“And that’s how trees get planted!” Sarah Silverman at Caesars Windsor

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[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

“And that’s how trees get planted!” exclaimed comedian Sarah Silverman (last night at Caesars Windsor) at the end of a particularly funny bit about how squirrels misplace 80% of the nuts they hide every winter and how these adorable creatures’ manic, OCD, memory-challenged behavior must be an evolutionary development to ensure our lands remain appropriately forested.  The moment was less of a punchline to a joke and more of a personal epiphany that she just couldn’t NOT share with audiences far and wide. And it was priceless.

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.

Sarah Silverman at Caesars Windsor

Roy and John hit Caesars Windsor for Sarah Silverman

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.

[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

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.

[Todd Barry - Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

[Todd Barry – Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

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.

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[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

[Image Source: Caesars Windsor Facebook Page]

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.

“What’s there tells a story, if you read between the lines.” Hidden Figures

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The human mind. Regardless the gender, race, age, creed, ethnicity of the physical form carrying that brain around, intellect can be the great unifier, driving humanity’s greatest contributions to this planet. Sadly and too often, our simplistic yet unrelenting cultural need to categorize and compartmentalize makes us lock away – belittling, ignoring, neglecting – the contents of brilliant minds in a vault of misogyny, prejudice, fear, and hate.

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.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” Jackie (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is a real flesh-and-blood human being actually feeling in the midst of historical crisis? Forget how a history book packages the moment or how a watercolor painting inspires or what a media soundbite mythologizes or what the gossip-mongers would have us believe. What does the heart and mind actually experience when all hell is breaking loose around one, and how does that manifest in terms of integrity and leadership?

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

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“They worship everything and value nothing.” La La Land

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is La La Land the second (or even third or fourth) coming of the great movie musical? Not exactly. To call it a “musical” seems a bit overblown, as the flick’s songs (by newcomer Justin Hurwitz) come and go more like incomplete yet tuneful doodles as opposed to full-fledged numbers. The choreography is about two notches above a rhythmic walk down the street, and the singing … well … the singing makes Rex Harrison’s trademarked talk/sing (see My Fair Lady, Dr. Dolittle) sound like Adele at Carnegie Hall. Yet, I think that half-assed musicality is all by design on the part of director Damien Chazelle, who was responsible for Whiplash, one of my favorite films of the last ten years.

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.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“Times are changing.” Or so we had hoped … Fences (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Nothing says happy holidays like a little family drama, and just in time for Christmas is Fences, a cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play directed by and starring Denzel Washington. Fences focuses on the inner workings of an African-American family in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s.

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

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Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise …

Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise!

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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.

Holiday warning: “Deck the Halls”


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.


Thanks to Will Britton for this image (above) – a wonderful Christmas surprise!

“She’s made of salad and Smart Water.” Office Christmas Party

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m not always sprung on the big ol’ dumb, vulgar, “high concept” (ironic turn of phrase) film comedy.

There is an army of moviegoers who can quote every line from the National Lampoon’s Vacation series, Airplane!Neighbors, The Naked Gun or Horrible Bosses. I’m not that fellow.

There are exceptions for me – Bridesmaids, the FIRST Bad Santa, Bad Words, Borat. Maybe the naughty movies I like all must start with the letter “B”?

I’m no prude, and I don’t mind seeing some big screen debauchery, as long as it’s in service to a story. And if the ribald flick in question celebrates a misfit or two, giving the marginalized among us a chance to shine? All the better.

Let’s just say I’m shocked how much I enjoyed Office Christmas Party. On its surface, it looks like a frat boy fever dream (and it sort of is), waving the PARTY! bro culture flag from a wobbly pedestal of cheap beer kegs. Yet, something else is afoot in this particular entry of a tired, yet lucrative, genre: kindness.

The narrative is feather weight. A tech company in Chicago struggles to find its footing after the death of its founder amidst the Cain-and-Abel feuding of his two children. T.J. Miller (Deadpool) plays Clay, a Millennial ne’er-do-well with a Santa-sized heart-of-ADHD-gold, and Jennifer Aniston is an arsenic-in-the-eggnog hoot as sister Carol, a Scrooge in training for whom the holidays are a mind-numbing drain on the firm’s bottom line.

With an interest solely in her standing with the company board and with Wall Street, Carol cancels all holiday festivities and threatens drastic job cuts throughout the charmingly dysfunctional organization. (A timely holiday tale this!) Consequently, Clay schemes with his merry band of misfit colleagues (Jason Bateman, Oliva Munn, Kate McKinnon, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer, Sam Richardson) to throw the be-all-end-all of office holiday shindigs, in an effort to save their year-end financials (and thereby the company) by wooing a potential new client (Courtney B. Vance, simultaneously slumming and classing the film up, a deceptively understated and utterly charming performance).

The titular party itself – ostensibly the centerpiece of this admittedly overlong movie – is perhaps surprisingly not the film’s high point. There are funny bits once the sozzled chaos kicks in, but mostly the soiree itself is cluttered and silly, not particularly funny, badly filmed, and occasionally too gross to be believed. However, I saw the party the way I see the shark in Jaws: a necessarily evil around which to hang the much better and more engaging story elements and performances. You know the shark is coming, but it is the suspense of getting there and the fall-out after the fact that is really interesting.

Aniston fares best in the enterprise, taking what is essentially an extended cameo and ruling the film with a turn of her stiletto heels and a flick of her acid tongue. I never bought Aniston as “America’s sweetheart” – from Friends through the Enquirer headlines to a host of empty-caloried rom-coms. As “America’s slightly wounded, understandably-pissed-off mean girl,” she’s a stitch. She fires off the film’s best lines and moments, from her showdown with a bratty Cinnabon-stealing rugrat in an airport lounge to her Russian-speaking, krav maga throwdown with three mob enforcers in a South Side speakeasy (yes, you read that correctly). Bateman deadpans to her would-be opponents, “Be careful. She’s made of nothing but salad and Smart Water.”

Bateman, as the company’s chief tech officer, is less smarm, more broken-hearted sweet than I’ve ever seen him. That color looks good on him. Munn is world-weary, observant fun as Bateman’s development partner, whose feminist savvy and tech smarts ultimately save the day for all.

As a meddlesome, anxiously PC human resources manager, McKinnon wrings mirth and sparkle from every moment she’s onscreen (of course!), but, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saddling the woman with wigs that make her look like she stepped off an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. It’s part of her gimmick, but it sure isn’t necessary to making her riotously funny.  Funny – edgy and relatable – is just in her soul. About her beloved mini-van, McKinnon’s character opines, “It’s a Kia. It’s what God would drive.”

(And, while we’re at it, let’s cast McKinnon, Aniston, and Munn in a cerebral comedy that doesn’t involve wigs nor an EDM-thumping soundtrack nor body shots nor gratuitous nudity. The three of them have dynamite chemistry together and deserve a better film.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This brings us to Miller. I suspect, in part, this film has been engineered as a marketing ploy to jet fuel his minor-key career into the junk blockbuster comedy movie star stratosphere (e.g. Kevin Hart, Adam Sandler, and a bunch of other un-funny men whose careers cause me mental anguish). I don’t think it’s going to work. To his credit, Miller subsumes himself to the ensemble, but he is also really one note. Playing the shaggy-haired, spoiled, left-of-center party boy is a limited run, and Miller may have already overstayed his welcome. Perhaps, not unlike Office Christmas Party, he will surprise us, embracing more of the nerdy sweetness that makes him endearing and losing the raise-the-roof shenanigans that make him obnoxious? Time will tell.

As for Office Christmas Party, underneath its holiday gross-out gimmicks, this is a movie where people care about one another and where the existential threat of losing one’s job has meaning beyond setting up the next joke. Where Miller and company succeed is in the camaraderie and care they show their fellow man. Directed with workmanlike vigor by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, sitcom stupid set-ups abound, but there are lovely quiet moments as well. For instance, Bateman’s office-rounding as he starts his day is filled with gentleness, redirecting various associates as they bully one another or spin perilously out-of-control under the white hot glare of office politics. Furthermore, as the film devolves into broad comic silliness (car chases and the like), the primary characters still worry about each other, and their actions (extreme and cartoonish as they are) still come from a place of compassion. This might be one of the first office Christmas parties where you’ll want to spend more time in the office and less time at the party.

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bluebelllofts2bAnd speaking of Christmas, enjoy this lovely Old Type Writer column by my talented mom Susie Duncan Sexton titled “Christmas Gift! Christmas Gift!” (here).

Talk of the Town publishing editor Jennifer Zartman Romano writes in her intro, “Soon, the Historic Blue Bell Lofts, a senior housing facility, will be completed in Columbia City. In the meantime, columnist Susie Duncan Sexton reflects on her memories of the Blue Bell factory.”

Here is an excerpt from the piece: “Observing that impressive restoration feat from afar thrills my very soul. I look forward to grabbing a hard hat and touring the completed facility sooner rather than later. I have driven by the Whitley Street location multiple times. The lump in my throat and the beating of my heart transform into a beaming smile on my old wrinkled, liver-spotted face. Blue Bell, Incorporated has been my life since birth! Happy to have been a part of this metamorphosis!” Read the column by clicking here.

bluebelllofts1b________________________________

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.

“Surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe what Captain America: The First Avenger is to the “Marvel” one. Bear with me here. In the obvious, both films are set in a golden-hued America of yesteryear where art deco glitter and workaday charm belie a dark societal underbelly of xenophobic, segregated bullying. In a more esoteric way, both films are surprising throwbacks to a slower paced, quieter, more subdued (escapist fantasy and overindulgent special effects notwithstanding) kind of film-making, where whimsy and poignancy meet and where heartbroken underdogs have their day.

I like cinema like that – Frank Capra, The Wizard of Oz, Howard Hawks, Saturday matinee cliffhangers, and so on, and even latter day homages like The Rocketeer or Dick Tracy. Modern audiences aren’t always sprung on this kind of retro storytelling – though Fantastic Beasts‘ box office returns seem to buck that trend.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (and the movie adaptations) focused, in a Brit boarding school milieu, on young wizarding students overcoming adversity, championing inclusion, and saving the day. Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Once and Future KingA Separate Peace meets Bewitched. Directed by longtime series helmer David Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a Harry Potter prequel of sorts that explores the American side of this magical world, nearly a century earlier (1926 to be exact) – is a different animal altogether (pun intended).

Newt Scamander (portrayed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne with the same shaggy-dog, twitchy, social misfit schtick he employed in The Theory of Everything) is a Hogwarts dropout who has dedicated himself to rescuing, rehabilitating, and protecting the mythical, magical animals of this world, woebegone creatures that neither muggle nor wizard seem to treat with honor or respect. He ventures across the pond for mysterious reasons, and some of his furry and feathered friends escape his watchful eye to frolic in a Jazz Age Manhattan. Spirited hijinks ensue, with surprisingly genuine peril and minimal lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In fact, Redmayne frets that these runaway critters are now “surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” If Al Gore and PETA collaborated on a Harry Potter backstory, I suspect it wouldn’t be too different from the screenplay J.K. Rowling crafted here. Again: ok by me.

Redmayne is joined by a fabulous rogues’ gallery of character actors:

  • Katherine Waterston, suggesting Maura Tierney’s introspective authority as a low-level American wizard cop;
  • Dan Fogler, the Putnam County Spelling Bee-Tony winner bringing limited comic relief as a sadsack “Non-Maj” and wannabe baker along for the ride;
  • Alison Sudol, breathily transfixing – a Marilyn Monroe with Jessica Chastain’s flint – as Waterston’s mind-reading sis;
  • Ezra Miller, delivering the film’s most refreshingly unsettling moments as a glowering, abused Jimmy Fallon doppelganger (with an Oliver Cromwell haircuit) concealing a deep, dark secret;
  • Samantha Morton, always so ethereally captivating, this time as an ominous, muckraking evangelical;
  • Jon Voight, another great presence, when not getting tripped up by his own politics, ironically cast as a William Randolph Hearst-ish proto-Trump;
  • Carmen Ejogo, stately and evocative as the president of American wizarding society, tangled  in her own bureaucratic machinations;
  • Ron Perlman, nearly unrecognizable as an  Edward G. Robinson-ish mobster troll (literally, a troll), who runs muscle and intel from the murky corners of a Grimms’ fairy tale speakeasy;
  • And Colin Farrell, arguably the best of the bunch, having an understated field day, full of stylish gravitas, as Newt’s chief nemesis, maneuvering chess pieces to ignite a race war between wizards and humans.

Unlike other entries in the Harry Potter canon, Fantastic Beasts unfolds less like a picaresque and more like a candy-colored potboiler. (Technicolor noir?) Why is Newt in America? What is the political endgame for the various players introduced? Why is there such loathing and fear for these beautiful, mischievous creatures Newt hides and hauls around in a battered brown suitcase, a valise that magically hides a portal to Rowling’s version of the world’s grooviest “no-kill” shelter? By the film’s predictably cacophonous denouement (my only criticism), many answers are provided, but enough dangling threads are left to tee up (no doubt) another (very profitable) series of films. I think I’ll be packing my suitcase to tag along.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“They don’t put people like us on television – except to be laughed at.” #HairsprayLive

“They don’t put people like us on television – except to be laughed at.” – Edna Turnblad

This line from the musical Hairspray has always haunted me. I’m not a huge fan of the show, though I’ve always admired Harvey Fierstein and Marc Shaiman’s moxie turning John Waters’ bruise black 1988 satirical film about the horrors and sadness of socio economic marginalization, body shaming, and racial segregation into a bright, frothy Broadway musical. Damn if Shaiman’s tunes aren’t catchy!

But back to that line. Matriarch Edna – played on stage by Fierstein, and the original film by Divine and in the first musical film version by John Travolta – declares this brutal truth to her husband as their relentlessly optimistic daughter chooses to head forth and audition for an American Bandstand-style local teen dance show. 

The Turnblads are anything but the typical Eisenhower Era, squeaky clean, nuclear family. With their rough hewn edges, “life is a banquet but don’t take too much” joie de vivre, economic challenges and “less than Greek” figures, this loving and relatable model of the typical American family does not fit the stylized mold of the typical American family that typical American families like to see on television. And this crucial line is the heartbreaking thesis of the show … and one might argue for daily life in these United States for 99% of us.

The timing of this particular NBC live holiday musical couldn’t be stranger or more appropriate. Fifteen years ago when the musical first hit with its early 1960s setting and focus on the ugly racist/sexist bile concealed under Dippity-do and crinolines, it seemed like a quaint reminder of another era, one which many of us knew we hadn’t actually escaped, but about which we blithely, mindlessly lived in denial anyway. Now that we are making America great again, which may be code for going back to this oppressive, regimented, candy colored era, Hairspray Live felt like a haunting, sickening, Orwellian cautionary tale.

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, working with Fox’s Grease Live director Kenny Leon, seem to have finally landed, more or less, on a successful formula for these social media teasing live events. Other than the unnecessary commercial breaks, with hyperventilating Darren Criss and an army of golf carts hustling panicked actors visibly from set to set, the show was pretty seamless. (Well, there was also the cluttered, confusing, and chaotic camera work… But you can’t have everything.)

Wisely, they stacked the deck with an army of pros in the adult roles, from Fierstein himself revisiting his Tony award-winning part in a winning mix of pea gravel, bombast, and the milk of human kindness to insanely annoying but sharply talented and utterly typecast Kristin Chenowith as race-baiting Cruella de Vil knock off Velma Von Tussle. SCTV vets Martin Short and Andrea Martin added some sweet-natured depth and color as Wilbur Turnblad and Mrs. Pingleton respectively but were often lost in the manic shuffle.

Jennifer Hudson has a miraculous voice – which is her chief super power – but I find her generally overrated as an actor. Regardless, her arrival as Motormouth Maybelle at the midpoint gave the production its finest musical moments and its most heart wrenching reminders of how far we have yet to go – quite literally, in fact, with the number “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Dancing With The Stars’ Derek Hough was the night’s most pleasant surprise, seizing the national spotlight the show provided to plant his flag firmly in Mt. Musical Theatre. His unquestionable technique paired with his slightly skeezy “toot sweets” charm was perfect for the role of Corny Collins, and he made the most of every moment, including what was either a wildly inappropriate or brilliantly meta embedded commercial for Oreo cookies.

The “nicest kids in town” – including newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy, Ariana Grande as Penny, Dove Cameron as Amber, and Garrett Clayton as Link fared less successfully. It’s not that their performances were bad, but they were bland in the face of their scenery chewing elders. It felt like the cast could’ve used another week of rehearsals. However, that has been pretty much the case for every one of these live productions. So be it. Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed was the exception that proved the rule, however. He was a bolt of lightning across the screen, and I wished he’d had more to do.

In short, this particular musical always just seems to exist chiefly as a delivery mechanism for buoyant, electrifying, raucous “anthem for the oddballs” finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and Hairspray Live stuck the landing. I question how “family friendly” a musical that opens with a flasher on the streets and includes double and triple entendres in every other line might be. I chuckled when Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth implored us to “gather the family” in the show’s opening moments. 

That said, the show’s message couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. For all American families. Great and small.

“You can’t stop today/As it comes speeding ’round the track/Yesterday is history/And it’s never comin’ back!”

“How far I’ll go.” The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Disney’s Moana

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I always cringe a bit when I hear the phrase “coming of age” applied to a cinematic or literary or televised narrative. It bespeaks an unwarranted nostalgia for an awkward, nauseating, hormonal epoch which we all share and which we all should forget. Forever. Thoroughly. 

(And people who gleefully remain stuck in their high school years, glorying in the minutiae of their pubescent lives can’t be trusted. Not one whit. They just ain’t right.)

I wonder if what really bothers me about the term is that the “coming of age” concept – let’s charitably upgrade it to the term “personal evolution,” shall we? – should not be limited to one’s teenage decade, when one generally has the perspective of a fruit-fly.  

Do any of us at any age really ever overcome the free-floating, rampant anxiety of peer pressure, isolation, and capriciousness caused by our fellow man on this Big Blue Marble? Nope.

Blessedly, two current films – one a perky animated musical fairy tale and the other … well … not – turn this tired formula on its head, giving us a pair of parables that stealthily inspire while tweaking the status quo.

The Edge of Seventeen, named after the Stevie Nicks’ ditty, which inexplicably never actually appears in the film, stars True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a breath of fresh toxin for whom all the mores and conventions of American youth, public education, and “being cool” are utterly confounding. Unlike spiritual forebears Juno or Mean Girls or Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, doesn’t hold teen life in contempt, as some abstract planet populated by satirical (though accurate) stereotypes. Rather, the film uses the petty disappointments and soul-sucking betrayals of high school days as metaphor and lens for our common, fallible humanity.

Nadine, whose beloved father has passed away, navigates (really poorly) a minefield of family and friends, including a sympathetically caustic Kyra Sedgwick as the mother hanging on by a thread, Glee‘s Blake Jenner in a sweetly understated turn as the golden boy brother whose “head is much too large” for his body, and a wry Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s bored/boring history teacher in another version of his now-trademark folksy sot-with-a-heart-mentor persona (see: Hunger Games‘ Haymitch Abernathy). Newcomer Hayden Szeto steals every scene as Nadine’s classmate and swooning suitor, his open-heart and sharp-wit sympatico with Nadine’s mind – the rare teenage cinematic male not depicted as some skeezy perv.

But the movie is Steinfeld’s. Capitalizing on the Oscar-nominated authenticity she exemplified in her film debut (True Grit) but jettisoning any Coen Bros-dictated pretense and quirk, Steinfeld gives us as pure a depiction of youth-in-revolt as any we may have seen on film (save James Dean in East of Eden – that one’s untouchable). And what makes it even better? Her performance is damn funny. Angst is awkward, and we all can relate to it, but, if you deftly mine the comic gems from emotional pratfalls, you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.

We are all just one bad day away from feeling like we are in adolescent hell all over again, and Edge of Seventeen, built so beautifully around Steinfeld’s layered, affecting portrayal of a young person continually at odds with the ever-shifting rules of a game she doesn’t much want to play, is a revelation.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney’s Moana is the sunny, show-tune-spewing, computer-generated yin to Edge of Seventeen’s yang. Based loosely on Polynesian mythology, the 56th animated offering from the Mouse House, relates the hero’s quest of a teenage girl (Moana, voiced with luminous empathy by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as she seeks the aid of a mischievous but debilitated demigod (Maui, portrayed with smarmy sparkle by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to prevent the destruction of her island home.

Moana isn’t a princess, a point made most emphatically throughout the film; she is the island chief’s daughter. Moana’s respected place as a leader in the hierarchy of rule is never in question, nor is she smitten with some princely suitor. (Of course, it’s a Disney flick so she has a couple of adorably merchandisable sidekicks – in this instance, a pig and a rooster.) The narrative tension is built on her transition to authority, on her solving the impending calamity that will destroy her people, and on her asserting her independence from the cultural norms. Bully for Disney.

I wonder if directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) had in the back of their minds that the timing of this film, coupled with the potential election of America’s first female president, would have offered an impactful statement to young audience members about celebrating the power of equality (gender, race, ethnicity) and leadership therein.  Of course, now there is some unintended irony in the timing, but the message is more essential than ever.

The songs are all written by the inescapable Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) along with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. This may be blasphemy in theatre circles, but, as talented as Miranda may be, his compositions (to my ear) suffer from a repetitiveness of style and form, bordering on monotony. Lucky for Moana, this tendency actually suits animated film (better than the stage), where familiarity speeds action and emotional connection.

That said, the music is all perfectly fine, with Moana’s anthemic “How Far I’ll Go” serving in glowing fashion as this film’s “Part of Your World” or “Belle,” sans any lingering strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” passivity or longing.

Maui’s signature ditty “You’re Welcome” is catchy but underwritten. However, as delivered by consummate showman Johnson (why hasn’t he been cast in a full-blown, live musical yet?!), the number becomes a transcendent, careening take-down of male id and superego.

The standout song for this viewer, though, is “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement as a mountainous crab (yep.), encrusted in gems and precious metals. Imagine if The Jungle Book‘s “Trust In Me” had been written and performed by David Bowie … on a deeply troubling acid trip. In fact, that entire sequence is one of the film’s trippiest (and there are a lot of surreal moments throughout), employing black light, disco ball flourishes, and a Busby Berkeley-choreographed cascade of tropical fish. Is an animator’s penchant toward psychedelia evidence of great inventive genius or of lazy time-filling? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to watch anything these days – movies, TV, cat videos on YouTube – without politicizing the moment. I think many of us, right now, share a palpable fear for the future of diversity in this nation, a nation that’s fundamental core should be tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. That said, and at the risk of overstating my case, movies like Edge of Seventeen and Moana give me hope. We can be good. We can be better than we are. We can celebrate the oddballs, the misfits, and those among us yearning to breathe free. Let’s keep that up, ok?

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moana-pigReel 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.