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 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.

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[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.

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[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.

Guest review … Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

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[Image Source: Google Images]

Last year about this time, my talented pal Rebecca Biber and I traded point/ counterpoint on The Grand Budapest Hotel. I loathed it (see here), and she loved it (see here).

Twelve months later, we find ourselves at (not quite as extreme) loggerheads over the similarly Oscar-recognized film Whiplash (now available on DVD/Blu-Ray and via streaming video). It was one of my top three films of the year (alongside Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher). I daresay for Ms. Biber … it would not be similarly ranked (though she did seem to enjoy aspects of the film).

Check out her assessment of Whiplash below, and you can revisit my take here.

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[Image Source: Google Images]

Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

By Rebecca Biber

Accuracy. That’s the object of the game—and the mind games. Tempo accuracy, pitch accuracy, being on time for the gig and keeping yourself and the music in irreproachable order. And in its evocation of certain states of mind or stages of life, Whiplash is fairly accurate. But the film suffers from a cluster of small miscalculations, dropped beats, and overeager entrances.

I went in hoping to experience, for once, a film about musicians that was believable, at least on the order of good fiction. My hopes had been dashed over the years by healthily-hyped but thoroughly disappointing movies from Shine to Hilary and Jackie to Mr. Holland’s Opus, only to be renewed by meaningful cinematic pieces like Ray, Bird, and A Late Quartet. It might not make sense, at first, to lump these all into the same genre: after all, some are biopics, others are purely fictional; some treat classical musicians’ lives and careers while others depict jazz musicians. But they are all of a piece, in that they all portray stereotypes of struggling artists. Brilliant artists consumed and, usually, destroyed by mental illness, substance abuse, personal grief, or all of the above. Whiplash is in the same vein, but the twist is that the tortured young artist here chooses to be at the mercy of a merciless mentor.

Whiplash started out as a portrayal of music school I could relate to. The protagonist, Andrew Neiman, faces competitiveness, endless rehearsal and practice, and the utter loneliness that accrues from living only for the pursuit of perfect musicianship, deriving one’s sense of self exclusively from that, rather than from any internal or family-based sense of worth (despite the best efforts of warm Jewish dad Paul Reiser). People do practice to the point of injury. The presence of women in jazz is still, sadly, negligible. Music professors and students have a relationship closer to that of master and apprentice in a medieval trade guild than the service-oriented relationship prevalent in the wider academic world. Often, our mentors are not people we like. They are sometimes people whose appeal as role models is lost on anyone other than their devotees. Certainly, J.K. Simmons’s portrayal of Terence Fletcher is over the top in its vitriolic verbosity and turn-on-a-dime moments of sweetness contrasted with utter sadism. Young Neiman readily begins to adopt Fletcher’s ways, turning tough guy himself and taking out his anger on peers and drum heads like.

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[Image Source: Google Images]

And here’s where writer/director Damien Chazelle started to lose me. When you are portraying a specific world, such as that of a conservatory, you must adhere to the governing rules thereof. Its jargon, its specific codes of behavior. Any musician watching the film can’t help but be annoyed by the errors piling up: a sequence depicting rising piano notes showed the pianist’s hand moving down the keyboard. One doesn’t scribble over the charts in ink, because all of the (expensive) music is on loan from the school. Music professors and students don’t fling or destroy their equipment, no matter how frustrated they feel (again, following genre pattern: a bizarre scene in Hilary and Jackie has Emily Watson freezing her cello, and a fistfight in A Late Quartet endangers priceless violins more than the men themselves). You can’t actually live in a practice room. Worst of all is the over acting. The more intensely Neiman plays, the more spasmodically his face contorts. He spends the entire film convincing us how hard he is working. Take a look, sometime, at a percussionist playing a strenuous piece: he or she will be almost preternaturally still, facial features showing a Zen-like concentration and focus of energy.   To put it another way, when you are working extremely hard at the instrument, there is no time or attention left to devote to grimacing and mouthing swears. (The over-playing phenomenon is my only complaint about the otherwise excellent Charlie Parker biopic; Forest Whitaker should have noticed that a saxophonist’s fingers move minutely when playing fast and that enthusiasm or inventiveness at the instrument does not translate to frenetic physical movement. The sound is bop, the technique used to achieve it bears no visual resemblance.)

Speaking of Charlie Parker, it seems that all jazz students and jazz films have to invoke the Bird legend. The story that Fletcher and Neiman volley between them has become both a cautionary tale and a gauntlet thrown down to those who might not have the personal tenacity to achieve the fulfillment of their talent through practice. But the Charlie Parker story—that he thought he was good until a better musician took him down a few notches by tossing a cymbal at him onstage—doesn’t fit with the narrative of Whiplash or, more generally, with the story of a striving music student. Parker was a gigging musician, not a conservatory boy. And the privileged few who gain admission to conservatory go there looking for toughness, not for pats on the back. That the audience is supposed to disbelieve or admonish Fletcher for his ruthlessness is, itself, unbelievable, as his brand of humiliation coupled with exactitude is unusual only as a matter of degree, not of form. Once the narrative turns to the question of Fletcher’s ouster from his position, the movie wants to have it both ways. Either we are viewing a film about politically correct university dons fearing a lawsuit from appalled parents, or we are seeing the raw process of how music students get toughened, personally and professionally, in their closed rooms.

Neiman, as a character, also wants to have it both ways. He craves Fletcher’s approval, yet questions his decision making and, in fact, sabotages his bandmates by performing unprepared (and possibly concussed). He wants to be a decent guy—or at least receive the benefits a nice guy is entitled to—but not have to answer for his failures. This characterization struck me as the truest part of the film: the essentially conflicted kid/young adult, aspiring to professionalism but achieving a kind of precocious crankiness instead. (Full disclosure, as an undergrad music major I was once broken up with by a guy because he said he needed to practice more. I got a slightly shorter version of the speech Neiman delivers to his girlfriend Nicole in the film.) Certain plot points do follow a strange internal logic: when Fletcher pulls the rug out from under Neiman yet again, the trick only works because Neiman has chosen to isolate himself from his peers through personal nastiness, modeling his mentor. Had he had even one friend in the band, that guy would have said, “Hey, what do you think of that last-minute set list change?”

Biber and Sexton

Biber and Sexton

Kudos for the one moment of absolute accuracy Chazelle delivers on the nature of music making: Neiman, at the dinner table with some obnoxious jock cousins, gives as good as he gets in a fight over whose activities matter more, athletes or musicians. The young drummer has just described winning a competition with his select ensemble. One of the cousins says, “But how can you judge a music competition? Isn’t that subjective?” And Andrew replies, flatly, “No.”

Some things that appear vague or subjective are in fact easy to discern, if your senses are attuned: either a drummer is rushing or dragging the tempo. Either a professor corrects his students effectively, caring only for the music itself, or creates unnecessary personal drama which takes focus away from the music. I didn’t buy the central conceit of the Fletcher character, despite Simmons’s compelling performance. There are many ways to motivate, and the most effective motivators don’t get personal because they don’t need to. It’s gratuitous, like Neiman’s flashy fills at the beginning. It belies the idea of superb performance. If you want a student to count in 14/8, you don’t get in his way by throwing around insults and ethnic slurs. The audience is supposed to see Fletcher’s method as leading inevitably to Neiman’s success, but it doesn’t. Achieving conservatory admission, being in the right place at the right time, an ability to collaborate (which Neiman sorely lacks): all these things will count more than a semester under the tutelage of one crazy guy with a really good ear.

Where Whiplash started in the realm of believability, it ended in the realm of pure fantasy, and a dark fantasy at that. That’s not an objection, as the idea of mentor and protégé meeting in a cruel yet mutually pleasurable musical duel could only occur in that cloudy realm where the audience agrees to sit through a five-minute trap set solo and the competition judges don’t disqualify the ensemble. In a way, this skewing of the music movie genre was much more enjoyable than the preposterous treacle of Shine or the bloodless melodrama of Hilary and Jackie. But it was mere entertainment; it stopped short of genuine emotional plangency. There was no one to sympathize with, and no one to root for, except maybe the patient horn section that saw the whole episode through with true professional aplomb and jazz cool.

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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.

“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.

She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.

I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.

I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.

And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.

Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”

To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, she started to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.

But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?

I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.

After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.

She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.

Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).

By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.” 

So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.

Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).

Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.

Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”

It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:

I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”

Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Walking alone
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”

 

And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …
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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.

Whiplash

The Movies We Loved in 2014 — By Friends of the Blog

Roy Sexton (Reel Roy Reviews):

Proud to be in such esteemed company! Thanks, Gabriel, for including me! Here’s my contribution – be sure to read the complete blog post at Gabriel’s site …

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Nightcrawler
by Roy Sexton

The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.

Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.

As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.

Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.

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Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his books, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats theatre company.

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Read the original post …

Originally posted on Gabriel Diego Valdez:

We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.

My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and…

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“I wish I had cancer. At least, they get a pink ribbon to wear.” Still Alice

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Still Alice, like life itself, is quietly and beautifully devastating. Julianne Moore is as good in this as anything I’ve ever seen her do, and she is beyond deserving of every accolade she has received for the role of Dr. Alice Howland. Moore resists every temptation to play Howland’s struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s in a maudlin, condescending, or self-pitying way. Rather, she gives us a rich and fully developed characterization – a deep-feeling and intellectual human losing control of her very being.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is directed with great grace and humanity by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. They have surrounded Moore with an exceptional supporting cast, from Alec Baldwin as her loving but identifiably selfish husband to Kate Bosworth as their straight-arrow, OCD, super-WASP daughter. The real revelation in the film is Kristen Stewart (Twilight) as the Howlands’ other daughter, a seemingly self-absorbed aspiring actress who ends up being the most pragmatic and empathetic member of the family. Stewart matches Moore in terms of subtlety and delicate character work, avoiding the “walking wounded/black sheep” cliches and revealing a great gift for authentically portraying the perennially misunderstood.

The film suffers, as so many Hollywood productions do, from some precious production design; Hollywood loves to fetishize the upper-middle-class family where both parents are well-heeled, progressive, accomplished careerists. In this case, Alice and John Howland are faculty members at Columbia University, residing in a tony brownstone in New York while maintaining a shabby chic vacation home in Saugatuck – with decor straight from the Restoration Hardware catalog, subdued fashion of the Anthropologie ilk, and too many cutesy stops for Pinkberry frozen yogurt. The family hosts Christmas dinners that would make Martha Stewart swoon, with freshly scrubbed progeny humble-bragging about their sparkling careers in law and medicine, gabbing about in vitro fertilization, drinking wine, and making small talk about NPR.

Yet, that fairy tale context very well may be part of the film’s point, that even these perfect specimens of humanity can be felled in the blink of an eye by an unforeseen medical diagnosis. The cast does a marvelous job creating a portrait of a loving family that is as competitive and neurotic as they are accomplished and polished. Vast chunks of the film are spent in the kitchen or around the dining room table with food as a catalyst (as it is in most American homes) for the deepest, thorniest conversations.

For Moore’s Alice Howland, a professor of linguistics, language is essential. The inability to access a word, to complete a thought, to recall a name demolishes Alice. Moore’s superhuman command of body language, of the light in her eyes, of the quiver of her lips telegraphs the firestorm of panic, anxiety, and abject fear plaguing Alice as her mind proceeds to fail her at an alarming rate of decay.

I had a theatre director (Ohio State’s Rex McGraw) once tell me that the best way to get an audience to cry is to portray a character trying not to cry, that the audience’s cathartic impulse while watching a character grapple to contain emotion will unleash their own floodgates. Boy, does Moore get that. Who would have thunk it back when I was watching Moore play Frannie Hughes (and her naughty identical British half-sister Sabrina!) on sudser As the World Turns in the 80s, that one day I would be sobbing buckets over her tour de force balancing act in Still Alice as a frightened yet brave soul resisting with every fiber of her being the marginalization that her disease by its very nature necessitates.

I guarantee you will be a puddle on the floor when Moore gives her heart-stopping speech at an Alzheimer’s conference at the film’s midpoint. She is subdued and subtle and detailed and immersive, simultaneously controlled and raw. For one last brief shining moment, Moore’s Alice (who at another point in the film quips, “I wish I had cancer. At least, they get a pink ribbon to wear!”) reclaims herself before the waves of this insidious disease wash her away almost entirely.

I highly recommend this film, not simply as a spectacular treatise on a disease that is both nefarious and leveling, but especially as a beautiful and torturous portrait of a (more or less) typical American family stoically going through the motions of falling apart.

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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.

Deal with the devil: Whiplash (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Boy, when the Oscars get it wrong, they get it spectacularly wrong. I’ve already referenced what I see as a colossal eff-up in the way they recognized (barely) the socially incisive/incendiary Selma and Foxcatcher, but, now that I’ve finally seen Whiplash and based on what we all think we know about the impending awards, the fact that this f*cking (sorry.) fantastic movie hasn’t been nominated for more and that it likely will be eclipsed for the big prize by Birdman or Boyhood (not to mention missing out on the word-of-mouth box office bonanza lifting American Sniper and The Imitation Game) is, well, a crock.

(I think I have been so impacted by this incredibly immersive flick that I’m channeling J.K. Simmons’ foul-mouthed, corrosively-brilliant jazz music instructor Terence Fletcher. Simmons will no doubt be the lone Oscar-winner from Whiplash, and his acknowledgment will be richly deserved.)

Based on the real-life experiences of writer/director Damien Chazelle, who performed in the Princeton High School studio band, Whiplash tells a small tale in epic brushstrokes, a two-man character drama with the pacing and tension of a slasher film. Simmons’ bullying Fletcher is an instructor at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory, and Andrew Neiman, as underplayed extraordinarily by the Oscar-robbed Miles Teller, is a first-year student who aspires to be Buddy Rich and has the social graces of Genghis Khan. These two musically gifted misanthropes are a match made in hell, and the fireworks that erupt as Fletcher uses every abusive trick in the book to inspire “greatness” from his protege are horrifying, visceral, thrilling, and, in Fletcher’s defense, effective.

Teller’s Neiman is a super-talented, uber-driven simp who treats his doting father (Paul Reiser, a loving portrait of justifiable parental anxiety) with courteous disdain and his momentary girlfriend (Glee’s Melissa Benoist showing refreshing depth in a cameo role) as a roadblock to his wunderkind aspirations. The film and Teller make no attempt to victimize Neiman – he is not very likable but he is completely relatable. We all have had a moment (or two) where the desire for fame or success or advancement lead us down a soulless, soul-sucking path into the arms of a sure-minded, deal-making devil.

Fifty-plus years ago, Whiplash would have been a spectacular episode of Playhouse 90 with Lee J. Cobb as the teacher and Martin Sheen as the student. Chazelle’s confident direction has that classic series in its DNA, and Whiplash has all the sweaty, anxious discomfort of the best allegories. Unlike Birdman, which (albeit deftly) eviscerates performers’ egomania and obsession with “craft” in a rather smug and self-satisfied insular way, Whiplash reveals the raw, nasty, competitive ugliness underpinning too many arts cultures – the kind of crucible where a teacher/director plays emperor/tyrant/god in a tightly-fenced kingdom, achieving amazing results but at the cost of everyone’s humanity. The film’s denouement is a brilliant war of sidelong glances, sweat, blood, and musical cues all set to the hypnotically propulsive  jazz standby “Caravan.”

As I sit here watching the Grammy Awards (at this moment, the ever delightful Tom Jones in a duet with fabulous Lady-Tom-Jones-in-training Jessie J), I can’t help but reflect on what the various nominees and winners have endured and inflicted in their various meteoric ascents, descents, and comebacks. That’s the power of a film like Whiplash. While the film narrows its gaze on the misanthropy inherent in the jazz world, the cat-and-mouse inter-generational combat of instructor and student apples to any art form, industry, or workplace. Don’t miss this tightly coiled, perfect little/big film.

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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.

“My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Wild (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wild is an interesting film, and, on the whole, I liked it quite a bit. It’s great to see Reese Witherspoon digging in and acting again. I had begun to find latter-day Witherspoon (post-Walk the Line) a bit self-satisfied and, well, smug, and this based-on-a-true-story-as-turned-into-a-New-York-Times-bestseller role allows her to strip off the starry veneer and (mostly) give us some of the nuanced acting that her early career promised.

Where the film falters (at least for cynical me) is in what I would like to dub the Julie & Julia conundrum: a biographical film based on a regular ol’ person’s memoir, a tome that hangs on an oh-my-God-will-you-believe-THIS gimmick that makes great fodder for teary Oprah interviews or saucy segments on The View. In the case of, say, Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’ failed writer seems to declare, “Aw, what the heck! I’m just going to cook a different, fabulous Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. I have no intention of becoming famous for it and leveraging it as a marketing hook to jump-start a literary career doused in flop sweat. Nope. Not me. I’m authentic.”

In the case of Wild, our protagonist Cheryl Strayed (interesting last name, given the subject matter) implodes after the sudden death of her beloved mother, throwing her marriage and her family and her English major lit aspirations (she’s a feminist because she references Erica Jong? that made me wince) in a garbage can, pouring kerosene on it, and lighting the whole kit and kaboodle on fire as she discovers the joys of sex addiction, heroin addiction, and just plain addiction. What saves her sullen, sputtering butt? Well, she just happens to see a guidebook to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (mind you, this is while sauntering into a drugstore for a pregnancy test ’cause she thinks she’s with child but not sure whose) and then determines that heading on a thousand mile vision quest will heal her soul. Oh, and if you didn’t know how rotten she was at this point, you later learn that she and her brother shoot her mother’s prized horse after mama’s death because they didn’t have the resources to care for it?!?! Um, how about offering it for adoption/rescue? Just a thought.

That preceding paragraph came across sh*ttier than I intended, but I’m leaving it there for all to ponder at will. It’s not this film’s problem, but our reality television/prurient tall tale tell-all culture has me wondering sometimes as to the veracity of stories like this one and the relative ease with which they translate from journal to blog to novel to Academy Award-glittering event film.

Regardless, Jean Marc-Vallee leaves behind any of his TV movie tendencies (see any of Jennifer Garner’s scenes in Dallas Buyers Club) and transforms the source material into cinematic poetry. The film is akin to a “memory play” where the central characters/audience float surreally in and out of present and past, and Vallee has a genius command of music and sound and imagery to evoke the kind of sense memory that snaps one back to happy and not-so-happy moments in time. Vallee and his game cast, which also includes a heart-breakingly luminous Laura Dern as Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s mother, allow for some marvelous bits of situational humor to shine through all the pathos – that is a real gift and essential for a movie like this, which could easily become a dark, cliched slog.

In the end, though, the movie lives or dies on Witherspoon’s epically back-packed shoulders, and her performance is a triumph. As she showed us so many years ago with her brilliant channeling of the What Makes Sammy Run? farce that is American politics (be it national, local, or … student council) in Election, Witherspoon with her jutting jaw, limpid eyes, and tortured/tortuous inner life excels when playing the unlikable. Pick Flick! Her Cheryl Strayed is raw-boned and relatable, someone whose misery has toxified her soul, not to mention anyone else’s within a five-mile radius of her.

Yet, Witherspoon never comes off maudlin, self-pitying, scenery-chewing. Her emotional collapse is chiefly internal (save some awkward heroin-den flashbacks that likely should have been left on the cutting room floor), and her trek along the rugged trail is believable and … kind of inept in its execution. Strayed makes lots of mistakes – think Cast Away in the woods which makes it all the more heroic in the end.

And, as for that horse situation (’cause you totally know THAT is what bothered me endlessly)? Strayed/Witherspoon is haunted by it (think Equus without all the weird Freudian freaky BS), and, as she journeys through California, animal life is a constant. A beautiful fox that very well may be the avatar of her late mother (the CGI was a bit clunky on that otherwise neat concept), an alpaca that she comes across in the wood (yeah, you read that correctly, but it leads to one of the film’s sweetest moments when she finds the grandma/grandson pair who care for the creature), little tree frogs that visit her in the night, and a whimsical encounter with a caterpillar. I’m sure I’m reading what I want to here, but Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s last words in the film are: “My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Damn right.

________________________________

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

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[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.

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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.