Posted on December 18, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Copyright Columbia Pictures 2014
Copyright Columbia Pictures 2014

The story of the plucky little Depression-era orphan with the curly red hair has been not just re-booted but re-imagined into the world of rent-a-bikes, viral videos, DNA tests, YOLO, corporate privacy invasions, and Katy Perry tweets. There are some nice shout-outs to the original version, with a character named for Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray and a music group named the Leapin’ Lizards after the redhead’s favorite way to express surprise.

A cheeky opening briskly bridges the decades. It begins with a red-headed girl named Annie giving a school report, concluding with a tap dance.  She looks like the Annie we remember.  But then the teacher calls on another Annie, and we meet our Annie, played by “Beasts of the Southern Wild’s” Quvenzhané Wallis.  She gives a rollicking report about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal that sounds like a call to action from Occupy Wall Street. The whole classroom bangs on their desks along with her. Annie is all about the 99 percent. (The famously very right-wing Gray would be horrified.)

And, as she repeatedly reminds us, she is not an orphan.  She is a foster kid.  Every Friday evening, she waits outside the restaurant where her parents were last seen, in hopes that they will return. She was four when they left her with a note and half of a locket, and since then she has gone from foster home to foster home, now living with Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a bitter, abusive, alcoholic woman who once sang with C&C Music Factory and was almost a Blowfish. She resents the girls who are her only source of income, and makes them do all the work in the apartment.

Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is a cell phone company billionaire running for mayor of New York. (That’s “Stacks” as in “stacks of money,” with “Warbucks” a bit too on the nose for our more euphemistic times.) When he grabs Annie to save her from getting hit by a truck, his approval numbers spike, and his aides encourage him to spend some time with her to give him a more relatable image. Grace (Rose Byrne) is his all-purpose, super-efficient second-in-command and Guy (Bobby Cannavale) is his whatever-it-takes spin-master campaign advisor. Annie, about to be thrown out by Miss Hannigan, persuades Stacks to let her stay in his mega-luxurious apartment, promising that her “game face” will get him good press, combating his image as “a rich elitist who can’t relate to regular people.”

It works for a while until some unscrupulous people hire a couple to pose as Annie’s real parents.

Some of the updates work well, and there is a nice energy in the opening scenes as Annie uses the last ten minutes of a bike share to navigate the city, passing street performers riffing on the well-known score. Co-writer/director Will Gluck keeps things bright and bouncy, but his filming of the dance numbers is clumsy to the point of incompetence, undermining even the nearly unkillable numbers like “It’s a Hard Knock Life” with angles and edits that take the energy out of the songs instead of boosting it.

Wallis is inconsistent, occasionally appearing checked out of the scene. She is better in the few scenes with the other girls, but she has very little chemistry with Byrne or Foxx. And one barfing scene is bad, but four? Plus a spit take? And a hooker joke? There is a movie-within-the-movie that is very cute, but the cameos are a distraction. The tweaking of the script works better in individual scenes than in the overall plot, which feels slapped together and unsatisfying. Ah, well, the sun will come out tomorrow, so maybe next time they’ll get it right.

Parents should know that this movie has themes of child abandonment and abuse, a character abuses alcohol and there is a joke about alcoholism, and there is some mild peril and potty humor.

Family discussion: What did Annie mean when she said Stacks did not know he was good yet? How is Annie different from the other girls?

If you like this, try: the other musical versions and “Game Plan”

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Comedy Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Family Issues For the Whole Family Musical Remake Stories About Kids

Little Orphan Annie: From Comic Strip to Radio, Broadway, Television, and Two Movies

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 8:00 am

Copyright Harold Gray and Tribune Syndicate
Copyright Harold Gray and Tribune Syndicate

The spunky little girl with the curly red hair and a dog named Sandy began as Little Orphan Annie in 1924, created by Harold Gray.  Her pluck, self-sufficiency, and resilience caught the imagination of the Depression-era audience in the 30’s, and soon she was everywhere. You could buy books, dolls, jewelry, even dishes showing Annie with her iconic red dress and pupil-free eyes. There was a popular radio program (remember Ralphie and his Little Orphan Annie decoder disappointment in A Christmas Story. After Gray’s death, the strip was continued by the brilliant Leonard Starr (Mary Perkins On Stage).

In 1977, the Broadway musical version became one of the biggest hits in history. Here is the original star, Andrea McArdle, singing “Tomorrow.”

Dozens of young girls appeared in the play, including Sarah Jessica Parker. The documentary Life After Tomorrow has interviews with many of them about the stress of auditions and performing and how it affected their feelings about growing up.  And in 2013, PBS aired another documentary about the casting of a revival of the stage show.

The 1982 movie musical version starred Albert Finney, Aileen Quinn, Carol Burnett, and Bernadette Peters and was directed by John Houston.

In 1999, a version made for television starred Alan Cumming, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, and Alicia Morton.

All of those versions kept the 1930’s setting — they even feature a rousing musical number with Franklin Roosevelt and his Cabinet.  But this week’s release, produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Jay-Z, updates the story to the era of Instagram and Twitter.  It stars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and, as Annie, “Beast of the Southern Wild’s” Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis.

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Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Lists Remake

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Posted on July 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm

A prize-winner at Cannes and Sundance, this near post-apocalyptic story of a father and daughter in a condemned part of Southern Louisiana is a stunningly assured debut by first-time feature director and co-writer Benh Zeitlen and extraordinary performances by a cast of non-professionals.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (the mesmerizing Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry, who owns a bakery in New Orleans) live in homes made from trash in a fictional community called The Bathtub.  They do not have electricity, running water, or telephones, but Hushpuppy is happy and feels lucky to be there.

Zeitlen, the 29-year-old son of folklorists, makes this story exquisitely lyrical.  It is poetic in tone and epic in scope.  Seeing through Hushpuppy’s eyes makes it feel like a fairy tale because of the freshness of her conception of what is real and what is fantasy, what is strange and what is ordinary, what is scary and what is comfortable.  Like Margaret O’Brien in the beginning of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” she introduces us to the community she loves.  Like Alice, she brings us into a strange and enchanted world.

‘The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world,” she tells us; while ordinary people in other places only have one or two holidays, they celebrate all the time.  She is a part of a fiercely devoted community.  We hear her repeat what she has been told and we see the contrast between what she is telling us and what we are able to understand.  Her father’s hospital gown and the precariousness of their shelter signify nothing special to her, but we can tell it means that her father is very sick and the next big storm will flood The Bathtub.  What we see as peril and deprivation, she sees as a place of myth and plenty. And she sees it as her home.  For her, it is “the prettiest place on earth.”  That is what she has been told and that is how it seems.

Later, when they are taken to a shelter, we see that through her eyes, too.  For Hushpuppy, it is not a place of rescue and protection but a place of strangeness and sterility.  Buses parked outside, ready to take displaced people from the exotic but familiar world of The Bathtub to strange-sounding far-away places like Des Moines seem institutional and predatory.  Later, another possible rescue takes her to a part of the “civilized” world that again, we understand when Hushpuppy does not see how very dangerous it is.

Hushpuppy’s teacher points to the tattoo on her thigh to illustrate her stories about the aurochs, boar-like prehistoric beasts.  The fable-like timelessness of the setting makes the era of the aurochs feel very close.  When they appear, in a scene of breathtaking synthesis of myth and metaphor, Hushpuppy’s spirit seems to expand to fill all of the courage, resolve, and vision of the human spirit.

Zeitlen achieves a naturalness and state of wonder that is breathtaking to experience and one of the most impressive films of the year.


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Based on a play Drama Family Issues Stories About Kids

Interviews: The Director and Stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Posted on June 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a lyrical tale of a six-year-old girl and her father living in “The Bathtub,” a fictitious community based on condemned parts of southern Louisiana.  In an almost post-apocalyptic setting with no electricity, running water, phone, government, or business, they have a life filled with danger and deprivation but also with joy and a strong sense of home.  The film has won prestigious awards at Sundance and Cannes and opens in theaters this Friday.

A small group of journalists met with stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry and writer/director Benh Zeitlin to discuss the film.  Henry told us that he owns the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans, which was across the street from the studio where the auditions for the film were being held.  “All the guys from the production company would come over and get donuts, get coffee in the morning, back and forth for the course of about a year.  We would sit down and talk about a lot of things.  They would put flyers in the bakery if anybody wanted to audition for this upcoming film.”  Henry auditioned but then he relocated the bakery and the producers could not find him.  They finally found him and offered him the part but he could not take it because of the demands of the business.  He turned them down three times and then managed to work things out so he could do it.

He talked to us about his character’s behavior which at times seemed harsh and angry.  “I often throughout the course of the movie was trying to emphasize with a passion and an urgency for her to learn how to do these things I’m trying to teach her because her daddy’s dying….She’s the most important person in the world to me and she don’t have her mother.  So it is important to me as her father that she learn how to feed herself, take care of herself, and survive and be strong because Daddy’s not going to be here.”  He identified with his character.  “Everything I try to do in real life, the businesses that I’m building and everything that I’m doing is something to pass on to my children.  No selfish needs for myself.  Everything is for them.  I brought that same passion about working things out in real life to make sure my kids are all right — I brought that same energy and passion to the movie.  As fathers, that’s what we have to do.”

He had never acted before, but “you can’t get better than real life experiences.  You could have brought an actor from outside.  But I was in real water this high from storms.  I was two years old when my mom and dad had to put me on the roof in the lower 9th ward when Hurricane Betsy came and flooded the whole 9th ward.  I was in Camille.  What better experience than actually going through that versus bringing in some actor from the outside that never done this before, that never seen a hurricane, that never been in a hurricane, that never had to evacuate their home, that never lost their home, that never lost their loved ones?  I’ve seen bodies floating in the water after storms.  Seeing things like that gives you a passion.  I felt what they felt because I’ve gone through that in real life.”

Quvenzhané Wallis told us that the scariest part of the movie for her was the animals.  “I wasn’t a fan of the pigs.  I’d never even touched a big, I’d never even seen a pig, I didn’t know what a big looked like.  I just knew what a pig was.  It got me scared and they were forcing me to do it but I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t know what I was doing.   I just didn’t want to walk up to it and touch it.”  She said she enjoyed acting and wants to do more.  And she talked about trying different things as they would do many different takes.  “Every mood that’s in the catalogue or the emotion log, that’s what he wanted me to do….Benh just wanted to make it look like a real story.”  But it did not take a lot of acting to show her character’s strength and ferocity.  “That is me!”

Zeitlin told us the film is “a heightened reality that’s “a bit of a love song to the region.”  There’s no place that exists in the world that is The Bathtub, but it’s all built of real things.”  The crew would create the buildings the characters lived on out of trash, just as the characters would have.  “Every piece of every house is something that we found somewhere in South Louisiana.  It’s almost like a junk sculpture where you’re collaging together a lot of different things.  It isn’t real in that you could go make a documentary about it but it is real in that it is all made from real stuff.  It’s not a fantasy movie.  It’s about what the world seems like when you’re six.”  The movie is loosely based on a play where the character is an 11 year old boy and played by an adult.  But Zeiltin realized that the character would understand everything differently as an 11 year old and he wanted the poetry of a six year old’s point of view.

They looked at between 3500-4000 children and Wallis was “so clearly the person” that “we knew what we were doing from then on.”

The Deepwater Horizon explosion happened the day they began filming and Zeitlin talked about what it was like to film in the midst of the spill and clean-up.  “That cloud was hovering over the town, getting closer and closer every day.  It added a lot of weight to what we were doing that really transformed the film.”

“The film is almost to me like a jazz funeral.  No matter what is happening, you celebrate anyway.  Dwight talks about this.  He says, ‘We were partying before the storm, we were partying through the storm, and we’re partying after the storm.’  That’s not a superficial thing.  It’s a refusal to feel sorry for oneself or be crushed by the weight of tragedy, a refusal to get defeated.”


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