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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GO TO THE BOTTOM OF THE LEFT HAND SIDE AND TYPE YOUR E-MAIL IN – IT (SHOULD BE) THAT EASY. ANY PROBLEMS PLEASE SEND ME A COMMENT AND I'LL DO MY BEST TO RESOLVE YOUR ISSUE.

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 LONG KISS GOOD NIGHT – INTENSE, BRILLIANT AND LITTLE KNOWN CULT CLASSIC WHICH PAVED THE WAY FOR ATOMIC BLONDE AND BLACK WIDOW

SHORT TAKE:

A rare example of a wildly successful, female-lead, action adventure about MOTHERHOOD — for adults only.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Any adult who enjoys James Bond or one of the reboot Mission Impossibles.

LONG TAKE:

With the quality-questionable Uncle Drew being the most promising of the new movie releases this week, I thought I might do a review of one of my favorite movies you've probably never heard of: The Long Kiss Goodnight.

In 1996, far before Charlize Theron became  Atomic Blonde, and back when Scarlett Johanssen was still a child, starring in low budgets like Manny and Lo, well before she grew up to be Black Widow, a unique cinematic excursion was released called The Long Kiss Goodnight. Geena Davis, from Stuart Little, A League of Their Own, The Fly, and Beetlejuice costarred with the truly ubiquitous and eternally youngSamuel L Jackson (who looks no different now than he did 22 years ago – see my comment about this in my review of The Incredibles 2) in a movie about a woman named Samantha Caine. Samantha washes up, two months pregnant, on the shores of Honesdale, PA, a sleepy New England town, with nothing but clothes on her back she doesn't remember buying, a few fighting scars and complete "focal retrograde amnesia". She remembers nothing about herself: not her identity, where she came from, her age, who the father of her child is, nothing, except her name and even that is a guess.

Honestly, the background pictures during the opening credits reveal WAAAAY more than they should or is necessary. So – if you rent or buy this movie, on first viewing, you should START AT THE THREE MINUTE MARK. You can go back and watch the opening credit images after you have finished the movie.

Eight years later, as the movie begins, Samantha is now a teacher in the local elementary school and a devoted mother to Caitlin. While riding in her adopted home town's Christmas parade, in what seems to be a complete non-sequitor, an inmate in a nearby prison, watching the event on a caged TV, suddenly goes into a fury. About the same time, Mitch, (Samuel L Jackson) the low rent detective Samantha hired then forgot about, unexpectedly comes up with a lead, and Nathan (Brian "Stryker" Cox), an old friend from Samantha's past, sets out to find her.

With the exceptions of Ms. Theron, Ms. Johanssen, and Gal Gadot, I generally find that action adventures featuring women protagonists fall pathetically flat. The Long Kiss Goodnight is the Gold Standard of exceptions and the predecessor to all the blockbusters in which the aforementioned ladies have starred.

Clever, rough, violent, funny, startling and profane, it is one of the most unusual, fascinating and memorable films about motherhood I know. It ranks right up there with Hotel Artemis (click to check out my previous blog) and Aliens. While the language, ironically, has even Mr. Jackson's character, Mitch, complaining, there is no blasphemy, and the sexuality is very low key for this genre. If you want to check the details of profanity and sexuality out for yourself click Screenit, if you are a member, before watching.

GENTLE SPOILERS

Geena Davis' slow transition from the sweet and charming, happily domestic Samantha to the fierce and indomitable Charley is a tour de force. Ms. Davis and Mr. Jackson make superb platonic team mates in the kind of movie relationship usually reserved for bromances. The plot is part James Bond, part North by Northwest, part Mission Impossible, with a little bit of Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde thrown in for good measure.

One of the things I find most commendably endearing and notably rare about this movie in general, and Samantha in particular, is that there is not even a hint she ever considered killing her unborn child, despite the desolateness of her situation as Samantha. Even while Charley, the most unlikely of mother candidates,  lurks in her subconscious, she has and embraces her natural and powerful maternal instincts. And after re-embracing her distinctly ungentle previous life Samantha/Charley remains a profoundly dedicated mother.  The idea that motherhood would trump everything else, even for the fully re-realized Charley, is a truly inspiring thought.

MODERATE SPOILER

To the point about motherhood, one of my favorite all time movie scenes is the way Samantha/Charley protects Caitlin and handles the "One Eyed Jack" when he invades her home. That's a heck of a mom. I can picture Weaver's Ripley giving Samantha a standing "O".

So if you're in the mood for something different than your usual film fare, be sure the kids are in bed and no where near close enough to hear Mr. Jackson as he chides Charley for HER language, and cue up The Long Kiss Goodnight.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – FLAWED BUT FUN VARIATION ON THE SAME LOVED THEME

SHORT TAKE:

Repeat of all the tropes from previous movies to create what is now a formulaic Jurassic Park movie – BUT I still loved it.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to see the original Jurassic Park movie. Same scare level, no sex or nudity and very little profanity. These movies are a hoot and this one is just as much fun as the others, though nothing really very new under the sun. Just a variation on the same theme.

LONG TAKE:

I love the Jurassic Park franchise. Even the ugly stepchildren JP Lost World and JP III. I know they are derivative. I agree the first was the best – character driven as opposed to the far more special effects driven sequels. I understand they have become formulaic to the point where you can accurately and safely predict the characters who will and will not survive, and the general outline of the story. But I don’t really care. People who ride roller coasters are pretty familiar with how they work, know what to expect and are not especially surprised by the effects of free falls but they still ride them.

These movies are not Shakespeare, or Chekov, or even Woody Allen. They are "what if" stories about what would happen if you threw people and dinosaurs together. And they are a lot of fun.

Two of my favorite all time cinematic scenes are from the franchise. (click pic) One is the scene where Alan Grant, renowned paleontologist, reacts to his first encounter with a live dinosaur – a brachiosaurus. He is so overwhelmed he turns to Ellie, points and can barely get out the words – "It’s…. it’s a dinosaur," and then has to sit down on the ground. Makes me smile every time.

(click pic) Another of my favorite scenes is seeing Owen racing through the jungle on his motorcycle, hunting alongside raptors. After being oriented to how terrifying these critters are, through all the previous movies, all the way back to the first movie, to see a human as part of their pack gives me goose pimples.

The premise of JP Numero V is that the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar are facing extinction – again – because their island is about to be destroyed by an active volcano. Some think nature should reclaim these anachronistic Frankenstein monsters. Others believe we have a stewardship duty to save them despite the inherent extreme danger of the attempt. Another faction is in play with more mercenary motivations.

The actors re-create the characters we have enjoyed in previous movies.

Jeff Goldblum reprises his wisecracking, snarky and insightful Ian Malcolm, in a small cameo, offering his opinions to a Congressional committee on what should be done now that these creatures are facing an(other) extinction level event on their island. The movie cuts back and forth between his testimony and the adventures with Claire and Owen on Isla Nublar.

Chris Pratt returns as Owen, the dinosaur whisperer who is reluctantly pulled in to the rescue mission in order to help Blue, the raptor he raised.

Bryce Dallas Howard appears again as Claire, former executive assistant to the CEO who owned the destroyed park. She now runs an organization attempting to save the dinosaurs and whose primary job in this movie is to scream, escape from dinosaurs and be rescued by Owen.

The ubiquitous James Cromwell creates the character of Benjamin Lockwood, a heretofore unknown partner of the Jurassic concept’s inventor John Hammond (formerly played by the late Sir Richard Attenborough and appears only as a painting). The backstory is that for a previously undisclosed reason, which will become important to a subplot, they had a falling out.

Geraldine Chaplin – the oldest of eight children who Charlie Chaplin had with his wife Oona – appears in a small part as Lockwood’s trusted housekeeper.

Others fill out smaller bits seemingly just to fluff up the roster: Justice Smith as Franklin, the geeky tech guy who seems to have been hired for having a girlier scream than Howard and vaguely imitates Jake Johnson’s character Lowery from Jurassic World I. Daniella Pineda plays Zia, a tough talking self styled paleo-veterinarian (though she has never actually met a dinosaur up close). Ted Levine is the obligate bad guy, unnecessarily cruel to the dinos and callously dismissive of human life, much like Vincent D’Onfrio’s Hoskins from JW. Rafe Spall plays Eli, Cromwell’s assistant who is reminiscent of the lawyer Gennero (Martin Ferrero) from JP I. There’s the absolutely required kid (Isabella Sermon), of course who is cute then in danger. And so on.

Special mention must be made of BD Wong. He pops up once again as the "evil" scientist Wu, who is the embodiment of everything that alarmed Ian Malcolm when he admonished Hammond in the first JP movie that: (click pic) "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should." It is interesting to note that Wong and Goldblum were the representatives of the dipolar opposite views in the original JP and are the only major recurring members from the original cast. And I give the filmmakers kudos for going out of their way to make this conceptual point obvious by the small but significant presence of these two characters.

The special effects are remarkable, recreating not only multiple dinosaurs but a volcanic eruption, and chases across a variety of terrain from forest to rooftops.

It is a satisfying thrill ride of a movie, make no mistake.

BUT….

SPOILERS FOR JURASSIC FRANCHISE MOVIES, GENERATIONS, SERENITY AND  LAST JEDI

All this being said I still have some issues with the movie.

The de rigeur between-movies "break" in the romantic relationship of the leads is particularly silly. It is literally explained as having occurred because Owen wouldn’t let Ellie drive his van. Huh? In JP III the break up of Alan and Ellie is heartbreaking and gracefully presented. Alan is shown playing with Ellie’s child. You assume it is his until Ellie’s husband shows up. Then you realize not only that they are not a couple any more, but guess at why – that Alan never wanted to settle down and start a family.

Lava is, at one point, everywhere. Claire and Franklin (Justice Smith) would probably have cooked just being that close to it in an enclosed space as they were. Minutes later they are fleeing from a pyroclastic flow which moves at 50 mph and is full of toxic deadly fumes. An old dilapidated gyrosphere wouldn’t have gone that fast and Owen, even running downhill, couldn’t have come close.

In another scene, an experienced hunter, Ken, (Ted Levine) goes into the cage of THE most dangerous dinosaur ever created for a souvenir tooth. It's an insult to JP I's Muldoon who was taken by a pack of raptors while trying to save other people's lives. It was pretty transparent Ken's death in JW: FK was only to set up the escape of the Indoraptor.

 There was really no reason to try to murder Owen or Claire. They were brought along because of their unique insight into the creatures then discarded as soon as one was found. This didn’t make a lot of sense. They try to commit murder of experts who can help them in order to cover up the theft of animals who have been left to die anyway. Huh?

The most galling problem I have is with the demise of one of the creatures. The very first live dinosaur we see EVER in the franchise is an brachiosaurus. Yes, it is pretend and CGI and no dinosaurs were harmed in the making of the movie because all the dinosaurs are actually….extinct! But because of its emotional impact of awed amazement in the iconic moment of the first JP movie when we first saw what a living breathing dinosaur might look like today, there is a vested connection which audiences over 25 years and five movie have earned. But when Owen and Claire are fleeing the erupting island we watch a brachiosaurus – maybe supposed to be the very one we saw in the first movie – die a prolonged agonizing death. There is a drawn out, extremely painful scene where Owen and Claire watch the creature as it moans at the end of the dock, abandoned, without help, is enveloped by the toxic smoke, becomes a silhouette in the light from the lava and is destroyed. Like the death of Captain Kirk in Generations, the disappearance of Luke at the end of The Last Jedi, or Wash’s demise in the movie Serenity, it felt like a deliberate sign off from the parent franchise. Whether it will signal a new successful batch of movies is another question.

As I pointed out, it is really just an audio-visual emotional roller coaster ride so I shouldn’t expect subtlety.

 Overall I enjoyed JW: FK and do hope this is not the last of their progeny. But I also hope care is take in the future with those characters – human and otherwise – of which we have become so fond.

CHRIS PRATT – SPEAKS OUT STRONGLY FOR GOD, PRAYER, GRACE AND THE BLOOD OF JESUS – AT THE MTV AWARD CEREMONY!!!

Chris Pratt – Mr. Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic Park franchise – just blew me away with this excerpt from his MTV Award Ceremony speech. The entire list has humorous parts too and a part is transcribed below (with editorial bolding) but click this video to hear his inspirational message to a demographic who probably does not hear this often if EVER! And who desperately needs it the most!

Be sure your kids watch this GOOD example of a relatable celebrity from children-popular movies, showing his faith in God, grace, and a good sense of humor.

 

Chris Pratt at MTV Award Ceremony

 

Breathe.

You have a soul. Be careful with it.

Don’t be a turd.

When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger.

It doesn’t matter what it is, earn it.

God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you, believe that. I do.

If you have to poop at a party, pee first and flush quick.

Learn to pray. It’s easy and it’s so good for your soul.

Nobody is perfect. You are imperfect. You always will be. You were made that way. There is a powerful force that designed you that way. And if you accept that you will have grace. Grace is a gift. And like the freedom we enjoy in this country that gift was paid for by somebody else’s blood. Do not forget it.

TAG – GOOFY MOVIE GIVES GOOD ADVICE

SHORT TAKE:

Based loosely on the real life camaraderie amongst 10 friends who have been playing the same game of Tag one month a year for 30 years, the movie Tag focuses on a representative five, plus one wife, a fiancee, and a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who breaks the story to the world.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Not for kids. Young adults and up only. The language and topics discussed are often raw and juvenilely crude and graphic. And the stunts these men are shown to pull are dangerous even under the supervision of stunt men, as Jeremy Renner found out. You would not want young impressionable kids trying to imitate them. UNLESS you want to show them clips and this photo to make the point – DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME!!!

LONG TAKE:

"You do not stop playing games because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing games." This rather wise saying by George Bernard Shaw is the avowed, often repeated, theme of the movie Tag.

I have often advised my girls and teased my husband and sons that I do not believe men ever really get beyond the age of 13. Be they the Pope, your husband, your 80 year old grandfather, your investment broker, or your doctor, they hit puberty and that's — that. The only difference amongst them is their ability to hide it. It's one of the things that is most charming about them and used properly is a superpower.

And for anyone who does not believe me, you should see Tag, the movie, based on a real group of ten men, written up in a 2013 Wall Street Journal  article by Russell Adams.. Back row, from left to right: Mike Konesky, Bill Akers, Patrick Shultheis, Mark Mengert, Chris Ammann and Brian Dennehy. Front row, from left to right: Father Sean Raftis, Joey Tambari, Joe Caferro and Rick Bruya. (Courtesy of Father Sean Raftis ) These men, from all walks of life, one a priest, met at a Catholic school and  have been playing the same game of Tag, on and off, for THIRTY years. The Tag Brothers as they call themselves, particpate in this childlike joyous event for one month every year as a way to keep in touch —- literally — with each other. They have played despite and sometimes because of: births, deaths, weddings, illness and distances. They have tagged each other, in real life, by their own admission: in disguise, after flying hundreds of miles, appearing at family events, and even breaking into each others' HOMES! It's a wonder none of them have shot the other yet. One got tagged during his father's funeral – the taggee acknowledging it was a form of comfort and condolence and that his father, a big supporter of their game, would have thought funny. The group collected to support one of them when his wife was undergoing chemo and tagged him there. They have tagged each other when wives were in labor, and even when those children were being conceived!! (I do NOT even want to IMAGINE that one!) It is the way these men have chosen to stay friends.

As funny as this premise is you'd think it would be a one trick pony, perhaps documentary worthy but not enough to carry a movie. But you'd be wrong. The screenwriters, Rob McKittrich and Mark Steilen, have rather cleverly condensed the reality and formed it into an analogy for what keeps people together.

SPOILERS

Obviously an ensemble cast, to introduce them in rough order of appearance: Ed Helms as Hoagie, a successful veterinarian married to Isla Fisher’s extremely competitive Anna. Jon Hamm plays Bob, a wealthy CEO of a drug manufacturing company. Annabelle Willis is Rebecca, the reporter who embeds herself into the group. Jake Johnson is "Chili," the loser friend, stuck in his hippie, weed smoking, teenaged days.  Hannibal Buress is Sable, an air-heady sweet guy who sees life existentially. And then there is Jerry – Jeremy "Hawkeye" and "Bourne" Renner  – waxing and waning with the group as they pursue him during his wedding preparations. He is the main target this year because, in thirty years of playing tag with these same four friends, he has NEVER —- BEEN —– TAGGED, and rumor has it he will retire at the end of the month. And there is almost no lengths to which these men will go – physically, legally or in mental gamesmanship – in order to avoid being the last "it" – or to end the game without Jerry beng tagged at least once.

The personalities in the story are composites. There are no comparable individuals who are directly represented in the movie, but the premise and inspiration which ignited this crazy story did and does continue. The game, as it were, is STILL a foot!

WSJ also published the Tag Agreement drafted and signed as young adults by the Tag Brothers, based upon the rules they followed as children.

I normally consider profanity in movies largely a lack of creativity. But I have to admit on some level it is appropriate in Tag. Once the game is on, the men revert to the crude one-upsman language of adolescent teenagers – comparing and hitting genitalia, awkwardly throwing out "cuss" words, and using profanity as though they are trying to win a secondary competition for the most vulgarity. But this is what little boys do. They play rough and crash headlong in and through windows, businesses, private homes, yards and garbage cans during the chases. So energetic were the scenes as filmed that during one failed stunt involving a stack of chairs Jeremy Renner broke bones in both arms. The rest of the movie was filmed having to CGI around the "green screen" casts he had to wear.

But what was most charming about Tag was the moral to the story. Jerry, the all time champion who had never been tagged, knew everything about his friends. He knew how they thought, acted, what they did for a living, the strengthes and weaknesses of their personalities and could thereby anticipate any schemes to trap him. This, and his almost superhuman running speed, has kept him the reigning champion for 30 years. Ironically, but in hindsight predictably, his friends knew very little about him. They didn't know he was getting married or to whom. They didn't know he had a drinking problem or that he was in AA – until they bribe one of Jerry's own employees to rat out Jerry's location. Jerry may have been the Olympic Tag gold medalist but the cost was not spending any time with his friends during the one month the rest were together scheming to get him. Tag deals with the 30 years resolution to this conundrum.

It is the heart to this goofy movie which helps ratchet up Tag above its threadbare premise.

Another clever and memorable aspect to Tag are the homages to other movie genres. A number of schemes are attempted to tag Jerry. One plays out like a classic monster movie as the group moves through a foggy forest. Another scenario includes Jerry's internal POV as a voice over describing his analysis of their attacks and how he plans to countermand them – much like Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes. Other scenes give nods to Renner's stint as the Bourne Legacy character Aaron Cross as he uses everything from tablecloths to donuts and a walker to thwart his friends and leaps chairs, through windows and around staircases with an agility that his own Hawkeye would have admired.

As ridiculous as this movie is, I could not help but smile at the irresistable charm of grown men letting loose in a spirit of genuine fun with their friends. If the quote by Shaw is right, the Tag Brothers will remain eternally young as they keep their bonds of friendship alive. And that is a game worth playing.

BAO – DISTURBING SHORT IN FRONT OF THE INCREDIBLES 2 YOU MAY WANT TO MISS

 

Bao

There is a strange little short at the beginning of The Incredibles 2 called Bao (meat or vegetable filled dumpling) about a dumpling which comes to life for a lonely woman, so is spared from being eaten, until it grows to an age where he wants to leave home and marry, at which point the mom EATS the dumpling! The movie has nothing to do with The Incredibles 2 plot, except perhaps as a counterpoint DYSFUNCTIONAL family dynamic, making the strong family of Incredibles look even better. This is some fairly disturbing imagery, softened very little by the revelation that the "dumpling" is merely a reflection of her real life son, an only child, who left his parents to marry. While there is reconciliation with said son in the end, brought about by his understanding father, and acceptance of the non-Asian wife as she learns dumpling making from her mother-in-law, I could not get the unsettling imagery out of my head of the mother willingly eating her child rather than allow him to mature and leave home. This is a short you may want to either get in late enough to avoid or prepare to discuss with your kids later.

For anyone interested in what Domee Shi, the young lady writer-director of Bao has to say about her film, please click : Bao Director Interview.