whole and in part, on the first four of a NINE VOLUME manga series written between 1990-1995 by Yukito Kishiro called Gunnm (translated literally as “Gun Dream”). Alita: Battle Angel, the movie, like the manga series before it, is about a cyborg girl rescued from a dumpster and reconstructed by a cybernetics physician in a dystopian society set about 500 years from now.

The CGI was astonishing. James Cameron, who has been enamored of this manga series for about 10 years, said that he was waiting for the technology to become advanced enough to meet the demands of how he saw the film should be made. And he does not disappoint.

Rosa Salazar who plays the eponymous character is quoted to have said: “I’m a walking piece of technology, so that made it actually quite easy to fall into the physicality of a cyborg.” Photos of her show her dressed literally from head to foot in motion capture, including the unusual addition of two cameras on her face. Watching the behind-the-scenes was amusing as the actress would have to subtly duck and weave around the other actor’s head when coming close to avoid clobbering them with the extra headgear (which technology was, of course, CGIed out in post production). But the slight dance goes smoothly in the final product due to Ms. Salazar’s skillful body language and the technical prowess of the computer geniuses who brought Alita to life.

It’s interesting to see Christoph Waltz as a good guy. Usually he plays very rough, sometimes cold blooded or downright evil characters – such as being the most recent incarnation of James Bond’s antagonist Blofeld in Spectre, or the chilling psycho-Nazi Landa in Inglourious Basterds (sic), or the abusive plagiarizing husband in Big Eyes – the list goes on. But in Alita, Waltz is a nurturing protective creator/father-figure, his normally scary edge giving believability to his “side job”.

Jennifer Connelly, whose pedigree dates all the way back to David Bowie’s 1986 fantasy, Labyrinth, is Ido’s estranged wife and, therefore, Alita’s “mother”.

Mahershala Ali (Green Book – see my post on that brilliant movie) is the lead baddie’s main henchman.

Keean Johnson does a delightful job of charming Alita as the shady boyfriend, Hugo, in a mixed motivational character with shifting alliances that Clark Gable might have played way back when. And I MUST note that Mr. Johnson is a HOMESCHOOLED KID!!! Check out his bio here on us.imdb.com.

There are also some VERY fun cameos, which are designed for Mr. Cameron’s hoped for sequel. Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys – and don’t laugh at me, I REALLY LIKED that movie – see my post on it here) plays Jashugan, a champion in Motorball, the gladiatorial game played in Alita. Edward Norton (he is to Hulk as Tobey Maguire was to Spiderman – close but no cigar, also in Collateral Beauty – see post here, Fight Club, and American History X), appears in a couple of  – don’t blink or you’ll miss it – moments as Nova the ULTIMATE controller of the sky city of Zalem, who becomes Alita’s nemesis and the target of her future goals to storm said city. Both have uncredited parts. Mr. Cameron explained that even if they never make the sequel, that those characters were must-haves in the story and essential to show. And, he said, if they did make a sequel that they wanted heavy hitters for those roles. Both men, Courtney and Norton, are friends and work colleagues of Cameron’s, so were more than willing to participate even in these tiny roles to help further the prospect of a sequel.

The soundtrack, written by Antonius B. Holkenborg, who goes by Junkie XL, is gorgeous and positively symphonic, creating a delightful variety of emotions from Alita’s sweetly, almost fairy-like awakening in Dr. Ido’s home to Terminator-feel violent reflections of her experiences in the Motorball battles against homicidal cyborgs during the Rollerball-level lethal game.

For anyone who is not old enough or geeky enough to remember the 1975 movie Rollerball, starring James Caan (whose credits date from the iconic tear-jerker sports game Brian’s Song, to the ill-fated Corleone son in The Godfather, to the voice of the tech-befuddled Dad in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), it is worth taking note.  Motorball, as presented in Alita is a DUPLICATE of the murderous gladiatorial eponymous game played in the movieRollerball,   set in another dystopian ultra-violent society. It is obvious Mr. Kishiro is familiar with this story.

There has been some controversy over the use of oversized eyes in Alita. Some say they are disturbing and off-putting. I strongly disagree with the naysayers. Alita’s unusually large orbs perform a multiplicity of plot functions. For one, it highlights Alita AS a cyborg. There is no mistaking her for a natural born full human. For another, if windows are the eyes to the soul, then Alita wears hers not just on her sleeve right next to her heart but right there on her face for all the world to see. Between the fine acting and the quality CGI every subtlety of Alita’s growing and changing emotions and character are there for the audience to relate. Large,  disproportionate eyes are also a feature of small young creatures, including humans. It is one of the designations which mark an inchoate being, not just inspiring protective feelings of those around them but signaling their fundamental innocence. While Alita does do some horrific things it is from her training in her previous life and only done for the protection of others – Ido, her human friend Hugo, even a stray dog.

Alita has a couple of obstacles to hurdle to gain the attention and affection of a Western audience. The first and most obvious is, of course, the manga origin, which is a subset of an already limited demographic of comic book sales. The second is her identity as a warrior cyborg, which could have been an automatic bias against her given the Terminator series. I think her preternaturally large eyes help create an almost instant connection to this character, helping break down those barriers. I thought the device clever, without being (IF you will excuse the VERY deliberate pun) “in your face” and quite effective.

While animated AND based on a comic book character, Alita is NOT for children. There is EXTREME violence, which includes dismemberment, crushed heads, and death. It is likely the movie might have been saddled with an R rating had Cameron and Rodriguez not had the simple foresight to make cyborg “blood” obviously manufactured blue instead of gory red. There is at least one gratuitous “F” bomb uttered by Alita, herself. And they even violate one of MY personal taboos – they KILL A DOG! Though this happens, admittedly, out of sight, Alita smears the dog’s red blood under her eyes like war paint before beginning her quest to defeat the tyrannical forces which have been unleashed against her and her ersatz family.

As a result this is not a movie either for the young nor the faint of heart.  For a more mature audience, however, it is a spectacular and creatively told outing. It is interesting to almost “feel” the Japanese manga origins in the way the characters react in more restrained, almost “Vulcan” ways than an America audience might be used to.

In addition, the plot moves along quickly and efficiently. It does not dawdle on relatively trivial points on which many similar genre American movies might languish. For example, there is a bit of tension created from Ido not telling Alita initially that the name he chose for her was that of his murdered daughter. (In the original manga series it was Ido’s cat, but Cameron’s script, wisely, I thought, decided on a more emotionally compelling attachment). Honestly, in an America movie this omission might have been held on to for a prolonged period then left as a mid-first act or even mid-second act “reveal”. Instead, Alita establishes this “secret” only long enough for the audience to find out, then has Ido explain it to Alita fairly expeditiously.  To avoid spoilers I won’t give any more examples, but suffice to say this style is adapted throughout the movie. Such choices clear the way for a more intelligent plot.

I do recommend Alita but only for an older audience of late teens/young adults and up. It is refreshingly different and well written. It features excellent acting, especially considering the massive amounts of green screen in the landscape and motion capture equipment on the people with which the actors must contend. The music is worth listening to all by itself. But DO keep in mind the ending is VERY unsatisfying – albeit contrived purposefully so – as a build up for the next installment.

INSTANT FAMILY – A TALE OF THE TRUE SUPER HEROES

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF INSTANT FAMILY REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

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

WHO SHOULD GO:

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

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FANTASTIC BEASTS 2: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD – WEAK, FLAWED PLOT RUINS A PROMISING STORY AND UNDERCUTS ITS INTERESTING CHARACTERS

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF FANTASTIC BEASTS 2 REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Adults-appropriate only sequel to Fantastic Beasts which follows the Hitler-like rise of Grindelwald.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults who were fans of the series growing up.

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LONG TAKE:

I’m going to say it because no one in the last eleven years has: JK Rowling is a genius, and therein lies the crime worse than Grindelwald’s.

SPOILERS

The premise of the Crimes of Grindelwald is the continuation of the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne – Les Mis, The Theory of Everything) and his sidekick Jacob (Dan Fogler from Balls of Fury), as they look for Credence (Ezra Miller, Flash from Justice League and Suicide Squad), thought to have been killed in the previous movie. Side plots involve a misunderstanding between Newt and Tina (Katherine Waterston) and the ultimately fatal frustration of Queenie (Alsion Sudol) over the law which forbids her and Jacob to marry. Against all this is the rising of the tide of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp – Murder on the Orient Express, Benny and Joon, Pirates of the Carribbean, Public Enemy and almost every Tim Burton movie ever made), Grindelwald’s threatening anti-muggle philosophy, which plays out akin to the anti-semitism of the Nazis, and … Dumbledore’s initially inexplicable reluctance to fight him.

JK Rowling pronounced, three months after the publication of the last book in the Harry Potter series, that Dumbledore was gay. This was an extraordinarily dramatic twist in the backstory of a major character which had no clues or preparation for it in the books to support it.

Revelations about sexual preferences amongst main characters are not usually the fodder of children’s storybook mythology. Granted the people who started out with Rowling when they were 11 are now in their thirties, big people who are more readily able to handle this kind of dark, complex relationship. But this is still a children’s story, andDumbledore’s same sex attractions are really just not something appropriate to the child-target audience. But, even aside from that, there is no literary justification for it, no relevant hints to it and no established lore for it.

JK doubles down on this issue by making Dumbledore’s sexual proclivities a major plot point in Fantastic Beasts 2. Dumbdledore will not confront the most dangerous and diaboliocal wizard ever born because … he is infatuated with him. This is a weak excuse at best and not up to Rowling’s best efforts.While there is absolutely nothing explicit whatsoever in the movie between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, there are uncomfortable and unnecessary innuendos and long hairy looks aplenty between Law’s Dumbledore and Depps’ Grindelwald, which I would NOT want to have to explain to my underage child. It’s just not subject matter that should even be averred to in a story primarily aimed at school aged children, even IF the charter fans are well past the age of consent now.

In addition, there are a number of other ill advised, non-sequitor, anachronistic, plot convolutions it will be very difficult for JK to explain away without time turners. Keep in mind Rowling wrote this script so can not blame a poor scriptwriting translation.

Short list:

The presence of Professor McGonagall at the castle during the movie (Fiona Glascott in FB2 and during the first eight movies by Dame Maggie Smith) is one of the most obvious. The film takes place in 1927 and McGonagall did not start teaching at Hogwarts until 1956. Of course, this could have been her relative, but then the appearance of this character would be just a sloppy name drop.

Dumbledore is teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. According to the original lore, Dumbledore never taught Defense Against the Dark Arts, but Transfigurations.

Credence is alive but there is no explanation as to how. Granted there was a remaining wisp of his obscurus (a manifestation of a wizard’s repressed magical powers which forms if they are not allowed to express those powers openly), left at the end of the previous movie. Does even a single bit of the obscurus have the ENTIRE person in it with memories intact? This power is never alluded to in the first story’s description of the obscurus.

If the chupacabra (a mini-dragon-like craeture which accompanies Grindelwald at the beginning of the movie) is a guard, why does it attack the ministry member and seem so affectionate to Grindelwald? If it belongs to Grindelwald, why does Grindelwald so casually kill it?

While everyone was happy to see Jacob, the muggle baker, return, it was with a shoddy trick – that the obliviate didn’t work on him because it only erased BAD memories and he only had good ones. But at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts it was OBVIOUS Jacob did not recognize Newt, did not clearly understand where his bakery ideas were coming from, and at first did not recognize Queenie. It would have been more believable to say, for example, that Queenie had placed a protective charm on him in their final parting kiss, which would make the obliviate in the rain cause only a temporary loss of memory. But the way Rowling handled it in this second FB script was just clumsy and careless.

Why did Queenie abandon Jacob? If Queenie’s primary reason for wanting to follow Grindelwald was to fight the rule prohibiting her relationship with Jacob, then how does leaving Jacob in a collapsing arena, surrounded by lethally enchanted flames, to follow someone who hates muggles, going to further this goal? Was she a victim of the Imperius curse?  She seemed to succumb to Grindelwald’s “charms” pretty voluntarily when she first meets him without his using a spell.

On the plus side – The Fantastic Beasts themselves are delightful, especially as they do not heavily rehash the old ones, but introduce us to new ones: the Zouwu, which looks like a Chinese parade float come to toothy life, the underwater horse, the Kelpie (because it looks like it is made from kelp), and the creepy black Matagot cats from French folklore. (Thankfully no more Erumpant-Newt mating dances – that was just embarrassing.)

The special effects – from the underground circus performers to Newt’s Kelpie ride – are interesting. The music is familiar Potter themes. And the acting is solid as all the characters we’ve seen before reprise their roles solidly.

Redmayne is especially outstanding as the socially challenged Newt tries very hard to reconnect with Tina and reconcile with his brother, Theseus. Redmayne’s performance is worth seeing the movie for. His depiction of Newt with autistic characteristics – lack of eye contact, difficulty understanding the social cues others take for granted, his hesitant verbal skills, trouble expressing physical affection with his own brother – is not an accident. While Rowling never expressly named the spectrum when discussing the character with Redmayne, Redmayne was openly aware of what these personality quirks denoted and actively created this character within the spectrum of autistic behavior.

No overt mention of autism ever comes up – this movie takes place in 1927 and autism was not even recognized until the ’30’s, so, appropriately, everyone just accepts Newt’s behavior as just a part of his unusual personality. In addition to his spot on Newt, Redmayne presents us with a Newt that grows and develops, improving his interpersonal expressions with those to whom he feels most close: Theseus, Tina and Jacob.

Fogler is again adorable, funny and relatable as the muggle, Jacob. Sudol is disturbing and heartbreaking as she morphs from the gentle Queenie to Grindelwald’s complicit functionary. Jude Law, aside from the demands of his unique relationship preferences, is a wonderful young Dumbledore, with just the right whimsy, humor and mystery which could believably mature into Richard Harris’ Dumbledore in The Sorcerer’s (/Philosopher’s) Stone.

The Nazi theme is also very dark, and for mature audiences. There are at least a couple of events, relating appropriately but grimly enough to Grindelwald’s rise as a charismatic tyrannical leader, which by themselves would recommend against taking children. One example is the cold-blooded murder of an adorable two year old toddler, even as Grindelwald smiles at the babe’s inherent charms, similar to the Nazi thugs who bundled families into gas chambers after giving the children sweets. This parallel hits hard when one notes that Queenie and Tina’s last name is Goldstein, an obvious Jewish connection, making Queenie’s betrayal all the more ironic and heartbreaking.

But while the characters – creature, wizard and muggle – all fare well, the overall plot suffers from plain old bad writing. If Rowling has something up her sleeve that would clear much of the threadbare points up she has left no breadcrumbs to give us some confidence in a strategy, though the movie ends on a number of cliffhangers and set ups for the next movie.

CONCLUSION

Between the inappropriate sexual references and well thought out but grimly burgeoning magical Third Reich, I would NOT take children to see this movie. If you were the age to receive a letter from Hogwarts when the first books came out, you’d be more than old enough for the themes now. BUT be aware of the peculiar plot holes and unexplained inconsistencies from the long held, previously well established Harry Potter canon, which makes this a disappointing and unsatisfying outing despite the good performances and interesting creatures. Rowling is capable of so much better.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE – A DELIGHTFUL COMEDY OF TERRORS AT OUR OWN LAKE CHARLES, LA ACTS THEATRE

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The Addams Family was an endearing bunch of creepy oddballs. Appearing like zombies, witches and vampires they were actually a loving Mom, Dad, kids and extended family of rich and philanthropic homeschoolers.

The family of Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, in the classic Lion in Winter were not so companionable, and battled continuously with each other throughout the play. Different members bond with, then betray, each other, jockeying for power, land, revenge, attention, or love. At the end of a particularly vicious argument with her husband, Eleanor, left sitting on the floor in the doorway, gathers herself together and to self-console muses: "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"

The Guardians of the Galaxy is a band of violent and ethically questionable outlaws and vigilantes who come together as a family unit in part to (re)raise Groot, who is a sentient tree. (See my review on that one here .)

NONE of them have anything on the Brewsters.

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that Mortimer, a once cynical-of-romance theater critic, now totally smitten and freshly engaged to Elaine, the girl next door, goes to his sweet, loving, maiden aunts’ home for a visit and to break the good news.

In residence is his adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt, periodically charging up the stairs he knows as San Juan Hill and digging grave sized locks in the basement, which he thinks is the Panama Canal. Hovering in the background is the ominous, but so far absent, other brother, Jonathan. And so the stage is literally set for this very black and very funny slapstick comedy about a family which would put the Guardians on alert, make the Addams Family startle, and have both Henry and Eleanor running for cover. Bodies pile up and are switched like the plates of tuna in Noises Off or the suitcases from What’s Up Doc, identities are hidden and a good time is ultimately had by all…except for the corpses…in Arsenic and Old Lace.

I hesitate to say more for the benefit of those readers who have not seen either the play or the brilliant 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. If you don’t know the story it is just too delightful to spoil. If you do know some of the details then it will be like going back for seconds of your favorite ice cream.

Clay Hebert, the director and Officer Klein, is a familiar and welcome face from every stage Lake Charles offers. He has a resume which spans from McNeese's Theater to ACTS, and from Lake Charles Little Theatre to the Bayou Players and independent film productions all over Lake Charles. Clay artfully guides this fairly large cast through the quick draw and fast paced humor of Arsenic, which is to comedy what very dark and deliciously bitter semi-sweet morsels are to chocolate chip cookies, skillfully leading his troupe over that tightrope between horror and humor.

Louis Barrilleaux, another talented veteran of ACTS, LCLT and McNeese for over 20 years, is Mortimer, the eye around which this storm circulates.

Kelly Rowland and Sarah Broussard, respectively as Martha and Abbey Brewster, age themselves convincingly 50 years to play Mortimer’s adorably naive and unassuming aunts whose home is the site for some rather….unexpected events. Both ladies have degrees in performance, Kelly in music and Sarah in theater, with a wide and diverse range of acting credits.

Rebecca Harris, an actress with an impressive resume, is Mortimer’s confused but stalwart fiancee.

Aaron Webster, a self-described reluctant actor, is eminently creepy as Jonathan, the ne'er-do-well prodigal brother.

Brahnsen Lopez, another stage veteran, plays Jonathan’s would-be repentant colleague, Dr. Einstein (not Albert).

Matt Dye, local radio personality and frequently cast in small but scene stealing roles, does it again as Teddy.

Mark Hebert, Dusty Duffy, Dylan Conley and Kathy Heath round out the cast with memorable supporting characters.

 

The set is terrific, creating the authentically homey, gentle parlor of two elderly aunts, making the sinister events all the funnier for the contrast, complete with two sets of stairs and a landing up and through which Teddy has the freedom to charge with abandon, a window seat which can house…various and sundry… and French doors through which the characters are free to pop in and out.

I was privileged to interview Diki Jines, master electrician on the set and will have his interview clips up shortly below, talking about the set, its design and a little background.

Timing and blocking are very key, especially in this comedy of terrors and Clay has the tempo and coordinated actions and responses wound like a Swiss Cuckoo clockwork.

It’s a joy to watch a stage full of such talented veterans work smoothly together, and the fact most are old friends and/or fellow thespians, who have trod the boards often together, helps catalyze the chemistry that makes this play full of intimately connected characters work. These performers know each others’ rhythms and make the most of their considerable pool of experience to bring us a delightful evening of fun and fright, chills and chuckles, comedy and carnage, shocks and snickers, jocularity and jump scares.

So go warm up — or chill out — in anticipation of Halloween at ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. But be sure to BYOW. (Bring your own wine.)

BUY TICKETS HERE, OR CALL (337) 433-2287

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.