“Everything old is new again.” The Dio’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder + a quick take on the film Bennett’s War

“Everything old is new again,” that Boy from Oz Peter Allen once musically observed. You live long enough and you see pretty much every trope and concept repeated in some form or fashion. In 2014, Robert Freedman’s and Steven Lutvak’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the belle of the Tony Awards, winning Best Musical among its other honors. The musical was itself based upon the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman which had inspired the 1949 Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

That said, I hadn’t seen the musical until taking in The Dio Theatre’s exceptional production (currently running), and I was struck by how it made me think of so many other works: Cy Coleman’s Little Me with its succession of bumped off suitors all played by one wunderkind actor; Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians with its episodic structure framed around a steadily mounting drawing room body count; Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood with its winking neo-operatic hyperbole; the gothic gallows whimsy of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies with one absurdly alphabetically-inspired ghastly death after another; and maybe even a bit of Neil Simon’s Murder By Death with its cavalier and circuitous satire of the entire murder mystery genre

I’m not sharing all of this pedantry to sound pretentious and pompous … though that very well may be the inadvertent effect I’ve achieved. I offer this perspective to say that I’m not sure I was completely sprung on A Gentleman’s Guide‘s source material as I couldn’t shake what felt like derivative familiarity. The plot concerns Monty Navarro, the lost heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune, and his devious machinations as he systematically eliminates the eight legitimate D’Ysquith relatives standing before him and untold wealth.  A Gentleman’s Guide tells that tale, tongue firmly in cheek, as one actor plays all the ill-fated D’Ysquiths in an episodic style that is less grand guignol and more Carol Burnett Show meets Gilbert and Sullivan.

Three paragraphs in, I’m not here to evaluate the book or music – that ship has sailed, and the rest of the theatre community seems to universally adore A Gentleman’s Guide. My task is to talk about The Dio’s production, and, as with all of the company’s storied output, the show is beautifully, thoughtfully mounted with technical aplomb, spectacular talent, pristine music direction, and touring production-level costume and set design.

Director Steve DeBruyne in collaboration with an A-list team – Matthew Tomich (set, lighting and sound), Norma Polk (costumes), Eileen Obradovich (props), Carrie Sayer (assistant direction), and Marlene Inman (music direction) – offers a show that is by turns immersive, inspiring, layered, and sparkling. The look and feel is like an unfolding storybook: arch sartorial splendor that would put Colleen Atwood to shame; family portraits that open Laugh In-style for the Greek chorus to observe the onstage shenanigans; clever digital projections depicting locales as diverse as the D’Ysquith manor, a towering abbey, and the Egyptian pyramids.  Inman has created a sonic landscape that is as splendid as it is overwhelming; the voices onstage could fill a space three times the size of The Dio. The musical abilities of this cast, in Inman’s exceptional hands, are something to behold.

Olive Hayden-Moore, Sarah Brown, David Moan, Angela Hench [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Standouts are David Moan (“Monty”) and Sarah Brown (“Phoebe,” Monty’s cousin … and dearly beloved). Moan and Brown have a deft touch for balancing the light comedy, dark themes, and vocal prowess required here. Moan is becoming a bit of a cottage industry around humanizing sociopaths, after his celebrated turns as Sweeney Todd and John Wilkes Booth (Assassins) at The Encore Theatre. Here Moan’s soaring voice is paired with a characterization that is as wry as it is poignant: an outsider always looking in, waiting for his moment to shine, even if that involves pushing a relative (or 8) off the proverbial (or literal) cliff.  Moan and Brown are at their best in the “slamming doors” number “I’ve Decided to Marry You” (also, arguably the most ear-wormy tune in the show) alongside Angela Hench (“Sibella”), depicting a love triangle gone zanily sideways. Hench is an incredible vocalist, but, at times, given the accent she employs, our table struggled to discern her lines.

Richard Payton as … The D’Ysquiths [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Local legend Richard Payton, as expected, milks every moment of excess and bombast in his multiple roles as the self-important D’Ysquiths. The scenery practically has teeth marks from his work here, and, as much fun as he is clearly having, some nuance does get lost in The Dio’s tight quarters. He is balanced by an exceptionally strong ensemble (Lydia Adams, Michael Bessom, Olive Hayden-Moore, Jared Schneider, Carrie Sayer, Maika Van Oosterhout, Mark Anthony Vukelich) also playing multiple roles. Their collective high point (other than some really funny fake ice skating) is “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” wherein Payton’s entitled queen bee “Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith” launches a series of successively disastrous philanthropic voyages to far flung corners of the globe, her exasperated retinue in tow.

I’m glad I saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I’ve been intrigued about the show, but, admittedly, in the end, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the concept. It is a lot of show, and coupled with dinner service makes for a lengthy evening. However, I am a fan of The Dio and the magic they weave in Pinckney, Michigan. Their production of A Gentleman’s Guide is accomplished, polished, and impressive. The degree of difficulty which this theatre company continues to embrace (and conquer) seemingly without a second thought is, in a word, inspiring. And the fact that they consistently deliver exceptional productions with grace, inclusion, humility, and kindness makes The Dio an absolute treasure.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through October 6 at The Dio. Tickets may be purchased here.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, like any household, we try to strike a balance in our choices, particularly where entertainment is concerned, hence we took in the low-budget motocross film drama Bennett’s War at my husband’s request.

It’s a formulaic sports-as-metaphor flick, but, on the balance, a likable one. Production values are that of a mid-range television pilot, and, other than country star Trace Adkins as a down-on-his-luck farmer, the cast is comprised primarily of unknowns. A few jingoistic moments made me cringe – notably a golden-hued Michael Bay-like opening wherein titular every man Marshall Bennett (a winning Michael Roark) has turned his motorcycle riding prowess into a tour of duty in Afghanistan. That tour doesn’t end well. Bennett ends up back home, injured and unable to race, his family farm facing foreclosure.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, Bennett has a beloved mechanic buddy Cyrus (a charming Ali Afshar, also serving as the film’s producer and curiously choosing to tell, in character, a couple of tone-deaf jokes at the expense of his fellow Arab Americans). The duo face down an enemy motocross team Karate Kid-style (remember that “everything old is new again” thing?), overcome a few narratively convenient setbacks, and save the farm (literally).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

You know what? I enjoyed Bennett’s War. The movie is well-cast, nicely paced, and mostly good-hearted. Bennett’s War is pleasant entertainment, zips by in a breezy 90 minutes, and doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Sometimes that’s just fine.

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Richard Payton [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There’s “Something There,” all right. Disney’s 2017 live action Beauty and the Beast is an absolute delight. Maybe I just needed a movie like this right here, right now, but this update spoke to my heart and soul and had me staying through every last bit of the credits, with tears streaming down my cheeks and a big smile on my face.

I’ve been agnostic about the artistic need (not the commercial one) for the unyielding march of Disney’s flesh-and-blood remakes/reinventions, since the runaway success of the garishly underwhelming Alice in Wonderland. True, each subsequent entry has improved upon the last, from the DOA Oz the Great and Powerful to the well-cast if underwritten feminism of Maleficent, from the poignant but ultimately forgettable Cinderella to the sparkling eco-parable The Jungle Book, culminating in last summer’s exemplary if underappreciated Pete’s Dragon.

Beauty and the Beast (not unlike its animated forebear) takes the lessons from all that came before and synthesizes them into a crackerjack entertainment. Yes, there is the requisite if servile devotion to iconic imagery and character beats (the blue dress, the yellow dress, an elegant waltz in a cerulean-hued ball room, Gaston’s Freudianly overcompensating pompadour). Yes, the film suffers from a borderline overuse of CGI. For a “live action” remake, there is likely as much if not more animation in this version than the last, and poor Emma Watson (“Belle”) does her level best to act in awe of the green-screen universe surrounding her. I can imagine the direction: “Emma, a plate is flying at your head now. The forks are doing a can-can. A feather duster just sailed past your ears!” And, of course, there is a Disney Store stockroom’s worth of infinitely merchandisable new characters – dolls, Tsum Tsums, magnets, action figures, porcelain statues, and home goods … oh, the home goods.

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) has embraced it all but never to the detriment of story or character, fleshing out the more problematic elements of the source material and casting some of Hollywood’s best and brightest (and most empathetic) to deliver the goods. Do we really want kids fantasizing about Stockholm Syndrome as a path to true love? Thankfully, Emma Watson (Harry Potter) brings a feminist agency to Belle that is refreshing and necessary. The character will never be Gloria Steinem, but even Steinem mined captivity in the Playboy Mansion as a launchpad to address the objectification and mistreatment of women. (Too pedantic or too glib of me? Probably both.)

Kevin Kline plays Belle’s father Maurice, bringing some of the strongest character development to the piece, haunted by a desire to protect his only daughter from a world that claimed his beloved wife too soon. It seems to be a requirement that every Disney protagonist loses a parent (or two) as a spark for their hero’s quest, but Condon, alongside screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, gives us a haunting and loving portrayal of a father-daughter united by tragedy but undeterred in intellectual curiosity.

As before, Belle is an oddity in her “poor, provincial town” because, well, she likes to read … and to challenge the status quo and to question why anyone should simply accept with gratitude the lot in life they are handed. What once seemed like a quaint notion in a nearly 30-year-old cartoon, now seems frighteningly au courant in 2017 America. Early in the film, Maurice describes Belle’s mother to his child as a way of helping Belle cope with the small-minded community in which they are trapped, “People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Preach.

Through a series of minor calamities and overt misdirection, Belle finds herself at the castle of the Beast (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), a foppish prince who was transformed into a monster because of his unrepentant vanity and cruelty. The Beast holds Belle hostage in exchange for her father’s life, after Maurice tries to steal a rose from his garden. Nice guy, eh?

Bletchley Circle‘s Hattie Morahan does a fine job with her limited screen-time as the sorceress who curses the prince. In fact, the entire opening sequence, narrated by Morahan, is a surreal homage to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 take on the material; it is a rather un-Disney-like preamble, with l’enfant terrible (Stevens, again), prior to his transformation, contemptuously awash in a baroque swirl of powdered wigs, fright makeup, and gilded … everything. (In other words, a typical Saturday afternoon at Mar A Lago.) It’s so repulsively camp that we as an audience have zero sympathy for what befalls the prince and his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time waitstaff. You do the crime, you do the time.

As for Stevens’ work as the Beast, I don’t envy any actor whose performance is buried under a mountain of computer-generated pixels, but, like Robbie Benson before him, the trick to this character is in the voice work, and Stevens’ evolution from feral to forlorn to fetching is spot on.

Regarding the enchanted crockery, cutlery, and assorted housewares who populate the Beast’s castle, Condon offers us an embarrassment of riches. Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson all have a ball with their respective roles, with McKellen, Thomspon, and McGregor as standouts. The original film was no slouch in that department either (Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers), and this next generation similarly provides comic relief and even greater melancholy as the Beast’s “family,” loyal to a fault and ever-hopeful that he will find himself and, in the process, discover true love and break the curse. Condon’s casting is flawless here.

Rounding out the ensemble, Luke Evans (The Hobbit series) portrays a Gaston that is not “roughly the size of a barge” but whose smarmy ego, rampant insecurity, and loathing of women and animals are ginormous. Gaston has always been the true “beast” of the story, and this production doesn’t shy away from depicting him as the worst of all male impulses and an unfortunate corollary to the darker elements in present day society. A little bit Robert Goulet and a little bit Errol Flynn and a whole lot of unbridled id, Evans is on fire throughout. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) as sidekick LeFou is more understated than the trailers (or the silly trumped-up controversy surrounding the flick) would have you believe. Gad’s sweaty, subservient fawning over Gaston is balanced with some lovely notes of self-doubt that provide a more thoughtful characterization than I was expecting.

And, yes, the songs. All of the ones you know and love – and that will be keeping you awake in a continuous loop in your noggin at two in the morning – are all there. The song stylings of this cast won’t put any Broadway babies out of a job, but they all acquit themselves nicely, using the relative intimacy of film over stage to inject these anthemic numbers with a healthy dose of nuance. There are four new songs contributed by original composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice (Howard Ashman wrote the lyrics for the original score). I, for one, thought the additional numbers blended seamlessly, with particular standouts being “Days in the Sun” (beautifully expressing the longing of the house staff to return to their human forms) and “Evermore” (the Beast’s big number wherein he finally knows what true love is only to see it walk out his castle door). These numbers sound like Sondheim cast-offs that just didn’t quite make the cut for Sweeney Todd. And that’s a compliment.

This new model Beauty and the Beast may disappoint some for not reinventing enough, and it may trouble others for contemporizing too much. I, for one, thought it was just right. The 2017 version remains a tale as old as time, true as it can be, and speaks to the underdogs, the marginalized people, those who are bullied by the cool kids or punished for being too indulgent. Indeed, it is bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong. Beauty and the Beast reminds us that life does get better.

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Stop taking photos of sandwiches: Betty Buckley’s “Ah, Men!”

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Legendary Betty Buckley with not-so-legendary Roy Sexton [Photo by Author]

Facebook is a funny thing. Such a powerful tool that could do so much to create positive social change is being used for rather mundane, likely superficial, arguably dumb things: bragging about new homes, taking photos of sandwiches, complaining about Lady Gaga.

I love (not) the people who opine about “declining morals of society” and then post photos of themselves doing body shots at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Accountability? Yeah, apparently only when it’s a one-way street headed to Sarah Palin-ville.

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Lobby of The Columbia Club
[Photo by Author]

And then there are the friends (and sometime relatives) who bloviate about how some people have “too many friends” and “how could you know all of those people” and “aren’t you afraid of identity theft…cause you want to waaaaaaatch.” I don’t know what motivates this last string of comments: jealousy, annoyance, small-picture thinking, or the fact that the more friends one has the harder it is to stalk all their comings and goings on the social network.

So why am I on this annoyingly self-serving high horse? Perhaps I’m full of myself because I had the privilege of meeting a Tony Award-winning performer I’ve long-admired. I was listening to her CDs in college when my fraternity brothers were blasting Bob Marley and Pearl Jam on the front lawn.

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Buckley with Susie Duncan Sexton [Photo by Author]

What does this have to do with Facebook? Well, said performer has very smartly leveraged the communication platform to connect with generations of fans in an authentic and direct way, without the meddling intermediary of a PR agent. I was beyond geeked a few years back when we “friended” one another in cyberspace and struck up conversations over the intervening months about politics, movies, and animals.

Who is this tech-savvy celebrity? You’ve probably deduced by the blurry photos above (my family just can’t be trusted with cameras, myself included) or, heck, from this blog entry’s title: Betty Buckley.

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Entrance to The Columbia Club
[Photo by Author]

Betty Buckley is known to some musical theatre neophytes as “Abby” on Eight is Enough or as Sissy Spacek’s sympathetic (slap notwithstanding) gym teacher in Carrie. To some adventurous cinephiles, Buckley is remembered for her character turns in Tender Mercies, Frantic, or The Happening. And for millennials who subsist on a steady diet of the CW and ABCFamily, they would have seen Buckley pop up on brother Norman Buckley’s saucily fun Pretty Little Liars. (Norman and mom Betty Bob are fantastic Facebookers as well!)

But for us theatre nuts, Ms. Buckley will always be known for her knockout performances in such classic musicals as 1776, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Cats, and Sunset Boulevard among many others. And for her series of jazz-infused, confessional cabaret recordings over the past 20+ years.

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“Ah, Men!” album cover [Photo by Author]

One of her latest cabaret offerings – recording as well as live performance – is a show called “Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway!” The nifty conceit of the show is Buckley’s fulfillment of a lifelong desire to perform all the great Broadway anthems written expressly for men.

Given our Facebook connection with Ms. Buckley, there was no way we would miss seeing her perform in Indianapolis’ most splendid room: The Cabaret at The Columbia Club, a surprisingly intimate yet Eloise-esque marble-floored, velvet-curtained, lost-moment-in-time hall with a ceiling-to-floor window overlooking the twinkling lights of Monument Circle.

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Stage at The Cabaret [Photo by Author]

You must catch this show if it comes anywhere near your community. It’s not often you get to hear a legend in person, let alone one as relatable as Buckley. Her between-song patter is a hoot: for example, as a kid, she desperately wanted to be a “Jet” in her local community’s production of West Side Story, and these anecdotes offer the perfect context for her song choices.

And, oh, what song choices! Many of my personal favorites – from The Fantasticks‘ rallying “I Can See It” to Guys and Dolls’ elegiac “More I Cannot Wish You” – are featured. The Sweeney Todd medley effortlessly marries “Not While I’m Around,” “Johanna,” and “My Friends,” capturing the melodiously tragic arc of Sondheim’s best show in a perfect seven-minute bon-bon.

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Roy Sexton, Susie Duncan Sexton, and The Cabaret’s executive director Shannon Forsell [Photo by Author]

Accompanist and arranger Christian Jacob helps Buckley transform the bombast of The Pajama Game‘s signature tune “Hey There” into a haunting, undulating meditation on regret, loneliness, and heartache. But the show’s highlight is a ten-minute Spike Jones-meets-Mel Brooks riff on My Fair Lady’s “Hymn to Him” in which Buckley runs through nearly every noteworthy male role in the musical theatre canon and winkingly expounds on how much better her take on said roles would be.

We have admired and appreciated Ms. Buckley’s talent throughout her career; we are grateful to live in an age where technology allows us to appreciate the person as well as the performer, an age that can inspire thought and expression and compassion and kindness … if people will let it … and stop taking photos of their d*mn sandwiches.

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P.S. Sorry for another outright plug, but please do check out my mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s new book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels – in paperback or digital download at  www.susieduncansexton.com, www.amazon.com, or www.open-bks.com (also available on iTunes). I love what pundit, columnist, and radio host Carol Baker just wrote about the book and thought I’d share it here…

As a weekly columnist, writing on topics of politics and social justice, I find Susie’s writing style a breath of fresh air. As I sailed through story after story, it was like sitting across a kitchen table, having an old friend share stories of their life over an endless cup of coffee. I know how to bring a reader into a story to laugh or to cry or to be an intimate observer, but Susie effortlessly helps to evoke memories of my own early childhood, my youth, young adulthood and ultimately, to come to terms with an aging body. Susie glides from topic to topic through time and weaves her stories like a familiar old song. I’ve committed to attempting a Susie Duncan Sexton homework assignment of becoming a storyteller because she’s proven it’s never too late to stretch my writing chops. She inspires me to write more – and to write better. She inspires me to write with less angst and to simply “think out loud on paper”. Perhaps to be a little more understanding of the gargoyles and a little less approving of the angels.

This is comfort food for a writer’s soul.

They don’t like the questions science asks: Frankenweenie

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

Around the mid-way mark of Tim Burton’s new stop-motion Disney animated feature Frankenweenie, a suitably creepy but charming, Vincent Price-esque public school science teacher observes, “People like what science gives them…they don’t like the questions it asks.” Pretty heady, philosophical stuff for a kids’ feature.

Tim Burton seems to run on two speeds – 1) cold-blooded yet warm-hearted, allegorical goth fairy tales that offer finely spun, darkly whimsical takes on the human condition (see: Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Ed Wood, even Sweeney Todd) or 2) sophomoric, recklessly morbid, crassly violent, meandering cinematic sketches that may start vigorously but skid to flat conclusions, running on their own self-satisfied fumes (see: Alice in Wonderland, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and, the worst of all, Mars Attacks). His other films fall somewhere along that continuum, with Beetlejuice, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and Batman Returns being the other standouts. I admit a soft spot in my heart for this past summer’s box office misfire Dark Shadows. It wasn’t really very good, but I kinda loved it.

So where does Frankenweenie fit in? Unfortunately, the film squanders a beautiful and loving and elegiac first two thirds with a third act that devolves into borderline hateful, truly unpleasant movie monster cliché (no doubt aspiring, rather, to cheeky b-movie homage…and failing). The movie tells the story of a kind but forlorn, science-obsessed boy who loses his beloved dog (and only friend) while being forced to “fit in” and play a game of baseball. By the way, I found that a telling autobiographical moment for the self-professed, long-time outcast Burton. This boy, a typical Burton anti-hero, is inspired by the aforementioned science teacher and resurrects said pooch a la Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.

The dynamic between the boy (named Victor) and his devoted pup Sparky is completely engaging and fun. Further, the supporting characters, from Victor’s next door neighbor girl (voiced by Burton mainstay Winona Ryder) to Victor’s parents (voiced by two more Burton regulars Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) are likable and interesting. As  all Burton productions do, the movie borrows its aesthetic and left-of-center worldview from Edward Gorey. All of that works beautifully, reinforcing the importance of family, animals, and open-mindedness in a world that is often quick to judge and demean. The film cleverly works in conceits from the original Frankenstein and other genre works, from a villainous mayor named Van Helsing to a gloomy windmill that dominates the town’s landscape to angry villagers who are intolerant to difference of any kind…that last part added a spooky parallel to life in post-millennial America.

HOWEVER, and this is a BIG however. The film takes such a strange tonal shift in its last third that it ruins the promise of the kind-natured, delicate story-telling it had achieved to that point. Suddenly, the film veers into Godzilla/Gremlins/Pet Sematary-lite ugliness and loses the good will it engendered…for this viewer at least. Such a shame. Imagine the first hour of Edward Scissorhands jumping to the last half hour of Mars Attacks, and you will understand my disappointment.