“With great power comes great irresponsibility.” #Deadpool

Deadpool If Quentin Tarantino re-imagined Bugs Bunny as a fourth-wall-bursting, profane, cavalier, heartbroken, mutant mercenary with a death wish, it would look something like Marvel’s latest cinematic offering (through Fox, not Disney) Deadpool.

Ryan Reynolds stars as the titular anti-hero (affectionately dubbed “The Merc with a Mouth”), and he has never been so charming, so lovable, so offensively juvenile, so obscene, or so humane. Reynolds has always been too much of a glimmering, beautiful smart-ass for me, like Johnny Carson on steroids (literally), and, even though he may hold the record for playing different super hero personae (Blade III, the regrettable Green Lantern, and the unforgivable movie Deadpool 1.0 in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), I’ve never really left a film of his without the strong desire to smack him across his smirking, pretty boy mug.

Maybe that’s why I liked this Deadpool so much, which wisely torches any and all Reynolds’ previous super hero work to date in a series of winking inside jokes throughout the film. Screaming irreverence notwithstanding (which I absolutely loved), the film hides Reynolds (and his cheese-tastic visage) under a spectacularly expressive red and black mask (the costumer deserves a medal) or under a football field’s worth of latex scar tissue (when said mask is removed), liberating Reynolds to be the big, sweet, friskily asexual, flaming nerd he’s always desired to be. It suits him beautifully.

The film, which spins out of the decidedly more family-friendly X-Men movie universe, isn’t as unconventional as it purports to be. Yes, Reynolds alongside director Tim Miller (directing his first feature after a career in animation – explaining the Tex Avery influences) freely lampoon and celebrate the super hero genre, gleefully biting the many hands (Marvel, Hollywood, Disney, misogyny, bro-culture) that feed them. However, the film’s chassis is as conventional as they come – yet another comic book origin story where boy meets girl; boy gets terminal cancer; boy abandons girl because he doesn’t want her to see him wither away; boy hooks up with creepy-skid-row-scientists-conducting-sadistic-experiments-in-a-murky-basement-somewhere; boy gets super powers, curing his cancer, but also gets really ugly; boy puts on a super suit to gain revenge on skid row scientists; boy avoids girl ’cause he’s really ugly now, but still lurks around all Phantom of the Opera style; boy beats up the creep who scarred him (literally) with the help of a couple of comically wayward X-Men; boy gets girl back after she punches him repeatedly for ever leaving her in the first place. Finis.

Hmmm … well, maybe the movie is not that conventional. What sets Deadpool apart, ultimately, is how deftly the film marries the prurient and the gentle. The adoration and respect that Reynolds’ Wade Wilson (later Deadpool) shows his fellow lower-class misfit Vanessa (deftly played by Gotham’s Morena Baccarin, lighting up the screen with naughty screwball feminist camp) is genuine and tender (when they aren’t smacking each other with riding crops). The kindness and the mutual admiration Deadpool has for his blind, Ikea-loving, foul-mouthed septuagenarian roommate Blind Al (portrayed with scene-stealing delight by an unrecognizable Leslie Uggams!) is precious and heart-warming (when they aren’t talking about crack cocaine, firearms, and the near-sensual comfort of their Crocs footwear). The sweet and salty bromance between Reynolds and barkeep Weasel (nebbishly scruffy T.J. Miller, used much more effectively here than in that godawful Transformers flick) is a grounded and welcome respite from all the four-color absurdity (when they aren’t starting bar fights by sending alcoholic beverages with risque names from one table of thugs to another).

This film is a hoot and is wildly inappropriate for anyone under 18 or anyone over 18. I applaud the filmmakers for taking on the challenge of an R-rated comic book adaptation, and, while indulging many of their baser instincts, maintaining the sense of joy and inclusion that propels the most successful, broad-reaching super hero films. Deadpool stands in marked contrast to movies like Kingsman or Watchmen or 300 that wear their ugly outcast alienation on their collective sleeves (or, in the case of 300, lack of sleeves … or, in the case of Watchmen, lack of pants), movies with a kind of baked-in, intractable sexism.

I suppose we can thank (?) 300/Watchmen director Zack Snyder (and friends) for creating that new brand of sexism, one in which the purveyors claim that the true sexists are those preoccupied by the sexism? By golly, don’t you dare try to prevent these alpha-aspirational men (?) from being MEN! Grrrr. OK, neither Snyder nor his ilk have ever said that – though films like 300 are really freaking Freudian, in a bad P90X, artisanal craft beer-drinking, Paleo Diet way. Hell, maybe I’ve just had too many wobbly political debates on Facebook this week? #FeelingBernt? But I digress …

Whatever the case, Deadpool is a welcome divergence from those dark and gritty, self-serious comic book adaptations and offers plenty of scatalogical foolishness to satiate your inner 8th grader, while infusing the genre with a truly subversive love for underdogs of any and all stripes (among us all) – and that will satisfy your exhausted outer grown-up.

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

“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.

Fun.

I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?

(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)

The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.

The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?

Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.

However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.

That said, The Hateful Eight entertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”

Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?

For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.

It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.

Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.

Somebody wake me when Oscar season is over.

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img_3692-1Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Droid, please.” Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

With the clarion blast of John Williams’ trademark fanfare, a militaristic waterfall of brassy notes, Star Wars returns to the silver screen in “Episode VII,” otherwise known as The Force Awakens.

Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8) has been entrusted (wisely) by the slick branding minds at the Mouse House, LucasFilm’s new owners, to inject the franchise with a postmodern jolt of nostalgia-fueled adrenaline, after the late 90s/early 00s prequel series failed to sustain fanboy adoration.

Let me add that I find some of the rampant hatred of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith (oh, those names) a bit disingenuous, lemming-like, and arguably age-ist. We nerds were all lined up in geeky hysteria to devour those films, debate their merits, and consume every last bit of merchandising. Were we thrilled with the films? Not totally. Were they ponderous, meandering, and wooden? Heck, yeah. Did we care? No, because we loved this bizarre universe that was less sci-fi and more Land of Oz with its blend of preposterous names (Count Dooku?), anthropomorphic machinery, fuzzy Muppet-y sidekicks, and simplistic delineation of right from wrong.

Now, we all want to kick George Lucas to the curb, like some previous homeowner who had terrible taste in shag carpeting since we know so much better with our Ikea coffee tables and stainless steel appliances. We seem to be saying, “Go away, you doddering old man. We don’t care if you created all of this from broad cloth. You’re tiresome.” That bugs me. A lot. Maybe it’s because I’ll likely be 50 years old when this latest trilogy wraps up or because I will be forever grateful to Lucas for all the backyard adventures he fueled for this plucky only child, but I think he deserves a break and our gratitude.

…That said, I’m sure glad he didn’t direct this latest installment.

Abrams is not the most ingenious of directors. If Spielberg and Lucas, his most immediate forebears, were consummate recyclers of B-movie tropes (Indiana Jones, Jaws, and, yes, Star Wars), then Abrams is, at best, a fabulous remixer. He takes the Spielberg/Lucas greatest hits, adds a dash of irony, self-satirizing humor, marketing panache, and copious lens flares in a transfixing gift for cinematic misdirection. Take his two Star Trek films, for instance.  Great fun, right?  Yet, there is not one original thought between them that wasn’t already expressed a hundred times over in earlier Trek films and series. Into Darkness is pretty much a remake/reinvention of one of the better films Wrath of Khan infused with the earth-bound whimsy of the best Star Trek … The Voyage Home.

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Little Roy and Friends

That’s what Abrams does, and that’s just fine. The instinct for escapist self-preservation is Hollywood’s bread and butter, and, with the assured success of Force Awakens, Abrams is sure to be Tinseltown’s favorite son.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives us everything we want, with few surprises. While every other Star Wars film has debuted in May to provide air-conditioned cinematic asylum from the hottest days of the year, Force Awakens arrives just in time for Christmas. Not unlike those Disney Park rides that dump you right into a gift shop so you can load up on memory-preserving souvenirs, this film seems built to send you packing to Toys R Us posthaste for some last minute stocking stuffers. Just like the holidays, Force Awakens showers us with familiar, comforting indulgences.

X-Wing and Tie Fighters engaged in balletic dog fights, every sound effect you remember well-preserved but with new paint jobs so you’ll have to capture the newest miniature versions for your personal fleet at home. C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) are still fussy as ever, but with a little third-act intrigue to keep you guessing. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) remains adorable as a Golden Retriever on two legs who happens to be really adept at piloting the Millennium Falcon. Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher – who looks like she’s about to crack a joke every time she speaks, thank goodness) are a little grayer and wizened, mercifully winking at the proceedings but also providing much-needed flesh-and-blood poignancy. Any tears I shed were all due to the two of them – both from my joy at seeing them in these iconic roles again and in their ability to inhabit those characters, thirty years later, so effortlessly.

The plot (spoiler … well, 38-year-old spoiler) is pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars: A New Hope,  itself ripped off just two movies later for Return of the Jedi. Scary fascists (this time called “The First Order”) in matching outfits can’t tolerate free-thought or weirdly-featured cantina-frequenting creatures, so they build a big ol’ planet-sized armageddon machine; and Dorothy and The Tin Man and The Scarecrow and The Cowardly Lion blow it up real good and save the universe (for now). Actually, that sounds a bit like rhetoric from the Republican presidential debates. Maybe a disenfranchised Lucas is moonlighting for Trump these days?

Damn, Force Awakens is fun, though. Seeing beloved characters in a place and time you’ve worshipped since you were a kid is akin to the perfect extended family reunion … that is, if you liked your extended family. Abrams is a canny filmmaker. He uses the free-pass such familiarity brings to introduce a new generation (literally and figuratively) of characters who end up carrying the torch quite nicely. Furthermore, Abrams layers an Empire Strikes Back-style ominous gloom over Force Awakens’ Saturday matinee escapades – a sense of forboding that holds welcome promise for future installments.

Adam Driver (Girls) channels Millennial angst as antagonist Kylo Ren – imagine Darth Vader with ADHD. Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is all Errol Flynn swashbuckling swagger as pilot Poe Dameron.  John Boyega (Attack the Block) as turncoat Stormtrooper Finn and newcomer Daisy Ridley as scrappy orphan Rey are the heart and soul of the film. Like the film’s viewers, these two actors have grown up admiring the fantasy and the fiction of the Star Wars universe. Consequently, they bleed respect, wit, and warmth for their characters and for the heroic quests they get to play, yet they escape the overly reverent quagmire that afflicted prequel stars Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. (Boyega’s seemingly ad libbed “Droid, please.” to the equally affable, Chaplinesque, volleyball-shaped robot BB-8 exemplifies his free-wheeling, contemporary comic approach.)

I will also commend Abrams for bringing us our most diverse Star Wars cast yet, offering a galactic reflection of our earthly life today. About time.

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without an action-figure phalanx of oddball spirit guides and gleamingly militant heavies (played by a Love Boat-sized cast of “special guest stars”). Spotting them is like playing a space-faring game of Where’s Waldo? Look, Daniel Craig is a cheeky Stormtrooper! Look, Max Von Sydow is Alec Guiness! Look, Gwendolyn Christie is a cheeky chrome-plated Stormtrooper! Look, Domhnall Gleeson is Peter Cushing! Look, Andy Serkis is Gollum-channeling-The-Wizard-of-Oz! Look, Lupita Nyong’o is … Yoda?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will satisfy all you playground Han Solos and Leia Organas and Luke Skywalkers. Indeed, the 12-year-old boy in me was transported … a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In that sense, Abrams and crew did their job flawlessly. But this installment was easy. The audience was waiting and appreciative to see the old band back together, playing the classic tracks we know and love.

The trick for the upcoming films (to mix Abrams’ Star franchises blasphemously)? To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no (hu)man has gone before.

I look forward to it.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Still seeking answers: Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This is a strange time, n’est-ce pas? Yet, when you look at human history, has there ever been a moment unblemished by manufactured turmoil, cruelty, prejudice, and hate? I don’t mean to be nihilistic, but I suspect every generation wonders if they are living the “end of days.” And I don’t just mean Justin Bieber’s inexplicable re-ascension to the top of the charts.

Didn’t you have that moment in history class where you were astounded that humanity collectively allowed something blatantly horrific to happen? The holocaust. Slavery. The Salem witch trials.

Or that there were times where we turned our backs and willfully denied the humanity of others? Women’s right to vote. Segregation through the Southland. Marriage equality.

Or that we found wartime justification in the mass slaughter of our fellow beings? Atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hirsoshima. The conflict in Vietnam. Rwandan genocide.

And let’s not forget ongoing issues like the cruelly monolithic factory farming that is driving the climate itself to hourly nervous breakdowns.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Xenophobia runs amok. Religious fanaticism of all stripes rules the day. A paralyzing fear of “the other” (name a category, any category) cripples us. Outright, politicized hatred wrapped in disingenuous, fear-mongering appeals to the gun-loving, Bible-thumping walking dead to fight for their rapidly “eroding” rights. I’ll say it again: one’s loss of cultural hegemony is not an incursion. It’s a re-balancing.

For me, one of the darkest chapters in American history has always been the bureaucratic bullying perpetrated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in overreaction to the so-called “Red Scare” against Communism in the Eisenhower years. This period always troubled me because it seemed to be the most likely to be repeated. We can argue the nobility of governmental intention then, but the march into fearful groupthink was truly “un-American” and continues to be.

Yet, here we are again.

“Are you a good American and not a Communist?” has now become “Are you a good patriot and do you wear a flag on your lapel?” Back then, anyone who had ever had any affiliation or any interest in socialism or Communism was seen as a potential threat to the “Homeland.” Sound familiar? Sometimes, I wonder if Sarah Palin or Rupert Murdoch scribbled into a Mad Libs page on “the ideal American” the words Christian, reactionary, culturally illiterate, gun-loving, white, married with too many children, hunting, climate change denying martyr – and that, if we’re not careful, the wrong people in power will make sure that those of us not fitting into such a narrow paradigm will be marginalized into oblivion.

I used to think we’d learned from the cruel missteps of something like the 50s “blacklist” which, under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, destroyed the careers and lives of many actors, writers, directors, and other creative types just because they were believed to think differently than the imposed norm. These days, I’m not so sure.

I was hopeful, then, that Trumbo, the new biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in the title role, would be a tonic for this troubled age, the kind of film that uses its historical frame to challenge our present-day complacency. It isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly fine, workmanlike piece of biographical fluff. It’s a bit troubling, maybe ironic, though, that a film about a sparklingly incisive screenwriter has such a lousy, predictable screenplay, including the now-standard “I’m a famous person who lived a troubled life, and I get to end the film treatment of said existence by making a cliché-laden speech and getting an award” denouement (see: A Beautiful MindThe Theory of Everything).

Cranston, who, to me, is overrated and rather uneven as an actor (sorry, not a Breaking Bad fan), does a credible job and is one of the film’s bright spots. Depicting the act of writing which, at best, is a task of isolation and at worst one of alienation, is not something that translates readily to the beat-driven narrative which film requires. How do you open up someone’s mind with its insecurities and egomania, triumphs and failures, engaged in the solitary exercise of communing with a blank piece of paper and make it interesting? Fortunately, Trumbo had his share of eccentricities – writing from the bathtub to ease an aching back; a mustache that gave Salvador Dali a run for his money; owlish horn-rimmed glasses; chain-smoking from a jeweled cigarette holder – allowing Cranston to play up the actorly tics on his way to finding Trumbo’s spiky inner life.

The film falls on the horns of its own noble intentions, however, depicting a world where Trumbo is the liberal white knight tilting at the windmills of an increasingly conservative Hollywood establishment as represented with fang-gleaming glee by Hedda Hopper (an impishly fun Helen Mirren) and lumbering thuggishness by John Wayne (J.A.G.’s David James Elliott, miscast but weirdly endearing – Elliott doesn’t look a d*mn thing like Wayne, but he gets the silly voice right … sort of … and gives the role a kind of Frankenstein’s monster likability). The performers are having a lark, and, like a zippy Halloween masquerade, they are fun to watch, until you think about the proceedings a bit more than you should. The simplicity with which director Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change, Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska) approaches this complex philosophical conflict at the tinny heart of Hollywood commerce is practically chiaroscuro and altogether disappointing. As ridiculous as Hedda Hopper was and as destructive as her caustic PR-meddling may have been, I’m pretty sure she had a bit more nuance than Elvira Gulch.

It’s a shame that the direction and script are so shallow, never rising above TV-movie grade, because the supporting cast offers some great character turns. Louis CK with his “find a cloud for every silver lining” dyspepsia gives some much-needed gravity to the proceedings. He has far too little screen time as the perfect deflation for Trumbo’s hyperbole. The film lazily assumes its audience enters with a common understanding of how horrific the blacklist and its underlying philosophy was (is) and fails to capture the sticky claustrophobia that those victimized by it likely felt. Fortunately, CK with his defeated bearing and hopeful hopelessness grounds the proceedings by establishing the emotional stakes at play.

John Goodman plays, well, the same part he’s played his whole career as a blustering, heart-of-gold purveyor of cinematic filth. And that’s just fine. He can get away with it. He has a unique gift for simultaneously being a pixie and a bag of cement. Alan Tudyk is fine, all wide-eyed, button-downed anxiety as a fellow screenwriter, to whom Trumbo gives the credit for the Oscar-winning Roman Holiday when Trumbo has been all but written-off. Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s daughter offers a nice bit of spark to her father’s flinty charm – their few exchanges depict a rich familial dynamic that isn’t really present in the script.

This brings us to Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s long-suffering wife Cleo. Said simply, it’s likely the worst performance I’ve seen her give. I don’t know if it’s the screenplay or Lane or both, but, to steal a quip from my mom who observed, “It’s like Lane prepared for the role by watching too many episodes of The Donna Reed Show.” There is a lot of squinting and posturing and mincing, a bit of juggling (literally!), some boxing (not kidding!), and … well … that’s about it. I suspect there was a much more contentious dynamic between Cleo and her husband, whose admirable ethics caused years of economic and social strife for his entire family, as he engineered ways to undermine the stultifying effects of the Hollywood blacklist. Sadly, we just don’t get to see any of it. The film would have been stronger if we had. And Lane would have had something to play, other than juggling glassware (literally!).

According to the film, Trumbo’s Oscar wins for Roman Holiday (uncredited) and for the beautiful ode to compassion (and animal rights) The Brave One lit a spark under Hollywood to push back and challenge the blacklist’s economic stranglehold. Additionally, Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman who looks like Douglas if you squint and sounds like Douglas if you’re deaf) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel, playing the famed director as if he were auditioning for the villain role in Dr. No) were among the few Hollywood establishment players to buck the system and give Trumbo a chance, thumbing their noses at the suffocating evil of the Washington witch hunters.

I wish this film had been better. I wish we were left with a clearer understanding of what motivated all of the players, both the “good” and the “bad” (whatever those terms even mean). I wish I knew what “messages” were so troubling in the screenplays of the time. I wish I knew why people with one kind of power (political) were so threatened by the free speech of those with another kind of power (celebrity) that they were compelled to shred the very Constitution they claimed they would die on their swords to defend. Trumbo doesn’t help us with these answers. I wish it did. We need these answers, now more than ever.

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

 

Ghosts of Christmas (movies) past: The Night Before (2015)

TheNightBefore2015poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If we’re really honest with ourselves, Christmas is less about a magically mysterious birth, less about “new beginnings,” and more about exorcising the ghosts and specters of the past that haunt us all. Charles Dickens understood this, and that’s why A Christmas Carol, which is as gothic a horror story as they come, has become a timeless template for the best holiday stories in the canon.

Hollywood knows this too, and they return to Dickens’ inkwell time and again, for the best (and the worst) of their seasonal cinematic output: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Home Alone, Four Christmases, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, The Polar Express, Love Actually, Scrooged (and every other overtly Dickensian swipe/homage/remake), Bad Santa (my favorite), and on and on. These films, in their episodic tedium, work when they nail the debilitating guilt we all feel as adults that the “special day” never lives up to its materialistic hype, that the whole month of December is cluttered and cramped – with decades of detritus from prior Decembers, with the tears of holiday heartbreak, with the thorny angst of broken promises, with too many ephemeral demands of time and money, and with the laughter of feverishly fun Christmas Eves nearly-forgotten.

The latest in a long line of sad/funny attempts to capture this cold, clammy Christmas truth is director Jonathan Levine’s (50/50, Warm Bodies) holiday farce The Night Before. The film depicts one final Christmas Eve rager for a trio of Manhattan-dwelling friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie). The boys have convened for a night of drug-fueled debauchery every Noel for the past 15 years to help Gordon-Levitt’s character cope with the fact that his parents were killed in a car accident during the “hap-happiest season of alllll” in 2001.

However, people tend to move on, even if they don’t necessarily grow up, with Rogen and wife (the plucky Jillian Bell who nearly saves the film and steals every scene) expecting their first child and Mackie ascending as a football hero (albeit a steroidal one) and social media star. Gordon-Levitt, though, has no life, no prospects, and no joy, and these Christmas blow-outs have sustained him when he is otherwise running on fumes. In spite of this, Rogen and Mackie have convinced their buddy that this year’s event will be the last hurrah.

The film, which borrows liberally from The Hangover, The Great Gatsby (?!), and the aforementioned Scrooged and Harold and Kumar, unfortunately never gels around its high-concept premise. There are bright spots. Both Mackie (who can deftly balance poignancy and jackassery) and Gordon-Levitt (who has the sad clown deadpan expressiveness of silent movie king Harold Lloyd) have some fabulously grounded moments where the superficiality of the season halt them in their holly jolly tracks. They both deserved a better movie.

A stocking-full of zippy guest stars brighten the proceedings. Michael Shannon is a hoot as a bedraggled, philosophizing, drug-dealing guardian angel – think David Johansen’s Ghost of Christmas Past from Scrooged by way of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Clarence Odbody … on his way to/from/to The Betty Ford Clinic. Mindy Kaling is her typical acerbic self, playing the boys’ drinking buddy and appearing to be the only character who has a realistic reaction to how, well, reprehensible they are. Lizzy Caplan is criminally underutilized as the wise and world-weary, gimlet-eyed object of Gordon-Levitt’s affections. And [spoiler alert] James Franco and Miley Cyrus (yup, there she is again) portray versions of themselves, injecting the right amount of spiked frothy eggnog into the film’s climactic party scene.

(Can someone get Franco and Cyrus a screwball comedy stat? Maybe a remake of Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn’s Bringing Up Baby … set in a marijuana dispensary?)

Rogen is Rogen, and, since he is an executive producer on the film, it appears that no one was able to rein in his bug-eyed mugging and foghorn-in-a-windstorm delivery. I didn’t think it was possible, but he actually gets worse every time I see him, and he drags everyone down with him. The film has a sweet and salty balance when he’s not onscreen. Regrettably, he’s onscreen about 85% of the time, so you can do the math.

There is an interesting film – a loving/witty/sad/believable holiday movie gut-ache – lost somewhere amidst the rambling raunch and ribaldry of The Night Before. Perhaps that movie got left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps it was side-lined from the get-go with Rogen’s grubby involvement. I guess we’ll never know. I’m still waiting for that movie – in the meantime I’ll stick with Bad Santa.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by 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.

 

“I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person” – Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Mockingjay_Part_2_Poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What passes for entertainment these days, it could be argued, shows a glib disregard for humanity, grace, and life itself. It’s a bit ironic, given that Hollywood tends to be first to get in line for humanitarian causes, yet the chief blockbuster product rolling from the City of Dreams on a quarterly basis is awash in cinematic bloodletting. I don’t know what to make of that.

I’ve long struggled with my distaste for The Hunger Games saga for this very reason. People tell me to lighten up, but often they are the same people who celebrate photos in their local paper of young girls and boys, bow in hand, grinning madly over their latest “trophy kill.” Violence begets violence, and when does it stop?

Surely, Hollywood doesn’t influence behavior – it’s just a movie, right? But, then, why did Chrysler partner with Lionsgate on this latest installment to cross-promote cars (which just seemed to be odd synergy, regardless)? Sorry, folks, you don’t get to pick and choose what people will emulate (rampant consumerism) or won’t (rampant disregard for life).

Not only did I already have this predisposition going into Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, but the world has spent the better part of a week trying to reconcile the senseless violence in Paris, France and wagging hundreds of politicized fingers at governments or refugees or religions in a misplaced, manic desire to place blame on anyone but the actual perpetrators … and, for that matter, to shift focus away from our own collective collusion in this endless stream of mind-numbing violence, real and fictional, that dances across myriad screens.

It’s funny, and a bit sad then, that this final Hunger Games installment actually clarifies what it’s all about, Alfie, and what it’s been about, all along: a cautionary tale (albeit a simplistic, pubescent soap opera one) about the very world we have become – a world where violence is used for theatrical purposes to divide and conquer, to prop up the 1% and their self-selected preening dictators, and to oppress any and all of those dumb enough to allow mindless fear to curdle into unbridled hate.

Perhaps, the fact that this fourth film has opened with the smallest box office total of any in the series (albeit still exceeding $100M) suggests that the world sees less entertainment in its own follies than it once did? This film is a tough pill to swallow right now in the midst of the real-life tragedies facing us all.

Mockingjay – Part 2 suffers from the excesses of its immediate predecessor – or said more plainly, the greed of Lionsgate to attenuate the final book’s narrative into two films. Part 2 is just much too long, mopey, and meandering, after a Part 1 that was all of those things and a bore.

That said, this movie finally delivers what stands as the series’ punchline and thesis: absolute power – in a media-saturated age – not only corrupts absolutely, but does so with a rationalizing, self-obsessed, materialistic, nihilistic glee. Like the ubiquitous reality shows that Suzanne Collins’ literary creation ostensibly lampoons, the prize – in this case control of all humanity – must be won at any cost, and, if one freely jettisons their own humanity along their path to the crown, well, so be it.

In a line that practically made me stand up and applaud, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss hisses – as she begins to see the shameless willingness of “on/off again” boyfriend Gale (played with less and less gusto by otherwise charming Liam Hemsworth) to sacrifice morality for victory – “I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person.” Darn tootin’.

This is not groundbreaking insight, of course. Shakespeare covered this idea in just about every play, comedy or tragedy … but it is potentially heady stuff for today’s masses if delivered in a smart, playful, and authentic way. Unfortunately, for me, this film series seemed perpetually torn between the Ray Bradbury/Kurt Vonnegut/Clockwork Orange-esque battery acid allegory it could have been (should have been) and the escapist PG-13 Subway-sandwich selling, middle America revenge fantasy it actually was.

For those following the films – and (gulp) loving them – Mockingjay Part 2 won’t disappoint. Jennifer Lawrence continues her emotionless, robotic hero quest as Katniss. This actor shows so much spark anywhere else that I’m just baffled by what a dud she is here. Regardless, Lawrence is still the glue holding this enterprise together. When she discovers the [spoiler alert] big reveal that the dictator she hopes to unseat (Donald Sutherland’s President Snow) will be replaced by one conceivably even more ruthlessly cavalier (Julianne Moore’s President Coin), Lawrence does yeoman’s work quietly selling the point to all of us in the cheap seats: “Look, bloodlust gets you nowhere. People are evil, duplictious sh*ts. They don’t care about each other, and those desperately seeking power are exactly the people who should. not. ever. get. it.” (Maybe Lawrence could moderate the next GOP presidential debate? Bow and arrow in hand?)

The film has an ample amount of political intrigue, some fun twists, a couple of seat-jumping scares, and a sparkling supporting cast (largely wasted). It’s a bit of a Hunger Games greatest hits: Stanley Tucci’s TV huckster Caesar Flickerman for a hot second spewing some Fox News-style bile; Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy looking even more bedraggled and annoyed with all of it, but still saddled with life-coaching that makes Yoda look like a Quentin Tarantino character; Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket now completely de-fanged but again fabulously bewigged as her chief role seems to be serving as Katniss’ valet; Sam Claflin’s vainglorious Finnick Odair and Natalie Dormer’s caustically pragmatic Cressida now reduced to cannon fodder.

Jena Malone fares best as Katniss’ frenemy Johanna Mason, chewing the cardboard scenery and reaching through the screen and grabbing us by the collective lapels. She seems to say, “You know this is kinda nuts right? That this series made so much money? Now, stop whining and moping and pay attention to the nuggets buried way deep in this thing and start giving a crap about your own lives and about each other.” Or maybe I’m projecting a bit.

Best part of Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 – for me?  That it’s over.

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12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel 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.

 

“You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” Spectre

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

James Bond needs a good foil … or two. Without a sharply defined counterpart, ideally played by a crackerjack BBC-er, against which to reflect and/or deflect, 007 is just a swaggering phallus with a peculiar penchant for martinis and gun-play. And that’s a bore.

Why was the last outing – Skyfall so good? Yeah, Adele’s theme song was one of the best we’ve heard in decades, and director Sam Mendes (Revolution Road, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead) applies a literary/theatrical craftsmanship that elevates film beyond mere verisimilitude to near-allegorical levels.

And, yes, Daniel Craig is the first actor to, you know, act while wearing Bond’s trademark tight-fitting bespoke suits and leaping tall fire escapes in a single bound – his chief charm being that he seems to sort of hate the character and plays Bond as someone who has a f*cking job to do, mate, and, if he has a shag and a drink along the way while slaying an army of vaguely malevolent thugs and baddies, so be it. He’s like your local cable guy if he were an international spy, that is, if said cable guy possessed the eyes of a malamute and the abs of an Abercrombie and Fitch model.

But the real reason Skyfall worked so freaking well?  We had the BOGO (buy-one-get-one-free, kids) joys of Judi Dench AND Javier Bardem, who gave Craig/Bond a film “mother” and a film “brother” against whom to play some crackling “family” dysfunction, with a sparkling amount of wit and a smothering amount of tension. That acting trifecta of Dench, Bardem, and Craig also had the benefit of a great yarn to tell, a fractured fairy tale origin of Bond’s Oliver Twist-meets-Batman upbringing, culminating in nigh-Shakespearean death, destruction, and dismemberment … and that’s just describing what happened to his family vacation home in those eerily snowy Swiss/Austrian/Nordic (?) mountains where these films always seem to conclude.

Alas, Spectre, as fun as it is (and it is fun – kind of a rainbow sherbet to cleanse the palate after the heavy shepherd’s pie that was Skyfall), has no such shining, scene-stealing yins to Craig’s yang. Christoph Waltz, who becomes more of a cartoon every time I see him, seems like the perfect person to play a Bond villain … in 1968. However, in the postmodern grit and wit of Craig’s Bond, Waltz is a bit of a snoozer. I suspect Spectre‘s BIG reveal – the Bond mythos legend whom Waltz portrays – is meant to bring the kind of shock and awe delight of the similar unveiling of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Star Trek Into Darkness. It didn’t.

But (spoiler alert), at least, we get the signature cat … and thuggish henchman (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista as the menacing and seemingly indestructible muscle Mr. Hinx … or Oddjob 2.0).

Ralph Fiennes as Bond handler “M” is no Dench, and he carries a constipated delivery in his few scenes that perhaps bespeaks some frustration that he had to retire Harry Potter‘s Darth Vader-esque Voldemort for a much less interesting 2nd banana role in the Bond franchise. At least Fiennes has nostrils in this series.

Much of the non-Craig spark comes from Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny. She is such a source of light in the film, I’m baffled why the filmmakers aren’t brave enough to mount a Bond/Moneypenny buddy flick. I’d go see that in a heartbeat. Ben Whishaw’s Q grows on me with each subsequent outing, as well, bringing a sardonic glee to torturing Bond with high-tech goodies the spy can’t have as 007 is perpetually in some kind of probationary limbo. (Isn’t Bond at risk of losing his job in every one of these latest forays? I realize Craig does a great job playing the rogue cop notes, but how is Bond still employed at this rate?)

John Logan’s screenplay packs a lot of punches (maybe two or three too many, yielding a near three-hour running time), but lacks the emotional wallop of Skyfall, which is to be expected, I suppose. The script’s biggest crime is falling prey to the two Bond women structural cliche, with the first character being a disposable femme fatale (the much more interesting Monica Bellucci) and the second a wary love interest who will be totally forgotten by the next film in the series (the bland Lea Seydoux).

(We also get one of the loopiest credits sequences in recent memory. Sam Smith’s song is pleasant enough, with a nicely subtle John Barry influence, but all the naked women writhing around with octopi and a shirtless Craig was just … troubling.)

The film aims to say something profound about how Orwellian our culture has become as we willingly submit to eye-in-the-sky surveillance and social media self-revelation, rendering privacy and freedom obsolete, all in a panicked and ultimately misplaced desire for security from nameless, faceless Terrorism with a capital “T.” In the process, we hand the keys to the kingdom to the real terror-mongers in our midst.

Ultimately, this zippy thesis gets lost in the shuffle – with four endings too many ranging from lots of buildings going “boom” to damsel-in-distress kidnappings to way too much Snidely Whiplash-monologuing from Waltz. Spectre also never capitalizes on the spookiness of its strongest sequence, the opening cat-and-mouse chase set among skull-and-crossboned revelers at Mexico City’s annual Day of the Dead celebration. Those early scenes impose a marvelously ominous claustrophobia and a sweaty delirium that the rest of film fritters away.

Spectre does a fine job drawing together the disparate threads of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, with various villains from those prior episodes dancing in and out of the story – one of them intones to Bond, “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” In fact, that cryptic phrase’s chaotic imagery could describe the entire Spectre viewing experience: volatile, transporting, thrilling even, but ultimately tangled up in its own aspirations – a fun but forgettable ride.

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12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel 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.

Star Trek: Live in Concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony … one part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon.

12079688_10206862455778854_5846344351949275749_nI wasn’t sure what to think of the proposition of watching the Grand Rapids Symphony performing the soundtrack to J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek reboot live while the film played on a screen above. The idea sounded intriguing, but it also sounded like it had the potential for a nerd-centric train wreck. (Star Trek: Live in Concert was the October 17 installment in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphonicboom Series at DeVos Performance Hall.)

DeVos Performance Hall ... or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

DeVos Performance Hall … or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

Conservative, yuppified Grand Rapids is one of those places that, in my head, is the antithesis of anything a Ann Arbor liberal like me would, could or should enjoy (totally closed-minded of me … I get it).

Yet, when you’re there, it’s all gleaming spires, clean streets, pleasant people (saw a LOT of “Ready for Hillary” and “Feel the Bern” buttons and bumper stickers, so I suspect my prejudices about the region are all kinds of wrong), and well-curated on-street art installations. It’s actually a very nice town.

And the joy of watching a woman dressed in full Klingon regalia sitting right beside a snooty, Eileen Fisher-garbed symphony patron pleased every ounce of my soul.

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

Chris Pine at James T. Kirk

The performance itself was an amazing experience. For anyone who loves movies and music and appreciates the alchemic power when those two worlds collide, this presentation style is pretty epic and completely moving.

The Grand Rapids Symphony exhibited a precision and a coherence akin to the finest symphony orchestras (not that I’ve heard that many, but these guys are on point). In fact, I rapidly forgot there was even an orchestra on stage (strange praise, I realize), as their fine work blended so seamlessly with the images and dialogue being projected on the screen. Likely, this kind of production is the closest any of us will come to watching an orchestra actually record the soundtrack for a blockbuster film.

Star Trek‘s director J.J. Abrams, much like his inspirations George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and their legendary cinematic partnership with John Williams, has hitched his directorial star to a singular composer: Michael Giacchino. Smart fellow. Giacchino’s fusion of jazz-style sketches and orchestral bombast is as distinctive as it is compelling, an approach that lovingly augments and accentuates Abrams’ reverence for all the Gen X sci fi classics.

Zachary Quinto as Spock ... Winona Ryder as his mom?

Zachary Quinto as Spock … Winona Ryder as his mom?

I had always had an appreciation for Giacchino’s work (The Incredibles soundtrack is a particular favorite), but, hearing his Star Trek score performed live, I was able to grasp more of its thematic nuance and playful fun (lots of great homages to the classic Star Trek Theme and other incidental cues).

With the benefit of a live orchestra, there were colors and light between the notes that one fails to appreciate seeing the film in its original state. The copious talent of this symphony, guest-conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulus, coupled with their evident respect and delight for Giacchino’s sprightly work, made for a transporting experience.

(No, I’m not going to make a stupid “Beam me up, Scotty” teleporter joke here. Nope. Though I will admit that the performance left me quite “energized” … see what I did there?)

Eric Bana as Nero

Eric Bana as Nero

Oh, and the movie itself? That ain’t bad either.

It’s been quite a while since I revisited this particular Star Trek installment, and, much like when I caught The Wizard of Oz again on the big screen at the Michigan Theatre a few years ago, I had an entirely different appreciation.

Not unlike that 1939 classic, this film stands on its own, not just as fantasy, but also as a really funny, super-clever, swashbuckling comedy. Abrams and his exceptional cast appropriately genuflect before their source material but aren’t afraid to work in some winking criticism of the franchise’s cornier, paste-board legacy.

Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Karl Urban (Bones) channel the hammier tics of their forebears, while bringing a rich inner life that their respective characters never enjoyed until this point. One part Marx Brothers, one part Royal Shakespeare Company, one part Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. And it works beautifully.

12122656_10206862538300917_654733001025449790_nWatching the film again and enjoying Abrams’ kicky reinvention of these campy icons, I am now even more intrigued to see what he does with this December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens re-launch.

In fact, I was struck by how his Star Trek is a delightfully shameless swipe of Star Wars: A New Hope: a galactic madman (Darth Vader or Nero?) roaming the galaxy, astride a planet-destroying machine (Death Star or Narada?), while a rogues’ gallery of rebellious do-gooders – sparky farm boy (Luke Skywalker or James T. Kirk?), smart-mouthed neo-feminist (Princess Leia or Uhura?), coolly logical mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Spock?), long-in-the-tooth scalawag (Han Solo or Bones McCoy?) – and their various comic sidekicks assemble to destroy the Big Bad and save the day.

12072661_10206862455618850_6847623126827410694_nThrow in a very Star Trek time travel conundrum, – that has the side benefit of literally rebooting an infinitely marketable, utterly toyetic franchise – and you have a super-sized sci fi Star Wars-ish blockbuster. My comparison may be stretched a bit, and the Star Trek vs. Star Wars people will have all kinds of minutiae upon which they’ll feel the need to correct me, but I think I’m on to something. :)

J.J. Abrams’ take on the socially conscious Star Trek mythos is much more Buck Rogers-esque escape than Communist Manifesto-commentary. And that may be why I enjoy it so much, so his version of Star Wars has my curiosity piqued indeed.

Thanks to Lori Rundall for her thoughtful wedding gift of the tickets to see this provocative meld of cinema and live music. If you get a chance to take in such a show, I highly recommend it, regardless the film or the composer or the venue!

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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 has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup.” The Martian (2015 film)

"The Martian film poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Martian_film_poster.jpg#/media/File:The_Martian_film_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, does everyone at NASA fist-bump and wave their hands around and holler every time something goes well? “Hey, gang, I ordered a pizza!” Orgy of bourgeois whooping and wailing. “Look, I just got this snazzy shirt at Kohl’s!” Crowd goes wild; face-painting ensues. “Well, I’ll be … we actually got a rocket launched without showering the American south-land in carcinogenic debris!” Crazy dancing in the aisles, with Clint Howard, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Sinise, and Bill Paxton sharing a do si do to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.”

If the movies are to be believed, NASA is just rife with bro-tastic little celebrations every time anyone reboots their computer without a minor incident. Who is to blame for this cinematic cliche? Ron Howard with the exceptional-but-not-aging-well Apollo 13? Michael Bay with the DOA-turd-about-a-deadly-meteor-with-an-even-turdier-theme-song-by-Aerosmith Armageddon? Golden-Girls-in-space Space Cowboys with a mincing manopausal crowd of Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner? Or is it all some form of jingoistic retribution for Kurbrick’s incisive and timeless Dr. Strangelove? Whatever may have started it, I hate it. Please make it stop.

Yet, if those are the only false moments (and they are) to sully Ridley Scott’s otherwise (mostly) great film adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestseller The Martian, so be it.

(But there are a lot of unwarranted fist bumps in the flick. Ridley Scott, you know better.)

I went into the Matt Damon starrer accompanied by a clutch of folks who’d read and loved the book (I hadn’t read it; nor do I plan to). I was dreading the dissection that would follow – “why was this left out?” or “I can’t believe they cast so-and-so as so-and-so” or “that moment was just ruined…” Blessedly, the literary-minded in our happy band were pleased with the Hollywood outcome; FYI for those of you who are like-minded peeps.

I also approached this film thinking, “Do we really need another Robinson Crusoe in space. I’ve already lived through Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as ‘no-no-no-no’-ing astronauts (Gravity) and then Matthew McConaughey as an ‘all-right-all-right-all-right-ing’ space-farer (Interstellar). And now Matt Damon with his snub-nosed, soccer-coach-next-door glib bullsh*t?!” No, no, no, no, no!!

(Let it be said, that I liked both of those blockbusters, though you might not catch that from my snark.)

Well, Damon is plenty glib and snub-nosed in The Martian, but Scott knows how to compose and depict a narrative (e.g. Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner, Silence of the Lambs, even Exodus: Gods and Kings) about an intrepid soul, relying on nothing but wits and moxie surviving extreme circumstances. This is a film that benefits, rather than suffers, from Damon’s workaday commonality.

It helps that Scott has stacked the supporting cast deck with pros like Jessica Chastain (is she typecast to appear in every space exploration and/or paramilitary movie now?), Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. They all do quite well with very little to do, striking just the right balance of collaborative indifference and knowing tension as they work round the clock to bring Damon’s Mark Watney home.

You see, in the not-too-distant future, we figure out how to get a series of manned missions to Mars to explore the landscape and to escape Fox News (ok, I made that last part up). A nasty storm kicks up on the Red Planet, and Chastain has to make the tough decision to grab her crew and head back to Earth, after Damon’s Watney is swept away in a squall of crimson dust.

Except … Watney isn’t dead. And he has to spend the next year surviving on his own, terra-firming the alien landscape, growing potatoes (subtle immigrant, stranger-in-a-strange-land metaphor there), listening to the horrid (to him) disco music his crew-mates left behind, and maintaining an acerbic video diary so that he doesn’t sail completely off the deep end.

I’m not a fan of Damon’s (could you tell?). He seems like someone with whom I would have gone to high school. Doesn’t make him a bad soul (I appreciate his politics, generally, though he’s had some goony missteps lately), but I just don’t ever see him as an actor or a movie star.

In this case, though, that blah everydude quality suits the film nicely. Damon’s Watney is an average guy with an exceptional level of scientific and engineering knowledge, and his unyielding desire to survive comes not from some pixie-ish joie de vivre but from an obsessive need to solve one mathematical conundrum after another. Damon plays those notes beautifully, and it is only in those rare instances when deep-feeling angst is required that Damon becomes a caricature of himself. (I do wonder what someone more gleefully, introspectively nebbish-y could have done with the role? Alas, we shall never know.)

Fortunately, those “actorly” moments are few and far between, and the script gifts Damon with some delightful deadpan zingers, like, “it has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup” while he is coating one of his ubiquitous potatoes in Vicodin.

I enjoyed The Martian, but I wasn’t enthralled by The Martian. I feel (not unlike the recently reviewed Black Mass) that I’ve seen this story told a few too many times lately, and I don’t know that there is much wonder or ingenuity left in the telling.

What I enjoyed about the film most? The edgier, more satiric bits – like a Vonnegut novel waiting to burst from the middle-America conventionality of the plot. Daniels notably has a winking quality that would have fit nicely in the aforementioned Dr. Strangelove, and a number of Damon’s video diary asides take some lovely swipes at our insular privilege as a culture.

Naughty me, but if we’d gotten just a smidge more of that, this movie would have been a knockout.

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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.

“The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours.” Fantastic Four (2015)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m an ornery pain. I’m the only person in America (or possibly the world) who didn’t like Frozen, yet I adored notorious flops The Lone Ranger and John Carter. I find prestige Oscar-winners like Crash or Birdman overrated messes, but I can watch Xanadu in an endless loop. (Though even I admit Xanadu stretches the acceptable limits of “guilty pleasure.”) When most of humanity flocks to something or flees from it, I’m always headed in the opposite direction. Hell, I even kinda liked Jonah Hex. You probably should just stop reading … now.

And it is with this context that we come to Chronicle-director Josh Trank’s reboot of Fantastic Four, admittedly a film that we, as a downward spiraling culture, did not need, given that the “First Family of Marvel Comics” already hit the silver screen twice in the past ten years in a pair of much campier, candy-colored offerings.

I suppose, given all of the hyperventilating sky-is-falling press over this late summer entry, I expected this new Fantastic Four to be a laugh-out-loud howler of a train wreck, not unlike that last Transformers movie (a movie I might add that nobody liked but still made a billion dollars). It wasn’t … at least not to me and the two other people in last night’s screening room.

I was pleasantly surprised that I actually, sort of, enjoyed myself. Word of warning: it is a very somber affair, but with zero gravitas and even less fun. However, the smart play Josh Trank makes (that is, before he completely disavowed his work on the flick in a Twitter rant a few weeks back) is in staging his film in a creepy, David Cronenberg-lite horror universe, where, say, being turned into a man on fire or a man made of rubber or a man made of orange rocks or a woman who can’t see her own hand is not necessarily a whimsical day at the park. It’s a logical approach, and Trank has cast his film with some of the best young talents in Hollywood, all acquitting themselves nicely.

Yet,  it’s not the glib August superhero escapist fare anyone expected in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy moment, not does it have the courage to be full-blown creep-fest either, so Fantastic Four just sort of floats dormant in some audience-confounding, foggy nether realm. In short, I liked the movie’s tone directionally and the cast in concept and the unrealized potential best, which is strange praise indeed.

Playing the titular heroes are Whiplash‘s Miles Teller (“Reed Richards”), House of Cards‘ Kate Mara (‘Susan Storm”), Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordan (“Johnny Storm”), and Turn‘s Jamie Bell (“Ben Grimm”). The cast’s standout, Bell has a criminal dearth of screen-time, but, in his few stoic minutes, he sets a beautifully glowering tone of disaffected youth that propels and enriches what passes for character development in the movie’s relatively brisk running time.

All that said, much of the film is a drag, but, for some reason, I found its dreary sensibility and general mopiness compelling. Nope, we did not need yet another origin story of these heroes, but that’s what we get. This time instead of rocketing into space, our intrepid foursome explore another dimension (where they gain their amazing abilities … er … deformities) while attending the Baxter Institute, a kind of Hogwarts for Science Geeks in Midtown Manhattan.

By far, the weakest part of the film is its villain Victor Von Doom, a Draco Malfoy without the charm or the pretty platinum hair. In the comics (goofy name notwithstanding), this is a character who can be so fascinating with his Oedipal complex, inferiority complex, God complex, and all around prissy pissiness. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why filmmakers haven’t figured out he is the proto-Darth Vader and deserves a film of his very own. Ah well. At this rate, between Toby Kebbell’s not-ready-for-The-CW posturing in this iteration and Julian McMahon’s pretty boy voguing in the prior films, we will be lucky if we see Dr. Doom selling mouthwash and toothpaste during Saturday morning cartoons.

The film is nothing but 90 minutes of set-up, which would be fine if there was a payoff, but the proceedings completely fall apart in the final act, a clutch of computer-generated nonsense in the “other dimension,” the “otherness” being some billowing clouds, a lot of steam, and goofy floating rocks. Our heroes have to stop Doom from blowing up our world or throwing us all into a black hole or giving us gas from cheap popcorn … or something. Wait, what was this movie about again?

And that’s a shame, because until the film’s final moments, I actually dug it. Maybe Fantastic Four will find a second life as a pleasant, dreary televised diversion on rainy Sunday afternoons, and maybe (one day) someone will finally give this classic family of four-color misfits the smart but zippy movie treatment they deserve. Or not.

Early in Fantastic Four, Reg E. Cathey – playing Franklin Richards, the stony-faced scientist father of Susan and Johnny Storm – rumbles ominously, “The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours.” And, dammit, the Fantastic Four film franchise is giving us nothing but opportunities. Sigh.

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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.