“Do you want me to say I’m from the Midwest? Where’s the buffet? How do I find the Blue Man Group?” Spy (2015)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Melissa McCarthy is a comic alchemist, spinning comedy gold from the insidious politics of gender, age, and physical stereotypes. When she defies expectations, simultaneously embracing and undermining our collective desire to pigeonhole and judge (see Bridesmaids, The Heat), she provides a master class in laughter as medicine. With her sparkle and her heartache and her anarchy, she seems to say, “I dare you to limit me, and I’m going to make you laugh so d*mn hard that you won’t realize I just re-wired your pea brains for tolerance, acceptance, and kindness.”

When she hews too closely to self-deprecation over self-actualization (see Identity Thief, Tammy – the latter of which is better than we all remember it to be), she runs the risk of self-satire, becoming co-opted by the Hollywood marketing machine and reinforcing the gender- and body-shaming that Tinseltown has foisted on generations.

I am happy to report that Spy, her latest collaboration with director (and, I suspect, fellow free-spirit) Paul Feig, is firmly a home run in the former category, not the latter.

Never devolving into Austin Powers-hackery, Spy gently lampoons the James Bond genre and its misogynistic tropes with a depth and breadth that keeps the enterprise from being an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch. Working from Feig’s script, Feig and McCarthy have created the strongest showcase yet for McCarthy’s seemingly effortless, wildly diverse, rich character work.

McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a sharp, eagle-eyed, kind-hearted desk operative in the CIA whose unrequited affection for Jude Law’s field agent Bradley Fine has derailed the unrelenting moxie she once showed in her basic training days. When Fine is seemingly murdered on a mission – a mission guided from afar by Cooper – she sees no choice but to take his place and track down his assassin Rayna Boyanov (an epically bewigged, riotously toxic Rose Byrne, channeling Sarah Brightman’s wide-eyed, new age Baroque bullsh*t, that is if she’d been raised by Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld).

With the exception of this Legally Blonde-esque narrative impetus (woman in love leaves her comfort zone to ultimately triumph over self-imposed, patriarchal limitations), Spy is a tart feminist meringue. McCarthy (not to mention her crackerjack sidekick Nancy, smartly underplayed by Miranda Hart) makes the absolute most of every moment, mixing supreme self-confidence with bat-sh*t anxiety to offer us an accomplished master-spy finding her voice and her power, nevertheless wondering how the hell she ever got into this mess in the first place. It is the most charming, heartfelt, and hysterical performance she’s yet given.

In addition to Law, Hart, and Byrne (all of whom are spot-on delightful), the ensemble cast also includes a frisky Jason Statham (like McCarthy, playing both to and against type) as a bumbling alpha male agent who is utterly convinced McCarthy’s Cooper has no business being on this (or any mission) and who, in his every effort to help, makes things ten times worse. (Typical male.) Allison Janney (always so darn present) is the CIA chief who wrings every bit of funny right out of her character’s exhaustion heading a male-dominated ship of fools. Hammy Bobby Cannavale has a small but pivotal role as a nuclear arms buyers, and Morena Baccarin is a hoot in a cameo role as a glamazon agent whose mean girl tendencies are masked by a hair flip and a smile.

What the partnership of Feig and McCarthy (from Bridesmaids to The Heat to Spy) does so well is run headlong into the very ugliness of men’s mistreatment of women, women’s mistreatment of women, and people’s mistreatment of people. The best comedy in these films comes from the quiet slight, the reaction shot, the response said through gritted teeth.

While scoping out the kind of sleek, sleezy high-end Eurotrash casino so prevalent in these kinds of films, Statham sniffs at McCarthy that she couldn’t possibly function as a successful agent because of her look, her gender, her demeanor. She just doesn’t fit in. She responds, with the kind of wounded/wounding line delivery only she has mastered, “What?! Do you want me to say I’m from the Midwest? Where’s the buffet? How do I find the Blue Man Group?”

And this exchange occurs well after her character has demonstrated a competence – no, excellence – that defies anything evidenced by any of her male colleagues. The commentary is hilarious and sad, exhilarating and maddening for, in one line, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper highlights how far we’ve yet to come, but in so doing reclaims power for herself by also pointing out just how stupid and blind we all can be. Go, Melissa, go.

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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.

“Feed the right wolf.” Disney’s Tomorrowland (2015 film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Find the ones who haven’t given up. They are the future.” So says George Clooney at the end of Brad Bird’s latest Disney offering Tomorrowland, inspired as much by Disney’s ubiquitous theme parks (from which it derives its inspiration) as it does Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and … Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

In fact, this may be the first children’s film that directly addresses – so darkly, so interestingly, so strangely – global warming among other mankind-created global calamities. I can’t recall the last kiddie flick that depicted so darn many mushroom clouds, or had such a nihilistic sentiment at its gooey center. Good for Brad Bird.

Clearly a passion project for the director, the film suffers, alas, from a narrative lumpiness. It is composed almost like a junior novella, with very abrupt chapter breaks, and an unclear sense of the overall purpose until the crackerjack final act.

Regardless, the journey is an entertaining and worthwhile one, at least philosophically. As I find myself personally at a crossroads in life – looking back at what erroneously seemed an idyllic small-town, all-American way-of-life and now dreaming of a much-needed present/future state when we all can embrace empathy, kindness, and love, regardless our geographically defined boundaries – the film hit a raw nerve for me.

Ostensibly, the film is about Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton, a young, overeager space-loving kid horrified that America has given up on all dreams of galactic exploration. Casey discovers a magic pin that gives her glimpses of a sparkling utopia where we all live hand-in-hand, driving electric cars, zipping to-and-fro in bullet shaped sky-trains, and all wearing flowing garb designed in collaboration between Vera Wang and Judy Jetson (?). (Oh, and everybody in the future is fit. No fast food, no gluten, and, yeah, I bet vegan. Go figure.)

In truth? The film is really about George Clooney’s Frank Walker, a bright-eyed young boy born of nuclear optimism now a middle-aged sot calcified by millennial atrophy. He sees a world that he hoped would be (pushed to be), its limitless potential now squandered by petty greed and intentional hate. The classic baby boomer dilemma.

Casey sparks a reluctant optimism in Frank, as they meet cute, amidst a gaggle of murderous robots blowing up Frank’s steampunk farmhouse. They travel to Tomorrowland in hopes of preventing global catastrophe. Tomorrowland, you see, is an alternate dimension designed as a free-thinking societal construct, intended to gather humanity’s best and brightest in order to effect great change, but now turned to seed. Hugh Laurie, all glowering smarm, is its chief magistrate.

Robertson, who unfortunately has the acting range of a peanut, mugs and screams shamelessly, but Clooney with his oily charm is the perfect antidote. It takes quite a bit of screen time for him to finally emerge, but when he does the film starts firing on all cylinders.

Tomorrowland (the place … in the film) is a marvel of design, taking many cues from but never limited by the aesthetic of Disney’s theme park Tomorrowland(s) as well as the original designs for EPCOT – all swooping spirals, glittering towers, and burnished concrete.

As I understand it, Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury were pals, and they and their creative legacies share a similar take on the “future,” a concept as nebulous as it is thrilling. For these mid-century marvels, the future is a pearly veneer with a toxic venom ever curdling underneath. Both men telegraphed a healthy agnosticism and distrust of humanity – see Bambi, for one – with a deep desire to see us collectively rise above our own insularity and self-absorption … once and for all. Fat chance.

Brad Bird does a fine job capturing and forwarding this idea in Tomorrowland. The film is not perfect, a bit tedious at times, but it is a worthwhile summer blockbuster exercise in challenging how stunted we have become. At one point Casey says something to this effect: “There are two wolves. One bright and hopeful and one dark and cynical. Which wolf wins? Whichever one you feed. Feed the right wolf.”

Feed the right wolf.

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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.

“Too ugly to be cheerleaders.” Pitch Perfect 2

"Pitch Perfect 2 poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pitch_Perfect_2_poster.jpg#/media/File:Pitch_Perfect_2_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pitch Perfect 2 is … well … imperfect. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fun film with a ton of great moments, all serviceably directed by cast member Elizabeth Banks, but with no discernible center to ground the hijinks.

I have a theory that a box office souffle of a comedy should never have a sequel. Legally Blonde 2. Miss Congeniality 2. Ghostbusters 2.  The Hangover, Part II. Evan Almighty? They just don’t hold. There was a complete thought (albeit slight) conveyed in the first film that was never intended to continue, and, consequently, the second installment comes off as an unnecessary cash grab with less script, more marketing.

Pitch Perfect 2, to its credit, somewhat avoids that trap, chiefly because the ensemble cast is so sharp and so game. The first film benefited from a clear raison d’etre (other than being a saucier Glee knock-off): Anna Kendrick (so zippy, luminous, and arch) doesn’t want to go to college; she wants to be a DJ; her folks are forcing her to go to a dorky liberal arts college because her father teaches there and everything is subsidized. Totally believable.

The comedy comes from her exasperation with her surroundings, and her love of music that can only be satiated by her participation in the dorkiest of past-times: a cappella singing groups/competitions. Along the way, she meets cute with a boy who sings with a competing team, and the whole schmear gets postmodern Love Finds Andy Hardy resolved with a climactic performance that unites girl/boy/female empowerment/a cappella VICTORY!

The sequel, alas, has no such formula to follow, other than a contrived premise that a presidentially viewed wardrobe malfunction from the otherwise charming “Fat Amy” (delightful Rebel Wilson) forces the Barden Bellas in their senior year to chase down a world championship in order to reinstate their aca-standing. Really, the plot (or lack thereof) doesn’t much matter. Go for the luminous turns by Kendrick, Wilson, Brittany Snow, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, and their other cast-mates, and stay for the bonkers medleys of forgotten chestnuts by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Carrie Underwood, and Vanessa Carlton.

The most delightful addition to this mixed bag remix of the first film is Das Sound Machine, the mirthlessly Teutonic rivals to our intrepid Bellas. Their costumes look like a cheap roadshow of Sam Mendes’ kinky mid-90s Cabaret re-boot, all naughty fishnets and pleather skirts, and their militant takes on such … er … classics as Kriss Kross’ “Jump Jump” are a riot. (“Der Kommissar will make you jump, jump. Da Deutschland will make you jump, jump.”)

Yes, Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins return as acidic announcers, whose own failed a cappella careers have led them to offer nothing but excoriatingly inappropriate critiques of these earnestly inept singing groups. At one point, they sniff, “Yes, here we have women too ugly to be cheerleaders.” (Does anyone every really like cheerleaders? Even cheerleaders themselves?)

What the Pitch Perfect films do so well (other than making me giggle foolishly over the cheekily crude jokes, which I then promptly forget) is simultaneously lampoon and celebrate the bizarre “art” of a cappella competition. Why anyone would take pop songs that barely hold water and arrange them for painfully earnest voice-only performance I will never understand. And that is the chief comic currency of these films. The filmmakers know that this genre is effing weird but totally charming and they honor that tradition brilliantly.

And the thing Pitch Perfect 2 does remarkably well is show a group of young women as people. Gender is irrelevant in this film as the cast members joke, play, fight, love as humans – messy, silly, kind, anxious humans. That is ever-revelatory, and a great reason to take your kids to see this lightweight summer lark. As our heroes sing in the film’s less-than-triumphant finale, “Girls run the world, yeah.” Let’s hope so. I’d like to live in that world.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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

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

"Avengers Age of Ultron" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg#/media/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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

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

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]

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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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: 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)

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’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.

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

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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

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

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

Deal with the devil: Whiplash (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]

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.

Talk of the Town features Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Thanks to Jennifer Romano and Talk of the Town! Read here. Quote from yours truly: “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

BONUS: Enjoy this fabulous new blog entry from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton – provocative and fun! Read “Got (almond) milk? Books, movies, politics, culture, and AGRIganda” by clicking here.

Excerpt: “Regarding BUT HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK jazz, my mother ALWAYS asked that question. Guess what? She very seldom had actually read the books herself; I preferred to write my book reports based on the more enjoyable movie versions!”

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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.