“Perfect. We’ll make a killer of you yet.” The Favourite and Vice

“Beware the quiet man.” – proverb that opens the film Vice

Oh, this special and lovely historical moment we are currently surviving, with volatile, temperamental, ill-informed leadership surrounded by hangers-on who benefit more from chaos than peace. You’d think we’d learn from the mistakes of our forebears. Hell, you’d think we’d learn from the mistakes of a decade-or-so ago. Nope. Nada. Nyet.

Blessed be when Hollywood gets something right, and did they ever with the one-two punch of The Favourite and Vice. In essence, these fact-based films tell two versions of the same tale: a sweet-natured autocrat (The Restoration-era’s Queen Anne and post-9/11 President George W. Bush, respectively) whose ineptitude is compensated for/manipulated by courtesans (Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill and Dick and Lynne Cheney, also respectively) whose Machiavellian desires for power belie a self-satisfied surety that their intentions are noble (even when the outcomes are clearly suspect).

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Both flicks embrace a surreal cinematic visual and aural language as well (in The Favourite, fish-eye lens cinematography, discordant musical queues, and what appears to be hip-hop choreography; in Vice, fourth-wall busting asides, Shakespearean soliloquies, and omniscient narrators) to make abundantly clear that The Favourite and Vice are intended as allegorical cautionary tales for a present-day society that has utterly run off the rails.

“The word is about, there’s something evolving; whatever may come, the world keeps revolving. They say the next big thing is here, that the revolution’s near, but to me it seems quite clear, that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.” – Shirley Bassey and Propellerheads, “History Repeating.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Perfect. We’ll make a killer of you yet.” – Sarah Churchill/Lady Marlboro (Rachel Weisz) in The Favourite

The Favourite. So well-acted  and so damn visceral. You can practically smell the powdered wigs … and copious amounts of onscreen vomit. That said, the three leads – Olivia Colman (oh, she’s a freaking lead!), Emma Stone (La La Land, Birdman), and Rachel Weisz (best I’ve EVER liked her) – tear up the screen in a post-feminist, 18th-century-period-piece take-down of patriarchy …working from a twenty-year-old (!) script by Deborah Davis. If there ever was a movie that showed the hell women go through (and sometimes put each other through) when they darn well know how the world SHOULD be run (and nobody will listen), this is it.

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Director Yorgos Lanthimos stages an insular and haunting court where palace intrigue is as cruel as it is serendipitous. Lady Marlboro (Weisz) rules the palace and Queen Anne’s (Colman’s) heart with kid-gloved fists, a dominatrix with a heart of gold who manages the day-to-day royal operations as a means toward ultimately setting foreign policy and other matters of state.

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Into this delicate spider-web wanders Marlboro’s wide-eyed cousin Abigail (Stone), whose guilelessness is as phony as the rouge on her cheeks. I won’t spoil the fun, but the wit and wisdom in the performances and in the script and the sheer lack of vanity throughout are unlike anything we’ve seen onscreen in quite a while.

And Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class) holds his own with this remarkable trio as Robert Harley, a parliamentarian who finds himself the happy beneficiary of the political blow-back from this unlikeliest of love triangles.

“I’m still the lady I was. In my heart.” – Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) in The Favourite

I wasn’t a huge fan of Adam McKay’s previous biodramedy The Big Short (which just tried too damn hard and was too cute by half for my tastes), but I LOVE its follow-up Vice. A little Macbeth, a bit of Richard III, a smidge of Hee Haw, and a smattering of Mad Magazine.

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Christian Bale (American Hustle, The Dark Knight) and Amy Adams (Big Eyes, Man of Steel) are perfection as Dick and Lynne Cheney, the calculating, power-hungry duo at the center of a decades-old political machine that prizes cash over humanity. But the film is never cruel, offering a kind of grudging appreciation for the audacity of their unified if calloused accomplishment.

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The supporting cast is pretty damn excellent as well with dynamic character turns by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) as George W. Bush, Steve Carell (Beautiful Boy) as Donald Rumsfeld, and Tyler Perry (Madea) as Colin Powell. The Cheney family is rounded out by American Horror Story mainstays Alison Pill and Lily Rabe as Mary and Liz Cheney. Naomi Watts (Insurgent) and Alfred Molina (The Front Runner) pop up in delightful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos as Jiminy-Cricket-esque commentators (a FOX News anchor and a snooty steakhouse waiter, respectively) on the Shakespearean intrigue that is afoot.

“I will not lie, and THAT is love.” – Sarah Churchill/Lady Marlboro (Rachel Weisz) in The Favourite

 

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It may seem a strange recommendation to suggest that you should spend your remaining holiday free-time with such a dubious cast of characters … but you should. Both films are not only crackerjack, award-caliber entertainments, but they are essential viewing as collective warning against repeating the sins of both the distant and the immediate past. Don’t miss either film, and, if you’re truly feeling ambitious, and perhaps a bit masochistic, take them in as a double-feature.

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

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

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

“I’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Aquaman

For the past few years now, Disney and Lucasfilm have had a lock on the holiday blockbuster season with a little, revived franchise named Star Wars. Alas, the wheels fell of that wagon when the underrated, under-performing origin story Solo debuted in theatres this May with a thud, and there was no end-of-year galactic adventure to follow.

Into this December’s “let’s thumb our noses at Oscar bait” box office breach rushed Warner Brothers’/DC’s Aquaman, Paramount’s Transformers prequel Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. By some strange twist of fate, the fish king roundly beat the giant robot and the buttoned-up British nanny in ticket sales in their collective first weekend of release.

I am certain that all of these popcorn epics will clean up, though, in the gray and dreary vacation days following Christmas, as they each bring a great deal of heart, just enough ingenuity, and a comforting if lightly derivative familiarity.

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“Still. Today or never. That’s my motto.” – Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is, yes, practically perfect. Predictable and formulaic? Mayhaps. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh and cry, occasionally scratch your head … at times all three simultaneously. You’ll love it nonetheless … in great part due to Emily Blunt’s bonkers, measured, heartfelt commitment to the title role.

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Not dissimilar to Disney’s decades-later reboot Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns feels like a subtle remix on the original film’s greatest hits.

The screenplay by David Magee dutifully follows the same story beats as Julie Andrews’ flick – for example:

  • a crabby dad (little Michael Banks, portrayed poignantly by Ben Whishaw, all grown-up and repeating the sins of his father, but in a mopey/angsty widower way);

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  • a politically woke sister (Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, the sunniest class warrior you’ll ever see, taking the place of Glynis Johns’ suffragette Mrs. Banks);
  • some lost soul children who need to rediscover the joys of imagination;
  • a no-good banker (Colin Firth, all sleazy charm as nothing says holiday kids movie like the threat of foreclosure!);

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  • a winking-wise lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep (Lin-Manuel Miranda being slightly less insufferable and overeager than usual … and, yes, he raps, sort of … once);
  • and a finale that swaps out balloons for kites, and throws in Angela Lansbury for good measure … in case you’d forgotten about Mary Poppins‘ knock-off Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The score by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is perfectly fine, but follows a similar path as the script, presenting new numbers that evoke the overly familiar tunes of yore and serving similar narrative purposes. “Spoonful of Sugar” becomes “Can You Imagine That?” to get the ornery kids to embrace bathtime. “A Cover is Not the Book” (the best number in the new film) is an animated fantasia a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an ode to the unappreciated lamplighters (who even do some BMX- style bicycle tricks?!?), not unlike “Step in Time.” And so on.

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Rob Marshall’s direction (Into the WoodsNineChicago) is effective, if workmanlike, evoking the past film through iconography, color palette, choreography, and overall composition. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t wow as much as it sedates the viewer, and the film never quite escapes the physical confines of the sound-stages upon which it was obviously filmed.

In the end, though, this is Blunt’s show, and she is an absolute pip. I could watch her read the phone book as Mary Poppins, with a knowing glance here, an arched eyebrow there, and a master plan to make all of us decent again. And that is why we all need a movie (and a damn nanny) like Mary Poppins Returns.

“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” – Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) in Bumblebee

If you’d told me the tone-deaf, garish, migraine-inducing, jingoistic Transformers film franchise would eventually yield one of the sweetest, warmest, funniest, family-friendliest “girl-and-her-[robot]-dog” coming-of-age yarns since, say, the Paddington movies, I’d have sold you my vintage Hasbro figures for $1. But here we are. Bumblebee, the sixth (!) installment in this series, jettisons director Michael Bay (praise be!), adds nuanced and charming leading lady Hailee Steinfeld, and delivers a lovely cinematic homage to simpler sci-fi allegories of the Spielbergian 80s.

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Travis Knight, Oscar-nominated director of Kubo and the Two Strings, picks up the reins from Bay, working from an almost pastoral (!) script by Christina Hodson that wisely puts human/robot emotion and familial interaction before special effects and mind-numbing battle sequences (although there are still about two or three too many of those).

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Borrowing liberally from producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. (and at this point, that’s just fine), the plot relates Autobot warrior Bumblebee’s arrival on earth, circa 1987. Within moments, the big, yellow, bug-eyed ‘bot finds himself used and abused by the American military (sparkling John Cena, wryly channeling every “shoot first, ask later” cinematic armed forces cliche). Bumblebee is eventually, inadvertently rescued from a junkyard by a plucky, sweet teenage girl Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) looking to rediscover the love of her deceased father at the bottom of a bin of used auto parts. Unsung Pamela Adlon is harried brilliance as Charlie’s befuddled and exasperated mother Sally.

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Steinfeld is still coasting a bit on her stellar Edge of Seventeen performance as a misunderstood adolescent with a dazzling heart of gold buried under a sullen, surly, glowering pout. I guess this is her niche, for now, and it works to great effect in Bumblebee as well.

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Two broken souls – in this case pubescent and robotic – heal one another by giving voice to the underdog and by waving a Breakfast Club fist in the face of institutional repression. I dug it. And the exquisitely curated soundtrack of late FM 80s hits adds an unexpected and refreshing layer of musical-comedy-esque commentary to a movie about giant robots taking over our planet.

“I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.” Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in Aquaman

I enjoyed Aquaman a lot, but could have used about 30 minutes less of blurry aquatic battles and about ten minutes more of authentic wit. Nonetheless, this is a visually stunning film that never takes itself too seriously and with the wisdom to assemble a world-class cast. Throw The Once and Future King, Black Panther, Tron, Flash Gordon, Jewel of the Nile, Krull, Thor, Big Trouble in Little China, Hamlet, and Lord of the Rings into a Mad Libs blender and you yield this wonderfully loony pic.

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Momoa is nothing but utterly charming in interviews. A great actor? Meh. But a star? Absolutely. That said, he looks great, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of his best lines likely landed on the cutting room floor to make way for more CGI soldiers riding giant seahorses. That’s a shame. The best parts of this film are the human parts. Nicole Kidman deserves a medal for making the Splash-meets-Terminator opening sequence of her Atlantean queen meeting cute with a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), playing house, and popping out a half-breed sea-prince baby not only palatable, but poignant and downright thrilling.

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Taken at a superficial level, the plot is almost identical to Black Panther‘s. Two beefy men square off to rule a hidden, technologically advanced kingdom with the “bad guy” claiming his rule will right the wrongs of the outside world (in Black Panther, it was racial divide, and, in Aquaman it is pollution and global warming). Black Panther has more nuance in its conflict and thereby the stakes are higher.

Aquaman telegraphs its punches, so it is quite obvious from the minute Aquaman’s/Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (a dolphin-sleek Patrick Wilson) enters the screen that he is basically a nogoodnik, regardless his sweet speeches about keeping the seven seas free of man-made detritus. He’d like to buy the world a Coke, as long as you keep the plastic six-rings, than you very much. But, with Aquaman, the fun is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. And Wilson is terrific, by the way.

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Director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious) takes his sweet time getting us to Arthur’s inevitable victory over and acceptance by both land and sea. The visuals are sumptuous, even if the running time is gluttonous. There are moments of true wonder – any time Momoa communes with the creatures of the deep, for instance – and, on the balance, the film is a joy for those who have hoped DC could really start having fun with their characters.

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The pitch perfect Wonder Woman seems less like an anomaly now and more like the beginning of a new, humane, inclusive direction for DC’s movies. I’ll consider my 2.5 hours watching Aquaman an investment in that future.

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So, in 2018, we traded one time-worn, bloated Star Wars entry for three heartfelt, loving, and, at times, inspiring homages to other past fantasy hits. I think that’s a decent, if safely unimaginative, return.

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

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

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

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton published in Metro Detroit’s “What’s in a Name?” anthology

So proud of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton (www.susieduncansexton.com)!

Just in time for the holidays, the “What’s in a Name?” collection from the Dearborn Public Library is now available on Amazon.com!

“Hoosier author Susie Sexton’s essay ‘WAIT! PRIOR TO TOSSING ME INTO A WEATHERED HATBOX…READ ME FIRST’ has been published in the latest Henry Ford Centennial Library ‘Big Read’ anthology What’s In A Name? The book is available for purchase on Amazon. Sexton’s work was published in the organization’s prior two ‘Big Read’ collections Call of the Wild Dearborn: Animal Tales (also providing the photographic cover art) and Dreaming Dreams No Mortal Ever Dared to Dream Before.”

Purchase here.

Read BroadwayWorld’s coverage of Susie, her work, and this publication here: https://www.broadwayworld.com/detroit/article/Author-Susie-Duncan-Sexton-Published-In-Dearborn-Public-Librarys-Whats-In-A-Name-Anthology-20180427

“Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” The Green Book and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Family is what you make it. Two holiday film offerings – seemingly disparate as can be – explore that notion with nuance, surprising gravitas, and humor to spare.

The Green Book is pretty darn magnificent. Just when you think you’re getting another magical Hollywood-cures-racism retro-tear-jerking fantasy, the film subtly indicts the prejudices that plague us all, without avoiding the fact that we have some grade-A hateful jackholes in our country who need to be taken down a notch … or eight. Viggo Mortensen runs just shy of coming off like a Hanna-Barbera character, but he is nonetheless lovably/adorably brilliant in one of his broadest roles to date. Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali is brittle, haunted, wry, and superb, and they make a heckuva duo. Oh, and the film still manages some retro-tear-jerking holiday magic too.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is a strange sub-genre in well-meaning, liberal Hollywood: the crowd-pleasingly simple-minded, amber-hued “let’s overcome racism together in two hours” flick (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy, on and on). There can be a tone-deaf, self-satisfied entitlement to the “white savior” trope in these films, and that is just as off-putting as the nasty institutional racism these movies overtly critique. I’m not sure Green Book, directed by Dumb and Dumber‘s Peter Farrelly of all people, entirely avoids this trap, but the performances of Mortensen and Mahershala (not to mention perpetually underrated Linda Cardellini as Mortensen’s stoic-but-free-thinking wife) raise the film’s profile significantly from Hallmark Hall of Fame pap to something more vibrant and compelling.

Depicting real-life jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur/hired muscle Frank Vallelonga as they tour the Deep South in 1962 and encounter one well-heeled bigot after another, The Green Book draws its name from a guide that helped African-American motorists of the era tour the country with as little aggravation as the era would allow. Reportedly, Shirley and Vallelonga would eventually become lifelong friends, but that is the kind of factoid that becomes increasingly debated as a biographical film like this grows in popularity and collects more end-of-year trophies. So, who knows?

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As for the film’s central thesis, it is summarized in this comment by a member of The Don Shirley Trio when asked why Shirley would take them all below the Mason-Dixon Line in the first place: “Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” It’s the kind of line that sounds like it was penned expressly for the daily horoscopes, but in the context of Mortensen and Mahershala’s exceptional dynamic (not to mention today’s strange days), it takes on a heart-wrenching profundity.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is unlike any superhero film nor any animated film I’ve seen: inventive, whimsical, poignant, heartfelt, transporting, kinetic, inclusive, unashamedly odd, surreal, and funny as hell … a true comic book brought to life in the best possible ways. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is the superior film to the awards-baiting Green Book where issues of race, gender, identity, and inclusion are concerned.

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Rife with the delightfully irreverent influence of producers/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), Spider-Verse introduces its audience to a new Spider-Man in the form of Afro-Latino Miles Morales whose ethnicity isn’t a gimmick or a plot point but just part and parcel to his character, that is, in addition to him being a teenager, a science prodigy, an artist, and a music lover. How about that?

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After a multiversal quantum physics experiment gone awry, Miles finds himself surrounded by a Benetton ad’s worth of fellow Spider-people: neo-feminist Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (notably not “girl”), silver-haired ass-kicking Aunt May (cheekily voiced by Lily Tomlin), Untouchables-throwback Spider-Noir (another fun voice cameo, this time by Nicholas Cage), paunchy and midlife-crisis’d Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, Japanese robotics expert Peni Parker and her sidekick SP//dr, and (for us animal nuts) an anthropomorphic pig Peter Porker / Spider-Ham. Miles’ mission – in addition to navigating his newfound super powers and his loving-but-demanding parents who want him to focus on nothing but his science academy studies – is to help these Spider Buddies save the world and return to their respective parallel Earths. A bit like The Wizard of Oz, in reverse, but with super villains and web shooters.

The movie has a visual language unlike anything seen in computer animation before, photo realistic yet simultaneously comic book flat: a bit Andy Warhol, a touch Roy Lichtenstein, a smidge Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, yet wholly original, breathtaking, and dreamlike. The film’s comic timing borrows liberally from Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Pink Panther, and Tex Avery, while the narrative grounds itself in the polyglot humanity of modern day NYC. It’s an exceptional piece of pop art, and effortlessly leverages the best of superhero egalitarian metaphor to give the middle finger to MAGA nationalism. I can’t wait to see it again.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

“The Other Two Degrees.” 98 Degrees Return to Motor City Casino’s Sound Board for “At Christmas” Redux

My favorite moment of last night’s 98 Degrees “At Christmas” show at MotorCity Casino Hotel’s Sound Board (which was a fab continuation of last year’s holiday concert) occurred when their handler dubbed John and me “the other two degrees” after snapping the above pic. I’ll take that!

We also got to meet IRL superfan Kelly, heretofore only a Twitter pal. She is an absolute doll, and we loved chatting with her during the pre-show activities. And we caught up with my former colleague Sam and met his lovely wife Courtney who is a lifelong fan but had never had a chance to see the group live. 98 Degrees bringing the world together!

This year’s show is a continuation of last year’s “At Christmas,” which had a more nuanced and varied approach than this year’s offering. It’s a shame they cut last year’s highlight cover of Joni Mitchell’s chilling “River.” Conversely, I don’t ever need to hear “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in this lifetime again.

Nonetheless, the boys continue to have a ball at this career mid-point, loose and fluid and fun. Imagine if the third string of your high school football team suddenly gave up sports for the glee club. If you catch the show, splurge for the VIP meet and greet. The boys’ mic check and Q&A are authentic, frisky and kind-hearted, and the photo op interaction reveals how grateful and down-to-earth these dudes are.

Review of last year’s show here: https://reelroyreviews.com/2017/12/18/boy-bands-who-dance-make-more-money-98-degrees-let-it-snow-concert-at-detroits-sound-board-plus-the-barn-christmas-cabaret-blaine-fowler-and-christmas-story-live/

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

“Dog Almighty.” A Thanksgiving analysis of the films Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs

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There is no question that this world feels more than a bit broken these days. Over this Thanksgiving holiday, we took in three films that all deal with our shared past, present, future imperfect in poignant, heartrending, riotous, and allegorical ways: Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs. In essence, all three deal with the fact that our world is governed by people who don’t always have our best interests at heart … nor, in fact, have any interests but their own in mind.

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Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley‘s best-selling memoir, is a gut punch with a surprisingly light touch – as much about family, faith, being true to one’s own self, and integrity as it is about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. Directed with a balanced and nuanced approach by Joel Edgerton (who also plays the head conversion “therapist” with a refreshing lack of Snidely Whiplash-ism), the film withholds judgment on well-meaning parents whose hearts are in the right place even if their actions couldn’t be more out-of-touch. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are absolute magic as an Arkansas couple whose capital-C Christianity defines every square inch of their lives. He is a pastor AND runs a Ford dealership where the salespeople begin each day with a group prayer. Ah, the American Southland. Am I being judgy? Ah well.

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Lucas Hedges ably portrays their prototypical all-American golden boy Jared – a basketball-playing, cheerleader-dating, Mustang-driving alpha-male-in-training. Except, he isn’t. He’s a sensitive and dutiful son following the recipe-for-life set before him by his noble if misguided parents, still striving to define himself in a world far too ready to box him in with hetero-normative conventions. The irony is that Jared is the purest soul, lost amidst elders who purport purity yet are more obsessed with human sexuality than the supposed “deviants” they seek to condemn. The textbook definition of “thou dost protest too much.”

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The chief strength of the film is how believably this trio of acting pros – Kidman, Crowe, and Hedges – weaves together a family dynamic that is sad and warm and funny and never melodramatic. This is an essential film and must be viewed by everyone, particularly those arrogant and hypocritical enough to weigh in on social issues that they lack the empathy to fully comprehend.

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What is it about Australians – like Crowe and Kidman – that they are capable of translating the American experience to film better than most Americans? And here we have fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman offering a pensive, detailed, reserved, dynamite turn as 1988 presidential hopeful Gary Hart in director Jason Reitman’s stellar flick The Front Runner. Jackman is aided and abetted by the always magnificent Vera Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering but never victimized wife. Jackman and Farmiga are a formidable acting combination, and I would love to see them do something again soon.

Jackman has always been a twinkling presence (a true blue Greatest Showman) – sometimes even a glowering, steroidal, twinkling presence  (Wolverine … and Jean Valjean) – but I had my doubts that he had the chops to be unapproachable and unlikable yet still admirable in a ripped-from-the-headlines character role like this. I was wrong. (I do think his hair and makeup people should be fired, though, for the weird dusty mop they plopped on his noggin in the film.)

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Reitman has surrounded his leads with a fantastic supporting cast – including exceptional JK Simmons and Alfred Molina as two sides of the same benevolent puppet-master coin, the first as Hart’s campaign manager and the latter as The Washington Post’s editor. Furthermore, Reitman uses the controversy surrounding Hart’s infidelity which derails his campaign as a sharp-eyed allegory on today’s contentious and never-ending donnybrook between politicians and news media.

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Is a public figure’s personal life fair game for the media? Is a private transgression a worthy public measure of integrity? Do people care, or do they only care when it benefits their party of affiliation? And what of the ongoing invisibility and disposability of women in said process, be they spouse or mistress or aide or voter?

The film raises all of these questions in the context of what once seemed a charmingly bygone era, yet offers us, today, no easy answers. Significantly, Reitman turns the mirror on ourselves, challenging the viewer to assess his or her own culpability in perpetuating this madness, and that is a marvelous hat trick.

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But would you believe me when I said that the best and most pointed analysis of our current milieu comes from what is ostensibly a children’s animated film about dogs banished to a garbage heap island by a Japanese magistrate who prefers cats over canines? I predict masters theses will be written about Isle of Dogs at liberal arts colleges and universities all over the land 20 years from now.

I’m not crazy about director Wes Anderson. Twee sarcasm is not usually something that screams “great night at the movies” to me. His Isle of Dogs (now on home video), blessedly, is anything but.

Imagine Richard Adams’ novel Plague Dogs or George Orwell‘s Animal Farm adapted to film by Quentin Tarantino, using Manga-stylized puppets and stop-motion animation. Isle of Dogs is sweet-natured yet caustic, escapist yet blisteringly critical, whimsical yet horrifying. If there is a movie that pushes and explores and avails itself of every inch and vista what the artsy fartsies call “cinema,” this is it.

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The script is layered and thoughtful and addresses everything from animal rights to totalitarianism to the twin toxicities of apathy and wishful thinking. The film’s core message, beyond that we should be kind to animals and to each other and that tolerance and inclusion heal? It’s this: if you want this damn world to change, get in there and change it. Anderson seems to be directly addressing any children watching his film that if you see oppression or evil, take it upon yourselves to stop it. Adults are too fat and lazy to care. The young human protagonists in this film are heroic in a way that goes beyond the fantasy role-playing of, say, Dorothy Gale or Katniss Everdeen, presenting young audience members with salient and actionable examples to follow.

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Oh, and the voice cast is to die for, including Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, and, yes, Yoko Ono. The titular dogs are, yes, adorable but with agency and surety and never one moment of infantilism.

Hot damn!

Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and appreciation. It’s also a time to think about what’s next and where you want to go. This seemingly serendipitous combination of films does indeed add up to a pretty important road map. One worth following. For that, I am thankful.

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

A night at the opera: Tipping Point’s production of A Comedy of Tenors

Originally published at EncoreMichigan here

“Dying is easy, but comedy is hard” goes the old mantra, hyperbolically detailing the degree of difficulty for making an audience laugh. That said, it probably should be modified to read: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and farce is impossible.” Whether you love farce or not (I sorta don’t), it requires the crack timing of a Swiss clock, the physicality of a gymnast, and the rapid-fire delivery of a machine gun.

Fortunately, for those in the opening night audience of Tipping Point’s latest A Comedy of Tenors, farce is one of the company’s super powers.

The piece, a sequel to Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor, details the chaotic hours before an operatic concert of three (maybe four) tenors in 1930s Paris. As the performance hangs in the balance from the tempestuous machinations of a set of male divas (toxic masculinity in its absurdist reality), producer Saunders (a hellzapoppin’ human stress-ball performance by company mainstay Dave Davies) flips every lever, ethical and otherwise, so that the show can go on.

As you can imagine, many doors are slammed as the cast romps about Monika Essen’s creamy-fine French Moderne set (someone be sure to reinforce all those floor joists for the duration of the run!). Costuming by Suzanne Young is period-perfect, ultra-tailored gorgeousness. And with Midwesterners trying their hands at a world’s atlas worth of dialects (high and low country Italian, Brooklynite, Russian), dialect coach Christopher Corporandy has his work cut out for him … and succeeds with “it’s a small world after all” aplomb. Able lighting and sound design, effortlessly transitioning the action from hotel suite to arena stage and back again, are provided by Neil Koivu and Julia Garlotte respectively.

The cast is on the balance terrific. As opera superstar Tito, the emotional vortex of this comic storm, Richard Marlatt is clearly having a ball, and, pun intended, never misses a note. I won’t spoil the first-act surprise, but he has to work double-time and applies a refreshing amount of nuance to differentiate the contrasting moments he has to play. He is aided and abetted by the ever-fabulous Sarab Kamoo as his long-suffering, take-no-prisoners wife Maria.

Joe Zarrow brings a lovable accessibility to production assistant turned singing sensation Max, and Nick Yocum sparkles as young matinee idol sensation Carlos. Tito and Maria’s Hollywood hopeful daughter Mimi could be a thankless role, bringing more narrative complication than character definition, but Hope Shangle nicely blends the hot-headed charm and earnest pragmatism of her stage parents. Last but certainly not least, Melynee Saunders Warren is a Molotov cocktail tossed into the play’s second act as a Russian chanteuse whose unrequited love for Tito escalates the mania to a fever pitch. She is sheer slinky stage magic.

The script is more sitcom than art, and that’s just fine. The opening night audience was enrapt by the crackerjack performances. Directed with military precision by Angie Kane Ferrante (assistant direction by Mary Conley), this top-of-their-game cast elevates the material and delivers a fine and fun evening of escapist entertainment. And, heaven knows, we all could use that. A frisky holiday offering from the always exceptional Tipping Point.

Tipping Point Theatre presents Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors Thursdays through Sundays, November 15 through December 23. Previews November 15 and 16 include talkbacks the producing artistic director James R. Kuhl and director Angie Ferrante. Tickets are $26. Senior citizens 62 and older: $2 off per ticket; groups of 15 or more: $3 off per ticket for all performances, excluding previews and opening night. This may be combined with the senior discount. All tickets are available online at http://www.TippingPointTheatre.com.

Click here for show days, times and details.

Thanks, David Liebrecht of Heartland Home Health & Hospice, for the nice shout out at the 57 minute mark here on Mark S. Lee’s “Small Talk” program. And to Brenda Zawacki Meller of Meller Marketing for alerting me! Always a fun and informative show.

Plus, Blaire Miller, CCM, MBA of Hunter Group, Sheilah Clay and Linda Little MBA, RN, CCM of Neighborhood Service Organization – NSO, Bob Lambert of Detroit Foundation Hotel, and Paula Christian Kliger, PhD of Psychological Assets Pc.

Listen to Small Talk with Mark S. Lee – November 18th, 2018 by Lee Group #np on #SoundCloud

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

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Beautiful Boy (film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Felix Van Groeningen’s film adaptation of David Sheff’s memoir Beautiful Boy is, alas, one of those movies that doesn’t do anything terribly well. Neither poignant and tear-jerking nor haunting and horrifying, neither evocative and transporting nor gritty and (forgive me) sobering, Beautiful Boy attempts to be a harrowing account of a father (Steve Carrell, all professorially hirsute and mincingly whiny) watching his beloved first born (Timothee Chalamet, all Gen X shaggy and sullenly whiny) circle the drain of crystal meth addiction.

I wanted to care. I wanted to be invested. I hear that the book is quite compelling. Perhaps I should have spent my time reading it instead.

This is the kind of film that makes me understand why the Fox & Friends tin-foil-hat brigade hates us liberals. The family in the film is all northern California boho charm, too cool to parent exactly right, having only momentary flirtations with actual discipline. Why read your kid the riot act when you can smoke a doobie all-hipster style with him at his high school graduation? This is the kind of film where stepmom is a groovy painter (Maura Tierney, all furrowed brow pout and earnestly whiny); dad’s manopausal new toe-headed toddlers never get haircuts and have cutesy names like Jasper and Daisy; the family pads around super-casz in their sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright-esque redwood-and-glass ranch; and they tool around town in a vintage Volvo station wagon (“boxy but good!”) with two bounding retriever mutts in tow. Lord, these people annoyed me. “Hey, we’re having a crisis that would cripple any normal family … so let’s all go surfing.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film only manages to grind to some kind of life in its final 20 minutes as Carrell’s David Sheff finally writes off a son who is beyond redemption and Chalamet’s “beautiful boy” Nic Sheff truly hits rock bottom as a result. This is where the film’s bloodless dispassion does pay off. We, as an audience, have grown as numb and as immune as David to Nic’s manipulations, so when we see Nic at his most disgustingly debased, we realize that Nic’s only way out is to come face-to-face alone with his demons (and they are legion). End scene.

I’m not sure what this genre of film should be called: “Pretty hippies with moolah have troubles too?” I blame Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach and Lisa Cholodenko and their self-indulgent directorial ilk. I attended a “magnet school” growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the campus was rife with kids from clans like that in this film; I’m guessing these directors are likely my age and came from similar upbringings as those classmates of mine. I’m probably just a cranky old fart at this point, but if I was even drinking too much Coca Cola as a teen, you’re damn well certain my parents wouldn’t just look casually over their shoulders as I passed through the front door to God-knows-where and say, “Have a good time!” I’m being judgmental, but then why else do we watch movies like this, if it isn’t to walk away empathizing “glad that’s not my life”?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I should probably say more about about the movie. It’s a bore. A crashing bore. I wasn’t sure if the film wanted to be a navel-gazing After School Special cautionary tale on the dangers of drugs or was simply in love with its own masturbatory misanthropy. It’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

If I want to watch a film that crawls under my skin and nails the familial destabilization substance abuse can cause, give me Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Days of Wine and Roses (at least that one has a lush theme song), The Lost WeekendLess Than ZeroTrainspotting, The Fighter or, hell, 28 Days.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Indeed.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

“It’s America: They’re Puritans in public, perverts in private.” Bohemian Rhapsody (film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I wanted to love Bohemian Rhapsody. I really did.

One of the first 45s (remember those?) which I bought with my own money was Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” and I wore out many a needle on my little Raggedy Andy record player listening to their day-glo Flash Gordon soundtrack on endless repeat.

That said, is there a rock group of the past 40 years that is more rife with the potential for gonzo, heartbreaking baroque cinematic poignancy than Queen?! Lead singer Freddie Mercury’s out-sized public persona and haunted inner turmoil are ready-made for the kind of swirling epic that is both audience catnip and Oscar bait this time of year.

Alas, embattled director Bryan Singer is no Milos Forman, Stanley Kubrick, or, heck, Baz Luhrmann, and, in his hands, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes a serviceably entertaining yet never transcendent paint-by-numbers affair. A well-intentioned, well-acted Wikipedia entry.

Much has been written about Rami Malek’s transformation into Freddy Mercury. I’m not sure he quite lives up to the hype. When bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor (a sparkling Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy) steal scenes from Mercury, you may have a problem. (IRL, May and Taylor are producers on the film. Go figure.) Malek does compel as a little-boy-lost caught between cultures in love with his voice but at odds with his sexuality and his ethnicity. Yet, he never inspires in the way the real Mercury could with the mere flick of an eyebrow. Malek’s limpid banjo eyes and cumbersome prosthetic teeth are more static Al Hirschfeld caricature than true character development.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film is at its playful best when detailing the creation of Queen’s biggest stadium thumpers like “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” and the titular mock-opera tune. The ensemble is clearly having a ball playing dress-up and re-enacting Queen’s free-wheeling creative process. There is a fun cameo by Mike Myers as a small-minded producer baffled by the neo-classical camp charms of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (A sly wink at Myers’ Wayne’s World movie which introduced a new generation to the number, rocketing it up the pop charts once again.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film is less successful when it addresses Mercury’s challenged and challenging personal life. The film wants to paint this singular misfit as an everyman, a libidinous Warholian svengali for the Jock Rock crowd. It just doesn’t quite work, alas. At one point, the band opines, “It’s America: They’re Puritans in public, perverts in private.” One wonders if that notion didn’t hang up the filmmakers as well.

There is a gut punch of a movie in Mercury’s life, a celebratory cautionary tale about creative spark, sexual impulse, and uninhibited expression. Unfortunately, Bohemian Rhapsody ain’t it. A cheap, slight K-Tel hits collection when a messy, overlong box set was required.

Oh, and, Sacha Baron Cohen, I’d still like to see your version of this story.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

“Our blackness is the weapon they fear.” The Hate U Give (film review)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A young woman, torn between two worlds, discovers her voice and her resolve and becomes a champion of her people in the face of tyranny. This trope has long-defined a good chunk of young adult fiction from The Wizard of Oz to The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland to Divergent. However, those works use allegorical fantasy to safely distance the reader from the tumult of real-life. Oh, and those works all feature a female protagonist who is white. There may be a sidekick or two of color, but that’s it.

Angie Thomas jettisons the allegory and brings us face-to-face with the racism, sexism, and economic disparity crippling our country in her young adult novel The Hate U Give (title courtesy of a 2Pac lyric), now sure-handedly adapted into film by director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Barbershop, Notorious).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

African-American teen Starr Carter – portrayed in the film with exceptional fire and presence by Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) – is a luminous and high-potential presence at Williamson, her all-white, upper-class high school . Her principled parents (Girls Trip‘s Regina Hall and Fences‘ Russell Hornsby delivering just the right mix of haunted bravery and pragmatic compassion) have kept the family residing in neighboring Garden Heights – a hardscrabble community riddled with gun violence, drug lords, and countless dead ends – to remain close to their roots, but they drive their kids to Williamson to give their progeny a leg up on their education. I suspect there is a lot that could be written about those parenting choices (pro and con), but that is the narrative conceit around which The Hate U Give‘s story revolves.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

One night, after attending a house party in her home town, Starr witnesses one of her dearest and oldest friends (a heartbreakingly charming Algee Smith – Detroit) gunned down in a routine traffic stop. The narrative then tracks her challenges overcoming her own fears and those of her parents – re: taking a stand and testifying – as well as her burgeoning realization that her well-intentioned but myopic classmates don’t know the first thing about the daily dangers Starr faces in her own neighborhood.

Tillman’s film is a gut punch, particularly in its nuanced first hour, as we are introduced to Starr’s world(s) and trace the tricky balancing act she performs every day. If there is a flaw in the film, it is that – due to the time-limitations of film versus novel – the Williamson side of Starr’s life is relatively unexplored and her school chums remain ciphers, chiefly providing the occasional plot complication and little more.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is exceptional: Selma‘s Common as Starr’s loving but arguably hypocritical policeman uncle who collects a paycheck while (sort of) accepting the party line to “shoot first, ask questions later”; Captain America‘s Anthony Mackie as a local drug lord who was once best buds with Starr’s father and whose children remain Starr’s pals; Riverdale‘s KJ Apa wringing his Archie Andrews best from an underwritten role as Starr’s boyfriend; and singer Sabrina Carpenter (“Thumbs“) as one of Starr’s besties who devolves into the junior version of Laura Ingraham before Starr’s very eyes.

Apparently, I will spend this autumn in the multiplex in a puddle of tears. A Star is Born gutted me, and, now, The Hate U Give had the same impact. The latter film grows increasingly predictable as it reaches its climactic moments, but it is so well-executed with such authenticity and is so sensitively relevant to the callous and cruel days in which we are living that I found myself having about 12 ugly cries through its running time. I attribute that, not only to Tillman’s confident and workmanlike direction, but to performances – particularly Stenberg’s, Hall’s, and Hornsby’s – that stubbornly refuse to embrace cinematic escapism. This family is a loving one, rife with disagreements, but ultimately wanting to rise above the fray and simply live.

We all want that. We all need that. We all deserve that. Yet, every day when I read the headlines, that seems to be an increasingly unattainable pipe dream.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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