Two more Nights at the Museum

It looks like Disney+ is going to be bringing back the Night at the Museum Franchise. Here’s why the first three are so much fun.

I reviewed the first Night at the Museum film back in November. I tell the story of how I came to watch it in that article, but at the time none of the other films were on Disney+. That changed at some point and I found them this week, so I watched the two sequels.

The first is 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and the third, and so-far last, is 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

I say “so-far last” because it looks like Disney is trying to revive the IP in some way, shape, or form. But of course. I guess that’s fitting because it’s kind of in keeping with the exhibits in the film that are in whichever museum winds up with the Golden Tablet of Pharaoh Ahkmenrah — they just won’t die.

The first film caught me off-guard and pulled me in because it sets up (and sets off) the premise so economically and quickly, and Ben Stiller has a great knack for playing that Everyperson character we can all relate to.

Each of the three films follow the same general outline, naturally — Stiller’s Larry Daley winds up getting drawn into (or back to) the (night) lives of his beloved museum exhibits, managing to survive the challenge and learn things along the way. There’s a very strong father-son element built into the trilogy, set up in the first film as Larry only takes the Museum job so he can keep his apartment and visitation rights with his son.

It all pays off with a nice parallel story in the third film.

Over the course of the films, the producers and writers do what so many long-running franchise films have done, and I was reminded in many ways of both the Indiana Jones and James Bond Franchises.

That is, you’re working with basically the same group of heroes/supporting staff, so you need to change up the locations and villains with each outing. The Indiana Jones movies did it by moving through both time and space, as well as changing the McGuffin each time.

With James Bond, each film was set in whatever present day it was made in even though time was visibly passing with each new film. However, other than home base in England, the principal action of the films took place all over the world, with some of the installments covering multiple countries.

Night at the Museum doesn’t get quite that elaborate, but it does have a nice, logical progression. The first film takes place in New York City, the second in Washington, D.C., and the third in London, England, with a prologue set in 1938 in Egypt.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian pretty much dives right into the action, with a number of our familiar characters/exhibits from the first film being crated up for delivery to the National Archives in D.C. under the opening credits. Meanwhile, we learn that Larry Daley (Stiller) left his museum job a few years earlier and did go on to be a successful entrepreneur, selling his own line of inventions via informercials and now living in a very upscale place and being a much better provider for his son.

For some reason, Daley drops by the museum that evening, only to learn from the curator, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) that by “Shipped to the National Archives,” it really means stowed away forever — and the Tablet of Ahkmenrah is not scheduled to make the trip, meaning that Daley’s friends from his museum days will never wake up again.

However, the night before they make the trip, they do wake up and bring along the tablet, which leads to an emergency phone call from the gang to Daley — they seem to be in a bit of a pickle.

Daley heads to D.C. only to find out that the National Archives are not open to the public and are also located deep below ground under the entire complex of 19 museums the Smithsonian comprised at the time. After very cleverly stealing a local guard (Jonah Hill)’s ID Daley coordinates with his son by phone to get down to the archives, only to quickly learn that cell phone reception only works about a floor and a half down.

From there, it charges into non-stop action as we learn that Ahkmenrah’s older (but snubbed) brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) has learned of the existence of the tablet and wants it for himself. He’s been holding the New York exhibits captive.

Oh — Daley also meets up with Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who seems to take an immediate shine to him. It’s all good, silly fun from this point to the climax, with most of it held up by the fun dialogue and situations, but especially the performances.

Stiller, as with the first film, grounds everything, and American actor Owen Wilson and British thespian Steve Coogan continue to provide their “odd couple” pairing as two museum miniatures brought to life — the former an American cowboy (Jedediah) and the latter a Roman soldier (Octavius).

Normally, I can’t stand Owen Wilson, but his characterization works for me in all three films, and Coogan is a perfect foil for him — or vice versa. (It wouldn’t half surprise me if Disney+ didn’t spin off these two characters in some animated series, like “Miniatures of the Museum” or something like that.)

Rounding out the cast, Azaria plays his villainous pharaoh to perfection, wisely opting to use a voice that has strong hints of Boris Karloff — who, besides Frankenstein’s monster, was also famous for playing the Mummy — and who brings his usual single-minded focus to a role to make it perhaps greater than the sum of its lines.

He manages to be by turns menacing and ridiculous and every shade in-between, which is exactly the tone that a villain in these films needs to have.

It’s probably not a huge spoiler to say that Daley and his museum pals save the day and Daley learns another life lesson, leaving everything set up with the third film but, refreshingly, without any annoying, “Wait for the sequel!” flags hung in place. We do end with Daley going back to work at the museum, extending evening hours, and letting the exhibits interact with visitors — who, of course, assume that the exhibits are either actors or elaborate special effects, and business is good.

The series could have ended there and been perfectly satisfying, but the next film took everything a bit farther and a step further.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb starts out with no credits, just the aforementioned prologue set in 1938, which is when a joint U.S.-British-Egyptian expedition discovers the tomb of Merenkahre, Ahkmenrah’s father and original creator of the golden tablet. Despite warnings that disturbing the tomb means “the end will come,” the expedition proceeds to load everything up.

One of the members of that expedition is 12-year-old C.J. Fredericks. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen that name before, and somebody that age in 1988 could conceivably still be alive in 2014. (In fact, the actor cast in that grown-up role was born about the same time as the character and is still alive now, knock wood.)

Again, this film dives right into the action after the opening, as we learn that Daley has gone back to his job as night guard, and is overseeing the re-opening of the Hayden Planetarium, to also be hosted by the re-animated exhibits. Everything seems to be going well until it suddenly all starts to glitch out. Ahkmenrah explains to Daley that the tablet is starting to corrode, and the magic may end soon.

Daley runs across a photo of C.J. Fredericks while researching the tablet, and after a museum librarian mentions that C.J. worked there as a night guard for years, Daley puts it together. He tracks down Fredericks (Dick van Dyke) as well as his other former workmates (Mickey Rooney as Gus and Bill Cobbs as Reginald) in a rest home.

Denying everything at first, Daley uses the photo to get Fredericks to spill the beans. The ones with the answer are Ahkmenrah’s parents, but they’re at the British Museum. Daley convinces his boss, McPhee, to let him take Ahkmenrah and the tablet to the British Museum. McPhee reluctantly agrees.

Of course, Daley and his son have stowaways on the journey, and most of the core group wind up in the British Museum, night guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson) none-the-wiser. After dark, the tablet does its magic and brings the exhibits to life, and our gang has to find the exhibit with Ahkmenrah’s parents’ tomb in it in order to learn the secrets of the tablet in order to save it.

The first hitch in their plans comes when they are rescued from a triceratops skeleton by a wax statue of Sir Lancelot come to life, but he can’t just let them all waltz off. He’s a Knight of the Round Table, after all, and is sworn to protect those on quests.

While he seeks the holy grail, the others seek the secret of the tablet — and also the whereabouts of Jedediah and Octavius, who were sucked down an air vent in the floor. While Dexter the capuchin monkey heads off through the ducts to locate the miniatures, the rest head off to try to find the Egyptology section of the collection. Once there, they find Ahkmenrah’s parents, and his father explains that the only way to save the tablet is to charge it by full exposure to moonlight — it’s been inside for too long.

However, someone else has other plans, taking the tablet and running off. Will our heroes be able to stop them in time and save all of the living exhibits?

Given the franchise so far, the answer to that question is probably obvious, but the one nice bit about it is that rather than have it be a “Hero physically defeats villain” moment, it happens because the villain suddenly realizes what’s actually at stake for the hero in this whole thing. It isn’t the tablet but, definitely requires the tablet in order to happen.

Back home, Daley quits the museum again, this time having no idea what comes next, but he and his son have grown a lot closer. An epilogue three years later takes place when a touring exhibit from the British Museum drops in on the New York Museum and it’s party time, a light and fitting end to the entire series.

So — are they among the greatest film trilogies ever made? Not really. But will they keep you and your family entertained while introducing a bit of (mostly accurate although with tropes played for laughs) history? Most certainly.

The cast carries the show here, with Stiller’s Daley, Robin Williams’ Teddy Roosevelt, Rami Malek’s Ahkmenrah, and Wilson and Coogan’s Jedediah and Octavius carrying things.

Other stand-outs include Mizuo Peck as Sacagawea, Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun, and Ricky Gervais as Dr. McPhee, all three of whom appear in all three movies.

Dick van Dyke gets a lot to do in the first film, doesn’t appear in the second, and has a cameo in the third. Mickey Rooney has the same pattern of appearances, but the writers never knew what to do with his character, other than make him a belligerent little man who threatens to punch out Daley from the get-go and who never changes.

That part is kind of sad, because in the third film, which was shot two months before he died, Rooney has clearly had some physical disabilities, with his character in a wheelchair and the right side of his face kept mostly away from camera.

Robin Williams, meanwhile, took his own life in August of that year, so when the film was released in December 2014, it carried memorial notices for both actors. Still, that shouldn’t dampen any of the humor and adventure in the films. The three together and individually have some great lessons to teach, both of the historical variety and of the emotional variety.

Grab your family or friends, and have a little Museum marathon.

New Year’s Countdown, December 28

As the Countdown to 2022 continues, here’s a comedy number from the group Straight no Chaser.

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Sure, it’s after Christmas, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be the “It’s not Just Christmas” theme. I’ve covered Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Diwali. Hell, even Festivus Now here’s a song that combines all of them, all of the Christmas carols, and provides a reminder of the annual madness we’ve all just survived.

I give you the group Straight No Chaser, which in some ways echoes another group seen here several times, Out of the Blue Oxford, performing both Santa Baby and All I Want for Christmas Is You. Both started as college a cappella groups, but the British version stayed with the university as an organization with an ever-evolving cast while the American version struck out on their own. As they describe their evolution, they went “from an undergraduate singing group at Indiana University to a beloved Atlantic Records act with a devoted international fanbase.”

Their first release was the holiday album Holiday Spirits from 2008. This song was the lead track from their 2009 holiday release Christmas Cheers.

Check out the previous post or the next, or start from the beginning.

New Year’s Countdown, December 27

New Year’s Countdown: Happy birthday Marlene Dietrich, who here serenades David Bowie with the song Just a Gigolo.

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On this day in 1901, Marlene Dietrich was born in Berlin and lived into her 90s, with a career that spanned from when she was 18 and performing in Berlin nightclubs to a long film career in Hollywood.

She was an icon, and made her last feature film in 1979, appearing opposite David Bowie, who was 32 at the time. Its American title is Just a Gigolo, and yes, that song does appear in the film and, although the film is set in post-WW I Berlin, the song is not anachronistic, since the story moves along far enough to have the Nazis starting to muck with things.

The original song, entitled Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo, took lyrics written in Austria in 1924 and set them to music in 1928. The English version was written in 1929. Incidentally, the original German-language version was a tango.

In this clip from the film — which was widely panned and which Bowie himself regretted making —Dietrich’s character sings it to Bowie’s after basically humiliating him in front of a roomful of fellow soldiers.

Incidentally, the film was supposed to be a black comedy. I’m guessing that people just didn’t get the joke.

Watch from the beginning, see the previous post, or experience the next.

New Year’s Countdown, December 26

Happy Boxing Day. As 2022 approaches, here’s Dropbick Murphy’s very Irish ode to the season.

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Christmas is over, but doing this countdown has been so much fun that I decided to reset the clock to bring us into New Year’s and the first day of 2022, which is also the first year of the second decade of the 2000s. A lot of people don’t get this and think that the 20s started in 2020, but time doesn’t work that way. Otherwise, the day after December 31 would be January 0.

I think the confusion over when decades begin and end comes from how humans count their own ages. Yes, on the day someone turns 20, they are no longer a teen, but that’s because we start counting at zero, and on their first birthday they turn one. Decades, centuries, and millennia all start on the first day of year one and you have to have all of the digits, so it runs 1 all the way to (1)0.

But forget that for the moment. Happy Boxing Day, everyone! This is more celebrated in the British Commonwealth than the U.S., but in honor of this most British of holidays I bring you the most Irish of bands, Dropkick Murphys, with The Season’s Upon Us. The song may be a day late for Christmas, but it’s probably a more honest depiction of how a lot of you celebrated yesterday. Plus it continues the Christmas Countdown theme of Funny Thursday. Enjoy!

Watch from the beginning, see the previous post, or experience the next.

Christmas Countdown, Thursday #4

Christmas Countdown Thursday: Christmas is Funny, with a little SNL commercial parody bringing an assortment of imagined celebrity songs.

Day 28

Thursday’s theme is Funny Christmas, and while this one isn’t a Christmas carol per se, it’s kind of a meta take on the whole theme, as SNL imagines a whole series of celebrity Christmas songs that, honestly, aren’t all that far-fetched. This dates back to December of 2013, but it’s still relevant today, and seemed most appropriate for Christmas Eve.

It also might be where the inspiration for DMX actually doing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer actually came from.

Of course, SNL has had a long history of doing Christmas episodes and sketches, and this season marks their 44th, which is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Yes, it’s had its ups and downs over the years, but when it nails it with an amazing cast, it really nails it — and this is something that the show seems to manage to do at least around every Presidential election year.

We certainly saw it in the 2019 lead-up to 2020, and then it just exploded in 2020 — no mean feat considering that a lot of the season was performed remotely, with the cast in their own homes, but it still worked.

But… when they’re not doing politics, they’re nailing human foibles and pop culture, which the video below does. Their aforementioned Christmas sketches do, too, and if you’re interested, Refinery 29 has a list of the best of them.

Check out the previous post or see the next.

Wednesday Wonders: Fairfax

Millennials put Gen-Z on blast in this incisive satire of the influencer generation..

Amazon Prime premiered yet another original series recently and, while I’ve bad luck with most of them I’ve tried to watch so far, I gave this one a try, and it resonated for some reason.

The ones I’ve attempted and failed after one or two episodes have been shows like The Man in the High Castle: I mean, when you’ve adapted the entire source novella in the first episode and changed one pretty major plot detail, where do you have left to go?; The Boys: I got it in the first fifteen minutes. Real super heroes are assholes.

Although Hunters was probably the worst. In theory, it should be easy to get behind a show about fugitive Nazi hunters in the 1970s despite them casting very Italian Al Pacino as a very Jewish character — what, they couldn’t find any Jewish actors in Hollywood? — but then pulling the typical Amazon Original pilot sin of going way the hell over the top in several moments.

Yes, there’s something comedically chilling about a called-out Nazi criminal suddenly gunning down his entire family and visiting friends during a suburban barbecue in order to protect himself, but did we really have to see a rather corpulent actress in a shower scene shot in intimate and graphic detail as she is eventually gassed to death in her own bathroom?

Tales from the Loop was the other major fail for me. Based on an amazing art book by Simon Stålenhag, the problem is that the series remained as static as those wonderful pictures, never giving us any kind of engaging story.

The cardinal sin of entertainment: Never be boring!

The one series that did hook me and get me through the entire season was Upload, a dystopian piece of science fiction set in the near future in which people can actually upload their consciousnesses to a digital afterlife, but as with everything else, the more you can pay, the better you get.

It was theoretically picked up for a second season, but I’ve seen nary a hint of that happening yet. As of October 27 of this year, there was still no release date. Yeah, way to whiff on one of your actually good originals, Amazon.

This brings me back to Fairfax, though. A half-hour animated series centering around a group of middle school friends who are desperately trying to be influencers, it really feels like a room full of Millennial creators decided to get together and take the piss out of Gen-Z, and boy, do they succeed at it.

In case you’re neither of those generations and/or not in L.A., let me explain the title to you. Fairfax Avenue is a street that runs north-south in the city, physically starting just above Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t become significant or interesting until it crosses Melrose, which is the location of Fairfax High School.

From that point south past CBS Television City and the Grove until it hits 3rd street, it has become the new hip mecca of WeHo adjacent Los Angeles.

I think a large part of why this happened is that Melrose, through the 80s and 90s, managed to become hipster central and eventually gentrified itself out of reach, so traffic took the route of least resistance and headed south.

The really interesting thing about Fairfax, though, is that it’s really only developed on the west side of the street, since so much of the east side is taken up by large public or commercial spaces — the high school, CBS Studios, and the Grove, which is a gigantic open-air mall.

As for CBS Television City, the place is a landmark, and home to a lot of really famous shows. They shot the Carol Burnett Show there, as well as The Price Is Right, Let’s Make a Deal, and a ton of soap operas, as well as basically every three-camera sitcom CBS ever aired.

You could get free taping tickets right outside the studio. At one point, it was pretty much drive-up and self-serve, as they had them set up in a pigeon-hole rack near the artists’ entrance.

No guarantee that you’d get into the taping, of course, and if you wanted to attend a 6 p.m. sitcom taping, best be in line by 2 p.m., unless it was one of the more popular shows (i.e. Let’s Make a Deal or The Price Is Right) in which case, just show up long before dawn.

But then there was the other side of Fairfax.

For years, it was home to a lot of family-run businesses, principally restaurants, clothing shops, and salons, and a lot of them are still there. One of the mainstays of Fairfax is Canter’s Deli, which opened in Boyle Heights in 1931, later moving to its present location on Fairfax.

In the series Fairfax, it’s affectionately parodied as Schwimmer’s Deli, although I really wish that the creators had had the balls to call it Mohel’s Deli. They do mock the prices as being high, which is kind of ironic because, comparatively, they really aren’t.

But, come on — where else can you actually get challah French toast?

My personal Canter’s favorite, the corner beef Reuben, is still only $19, which is right in line with what such an overstuffed “give me a doggie bag” sandwich costs anywhere else in the city. Fries included.

But I do digress…

Another point where Fairfax managed to tap into the zeitgeist — whether they were able to write and produce it after the fact or just really lucked out — is in a scene where all of the wanna-be influences line up for the chance to buy a Latrine Branded T-shirt (don’t ask), and while they line up south to north, the visuals look exactly like a very recent influencer landing on Fairfax as well.

That would be when Danny Duncan — a late-20s entrepreneur famous because who knows why? — opened the west coast branch of his Danny’s Cream Pies ice cream store on Fairfax recently, and the line to get in ran for several blocks, right past a lot of the landmarks depicted in the show Fairfax to boot.

Speaking of Fairfax, the school the show centers on is called Fairfax Middle School, which doesn’t exist. The closest thing is Fairfax Junior High, but that’s located many miles away in Bakersfield.

The show itself is told as a fish-out-of-water comedy, with that fish being Dale, a kid who has just moved to L.A. with his family from Bend, Oregon, and who is horribly out of touch with, well, everything.

It’s kind of ironic, actually, that a kid from Oregon would be cast as the out-of-touch one, considering how many hipsters fled L.A. for Oregon in the early 00s. But it ultimately winds up working.

By the second episode, the lesson starts to come through — if you really want to be an influencer, then be yourself, and not whom you think your audience wants you to be, and that could be a really interesting through-line for the rest of the season.

Box score: For the second time only, in my experience, Amazon originals creates a series worth watching.

Momentous Monday: More movies that don’t suck

Another film worth watching that I missed the first time around but found recently thanks to streaming.

Yet again, a random internet discovery sent me off in search of a film I never saw the first time around, luckily to find it on Disney+.

That discovery was that Rami Malek was in it, something I wasn’t aware of when the film came out because, well, nobody had heard of him at the time. This was his first feature film role after a handful of TV episodes, and it would come nine years before his breakthrough in Mr. Robot.

I made the discovery by running across a short video online of all of his best moments in the film and watched it only to realize that he’s pretty funny in it, as is Ben Stiller, and I was reminded after so many years of how amazing the cast actually was: Ben Stiller, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Ricky Gervais, Paul Rudd, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, and Anne Meara (Ben’s mom) in a cameo that’s even more hilarious if you know they’re related.

So the clips I’d seen and that cast list made me decide to give it a shot. It was short enough and I started early enough that I could pull it off on a work night, after all, and if it sucked, I could always just turn it off.

As the title noted, though, it did not suck and was engaging from its beginning shots of New York City — specifically the borough of Brooklyn — with its opening credits integrated into the scenery as museum-like signs and engravings on buildings that would fade in and out.

The script itself is lean and mean and gets right to the point. Larry Daley (Stiller) is a recently-divorced father of a ten-year-old boy who lives with his mother, Rebecca (Carla Gugino), and her fiancé Don (Rudd).

Larry would love it if his son could live with him, but Rebecca doesn’t think that’s a wise idea, especially after she gets Larry to admit he’s about to be evicted again. His problem is that he’s a dreamer with a very unusual resumé, having gone through a series of spectacularly failed would-be start-up products designed for infomercial sales.

Unfortunately, his first big idea, The Snapper, was not only identical in function to a similarly named and already existing device, but most people found it too hard to snap compared to the rhyming alternative.

His only hope to save his apartment is to find a real job, but the employment agency he goes to tells him there’s nothing. Nothing, that is, except for one odd job, but everyone so far she’s sent out has refused it.

You can probably guess where that job is.

Larry goes to the Natural History Museum where he meets the three current night guards, Cecil (Van Dyke), Gus (Rooney), and Reginald (Cobbs). Cecil offers him the job immediately even as Gus is kind of an asshole toward him.

That evening before closing, they give him a tour of the museum and his guard’s manual, making sure that he has his keys, flashlight, and guard’s manual, then beat a hasty retreat, Cecil leaving with the ominous yet jovially-toned warning, “Don’t let anything in. Or out.”

I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away since it was explained in the trailers and the film is fifteen years old, but the secret of this museum is that at night, everything in it comes to life — and that means everything, starting with the T-Rex skeleton in the lobby.

This was the one thing that Cecil and company failed to explain to Larry, and so he’s discovering it all along with us, although as all hell starts to break loose and various historical figures wander the halls, he winds up frantically phoning Cecil for help.

Cecil’s instructions are short and glib. “Just follow the instructions,” he says before hanging up. Larry finds the guard’s manual, tries instruction number one, and it works, so then proceeds through the museum to follow the rest of them, only getting to the part too late about the key-stealing monkey.

The rest of the evening doesn’t go so well, with rival factions in the miniature dioramas starting wars with each other, the tiny Aztecs attacking Larry with mostly ineffective “poison” darts only strong enough to make parts of him numb, and the wild animals from the taxidermy exhibit running free.

He’s finally rescued by the ever horse-mounted Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), who helps him deal with the problems, explains a few of the rules that Cecil did not and gets things at least in stable shape before morning comes.

Larry almost quits when Cecil and the others come in, but then something outside reminds him of why he took the job, so he tells Cecil he’ll give it another night. Cecil advises him to learn the history of the exhibits in order to be able to handle them, and Larry takes his advice to heart.

You’ll just have to watch the film for yourself to see what happens next, but suffice it to say that it’s a breezy and well-constructed bit of enjoyable fluff that literally follows the classic fairy tale structure of repeating a particular journey — in this case the entire night in the museum — three times, with increasingly disastrous results before the conclusion.

One highlight of the film is watching the reaction of Larry’s boss, Dr. McPhee (Gervais), to the ever-growing state of morning after chaos, reacting in an extremely low-key British manner that still tips off how truly pissed off the man is, although he can never show it emotionally. A different actor could have easily gone over the top in the role, but Gervais proves that less is often more.

The filmmakers also managed to pull off one big surprise leading into the third act that I truly did not see coming, although it made absolute sense once it was revealed.

There were two follow-up films that don’t appear to be on Disney+, although that’s typical of the streamer, which seems to like to only include first films in franchises that are not branded MCU or Star Wars. Then again, I also hear rumor that Disney is remaking the first film (but of course) so that might be another reason to withhold the second and third films. Sigh.

One thing I did not know until after I’d watched the film and looked up the cast and crew is that it was directed by the same guy, Shawn Levy, who directed the 2021 Ryan Reynolds hit Free Guy, and who is an executive producer on Stranger Things, also having directed some episodes.

The Free Guy connection makes total sense, though, because they do live in similar territories of an ordinary guy suddenly discovering something extraordinary in his world and then having to figure it out on his own while trying (and failing) to convince others of his new reality.

They’re also both love stories in a sense, although in Night at the Museum, everything Larry does is for the love of his son, Nick (Jake Cherry).

Night at the Museum is a fun film for a family viewing, cuddling to watch with an SO, streaming with friends, or just watching on your own when you need to unwind. Rated PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor.

Saturday Morning Post #86: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 3)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. This story focuses on the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre Company in Hollywood, and its owner, Bill, who believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves. His latest effort involves Max and PJ.

Fifty minutes later, Bill crept back into the theatre, careful not to make any tell-tale noises. He snuck up to the darkened booth and edged to the glass. He looked down at the stage and smiled. He’d gotten the acting breakthrough he’d hoped for.

Max and PJ were on the bed, shirts off, PJ on top, making out like a couple of horny teens. If he could get that onstage, everything would work out. Max started pulling PJ’s pants off and PJ made no objection, but Bill knew they’d had enough rehearsal for today. He snuck back downstairs, opened the front door quietly, then slammed it, making sure it was quite audible. He turned on the lobby lights and dawdled, counting to fifty before he entered the theatre.

Max and PJ were sitting, keeping their distance on the stage, shirts on, although PJ’s was inside-out.

“Hi guys,” he called out. “How did it go?”

“I think I get the scene now,” PJ explained, Max covering a laugh and a glance.

“You two want to try it once, then?” Bill asked as he took his seat in the front row.

“Sure,” PJ replied, moving to the bed, Max joining him.

“Okay. And, lights are off, anticipatory laughter from the audience, cue the maid, she turns the lights on — go.”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then they vacuum-locked their faces together, PJ wrapping a leg around Max, Max dragging PJ in with both hands and the moment was beautiful. It really would bring the house down, the big revelation when everything else made sense.

The boys finally broke and looked at Bill, who applauded. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ve got a winner on our hands.”

And indeed they did, at least for this third of the cast. All through the rest of rehearsal, PJ was flying, nailing everything, not holding back at all. Bill had broken the wall, freed his talent and he saw that it was very good.

One down, two to go…

* * *

The secret was always discovery, not revelation. With actors, it was like training lab rats. Never show them the cheese, let them wander the maze and think they figured it out themselves. Donna was great at figuring things out, but lousy at letting herself realize she had.

Then Bill saw her walk into a car. She was coming to rehearsal and happened to arrive at the same time as Vince, and they were both crossing the street, talking but not looking at each other, at least not openly. Since they were jaywalking, they had to go between parked cars and Vince lead the way, but Donna was paying no attention at all and — wham!

Right into the side of a big, brown American beast, rebounding, stopping. Bill heard her call out, “God, I am so stupid.” Vince hurried over to Donna, took her arm gently, probably asking if she was all right. He guided her between the cars to the sidewalk, looking very concerned. She kept nodding, looking for the hole to crawl into, but Vince’s concern was completely genuine.

They both spotted Bill, walked toward him.

“You didn’t see that, did you?” Donna asked him.

“See what?” Bill lied. “Hey, guys, you know what? Your director did a stupid thing tonight. Come on inside.”

They entered the theatre and Bill explained his faux pas. He had intended to work with Mark and Donna, but had called Vince instead. It was too late to fix that, and anyway all of Vince’s scenes were fine. But would Vince mind reading Mark’s part tonight, working with Donna?

And of course he wouldn’t, and so they did, Vince reading from the script as Donna played the scene — and played it with something much different than had ever appeared opposite Mark. That was, of course, the plan. Donna’s character was supposed to be madly in love with Mark’s but afraid to say it, until this moment in the play, when she confessed her love. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mark’s character was madly in love with her, et cetera, et cetera. Each of them was supposed to think they were talking about someone else.

Suddenly, it played beautifully. Donna was a little giddy and shy and hesitant, and so was Vince and the whole thing positively reeked of two people crazy about each other but unable to just say it. Artifice catapulted to reality, and Bill gave himself a mental pat on the back. This show was going to come together like none of the others ever had.

And by opening night, it did. He’d heard rumor among the company that Donna and Vince went out for coffee one night, then dinner and a movie soon thereafter. The grapevine reported that Vince finally admitted he was crazy about Donna but was still in the middle of getting a divorce, something he’d kept secret though, so he hadn’t dared say anything to her. But, as soon as it was final, would she…? And she would and they did, eventually, and on opening night, their acting soared.

So did PJ’s and Max’s. The curtain call got a standing ovation and the opening night party was rambunctious with the joy of success.

Except that Max was standing alone afterwards, PJ nowhere in sight. Bill walked over to him. “Good job, Max. But where’s your leading man?”

“He’s not mine,” Max explained, looking around. “There he is.” He pointed and Bill looked, seeing PJ talking to other cast members, his arm around a young man who wasn’t part of the company.

“He’s got a boyfriend already?” Bill asked, amazed.

“He’s had him for six months,” Max said. “He finally decided to let the big secret out.”

“And you?”

“You cast us on purpose, didn’t you?” Max answered.

“Okay, I confess,” Bill said. “I did. I thought…”

“No, I appreciate it, really. He’s a good kisser. He’s just taken, that’s all.”

Bill smiled, nodding. This play had been more of a success than he could have hoped for. He excused himself, started to walk away when Max continued. “And Vince and Donna. And Mark and Loretta. Funny how every time we do a show, some new couple gets together, isn’t it?”

Bill stopped, looked at Max, wondering if he’d figured it out yet. Maybe, but Bill wasn’t going to tip his hand. “Funny how theatre works that way, isn’t it?”

“Very funny,” Max answered, and Bill was sure his secret was safe. “So what’s next for us, Little Billy?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” Bill replied. “You’ll see.” He made a mental note. Max had mentioned once that he never thought he’d be able to do nudity onstage. That was an actor’s block that needed to be removed, one more step in Bill’s big mission. And removed, it would be.

All their blocks would be removed, eventually, and they would be better people for it. True love would be discovered and true talent revealed and Bill’s company would continue to be one, big happy family. That was the promise he’d made when he’d cashed that big check, the promise he’d continued to keep. It was the price he’d agreed to pay for his windfall, but it was a debt that constantly paid him back with happiness.

His fear had been removed, and he was going to do his best to do the same for others, for this big, wonderful company. His children, his stars.

Because stars were meant to shine, after all, and the show would go on.

Significant dramatic pause, and then Bill exited to his office, already working on his next play, hoping for another rousing success.

* * *

Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 2

This is the second part of a playwright’s advice to people who want to become playwrights. Part 1 appeared last Thursday.

The first part of this article appeared last Thursday, and it just got too long for one piece, so here’s the rest of my advice to beginning playwrights and other people crazy enough to want to be involved in a life in theatre.

Write every day, and then write some more

Write, write, write, a little bit or a lot every day. And don’t feel compelled to just dive into a full length and go. I didn’t. The best approach — and, oddly enough, most marketable — is the so-called 10-minute play, for which there are contests all the time, and I think that my first four or five produced works were all within that limit.

Working with plays of this length makes it a lot easier to write every day, but there’s another big advantage to the form.

It teaches you how to write perfectly formed scenes, because 10 to 20 minutes really is the ideal scene length for any play, although some may go as short as seven. If you can do a strong beginning, middle, and end in that length of time, then you can essentially write 9 to 12 short plays that chain together and advance the overall plot and, ta-da — full-length!

Side note: this formula is also the secret of writing for film or TV. If you want to do half-hour, for example, perfect writing the seven-minute scene. For one hour, aim for nine to thirteen minutes.

The best description I’ve ever read of a one act or short play is this: The playwright’s job is to bring a stick of dynamite on stage at the beginning and then somebody strikes a match at the end. And… scene.

This is exactly the approach I took to that full-length I mentioned after having written a bunch of 10-minute plays, and I think it’s why I ultimately wound up getting produced. Well, that and I copied the elevated linguistic style of late 19th century playwrights, since the play was set in 1865.

Character first, plot later

Also, in structuring your plays, do not focus on plot. Rather, focus on your characters. Define each one in terms of who they are, what they want on a day-to-day basis, who or what they would kill to actually have it, who they think they are, who the other characters think they are, and so on.

Toss all of these into the pot and stir, and then you’ll have your plot — because if you let your plot drive your characters, then you just get sitcom or soap opera, and that’s crap.

Jumping back to Shakespeare, Richard III is a great example of this. The story is not about what Richard does to become King of England. Rather, it’s about why he does it.

We enter the story through his insecurities and needs, and then follow his personality, which drives everything else he does, from having his own brother drowned in a barrel of wine to ordering his nephews be executed in the tower of London to accusing his brother’s widow of being a witch, and so on.

But every one of his vile acts comes out of his needs and wants because the only thing he must have is the Crown of England. It’s a singular focus, but it makes for a very strong character and powerful play.

Also, to Shakespeare’s credit, he actually created this arc and these needs for Richard over not one but three plays — Henry VI part 2 and  part 3, and Richard III.

If you’re really adventurous, check out what’s known as the Eight-play Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2, Henry V, Henry VI part 1, and the aforementioned three plays.

And then… go read August Wilson’s Century Cycle, which actually covers a slightly longer time period — and much bigger changes — than Shakespeare’s Henriad. And yet… is still driven by the needs of the characters involved.

I’ve written a play, so now what?

Look for playwriting groups or classes in your area, then join one. The best ones will involve no drama besides what’s on the pages and will be safe spaces that nonetheless provide valid criticisms and suggestions on the work.

The best format is generally just a bunch of writers sitting in a circle and, at each meeting (usually weekly) everyone brings pages — usually 10 to 12 (there’s that short play advantage again), then assigns roles to the other playwrights and the piece is read and then discussed.

And don’t worry whether the other writers can act or not. Sometimes, as with watching bad plays, you can get a really good idea of whether your dialogue works when it’s read really badly. If what you’re trying to say comes through, then you’ve succeeded, so try not to bite through your arm during the reading.

The best of the writers’ workshops will also periodically hold fully readings of works that the teacher and writer think are developed enough, generally beginning with one class session dedicated to a read-through of the entire piece, often with invited actors, and then a public reading designed to elicit feedback.

I cannot stress the importance of all these things enough in developing new work. No one can create in a vacuum. Bonus points: Sometimes, you can get lucky in casting an actor, and their performance will actually inform how you rewrite and tweak the part. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.

Okay, now I’ve finished the play. So now what?

Okay. You have that play or that stack of short plays, so what do you do with them? The best route, really, unless your aunt is a theatrical agent or your cousin is a producer, is to enter contests and/or if you’ve been involved with a small theatre company as part of the doing all the things part, see if they’re open to considering your works.

There’s a lot of material out there, especially at the larger theaters, and if you submit directly if they have an open policy, it can take years to get a response. I think I once heard back from a theater something like six years after I’d submitted, and by that time, although they mentioned the title when they rejected it, I didn’t even remember the play off the top of my head.

Most importantly, never give up. My personal record for length of time between developing a play and seeing it produced was about twenty years — and that was actually the second full-length I’d ever written, which I started on the heels of the first one, which was produced within a year or two of me finishing it.

It was also the strangest collaboration ever, because I was essentially working with a dead playwright — myself from twenty years earlier — and fixing mistakes I’d made at the time. Ultimately, the whole thing turned out amazing.

Someday, I’m actually going to go back and try to figure out how much of the original “final” draft I threw out and how much was totally new.

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post #85: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 2)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. In the first installment last week, we met Bill O’Ferral, owner of the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre in Hollywood, having just opened another successful original play and starting work on his next — but he has ulterior motives, as he believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves.

The first read-through had been hilarious, with Andy and the actors constantly cracking up. Only a few minor rewrites required, then they were good to go.

PJ was waiting for Bill afterwards, when everyone else had gone.

“Hey, PJ, what can I do for you?” Bill asked, ushering the actor up to his office.

“I like the play, a lot,” he said when they were upstairs. “How are you going to stage the… some of the stuff?”

“You’re worried about kissing Max, aren’t you?”

“Well… a little.”

“Let me tell you my theory of comedy. The more intensely real the actors play it, the funnier it is. The magic word is ‘commitment.’”

“Yeah, but all three times?”

“My other theory of comedy. First time, warning. Second time, reminder. Third time, brings the house down. Fourth time, never.”

“Okay, but… why do they kiss, anyway?”

“Because… your character thinks he’s in the room with Stella, and the other guy thinks he’s with Elaine. This is it, they’re finally alone, or they think they are, with the woman of their dreams, wham. It ain’t gonna be a peck on the cheek. And then the maid walks in and turns the lights on. Boom. Funny.”

“Okay, but the second time — “

“You think you’re with Elaine now, and he thinks he’s with Stella. Only this time, both guys are much hornier, because now they think they’re finally with the women of their dreams, et cetera, et cetera, funnier.”

“Right. So why — “

“And the third time is kind of the point of the play, when the lights come on and the two guys see each other, significant comedy pause… and realize they’re the man of each other’s dreams. Set up, topper, reversal, house down.” God, Bill thought, I sound like some alta cocker ex-Vaudevillian. “Look, it’ll be a riot, people will remember you. You want to get noticed as an actor, this is the perfect part.”

“Okay. But it’s comedy, I’m more of a dramatic actor.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me you wanted to try doing comedy?”

“I… yeah. But I thought more like, you know. Verbal, like Neil Simon, wordy, witty… Comedy. Not farce.”

“Farce is the ultimate extension of comedy. Much more difficult to pull off. If you can do farce, you can do anything.”

“Really?”

“Think about it. How many Oscars does Tom Hanks have? Do you remember ‘Bosom Budd…’ No, of course you don’t. Well, it was a farce, and that’s where he started. And he was wearing a dress.”

“Tom Hanks?”

“Yes.”

“But he didn’t kiss anybody, did he?”

“I don’t remember, but probably. Because it was a farce.”

“They’d never let men kiss on TV.”

“Not in a drama, no, because a drama is all real and serious and scary. But comedy, you can get away with a lot more.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’m not even going to get to that in rehearsal for at least three weeks. Maybe four.”

“Okay. Can I think about it?”

“You will anyway. But in four weeks, I think you’ll be ready.”

PJ nodded and left the office. Bill hoped this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe hearing an audience laugh and knowing he did it would loosen him up eventually.

Bill also wished he could convince him to stop going by PJ and use his full first name, Peter. The initials sounded like a kiddie actor or a porn goddess. Of course, that meant he would absolutely have to change his last name. Or maybe not. Memorability was a plus.

Still. His last name was Packer.

His parents were either incredibly naive or terribly twisted.

His middle name was Johnson.

Twisted.

* * *

Donna was bumping into the furniture again.

Normally, this would have been a problem. However, Bill had written exactly this awkwardness into the part and it was working like a charm. Funny how she didn’t start doing it until Vince was at the same rehearsals. Yes, Donna was doing a scene with Max, Vince wasn’t even on the stage, but Bill knew exactly why she had turned into a fumfering schoolgirl. He made no comments about it during rehearsal, even though he could see that it was annoying the hell out of Max — but that was part of the idea, too. Max was a nice guy, but the part he was playing needed to have the limits of his patience tested. That’s what Bill was seeing on the kid’s face right now and it was perfect.

“I am such a clumsy, big-footed ox,” Donna whined to him afterwards. “I’m sorry, I was lousy up there today.”

“No you weren’t,” Bill said. “You mean you weren’t acting all that stumbling around?”

“No — “

“Well, you fooled me. That’s exactly what the scene needs to work.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Of course Stella is awkward, she’s madly in love with this guy, but she can’t tell him. You see?”

“Oh…”

And Donna smiled, sort of, a rarity, and went on her way. Bill saw Max sitting in the front row, looking at his script, sulking. He walked over to him.

“Hey, Max, nice job up there.”

“Wasn’t easy. She was — “

“All over the place, I know, I told her to do that. And I need you to remember that anger, use it. That’s what makes the scene work.”

“Really? But it’s a comedy.”

“A lot of comedy is really very angry underneath. Remember, you think you’re madly in love with Elaine and you’re trying to go talk to her, and Stella won’t leave you alone. You’re too polite to tell her to go away, but you let just a little bit of your annoyance show. You’re like a teapot waiting to blow its whistle, except that it doesn’t happen until the next scene.”

“Ah…” Max nodded, conviction in his eyes. “Of course. Now it makes sense. Thanks.”

Bill gave him an encouraging smile, then went onstage to work with Vince and Loretta. Vince was staring off into the house. “She’s good,” Vince said.

“You mean Donna?”

“Yeah. I had no idea she was such a natural comic actress. I’m jealous.”

“Well, keep an eye on what she does. Study her, and you’ll learn a lot. Now, let’s get cracking, act one, scene four, Martin and Elaine, you each think the other one is madly in love with you, but you’ve both been misinformed, let’s take it from the top…”

And they ran through the scene, Bill noticing that neither one of them was quite crackling like they should. Loretta never had that problem with Mark onstage. Those two clicked. Of course, they’d been dating since the middle of rehearsal for their last show. Max and PJ had that chemistry onstage, too, more or less, with Max enthralled and PJ distracted, which would make the ending work perfectly. They hadn’t rehearsed any of Vince and Donna’s scenes yet, by design, nor had they gotten to the big moment between Max and PJ. But they were going to, soon, and that particular rehearsal would be crucial to making this whole thing work.

Max and PJ, right. Bill turned toward the house, where the two were sitting, different rows, not together. “Guys,” he called out, “This is going to take a while. Could you two go up to my office and run your lines?”

Max hopped to his feet while PJ dragged his stuff together and stood. Bill watched them leave, then turned his attention back to Vince and Elaine. An hour with them, then it was time for act two, scene five.

That was exactly why PJ was so broody tonight. The kid was still nervous. Bill had assured him many times, “It’s only acting. None of it is real, you’re just playing games up there.” PJ always nodded and agreed, but it hadn’t seemed to have sunk in yet. It had better, tonight, or Bill just might trash this whole project. No sense re-casting at this point. But, as a director, he had a lot of tricks left to use. That was always the secret — make the actor find it in him or herself for real, then remember it, use it, be it.

If PJ and Max could manage their big scene, the others would be easy. If they couldn’t…

But Bill pushed those thoughts from his mind as he worked with Vince and Loretta.

* * *

Act two, scene five. The kiss.

Max was sitting on the bed onstage, PJ on one of the chairs, as Bill explained his approach. They weren’t going to start right in on the scene. Instead, they were going to do some exercises. He had the two actors stand toe-to-toe and hold their arms out, placing their hands palm-to-palm. Max complied like a trooper, but PJ was being sarcastic, making jokes, trying to distract himself.

“Now,” Bill said, “Here’s the hard part. I want you two to look at each other, so the ends of your noses are touching, and stare right in each other’s eyes. And you’re going to stay that way until you can do it for three minutes straight without looking away or losing it. Ready?”

“You better not get snot on me,” PJ cracked.

“Ready…” Bill reminded.

PJ nodded, put his nose to Max’s, then scrunched it up and shook his head to make it an Eskimo kiss, stepping away and laughing.

“Sorry. Sorry…” he called out. “Okay. Here we go.”

They assumed the position again, but after about thirty seconds, PJ lost it once more, letting out a snorted laugh. He apologized again, got back into place, but it just wasn’t working. Bill paced, thinking. After about five tries he’d reached his limit. “All right, all right, let’s try something else.”

“What are we trying to do?” PJ asked. “I mean, if you tell me — “

“It’s called trust,” Bill answered. “You two have got to trust each other completely if this is going to work.”

“I trust him,” PJ insisted.

“Then kiss him,” Bill shot back.

PJ made a face, then planted a perfunctory peck on Max’s cheek.

“Excellent,” Bill dripped out with sarcasm. “When Max plays your grandmother, that’ll be perfect.”

“Can we just try the scene?” Max asked.

“Fine, let’s just try the scene,” Bill gave up. “Max, come here a second.”

He pulled Max aside, where PJ couldn’t hear them, whispered. “Do me a favor, help snap him out of this for me.”

“How?”

“One word. Tongue.”

“You want me to — “

“If you don’t mind.”

Max laughed, smiled. “Okay. As long as you admit it was your idea, because he’s going to freak out.”

“No problem.”

The actors took their places, kneeling on the bed, arms around each other. Bill sat in the front row, called out, “All right, the lights are off, lights off… maid enters, lights on. Go!”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then nothing, and then Max took the initiative and flew into the kiss and two seconds later, PJ was jumping away, wiping his mouth.

“Hey, hey. Gross. Jesus, he fucking frenched me.”

“I know,” Bill called out. “I told him to, that’s what his character would do. And yours.”

“No one’s going to see that.”

“I can see it fine from here.”

“Can’t we do a stage kiss?”

“Not in a theatre this size, not if you want this to be the funniest moment in the show. Come on, you want the critics to call you a wimp, PJ?”

“Sorry,” Max whispered.

“Not your fault,” PJ replied.

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Bill stood. “No tongues, but do the kiss and I want you to imagine it’s a wrestling match. Both of you try to push each other off the bed. Got it? Take it again.”

They repeated the scene, but this time the kiss looked different, more real, sort of, the two of them locked together in combat. One of Max’s legs slipped off the bed, but he braced himself against the floor, pushed back. The two of them toppled the other way, sliding to the floor, Max on top. He pinned PJ’s arms, lips still together, but then PJ turned his head away.

“Okay, uncle, you win.”

Max sat up, staying on top of PJ, and turned to Bill.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Better,” Bill said.

“Dude,” PJ called out, “Up, up. You’re busting my nuts.”

Max climbed off and they both sat on the floor, looking at their director, who was looking contemplative.

“Well?” PJ asked.

Bill rattled his fingers on his script, other hand pressed to his lips as he thought about it. He couldn’t recast and change Max’s part to an actress, that would undo too many other threads in the piece. He couldn’t replace PJ. Anybody else would be all wrong for this role. But what to do? Finally, he stood up again, grabbing his briefcase.

“I think I might be the problem here,” he announced. “I’m making you both self-conscious, and that’s unfair of me. So, I’m leaving. But — you still have another hour of rehearsal scheduled, and here’s what I want you two to do. Give each other a backrub. Keep the clothes on, it’s just a stress thing. And while you’re doing it, the massagee is going to tell his life story and answer any questions the massager has.”

He walked to the door, Max and PJ silently nodding, watching him. Before he left, he turned back and said, “I’ll be back in exactly sixty minutes. And remember, it’s all about the show. The play’s the thing, and all that.”

He turned off the houselights as he left, then ran up to the booth and adjusted the lights, dimming them and bringing up the blue gels they still had hung. He waved good-bye to them from the booth, killed the work lights up there, then made sure they heard him exit out the front door, then went down the street for a late bite to eat. The rest was up to them.

* * *

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