THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS – TAKE A ROAD LESS TRAVELED STARRING AMERICA’S FINEST ACTOR

 

SHORT TAKE:

This first is in a series of movies which I will review which are unlike any other films. I begin with a gentle comedy fantasy, starring the greatest American actor who ever lived, with a new perspective on Sherlock Holmes.

WHO SHOULD SEE THESE:

Depends on the movie – but the range for ones I have in mind are about mid-teen and up, for plot topics, or language, or because younger kids would simply be bored or frightened. As always, but especially with these since there is often little to compare them to – you should check them out first before showing them to your kids.

INTRODUCTION:

A preponderance of movies now-a-days are derivative. You can’t blame movie executives for it really. When you are sinking millions of dollars of other people’s money into a project it is a great comfort to know it is similar to another one that made a profit. And I love formula movies. There is an enjoyable reliability in the anticipation of a familiar theme – like listening to a variation of a song you love by a different artist. Like Buble’s upbeat jazzy version of the originally clunky Spiderman theme song. Or Sia’s creepily ominous version of “California Dreamin'” from the recent disaster movie San Andreas.

But every now and again I find a unique little one-off which makes it fondly to my list of favorite movies. By unique, I mean it has no sequels, no prequels, and no one (yet) has plans to remake it. They are not part of a franchise, few people have ever even heard of them, and if you go on Amazon to look for them the “Customers Who Watched This Item Also Watched…” you will not find a single item anything like it. Oh, you’ll find a list of other movies the actors have been in or the director has made or a stab at the genre, but NOTHING approaching these sparkling gems in the cinematic firmament.

Here is the first of my favorites in no particular order – aside from the fact it stars my favorite actor ….. ever.

LONG TAKE:

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971)

I think George C. Scott is probably one of, if not THE best American actor ever. (Sorry Marlon). His filmography spanned decades. He threw himself completely into every role but never lost sight of the idea it was a job and he a performer whose responsibility it was to entertain his audience the best way he knew how. His career was as varied as his thespian skills were intense. At home in comedies, mysteries, biographies, romances, classics, horror, dramas, you name it, he played cops and lawyers,  generals and sleaze-balls, gangsters and scientists. He was an attorney in Otto Preminger’s 10 Oscar nominee 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, and the off-the-wall General Turgidson in Kubrick’s 1964 classic 4 Oscar nominee Dr. Strangelove.  He was the man of choice in a version of Scrooge, Edward Rochester with a Jane Eyre played by Suzanna York (who later played Christopher Reeve’s Superman’s mom), the Beast opposite his then wife Trish Van deVere’s Belle, Fagin in Oliver Twist, Mussolini in a biodrama about the dictator, one of 12 Angry Men, the captain in a version of the Titanic, a hit man in a Stephen King movie, and the stalwart and heroic General George S. Patton in 1970’s amazing Patton, the latter a winner of 7 Oscars including best director, movie, screenplay, and lead actor.

Mr. Scott turned down both his Best Supporting nomination for The Hustler and stuck to his guns turning down even the Oscar for his win in Patton. He maintained the Oscars had morphed from a friendly dinner among compatriots to a “meat parade” with “contrived suspense for economic reasons,” and that he was not in competition with his fellow thespians.

THEN, right after his definitive turn as Patton, at what was then the height of his career, he made a little known film for a small budget, whose virtues rest squarely on the shoulders of the actors. They Might Be Giants was written by James Goldman, directed by Anthony Harvey, and with music composed by John Barry (who also scored 11 Bond films), were the same three men who crafted the brilliant Lion in Winter.

The premise of They Might Be Giants is that Judge Justin Playfair (don’t look at me, I didn’t make up the name, but this will give you a clue as to the film’s ambiance), is so stricken by grief over the loss of his wife that he has retreated into believing he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother, with motives other than Playfair’s best interests, seeks out a psychiatrist to have him committed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, her name just happens to be Mildred …. Watson. Dr. Watson is gently played by Joanne Woodward, who with a considerable acting track of her own, was the wife and long-time working companion of Paul Newman. Scott is (one viewer noted) “majestic” in this quirky mystery-romance, describing the film as a “delicate … comedy/fantasy”. I couldn’t agree more. Without giving ANY spoilers, I will admit this is not a perfect film, but what is there is creative, memorable, and delightful.

So, as Robert Frost might encourage, take the road “…less traveled by,” and check out this small movie aptly named They Might be Giants.

It is also available on Amazon HERE.

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.

SHERLOCK GNOMES – FUN TAKE OFF ON THE CLASSIC HOLMES MYSTERY

 

SHORT TAKE:

Sequel to Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes version of Toy Story, this time combined with a Sherlock Holmes mystery and a cautionary tale about keeping your loved ones a priority in your life.

WHO CAN SEE THIS:

Everybody.

LONG TAKE:

A long time ago in the previous millennium – literally as I was a kid in the early 1960's – there was a segment within the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle series called Mr. Peabody and Sherman. The segment was a very tongue in cheek look at history. Mr Peabody was a genius dog who wore glasses and walked upright and who had a "boy" named Sherman. They would travel back in time, ala Dr Who, in Mr Peabody’s "WABAC Machine," meeting historic (Florence Nightingale) and mythologic (King Arthur) figures, go famous places (Great Wall of China) and experience historic events (Charge of the Light Brigade) to find instances where history has gone wrong and fix them.

They take Gallileo out into space to prove to him he is not the center of the universe. They help Mark Twain find his "lucky" typewriter and so on. These shorts were great fun and a charming whimsical way to introduce children to history – both humanizing the figures in history books and taking gentle humorous pokes at grand historic figures in a way which actually taught children what they were famous for: Franklin’s lightning rod, taking a first train ride with George Stephenson, teaching Alexander Cartwright (the inventor of baseball) the importance of good sportsmanship.

I only mention all these details to note that there is nothing wrong with taking a respectfully affectionate jibe at history or classic literature if it helps children remember and later understand it better.

Such is the case here with the Gnome movies. The first one took a stab at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, called, predictably Gnomeo and Juliet. A friend of mine, a teacher, thought it so effective that he used it for extra credit watching for his students, tasking them to find the similarities and differences between the original classic and the animated homage.

This time around they are after the inimitable Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Depp – Captain Jack in Pirates of the Carribbean, Gellert Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts, and Ed Wood) and Doctor Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor from 2012, Dr. Strange and The Martian) in (wait for it…you guessed it) Sherlock Gnomes.

The premise is that an entire culture of British Garden Gnomes live and function just outside of the sight of humans, utilizing similar rules to those that apply in Toy Story rules. When people are around they freeze. When out of the sight of humans they come alive and move freely but adhere to many of the same characteristics their inanimate versions have: just as Slinky the dog can stretch because his middle is a spring, garden gnomes can not drown but they can BREAK!

We begin the story with Holmes’ defeat of an evil gnome, Moriarty, who has kidnapped a dozen gnomes. Holmes turns Moriarty’s weapon against him who then appears to be crushed under his own device. We also note Sherlock has begun to take his friend Watson for granted.

(FYI This latter is a theme which has been explored in comedy films – Without a Clue, and mystery theater – Sherlock Holmes’ Last Case, but never before with garden gnomes!)

This is the point at which we pick up from the previous movie and follow Gnomeo (James McAvoy – the new Professor X, the newest super villain invented by M. Night Shyamalan and Mr. Tumnus from the Narnia series) and Juliet (Emily Blunt from Live, Die, Repeat) and their friends and family as they move, with their owners, to a new house in London. The young couple will be taking over the leadership of the garden as their respective mother and father retire, but Juliet then immediately begins to neglect her new husband for her budding leadership responsibilities. The movie also features the voice talents of such veteran actors as Dame Maggie Smith (Mrs. McGonagel from Harry Potter), Michael Caine/Sir Maurice Mickelwhite (Alfie, The Man Who Would be King, Alfred to Christian Bale’s Batman) and James Hong (Po's goose father in the Kung Fu Panda series).

Their worlds intersect when the garden gnomes all over the city begin disappearing, including the families of the bickering newlyweds.

For all of the silliness of the animated gnomes with oversized ears, or huge hats, the movie makes some relevant and timely points about how jobs and one’s quest for fame can distract you from what SHOULD be most important to us – our friends, our family and, by extension, our children. This is where the two stories truly start to intersect as we see Sherlock’s casual disregard of his friend reflected in Juliet as she allows her new job to take precedent over her husband.

Not only does the movie introduce a whole new generation to the classic Sherlock Holmes character in a way which is very child friendly but, like truly classic children tales, reminds the moms and dads who bring the little ones of some important lessons as well.

  There is no real violence, no bad language. The movie is played entirely against a background of cover and remix Elton John songs. Aside from a little bit of sly innuendo which will amuse the adults and go over the little kids’ heads, some fart jokes, a running gag about a gnome on a potty and an ugly male gnome in a body thong played for laughs, there is nothing even the youngest couldn’t see or hear. The most telling compliment was the fact that my two year old grandson walked into the theater grouchy but sat mesmerized through the entire movie.

So – well done. This time the game's a – ceramic – foot.

GAME NIGHT – VERY FUNNY ADULT ROMP

SHORT TAKE: Game Night is a raucous adult comedy which should have been far more family friendly had it not been for a lot of gratuitous profanity and a several adult themed discussions.

WHO SHOULD GO: Because of the considerable amount of bad language and some of the topics discussed by the characters I would recommend Game Night only for older teens and up. There are no overt sexual activities and the violence, while significant in places, is cartoonish and played mostly for laughs.

CHECK OUT DETAILED AND SPECIFIC CONTENT STATISTICS AT SCREENIT.COM.

LONG TAKE: I have gotten quite fond of Rachel McAdams. Her career has been prominently punctuated by playing characters attached to men who either have very unusual powers or end up in weird circumstances…or both. She has been: married to a time traveler (The Time Traveler’s Wife), married to a man who has the ability to go back in time to change events (About Time), the romantic interest, Irene Adler, of none other than Sherlock Holmes (the Robert Downey, Jr franchise version), and engaged to a superhero (Dr Strange). Contributing to this list is her stint as Annie in Game Night. She is married to Max (Jason Bateman) and they are definitely soul mates. Both live for the thrill of game competition – be it as mundane as table top football or open as a bar room Trivial Pursuit or routine as their weekly game night with two other couples, the drive to win defines who they are and their relationship to the world.

So when they can not conceive a child they wonder if it is linked to Max’ feelings of inadequacy towards his older brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). To rub salt into this wound Brooks arrives suddenly to announce that he is going to take their game night “up a notch”. He has arranged for one of their group to be kidnapped and it will be up to the three remaining groups to find and rescue the victim.

When Brooks himself is unceremoniously taken in a surprisingly violent altercation with two intruders, the group takes it in stride as part of the game. But soon both audience and characters are left wondering whether something has gone horribly wrong.

In another scenario this could have been a horror movie, or an Alfred Hitchcock mystery or a tragedy. But Game Night is a slapstick comedy and all violence is cartoonish, and the considerable and mounting dangers are played for laughs.

There is a lot of heart in the script with some pleasantly unanticipated mature themes including: longstanding sibling rivalry, forgiveness of your spouse’s past mistakes, choosing partners for more than fleeting narcissistic beauty, whether to compassionately welcome their socially awkward neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), and putting aside one’s selfish impulses to accept the responsibilities of parenthood. In other words, during the course of this special event evening while playing a game, the adult characters have to – grow up.

The script is clever and intricate enough to distract the audience from noticing the thinner spots in the plot. Aside from the unnecessary bad language, if I had one complaint it would be that – while the story has plenty of twists – the writers set up several hairpin turns that they never follow through with. For example, without giving anything essential away, there were times when it appeared that Annie might have had a separate but related agenda to help Max overcome his insecurities, but didn’t. Her part is played straight up as a partner to Max knowing no more or less than he does. I thought it was a shame, as it might have been fun for her to have pursued a parallel set of tricks.

Putting that aside, Game Night is a funny romp. And if the story sounds familiar – brother sets up a scenario wherein the sibling doesn’t know what to believe and what is real and what is part of the game – it is. 1997's The Game with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn fleshed out a similar storyline, only against a far darker gameboard. Game Night is, essentially, a variation of The Game but played out as a slapstick comedy.

Notably the leads, Bateman and McAdams, are usually supporting actors but are leads in Game Night and they do a good job investing energy and believable chemistry into their marital couple. All the friends in the ensemble are likeable and each couple has its own set of issues to work out during the course of the evening. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play Kevin and Michelle – a couple working out some past history which has suddenly emerged. Sharon Horgan and Billy Magnussen play Sarah and Ryan – a couple mismatched in both age and intellect who nonetheless manage to surprise each other with their mutual attraction.

The cinematography was especially clever. Using a technique called tilt-shift, the establishing shots (overhead scenes showing you where the characters are) were filmed tilting the plane of camera focus and moving the lens parallel to the image. This creates the peculiar effect of making everything appear to be in miniature – like the landscape to a train set – until the zoom in and closeup resolve themselves back into “reality”.  This gives the effect of making it appear that our intrepid cast is moving entirely on a very large game board.

Aside from the limits I described in language and topic subjects, I enjoyed Game Night but, because of those same limits, I do not recommend it for younger teens.

Overall this is a funny and worthwhile, but adult, outing.