“How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t evolve?” Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is all you might hope it should be. And that’s part of its problem.

I feel in writing this review that I may as well be discussing a plate of really fabulous spaghetti: so much tasty sameness, so many empty carbs, no discernible beginning/middle/end, satisfying a craving that I didn’t know I had, leaving me a bit bloated … and yet I will happily eat it again after my sense-memory has recovered.

Joss Whedon, beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer architect and director of the first Avengers, returns to helm this sequel. This will be blasphemy to some of my geek brethren, but Whedon is no auteur. (I hold out hope that Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors The Russo Brothers will be the ones who finally deliver The Godfather of superhero genre flicks. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was close but a bit too pompously high-falutin’ for my tastes.) Whedon carries an episodic TV sensibility to his film projects. And that’s ok, but, once you’re aware that he seems to work in 28-minute long “beats,” you start to feel the clock ticking.

And, wowzers, does the clock tick with Ultron. With trailers (and the need to get there so early that you aren’t sitting on the front row gazing up Chris Hemsworth’s flaring Asgardian nostrils), your rear is in a theatre seat nearly three hours. The film is straining at the seams with just so much Marvel muchness that you wonder if a cleaner, clearer narrative had been focus-grouped into this orgiastic merchandising hydra by the good folks at Disney.

Regardless, the film offers much to delight both comic book loons like myself and the average Marvel moviegoer who doesn’t know Ant-Man from an ant, man. (Sorry.)

Whedon wisely knows that the audience for these cinematic beasts adores brightly-lit four-color action peppered with jazzy comic asides and a healthy dose of soap-opera-lite character beats. He also (with the help of super-producer Kevin Feige, who really should be in the movie marketing hall-of-fame at this point) realizes that the perfect ensemble, gifted with acting chops that exceed the material but with a keen sense of wit and gratitude to enjoy the ride anyway, turns a workmanlike summer blockbuster transcendent.

Mark Ruffalo continues to steal the show as beautiful loser Bruce Banner (Hulk), with just the right hint of Bill Bixby’s gloom married to his own shaggy twinkle. Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) gives as good as she gets in her cat-and-mouse flirtation with Ruffalo, and, while I’m sure most of the audience was squirming/snoozing as they awaited the next CGI-encrusted battle sequence, I really enjoyed those quieter moments.

Similarly, Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), who came off as a glowering dullard in previous installments, really gets a chance to exercise his comedic action chops and soulful humanity. I won’t spoil the cinematically invented back-story they layer on Hawkeye, but this fanboy for one was a fan of the fairly significant change the filmmakers made from long-standing comic canon. Hawkeye suddenly becomes the heart and soul of a franchise that hitherto kept him far on the periphery.

The rest of the cast is solid and fun as expected. Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Hemsworth (Thor), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man) are frothy delights, offering as much banter this time as they do alpha-male action. Downey is blessedly restrained, offering a hint of unintentionally gleeful malice – an ominous note of what may yet come to the franchise. He is counter-balanced nicely by Evans who telegraphs the audience’s own mounting anxiety over a planet that is quickly becoming overstuffed with people/creatures/beings with too many abilities/too few ethics.

Newcomers include twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who weirdly enough played spouses in last year’s Godzilla reboot) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). They are all fine in rather under-written, slightly confusing roles. While it’s fun to see these Marvel legends in the flesh, they really weren’t necessary and detracted from the other characters we’ve come to know and love. This is the danger with all of these comic book movies – how do you keep the nerds (myself included) happy and sell lots of toys without devolving into carnival kitsch? The film skates a fine line and nearly goes over the edge.

Finally, though, this Marvel entry gets its villain so very right (not unlike the oily charisma of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki). Ultron, as voiced by slippery eel James Spader (I’m starting to wonder if Marvel films are where all smart aleck ex-Brat Packers go to die?), is frightening, ominous, charming, and essential. He intones early in the film, “How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t eeeeevooooolve.” (Darn right, brother – I need that needle-pointed on a pillow, stat).

Of course, robotic overlord that he is, Ultron – created by Stark himself as a means of creating “lasting peace” – asserts that the only logical way to create lasting peace is to render all of humanity extinct. Now there is an allegory for our fractious times. I won’t spoil the adventure on how he gets there (I’m not even totally sure I followed all the muddled machinations myself), but I got quite a perverse kick from Spader’s Ultron and his well-intentioned sociopathy.

(I should have never admitted that last bit, I suppose? Maybe Marvel will need someone to play the villain in their next summer opus? Sign me up!)

Go to Avengers: Age of Ultron for the Marvel-fied comfort food … but stay for the dark bon-bon (Spader) at the film’s anarchic core.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

San Diego, Part the Second: San Diego Zoo, Jimmy Kimmel, Disneyland, La Jolla seals, Hollywood … and dirty jokes

1 Zoo Kids2 Zoo Kids 2Earlier this week, I gave you a glimpse into my “professional” side (or as professional as I ever get), sharing some material from my presence at the 30th annual Legal Marketing Association national conference in San Diego.

5 PandasBut I also promised I would share some of the tacky tourist-y stuff ‘cause if there’s anything this blog does well, it’s tacky! (Loads of photos documenting these adventures can be found here.)

3 Zoo Kids 3During some rare downtime at the conference, my talented, silly, kind-hearted, slightly nutty pals Lindsay Griffiths, Gail Lamarche, Nancy Myrland, and Laura and Josh Toledo (along with yours truly) spent an afternoon at the internationally renowned San Diego Zoo. (Remember watching the zoo’s countless animal ambassadors as some of Johnny Carson’s most memorable guests on The Tonight Show throughout the 70s and 80s? I sure do.)

Now, as a pretty vocal animal rights proponent, I’m not generally a fan of zoos, circuses, animal-centered theme parks, aquariums, or any place where animals are used (incarcerated?) for entertainment, amusement, revenue, or souvenir sales.

4 Arctic WolfHowever, my buddies made the wise choice to sign up for the Backstage Pass tour, which not only offers the ability to get up close and personal with animals as diverse as a rhinoceros and a cheetah, flamingos and an arctic wolf (the latter of which brought me to happy tears), but also provides a thoughtful review of the zoo’s ecological mission to educate and protect. Much information was provided to attendees about what products to buy (and not buy) that will protect these animals’ native habitats (e.g. sustainable harvesting of palm oil) as well as what we as individuals can do to save these beautiful creatures from extinction. I was also struck by the deep-feeling, kind-hearted animal handlers who had such obvious kinship with these exquisite animals. That cross-species bond is powerful and moving to observe.

6 Zoo KidsAs for the park itself, it is beautifully done, if veering dangerously close to a theme park’s epic scope and merchandising mania. I might have been less inclined to forgive that excess had we not attended the tour, so I highly recommend the add-on if you plan to visit the zoo, particularly if you are bringing kids (of all ages).

But, word to the wise, don’t even attempt to follow the zoo’s colorfully muddled maps. We got lost about 18 times, having to pass through the aviary about 12 of those 18 times and seemingly walking up (steep) hills everywhere. In fact, I can’t recall us ever walking downhill. It’s like being immersed in an MC Escher painting.

At the conclusion of the conference, John and I headed to Hollywood, baby. And Hollywood is gross.

8 JimmyAfter scoring tickets to a taping (yes, taping) of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live (which ain’t so live … spoiler alert), we headed to a pre-show lunch at amazing vegetarian chain VeggieGrill. How are these not all over the country yet? With an astounding array of choices, breezy décor, fabulous staff, and just the right amount of corporate polish, this was easily my favorite food stop of the trip. And others seemed to concur as the line to get in (you order at a counter and they bring you your food when ready) extended outside the building, the patrons being a glorious collection of hipsters, studio employees, computer programmers, blue-haired genre geeks, and regular joes. I loved it.

7 MarioKimmel’s studio is smack dab on Hollywood Boulevard, with patiently waiting audience members queuing across the starry Walk of Fame (I’m pretty sure I stood atop Mario Lanza for about 45 minutes) and facing the Hollywood & Highland mall complex which houses the Oscar Awards venue The Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theatre.

The process of getting into Kimmel’s eponymous show? Not so great. Unless you enjoy standing for a couple hours in the hot California sun while skeezily assertive street performers dressed like Spider-Man, Minnie Mouse, and Don King (!) accost you for photo ops … and for your wallet.

9 Jimmy 2Once inside (Kimmel tapes in a former Masonic Temple), you are struck by how small the studio is. If you ever visited a local TV station newsroom, it’s not much bigger, but darn is Kimmel’s floor SHINY! I think it was mopped half a dozen times while we sat patiently waiting for Kimmel to arrive.

And once Kimmel arrived, things got all kinds of crazy? Right? Wrong.

Sadly, Kimmel in person seems like a cipher on his own program. The sweet, sparkly production assistant who got all of us situated in our seats had more zip and personality (and likely should have his own show). Kimmel wasn’t bad but he didn’t do a heckuva lot to engage his audience (creating even more irony around that “live” descriptor). When the cameras were on or guests would arrive, Kimmel lit up, but the minute cameras went dark, he would hang in a gloomy corner, looking downward at that eerily glistening floor. Perhaps that is just his process to retain his focus, but it stood in stark relief to the impish Kimmel persona that has been burnished over the years by the Mouse House.

10 Jamie FoxxAs for Kimmel’s guests, we were treated to two musical performances by and an interview with Jamie Foxx (on hand to launch his new album, oddly enough titled Hollywood) and an appearance by legendary Betty White. It was the latter guest that got the biggest response from us (and the entire audience for that matter). She was as charming and sly, sweet and gracious as you might expect. And Foxx, of course, was a live wire, exuding charm and energy. (Though at times he seemed like that show choir kid you hated in high school … you know the one, right? Look at me! Look at me!)

11 DickyI also had a special treat in meeting Dicky Barrett, Kimmel’s announcer and the lead singer for a college favorite band of mine The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. He was warm and funny and an absolute pleasure, kindly accepting copies of my books as a gift to him and to the show. (I hope they don’t mind my snark in the preceding paragraphs. That’s just how I roll.)

I should add that I was going through my own personal hell watching the show unfold. I had told everyone (including my parents) to watch the broadcast that evening and to look for us in the audience, only to feel totally mortified by how “blue” the humor skewed that particular episode. I’m no prude, but you know that particular phenomenon you feel as an adult watching something a little risqué in the company of your parents? That hot, clammy, bottom-fell-out-of-the-elevator feeling that creeps over you? Well, the minute Foxx launched into his musical interpretation of sundry Tinder (!) profiles, I thought I might die. (If you didn’t see the show, just let your mind wander … and then go a little filthier than that.)

And the next day we went to Disneyland …

12 Cali DreaminSpecifically, Disney’s California Adventure, which holds the dubious distinction of being a theme park in California dedicated to attractions about California that you could basically drive an hour or two in any direction in California and see in person in California. It wins the prize for one-stop shopping, and, to its credit, no one gropes you, picks your pockets, or tells a naughty joke!

16 Chip n DaleIn all seriousness, it is a beautiful park and, like Epcot, ideal for a meandering stroll. The actual rides seem few and far between, a fact which, as I plummet through middle age, was fine by me. From a vintage boardwalk (replete with Ferris wheel, carny games, and a truly terrifying roller coaster) to a quaint wharf district to chilled out wine country, there’s a “land” for every taste.

14 CozyMy favorite, hand’s down, was the recently added “Cars Land,” a pitch perfect recreation of the settings from Pixar’s critically-reviled but wildly popular Cars movie franchise.

13 McQueenThe utter immersion in a world populated by life-size, anthropomorphic autos is an intoxicating fever dream (and I don’t think it’s because I was hopped up on DayQuil from my unsurprising “oh, I’ve been on a plane and at a conference and now I have a cold” cold). Even if you hated the films (and a lot of adults seem to – I don’t), you will be floored when Doc Hudson or Lightning McQueen roll by and offer you a pleasant salutation. Well played, Imagineeers!

15 CarsSpecial thanks to my longtime pal (and fellow Deloitte Consulting alum) Ratana Therakulsathit, now a happy Angelino and successful actress and voiceover artist, for being our expert Disney tour guide. We’d still be wandering lost around the ticketing area if not for her. Please check out her website, including samples of her exceptional work, here.17 Beauty Beast

We rounded out our trip to California with a stop in La Jolla, a place that is not only vegetarian friendly (I felt like we were back in Ann Arbor, only with better climate, exceptional views, and prettier people) but also seal and sea lion friendly.

18 SealsLocals and tourists alike share La Jolla’s sandy beaches with a playful and relaxed population of seals and sea lions. Live and let live, dude. I could get used to that.

19 SealThere are plenty of signs that caution you not to touch or approach the animals as they will become understandably territorial, but a resident told us that if you swim in the water and let the seals just be, well, seals, they will come up to you and want to play. Now that is my idea of the perfect vacation!

(Photos throughout by Lindsay Griffiths, Gail Lamarche, Nancy Myrland, Laura and Josh Toledo, Ratana Therakulsathit, John Mola, and yours truly.)

20 Home____________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

It’s the end of the world as we know it … Chappie and Insurgent

Indiana's Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in ... private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in … private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Oh, Indiana, my Indiana … home of my upbringing and constant source of horrified bemusement and righteous indignation in my adulthood.

The latest and greatest affront to all creatures great and small in Indiana is the so-called “Religious Freedoms Restoration Act,” which, no matter how you want to spin the rhetoric, is intended to make the narrowly-defined, faith-based, mid-century  (you pick the century) morality (?) of a bunch of Bible-thumping, pitchfork-wielding Hawthorne caricatures the law of that land wherever and whenever you try to go buy … baked goods?

And, yes, I’ve heard the rationalization that, “Well, all these other states had it, and Bill Clinton, the big ol’ dirty heathen, put this in place over 20 years ago at the Federal level, so why are Audra McDonald and Miley Cyrus and Angie’s List being so mean to us. We are just good Christian folks here.” Riiiight. And if Jimmy jumped down a well, would you all go, too? Please? There’s nothing nice about this legislation (or its timing); it is quite simply petty, spiteful, vindictive, and mean.

I had a Facebook “debate” with a soon-to-be-former Fort Wayne newscaster on another former Fort Wayne newscaster’s wall, and I ended my remarks thus,  “If Indiana doesn’t want to LOOK bad, stop passing legislation like this that really only serves the purpose of MAKING INDIANA LOOK BAD. (Not to mention pandering to the blood lust of a certain fringe demographic to secure their future votes – the same people who claim to want ‘small government’.) And, yes, all those other places that have this legislation look bad too, but this is the freshest one. Congrats.”

To be clear, losing one’s cultural hegemony does not qualify as “persecution.”

(And don’t even get me started on the fun, wholesome family pastime of “pig wrestling” in Indiana and other states. Yes, that is a thing. Sadly. I can’t imagine this is what Jesus had in mind. Just sayin’. Oh, I do digress. This is a blog about movies, right?)

It is with this mindset last night that I set forth on a double feature of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent. While neither film is Tolstoy, it is interesting how both traffic in themes of persecution, isolation, pogrom-like social mandate, and government and big business collusion run amuck.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Chappie, the more ambitious of the two, is directed by Blomkamp, who specializes in such Bradbury-esque allegory and class-warfare dystopia as District 9 (segregation) and Elysium (healthcare). With Chappie, he pilfers his narrative from a hodge podge of references: Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Robocop, Short Circuit, 2001 to varying degrees of success.

The plot is rather simple: a military-industrial complex (headed up by Sigourney Weaver at her most teutonic) is supplying Johannesburg (which must be the “new” Beirut in film) with a fresh supply of robot cops, who, in their emotionless, unrelenting style can put a steely hard thumb in the heart of crime. Her star employee (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has invented the “robo-cops” but wants to introduce free-thinking sentience to the strange rabbit-eared creatures.

His rival at the company is Hugh Jackman being all “bad Hugh Jackman” … which basically means him glowering while saddled with a awful mullet haircut and Steve Irwin/Croc Hunter wardrobe choices. Crikey those shorts are short! Jackman’s character has created the Dick-Cheney-special of all robot law enforcement: something called the “moose,” a tank-like device that, in Jackman’s words, isn’t a “godless creature” (vis a vis the autonomous robo-cops) but is rather a machine that will be, um, super efficient at killing people … a lot of people. (I didn’t say the metaphor was subtle here, just appreciated.)

Patel ends up creating one robot with a winning personality – “Chappie” – a baby Energizer bunny who likes He-Man cartoons but gets in with the wrong crowd (a set of “gangsters” who make the acting work of Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel seem subtle by comparison). Chappie causes all kinds of ruckus when Jackman realizes he can leverage Chappie’s very existence (and the uncontrollable nature of his robot brethren) to unleash discord and create the kind of violent societal conflict that makes people want to sign over any and all civil liberties. (See a pattern here?)

Chappie (the film) is interesting if a bit recycled/derivative, and it runs out of steam at the 2/3 mark. I grew very tired of Chappie’s family of thugs and would have enjoyed more development of the Patel/Jackman rivalry. Simplistic as it is, their characters’ implied debate of creator rights vs. created rights, independent thought vs. jack-booted control, authentic innovation vs. corporate profiteering is timely, frightening, and essential.

I would be remiss if I didn’t crow about Sharlto Copley’s stellar motion capture work as Chappie. His is the most fully-realized characterization in the film as our heart aches for this innocent, animal-esque creature desperately trying to survive and thrive and feel and love in a muddled world that he didn’t (nor wouldn’t) create. That performance is a keeper and likely deserves a more substantive film.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Insurgent continues in this near-future-there-but-for-the-grace-of-someone-goes-our-society vein. It is the second part of the young adult series Divergent, based on the books by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James along with Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, and Octavia Spencer. Naomi Watts joins the fun this time as yet another mysteriously motivated, first-name only “faction leader” … actually make that “factionless” leader – the nomadic “Evelyn.”

I noted in my review of Divergent (here) that, as young adult fantasy series go, this one is closest to something I can stand. It’s obviously not as popular as Hunger Games or Twilight, but, for me, it offers a more humane and humanistic look at our collective foibles.

Again, this ain’t deep stuff and it’s just as violent (if not more so) as those other series. However, the little socialist in my heart finds the central conceit of the Divergent books/movies very appealing: a culture that has decided to solve its problems by segregating its people along personality lines being rocked to its core when a young woman emerges who demonstrates exceptional abilities across the continuum of all those very traits (heaven forbid!). It’s not deep, but it’s feminist (lite), it’s inclusive, and it’s a wonderfully educational metaphor for  young people to understand that a society is strengthened not weakened by diversity. Again, not subtle, but obviously much-needed right now.

Insurgent as a film feels like a bit of a placeholder as the series kicks into high gear with the upcoming final two installments, and that’s ok. Woodley has done stronger character work elsewhere, but those key moments where she needs to telegraph her utter frustration with her role as society’s new messiah are delivered with aplomb. That’s pretty much all she needs to do here.

James, still Anthony-Perkins-on-steroids, does a better job this time establishing that he isn’t just all smoldering petulance but that he has a heart and a brain. Winslet continues to be an icily bureaucratic delight as the calculating Jeanine, whose nefarious actions at every turn belie her hollow rhetoric for “peace and unity.” (Sound familiar?) Finally, Miles Teller mounts a much-needed charm offensive in this installment, no doubt realizing that this isn’t Ibsen and the dour delivery from everyone in the first film was a bit of a buzz kill. He is a charmingly oily sparkplug as the dubiously motivated Peter.

When one’s soul is at sea because the world and its leaders seem hellbent on plain meanness, it helps to see a couple of movies (even if they aren’t that terribly great) that reflect a point of view that some of us do see through this insidious crap in real time. The fact that hundreds of people might be like-minded enough to put together a film (or two) for the masses that might sow some seeds of popular dissent? Well, that’s the kind of balm I go to the movies to receive. It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

Manners maketh man? Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service (films)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I feel like I need to have my brain scrubbed with turpentine and disinfectant after the double feature we just endured: Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Were these movies bad? No, not at all. Did I enjoy myself? Yes, for great swaths of both flicks. Will I hate myself in the morning (and have some really loopy dreams)? Decidedly yes.

Both films are adapted from literary works … Albeit one is a soft-core porn trilogy written by Twlight-fanfic-aficionado E.L. James and is sold conveniently to S&M-curious grocery shoppers at Wal-Mart, Target, and Meijer. The other is a graphic graphic novel created by comic book iconoclasts Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) for whom bloody violence and gore is a balletic vehicle for cheeky satire and whose work is distributed via corner comic shops to superhero and gaming fetishists who greedily devour it from their befuddled family members’ basements. (In full disclosure, save that basement reference, I fall firmly in the latter camp and never in the former, though I do shop at Target and Meijer a lot.)

As for the film adaptation of Fifty Shades, whose chief contribution to popular culture seems to be the mainstreaming of kink (provided you happily equate it with vampirism), I found that I really enjoyed all the narrative elements that had absolutely nothing to do with the core subject matter. When otherwise charming leads Jamie Dornan (“Christian Grey”) and Dakota Johnson (“Anastasia Steele” – cripes, these names) do finally get to the “sexytime,” a term I’m borrowing out of necessity from Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, the movie grinds (no pun intended) to a halt. Johnson exhibits a delightfully natural comic timing which belies her status as Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith’s progeny, let alone as Tippi Hedren’s granddaughter, and Dornan does bemused hunky brooding better than anyone this side of the CW.

Their … ahem … courtship seems to be from a different movie entirely (thank heavens) than all the dirty business. I enjoyed their banter (underwritten though it is), and director Sam Taylor-Johnson has the good sense to cast as Christian and Anastasia’s respective mothers Marcia Gay-Harden and Jennifer Ehle (both sleekly slumming here). It crosses my mind that someone should remake the feather-light froth of Barefoot in the Park or Any Wednesday and throw Dornan and Johnson in the roles; no whips, chains, bare ass-cracks, or nipples required.

Watching Fifty Shades (and, mind you, I didn’t hate it), I kept wishing for the film to leave that stupid “red room of pain” and return to Anastasia’s shabby chic college flat (oh, how I adore the darling roommate played by Eloise Mumford) or Christian’s shimmering spaceship of an office, populated as it is by admins who wouldn’t be out of place in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video. I truly enjoyed all the silly soap opera shenanigans around the stilted sex scenes.

Remember that certain musical production number of yore, the dull kind that went on forever and had Cyd Charisse entangling Gene Kelly in a thousand-mile-long chiffon scarf (which in itself is kinda kinky)? That’s how I felt about all of Fifty Shades‘ tie me up, tie me down, Beauty-and-the-Beast boudoir moments.

It is a testament to Taylor-Johnson’s direction that she is able to pull together some semblance of romance and charm and wit from what I’ve heard are shoddily written books. And, no, I am never going to read them! Bully for her.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Kingsman is by far the better film, chiefly because director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake – this last one starring “ultimate James Bond” Daniel Craig) wisely casts Colin Firth in the lead role, a role which cannily plays to and toys with Firth’s persona as the consummate Brit gentleman. In prologue to one of Firth’s many jaw-dropping, gymnastically-choreographed fight scenes, he intones “manners maketh man.” Firth is clearly having the time of his life playing a Savile Row “dapper dan” tailor who happens to lead a double life as a Kingsman, a super-secret agent keeping Queen and Country (and pretty much all of us on this planet) safe from bomb-dropping megalomaniacs and local bar-brawling hooligans. He is a joy to watch.

Much of Vaughn’s film is a pleasure, like Dr. Strangelove as directed by Quentin Tarantino on a bender from too many viewings of Moonraker, Octopussy, Smiley’s People, and Austin Powers. Firth (“Harry Hart/Galahad”) takes his orders from a wry Michael Caine (“Arthur”) with tech guidance from the warmly imposing Mark Strong (“Merlin”).

As Samuel L. Jackson’s “Valentine” (an intentionally corny mashup of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Blofeld, and Dr. Evil) determines that the best way to cure global warming and other ills affecting this planet is to divest Earth of its “disease” (that would be us humans), Firth and his fellow Kingsmen race against the clock to expand their ranks with new recruits to foil Valentine’s cartoonishly gruesome plan.

Taron Egerton (a British mix of James Cagney and Matt Damon) is a wonderful new cinematic presence as aspiring Kingsman “Eggsy,” and his Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins scenes with Firth sparkle. Akin to Fifty Shades, I kept wanting the mayhem to stop so we could have more sprightly character development with this dynamic duo.

However, the violence – granted one of Vaughn’s signatures (along with hyperkinetic fight scene editing) – is a bit of a boat anchor around the film’s otherwise bright-hearted and buoyant spirit. There is just so much gore – body parts flying every which way, hyperbolic gun-play, medieval skewerings – that the satire becomes lost in the junior-high-boy juvenile excess and self-indulgence. I will admit, though, that the sight of Firth massacring a whole church full of hypocritical redneck bigots (an obvious stand-in for the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church and … others) is a guilty pleasure I shall carry in my heart for all time.

(Also – spoiler alert – no animals are ever hurt, though there is a peculiar test of the Kingsmen recruits that, well, tested my patience. Kind of an Old Yeller moment that ended up being a total ruse. People hurt? Lots. Animals hurt? None.)

I’m not sure I would go so far as to recommend either film, as I worry what you, dear readers, would think of me and of my mental stability if you ventured forth to see Fifty Shades or Kingsman based on my recommendation. However, if you feel like taking in a guilty pleasure (or two) suffused with a heaping helping of puerile foolishness, these films are for you. Yet, this evening’s offerings definitively reminded me that just because something can be depicted on film doesn’t mean it should be depicted on film. Manners maketh man, indeed.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

Day I read a book … The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report

Freak Foundation Operatives ReportYou know what question I’m tired of hearing? “Did you read the book?”

I get asked this repeatedly when I see a movie based on a piece of literature (sometimes using that term very loosely), if I dare to have some issue with the film: its narrative structure, character choices, execution, blah, blah, blah. The questioner always seems to imply that my review is somehow thereby deficient, that I didn’t do my homework.

This scrutiny arose when I found the Twilight movies a tedious bore, when I thought Hunger Games was overrated nonsense, when I dubbed Mortal Instruments insipid idiocy, when I felt American Sniper was dangerous propaganda, and when I perceived Wild to be self-aggrandizing tell-all myth-making. I didn’t read any of these uber-popular tomes – I only saw the film treatments. And I’m not going to read the books. Stop asking me. Please.

(In my defense, I loved the films of Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars, without perusing the best-sellers on which they were based.)

Here’s the thing. I don’t want to have to read the book to understand and enjoy the movie. A good movie adaptation will anchor the narrative pulse points in a novel or biography and add visual flair to make the piece cinematic, comprehensible, and it’s own entity. Think Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Black Stallion, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Foxcatcher. Hell, think Gone Girl.

If it’s that imperative to read the book and see the movie to get the complete entertainment value, well, I just won’t. To me, that’s lazy film-making, and that’s coming from someone too lazy to read the books. So there.

“Day I Read a Book” – Jimmy Durante

 

But, guess what? I read a book – my pal Tom Joyce’s engaging The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report … and I liked it! To paraphrase Super Bowl halftime superstar Katy Perry: “I read a book … and I liked it!”

If Kurt Vonnegut and Janet Evanovich had a baby whose doting uncles were Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Mickey Spillane, that baby very well might be Tom Joyce. The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report relates the sordid and satirical tale of Batley, a small post-industrial town in Central Pennsylvania, a burg terrorized by a nasty group of thugs (“The Slain”) and populated with a carnival tent full of freaks and weirdos (and that’s just the City Council). The central mystery (and it’s a compelling one) is why this town has been targeted, who’s pulling the strings, and why.

I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but the book is a zippy page-turner with just the right balance of mirth and mayhem to engage the most jaded of readers (me).

Joyce employs a rotating cast of narrators, including a hard-boiled and hard-drinking gumshoe; a universally reviled local journalist (named, oddly enough, “Tom”); and assorted colorful characters, including, among others, a foul-mouthed little person who runs a road-side freak show, a confidence man who grows increasingly less confident in his choice of allies, and a huckster demonologist/psychologist with a heart of gold.

Joyce has a great pulpy literary voice, informed with a cheeky sensibility, a knowing cynicism about the uniquely American ability to wave the flag while we stab each other in the back, and a genuine flair for marrying creeping crud, visceral thrills, and rich Mayberry-quirk  characterization. This book is naturally cinematic in its execution, cable-ready for HBO or AMC or (likely) FX to develop a raw, ribald anthology series from the frothy material.

The novel is composed of a series of journal entries, letters, documents, and reports (via the various narrators delineated above) offering the cumulative effect that we, as readers, are suddenly privy to a hotbed of small-town intrigue as the mystery unfolds through hearsay, redirects, and anecdotes (see Carrie, The Color Purple, or even The Sound and the Fury for other examples of this technique). This, coupled with Joyce’s pragmatic, glib, and witty writing style, makes for an adventurous reading experience – Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew for adults.

Here’s looking forward to big screen (or small screen) adaptation, wherein I can finally ask others, “Did you read the book?”

You can order at Tom Joyce’s The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report by visiting his free-wheeling blog here.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

“Only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I suppose it tells you something about how excited I was (or rather wasn’t) to see the final installment in the never-ending Hobbit trilogy that it took me nearly two months to catch it finally in the theatre. I’m pretty sure this weekend was the last possible chance for me to have seen The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies on the big screen, and, if I had missed it?

Well, that would’ve been a shame as I enjoyed this one thoroughly … but, shhhh, don’t tell anyone. (See my takes on the other two entries in the series here and here.)

Yes, this one suffers from the same bloated storytelling that plagues the other two installments, a narrative pushed pulled and prodded from Tolkien’s singular source material well past its breaking point.

Regardless, longtime Lord of the Rings-mastermind Peter Jackson steers the story of Bilbo Baggins to a thrillingly warmhearted dénouement. One might argue that Jackson’s chiefest contribution in his second Middle Earth trilogy rests in shining a spotlight on Martin Freeman before a worldwide audience. The sweetness of these films is carried almost exclusively on Freeman’s narrow Hobbit shoulders as the titular Baggins. Freeman brings just the right mix of anxiety, sadness, worry, pluck, and winking silliness to the enterprise.

For me, one of the best moments in this latest film highlights the wry, quiet texture Freeman offers, alongside his always-sparkling co-star Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. In the film’s final moments, the two weary souls sit side-by-side on a log, and, channeling the spirit of Laurel and Hardy, Martin (foreshortened to appear one/third McKellen’s height) looks quizzically exasperated as McKellen futzes endlessly with his silly hippie pipe.  The silent expressions they exchange are darling and human and comically relatable, reminding us why any of us ever cared about these movies to begin with.

One scene later, McKellen’s Gandalf intones – as cautionary praise – to Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, “Remember you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The delivery and the sentiment plus Freeman’s reaction are touching and ominous and make it all worth the price of admission. Lord knows, any one of us in the audience feels like that “little fellow” pretty much 24/7 in this lunatic “real” world which always seems ready to spin right off its axis.

The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies (cumbersome title notwithstanding) wraps everything up neatly, albeit having a good chunk of the movie dedicated to one seemingly endless fight scene among dwarfs, elves, orcs, humans, eagles, worms, dragons, bats, and Lord-knows-what-else. We get a last look at thunderously thrilling dragon Smaug (dulcet-voiced by Benedict Cumberatch); we learn the fate of the intrepid band of dwarfs seeking to reclaim their homeland; and we send Bilbo back to the Shire in a lovely dovetail with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The cast remains a starry array of accomplished actors (Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace), all of whom bring gravitas and believability amidst the bewigged LARP-ing foolishness.  Richard Armitage nicely rounds out the character arc of dwarf king Thorin’s descent into madness and ultimate redemption. (He actually gave me the PTSD chills that I was missing from Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper, dude.) And Luke Evans, looking like a much-scruffier version of Robert Goulet’s Lancelot, is a swashbuckling thrill as his character Bard finally fulfills his hero’s journey.

Six Middle Earth movies in and I still can’t remember any character names, nor do I understand what they are ever talking about, but I applaud the actors’ ability to make me care. Sometimes observing Jackson’s cinematic output has felt like watching a foreign film with no subtitles, but he has done such an incredible job immersing us and his talented cast in a richly detailed world that the journey is worth the periodic confusion (for us Tolkien lay-people).

No, I’ve never read the books (blasphemy, I know); nor, at this late date, am I every likely to do so. And I’m grateful to Peter Jackson for bringing Middle Earth so vibrantly to the big screen so that I never have to (read, that is). Yet, I hope Jackson takes a good long break from revisiting these storybook lands, as I don’t think I can spend another nine hours in a darkened movie theater with all those pointy eared mythic creatures for at least another ten years.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

MLK holiday movie marathon (VIDEO): Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper

Enjoy this quick video synopsis of movies we saw over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend – Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper. (You can read the full reviews of all four below this entry).

 

And thanks to The Columbia City Post & Mail for this additional shout-out for the release of Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming!

Post and Mail RRR2 Redux

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

How do you solve a problem like jingoism? American Sniper

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Gosh, I did not like American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s latest entry in his ongoing cinematic efforts to celebrate war heroes of every stripe.

And if you’re the kind of reader who’s going to tell me I’m not a good “patriot” because I don’t like this movie, just move along … right now. Or, better yet, check out classic film The Mortal Storm, about a culture run aground by totalitarianism as certain citizens dare to challenge the propaganda being shoved down their collective throats (that society in question would be Nazi Germany, BTW).

If the intent of this Oscar-nominated film American Sniper is to reveal the horrors post-9/11 warfare has had upon its participants, there have been much better, much more nuanced, much more sensitive cinematic efforts in that regard: JarheadZero Dark ThirtyStop/Loss.  If the intent of this film is to rally the Lee Greenwood-loving “Proud to be an American” contingent, then count me out.

With that said, Bradley Cooper in the title role does yeoman’s work, communicating a world of hurt and confusion and well-intentioned if misused patriotism. With just his eyes, Cooper gives us a Chris Kyle (one of the most successful snipers in US military history) haunted by his actions and what appears to be a sneaking suspicion that his particular talents have been misapplied in a world gone mad. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the film Eastwood is intent on making.

At times (chiefly during the interminable scenes set in Iraq), I felt I was watching a WWII-era propaganda film blurred into one of those single-shooter video games where jackbooted soldiers blow away any flesh-and-blood creature identified in big, bold font as ENEMY. Has Eastwood finally regressed to his cowboy roots, with a simplistic white hat/black hat approach to world affairs, totally disregarding our messy connectivity – technologically, economically, socially? Sure feels like it.

Sienna Miller as Kyle’s long-suffering wife Taya does her best Kate Beckinsale impression, running the gamut from slightly worried to really worried to slightly worried again. She has a thankless role, and does her best, like Cooper, to offer layers that the script doesn’t provide. Miller is a crackerjack actor, and her scenes with Cooper offer a glimpse into the film’s potential. Her exasperation with his dedication to duty and country versus her hopes for his potential as husband and father are rich territory to explore; sadly, the film spends more time in Iraq than at home, with Miller relegated to bringing whatever flavor she can to one-sided cell phone calls.

Chris Kyle killed 161 men, women, and children in the Middle East in his career, all in an effort to spread liberty across the globe. However you may feel about the war effort, making a compelling movie about a soldier who sits on rooftops all day long picking off insurgents is a tough sell. I’m not downplaying his contributions, but I would like to see a film that helps us better understand the why and the what of his activities in Iraq, especially since his life took such a tragic turn when he finally came home for good, shot at a rifle range as he was trying to rehabilitate a fellow veteran. Was that devastating price worth the wartime outcomes? Perhaps, but I’m not sure I got that from American Sniper.

I’m unclear as to the intended audience for this film, but I suspect it isn’t yours truly. I felt profoundly uncomfortable during the lengthy 2 1/2 hour running time, as if every jingoistic button I do not possess was being pushed and prodded: the inflated sense of American superiority; the fetishization of firearms; the paranoid survivalism (better conveyed I might add in the superior Prisoners); the notion that life (be it animal or human) must be sacrificed for our ongoing prosperity. I don’t buy into any of that, and I never shall.

I don’t mean to be glib, but I feel that at some level this film may be recklessly misinterpreted by a red-blooded, fist-pumping audience looking for simplistic villains that just don’t exist in the modern world. If you want to watch people being heroic and making the world safe for their fellow man, I suggest you check out Selma. Or Paddington.

________________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

Volume 2 is number 2 … right now on Amazon

Thanks, everyone! What an exciting Oscar Nomination Thursday for Reel Roy Reviews! Get your copy of the latest volume here.

 

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Thanks to Columbia City Post & Mail for coverage of Volume 2!

Thanks to the Columbia City Post and Mail for this coverage of the release of Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming – available now to order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Reel-Roy-Reviews-Keep-Coming/dp/0692360433/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Post and Mail coverage of RRR2

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