Thanks, Aaron Mathieu at the Whitley County Historical Museum, for unearthing this curious blast from my past! Too funny! I’ve always been creative. And nuts, apparently. #littlehoosiers
Will Arnett returns to gravelly-voice the titular anti-hero, a Trump-esque (by way of Alec Baldwin) billionaire egomaniac whose idea of a good time is fighting (alone) an endlessly looped (and loopy) war on crime where the criminals never actually get locked up and the Batman soaks up a debatably earned shower of community accolades.
Arnett is a one-note hoot, and the filmmakers (director Chris McKay working with a mixed grab-bag of screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington) wisely supplement his singular focus with a sweet-natured supply of supporting characters.
Cast MVPs include a sparklingly feminist Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon (later dubbed “Batgirl,” who quips to Arnett, “Does that make you BatBOY, then?”), a gleefully earnest and utterly over-caffeinated Michael Cera as Dick Grayson (relishing every glimmering, discofied sequin of his admittedly peculiar but comic book accurate “Robin” costume), and a dry-as-a-martini Ralph Fiennes as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s dutiful, shaken-but-not-stirred majordomo Alfred Pennyworth.
Like The LEGO Movie (and just about any children’s movie made. ever.), The LEGO Batman Movie posits a primary thesis that family is everything, even if that family is made up of a collection of well-intentioned, mentally-suspect oddballs (so it’s a fact-based film). Arnett’s Batman comically resists any and all overtures by his friends (and enemies) to connect, collaborate, and love, driven in part by a lightly-touched-upon reference to Batman’s origins losing both of his parents to a gun-toting mugger in Gotham City’s aptly named “Crime Alley.” Alfred cautions Master Bruce, “You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”
This sets up a tortured bromance between Batman and his (sometimes) chief nemesis The Joker, voiced with consummate crazed sweetness by an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. The Joker just wants Batman to acknowledge that they have a special bond, but the Dark Knight’s cuddly sociopathy prevents him from admitting that they truly need each other. “I don’t currently have a bad guy. I’m fighting a few different people. I like to fight around,” Batman dismisses a lip-quivering, weepy-eyed Joker.
The Joker then sets on a path to flip this script, bringing a spilled toybox rogues’ gallery of delightfully random villains (King Kong, Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West and her Flying Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Dr. Who‘s Daleks, Clash of the Titans‘ Medusa and Kraken, Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors, Dracula, Joe Dante’s cinematic Gremlins, and a bunch of glowing skeletons) to destroy Gotham City, reclaim Batman’s attention, and re-establish their dotingly dysfunctional affection for one another.
What made The LEGO Movie such fun was its childlike ability to (s)mash-up incongruous genres (and intellectual properties), much like little boys and girls do with their actual toy collections, wherein it might not be uncommon for Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Barbie to team up against Captain America, He-Man, and Papa Smurf. It was nice to see this bit of anarchic, cross-promotional foolishness continue from one film to another.
For middle-aged comic books buffs, there are Easter Eggs galore. We get obscure Batman villains rarely seen in print, let alone film (Calendar Man? Crazy Quilt? Zebra-Man?!). There is a SuperFriends house party, hosted by Superman (Channing Tatum’s adorably frat boy-ish take on the character continued from The LEGO Movie) at his “Fortress of (Not-So) Solitude” complete with a DJ-ing Wonder Dog, a groovy Martian “Dance”-hunter, and an “It’s a Small World”-esque conga line of Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, Samurai, and the Wonder Twins. Perhaps most impressively, The LEGO Batman Movie manages to telescope nearly 80 years of Bat-history (comics, television, film) into a handful of nifty and very funny montages, simultaneously justifying LEGO’s iconically cracked take on the character while honoring all that has come before.
Upon Robin’s first joy ride in a hot rod-drawn-on-the-back-of-a-Trapper-Keeper version of The Batmobile, Batman turns to him, with his nails-on-a-chalkboard growl, and warns, “Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” And that is likely the most important message in these LEGO movies. Life is going to hand you a lot of lemons, so use your imagination and your inherent sense of joy to keep things fulfillingly messy … and, along the way, feel free to pour lemonade over the heads of anyone who tries to make you follow their arbitrary rules. Make your own rules, and break them freely and often.
________________________________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.
Maybe I’m just going through some kind of existential mid-life crisis. (Hey, who’d like to produce this 44-year-old singing all of his favorite ill-suited pop songs – Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Madonna, Bjork – as an expression of manopausal self in a cabaret extravaganza? It will be your best theatre going experience of the past 14.75 years. I guarantee!) Regardless, the three films viewed this weekend – seemingly drawn from a grab bag of fourth quarter 2016 offerings – all explore beautifully the very reason we dwell on this loony planet.
Split is a return to form for Hitchcock/Spielberg aspirant M. Night Shyamalan, chiefly because he was wise enough to cast it with a crackerjack James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) and Betty Buckley (Carrie, Tender Mercies). (At one point while viewing, I wished Shyamalan had had the moxie to have staged this as a two-hander play with these two lightning bolts. Equus would have seemed like Oklahoma! by comparison.)
The film is a mash-up – a little bit of Silence of the Lambs, a touch of Primal Fear, a skosh of Dressed to Kill, a dab of Prisoners, a spritz of, well, any and all of Shyamalan’s other films (save The Last Airbender – the less said about that one, the better). We have a central figure “Kevin Wendell Crumb,” portrayed brilliantly by McAvoy (with just a hint of Baby Jane camp), suffering from dissociative identity disorder, as 23 different personalities (some nice, some really naughty) play ping-pong with Kevin’s daily routine. Buckley, as Dr. Karen Fletcher, is his cautious, morbidly transfixed therapist, whose ethereally calm demeanor and career aspirations keep her engaged with Kevin’s Sybil-esque shenanigans.
The plot details Kevin’s devolution into something called “The Beast” (think Silence of the Lambs‘ “Buffalo Bill” with, yes, super powers) as he kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in one of those byzantine, blue-lit subterranean lairs that only seem to exist in really creepy movies. Dr. Fletcher starts to catch wise as various (kinder) personalities in Kevin’s psyche begin sending her panicked emails in the middle of the night. I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns, but the Hitchcockian “fun” derives from Buckley’s Fletcher calmly, relentlessly querying McAvoy’s Kevin about his nightly doings. Much like Hitchock’s late-career Psycho, Shyamalan’s Split is a directorial resurgence that simultaneously exploits the audience’s most prurient interests while giving us a Playhouse 90-style character study. McAvoy is a creepy hoot, and Buckley does yeoman’s work as a wary proxy for the audience’s revulsion/fascination. (My favorite quote from the film? When Buckley’s Fletcher describes the restaurant Hooters: “It’s like if Henry VIII ran a fast food franchise.”)
At one point, Buckley’s Fletcher asks plaintively, “”We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are more than?” The film’s central thesis is a half-realized query about whether or not mental illness is a kind of super power. It’s an intriguing idea not fully baked in the film, but Buckley’s delivery of that line, coupled with McAvoy’s scenery-chewing performance, gives me hope for the inevitable sequel.And then I saw Sing, an animated film about koalas and elephants and pigs and porcupines and mice trying (literally) to find their voices in a world that had passed them by. Do I know how to plan a weekend at the movies?
Guess what? Sing is brilliant and surprisingly moving. If you are not crying at the film’s conclusion wherein every misfit animal featured heretofore takes the stage and seizes the spotlight with deep-feeling abandon, well, then I feel sorry for you, you cold, emotionless curmudgeon!
The plot of Sing is a nifty corollary to Zootopia, which depicted a similar land where all creatures great and small coexist (mostly) in harmony, struggling (like us all) to make a decent living, pay the bills, and have a bit of joy. “Buster Moon,” a disarmingly charmingly skeezy koala (voiced by Matthew McConaughey finding the perfect role for his disarmingly charmingly skeezy career) is trying to revive his failing theatre by hosting a music competition. His best buddy (a trust-fund lamb voiced by an ever-dopey John C. Reilly) asks, “Singing competition? Who wants to see another one of those?” Well, this one? You will want to see.
Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Taron Egerton (Kingsman … SUCH a voice – like a choir-boy Robbie Williams), Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), Tori Kelly vocalize for the menagerie (pig, porcupine, ape, mouse, elephant – respectively) that joins Buster on his preposterous adventure. I found myself a bucket of salty tears when Kelly’s shy elephant Mimi belts Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” at the film’s jubilant finale. Maybe it’s because I know what it feels like to be a misfit singer who has been excluded from others’ “reindeer games,” but I found Sing to be a riotous, thoroughly enjoyable celebration of letting all of us find and exercise our unique voices in this increasingly stifling world. I can’t wait for this inevitable sequel either.Finally, Lion. Oh, Lion I wish I knew how to quit you. This film knocked me to the floor – either because of its excellence or because my low blood sugar from sitting in a darkened theatre for hours on end finished me off. Lion – the feature directorial debut by Garth Davis – relays the true story of Saroo Brierley (portrayed with zero guile as a child by Sunny Pawar and with heartbreaking ambivalence as an adult by Dev Patel) as he finds himself lost from his family in India and, ultimately, adopted by a well-meaning Australian couple (a haunting Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
Reminiscent of the the Jack Lemmon/Sissy Spacek classic Missing, Lion captures the devastating claustrophobia of a family separated by geography, time, bureaucracy. The toddler Saroo’s inability to communicate (he speaks Hindi and nearly no one else around him does) nor to identify his home (he accidentally ends up on a decommissioned train that takes him from a small town, the name of which he mispronounces, to the overpopulated metropolis of Calcutta) is the stuff of nightmares. The film plays fast and loose with narrative chronology, as the adult Saroo tries to unravel the mystery of his life before being adopted. Everyone is excellent, with Kidman giving her most subtle, nuanced performance in ages – one scene in particular where she palpably renders the tension of the adoptive parent to balance truth versus security as her child tries to make sense of his upbringing. Lion is a remarkable film, as full of hope as it is heartbreak.
I cried a lot this weekend at the movie theatre. Singing elephants, multiple personality protagonists, and displaced Indian orphans: all transfixing metaphorical representatives of our own existential pain over belonging, finding ourselves, and seeking a path forward. Well done, Hollywood. Well done.
_______________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.
“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” – Dorothea (Annette Bening)
Given the historic events of this weekend, notably the (International) Women’s March, seeing the acclaimed new semi-autobiographical film by director Mike Mills (Beginners) seemed like an inspired, appropriate, and perhaps too-on-the-nose choice, so view it we did.
The film is really good – not so sure it’s great – but, with its marvelous cast, humane and conscientiously inclusive perspective, and immersive approach that impressively turns back the viewer’s clock to 1979, 20th Century Women is worth your attention.
Inspired by his gratitude for his own mother and sisters, Mills, who calls the film a “love letter to the women who raised him,” paints a fictionalized portrait of his own unconventional upbringing that is warm and nostalgic, critical and illusory.
Imagine Norman Rockwell spending his formative years in counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.
In Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (a remarkable and raw Annette Bening), abandoned by her husband, is raising son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann showing nary a sign of “child star” schmaltz) in a ramshackle Victorian with as much character and in as much disrepair as its inhabitants. Perhaps to make ends meet or, more likely, in an Auntie Mame-like gesture of keeping life as one never-ending banquet, Dorothea has rented rooms to a cast of characters, including potter and auto mechanic (?) William (Billy Crudup in all his shaggy, boho charm) and photographer and Talking Heads-aficionado Abbie (a luminous and heartbreaking Greta Gerwig). Rounding out this band of lovable misfits, Elle Fanning (Maleficent) plays Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend whose acts of teen rebellion are lifted straight from a “Me Decade” ABC Afterschool Special; yet, in Fanning’s capable hands, Julie’s defiance is hauntingly and, at times, comically authentic.
(NOTE: Crudup and Gerwig are on a roll, recently turning in nuanced performances as Theodore H. White and Nancy Tuckerman, respectively, in the exceptional Jackie.)
Films in 20th Century Women‘s milieu – the quirky, uber-liberal, “hippie Addams Family” residing in a sprawling but dilapidated homestead, arguing unrealistically about existential philosophy, and experimenting with alternative realities – too often devolve into the kind of twee “coming-of-age” self-indulgence that makes my skin crawl. Yes, Grand Budapest Hotel–director Wes Anderson, I’m looking at you. Blessedly, 20th Century Women is no Royal Tennenbaums.
Mills contextualizes his film with chronology-bending narrative (the voice-overs that relate characters’ backstories and future activities are a clever and sobering touch), rich period details (including iconic photography, music, decor, and video of the era – the characters’ varied reactions to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence speech” are particularly telling), and evocative time-lapse cinematography (including an overt reference to landmark-documentary-of-the-era Koyaanisqatsi with its still-stinging indictment of the ephemeral foolishness of mankind). If you survived the 70s, this film will speak to you on many levels.
As for the film’s feminism, it is as sly an overview as I’ve ever seen on film – as elusive and confounding as the topic can be in a United States of America that glorifies our free-will and independence while simultaneously fearing our free-will and independence. Mills’ script, aided and abetted by delicate performances all around, deftly weaves in and out of the core principle that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
Bening’s Dorothea (born in 1924) is regularly labeled throughout the film has having “come from the Depression,” she herself embracing that tag, obsessed with big band music and carefully tracking her stocks in the newspaper every day. Yet, she is also attracted to the infinite possibility of this messy new world before her, approaching its ugly rock-n-roll and libertine mores with alternating fascination and revulsion. The tension Dorothea suffers as a free-agent wanting to explore this evolving society versus her role as a parent fearing its potential dark repercussions is palpable. Regarding her son, Dorothea laments to Abbie at one point, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”
When Abbie introduces Dorothea’s son Jamie to the books Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan and Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian, he chooses to read a particular passage to his mother, one that highlights the marginalization and invisibility unfairly cast upon an individual due to age and gender. It is a tender moment wherein he is using another’s text to evoke understanding. Dorothea’s visceral response is even more revealing when she dismisses the gesture outright, indicating that her very personal experience on this planet cannot be reduced or codified into a few well-meaning “modern” paragraphs. Bening is understated yet devastating in this scene, a quiet storm moment exemplifying beautifully the delicate balancing act in 20th Century Women: reclaiming the voice of the individual … which is as feminist an act as one can imagine.
“She smokes Salems because they’re healthy.” – Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)
_______________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.
An hour-and-a-half of Silverman in person was much different than ten minutes of Silverman on a late night talk show. Coming off more like the lovechild of Rachel Maddow and Fanny Brice and less like Joan Rivers’ gross-out “mean girl” baby cousin, Silverman was delightfully and justifiably caustic yet accessibly and appropriately bewildered by a world that seems determined to dial back the clock to the Dark Ages.
Silverman is an avowed feminist (with a seemingly incongruous penchant for cocktail napkin jokes that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1950s Moose Lodge), an ardent atheist (with a sister who has devoted her life to God as a rabbi in Jerusalem), and a fierce animal rights defender (who tells morbid jokes about whether or not she should put her dog to sleep now to save her and her pooch from a lifetime of pain). Like any successful comic, Silverman’s best material plays at the tension between affirmed values and the reality of living in a truly messed-up world.Her strongest material Saturday night eviscerated our sexist double standards, while simultaneously tromping around the very hypersexualized muck that doesn’t do anyone’s gender perceptions a darn bit of good. Her take on the absurdity of handing Barbie dolls to little girls and expecting any outcome other than “creating a generation of gold-diggers and whores” was as incisive as it was retrograde. I won’t spoil the jokes in that section; they didn’t necessarily cover any new territory (“Barbie’s feet are shaped so she can only wear high heels!”), but the delivery and the context were so sharp, so acidic, so damn funny that not one person in the Colosseum last night will ever look at a Barbie doll the same way (let alone give one as a gift). And that’s a good thing.
Surprisingly, Silverman didn’t address the current state of American politics directly, though everything she reviewed was political in one way or another. Homophobic Mike Pence and the State of Indiana got warranted derisive shout outs, and she paused once for a pointed aside, “Why isn’t Howard Stern talking about Trump? What is up with that?,” telegraphing more with what she didn’t say than what she did. (Silverman, a one-time Sanders supporter, won praise and critique for cutting through the chicanery at the 2016 Democratic National Convention by observing, “Can I say something? To the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people, you’re being ridiculous.”)
Her greatest subversions last night, however, were in marrying the personal and the political. Discussing her heritage as a Jewish woman growing up with an unfiltered father in New Hampshire, she noted that, while he had escaped the trauma of his abusive father in joyous summers spent as a camp counselor, he inadvertently tortured his own anxiety-ridden, chronically bed-wetting daughter (Sarah) by forcing her to continue the summer camp tradition in her youth.Referencing her holier-than-thou (literally) rabbi sister, Silverman related a situation where her sister described nearly everything about an Ethiopian acquaintance Sarah would soon meet, except the fact that said friend had lost both hands in a land mine accident, something Sarah learned only when she awkwardly went to shake the woman’s … hook.
In an extensive discussion around Silverman’s own atheism and her passion for women’s reproductive rights, she referenced a benefit she performed in Texas. She crossed the street to talk to the protestors who were decrying her work, and she was met by a little girl who hissed “God hates YOU!” Silverman pondered – after telling the girl a scatalogical joke that bonded them both (ironic) – how could she fervently insist that these folks not believe in “their sky king” (her words), beyond a shadow of any doubt, without becoming as obsessively bullying as the very evangelicals she despised?
Silverman’s show was at its most effective when she was telling us stories about the contradictions in her life, noodling through making sense of it all. She seemed exhausted – that could have been the cold from which she was visibly suffering, including a handful of well-placed comic nose blows. If the cold was a bit, she should keep it. It gave you the sense of having a conversation in the living room with a world-weary friend or neighbor who saw this planet through the cracked lens it deserves. She admitted as well that she was trying out material for a new comedy special – some of it worked, some of it didn’t; some of it seemed lazy and slapdash, some of it seemed urgent and inspired; some of it meandered to a piquant conclusion, and some of it just meandered. I, for one, enjoyed being part of her process of discovery and experimentation, but I’m weird like that.As for Silverman’s opening act – Todd Barry? Well, let’s just say his smirky, dull-as-dishwater routine proved a theory I have that comedy opening acts are there chiefly to make the main show seem that much funnier. If Silverman comes to a casino near you, you are safe to spend that extra 20 minutes at the buffet or slot machine or gift shop or whatever people do in those garish places, until she finally comes onstage.
Regardless, Silverman’s gift chiefly may be in planting seeds and making you question your own perceptions of what is right and wrong in this society of ours. Much has been written in the past few months about the danger of “normalizing” aberrant behavior from our elected leaders. A true feminist has the agency to talk openly about whatever, whenever, with no apologies. Consequently, voices like Silverman’s are more essential now than ever. If there is an artist who ain’t gonna normalize anything, it’s her.
And that’s how trees get planted.
__________________________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.
Hidden Figures is more than a film about how endemic institutional sexism and racism nearly derailed the American space program – a program so often held, perhaps erroneously, as the beaming example of progress and inclusion, inspiring multicultural fables from Star Trek to EPCOT Center.
Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a heartbreaking yet inspiring, trenchant yet forgiving, tear-jerking yet intellectual, timebound yet timeless allegory/cautionary tale for the mistakes we Americans are doomed to repeat when we let our baser, viler instincts cloud our appreciation for how diversity – the essential fabric of the much-vaunted U.S. of A. experience – enriches/enhances/enables our collective ability to problem-solve, defy the odds, and dream huge.
This movie got to me. Bigly.
The film’s marketing campaign – effective as it has been (giving Rogue One a run for its money at this weekend’s box office) – gives the impression of yet another in a too-long line of Lifetime-telefilm-meets-Oscar-bait-lets-wrap-American-racism-in-the-golden-hued-bubble-wrap-of-safe-historical-distance flicks. And, yes, the selfsame gorgeous cinematography, the jewel-toned zing of too-crisp-1960s fashion and decor and cars, the winking let-us-take-a-breather comic relief, the anachronistic pop music score (Pharrell Williams doing double duty as the film’s producer and composer) are all there.
Don’t be fooled. There is a stronger, more cutting message at play here than, say, in DreamWorks’ similarly positioned, cozy race fairy tale The Help. Whether Hollywood realizes it or not, too often big budget films dealing with race and gender bias unintentionally perpetuate the very bias they are attempting to decry. The persecuted class is too often “rescued” by someone (usually a pleasant, conflicted, well-heeled white person, male or female) who steps outside the cultural norms of the persecutors to pave the way for social justice. You know what? That’s an annoying trope that needs to retired. Doesn’t mean it’s untrue, but we’ve seen it. A lot. And whether we accept it or not, said trope seems engineered to let everyone off the hook, selling tickets because we all leave the theatre feeling good with our heads still buried in the sand.
Hidden Figures is slyer work, and I, for one, am grateful for that fact. You do leave the theatre “feeling good,” but for a different reason – one you may not see for days or even weeks. Crackerjack Taraji P. Henson (Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner for Empire, Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) portrays one of NASA’s resident human “computers” Katherine Johnson. She states, while faced with a particularly vexing mathematical problem, “What’s there tells a story if you read between the lines.” Amen. The protagonists of Hidden Figures – African-American women thinking and feeling in an era, not unlike the present one, where their thoughts and emotions are not only unappreciated but vigorously unwanted – do not need a rescuer or a hero. They save themselves – not to mention the space program and American pride – with their wits and their will and their very American drive to realize their own ambitions.
The film in its entirety is perfection, but Henson is the rocket fuel that keeps the enterprise propelled. She is a star, eminently watchable, with a character actor’s gift for definition, nuance, and differentiation. She inhabits and frames every scene with such spark and such drive, with such believable caution and frustration, with such compassion and inquisitiveness that you never want her to leave the screen. Henson rarely overplays any moment – there are very few over-the-top snippets where you say, “Oh, that’s the clip they will play at the Oscars.” The few outsized aspects to the performance are so righteously earned that they land like the perfect punctuational flourishes in a fine symphony. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this film nearly as much with anyone else in the role.
Nonetheless, Henson is aided and abetted by strong turns from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as data expert Dorothy Vaughan in another derivation of Spencer’s trademark world-weary “take no mess” tenacity and Grammy-nominated R&B wunderkind Janelle Monae (Moonlight) as engineering savant Mary Jackson whose peppery perspective gleefully, warily challenges the status quo at every fork in the road (“Civil rights ain’t always civil“).
Oscar-winner Kevin Costner was born to play 1960s sad-sack, pocket-protected, horn-rimmed, progressive misanthropes slogging through government jobs, searching for one bright spot in a sea of bureaucrats (see JFK and about half of his filmography). As space program director Al Harrison, Costner’s scenes with Henson crackle at the heart of the film: two human beings, neither of whom could really give two damns about race or gender, in love with the idea of solving big problems but burdened by a corporate culture (and society writ large), cutting off its collective nose to spite its collective face so threatened by authentic wit and wisdom, consumed by petty jealousy, and immobilized by resentment. Costner ruefully intones at one point, “We can’t justify a space program that doesn’t put anything into space.”
Golden Globe-winner Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) is also great as a mid-level NASA manager who inadvertently blocks progress at every turn, dutifully following a governmental system rigged against forward-thinking yet somehow intended to land a man on the moon. Dunst is so underrated; I wasn’t even sure it was her until I looked up the cast list on my phone halfway through the film (with apologies to my movie-seat neighbors). Dunst rejects the indulgence of playing juicy, stereotypical “racist villain” notes in the film, presenting instead a believably bedraggled functionary who knows her paycheck is contingent upon her being a rule-following twit.
Less successful in that regard, Jim Parsons (Emmy-winner for The Big Bang Theory) is underwhelming in his role as Henson’s rival and nemesis Paul Stafford. Without Sheldon Cooper’s OCD-nerd-centric tics, Parsons just comes off as a dull, hateful milquetoast. That may have been by design on the part of director Theodore Melfi but could have been accomplished more effectively and interestingly with a lesser-known actor. On the other end of the spectrum, Glen Powell is a bit too twinkle-eyed in his “Prince Charming buying the world a Coke” portrayal of astronaut John Glenn. To his credit (and the film’s detriment), Powell leaps off the screen every time he appears – like Ed Norton’s prettier, caramel-dipped brother – but he is just “too-too” for me, disrupting the workaday credibility of the film’s depiction of NASA.
However, these are minor quibbles, made more obvious when the film surrounding them is so good. Film’s about the space program (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity) always use America’s race to the stars as a metaphor for human progress but frequently get side-tracked by the technical mumbo jumbo and with countless shots of retro Americans slack-jawed and gawking at the sky. Hidden Figures isn’t that movie, with the exception of a few corny shots of retro Americans slack jawed and gawking at the sky as Glenn makes his nail-biting return to earth in the film’s final moments. Hidden Figures is a movie about brilliant minds, unfairly marginalized by American superficiality, for whom mathematics is a language unto itself (the film runs rings around A Brilliant Mind in that regard). That language presents a path whereby three transcendent voices cut through the crap and the clutter of America’s sad “traditions” of sexism and racism. Hidden Figures is the movie America needs right now.
_________________________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.
That is the central conceit of Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (later Onassis) and how she responded to and dealt with the assassination of her husband, quite literally in. her. lap. This movie doesn’t make it easy on the viewer. Director Pablo Larrain traffics in visceral terrain, leaving your Hallmark Hall of Fame standard biopic in a dusty heap. Jackie Kennedy was an avowed Francophile, and the film itself has a gauzy French impressionist feel throughout, like a nauseating bad dream that folds in on itself, confounding the viewer with abstract symbolism and illuminating through eerie parallels. Even the musical score, which I found deeply affecting, has a jarring dissonance as beautiful as it is horrifying. In fact, the notes and chords used wouldn’t be out of place in your average slasher movie, and maybe that’s what Jackie actually is?
I am not much of a Natalie Portman fan – I still find Black Swan confounding, and her run as Padme Amidala (Star Wars prequels) grates to this day – but I thought she was a revelation here. Much has been said of Portman’s replication of Jackie’s clipped upper-crust accent and her affecting of the First Lady’s mannerisms and style, but what made me give forth the ugly cries during Jackie‘s first twenty minutes was the juxtaposition of nervous, guarded Jackie filming her famed White House special with shots of her on that fateful day in Dallas, scared for her life and her future, grieving her husband, and trying to find a pathway out. In a deeply impactful conceit, the director contrasts Portman (as Jackie) filming the White House special and its then-revolutionary notion of restoring the presidential domicile as a means of ensuring legacy and respect, with the abrupt and cruel murder of arguably one of the brightest lights in American politics at that time, a light that represented for many citizens great hopes for the future. I personally found the sequence devastating, although I did note that I seemed to be the only person in my Ann Arbor theater crying like a fool. (#Softie.)
From there, Portman as Jackie sits down with a hard-boiled reporter (a solemn, dubious, and engaging Billy Crudup who looks and acts more like Darren McGavin’s prettiest nephew every day) to recount the events of that fateful day and of her overall perspective on her brief stint as the First Lady. What the film drives home, more clearly than any other Kennedy biography I’ve yet viewed (and I’ve seen a lot), is the ephemeral and fleeting moment in time Jack and Jackie actually spent in Washington, D.C., and how fiercely Jackie protected what remained of their legacy after the assassination. When asked by Crudup if she displayed her children opportunistically during President Kennedy’s funeral procession to gain comfort and security through sympathy and adulation, she responds coolly, “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.”
The fiction of the film may very well be in the way Larrain positions Jackie as someone relentlessly documenting past, present, and future through an authoritarian’s view of narrative. The flick’s few humorous bits spin out of this perspective, as in the moment when Jackie, chain-smoking obsessively, notes to Crudup with firm certainty, “I don’t smoke.” An exchange like this, sardonically, is a breath of fresh air in Jackie‘s otherwise oppressive presentation.
Yet, this movie has to be oppressive.
Our society has gotten so cavalier about political rivalry and of threatening violence to those with whom we may differ philosophically. Consequently, this film becomes an essential part of our ongoing societal discourse. These deep cultural fissures in present-day America fall along many of the same socioeconomic, racial, gender, generational divides that wracked 1960s America. The ills of that decade (rampant assassinations, global conflict, violent protests) eventually became a kind of distant cultural wallpaper as time inevitably marched on. “Oh, we won’t ever be like that again,” we sighed collectively. Yet, here we are, perhaps worse than we were then; what happens if we don’t stop and think how violence and divisive rhetoric shatters families, shatters hope, and shatters our nation.
Jackie gets a bit muddled in its midsection, as narrative devices start to pile up: Jackie speaking to the reporter; Jackie speaking to a priest (the redoubtable John Hurt); Jackie chastising various cabinet members (including Attorney General and brother-in-law Bobby as played by Peter Sarsgaard who does a credible job relaying the protective anxiety of the character if not exactly nailing his look or cadences); Jackie wandering around the White House listening to Camelot in a drunken stupor, trying on dresses and gathering up framed photographs by the armful. For some, this section will seem self-indulgent. For me, it reinforced what an inescapable nightmare this time must have been. Jackie got under my skin (in a good way), and created empathy and admiration for this woman trying to reclaim whatever power was left to her as life literally fell apart for her and for the world. Yet, even I would have trimmed about 20 minutes from the picture … and cut around three or four costume changes.
A little over a decade ago, my mother and I went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and saw the exhibit of Jackie Kennedy’s life, fashion, and historical impact. Every suit she wore was like chain mail, tightly woven, crisp, tiny, Chanel. It struck both of us – even then – what kind of world she must have been guarding against, constructing such a structured, aggressively controlled, protective bubble (clothes, decor, fashion, history, routine, rigor) around herself. I suppose now we know the answer, and, sadly, that world has changed very little, regardless of your particular political persuasion. Jackie Kennedy had great wit and great intelligence, and Jackie, the film, does a fine job capturing the coiled ferocity of someone who could survive such tumult and emerge on the other side an icon. I found the film upsetting and inspiring – and that is about as American as anything can be
___________________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.
So, please, stop billing La La Land as a lush, glowing tribute to the glory years of the American movie musical. The film happily, gleefully wraps itself in all the tropes of the genre, much like The Artist (the two films are spiritual and stylistic cousins) used silent film to tell a similar narrative of ambitious if downtrodden performers navigating the despair and loneliness of love and ladder-climbing in the City of Dreams (Los Angeles). However, it ain’t a musical – at least for those of us expecting a behind-the-curtain songfest like Singin’ in the Rain or Funny Face. Much like Whiplash, it is a film with music, melodies seeping through every corner of its DNA. And that’s ok.
The genre that the film really exemplifies (a genre that isn’t really a genre except anywhere in my own head) is the movie-that-exists-solely-for-the-sake-of-a-final-act-punchline-that-brings-the-rest-of-the-film-into-stark-relief-and-makes-you-go-“oh-THAT’s-what-I’ve-been-watching-for-the-past-two-hours.” Think The Sixth Sense (or anything else by gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan). I’m pretty certain this will be the only review that compares La La Land to a movie where Bruce Willis is a ghost (20-year-old spoiler alert!).
La La Land is surprisingly and refreshingly dark, but you don’t realize that until hours after viewing. It unspools in a light, frothy homage to films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which also beats with a candy-colored heart of darkness). Two (literally) star-crossed lovers – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – find mutual affection in their shared failure, he a struggling jazz pianist of the purest and most pretentious variety and she a failing actress bouncing unsuccessfully from one insultingly mind-numbing TV-pilot audition to another. Naturally, they fall for each other. It is a musical after all; oh wait, I just said it wasn’t. Much.
As their lives spiral up and down and back again (“me here at last on the ground … you in mid-air”), the movie details the toxic effects that unshared, ill-timed success and failure can have on a relationship of creative types torn between each other and egomania. The songs, as they are (“City of Stars” being the most memorable … or at least the most hummable), are used effectively to illustrate the pointed emotional moments of Gosling and Stone’s shared lives. Imagine A Star is Born (Judy and James, not Barbra and Kris – please) structured as the dreamlike nervous breakdown of Dancer in the Dark (directed by renowned sadist Lars von Trier and scored by renowned wood nymph Bjork).
This is the point in the review where you look at the screen and say, “Dammit, Roy, stop being an obtuse show-off! Did you like this movie or not?!”
I did. Very much. And here’s why. As a musical, it’s unremarkable (I’ve driven that point into submission). As a treatise on the fleeting nature of time and love and ambition, on the hollow reward of financial success and critical acclaim, on the haunting nature of missed opportunities and second-guessing one’s life choices, La La Land is a powder keg. The first hour? I thought to myself, “This is kind of insipid. Gosling and Stone are charming as always, but they embarrass me a little bit. Why are they so awkward and unsure. Why can’t they sing? Why are they floating on the ceiling of a planetarium? Am I supposed to be moved by this? Is Rebel Without a Cause as referenced in this flick intended to be a metaphor for something?” Well, the characters are gawky as hell because, at that point in their lives and careers, they would be.
In fact, Gosling edges Stone out a bit in the film’s first half, channeling the fourth-wall-breaking sparkle he demonstrated in The Big Short, with a winning “little boy lost” cynicism. Passing a group of actors rehearsing on the Warner Brothers’ back lot where Stone works as a barista in a forgotten coffee shop, he ruefully observes of the desperate thespians, “They worship everything and value nothing.”
But, then, life hits this duo right in the solar plexus (plexi?), and La La Land gets really interesting. Their shabby chic world together experiences a few wins but even more losses. They drift. They fight. They become more sure of themselves and reluctantly admit that life must lead them away from each other. And they sing (sort of).
In defense of Stone, her big solo (in the spot of what we used to call an “11 o’clock” number like “Ladies Who Lunch” or “Rose’s Turn” that spins all the key themes into one fist-raising, anthemic exclamation point) is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” a full-throated yawlp that shows us, yes, she can sing, and, boy, can she act.
Then, THEN, in the film’s final moments, Chazelle hits you with a Gene Kelly-esque montage/remix/rewind/dream-dance ballet (I’ve always hated those, until this one) that puts the preceding narrative in perspective and leaves you gutted, wondering about your own life choices, what has worked, what hasn’t, and what might have been. Now, that‘s a musical. No, it isn’t. It’s something new entirely. That’s why I loved this movie.
______________________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.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player from the Negro Leagues caught in a downward spiral of male menopause, uncertain whether he wants to be a devoted husband and father or a gin-drinking rounder, whether or not he wants to continually relive his glory days or shield his children from the false promise of organized athletics, whether or not he wants to be a swaggering blowhard or a wizened patriarch.
The play owes its DNA to Arthur Miller as much as Lorraine Hansberry, with a tight lens on a small, struggling family in a small, claustrophobic house in a small, insular corner of Pittsburgh. Fences fits neatly in that genre of “up against it” 1950s family drama, where the walls closing in (economically, emotionally, socially) spark tension and narrative complications.
Viola Davis is heart-wrenchingly exquisite as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose. As the film unfolds, we learn about their courtship, the familial secrets between them, the intimate details of their daily rituals. Davis so fully inhabits this world (and the detailed set design – truly, the Maxson home in Fences is a compact marvel of on-location perfection), striking the right balance between being a recognizable “movie star” and completely immersing herself in the mundane beauty of her character’s daily life. As a result, Troy’s eventual emotional/physical betrayal of Rose hits like a sucker punch, and Davis’ Rose doesn’t take kindly to her husband so blithely imploding her idyllic quietude. Davis’ mid-film confrontation with Washington is well worth the ticket price alone. You remember that scene in Doubt when we all first said “Who is that?!?” as Davis’ character gave Meryl Streep the what-for over Streep’s well-intentioned meddling? Well, multiply that by 100. Someone get Davis – and the audience – a gilded box of Kleenex, stat.
Washington just can’t compete with Davis, though he does credible work as both director and actor creating presence and ambience that linger well after the final credits roll. I have long suspected that an actor cannot direct him or herself with full objectivity, and I fear that is a bit of the problem with this film. Davis and Washington won Tony awards for playing these very roles on Broadway a few years back, and Washington no doubt was confident he could effortlessly transfer his performance from one medium to the other. I think an outside perspective may have helped eliminate the trademark Denzel twinkle that runs the risk of sinking his performance with hambone indulgence. YET, Denzel is playing a character whose Achilles’ heel is self-indulgence, so it is difficult to parse what may be an actor’s trap from what is compelling characterization.
Wilson’s play, which he adapted for the screen before his death, is a meditation on mortality, racial marginalization, gender identity, socioeconomic restrictions, and the very nature of family. The “fences” in the title are ubiquitous, sometimes physical as in the fence Troy is building around his backyard, but often they are metaphorical. The characters’ true inner natures conflict with their projected personae and their deepest desires, boxing them in with unfulfilled potential. If there ever was a movie about dreams deferred, it is this one, whether it is Troy’s stunted career as a professional athlete or Rose’s desire for a peaceful nuclear family or their son Cory’s pursuit of a football scholarship which is sadly and predictably derailed by the egomania of his father.
Jovan Adepo is thoughtful and engaging if unremarkable as Cory, and Russell Hornsby leaves a more haunting impression as Lyons, Troy’s troubled son from an earlier relationship. Mykelti Williamson is playing to the cheap seats as Troy’s war-vet brother Gabe. Gabe’s closed-head injury provides a steady stream of government income to the Maxson family, and Williamson’s characterization provides a steady stream of cringe-worthy moments for the audience. The character may have worked ok as a plot device in the mid-80s when Fences was originally conceived, but today Gabe just comes off as an obvious plot device and a rather tone-deaf one at that. Stage vet Stephen McKinley Henderson (also making the transfer from the Broadway revival to the film version) is by far the strongest supporting player as Troy’s confidante and co-worker Jim Bono. Like Davis, Henderson imbues the proceedings with an authenticity and an integrity that the other players can’t quite nail. The script’s rat-a-tat interplay rolls effortlessly off Henderson’s tongue, yet he is strongest in the too-few quiet moments (I wish there had been more – this is a talky piece), conveying a world of hurt with a flick of his eyes as he listens to and observes the Maxson family deteriorate around him.
I admit that I have never seen the play Fences on stage, and I am curious how a theatrical presentation illuminates the piece’s more esoteric themes. As my mom noted after our viewing, there is a King Lear quality to Troy’s character arc – a “man without a country” vibe that Washington gets within a hair’s breadth of achieving. Monologues that are likely lightning rods of plainspoken existentialism onstage are muddled in the need to open up more cinematic vistas. The film does its work maintaining an oppressive sense of claustrophobia, but doesn’t quite reach the levels of caged ferocity I suspect the play might.We are living in a moment where race and gender politics are more heated than ever, and people feel attacked on all sides just for being themselves. Fences comes at an interesting time, and it will be noteworthy to see how audiences embrace the film and its narrative. Throughout the first act, Viola Davis’s character often tries to get Troy to accept son Cory’s hopes and dreams of a better future by insisting that “the world has changed.” During our particular showing, that line received a vocal reaction from the incredulous and world-weary audience, a sound that hovered between a gasp and a guffaw. I have to admit that hearing a screen character from 1956 express a sentiment that 60 years later rings so hollow gave me pause as well.
Neither playwright Wilson nor director Washington condescend to their subject matter, and Fences resists the urge to marginalize its creations by pushing them to melodramatic extremes. Rather, the film shows us our own humanity by detailing the very real life – both tragic and hopeful – occurring behind every front door on every neighborhood block. Praise be.
Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise …
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.
Doing my bit of Christmas community service …
Oh, Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito, Kristin Chenoweth, Kristin Davis, Fred Armisen, WHAT were you thinking with crass, dull, underwritten, underacted, underdeveloped holiday dreck “Deck the Halls” (2006)?
And what were we thinking watching it – with commercials? Interminable. At least, the cast collected a paycheck while mangling their careers. All we accomplished viewing this tone-deaf train wreck was losing brain cells.
TBS/ABC Family, take this holiday horror off the 24-hour marathon posthaste. If you care about humanity. At all.