“Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” Pixar’s Inside Out

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When it comes to Pixar, I’m a sucker for their more esoteric/existential offerings: Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles. If you had told me twenty years ago that there would be an animation super-company that synthesizes the works of Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Chaplin … and Abbott & Costello for mass-market, blockbuster consumption, well, I would have simply replied, “Why are we here?” (Cue existentialist rim shot.)

No film in the Pixar canon, though, can compare for sheer WTF meaning-of-life audacity to their latest Inside Out. I loved this movie for its gentle heart, its minimalist humor, and its sly message that all emotions are valid and essential, not just that most-favored nation: technicolor, buoyant, “have a blessed day” joy.

The film details the awkward transition of a sweet, beloved only child (Riley, charmingly voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as she and her parents relocate from their small-town home in Minnesota to the big city life of San Francisco. The transition isn’t an easy one, as the family’s belongings are lost mid-transit, Riley finds herself missing friends and activities from her previous life, and her new school offers little reprieve. Complicating (or causing?) these challenges are a series of misadventures from the voices living in Riley’s head.

When I saw the first preview several months ago, I admit I was dubious about the central conceit: that our emotional inner life can be distilled into five warring character traits: Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). From the looks of things, I feared that Pixar had swiped the concept of that odd 70s construct Mr. Men and Little Miss, whereby we Me-Era kindergartners learned about our thorniest of emotions and the need to share and play well with others via a series of easy-to-read, infinitely merchandised board-books. And lest we not forget the acid trip “Free To Be You and Me” musings of holiday specials from Rankin/Bass and Sid and Marty Krofft where the fight for one’s psychological well-being could be enacted through feuding Claymation characters representing weather fronts or trippy sea monsters and Phyllis Diller witches. How we Gen X’ers survived, I’ll never know.

(We also had the short-lived, early 90s sitcom Herman’s Head, likely crafted by someone weaned on the animated output of the Children’s Television Workshop but with a naughtier spin, in which a young writer had every decision dictated by a group of wise-cracking Jiminy Crickets cohabiting in his cranium. Interestingly, that show, like Pixar’s Inside Out, was executive produced by Disney.)

How wrong I was! (And apologies for the digression into artifacts of my childhood – Inside Out is so good, you can’t help but plumb the depths of your youth upon exiting the theater.)

The film does share its DNA with earlier cinematic/television efforts to explain psychology to kids and adults alike, but it is also very much its own unique creation. Director Peter Docter (who helmed Up as well as Monsters, Inc.) is in his element constructing richly detailed mythology for us all to understand and appreciate the colors (quite literally) of our emotional responses. With Inside out, the primal depth of Up (I dare you not to watch the opening sequence of that film and find yourself in poignant Ingmar Bergman puddle) finds a new home in the Rube Goldberg whimsy of Monsters, Inc. as Docter and his team give us an Oz-like travelogue through the various geographies in one’s brain.

After a mix-up involving some precious long-term memories, sending Riley on a prepubescent spiral of self-doubt, Joy and Sadness find themselves on the unlikeliest of road-trips, navigating Riley’s id, ego, and superego in order to right a sinking ship.

There are many clever asides and surprises along the way, and I dare not spoil a one. I will note, however, that I guffawed loudest at a bit where Joy stumbles over what appears to be a large box of placards, jumbling them all. She comments, “Oh, facts and opinions, who can tell them apart?” In these contentious times, truer words may have never been spoken in an animated film.

At the halfway point, the heartbreaking soul of the film makes his shaggy, sad-sack appearance. Richard Kind is exceptionally voice-cast as Riley’s elephant-nosed, cotton candy-bodied, cat-tailed imaginary friend Bing Bong. As Riley’s life has evolved, Bing Bong has become a stranger in a strange land, a Didi/Gogo whose tears take the form of cellophane-wrapped candy pieces. As he assists and occasionally misleads Joy and Sadness from the dark recesses of Riley’s brain, he insinuates his way into the audience’s heart, and his ultimate sacrifice (not saying what) is as devastating a moment as you’ll see in cinemas this year. (At least it was for this weirdo who still personifies all of his childhood toys and can’t bring himself to part with a one.)

The film’s final message for us all? (One I find so very important.) Every feeling is valid and shapes who we are. Sadness is as crucial as joy, anger as essential as fear or disgust. To force happiness when it isn’t immediately evident is to cause even greater sadness and disruption. Embrace who you are and how you feel in the moment, and embrace that honesty in others as well. We will all be that much happier as a result.

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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.

“To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Jurassic World

"Jurassic World poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg#/media/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regarding this weekend’s big summer blockbuster release Jurassic World, my animal advocate mom posted this on my Facebook wall earlier today: “But are they mean to dinosaurs? Are the dinosaurs the villains? Is it a glorified hunting movie? Inquiring minds want to know these things? Would Sarah Palin approve and reignite girls to wear clean sportsy clothes and hiking boots? Posing with bears and rabbits and deer and giraffes pretending they killed them? Because if so, my friend… ha!”

I can pretty safely say that it’s not a glorified hunting movie, and I don’t think the Sarah Palin-types would like it, as most of their stand-ins in the film get eaten pretty quickly by roaring, teeth-gnashing dinos. However, the film is a typically schizophrenic Steven Spielberg production (he executive produced this installment but directed the original Jurassic Park way back in 1993). Is the film making a satiric point about how horrible humans are to the environment, how we reap what we sow, and how we deserve any and all climate change payback which results from our rampant over-development of land, air, and sea? Or is Jurassic World just more yuppie disaster porn designed to sell Happy Meal toys, glistening Jeeps, and Patagonia safari gear? I’m still scratching my head. I just don’t know.

When you look at Spielberg’s filmography, as both director and producer, from Jaws to Close Encounters, E.T. to Gremlins, Poltergeist to, yes, Jurassic Park, he returns time and again to themes of man’s infinite ineptitude and limitless arrogance in the face of a planet, nay universe, full of mystery, wonder, and violent counterbalance. For Spielberg, karma is a four-color funny – build a beach home, destroy a burial ground, feed a cooing creature after midnight, genetically modify a reptile for an overpriced amusement park? You’re gonna get sliced, diced, and eviscerated, all to the strains of a symphonic John Williams score.

And you know what? That is ok by me!

The problem with Spielberg’s films is he wants to have his sardonic cake and eat it too. Spielberg’s movies are expensive and they make a lot of money; whether directed by Spielberg or under the auspices of Amblin Entertainment or DreamWorks, these big budget boogers are sold to every demographic quadrant an army of polished marketers can dream up, so ultimately the flicks dare not go too far. We don’t want to alienate any viewer, slurping over their Mr. Pibb and Kit Kat bites (yeah, that’s what I had today), and, consequently, any unique and incisive POV gets diluted in a gauzy haze of product placement, no matter how postmodern and ironic said placement may be.

No, Spielberg did not direct Jurassic World. Those honors (?) go to Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), but Spielbergian DNA is all over this sucker. Sorry, Colin. I can only imagine this must have been like being hired for a dream design job at Apple, only to find they really just want you to arrange, into artful displays, the new Apple Watches when they arrive in stores.

Jurassic World does its job efficiently and effectively. It entertains, and it will make a mint … but it has no real raison d’etre. (Yeah, I got all fancy. It doesn’t need to exist.) It basically lifts the very plot from the first film, but this time we get Bryce Dallas Howard (how is this mugging, one-note actor still making movies? oh, right, Ron Howard’s kid) instead of Richard Attenborough and Chris Pratt instead of Sam Neill. Jeff Goldblum is now Irrfan Khan, and Wayne Knight is now Vincent D’Onfrio. B.D. Wong? Still B.D. Wong – that man must be an automaton as he hasn’t aged one freaking bit.

Seriously, these actors may be playing different characters (obvi) twenty-some years later (natch) but their narrative functions are still the same.

Portraying a grizzled velociraptor trainer (and apologist), Pratt is the best thing in the film by far. Wearing a steady exasperation that seems to suggest he wishes he had a better script with which to work, Pratt does a fine job channeling Neill’s gravitas: just because you can make a dinosaur does mean you should make a dinosaur. Pratt is a delight, one of the few actors in the film who seems to believe where he is and what is doing and who has a genuine affection for the misunderstood creatures in this world (dino or otherwise).

Howard fares less favorably as the Isla Nubar theme park’s chief executive who in sexist Hollywood shorthand is an out-of-touch, controlling, insecure ninny with a severe bob, impractical shoes, and an ever present iPhone. Ugh. It doesn’t help that her emotions range from sweaty to panicked to rigid to … sweaty.

D’Onofrio is a kick in an underwritten role as a nebulous InGen contractor who wants to use these “assets” (that’s how mean people refer to animals in this cardboard world) for military purposes. Boo hiss. Blessedly, he has the chops to fill in the mile-wide gaps the script allows. He exudes the oily opportunism of those post-millennial types who see our natural resources simply as walking/breathing/pooping dollar signs. He may as well have had Monsanto painted on his backside.

At one point, Wong’s character (you may recall he is the ethically-dubious geneticist who figured out how to fabricate dinos from whole cloth in the first place) intones what passes for a philosophical thesis in the film: “To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Yup, amen to that.

There is a perverse joy in seeing blank-faced, cornfed tourists hoisted by their own petards, tossed like beach balls from one pteranodon to another above Jurassic World‘s Starbucks/Margaritaville/Pandora encrusted main street. I also loved the jab at Sea World with a dino sea creature (mosaurus?) that grudgingly entertains a nautical football-arena-size stadium of onlookers but gets the last laugh when he/she gobbles a few vacationers down.

Ultimately, by the final act, when the Frankenstein’s monster dino “Indominus Rex” (cooked up by Howard and Wong to sell more t-shirts and key chains) has shredded the park top to bottom and is now fighting a pack of velociraptors and a t-rex for no real explainable reason, I was in a Mr. Pibb/Kit Kat coma. I just didn’t care.

And the adult in me kept thinking … Who is going to put these dinos back in their paddocks? Is the Hilton corporation going to rebuild their opulent hotel on Isla Nubar for future product placement? Who is going to clean up this mess, and will Starbucks return to sell more mocha-choca-lattes? And why didn’t the dinos just finish off all the humans? That’s a movie I’d pay $10 more bucks to see.

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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.

“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.

Coming out of the woods: Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour at Detroit’s Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

We had a debate about Taylor Swift at brunch today … well, not a debate so much as friendly banter, but, yes, about Taylor Swift. You see, I saw her stellar 1989 concert at Detroit’s Ford Field last night, and it seems to shock/awe/flabbergast that a grown (sort of) man appreciates the glittering pop output of one Ms. Swift. But I really do. Swift seems to be a polarizing force. Either you adore her or you really don’t ever, ever, ever like her style of wholesome-with-an-edge, high-waisted-Wonder-Bread-dominatrix, let-people-be-people, sh*tcan-the-jerks-in-your-life-with-a-smile jukebox jive.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

I don’t think it’s easy to transition from child star to adult phenomenon in the public eye. I don’t mean the drug-addled, gin-soaked misadventures of a young (baby) Drew Barrymore or a slipping-down-the-rabbit hole Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes. Rather, it’s probably worse for someone like Swift, whose Amazonian work ethic and drive for world domination must never give her a moment’s rest and which seems to make her a perennial target for critique.

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

The 1989 show, named after the year a wide-eyed Taylor (now 25 years old, natch) powered into this unsuspecting world, brings all of the pop (formerly country) powerhouse’s disparate influences into sharp relief. And it makes abundantly clear just how profound her transition has been from kiddie cult to global superstar. Watching last night’s show, I was struck by Swift’s confident swagger (and I normally hate swagger) but she wears it well.

She is not limited by gender, age, public perception, nor a cavalcade of A-list ex-paramours. NO.

She has reverse engineered the formula for inevitable, relentless singularity: one part Mick Jagger, two parts Madonna, a pinch of Janet, with a healthy sprinkling Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos self-mythologizing confessional. Well-played, kid. No one else quite cracked that code – not Britney, not Rihanna, not Gaga. Not even sure Beyonce did it … but watch your back for Miley. Most important? Last night’s show was fun. (And, yeah, I might have been one of the oldest and fewest Y-chromosomed attendees – but if the Church of Swift teaches us anything it’s “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.”)

Welcome to New York

Welcome to New York

The set list is essentially the 1989 album (from last fall) in its entirety with a few other now-classics (strange to say of songs not even five or so years old) thrown in (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Love Story”). Performance highlights included: a glitzy 42nd Street take on opener “Welcome to New York” with its swirling, infectious message of universal inclusion; a little Fosse in the stylized shadow-dancing of hypnotic “Blank Space;” some sweaty Velvet Rope-era Janet stylings on a molasses-throbbing “I Knew You Were Trouble” and a Rhythm Nation twist on rival-skewering “Bad Blood;” and straight-up Courtney Love guitar-raging on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (arguably the strongest reinvention of the bunch).

Bad Blood

Bad Blood

Before her (literally) soaring encore of the ubiquitous “Shake It Up” (staged as a can-can kick-line atop a spinning/floating catwalk), Swift closed with a stadium-rattling take on my personal 1989 favorite “Out of the Woods.” Against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of twisting Grimm Brothers trees and underneath giant spiraling paper airplanes, Swift nailed this Simple Minds/Tears for Fears/Kate Bush-homage, an anthem of empowerment and self-actualization and her ultimate thesis for this sleek, epic pop evening. You are you. Own it.

Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods

There were many surprises in an already jam-packed evening. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons popped up for a frisky duet on his own hit “Radioactive” that had the crowd in a frenzy. (Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get the 50K plus, sold-out crowd in a frenzy. They were going nuts over trivia questions about Taylor’s cats in the pre-show warm-up period.) Other members of the Swift celeb mafia put in video and live appearances – models GiGi Hadid and Martha Hunt walked the catwalk in “Style” to wish their singer-songwriter pal well, and Girls‘ Lena Dunham and the band Haim (not to mention, yes, Taylor’s cats Olivia and Meredith) offered their greetings from the big screens. (Is Swift the new Sinatra – and it’s not Jay-Z after all? Food for thought.)

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

The spectacle of the show was tasteful – more old-school Vegas than stadium bombast – with minimalist choreography, a series of subtle costume changes (all spangles and mini-skirts), a lot of rear-screen projection, and Taylor’s fabulously perfect 1989-bobbed haircut. (Seriously, she should never wear her hair any. other. way.) The niftiest touch of all? Every member of the audience was given a light-up wrist-band (RFID-powered?) that flashed and pulsed and changed colors to the stage activities. Such a simple thing, but had such a profound effect on the overall experience. The huge room at Ford Field looked like a twinkling galaxy, and all of us – young and, ahem, old – were gobsmacked by the clever inclusion of every one us in the concert staging.

The galaxy of wristbands

The galaxy of wristbands

The show is a reverent homage to an era which Swift couldn’t possibly remember – the late 80s. I do. Unlike Katy Perry’s Prismatic Tour (which I enjoyed), Swift is not winking at the Day-Glo era. She is embracing it and exploring those musical influences she never knew she had. I was 17 in 1989, and it was the year I started loving pop music from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation to Madonna’s Like a Prayer to, yes, Prince’s Batman. I still treasure those albums as they transport me to a simpler, maybe sillier, possibly less socially divisive time when a lifetime of opportunity still extended before me. Whether she knows it or not, Swift captured the summer fun of listening to pure pop escapism on my little red boombox on the sundeck of my parents’ house in 1989. Thank you, Taylor.

Linda's daughter Laura (right) with Taylor's mom Andrea

Linda’s daughter Laura with Taylor’s mom Andrea

P.S. Taylor loves Detroit. She first sang the National Anthem at a Lions game at Ford Field years ago, and she even brought her mom along last night to help usher ecstatic fans backstage. My pal Linda Cameron, mom of frequent Penny Seats cast-mate Matt Cameron, was there as a belated holiday present from her family, and Linda even got a chance to meet Mom Swift whom Linda described as a  “sweetheart.”

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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.

____________________________

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.

San Diego, Part the First: #LMA15 (as in Legal Marketing Association!)

My fellow panelists

My fellow panelists Heather, Megan, Gina

A week or so ago, I shared this wonderful coverage from my hometown and from The Legal News of an upcoming speaking engagement at the Legal Marketing Association’s national conference.

Well, mission accomplished!

My fellow panelists Gina Rubel of Furia Rubel (Philadelphia), Heather Morse Geller of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger (Los Angeles), and Megan McKeon of Katten Muchin Rosenman (Chicago) and I were ecstatic by the response to our presentation. (And, yes, I did launch things with a Shakespearean monologue – Duke Senior from As You Like It to be exact. My poor colleagues who endure my shenanigans …)

LexBlog posted this summary (here) of our presentation “Collaboration and coexistence among barristers and ‘baristas'” – including tweets from audience members (and panelists) summarizing key points.

Me with Gail, Josh, Laura, Lindsay, Nancy

Me with Gail, Josh, Laura, Lindsay, Nancy

Gina added “10 post-event tips to get the most out of conference attendance” here at her marvelous The PR Lawyer blog.

Heather offered a more existential take in “The spirit and energy that connects us all” at her fabulous Legal Watercooler here.

Just for fun, click here for Lindsay Griffiths‘ media montage of the great #lma15selfie experiment! Lindsay (International Lawyers Network) also wrote an excellent piece regarding the LMA General Counsel panel here at her blog Zen & the Art of Legal Marketing.

For you tweeters out there, be sure to follow Gail Lamarche (Henderson Franklin), Laura Toledo (Nilan Johnson Lewis; blog: The Legal Shakeup), and Lance Godard (Fisher & Phillips) … among a whole bunch of other wonderful people I’ve now left out. I should never start these lists …

How many marketers fit in an elevator?

How many marketers fit in an elevator?

I know this is a strange collection of content for my blog that usually focuses on movies and culture and rampant silliness, but I thought you might enjoy seeing a glimpse into my daily life. Many of you readers are social media mavens so this information may be helpful in a variety of ways.

(And don’t worry – the second installment in a few days will be all about the San Diego Zoo, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Hollywood, Disneyland, and the seals of La Jolla. I live to be a tacky tourist. You can get a photographic preview here.)

Finally, what follows is a piece I wrote for LMA about another conference panel “Control your online reputation and image,” presented by the talented duo of Nancy Myrland (Myrland Marketing) and Amy Deschodt (Weil). (Nancy’s blog the Myrland Marketing Minute can be found here.) Enjoy!

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Nancy Myrland and Amy Deschodt (Photo tweeted by Cheryl Bame)

Nancy Myrland and Amy Deschodt (Photo tweeted by Cheryl Bame)

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” – John F. Kennedy

At the 2015 LMA conference in San Diego, social media and public relations experts Nancy Myrland (Myrland Marketing & Social Media) and Amy Deschodt (Weil) confirmed this assertion but with a healthy dose of postmodern digital age caution.

Their session, titled “Control Your Online Reputation and Image,” offered attendees a strategic and tactical overview of how to navigate choppy PR waters in an era where Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, blogs, and other platforms can escalate media crises in a matter of minutes and seconds, not days and hours.

First and foremost, the panelists noted that if you don’t plan to initiate communication then you shouldn’t build social media into your communications strategies. Social media is at its most effective when it is used conversationally. To simply broadcast messages defeats its inherent power. Responding to and shaping commentary is key. Social media is dialogue.

Understanding this core assumption is vital to understanding how to respond in a crisis, let alone day-to-day brand management. According to Myrland and Deschodt, we live in a world that is increasingly accustomed to using, say, Twitter as an instantaneous means of offering complaint (or kudo).  Legal marketers, they say, disregard this cultural shift at their own peril.

The panelists offered a series of real-world examples (e.g. McDonald’s), wherein global companies found themselves in a quickly spiraling maelstrom of social media criticism. Controlling a PR nightmare is no longer about simply containing mainstream media but, arguably more crucial, tracking and responding to social media critique. What are your customers saying? How can and should you respond? When should you not respond and let a crisis run its course? These are all strategic questions that take on instantaneous tactical import. Myrland observed, “Do not ignore a bad situation that is brewing. Assess the risks and benefits, and plan your communication strategy accordingly,” with Deschodt adding, “Stay calm, distinguish what you can control, what you can only manage. Distinguish crisis versus drama.”

(Image tweeted by author from slide by Myrland)

(Image tweeted by author from slide by Myrland)

Whether in the digital realm or not, a media dust-up can erupt at any point. Some in the audience were agnostic that a law firm would be faced with the same vitriol that say a restaurant chain or bank might face.

Myrland was quick to point out that, whether via association with a client or due to the nature of a particular firm’s work, a firm could find itself with a PR target on its collective back. Deschodt added that when responding to a crisis be swift with thought, listen, and be factual. Never delete comments – the world is watching, and open and transparent dialogue is essential.

Myrland and Deschodt highly recommended hiring a seasoned social media manager who knows the ropes and that consulting the Bar on thorny issues is always advised. Build up a store of social capital (e.g. posts that add value, acknowledging and responding to commenters) before you “spend” it either for promotion or in a difficult situation, and follow your state’s social media ethical restrictions.

Social media may seem “fun” but it is not “frivolous.” It can provide incredible support to your brand recognition and to client engagement, and it can serve as a powerful tool in a crisis. However, always exercise restraint in what you solicit on social media. You may think you are opening a door, but you also are giving license to both positive and negative feedback. And if it’s something you would never say or do in person, you should not say or do it online either. As Myrland wryly observed of a culture prone to digital shaming, “Don’t pile on.  Just be nice.”

Keep Calm

Keep Calm (Image created by Myrland Marketing)

Also, there are a great number of tools out there for tracking, monitoring, and automation (e.g. HootSuite, Buffer, and the like).

The ability to monitor by key search terms (e.g. hashtag trending) is a huge advantage offered by something like HootSuite, both in monitoring the everyday impact of your branding efforts as well as chatter in the midst of a crisis.

Automation can be invaluable as well, but don’t let it detract from the need for interaction. Auto-posting content can quickly veer into blasting not conversing, so be mindful of that pitfall.

Finally, Myrland offered a handy social media rubric to follow, adding that it’s important to experiment with digital resources and to discover what works best for you and your firm. For Myrland, the seven stages of social media are as follows:

  • Preparation
  • Communication 1.0
  • Connection
  • Observation
  • Communication 2.0
  • Education
  • Collaboration (and then back to preparation)

Or, as Myrland succinctly offered, “You wouldn’t go into a conference and just start throwing business cards at people. Don’t do that online. As you might at a conference, research the people with whom you’d like to connect, offer an ice breaker, establish rapport, observe their reaction, communicate more, teach them about your firm or product, and then work together on something meaningful.”

But the best advice of all may have been when the panelists closed with the following recommendation: “Keep calm and call a legal marketer.”

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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.

Legal News coverage of #LMA15 presentation – and home again in #Indiana

Thanks to the Detroit Legal News for this coverage of my upcoming presentation – alongside Gina Rubel, Heather Morse, and Megan McKeon – at the national Legal Marketing Association conference.  You can find out more about LMA at legalmarketing.org – here’s a scan of the article and the full text follows …

(Congratulations also to my colleague Marcy Ford and her recognition here as a recipient of the inaugural “Career Mastered: Women’s Leadership in Action” award in Southeast Michigan!)

Marcy Ford and Roy Sexton April 2015 Detroit Legal News

IMG_1410Trott Law, a Farmington Hills-based real estate finance law firm, announced today that Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Roy Sexton has been selected to participate in a panel on legal marketing at the 2015 Legal Marketing Association (LMA) Annual Conference. The conference will take place on April 13-15 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront in San Diego, California.

As the authority for legal marketing that brings together marketing and business development professionals from firms across the Unites States, LMA invited Sexton to sit on a four-person panel, titled “Collaboration and Coexistence among Barristers and ‘Baristas.’” Sexton and his fellow panelists will focus their discussion on practical advice on effectively communicating with lawyers, leveraging generational commonalities, delivering results that will build credibility and establishing a career network.

IMG_1395Sexton earned his Bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in 1995 and is a 1997 graduate of The Ohio State University, where he earned his Master’s degree in Theatre. In 2007, he graduated with his MBA from the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of Leadership Detroit, a governor-appointed member of the Michigan Council of Labor and Economic Growth, and was appointed to the Michigan Mortgage Lenders Association Board of Governors in 2012. Currently, Sexton is an active participant in the Leadership Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti program.

Additionally, Sexton has been involved in a number of nonprofit boards and committees, including First Step, Michigan Quality Council, National MS Society, ASPCA, Wabash College Southeast Michigan Alumni Association, Penny Seats Theatre Company and the Spotlight Players. He recently published two books, Reel Roy Reviews, Volumes 1 & 2, collections of essays on film, theatre, and culture culled from his blog, reelroyreviews.com.

IMG_1403Prior to joining Trott Law, Sexton spent 10 years in various planning and communications roles at Oakwood Healthcare System, serving as the corporate director of strategic communications and planning. In this role he led a staff of 20 marketing professionals and developed the strategic direction for the $1 billion health care system. 

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IMG_1399And I had a great visit to Indiana this past weekend – yes, that Indiana (the one I famously excoriated in my last entry, which was reprinted in my mom’s “Old Type Writer” column here) – to spend time with parents and to celebrate my dad’s birthday and Easter and whatnot.

Well, we had a fabulous time, and the Easter Bunny brought me (via my thoughtful, clever parents) a beautifully custom-made “Reel Roy Reviews” sweatshirt.

We had some great meals out and about, catching up, at these various local eateries, with sweet Nancy Hartman, my high school classmate Cammie Simmons Casey, and Mad Men fan Steven Wegman.

Happy spring, everyone! Let’s hope for increased tolerance, acceptance, and love for all creatures … be they two-legged, four-legged, finned, feathered, insectoid, or reptilian.

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And a little hometown love from The Columbia City Post & Mail …

Roy Post and Mail LMA____________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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

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

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

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

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]

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.

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]

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.