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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 … “At least our dinner was good.” Mr. Turner

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Second guest review of the week. I’m sensing a trend here. Either I’ve grown too lazy to see (and write) about movies this month, or my friends and family have become inspired by this blog to offer their cinematic musings to the world. Or both.

My parents saw two movies this week – Danny Collins and Mr. Turner at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Cinema Center. What follows is a cautionary email I received early this morning from my father Don Sexton about the otherwise dependable actor Timothy Spall’s Mr. Turner

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On Mar 26, 2015, Don Sexton wrote:

  1. breakfast_2Don’t buy the DVD
  2. Maybe we are missing something – a total bore
  3. Unless you like watching people walk around in dress-up from the 1800s
  4. And you like watching sunrises and sunsets over the ocean with ships (which he – Turner – used as his subject ALL the time)
  5. And you like not understanding the dialogue because of the thick, muttering English 1800s accents
  6. … And you like getting the feeling that everybody is coming down with some kind of 1800s malady because it is the 1800s
  7. But we did like the three ladies Mr. Turner used/abused/treated badly … and to whom Turner all-around was an ass
  8. And finally – if you have nothing to do with 2+ hours of your life – go sit through Mr. Turner.

We definitely do not understand the hype on this one.  Love you.  But we did have a very good meal at the Guesthouse after the movie.  The glass was half full?

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keithReel 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.

“Have courage and be kind.” Disney’s Cinderella (2015)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m sorry, but Helena Bonham Carter pretty much ruins any and every movie she’s in. Maybe she was good once. I can’t recall. As it is, she just seems like an inept community theatre actor with an inflated sense of self, horrid comic timing, terrible diction, and a propensity for bug-eyed mugging.

There I said it. I feel better (sort of).

Bonham Carter as the Bibbidi Bobbidi bad/boring Fairy Godmother is by far the worst thing in Disney’s latest live action fairy tale reboot Cinderella, directed by Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh. (No more Shakespeare for him, apparently – just Disney’s princesses and superheroes now.)

As you may recall, I loathed Tim Burton’s needlessly fussy, narratively obtuse, utterly tone deaf reinvention of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s journey over the rainbow in Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful was just as as clunky, misbegotten, and laborious. Disney’s last go-round at reinvention, Maleficent was marginally better, simply because they had the good sense to cast redoubtable Angelina Jolie (and her flawless cheekbones) as the titular fairy/witch/whatever. Maleficent was (at least) attempting to say something interesting about women’s rights, animal rights, human rights, even if it collapsed under the weight of far too-much overbearingly pixelated CGI chicanery. (Sidenote: the less said about the Nicholas Cage-starring The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the better.)

In Cinderella‘s case (Bonham Carter notwithstanding), Disney’s latest attempt to breathe flesh-and-blood life into two-dimensional fantasy gets more right than it gets wrong. Starting with Branagh, the Mouse House has stacked the deck this time with top-shelf talent that knows the best way to super-charge heartfelt whimsy is to bring a pinch of BBC-gravitas.

Branagh’s direction has a steady-hand, using an economy of scale (no overblown special effect sequences here) to re-focus audience attention on actors and story and emotion. (Crazy, eh?) He puts his faith in one supreme “special effect” and that would be Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s sympathetically villainous stepmother Lady Tremaine.

Blanchett is clearly having a ball in her Joan Crawford-by-way-of-Dr.-Seuss acid green mermaid gowns, casting sparks from her cat-like eyes as the venom practically glistens from her ruby-lined, perfectly-spaced pearly whites. She leaps off the screen as an intoxicating blend of cartoon caricature and pungent pathos.

Does she have a moment or two where she could/should have dialed it back a bit? Oh yeah. Yet, when she and her stepdaughter (ably played by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James) have their final quiet-storm confrontation over one recently discovered (by Blanchett) glass slipper, all Blanchett’s scenery-chewing mishegoss to that point is validated. In fact, the film is worth viewing, if for no other reason, for that one scene, where Blanchett with a sidelong glance and a turn of phrase synthesizes the heartache and turmoil faced by women of any and all generations. Is Cinderella feminist? Maybe. Maybe not, but it sure is in that moment.

James is a fine Cinderella with enough pluck to offset the damsel-in-distress undercurrents that might make modern audiences otherwise blanch. Equally her match is Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden as her subtly charming prince, a royal who is less polished perfection and more fellow lost soul. When they first meet cute in the woods, she compels him to see hunting as a horror, and I nearly yelped with joy. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she pleads. And he agrees.

The rest of the cast from wizened Derek Jacobi as the king to luminous Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) as Cinderella’s late mother to Stellan Skarsgard as a scheming duke all acquit themselves nicely, though never quite rising above a pedestrian TV-movie-esque malaise that occasionally blankets the sluggishly humorless script. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera bring da noise as stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella respectively. They are suitably loud and obnoxious, from their behavior to their Easter-egg-colored attire, and do the work required of them, though a touch more nuance couldn’t have hurt.

Alas, Bonham Carter brings the whole enterprise to a crashing halt during the sequence that should have been the brightest spot. Lifting Cinderella up with magic and hope and beauty and opportunity after she has been so cruelly bullied by her stepmother and stepsisters should be an effervescent, ebullient, and joyous moment.  In Bonham Carter’s mush-mouthed delivery, accented as it is with half-assed hand gestures and under-baked characterization, it’s a slog.

Furthermore, why did they choose not to make this a musical? There aren’t that many songs in the original animated version, and, even though Bonham Carter is a pretty hopeless singer, having that dopey song would have aided her immeasurably, I suspect.

Regardless, the film is sumptuously appointed with costumes and set design. I haven’t seen a movie this beautiful in years. And 90% of the cast gets it so very right. It’s not a great film. Much of it will be forgotten in the light of the next day (not unlike Cinderella’s famed pumpkin coach) but the message repeated throughout (as taught to Cinderella by her dying mother) to “have courage and be kind” is a lesson all of us need, all day every day, regardless our age, background, or station.

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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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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.

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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

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

 

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

Post and Mail RRR2 Redux

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.