NOISES OFF – BRILLIANT MADCAP COMEDY ON STAGE AT LCLT

 

SHORT TAKE:

Inventively staged, skillfully acted, and adroitly directed British comedy, the classic Noises Off by Michael Frayn, a play within a play at Lake Charles Little Theatre, showing from September 13 through September 29, 2019. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE!

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to upper teens and older for mildly sexual topics done in (almost) completely innocent fun. Nothing is shown and language is very mild. Younger than mid-teens should be parentally previewed and depend upon the child.

LONG TAKE:

Move over James Brown. The hardest working people in show business are the  actors performing Noises Off at The Lake Charles Little Theatre from Friday night September 13 through Sunday matinee September 29, 2019.

I’m going to try hard not to give anything away because you need to see this fast paced, clever and hilarious play with the fresh eyes this dynamic and brilliant cast, crew and director deserve to get. Not only is there a lot going on but this is the kind of play which is so funny and well written, and this version so energetic and professionally conceived, you’ll want to see it more than once. I saw Noises Off on stage years ago and the movie with Michael Caine several times but familiarity only made this witty badinage funnier and this iteration had me laughing from curtain up to curtain call.

The set is incredible – probably the most challenging I have ever seen at LCLT – and I can’t think of a soul in the world I would have trusted more to build it than LCLT’s own Randy Partin. Built by Mr. Partin in 110 hours over six weeks as a labor of devotion to this Theatre, it is one of, if not THE most ambitious sets LCLT has ever used. Seven (or eight depending how you define them) crucial entrance/exit portals in a two story parlor of a large off season bed and breakfast provides the setting of this raucous comedy as an ensemble cast rehearse and perform the first act of a British sex farce called Nothing On – a play within the play. The set is as much of a character as the performers.

As though channeling Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”, Noises Off begins gently – or I should say with that certain inherent gentility of an innately British parlor comedy – as the characters and their quirks are introduced. Then slowly the action builds over three acts to Mad Mad World levels of freneticism as tempers flare, sleepless nights take their toll, personalities clash, and jealousies rage amidst the over worked, under prepared thespians, who desperately struggle to make some sense of a timing-crucial confusing play and their own even more befuddled love lives. A tagline I once read sums it up nicely: “The drama! The suspense! And the curtain hasn’t even gone up yet!”

It takes a truly brilliant actor to play the fool – Jerry Lewis, the stooge and buffoon on stage and screen, was actually the brains and organizer of the Lewis-Martin team. Stan Laurel, on film and in vaudeville the ever whining, clueless whipping boy for Oliver Hardy was, in truth, the author of most of the routines and genius behind their success. Similarly, it takes virtuoso coordination and intricately planned team effort to appear to get wrong a play which, itself, is suppose to require flawless timing.

The clockwork details require talented hands and this brilliant LCLT troupe manuever like the Blue Angels on stage with, collectively, over a hundred years of tenured experience amongst them. You will recognize most, if not all, of the performers.

Brett Downer is the brave soul who directed this enormously challenging Russian nesting doll of a play which relies on timing, entrances, exits, and … sardines.

Heather Partin is Belinda/Flavia, the mediator of the beleaguered troupe. If you have EVER been to LCLT or a community band concert you will likely have seen Heather. Her resume is impressive, ranging from Nunsense to MacBeth, devoted wife of Randy, and costume designer for the show.

Paula McCain, most recently from Mamma Mia! but debuting with LCLT here, she plays Dotty/Mrs. Clackett, financially desperate for Nothing On to succeed and the center about which much of the interpersonal friction is created amongst the cast.

Greg Stratton, playing to type, is Lloyd, the director of this play within the play, who is part teacher/father-figure, part chaos instigator, whose mind isn’t always on the job at hand.       Greg teaches Mass Com at McNeese, has been acting and directing for decades from the nostalgic comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor to the tongue-in-cheek mystery The 39 Steps.

The loveable and reliable but hopelessly insecure Garry/Roger is played by Michael Davis, a singer, actor, dancer and video producer, most recently in LCLT’s Pump Boys and Dinettes.

Rebecca Harris, having sparkled in ACTS Theatre’s Arsenic and Old Lace, is sweetly ditzy Brooke/Vicki who soldiers on no matter the obstacles in her own guileless way.

Angela Martin debuts with Lake Charles Little Theatre as Poppy, the devoted but under appreciated, both on and off stage, assistant stage manager.  While debuting here in her first speaking part Ms. Martin nonetheless has an impressive set of credentials which include a stint with London’s West End! not to mention being married to castmate Cary Martin.

Cary Martin is our own prodigal son, last at LCLT 20 years ago, but returning to the fold as Frederick/Philip, a well-meaning but daft and perpetually confused soul.

Cameron Scallon, veteran of LCLT and lately one of the leads in Bye Bye Birdie, plays Tim, of necessity the resident Jack of all trades, the exhausted and threadbare stage manager, who is constantly plugging up holes in this leaking levee with not enough fingers to go around.

Gary Shannon on stage is the amiable but constantly drunken Selsdon/Burglar and in real life is the morning drive show radio host for KHLA, host of KBYS’ Sunday morning Jazz Show, long time veteran of community theater and independent film makers here in Lake Charles, and who  some years ago, I saw perform an amazing Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman with only a scant few weeks preparation.

Accessories to the insanity are: James Johnson as set decorator, Dan Sadler as Technical Consultant, Jonathan in lighting, David Wynn from KBYS for sound, and Liz Trahan who was kind enough to put together the ingeniously crafted program.

Aaaaaaaaaaand not to discourage audience members from either buying concessions or hitting the “loo” but you’ll really want to stay for at least part of the scene changes during intermission.

So for the most fun you’ll have this side of your best friend’s wedding, go see Noises Off at Lake Charles Little Theatre. You can CALL 337433-7988, buy tickets at the door or get them HERE. And plan to go early in the run the first time, as you’ll likely want to see it again.

{NOTE: In an effort not to spoil the show I’m holding off on some of the photos, but will release them all after the run of the show.}

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – DEAD RINGER FOR THE REAL THING

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

A classically Tarentino revisionist history of a terrible event during the 1960’s seen through the prism of a fading TV star and his stunt double in an intricately detailed and brain shockingly familiar re-creation of the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ADULTS! ONLY ADULTS! And only adults who have fairly strong constitutions. While there really are no sex scenes, the language is frequently raw and occasionally vulgar topics are discussed in crude ways, but there are a few fight scenes and one long scene of extremely gory and prolonged violence.

LONG TAKE:

Allow me to begin this review by quoting GK Chesterton:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Reviewing this movie puts me in an awkward position for a number of reasons. For one, it is a typically Tarentino violent and sexually charged film but one I thought extremely well done and worth viewing. For another I don’t want to unduly spoil anything in the movie but need to set the stage for one of the most vile moments in American history without either scaring off prospective appropriate film goers or giving away too much.

So keeping all this in mind:

SPOILERS FOR OUATIH AS WELL AS IRON MAN, WONDER WOMAN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, AND X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

There’s a YouTube show called How it Should Have Ended, a PG if not G-rated comedy, which points out inconsistencies, crosses universe franchise storylines, and evaluates any plot flaws in movies which rely on nonsensical stupidity to set up the premise or move the story along. They animate scenes and do very credible voice impersonations showing, for better or worse, what is likely to have really happened had common sense prevailed in a given situation.

For examples, they: point out how a man as smart as Doctor Strange would not have texted on a winding road, going super fast, in the dark, but would have hung up the phone and planned to call later; demonstrate how Iron Man’s quicker, lighter and faster suit, along with his flying experience would have easily defeated Obadiah Stane at the end of Iron Man; introduced Wolverine to assist  Wonder Woman; clearly showed in a spoof of the theme song from Beauty and the Beast that Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome; and exhibit how Mr. Incredible probably would have loved Syndrome’s childhood inventions instead of shunning him with far more positive results.

Similarly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is aptly named, for it is a fairy tale, if you consider, as Joe Harper did in Kenneth Branagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale that “most fairy tales turn out to be nightmares”, which explores the alternate possibilities in life.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the fictitious fading star Rick Dalton, a composite of every little known ’60’s TV show one trick pony and Brad Pitt is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (based loosely on Burt Reynold’s stunt double Hal Needham). Where Rick is a fragile bag of regrets and insecurities off camera, Rick exudes a tough cowboy presence 24/7.

Likely the best acting job of either DiCaprio or Pitt, and almost the only two people who do not play historically documentable figures, they avoid what easily could have been caricatures to create two very different but vulnerable men who are survivors at their core. Despite the background story, their downwardly spiraling respective careers and the omnipresent spectre of the looming profoundly malevolent event on the horizon, dreadful to anticipate for anyone familiar with this year, these two archetype examples of crank-’em-out TV show stars from the ’60’s manage to be likeable, interesting, relatable, appealing and, like yeast in a barrel of flour, lighten the mood of every scene they are in.

This is a very “META” concept outing – with actors portraying real people who portrayed characters in movies and TV shows similar to the ones being filmed withIN the confines of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Whew.

The acting of the supporting cast, most of whom do play real people, is terrific. Among a large cast: Margot Robbie is the sweet and gentle but vacuous Sharon Tate. Dakota Fanning does a gut clenching quietly evil rendition of Manson follower Squeaky Fromme. And Mike Moh has all the mannerisms down for what can only be described as a Bruce Lee caricature (for which his surviving daughter, Shannon Lee, has taken exception). But one of the most impressive was Damien Lewis’ Steve MacQueen (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair). With just his voice and gestures he brings this cinema icon back to life for just a few wonderful movie moments.

In addition, there are some wonderful cameos from Al Pacino (1972’s The Godfather), Kurt Russell (from Disney’s 1969’s Computer Wore Tennis Shoes to Snake Plissken in Escape From New York) who has a small part as stunt coordinator Randy and provides some V.O. narration, and Bruce Dern (1972’s eco-warning sci fi Silent Running), actors whose careers were pretty much “born” during this period of time.

And then there are little Easter Eggs that you might miss unless you look closely, like Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas who greets Tate at the Playboy Mansion, and someone who can only be Twiggy talking to Steve MacQueen. NOT to mention the resurrection of the old TV show Lancer, including Wayne Maunder (portrayed by Luke Perry) and cigarette commercials which are startlingly accurate dopplegangers to the ones we watched on TV as kids.

The songs are beautifully handpicked for the right moments like bouquets placed around a professionally decorated room featuring the likes of: “Good Thing” from Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, and “California Dreamin'” by Jose Feliciano.

And the sets, pacing of interviews, acting styles of the actors as they performed the shows within the movie, costumes, blunt and awkward dialogue all open a portal into a world I have not experienced in more than half a century. It was jarringly realistic. Tarantino even cleverly placed throughout the movie the awkward and jerky edits often experienced in watching a show from my youth, as the more humble equipment just did not produce the smoother transitions we all demand today, subtly evoking that era, as well as reminding us this is all just a fantasy, a wishful thinking creation of a cinematic mind.

If he has done nothing else, Tarantino has done a stunning job of disabusing me of any temptations to nostalgia for the era in his pinpoint accurate recreation of the world in which I grew up – the ’60’s with its emphasis on: the constant generation of cigarette smoke, plastic furniture, ridiculously high miniskirts, obnoxious self-aggrandizing hippies, sparse air conditioning, unchallenged snake oil salesmen, terrible TV shows, black and white monitors with Vietnam in the background, and condescending talking heads masquerading as newscasters (OK we still have those).

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it while I was living it but in the stark light of a Tarantino day – let’s just say that walks down Memory Lane should be taken sparingly.

And then there is the specific history of that particular “moment” in time.

In order to appreciate the pervasive sense of suspense and anxiety that hangs over the entire movie, you have to understand the backdrop in which the story plays out. The movie takes place during the year preceding the slaughter of Sharon Tate, her baby and guests on the night of August 9th 1969. On that terrible night, a cult leader name Charles Manson sent his followers out to kill everyone in the house on Cielo Drive. The people there were not just murdered they were savaged. A pregnant Sharon Tate, two weeks from delivery, was hung up and butchered like cattle. The rest were bludgeoned, shot, and stabbed dozens of times. Anyone old enough or well read enough to be familiar with this event knows it is coming — and protagonist Rick lives next door.

The next day, before their capture, Manson and his hippies did the same to a couple named LaBianca. It is hard to appreciate how this atmosphere of evil informed those days unless you lived through it…or watched this movie.

It was largely thought that the 1960’s “died” that day, (ignoring the fact that, well yes, 4-1/2months later it would be 19–SEVENTY, but I get the drift), replacing the open door “love is in the air” perception of the flower child with the reality that these people engaged in highly dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, who were predominantly a danger to themselves and those around them.

In OUATIH we get the true face of the hippie, free-love, Flower Power movement:  promiscuous, selfish, manipulative, filthy, violent, arrogant, condescending, narcissistic, slothful, parasitic, hypocritical, self-adoring, drug addicted anarchists with a sense of entitlement to other people’s property. The greatest horror to those who stylistically aligned themselves with these pet anti-establishment philosophies (while living otherwise) was that the Manson cult demonstrated to the world merely the logical extrapolation of the hippie mantras which included calling police names and advocating their destruction, extreme hostility to capitalism while living off the work of others,  and engagement in sexual debauchery without accepting consequences.

The aftermath of Woodstock alone demonstrates it takes a lot of someone else’s effort and money for one to appear to be living a life of freedom and independence from the drudgery of actually having to work for a living. (Of course, unfortunately, that is now the Democrat National Party goal – to be living off the hard work of other people, responsibility free – not surprising since many in their leadership fermented out of that intellectual cesspool —— but that’s a post for another day.)

Without any real job they lived, if you can call it that, on the largesse of family,  friends and community, that is when they weren’t begging, prostituting themselves or outright stealing.

As this is a Tarantino film one expects an extreme amount of violence and gore and OUATIH is no exception…..but not the way you might expect, or cringe fearfully. I am delighted to say that, through the magic of Tarantino pixie dust, I was inspired to clap and cheer during the last scenes.

Tarantino likes to play with “What if’s”. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained being his most telling examples. I had actually never seen an entire Tarantino movie before but only clips from the likes of Kill Bill, Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction. Sudden and ferocious bloodshed tend to jump out like ghouls from a haunted house, but OUAPIH is quite gentle for most of the movie in comparison, as the director manifests more suspense and extreme apprehension than actual violence…until the end.

Also stick around for a funny ending credits scene with a brilliantly on point faux cigarette commercial.

So if you want a head first dive into the deep end of nostalgia, and if you have the stomach for it, this is Tarantino at his best, if for no other reason than his masterful re-invention of a time gone by and for the cathartic satisfaction of seeing justice served in a Tarantino-flavored version of How it Should Have Ended.

God bless and R.I.P. Sharon Tate, baby Paul Polanski,  Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, and Rosemary LaBianca.

 

TOY STORY 4 – A PRIMAL LOSS

SHORT TAKE:

Despite a brilliant start, clever plot, continued great acting, wonderful cameos, and magical animation, the story abandons its own raison d’etre.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone can go but I can’t recommend it for the target young audience because of very dark imagery and multiple scenes of loss and childhood trauma involving being separated from one’s family and justifiable fears of a child losing her toys  which could seriously distress small children. And I can’t recommend it for the older crowd because of the final message.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TOY STORY FRANCHISE

Full disclosure – this is a long post, even by my standards, but the Toy Story franchise has always been the beneficiary of some truly good writing, and the theme has always been that of family, so, it breaks my heart, but I have to make the case ….. against Toy Story 4, and that’s going to take some explaining.

In the first movie the question was the choice between ego or family, when Woody’s seniority and favorite status is threatened by Buzz Lightyear. Woody chose family by placing the needs of his fatherless owner, Andy, above his own wants and even risking his own life to rescue Buzz and incorporate Buzz into their group.

Toy Story 2 dealt with the idea of fame versus family when Woody has the opportunity to be admired from afar as a classic toy in a Japanese museum but instead chooses to return to Andy, even telling Buzz that he no longer fears Andy outgrowing him because he has the family of toys “for [sic] infinity and beyond”.

Toy Story 3 addresses the inevitable time when Andy, like Little Jackie Paper in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”, does outgrow the magic and the toys are sent to another child.

This latest installment also involves the issue of family.

Aside from the amazing computer animation, the sterling voice acting of terrific actors, the astonishingly complex characters, the jokes both obvious and inside which parents and even the youngest can understand on a variety of levels and the complex and interesting plot lines, the real brilliance of the films has always been that the stories are really about parenthood – selflessly being there when your child needs you, even if they don’t know they do, even if you do it knowing the goal is for them to eventually not need you any more.

To be a good parent one must choose their children’s happiness, safety and sense of security over the expediences of the parents’ own wants, desires and even needs. Woody, the de facto Dad in each of the movies, chooses to protect his toy family for the benefit of his child. And this is the way to which the ownership is referred – that the toy has a child, which is always viewed as the ultimate and Xanadu of existence for any toy. And the lack of a child is always seen as a tragic circumstance and even one which can, like Lotso or Stinky Pete, lead to a bitter expression of their baser and negative personality traits.

Woody chooses to share the lime light in the first, to forego fame in the second, and accept when his child no longer needs him but accepts the responsibilities of another child who does in the third.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR TOY STORY 4 – SEROUSLY I AM GOING TO BE DISCUSSING THE ENDING SO IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT YET AND WANT TO LET THE STORY UNVEIL ITSELF IN THE MOVIE THEATER PLEASE BAIL OUT NOW.

ALSO SPOILERS BY IMPLICATION FOR IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS IN PETER PAN, LION KING, ALADDIN AND STAR WARS – A NEW HOPE.

OK FAIR WARNING WAS GIVEN

FIRST – THE GOOD STUFF

While I have rarely seen a franchise manage the same quality throughout all of its films, Back to the Future being the only one that springs to mind at the moment, Toy Story seemed to conquer that artistic challenge with grace and a strong sense of its own universe. The writers respect these characters and recognize the intricate personalities of each toy, especially the major players. Each has flaws and virtues. None are treated as black and white. They are very recognizably 3D humans. Part of the magic of these stories is that everyone in the audience, including the adults, can find a toy with which to identify, just as any child can, in real life, find a toy which speaks to them out of a well stocked toy box. And the one overarching and abiding principle which has provided the strength of backbone to all of the stories is that their child means everything to the toys about whom the tale is woven.

Toy Story 4 is no exception. At least not at first and not for most of the movie. Woody steps aside as Jessie and other toys are regularly chosen as playmates over him because that is what Bonnie wants. He is the only one who recognizes Bonnie’s need for a champion and secret guardian when she is taken to kindergarten for orientation. Not even her parents apparently fully wish to understand that the little girl is too young to be left at an institution when she is devastated by her separation from home. Woody sneaks into her backpack and secretly assists her throughout the day, proving abundantly that he was right. Woody then steps up to promote a “toy” given life by Bonnie’s imagination and love which is made from a spork and some art supplies. Forky’s determination to be trash instead and his constant attempts to throw himself away are played for laughs and every parent who has had to deal with a self-destructive toddler (but I repeat myself) understands what Woody is up against.

And for anyone who has raised a child to adulthood, Woody’s consistent leadership, even when not wanted, and loyalty even when not appreciated, are part of the definition of true parenthood. You want kids to grow up and not need you any more but it is a painful process. In Woody’s case Bonnie still needs him but doesn’t even know it.

They have brought to the acting table all of the previous actors: Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear, the ubiquitous Ratzenberger as Hamm, Wally Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie, Annie Potts as Bo Peep, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly, and even, using posthumous archival clips, the late Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, even dedicating the film to his memory. And in a delightful spate of celebrity castings they have added: TV legend Carol Burnett in a small part as a talking child’s chair named Chairol Burnett, the one and only incredible Mel Brooks as Meliphant Brooks, and Betty White as Bitey White, the infamous web-short duo of Key and (Academy Award winning) Peele as Ducky and Bunny, Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers as three action adventure versions of Combat Carl (possibly take-offs of real toys based on his role in Predator), the Shakespearean actor and former James Bond Timothy Dalton in a reprising role as Mr. Pricklepants, Carl “basically invented TV sitcoms” Reiner as the little pink Carl Reinerocerous , and saving the most surprsing for laughs – Keanu “John Wick” Reeves as Duke Caboom – a Canadian based (in honor of Reeves home country) daredevil toy.

As a small digression: for anyone who has read my review of John Wick will note, I have mentioned that, despite Reeves omnipresence in bloody action flicks might otherwise suggest, Reeves calling is comedian – and if this stint as the voice of the wheelie posturing motorcyclist doesn’t prove that, then not even Bill and Ted could.

NOW THE BAD – TO BEGIN WITH IT IS VERY DARK AND CREEPY

I wish I could tell you that the film makers took this final installment to the Toy Story adventure to a brilliant conclusion… AND THEY WERE sooooooo CLOSE… but in truth they stumbled and fell badly at the finish line – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they just quit the race altogether.

I won’t reveal the details of the plot journey in THIS part of the post, except to say this is a darker movie than the others. Even Toy Story 3 with the accidental abandonment of the toys and Lotso’s dystopian nursery is not as unsettling as Toy Story 4. Bo Peep reemerges but her porcelein arms have been broken, are held on by tape and occasionally fall off. Some time is spent in an antique store which might as well have been labeled “Haunted House” from the toys’ point of view. A band of shuffling, very creepy, perpetually smiling, voiceless ventriolquist dolls protect, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) the nemesis, providing jump scares and kidnapping and assaulting different characters. Worse, Bonnie is beset almost the entire film with having to face loss. Loss of her home to kindergarten, loss of security as the other children treat her with casual indifference and her teacher does nothing about it; constant and repeated episodes of losing Forky, a traumatic (and I mean for the observing audience as well) scene where she is beside herself over Forky’s disappearance on a trip.

I HOPE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN, BUT WOODY — LEAVES — HIS CHILD

But the darkest parts of this Toy Story is Woody’s decision to become a “lost toy”. By choice.

Our younger son who went with us, an adult now, but a child when the first one came out, mentioned he was glad they had not gone to the well again of making another toy the “bad guy” as they had done with both Toy Stories 2 and 3 with Stinky Pete and Lotso, respectively. In retrospect, I’m afraid he was wrong. And I’m not talking about Gabby who ultimately repents, but Bo Peep. like the song about the temptress Lola in Damn Yankees, whatever Bo wants she gets and Woody, little man, she wants you.

Bo even expresses bitterness at having never truly been played with but ultimately rejected and discarded as an eventually unneeded nightlight. She shows her true colors in the opening scene of TS4,  in a flashback event which took place nine years before, (and retroactively explains why Bo was not in Toy Story 3), when she tries to get Woody to abandon Andy, when Andy was still just a little boy. Woody wisely resists the temptation and stays with his child. But Bo finally gets her revenge through Bonnie, by enticing Woody to abandon his sworn responsibilities to Bonnie, his child now, to run off with her. It is a stunningly sad epitaph describing the fall of a once noble character.

The narrator in a famous Bruce Springsteen song defiantly declares: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back….” This is all we need to know about this manure ball – that he abandoned his family because he had a “hungry heart”. Sorry, but that’s a pathetic reason to turn your back on your kids – your KIDS! Never mind breaking the most important oath he will ever make – to his wife. This is an evil perpetrated that can never be fully healed.

In the end, and contrary to everything that has gone before in all four movies, Woody walks away from his heretofore all important vocation of being his child’s toy in order to stay with Bo Peep. Bonnie, his child, has not given him up. She plays with him sometimes, knows he’s around, obviously needs him whether she knows it or not, and will eventually realize he is gone.

In the somewhat realistic universe in which the Toy Story characters exist it is even possible that Andy, who gave Woody up with great reluctance at the end of Toy Story 3 and then only because he thought Bonnie loved Woody so much, that Andy might one day find out that Woody has been lost. So Woody’s abandonment of Bonnie is a betrayal not just of Bonnie but of Andy as well.

ALSO also, the toys live in a background of realism where their actions did effect the humans around them. Al from Al’s Toy Barn, for example, ended up near bankruptcy when he lost his valuable toys – but could be seen to deserve it because he had stolen Woody. Bonnie’s parents are stopped by the police when the van they are driving moves erratically because of toy hi-jinx. So, when in the end of TS4 the mission of Woody, Bo and company seems to be stealing from carnival barkers to give toys they do not own to children, this has a disastrous effect on the humans. From the horrified expression of the game attendant on which this scheme was perpetrated, this was not a good thing. His stall would not survive long and he might even be accused of stealing the merchandise himself.

If Toy Story is a reminder to parents to not let their ego get in the way of being good parents, if Toy Story 2 is a reminder not to let the lure of fame and attraction of money (presumably representing one’s job) keep them from being there for their kids, and if Toy Story 3 is a reminder to parents that one day they will have to take a step back and let their kids grow up but perhaps parent (read grandparent) a new generation , then what exactly is Toy Story 4 trying to tell us?

AN EXCUSE FOR THE ABANDONING, DEAD BEAT PARENT

Are the Toy Story 4 film makers saying one should put personal romantic attachments ahead of their family? Is this a subtle message to imply that a Dad who abandons his responsibilities for a girl friend is OK? Is this finally, an attempt at justifying behavior of the actual Hollywood culture which is responsible for the creation of this franchise, to say that it is acceptable to leave their children behind like goose droppings or unwanted furniture for a selfish fling? Yes, Bo Peep is an old friend, but this is still not reasonable. Woody’s behavior in the final moments of this four movie franchise flies in the face of everything Woody has said, done and believed up to now INCLUDING what he has said in this very movie – that a toy’s most noble cause and purpose is to help their child. Instead Woody, in a completely unexpected 180 degree turn around ABANDONS his child, who is still a little girl demonstrably in need of his aid, even if it is behind the scenes, for Bo Peep, a now wild toy who he has not seen for 9 years.

This is, frankly, an appalling and disappointing break in an established noble character –  What if Simba had decided to stay in his comfy hobo existence? What if Wendy had chosen to not leave Neverland with her brothers? What if Aladdin had decided to tuck Genie back into his lamp for a rainy day? I know I’m crossing universes here but Disney will eventually own everything, so what if Han had decided to book it out of town with the gold in the first Star Wars and never come back?

What if Woody left his child?

The Woody we know would not leave Bonnie. But he does. It’s a shame that the Toy Story franchise had to end with a tag line that should have read: And so Bonnie lived precariously, never knowing what loss she would suffer next … ever after.

WOODY LOSES HIS CONSCIENCE

Now all this being said, my husband made a VERY interesting point. A lot of  rather clever and playful reference is made about one’s conscience. Woody understands the abstract concept well but when trying to explain it to Buzz, Buzz mistakes it for his pre-programmed sayings, which actually end up being very appropriate. This was actually quite a cute way to broach this ethereal topic for a very young crowd and amuse the older people at the same time. Woody’s pre-programmed voice box works perfectly, but the voice box of Gabby Gabby, the antagonist, does not – because she was manufactured incorrectly.

Before the exchange near the end of the movie in order to save Forky, Woody’s spiritual conscience works with selfless clarity of purpose, while Gabby’s behavior stems from a desperate selfishness born of loneliness and a sense of never experiencing what non-defective dolls get – unconditional love (her  appropriately used term).

AFTER the transplant, though we never hear the defective version of Woody’s pre-programmed “inner voice”, we get to hear Gabby’s now much improved inner, pull string, voice. So we know the exchange was made, with Woody getting Gabby’s flawed “inner voice”.

We quickly see a subtle but significant change in behavior. Gabby gives up a sure home to risk helping a lost child, while Woody … chooses the vagabond life of a “lost” toy to be with his “honey,” Bo Peep, abandoning his fellow toys and Bonnie, the little girl who is SELF-DESCRIBED AS HIS CHILD. It used to be considered an abominably shameful thing to turn your back on the spouse to whom you promised fidelity and the child you produced, in order to engage in selfish pursuits.  Now, tragically, it is applauded and the children left behind are treated like old furniture at a garage sale to be shuffled to whomever might still want them.

IS TOY STORY NOW ADVOCATING IN FAVOR OF THE DIVORCE CULTURE ?

For more information on the devastation that divorce leaves, even decades later to adult children of divorced parents, you can buy at the Ruth Institute or READ ONLINE FOR FREE HERE THROUGH AMAZON KINDLE, a copy of Leila Millers’s Primal Loss – The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak.

And where were Jessie and Buzz? I can not fathom why the writers think we would accept either of them letting Woody go. But it fits in with the popular divorce routine where all the adult friends are supposed to rally around the abandoning parent and encourage them to “follow their heart”. I think if I hear that phrase used to justify another self-indulgently destructive behavior in a movie I’m going to stand up right there in the theater and scream in frustration. While they do not actually SAY it in TS4 Woody certainly DOES it.

Were the film makers saying they think it is OK to justify the “divorce” culture dad who leaves his child to start a new life with another woman (or less frequently but just as horrible, wife who leaves to be with another man) and we’re all supposed to be OK with it? OR – is this a subtle remonstration that those who behave in such a cruelly callous, irresponsible and self indulgent manner have broken inner voices – defective consciences? If the latter, it wasn’t nearly made clear enough … perhaps because the writers were afraid to ruffle a few feathers whose plumage was way too close to the guilty fire on this one.

I’m more than a little confused so can only imagine the perplexing message being conveyed to the youngest members of the family to whom these movies are primarily aimed.

The Toy Story we know and loved might have allowed Woody to be tempted but one of his most trusted confidantes would have slapped him, questioned his sanity, and made Woody recognize what a terrible mistake he was making. THAT would have been a good and fitting ending to this franchise. Anyone can be tempted. Even Jesus was tempted in the desert. It is what we fallen creatures do in the face of that temptation which separates the wheat from the chaff. And the film makers tossed every bit of good will the audience had invested in this character into the wind.

I would rather have seen Woody destroyed or fade into inanimacy from Bonnie’s loss of interest than see him betray everything for which he was created, everything he espoused and every principle he upheld for the last 24 years through the first three and most of this fourth movie.

The writers, lead by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, had so much going into this movie: a rich treasure of talent, an invested audience, well developed characters and plot back ground, and they gave it all away for a potage of politically correct propaganda to help justify succumbing to the lure of romantic adventure at the expense of a small trusting child. Shame on them.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN – HIS LAST NAME WAS MILNE!!! AND OTHER STUPID FILMMAKING DECISIONS

SHORT TAKE:

Christopher Robin attempts to show how a grown up with an intimate connection to a famous child's fantasy book, deals with adulthood in a British version of the equally weak Hook. Dull, ponderously slow, with a poorly thought out plot, while there's no reason NOT to take your child, there is very little to recommend it.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone CAN go.

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LONG TAKE:

I REALLY wanted to like Christopher Robin. I had been looking forward to it for months, but the over trailer-ing should have given me a clue. Advertising too much is often a sign the film makers know they have an underachiever and throw everything up on the screen hoping it will attract enough audience to pay for itself.

The good news is there is nothing, per se, wrong with the movie and you can, I think, safely take a child of any age to see it. The biggest danger you run is that they will fall asleep.

The acting is excellent and special kudos go to Ewan MacGregor, the grown up Christopher Robin, who, like Bob Hoskins before him in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, had to perform with … nothing. There was never a moment when these stuffed animals did not seem alive.

The voices were all very familiar. Jim Cummings, the only veteran in the crew, who has been speaking lines for Winnie the Pooh and Tigger since 1988 reprises the voice roles with his very familiar tranquil-laconic Pooh and loquacious-over excitable Tigger. The others re-create the other characters' voices almost flawlessly.  I only wish the story had been as well conceived.

Brad Garrett is the eighth person to groan the apathetic donkey, since Disney’s original featurettes. Nick Mohammed is the fourth Piglet. Peter Capaldi, the twelfth Dr Who (thirteenth if you count John Hurt), is the sixth Rabbit. Kanga is voiced by Sophie Okonedo (Liz Ten, the Queen in Dr Who), Roo by Sara Sheen. And Toby Jones, character actor from Sherlock, Dr. Who, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and an Avengers baddie, does a kiddie movie turn as Owl.

Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter, Captain America's first girlfriend) is lovely as Christopher’s wife and Bronte Carmichael is very sweet as Christopher’s little girl Madeleine. The performers acted their little hearts out.

The bad news is that the resulting film was so disappointing it made me mad. So I hereby present to you:

SEVEN REASONS WHY CHRISTOPHER ROBIN, THE MOVIE, MADE ME MAD:

Where should I begin?

How about with a list?

1. Winnie gave me the creeps; 2. the theme was stupid; 3. there were a LOT of missed opportunities; 4. poor character development; 5. profoundly stupid historic inaccuracies; 6. man abuse; and 7. the crowning jewel of all ignorant decisions.

SPOILERS

1. WINNIE AND FRIENDS GAVE ME THE CREEPS

The animals gave me the creeps. They were dirty and old and used looking. Not at all the way a small child would see them or an adult in fond memory. They looked as you might find them mouldering away in some old attic. And, save, for some reason, Rabbit, their faces barely moved. They were virtually expressionless. This all would have made some sense if, as time went on and Christopher spent more time with them, they started appearing cleaner and newer and more alive. But, alas, they continued in their bedraggled state throughout the course of the movie. A child would not have noticed them being dirty so if we, the audience and Christopher are looking at them through his child eyes, then they would have seemed fresh and new. If we are looking at them REALISTICALLY, through the eyes of the jaded and adult Christopher why were they animated at ALL? And, if we are looking at them realistically, why do any of the other humans see them move or talk? If this was all part of Christopher’s delusions, no one else would have seen them animated.

The stuffed animals in Christopher Robin all had more in common with Sid’s toys in Toy Story than in a visit to the Hundred Acre Woods.

2. THE THEME WAS STUPID

The theme was "sometimes you have to do nothing to do something" ….uuum? What? Christopher takes this to heart and brings it to his employer, the owner of a luggage manufacturing company, as a solution to their economic woes. That they should give all of their employees two weeks paid leave so they will buy luggage … to go on holiday. This would be like giving someone $100 to spend $25 in your store and then calling that $25 a profit. Based on this, NO one should put Christopher in charge of a business. NOW – he ALSO, as an offhand comment, suggests they should have a line of luggage for the "common" folk, rather than exclusively produce for the wealthy. Well, OK, that’s a good idea but not when linked to the other one.

3. MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

With three screenplay writers, two "story by" credits and based on the works of A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard, you would think Disney could have come up with a tight clever plot. Instead, it plays out exactly what it is – a story mashed together by committee.

Why didn’t Christopher bring his daughter with him when he followed Pooh to the Hundred Acre Woods for the first time in 30 years? Or have the writers have her follow him in? She was available having just seen the red balloon Christopher left her on her bike. He knew she would eventually figure out he had been there. His balloon gift made it no secret he had been in the vicinity, so why did he not just bring Madeleine with him?

From a plot point of view, this would have thematically helped establish a bridge between his youth and adulthood, AND allowed him to see his favorite playground from a fresh set of youthful eyes, AND provided Christopher with someone to bounce dialogue off of aside from talking to himself, of which he does a lot.

Why didn’t he see his reflection in a pool of water as a Heffalump? The idea is casually alluded to but the writers ignored the chance to bring this to the forefront and make it part of his character arc.

There is ONE good line in Hook, when the aged Wendy, finding out Peter has grown up to be an attorney specializing in corporate takeovers quips: "Peter, you’ve become a pirate!" Similarly, an image of the heffalump in place of the grown Christopher’s reflection could have been a touchstone moment. Instead he flails about with an unseen imaginary invisible heffalump to deliberately fool his stuffed animal friends.

Why couldn't, for example, each of the Hundred Acre inhabitants represent a change Christopher needed to make or an issue he had to resolve? Winnie could be his need to relax. Tigger to inspire finding the joys of childhood. Eeyore his insecurities. Kanga and Roo to renew and deepen his relationship with his wife and daughter, etc.  Nope they were just dirty tag overs, apparently abandoned in a dust covered corner of his attic.

4. POOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

There is little transition for Christopher from becoming a man so business oriented he reads hard economic texts to his daughter for bedtime stories to someone talking to an animated bear. Bruce Willis' character, Russ, in the comedy The Kid is inexplicably faced with the incarnation of his 10 year old self. Like the appearance of Winnie the Pooh in Christopher Robin, this manifestation forces the protagonist to confront some unpleasant truths about his grown up self. However, Russ, in The Kid, does not accept the little boy's identifty or even existence right away. Russ, first, seeks professional counseling, takes medication, and enlists the help of his personal assistant, all to simply prove to himself the kid is actually there and that others can see him. Putting aside that this was just a better movie by several factors of ten, this single point is a more realistic portrayal of someone coming to grips with an unknown. And Russ was only faced with a child, not a walking talking stuffed animal.

Alas, Mark Gatiss, we thought he knew better, Horatio. Mark Gatiss, (writer and actor from Sherlock and Dr Who) was roped into embarrassing himself, with a bad toupee, in the thankless task of a caricature bad boss. His Giles Winslow is so shallow it could have been replaced by a drawn stick figure. Gatiss is a wonderful actor but he was given little to do but tell Christopher to work on the weekend, knock over the same display several times in an incomprehensible show of clumsiness, which was neither amusing nor set up for any later pay off, and sulk when thwarted.

5. PROFOUNDLY STUPID HISTORIC INACCURACIES

The movie Christopher Robin shows the father as anxious to send the boy Christopher to boarding school and the mother sympathetic. Goodbye, Christopher Robin, the far superior biopic about the relationshiop between A.A. Milne and his son, was much more historically accurate, based upon the verifying documentation of the real Christopher's interaction with his mother and the fact he wouldn't have anything to do with the fortune made from the Winnie the Pooh stories. It was the MOTHER, in real life, who was callous and cold and couldn’t wait to be rid of the boy. OK, this is a Disney movie. I can overlook that alteration.

In C.R., his father dies while he is in boarding school, making him the "man of the house" when he was about 11. In fact, as accurately portrayed in Goodbye, Christopher Robin, his father didn’t die until after Christopher had grown, been to war, declared MIA, returned, and reconciled with Christopher. Christopher was 36 years old when A.A. Milne died. There was no particular reason for the premature "killing off" of Christopher Robin's father in this Disney misadventure except, perhaps, to explain why Christopher was in an unfulfilling job at a luggage factory. Reality would have provided a better plot point here too. In fact, Christopher rejected all of the money made from his father’s books and ran his own bookstore instead. This could easily have been worked in as a far more interesting character development issue.

Christopher detested his boarding school days and would NEVER have considered sending a beloved daughter there.

Christopher’s obsession with turning his daughter into a career woman was massively anachronistic for the early 1950's.

The real Christopher DID indeed marry but to a Leslie, not an Evelyn. And he did have a daughter but her name was Clare not Madeleine and she had cerebral palsy.

While I completely understand taking creative liberties for the sake of a story, if you are going to diverge THAT MUCH from an established and well known historic figure, why don’t you just create a NEW person out of whole cloth who has, perhaps, been INFLUENCED by the Winnie the Pooh stories and not concoct this absurd confabulation of made up "facts" about a real human whose past was rather well documented and easy to confirm.

6. MAN ABUSE

Here's a quiz for you. What doClick, Jingle All The Way, Kramer vs Kramer, Hook, and even Mary Poppins to a certain extent – all have in common? ANSWER:  Hard working, faithful husbands who are painted as the bad guy because they are busting their buns to provide for their families. In return, all they get is guilt from unappreciative wives and whiny children. I am sick to death of movies who cast men, who deny themselves fun and recreation, who proudly provide for their families, as negligent, solely on the grounds of that hard work.

What do these women WANT? Homer Simpson? Then, if a man is portrayed as fun loving, as in Mrs. Doubtfire, this behavior is presented as grounds on which to dump him and trade up to a rich established guy. And in Christopher Robin they do it again. Christopher is chided by his wife, raled at (behind his back) by his daughter and threatened (subtly) with divorce (I think we'll stay out here at the cottage for a while LONGER). Why? Because he had to forego a vacation when faced, by his superior, with two days to figure out how to cut 20% of the costs in his department without FIRING 20% of his people. I do not think his wife had any sense of proportion.

7. THE CROWN JEWEL OF IGNORANCE

And finally, the most egregious, most nonsensical, most distracting transgression was that the protagonist of the movie, acknowledged as the son of the author of Winnie the Pooh, was called Christopher Robin. His boss, who refers to everyone by their last names, calls him Robin. His WIFE is referred to as Mrs. Robin!!! This is not only wrong, it is profoundly STUPID, and worse, without purpose!! The name of the son of the author of Winnie the Pooh was NOT Christopher Robin!!! It was Christopher Robin MILNE!!! His father, the author of Winnie the Pooh was A.A. MILNE!!! The name "Milne" is never even mentioned!!! It is as though the screenwriters relied for accuracy on someone whose only experience with Winnie the Pooh was to watch one Disney short, for the first time, as an adult. And, I checked, there is no evidence to indicate that Christopher Robin MILNE, though he distanced himself from his father’s books and even his father’s money, EVER distanced himself from his family name. Christopher MILNE even wrote a book himself, The Enchanted Places, under the name Christopher MILNE!!!

You know, even wikipedia knows more than this. Pick up a BOOK why don’t you, Disney screenwriters, and look on the edge for the author's name!

So — take a small child if you must. There’s nothing really WRONG with the movie. But there is little right with it either. Personally, I think you’d be better off digging out one of the books by A.A. MILNE and reading the original to them. Or go back and watch The Kid.

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN – A GUILTY PLEASURE

SHORT TAKE:

Simultaneously a sequel/prequel to the first movie as Sophia and we, the audience, find out the details, in flashback, of how Donna got into her self-inflicted predicament.

WHO SHOULD GO:

If you're a mature adult – sure. Go! Enjoy! But don't take the kids. I really wouldn't, personally, want to explain to my child why Donna didn't know which OF THREE MEN was her daughter's father.

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LONG TAKE:

 

You're going to need a scorecard to keep track of this one.

As much as everyone praised the first Mama Mia, let's face it – the story lionizes a promiscuous, irresponsible woman whose only real virtue – granted it is considerable – is that she did not, even for a moment, consider murdering her baby. This one details how she met the three men who became candidates for father. I'm ashamed of myself – but I loved it.

Imagine a two hour music video of ABBA's greatest hits performed by Academy Award winning actors, James Bond, an Avengers regular, a rock and roll icon, and an Untouchable. Don't hurt yourself thinking too hard … all you have to do is go see Mama Mia! Here We Go Again.

Mamma Mia Numero Uno was a movie, based on a play, created out of wholecloth from the songs of ABBA, a Swedish pop band with hits like "Dancing Queen" (Yes – ABBA is the guilty party), active from 1972-1982. Much like The Who's Tommy, the story Mamma Mia was cobbled together from tying together the threads of the band's hit songs, themes and lyrics. The FIRST Mama Mia tale is told of Donna who gave birth to a daughter and raised her alone, on a Greek Island, while running a villa. Sophie, the daughter, now a grown women and preparing to marry, wants her father to walk her down the aisle. She finds her mother's diary and discovers there are THREE candidates. Without telling Donna, her mother, Sophie sends invitations to all three men, signing her mother's name. If it sounds like a Mozart Opera Buffa, you'd be right. And despite my better judgment I really enjoyed the first installment.

After all, Pierce "the BEST Bond" Brosnan, Stellan "crazy Avengers scientist" Skarsgard, and Colin "Kingsman, King's Speech and Importance of Being Ernest" Firth are the three men. The music is ALL ABBA, ALL the time. AND   Meryl (can play pretty much anything) Streep plays Donna, the indecisive lady … correction … woman in question. The singing was terrific, the dancing joyous, the colors bright. It's a feel good movie —– until you consider the foundational premise of the first movie is that of a woman who has three men —- THREE MEN —- in such a short span of time that she does not know who the father is. I mean – come ON – she would have had to…within merely a couple of days, HOURS! – with THREE different guys – and she only MET two of them the SAME FREAKING DAY she became .. friendly! There are professional ladies of indeterminate virtue who are more discerning than that. ARGH! Penny on The Big Bang Theory wasn't THAT slutty.

BUT – if you can put the main character's immorality aside, the original Mamma Mia IS a lot of nonsensical fun as songs are belted out, romances are rekindled, laughs are had and there's a marriage at the end – though not the one we started out with, as the daughter wanders off to start the whole series of mistakes over again. (frustrated *sigh*). Really!?

HERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!!! I TRIED TO DO THIS WITHOUT SPOILERS BUT IT WAS POINTLESS, SO ——- SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!

Which brings us to the sequel Mama Mia: Here We Go Again! Donna is dead – to begin with (apologies to Dickens). Little Miss Sophie has FINALLY gotten around to getting married … and is now pregnant. Donna has been dead for a year and EVERYONE converges back to the island to sing all the hit songs ABBA wrote which did NOT appear in Mamma Mia! number one, WITH the addition of Cher AND Andy "Untouchables" Garcia. The set up is patently unfair. To paraphrase Marlon Brando's Godfather Corleone, it is an offer I just can not refuse. More equitable to ask me to evaluate, objectively, an ice cream Sunday with Hershey's syrup, sprinkles, whipped cream AND mini M&Ms on it. I do not see how I could possibly NOT like it.

If nothing else, this movie carries some serious casting pedigree. Because half the movie is flashbacks, most of the major characters are played by two people each – the younger and the current. So let me help you out:

Pierce Brosnan plays Sam, the second of the three and the one who Donna eventually marries in the first Mamma Mia! Brosnan, along with being more Bond than even Sean Connery, has a varied resume including the lead in the very popular 1980's TV dramedy Remington Steele, reworked the Steve McQueen part in the latest Thomas Crown Affair and was the target of Robin Williams' foil in the blockbuster comedy hit Mrs Doubtfire. The character of Sam, as a young man, is portrayed by Jeremy Irvine – which is REALLY odd because Jeremy Irvine ALSO played a younger version of another member of the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again cast, Colin Firth. Irvine was the 20 year old Firth in the World War II drama The Railway Man. I do not know why they did not choose Irvine to portray Firth in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, but they did not.

The honor of playing Mr. Firth as a younger version this time went to Hugh Skinner, "suitor" as it so happens, number one, as a … pity romance. Skinner is notable for playing one of the barricade boys in Les Mis. Colin Firth meanwhile is ONLY the man who won the Best Actor Oscar for his stunning performance as King George VI in The King's Speech, not to mention stealing every scene he is in, in The Kingsmen semi-parody spy movies, Mr. Darcy in the EXTREMELY long BBC version of Pride and Prejudice AND one of the leads in the wonderful send up of The Importance of Being Ernest.

Then Skellan Skarsgard's youthful doppleganger is played by Josh Dylan who, aside from a small part in Allied, is fairly new to the acting scene. He is "date" number three. Along with being one of the Avenger scientist side kicks, Mr. Skarsgard has also been Bootstrap Bill in the Pirates franchise, a baddie in the Branagh Cinderella opposite Ms. James, and a friend of Firth's Eric in The Railway Man.

Lily James (Branagh's Cinderella) is the early incarnation of Meryl Streep's Donna. Meryl Streep is an icon of the acting business. Chamelon-like she has done everything from the Holocaust survivor tragedy of Sophie's Choice to the wildly eccentric comedy, undead evil heroine in Death Becomes Her. She can sing, dance, and like Dustin Hoffman does not shy from looking really ugly, if necessary for a role. And I bet I know something even the most ardent Streep fan does not. Guys and Dolls, the famous romantic comedy musical about a Salvation Army leader, Sarah Brown, who goes toe to toe with a gangster, Sky Masterton, was based – before Damon Runyon took credit – WAAAY back on a 1929 musical play by Bertolt Brecht called Happy End. A 1977 production at the Chelsea Theater in North Carolina featured Meryl Streep in the role of Sister Lilian, the original name for Sarah and Bill Cracker, who later morphed into Sky, was performed by none other than Back to the Future's Christopher Lloyd. Just in case it comes up in a trivia game……..

Christine Baranski (Leonard Hofstadter's blunt and intimidating, emotionally unpresent mother in The Big Bang Theory) is the older version of Tanya and Jessica Keenan Wynn the younger Tanya.

Ms. Wynn needs a special shout out right here. If her last two names Keenan Wynn, ring a bell, it is because she is the fifth in a generation of actors and the granddaughter of THE Keenan Wynn. Keenan Wynn's rich and varied 44 year acting span included everything from the early 1960's TV show The Untouchables to Stanley Kubrick's  Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to The Twilight Zone and Disney movies. And if that's not enough, Ms. Jessica's GREAT-grandfather was Ed Wynn, who you might just recognize from  Twilight Zones and as Uncle Arthur in the ORIGINAL Mary Poppins.

Harry Potter's Mrs. Weasley aka Julie Waters shares the character of Rosie with Alexa Davies.

Meryl Streep reduces Donna's part to a supporting role. This is the first sequel Streep has ever agreed to, so ANY appearance in this movie is of note. She comes on, near the end, in one of the most touching scenes you can conjure. (See below for my list of favorite moments.)

. Amanda Seyfried (Les Mis) plays Sophie, the girl with THREE Dads, and Sky, played by Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark in Captain America), is her husband.

Andy Garcia, who I will always remember for his acrobatic, athletic and amazing save on the steps of a Chicago staircase in The Untouchables, plays Fernando, the manager of the inn Sophie now owns. Garcia is actually a musician in his own right, a bongo and guitar player who gratefully and openly thanks America in general and Miami in particular for all the blessings bestowed on his Cuban-origin family, at the Cuban music festivals in which he plays and sings. And if you know anything about ABBA music (which you must if you want to see this movie) then his name alone give you a MASSIVE hint for his presence in this movie.

And then there's Cher who plays Grandma Ruby. At 72 years old she continues to have a powerhouse voice. Her roughly 53 year musical career started in the 1970's as the Cher part of Sonny and… which produced the hit Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour when I was a kid (note the song that haunts Bill Murray's Phil Conners in Groundhog Day is "I Got You Babe" – their break out hit). She moved on to the quirky rom com Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage and the heartbreaking Mask to the suspenseful whistleblowing Silkwood also with Meryl Streep. Her hit songs include: "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves", "The Way of Love", "If I Could Turn Back Time", "Half-Breed", "Believe", "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot me Down)", "The Beat Goes On", many of which she performed with Sonny Bono.

And now that we know WHO we are dealing with in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the premise is quite simple. Sophie and widowed Dad are restoring Donna's villa into a premiere hotel. Switching back and forth in time, we also follow along as Donna the Younger sleeps her way to and through the Greek Island, eventually getting pregnant with Sophia and decides to stay.

But the sheer jubilance that pervades the movie is irresistible. All practicality and common sense aside, this movie has the charm of every enthusiastic "Put on a Show" musical from Shirley Temple to White Christmas. I feel like Tevya. On the one hand the movie revolves around the behavior of a young flighty woman who treats sex like a sport or party favor BUT once pregnant she devotes her life to her child. There are raunchy jokes and throw away lines but nothing is seen or even acted out. A lot of sexually reckless behavior is considered acceptable but both babies – infant Donna and Donna's infant – are baptized in a (presumably Eastern Orthodox since it is Greece) Catholic church before an altar with a crucifix by a cassocked priest, celebrated by the entire town, as a ghostly Donna sings her blessing. The plot is threadbare and ridiculous but the song and dance numbers are completely charming and whimsical. It is obvious that the storyline is awkwardly cobbled together from the songs and the songs crowbarred into the action but are reworked in creative and appropriate ways as lullabies and nostalgic poetry. Donna was absurdly promiscuous but eventually married, as did her daughter. And as Sophia, herself, points out: "At least this time we know who the baby's father is." That's progress. Sky at first contemplates abandoning his marriage for a lucrative job, but quickly comes to his senses and goes back to his wife to fulfill the promises he made to her and assure her there would never be anything more important to him than his wife and child.

MY FAVORITE MOMENTS:

I Have a Dream sung by Amanda Seyfried as she and her Dad walk through the newly restored hotel as we cut back and forth in flashbacks to Lily James' Donna during her first impulsive trespassing tour of the originally ramshackle estate.

Brosnan speak/singing a snippet of S.O.S. as he mourns his deceased wife, Donna, especially considering that he really did lose his first wife, Cassandra Harris.

Sophie singing a duet of My Love My Life with her ghostly/imagined mother, Donna, in the church just before Sophie's baby's baptism. Sophie recognizes in song that Donna would have wanted Sophie to accept her mother's death, knowing the joy and contentment motherhood had brought Donna, and that her mother, Donna, could rest in peace knowing she had raised her daughter well and left a legacy of love.

As to my FAVORITE favorite moments – I went for a matinee but would have paid a LOT more just to see the scenes where Bond, King George, Selvig, Leonard's mother and Mrs. Weasley sing and dance to Supertrooper and Dancing Queen – SO worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Ultimately – despite its flaws it has an undeniable, albeit nostalgic, palpable charm.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT – IF YOU LOVED ANY OF THEM YOU’LL LOVE THIS ONE TOO

SHORT TAKE:

If you liked ANY of the other Mission Impossible movies, or were a fan of the old TV show, you will love this one.

YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THE MUSIC ON: THIS YOUTUBE WHILE YOU READ THIS BLOG!!!

WHO SHOULD GO:

Middle teens and up for the suspense and violence. No naughty behavior. While the language is mostly mild for an adult movie, they just HAD to put in ONE profound profanity which sticks out like a sore thumb.

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LONG TAKE:

I wonder how many of the audience members in the latest Mission Impossible: Fallout movie know that the entire Cruise franchise was built on the shoulders of a show which debuted in 1966 – precisely 30 years prior to the first Tom Cruise MI vehicle and 52 years before today’s release?

The TV sculpted the inception of this story concept, which features a group of spies, each with unique skills, who infiltrate, uncover, and disassemble the maniacal schemes of megalomaniacs, terrorist countries, and other super villains using disguises, staged events, clever dialogue, magic tricks, seduction, faked deaths, and intricately devious plot devices. Often irony is involved wherein the bad guys are caught in the webs of their own spiderian constructs.

The founding company included Peter Graves (most notable to the current generation as the ill fated pilot with poor judgement in food choices featured in Airplane), Martin Landau (Bela Legosi in Ed Wood) with his real life wife Barbara Bain, Peter Lupus as Willie whose singular talent was to be real real strong, Greg Morris who had a long career in TV appearances, and Steven Hill – a staple character actor in everything from Yentl to The Firm. Hill started out as the leader of the pack but turned the baton over to Graves when filming interfered incompatibly with his devout Orthodox Jewish practices of not working on the Jewish Sabboth, a decision for which I will always admire him.

There were also a string of TV and supporting film actors who studded the MI set for its seven year run, like: Lesley Ann Warren, William Windom, Robert Conrad and Sam Elliott. But, saving the best for last was the regular appearance of our own Leonard Nimoy – the one, the first, the original Spock. Interestingly, Mark Leonard who played his father Sarek, and William Shatner, Captain Kirk, of course, were also veterans of the Star Trek universe and made guest appearances on the TV show Mission Impossible. So MI has a long and illustrious history of establishing the world in which Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible gang exists.

And the MI movies are no piker when it comes to history either.

It has been 22 years between today’s Mission Impossible: Fallout and the first Mission Impossible movie, the latter which debuted with an opening scene sporting Tom Cruise in prosthetics so campy it could have been mistaken for a Saturday Night Live skit – or the original TV show. The opening of the 1996 Tom Cruise hit, complete with fuse burn and the iconic rhythmic theme song, was the same year as Jerry MacGuire and only 2 years after the embarrassing Interview with a Vampire.

Poetically, 22 years (the same period of time betweem the first MI movie and Fallout) before the first Mission Impossible movie opened, we saw the end of the seven-year run of the Mission Impossible television show. There have been six MI movies and I have seen all but Mission Impossible III. No particular reason, except that I haven’t gotten around to it. They are all both very similar and completely distinct from each other at the same time. All six relate to each other but stand alone, like siblings in a close knit family. So I can, with some personal assurance, say, that if you liked any of the Mission Impossible movies you will like this one, and if you have not seen them all you won’t feel like you missed anything.

I HAVE made it my business to see all of the Mission Impossible movie intros. While they all do fitting and respectful homages to the Mission Impossible TV show none encapsulates quite so completely the traditional and iconic opening sequence format of the original Mission Impossible TV show as does this Mission Impossible movie Fallout. The retro style sets the tone for the entire movie. Not to say that it in anyway is a throwback, but squarely, firmly and proudly stands on the TV show grandfather’s shoulders.

On that note – BE AWARE – in keeping with the TV show format, the intro-credits throw in "spoiler-y" clips from the entire movie you are about to but have not yet seen. These clips are shown very quickly and out of context. If you watch hard you might recognize some of the scenes later when they happen in the movie. However, if you watch that carefully and are thinking that much during a movie like this then … you’re working too hard and not enjoying yourself enough. But, honestly, the scenes shown are not likely to give too much away.

The premise of Fallout, around which I must delicately dance to avoid spoiling the spider web threads of plot which are beautifully characteristic of the entire Mission Impossible concept, revolves around the search for three balls of plutonium.

MILD SPOILERS BUT WOULD ONLY BE GIVEAWAYS TO THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE TRAILERS OR HEARD ANY OF THE MOST NOTABLE SCUTTLEBUTT ABOUT THE FILMING

Without giving away too much, I can promise you will find all of the delightful Tom Cruise reboot Mission Impossible features that we have come to expect and love, including: spectacular stunts performed by Mr. Cruise, which I am fairly certain raise the blood pressures of the Essential Element Cast Insurance agents to dangerously high levels. And it’s not much of a spoiler, given the amount of P.R. it has received, to mention that Cruise snapped his ankle during one gig. And, I did not know this until doing the research for this blog but, Cruise did his own flying during the helicopter scenes. He not only has a license to fly the birds but has a masters which allows him to fly the very dangerous stunts as well —- which he did. I’m glad I’m not his mom.

The cast includes, of course, Tom Cruise who plays Ethan Hunt, the leader of the IMF team, our heroes. Alec Baldwin reprises his role as their Superior, Simon Pegg appears again as Benji, the techie who wants field work. Benji has a line I can't help but laugh at based on my own interpretation of the meaning. In the trailer, Benji and Ilsa watch as Ethan is getting set to do yet another crazy death defying stunt. Ilsa asks: "What is he doing?" To which Benji quips: "I find it best not to watch." I couldn't help wonder if that line was really an ad lib by actor Simon Pegg as he watched his fellow actor Cruise prepare to do — yet another crazy death defying stunt —- for real.  Henry Cavill (Superman) makes his debut in the franchise as August, the blunt instrument representative of the CIA. Cavill and Cruise created fight scenes I haven't enjoyed so much since I watched Dave Bautista beat the living snot out of Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Spectre.

It's kind of a hoot in Fallout to see Superman and Hunt go toe-to-toe in a bathroom-wall shattering, finesse-less, jackhammer fisticuffs confrontation with an extremely capable martial arts opponent. That is, if someone likes that kind of thing … which I confess I really do. The scene is featured in the trailer and it's even more fun to watch on the big screen as Cavill outshines even Tom Cruise who, in his turn, graciously allowed the scene to demonstrate that after 22 years of this, he is slowing down just a little bitty tad bit. No big surprise as Henry Cavill is half a foot taller, 30 pounds heavier, and 21 years younger than Tom Cruise. Despite Cruise’s apparent eternal youthfulness, boundless energy and teenage-style recklessness, he is old enough to easily be his co-star's father. And yet, though Cavill is bigger and faster, Cruise still believably keeps up with him in every scene.

Angela Bassett (Black Panther) plays Erica Sloan, head of the CIA and August’s boss. Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Hunt’s Jiminy Cricket. Rebecca Ferguson reappear as Ilsa. In a surprise but delightful cameo is Vanessa Kirby as White Witch, a character of gray area motives. Kirby most recently appeared as Elizabeth II's younger and scandal loving sister, Princess Margaret, in The Crown. And Christopher McQuarrie does double duty in Fallout as the screenplay writer and the director, a dual position he also held for MI: Rogue Nation AND Jack Reacher. In addition, McQuarrie wrote Edge of Tomorrow/Life, Die, Repeat, Valkyrie and The Usual Suspects. To say McQuarrie already has an astonishing resume, not to mention a long standing, obviously successful professional relationship with Cruise, would be redundant.

No evaluation of any Mission Impossible movie would be complete without mention of the classic theme written by Lalo Schifrin from the original TV show (which I hope you are listening to as you read this): bum, bum, BUM BUM, bum, bum, bum bum. Doodle ooooo doodle oooo doodle ooooo – do do………is planted and threaded whimsically and delightfully throughout the entire musical score.

The special effects and action sequences are as amazing as you might like to ever see, the dialogue quick, snappy and classic. The acting solid, and shows the actors comfortable in their character’s shoes. And the plot is as contrived, complex and convoluted as you can possibly want in a Mission Impossible movie. The only issue I really have is in an annoying subplot.

However I'm not going to say anything about that unless you plow through my…

ONE REAL SPOILER ALERT. FEEL FREE TO JUMP TO "END OF SPOILER" FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.

So, if you made it this far – my big problem with the movie is with the appearance of Ethan Hunt's wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). To the best of my knowledge they were never divorced, she just faked her death, as Lois Lane might have done to avoid the clutches of the superheroes evil villainous nemeses. So when Julia introduced her new "husband" to Ethan, two simultaneous thoughts occurred: Julia is committing adultery and bigamy, and Julia is putting this poor schmuck at the same risk she was avoiding by faking her own death…….!?!

My husband pointed out that it would have been so much more fun, noble, in keeping with their initially selfless characters, and just plain old more romantic, for Julia and Ethan to continue the charade of her being dead, but clandestinely having intermittent rendezvous. Like other star crossed lovers: River Song and the various guises her husband, Dr Who, takes on, married and meeting over the centuries as they move through time in opposite directions from each other, but find each other when they can. Or Bobby and Lance Hunter in Agents of Shield who have a turbulent marriage but stick with it, meeting to get "reacquainted" from time to time. Or The Time Traveler's Wife, wherein the couple are separated often and for long periods of time because of his affliction of being "unstuck" in time? Or, how about your average married and deployed military man or police officer? They take great risks and endure long separations all the time but still managed to stay faithful for decades.

Instead, Ethan and Julia get to shallowly have their cake and eat it too. She gets to play dead but have a second functioning regular playmate she can call a husband and he gets to continue thinking of her as his and yet still pursue, tease and nurture a new relationship with Ilsa. I almost half expected there to be a planned menage a quatra. Thankfully, not.

END OF SPOILER

So, using the usual parental discretion, go see Mission Impossible: Fallout, bring your mid and older teens. Then, if you are like me, a fan of the original show, go home and introduce all your kids to the granddaddy TV show. BUM, BUM, BUM, BUM – TA DAHHHHHHH!

TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – ASTONISHING ACCOMPLISHMENT AND WELL WORTH THE TRIP TO CHARMING KILGORE, TEXAS

In Kenneth Branagh's brilliant comedy A Midwinter's Tale, about a disparate group of actors trying to put on Hamlet during the Christmas season in a very short period of time, Joe Harper pep talks to his discouraged cast: "In Shakespeare's theater, a six week season would have produced 35 performances of 17 different plays including, at times, four world premieres."

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Well, theTexas Shakespeare Festival, outdoes even the Bard in their 33rd season, managing the Herculean task of 47 performances of six plays in a scant four and one-half weeks, plus accomodating a guest company from China who does a 7th one-night-only show.

Graciously hosted by Raymond Caldwell, the Founder and Artistic Director, and John Dodd, the Managing Director, the TSF company started June 28 and closes July 29. They give nine performances each of two different Shakespearean plays, and three other classics, plus seven showings of a new children's show. This year they did a 1920's musical version of Shakespeare's romantic comedy Love's Labour's Lost about a King and three of his friends who forswear women for 3 years just before political circumstances require they meet with the lovely princess of France and her three equally lovely attendants. They also did the rarely seen Shakespeare play King John, covering this seminally incompetent and often cruel king in the best possible light Shakespeare could muster. The other classics were Moliere's Tartuffe, a comedy exposing the hazards of entertaining hypocricy, and, the musical version of the old classic serio-comic The Rain Maker, about a man who comes to a drought stricken town promising to change the weather, only to change the dynamics of the townspeople instead. They also did four performances of The Belle of Amherst about Emily Dickenson and 7 showings of the children's play The Lovely Stepsister.

While only the four major plays are left and then only this weekend, it is worth noting that the TSF is well worth the distance you might have to travel to get to this small, friendly, spotlessly clean, theater-geared and devoted Texas town. The food in the restaurants is varied and great, the hotels comfortable, plentiful and inexpensive. If you want to combine a theater vacation with an outdoorsy flavor you can also rent a cabin in nearby Tyler. The theater, itself, has stadium seating where there is no bad view.

The crew and staff at the Ann Dean Turk Center, where the festival resides, are extremely accomodating, resourceful, and very attentive to all the patrons' needs. Ice cream, snacks and coffee are available before the show and during intermission. The gift shop is small, quaint and stuffed with wonderful, high-quality memorabilia at reasonable prices. Blankets are provided for the more easily chilled visitors as the powerful air conditioning keeps the Texas summer heat forcefully at bay.

Along with the plays, the festival also features: live orchestral music, a talent showcase of the actors' musical and varied gifts, backstage tours, "open change-overs" where a docent explains the balletic process as the crew can transform the entire set from from a small country town to an 18th century parlor in under 90 minutes, panel discussions and more.

And if you want to audition – COME ONE COME ALL – as they make the rounds starting in the not too distant future, constantly looking forward to always making the next season better than the one before. You can come audition in person, catch the scouts as they tour the country or submit a video and resume. Get the details from their website: Texas Shakespeare Festival auditions.

I was privileged to be granted an interview with Briana (Bri) Thomas who played: a singing Jaquenetta in Love's Labour's Lost, Mariane, the put upon daughter of the foolish Orgon in Tartuffe, and the delightfully perky gal Snookie in 110 in the Shade. Her parents and grandparents came to celebrate and encourage her as she made her exciting and talented debut with the TSF. The beautiful and delightful Ms. Thomas graciously agreed to allow me to record our talk. Please enjoy the videos below.

 

So wherever you are coming from, it is worth the trip to attend the TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – and if not this year, clear your calendars to attend the 34th season starting in June 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

EQUALIZER 2 – STARFISH ON A BEACH

SHORT TAKE:

Death Wish – style movie with a more sophisticated philosophy and more intelligent presentation than most.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only. Little sexuality but a lot of harsh language and extreme amounts of violence.

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LONG TAKE:

w friendOne of the rules of good scriptwriting is SHOW DON'T TELL and I think Equalizer 2 did a (excuse the pun) bang up good job on this point.

I've gotten rather fond of Jeremy Scott's eviscerative observations on Cinema Sins. Although replete with profanity and spiced with the occasionally mildly raunchy comment, his analysis of movies, and disclosure of poorly written, clichéd weaknesses and foibles are not only usually very funny but spot on. When writing screen and stage plays, I now pointedly try to avoid the fallback easy positions like: heavy handed exposition, predictable setups, and stereotype characters, with a small voice in the back of my head optimistically warning that if ever this is produced, you don't want to hear that bell count out ill-advised boiler plate tropes.

And while watching movies, I find myself predicting what Jeremy will catch. Citing "Narration" as the self-explanatory critique and reason for the "sin," one of his pet peeves is excessive expositing. In the beginning of even blockbuster or well respected movies, such as Black Panther or Lord of the Rings, a chronicler will spout a long garrulous anecdote, covering decades or centuries worth of background.

That does not happen in Equalizer 2.

SPOILERS BUT ONLY FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE TRAILER

The premise, building upon the original, is that an ex-CIA operative, Robert McCall, now thought dead, lives a quiet life as a Lyft (read Uber) driver, doing good deeds where he can. w beared guyThe main storyline of Equalizer 2 follows McCall when, about a half hour into the movie, his friend is brutally murdered. standing by picturesMcCall announces, is expected to, and eventually does, take violent retribution against the perpetrators.  But I found the subplots, and the way the narrative is handled, far more interesting.

muslimFor example, the movie starts, (and not properly a spoiler as it is in the trailer) with a Muslim-costumed Denzel Washington confronting Turkish thugs on a train. Only later, as he goes about his normal routine back in Chicago do we OBSERVE how he knew of a problem and what it would take to fix it. The set up and solution were very quietly and subtly handled. And this small subplot did not even directly relate to the main action, but only served to establish McCall's abilities and personality.

imagesVNIP61L9The most compelling part of the screenplay was how McCall exercises that platitude of doing random acts of kindness using the gifts we have. For us ordinary mortals, it might be holding someone's door open or even paying for the coffee of the stranger in line behind you. fight in trainFor McCall it's beating the tar out of dangerous, abusive men then making them call the cops on themselves afterwards. When asked why he would take on the job of cleaning spray paint graffiti off of a wall when anyone else could do it, he responds that, although anyone else COULD, no one else DOES, so he does. This is the mantra from which he lives and a motto which raises the bar on what could otherwise have been just another Death Wish vigilante violence porn clone. While I'm not advocating vigilantism, often the mentality is a "kill them all and let God sort them out" philosophy.

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It's refreshing to see this hero, in this genre, genuinely attempt to mete out justice, even often allowing the bad guys an opportunity to "do the right thing" on their own first.

Another of McCall's "projects" is a neighborhood kid who shows some promise as an artist, but is tempted by the quick money and allure of drug running. When asked by the boy, "Why me?" as in: why would you care or why risk your safety for me or do this for me, McCall answers simply, "Why NOT you?"

I was reminded of the parable of the Starfish. Traditionally attributed to an inspiration from the St. Augustine philosophy of doing what you can for those whom God puts in your path, the short tale is of an adult coming upon a child throwing starfish into the ocean. When asked what the child thinks he will accomplish, the child responds that the tide is going out and those left on shore will die. Surveying the thousands of starfish which littered the shore, the adult cautioned the child that he would make little difference given the overwhelming job facing him. The child responded with a smile as he threw another starfish into the ocean: "But I made a BIG difference to this one."

So go see Equalizer 2, not for the overused, familiar vengeance fueled chaos, or even for the nicely handled "show don't tell" exposition. Go to watch Washington's McCall use his singular gifts to save what starfish he can.

NOTE: As I was out of town for the writing of this one I was limited in the pictures I could add but will be updating, God willing, upon my return.

EARLY MAN – LAUGH AS WALLACE AND GROMIT MEETS EVERY SPORTS MOVIE CLICHE KNOWN TO MAN

SHORT TAKE:

Adorable, funny, family friendly, typical sports outing about an underdog cavemen team playing soccer against a more sophisticated "Bronze Age" team to win their valley back, all brought to us by Nick Park and friends, the creators of SHAUN THE SHEEP!!!

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

If you like Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep or Chicken Run or The Wrong Trousers or…. oh EVERYBODY!!!

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LONG TAKE:

What do the fantasy franchises: Harry Potter, The Avengers, Game of Thrones and……. Wallace and Gromit have in common? Wallace and Gromit????!!!!

The answer is: Early Man.

Early Man is an adorable plasticine animation feature length movie brought  to you by the same instigators, led by Nick Park, who created The Wrong Trousers, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the story is spun about the lives of a group of Cavemen who were forced into the lone habitable spot by a meteor which devastated the rest of the known Earth. Their valley is lush and green, where all about them is the Badlands: with dangerous mutant animals, harsh rocky ground, and volcanos. The Badlands looks a bit like I'd imagine the Wembley Stadium parking lot after an EFL Championship game. But there are a couple of silver linings. Not only did the meteor strike carve out at least this one fertile area but the meteor, itself, also gave them the template for history's first football. By that, for those of you reading in America, I mean soccer. But the Brits call it football, so there it is.

Fast forward a couple "eras" and Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne – Newt Scamander from the "Harry Potter" world of Fantastic Beasts) and the tribe of which he is a member, happily lives on fruits, nuts and the odd rabbit (which said presented rabbit is about as catchable as Bugs Bunny so, in effect, they are de facto vegetarians). But Dug is ambitious – he wants to hunt mammoths………!

But that's not what the story is about. Their idyll is interrupted when Lord Nooth (voiced by The Avengers' Tom Hiddleson) sporting an impenetrable guise of Italian accent, comes upon the scene with equipment made of the bronze which he has mined from his nearby kingdom.

Dug challenges them to a game of soccer/football to win their valley back. Completely outmatched, Dug's group has no equipment, no training, no experience and doesn't even know the rules, but his chutzpah gets the attention of a local girl, Goona (voiced by Game of Thrones' Maizie Williams) from the Bronze kingdom who coaches Dug's tribe in exchange for a spot on the team. Nick Par, the creator, even lends a hand — or voice — for the emotive and communicative grunts and snorts of Dug's intelligent pig, Hognob.

The story is a pretty formulaic case of underdog team goes up against much better players with nothing but a good cause, lots of heart, and a ringer. We've seen the like in everything from The Karate Kid (karate) to Facing the Giants (American football) to Bad News Bears (baseball) to Mystery Alaska (hockey) and Balls of Fury (ping pong), and it works — every — time because, as Patton put it so well – "Americans love a winner" and everyone loves the underdog because in them we all  find inspiration. But this time it's played for laughs, parodying the sport, the genre, diva professional players, sports announcers, a "win one for the Gipper" moment, a hen pecked husband, you name it.

It's a clean, gentle, lovable movie that kids will enjoy for the claymation/plasticine animation and adults will appreciate for the pokes at the cliches. While there is a good deal of spoofing and teasing, there's not a mean spot in Nick Park's entire imaginative brain.

The cast list is like an old home week of favorite kids' characters, especially from the Harry Potter franchise. So when you take your kids you can happily point out that Eddie Redmayne is both Dug andNewt Scamander.  Timothy Spall, who voiced Chief Bobnar also moonlighted as Peter Pettigrew. Mark Williams, who does the voice for Barry, was also Mr. Weasley.

Miriam Margolyes, who voices Queen Oofeefa was also Professor Sprout. And Tom Hiddleson is Lord Nooth andLoki! I'll let you figure out how to explain Maisie Williams' stint in Game of Thrones. But, if it helps, she was also in a handful of Dr. Whos.

Early Man is available on Amazon now. So go watch this cute movie that will be delightful to kids, footballers, adults, fans of Wallace and Gromit, Harry Potter afficianados, pig farmers, rabbits, cavemen ………………