“I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.” My gluttonous Thanksgiving: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Blinded by the Light, Kinky Boots, Lady & the Tramp, The Mandalorian, and Watchmen

I had a pretty gluttonous Thanksgiving. No, I don’t mean green bean casserole and pecan pie (I loathe pumpkin) and cranberry sauce and corn bread stuffing. I certainly don’t mean turkey. As Tom Hanks, thoughtfully portraying children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, observes in the surreally superlative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.“ Me neither.

No, my holiday indulgences were of the entertainment variety, cramming in as many movies and binge watching as much television as my ever widening derrière could withstand. And, because I am fundamentally sort of lazy and because I realize now that (at times) writing this blog feels more like a penance than a reward for engaging in one of my favorite pastimes (that is, devouring pop culture), this entry is going to be more of a highlight reel of the past several days in entertainment.

It really is kind of a shame (and the luck of the draw) that I devoted 12 (!) paragraphs to Frozen 2 last week, and something as boffo and transcendent as the West End production of musical Kinky Boots (broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances) or Damon Lindelof’s continuation (via HBO) of Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book masterpiece Watchmen will only get a sentence or two.  I can watch this stuff or I can write about this stuff, but it’s getting too damn hard to try to do both and still enjoy it.

Be that (self-pitying moment) as it may, so much of the entertainment I will discuss below shares a common point of view. Whether ethereal drag queens or plucky Pakistani teens who idolize Bruce Springsteen, war-weary space age bounty hunters or cynical costumed vigilantes, precocious Nazi youths who come to realize Adolf Hitler is a less-than-ideal playmate or twinkly-eyed but secretly heavy-hearted kiddie show hosts, the characters who jumped off the screen in these movies and shows share a feverishly urgent demand for kindness, tolerance, justice, inclusion, and love. Timely for this holiday season … and timely for a culture in crisis. As Lola (played by that luminous and shamanistic firecracker Matt Henry) sings in Kinky Boots: “We give good epiphany.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is exceptional, in great part because the cast – the aforementioned Hanks, Matthew Rhys as a hardened journalist determined to find the toxic truth underlying Mr. Rogers’ sunny sanctimony, and Chris Cooper as Rhys’ neglectful/neglected papa – sidestep any mawkishness inherent in the material with their honest, unadorned portrayals. More to the point, director Marielle Heller takes her cue from the source material – an Esquire cover story – turning in a film that is more clear-eyed essay than slice-of-life biopic. Everything in the movie feels as slightly left of center as any episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ever did, acknowledging the program’s twee sensibilities and refracting the show’s heightened sense of “make believe” wonder as a metaphorical context for the tiny cruelties family and friend exact on a daily, perhaps hourly basis. It’s a good movie, not quite a great one, but the comforting cinematic equivalent of a scruffy, slightly embarrassing cardigan and pair of house shoes.

Jojo Rabbit takes the Merrie Melodies lunacy of actor/director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and applies it to the genocidal moral conflict of being a young, patriotically-obsessed citizen in WWII Nazi Germany. Hmmmm. Take The Mortal Storm, The Tin Drum, To Be Or Not To Be, Moonrise Kingdom, The Pianist, Lord of the Flies, and A Christmas Story, throw them into a blender, and have said output be directed  by a less precious, more humane Wes Anderson … after drinking three spiked Red Bulls? The resulting film would be Jojo Rabbit. (Waititi also plays the titular character’s imaginary playmate … Adolf Hitler.) The film depicts a Nazi-aspirant young boy (charismatic Roman Griffin Davis) and his less nationalistic mother (Scarlett Johansson about as charming and vibrant as I’ve ever seen her) surviving the dadaistic absurdity of a country run by race-mongering juvenile delinquents (in other words, an on-the-nose allegory for our presently fraught times). The enterprise works far better than it should, aided and abetted by a witty and whimsical supporting cast including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. By the time this satirical picaresque meanders to its conclusion, you will be shocked a few times, horrified a few more, laughing and maybe crying uncomfortably, in part due to subject matter and in part due to dodgy artistic execution. Again, a good movie with an essential message, and one that may age into something classic as viewers discover it after its theatrical run.

Knives Out is just ok. There are far better versions of this movie and far worse, but I think I’d rather spend an afternoon with Sleuth or Murder by Death, hell, even Deathtrap before giving Knives Out another go. As Daniel Craig, playing a crispy-fried Foghorn Leghorn private detective with none of the zingy Mason-Dixon daffiness he exuded in Logan Lucky, notes regarding the reading of a family will, “Think of a community theatre production of a tax return.” That quote could describe this overeager flick as well. Writer/director Rian Johnson piles on the fake-outs and redirects, putting his breathless cast through its paces, and, while there is fun to be had, there’s just not nearly enough of it. Johnson has assembled a Whitman’s Sampler of movie star character players – Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher freaking Plummer – and they all have moments (Chris Evans and Don Johnson acquitting themselves the best here), but I left the film with itchy teeth and liking everyone involved just a little bit less. That said, I applaud Rian Johnson and company for using the populist entertainment value of this black comedy as a Trojan horse for some biting, insightful social commentary about the entitled wealthy and the festering racism in Trump’s America.

Blinded by the Light (on DVD and streaming) is directed with a sure hand by Gurinder Chadha, employing pretty much the exact same template she rode to international success with Bend It Like Beckham (which in and of itself follows the pattern of so many working class British dramedies like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, depicting resourceful souls rising above class warfare). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a young Pakistani man (an appealing turn by Viveik Kalra) who strives to overcome the racist nationalism (there’s that theme again!) and economic disparity of 1980s Thatcherite England and to break loose from a well-intentioned but overbearing father who can’t understand his boy’s dreams of becoming a writer. (“Where’s the money in that?!” asks this guy writing a movie blog for free.) Instead of soccer, our protagonist finds his muse in the lyricism of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen, encouraged by a wry but loving literature teacher (a marvelous Hayley Atwell) and some beautifully drawn teenage pals (Aaron Phagura and Nell Williams). The film is as predictable as all great fables can be but is delicately executed, well-acted, and simultaneously sobering and inspiring. And, yes, this bonbon of a film seems ready-made to be musicalized.

Speaking of which … Kinky Boots, the Tony-winning musical adaptation by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein of the 2005 Brit comedy film of the same name (which starred a then-unknown Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor), was just broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances. To say the show was perfection – as perfectly kicky as the thigh-high red boots drag queen Lola (and later the entire cast) dons during the show – would be the textbook definition of understatement. This cast was the Olivier Award-winning West End crew, led by Matt Henry (my mother accurately observed … move over Shirley Bassey and Lena Horne) as the transformative Lola who storms into the life of bedraggled shoe-factory scion Charlie (a winning Killian Donnelly) and turns a small town on its collective head … for the better. The factory is days away from closing, and, by reinventing itself to serve the “niche market” of drag queen footwear, changes its fortunes … and the lives (and attitudes) of all who work there. This is no To Wong Foo magical drag queen fairy tale, however. Lola (also known as Simon) is a fully realized, poignant, exhilarating human being, complex, complicated, flawed, perfect. In Henry’s manicured hands, Lola is the heart of the show, a beautiful yin to Charlie’s shaggy yang. The stage relationship between Donnelly and Henry is deeply affecting, propelled by Lauper’s pulsing, percolating, nicely integrated score. Amy Lennox as Charlie’s co-worker, confidante, and eventual love interest Lauren is dynamite, a musical comedy crackerjack, balancing pathos and hilarity brilliantly, sometimes in a single phrase. Kinky Boots celebrates accepting who we are (and the gifts which embracing that truth can bring) with warmth, kindness, and about the best pacing I’ve seen onstage.

Lady & the Tramp (currently streaming on Disney+) is on the small screen where I reckon all of these live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics actually belong. Seriously, 20 years ago, these things would have all been very special presentations on Sunday nights on The Wonderful World of Disney in order to sell theme park tickets before landing on well-worn VHS tapes in the back seats of mini-vans everywhere. That said, this latest re-do ain’t half bad. Lady (voiced with moxie by Tessa Thompson) has an agency she never had in the animated film, and Tramp (a winsome Justin Theroux) just seems less, well, skeezy. There is an overarching effort toward inclusiveness with color-blind casting for the human roles of Jim Dear and Darling that, on one hand, is really refreshing, but on the other creates an inadvertently weirdly white-washed message about what interracial couples would have actually endured in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri. And the problematic “Siamese Cat Song,” ear-wormy as it may have once been, is officially retired. In its place, there is a new and perfectly acceptable ditty to accompany Aunt Sarah’s prized felines’ narrative-essential shenanigans. “He’s a Tramp” is still on the playlist, but this time around is performed with sassy aplomb by Janelle Monae, in the role originated by Peggy Lee. The film is entertaining and pleasant with a timeless message about, yes, accepting our differences … not to mention the importance of responsible pet ownership.

The Mandalorian (currently streaming on Disney+) is about the best Star Wars spin-off to come from LucasFilm in the past 20-some years (if ever), in great part because it doesn’t seem very Star Wars-y. Or at least what “Star Wars-y” has come to mean since the original trilogy debuted: needlessly complicated back story; self-serious and ponderous mythologizing; overlong playing time; character development that seems driven as much by merchandisability as narrative need. The Mandalorian by comparison is a breezy pleasure, a throwback to single-protagonist vintage TV Westerns like The Virginian or The Rifleman (without any intentional swagger/machismo or inadvertent misogyny/racism), wherein our reluctant protagonist becomes the lens through which a different 37-minute parable is told each week. Oh, and there’s a really adorable Baby Yoda, who may be the cutest, funniest creature dreamed up since the Ewoks (yes, I still like Ewoks). Producer/writer Jon Favreau joyfully wears his retro influences on his sleeve (as evidenced by the minimalistic percussive soundtrack and the closing credits sequence, both of which seem channeled straight from 1968). Leading man Pedro Pascal (face forever obscured under his signature bounty hunter helmet – “this is the waaaay“) conveys so much heart, great comedic timing, and an intriguing amount of agnosticism, without benefit of one. single. facial. expression. Four episodes in, and I can’t wait to see where this one is going.

Watchmen (HBO) is so damn good. We had one of those “watch HBO for free!” weekends on Xfinity and, in a less than 24-hour period, we binged the first seven episodes, including tonight’s exemplary “An Almost Religious Awe” (every episode has a great title). I’m going to have to show up on the doorstep of some generous HBO-subscribing friend the next two Sundays to see how this thing wraps up! Any takers? The original DC comic book mini-series (1986-87) deconstructed the very notion of what a superhero was, offering a heady mix of cynicism and optimism, critical of Reagan-era excess and territorialism while satirically reinventing atomic age tropes of flying humans and hooded marvels, all to dissect the morals and ethics of those who set themselves up as our saviors. “Who watches the Watchmen?” Subsequent efforts to adapt the landmark series onscreen (no thank you, Zack Snyder) or revisit in print (just stop, Geoff Johns) have fallen flat, missing the existential trauma at the heart of the work. If you’d told my 14-year-old self that his 46-year-old future would include a triumphant, accessible yet layered, televised continuation of the storyline for a mainstream audience, I never would have believed you. In fact, it is this very question of identity and self and the ephemeral nature of time folding upon itself through memory that gives Watchmen its slippery power. The HBO series replaces the Cold War paranoia of the original comics with an incisive take on the race-baiting xenophobia currently paralyzing our country, in a way that is completely true to the original work while acknowledging how far we have (and haven’t) come as a society. Regina King and Jean Smart are (together) an acting powder keg, wrestling with thorny questions of race and gender, empowered and stonewalled and uninhibited and numb with white-hot rage. The supporting players are to a one excellent – Don Johnson (again!), Tim Blake Nelson, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Frances Fisher, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers – finding Shakespeare in the mundane and delivering a show that isn’t afraid to explore big ideas amongst daily tragedies. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a character unto itself – disco for a dark age, as if Phillip Glass found his groove. I have no idea where this show is going, and I can’t wait to get there … and I really don’t want it to end.

Postscript …

So as gluttony goes, I don’t think I’ll apologize for this indulgence of the mind as my brain is truly spinning with possibility, heading back into a work week, knowing that there are ideas bigger than ourselves as all ideas should be.

“The endless story of expectations wiring inside my mind/Wore me down/I came to a realization and I found a way to turn it around/To see/That I could just be me.”

– “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots

“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”

Alan Moore, Watchmen

“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” –  Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in Joker

“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” – Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in his journal in Joker

“Rated as many stars as possible. Brimming with messages about humanity. Incredible and mesmerizing. The best scene reflected in the poster [Joker descending the steps, fully realized]. The film turns embedded prejudices and mindsets and pseudo-psychology and psycho-babble on their collective heads. Disturbing? Yes. Important to view with an open mind? Absolutely! Not your typical comic book villain nor hero. Heartbreaking but enlightening. Stay focused and let this gem penetrate your heart. All due to the earnest performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Bravo and hallelujah!” – Susie Sexton, my mom, in her review as shared on Facebook.

___________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Joker is a brilliant, heartbreaking, honest, essential film. Its lesson? Focus on the origin with empathy if you truly want to avert the outcomes depicted. Best film I’ve seen this year.

Joaquin Phoenix, who has always been one of our most dependable if at times criminally underrated actors, gives the performance of a lifetime as Arthur Fleck, a man shattered by a relentlessly unforgiving society that has rarely, if ever, graced him with a kind word or charitable thought. Far TOO much has been written that Joker will inspire “lone wolf” killers to act upon their most marginalized feelings and strike us good, pure, honest citizens down as we cheerfully consume material goods, collect our paychecks, and avoid our own hidden pain(s). Bullsh*t.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Those folks who shout “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of firearm-fueled massacre, those folks who say we need “mental health awareness” not “gun control,” those folks who turn a blind eye to the institutionalized bullying that breaks sensitive souls? This movie should be required viewing for them (us) all. The true criminal act is to imply violence occurs in a vacuum, to suggest that mental breaks from reality are somehow apropos of nothing, and to look past our collective tendency to pathologically distance ourselves from the very people who need our help the most. Joker is the movie we all need desperately right now.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It is also interesting to me that casual viewers see Joker as “too dark” or “too intense” or “too morally ambiguous” for a comic book movie. I recommend you turn an eye toward 1988’s Alan Moore/Brian Bolland seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke (written over 30! years ago), which, while not a literal blueprint for Todd Phillips’ film, provides Joker with its essential DNA. Moore was one of the first to plumb the depths of why the Clown Prince of Crime is the way he is. (Tim Burton lifted the most superficial of aspects here for 1989’s Batman with its fixation on the yin/yang duality of Batman and his primary nemesis.) In The Killing Joke, we see a man rejected and broken by one disappointment upon another, until he finally succumbs to the message he believes he’s been receiving all along: you aren’t wanted by this world, so let this world know how little you want it. It was a powerful and disconcerting take in its day, made even more controversial due to its scenes depicting the rape and torture of Batgirl and her father Commissioner Gordon. Blessedly, Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, Borat) working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, gives us the sense memory of The Killing Joke while jettisoning Moore’s more misanthropic/sadistic tendencies.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Joker is a movie I will be thinking about for a very long time. I could cry now reliving Phoenix’ early scenes – his glimmers of puppy-like hope dashed by one cruel word after another, his eyes conveying decades of hurt, his fractured heart yearning for empathy. It is a remarkable performance, layered and loving, with a Chaplinesque understanding that the most compelling underdogs are simultaneously winsome and incendiary. The turn he takes, slowly, methodically, as he is increasingly battered, does eventually result in violent impulse, but the film is not the bloodbath some might have you believe. There are three particularly shocking flashes of rage, as Arthur/Joker rewards his tormentors with the very lessons they have been teaching him. In each instance, there is a logic – and a horror – and unlike most Hollywood films, in Joker, violence has consequence and emotional weight. I believe that is a crucial distinction that pundits aren’t making, and I’m not entirely sure why.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The cinematography by Lawrence Sher and the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir are almost characters in Joker unto themselves, crucial to the narrative, framing the film’s emotional grace notes and enveloping the audience in an increasing sense of disorientation. And the supporting cast, including Robert DeNiro as a smarmy talk show host, Frances Conroy as Arthur’s tortured mother, Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbor and possible love interest, and Brett Cullen as a Trumpian Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s papa) are all excellent – Dickensian specters dancing in and out of the passion play in Arthur’s mind.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice,” Arthur observes as he becomes the reflection of the dark society in which he dwells. Joker is, in fact, a subversive film because it dares to suggest that we, each and every one of us – with our casual cruelty, our blithe self-absorption, our overt thuggery – are responsible for the toxicity in our society, for those who are broken by it, and for those who act violently upon it. There is no easy blame in Joker, and that’s why the film may make some self-righteous souls uncomfortable.  Joker swivels the mirror on its audience and hisses, “You are the problem, and only you can fix it.”

___________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“On Wednesday night I attended the New York Film Festival and witnessed a cinematic masterpiece, the film that last month won the top prize as the Best Film of the Venice International Film Festival. It’s called Joker — and all we Americans have heard about this movie is that we should fear it and stay away from it. We’ve been told it’s violent and sick and morally corrupt — an incitement and celebration of murder. We’ve been told that police will be at every screening this weekend in case of ‘trouble.’ Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of. I would suggest the opposite: The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie. Because the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us. Yes, there’s a disturbed clown in that mirror, but he’s not alone — we’re standing right there beside him.” – Michael Moore in a Facebook post about Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“To appreciate Joker I believe you have to have either gone through something traumatic in your lifetime (and I believe most of us have) or understand somewhere in your psyche what true compassion is (which usually comes from having gone through something traumatic, unfortunately). An example of dangerous compassion would be to, say, make a film made about the fragility of the human psyche, and make it so raw, so brutal, so balletic that by the time you leave the theatre you not only don’t want to hurt anything but you desperately want an answer and a solution to the violence and mental health issues that have spun out of control around us. This film makes you hurt and only in pain do we ever want to change. It’s all in the irony of trauma — a fine line between the resentment of wanting to hurt society back for raping you of a decent life, for not protecting you, and accepting what feels like alien feelings with softening to those others who seem freakish in our era of judgment, and digital damnation. Like kids in Middle School: man, they can just be mean. For no reason. And, sometimes, those awful little clicky [sic] kids breed an evil in someone that rages much later, when everyone pretends we are all back to normal, when we all thought it had just manned up and gone away. We have a habit of hating and ostracizing and dividing and sweeping our problems under the rug. Joker, is simply lifting the rug and looking underneath it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s there.” – Josh Brolin in an Instagram post about Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

___________________

Thank you to Thomas Paden and the Canton Chamber for this TV opportunity to discuss our #RealMenWearPink Detroit campaign. View here.

Grateful to be interviewed alongside rock stars Denise Isenberg Staffeld and Megan Schaper. And stick around to the end to see/hear the official video of yours truly singing #PureImagination with accompaniment by super talented Kevin Robert Ryan.

If you feel so moved to donate, please click here.

“Breast cancer affects everyone women and men. That’s why we’re recruiting men to fight breast cancer through Real Men Wear Pink. This distinguished group of community leaders is determined to raise awareness and money to support the American Cancer Society’s mission and save more lives than ever before from breast cancer.”

 

Also, don’t forget that Theatre NOVA’s Follies in Concert opens November 7. I’m playing “Buddy”! We had our first read-through this week, and it’s such a marvelous cast! It’s going to be great fun. Tickets here

Sondheim’s Broadway smash hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. A fundraiser for Theatre NOVA and presented in concert, Follies is a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” ” I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.” Directed by Diane Hill with music direction by Brian E. Buckner. Featuring Sue Booth, Tom Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jaye Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, Edith Lewis and Darnell Ishmel.

___________________

[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.

“Do you still need the cape?” Spider-Man: Far From Home

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a worthy follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming. The first act is cutesy, cloying, and underwritten, but the sparkling, believable kids in the cast (who actually seem like, you know, KIDS) keep things zipping along.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Zendaya as his friend/crush/equal MJ are lighter than air, and Jake Gyllenhaal is great, popeyed, hunky fun as too-good-to-be-true Mysterio. Once the narrative takes a crafty u-turn at the midway mark, the film becomes a frisky, unpredictable, cinematic tilt-a-whirl.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film follows directly onto the events of Avengers: Endgame (making it really hard to review without spoiling anything of the previous film still in theatres). Let’s just say, Peter is haunted by a great loss, tries futilely to fill his former mentor’s very large (iron) boots (and groovalicious aviator shades), and somehow still ends up saving the day, amidst a heaping helping of adorkable teen angst. Holland is arguably the most darling Spider-Man to ever grace the screen, and Zendaya more than holds her own. (Between these films and The Greatest Showman, I can’t wait to see where her career ends up. The sky’s the limit.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The movie does explain how the kids in Peter’s high school were impacted when five whole years were lost (not to mention half of all life on the planet Earth) after that purple, hulking malevolence named Thanos jazz-snapped his Infinity Gauntlet’d fingers. Blessedly, the sturm und drang of the previous Avengers films is shed for sitcom-lite cheekiness about the absurdity of it all in Far From Home.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Just as the entire enterprise seems in peril of spinning off into a Saved By the Bell-esque goof as Peter and his buddies enjoy a pratfall-filled European senior trip, in saunters Gyllenhaal as the prototypical alpha hero, a gleaming surface that belies the cracked-pot interior of a toxic male raging against an invisible machine. Gyllenhaal is pretty underrated across the board, and it is due to performances like this: he makes it look easy to play a Ken doll gone very astray. It isn’t.

In some respects, Far From Home is both a by-the-numbers, assembly line Marvel blockbuster and a sly send-up of all the very movies that preceded it. Issues of identity and fame and pride and the very illusory nature of heroism in this modern Trumpian age of hyperbolic pettiness are rife throughout the film, including the two end credits scenes, both of which (for once) are actually worth sticking around to see.

One of Mysterio’s associates, his browbeaten dresser, harangues him repeatedly,”Do you still need the cape?” to which he responds every time with an exasperated “Yesssss!” The Incredibles, another Disney-corporate product, was the first to opine in a postmodern way about the idiocy of capes and the inherent strangulation danger of flying around with a piece of billowing cloth around one’s neck. The Incredibles‘ Edith Head-inspired superhero fashion designer Edna Mode declared, “NO. MORE. CAPES!” Yet, as Marvel Studios’ copious cinematic output over the past decade has proved as salve and welcome distraction during our stormy IRL times, sadly, yes, we all do still need the cape(s).

______________________

[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.

“You’re always sorry. And there’s always a speech. But we no longer care.” Dark Phoenix (and another thought or two on Hugh Jackman’s The Man. The Music. The Show. in Detroit)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps Dark Phoenix was a creative casualty of corporate wrangling via the finalized Disney/Fox combination that brought the previously Fox-licensed X-Men characters fully back into the Mouse House’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps the X-Men movies should have called it a day (no pun intended) with the far superior Days of Future Past. (Don’t get me started on the candy coated cluster that was its follow-up Apocalypse.) Perhaps longtime writer/new-time director Simon Kinberg should have just stuck with the writing (though that isn’t very good either in Dark Phoenix and not up to par with his previous work). Or perhaps we all are just (finally) suffering from movie superhero fatigue.

All I know is that Dark Phoenix is a soapy bore, not unwatchable by any means, but not a hellvua lot of of fun either.

I began this week taking in erstwhile Wolverine Hugh Jackman’s sunny, zippy one-man The Man. The Music. The Show. at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, and I ended the week with this X-Men: Last Stand retread that made me long for Hugh to show up and sing a few more Peter Allen-penned show-tunes while swiveling his bedazzled 50-year-old-hips. Hugh was a wise man to finally walk away from this sputtering franchise and spend the summer doing what he does (and loves) best. Thank you, X-Men, for giving Hugh his start in this country … and, 20 years later, for setting him free.

Dark Phoenix attempts to right the wrongs of Last Stand, an over-baked muddle from 13 years ago that first told the tale of mutant Jean Grey’s descent into madness via a cosmic-based parasitic “Phoenix force.” I know to non-geeks it sounds absurd, but the original “Phoenix/Dark Phoenix” story-line by Chris Claremont and John Byrne from the late 70s is a beloved one, revolutionary in its day for its exploration of gender issues, agency/autonomy, and how absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Don’t get me wrong. Dark Phoenix tries. Really, really hard. And that’s part of its problem. Too self-serious by half, yet slapdash in its execution, the film takes a solid cast – Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, and Sophie Turner (as the titular antihero) – portraying classic Marvel characters, all lovingly re-established in a fresh, postmodern way with X-Men: First Class, and squanders the whole shebang with heaps of illogical character motivation and turgid dialogue. As Fassbender’s Magneto cautions his bromantic rival James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier: “You’re always sorry. And there’s always a speech. But we no longer care.” True dat.

It’s a shame. It truly is. The series could have gone out on a high-note, pulling all the topsy turvy threads of time travel, lost souls, and marginalized identity into one super nova of an ending … if they’d just have followed the blueprint of the original damn comics. Seriously, look at how many Oscar winners/nominees are in the cast; yet, at times, I thought I was watching Guiding Light: The Mutant Years.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

C’est la vie. The plot, as it is, details how young Jean Grey was orphaned (or was she?) by telepathic powers run amok. Charles Xavier rescues her (or does he?) and raises her as his own, always wary of the limitless powers at her disposal. One epic space shuttle tragedy later, a now-adult Jean Grey finds herself imbued with the nuclear power of a thousand solar systems, but she really just wants to mope around, glare a bit, and throw her enemies into the sides of buildings. Chastain as some alien despot with the albino aesthetic of Edgar Winter seeks Jean’s newfound power for herself. And, blah, blah, blah … more moping, more glaring, more throwing.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique notes to Xavier, “By the way … we women are always saving the men around here. You might want to change the name of this group to X-WOMEN.” Now, THAT’s a movie I think I would have preferred to see. And, as poorly written as that line is, it says something about Lawrence’s uncanny abilities that it lands like the best zinger you’ve ever heard from a Noel Coward comedy. Otherwise, Lawrence is clearly just collecting a paycheck here, waiting for her contract obligations to final run out.

Photos taken by my parents Monday night in Detroit

Back to Hugh. If Dark Phoenix truly is the death knell of the X-Men movie universe, perhaps the rest of the cast should follow suit and launch their own respective concert tours. As noted here earlier, his show is an absolute delight … and also a bit surreal, given that it is the culmination of Jackman’s wildly varied career, plus a melange of influences and experiences close to his heart. It is, in essence, a two-hour midlife crisis, Vegas-style, but a kicky, charming, loving, unmissable one. [Photo album here.]

What I also learned this week is that there are two kinds of people: those who know that Hugh Jackman sings … and those that don’t. As to the former, all I had to do was mention I saw him in concert, and they rattled forth rapturous perspectives on which songster Hugh they loved the most: Les Miserables, Greatest Showman, Oklahoma, The Boy from Oz … all of which were featured in Monday night’s show. As to the latter, I was met with a quizzical gaze and a “what did he do for two hours?!”

Ah, what didn’t he do? Tap dancing to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”? Check. Channeling his best Gene Kelly for a Singin’ in the Rain homage? Check. Working through what felt like some Freudian confessionals about family, romance, and fatherhood? Check. Offering a salute to the atrocities experienced by the aboriginal peoples of his Australian homeland, complete with didgeridoo? Check.

There were some missteps Monday night. A blown mic … or three. Some faulty projection screens. Heartfelt but at times overly fawning tributes to Detroit (we ate it up … but at times it got a bit thick). A strangely sequenced second act that seemed to jettison the chronological overview of the first act for a random grab-bag of themes and ideas. I also admit that I wouldn’t have minded a bit more attention paid to his Tony-winning role in The Boy From Oz. The medley of Allen’s more obvious (for American ears) pop tunes was understandable as was the Rip Taylor-style vamping in the audience; yet, I longed for more of Peter Allen, the brilliant singer/songwriter and a bit less of the theme park character flash on display. That said, these are all minor quibbles in an otherwise extraordinary evening.

My hunch is that our singing, dancing, jazz-hand flinging former-“Wolverine” will be riding this arena-gig until the wheels fall off. The Hugh Jackman on display Monday night was simply too exquisitely blissed out not to, and, as a result, I’m sure he will be playing every arena, concert venue, and state fairgrounds into which he can get his twinkly visage booked. Given what I just experienced this afternoon watching Dark Phoenix, that’s one damn smart career move!

[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.

“The measure of a person, of a hero is how well they succeed at being who they are.” Avengers: Endgame

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “The measure of a person, of a hero is how well they succeed at being who they are.” – Queen Frigga (Rene Russo) to son Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
  • “No amount of money every bought a second of time.” – Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to father Howard Stark (John Slattery)
  • “You look like melted ice cream.” – Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to Thor (Hemsworth again) who has discovered a physique-obliterating love of beer, junk food, video games, and sweatpants

Marvel’s Avengers movies are, yes, about superheroes and, by extension, merchandise, theme park attractions, and an infinitely extendable money-minting film franchise. But they are about something else … and always have been: family. Finding one’s family in the most unlikeliest of places and forging new bonds (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor), rediscovering and healing one’s fragmentation with the past (Black Panther, Iron Man, Captain America), or redefining one’s destiny and defying the limitations others’ have unfairly or unintentionally imposed (Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Ant-Man) are all themes that have defined this groundbreaking film series.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I would suggest that is why last year’s Infinity War with its (one-year-later spoiler alert!) decimation of nearly half the beloved team struck such a chord (and blow) with the general movie-going public. We comic nerds (and anyone who paid half a millisecond of attention to box office returns or awards season nominations) realized there was no earthly way a character like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was going to remain “dead.” Nonetheless, we were gutted to see newly arrived fan favorites like Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Spider-Man (Tom Holland) erode as pillars of collapsing ash, Sodom and Gomorrah-style, after “Mad Titan” Thanos (beautifully glowering Josh Brolin) snapped his fingers (literally), worked his “Infinity Gauntlet” mojo, and made 50% of all living creatures disappear from the universe. You see, Thanos has an unusual solution for chaos theory and overpopulation: get rid of half of us, re-instituting balance in a world run amuck. I suppose there are worse ideas.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Last year, we viewers were left with the mother of all cliffhangers, and, while Marvel Studios’ unyielding production schedule pretty much spoiled the surprise that the surviving Avengers would find a means to bring their missing brethren back, we didn’t know how and, perhaps more importantly, we didn’t know what this dissolution would do to the Marvel family.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t reveal the plot of this year’s $1.2 billion (and counting) juggernaut Endgame. To be honest, even if I wanted to detail the 3-hour narrative here, I’m not sure I could unravel the plateful of spaghetti that relies as much on the 21 (!) movies that precede it as it does some rudimentary knowledge of quantum mechanics, bad time travel flicks, and somberly-crafted peanut butter sandwiches.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

And, in the end, it doesn’t much matter. The movie is a marvel (pun intended) because directors the Russo Brothers (no relation to Rene … that I’m aware) are smart enough to pepper the proceedings with brilliant action sequences yet ground the entirety in humanity, heart, and deft character development.

The running time of Endgame never feels gratuitous (other entries in the Marvel franchise have felt overlong and indulgent occasionally). This much airtime is in fact essential to re-engage with our core heroes: Iron Man (Downey, Jr. who started it all with his character’s eponymous debut), Captain America (Chris Evans, long the heart and soul of the series), Thor (Hemsworth who has evolved from pretty dull to pretty comic dynamite), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, by far the best actor in the bunch who always makes every other performer just that much better in their scenes with him), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who, like Hemsworth, found much surer footing as the series proceeded), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, more often than not a cipher who truly comes into his own in this latest installment).

No one is given short-shrift here, with emotionally weighty, at times devastatingly heartfelt, denouement(s) that honor all that has come before and set the entire franchise on an exciting and uncharted path. It’s not all doom and gloom as there is plenty of self-referential/self-deprecating wit, with Captain America himself setting off some of the best zingers in the bunch. The whole enterprise is sweet-natured, entertaining-as-heck, genuinely humorous, and damn moving. Trust me, you will be sniffling throughout the last 20 minutes and downright sobbing at the very final scene.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Possibly for the first time ever, it feels like we can expect nothing but the unexpected from Marvel films going forward. It’s a genius move. For over a decade, Marvel Studios president and executive producer Kevin Feige has teased us with his “phased” master plan, all leading up to these final films. All of Hollywood became covetous of Marvel’s “shared cinematic universe” (less artistic envy, I suspect, than material greed … but c’est la vie). (See: DC Extended Universe, Universal’s Monsters Universe … no, better yet, don’t.) We are at Endgame, and, effectively, Feige and Marvel have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, sun-setting beloved canon while simultaneously thumbing their nose at it. The sky’s the limit, so empty your wallets, moviegoers: who knows what’s next?

_____________________

[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.

 

“If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Shazam! (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The entirety of the superhero film genre deals with issues of identity and family and belonging. The best entries – Superman, Dick Tracy, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Versetransport us to escapist realms while metaphorically helping reconcile the harsh reality of our daily lives vs. our wish fulfillment fantasy to champion all underdogs and right all wrongs. This disconnect between the inner child who still feels all things are possible and the jaded adult who fears the best of life has passed one by keeps us spinning the wheel at the superhero box office in the hopes of finding our ultimate champion on the silver screen.

And Shazam! comes pretty damn close.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Based on the classic Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel, Shazam was  acquired by DC Comics in a copyright dispute in the 1950s over the character’s (overstated) similarities to Superman. DC, ironically in turn, lost the rights to use the name (but not the character) “Captain Marvel” to Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and Marvel’s version of “Captain Marvel” had her cinematic debut one month ago. Consequently, DC’s “Captain Marvel” now goes by “Shazam,” which in actuality is the magic word young Billy Batson exclaims to become “The Big Red Cheese” Captain Marvel (but we can’t actually call him “Captain Marvel” any more). Clear as mud? Thanks a lot, intellectual property laws. (It’s all explained much better and in much more detail here.)

None of this matters one whit to your ultimate enjoyment of David F. Sandberg’s film treatment of Shazam (which was also a corny Saturday morning Filmation live action series in the 1970s and a Republic serial in the 1940s). For the casual film-goer, the more relevant comparison is to Tom Hanks’ classic comedy Big as a wish fulfillment fantasy of a little boy lost who assumes adulthood (and superpowers) will solve all his real-life problems (spoiler alert: they don’t). Shazam even offers an onscreen nod to Big’s FAO Schwartz super-sized floor piano keyboard duet.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Asher Angel (think young Zac Efron, but a bit less precious) plays foster kid Billy Batson, ever on the hunt for the birth mother he lost years ago at a winter carnival and who mysteriously never reclaimed her son. Batson bounces from group home to group home until he lands at the beautifully blended foster home of Rosa and Victor Vasquez (warm and earthy Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). Overeager and lonely foster brother Freddy Freeman (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer in a dynamite and heartbreaking turn) introduces Billy to the nerdy joys of super hero trivia, and, before we know it, flash-bam-boom!, Billy finds himself one subway stop away from the magical “Rock of Eternity,” imbued with magical abilities by an ancient wizard (an almost unrecognizable Djimon Hounsou).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

When Billy shouts “Shazam!” (acronym of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury and the respective abilities of each), the young boy transforms into 6’3″ Zachary Levi (Chuck, Tangled, She Loves Me) whose sitcom/musical comedy ethos paired with a physique that now seems to have muscles-on-top-of-muscles makes him the perfect choice for this whimsical hero.

The film is saddled, as are most comic book adaptations alas, with a “take over the world” megalomaniac antagonist. This time, Mark Strong plays Dr. Sivana, and, in his typical glowering skinny/tall-British-Stanley-Tucci-with-dodgy-dental-work-way, Strong meanders about the film, saying vaguely apocalyptic things and shooting energy bolts from his hands. He’s completely unnecessary.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Thematically, Strong’s primary contribution seems to be to further the film’s exploration of family lost and family gained. Sivana’s father is a Lex Luthor-esque SOB, played by the go-to actor for Lex-Luthor-esque SOBs John Glover (Gremlins 2, Smallville … where, in fact, he played Lex Luthor’s dad) whose brutal parenting style predictably turns his little lad into a grade-A psychopath.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Shazam! works best when the film turns its gaze toward the adorable band of misfits in Billy’s foster home. The child actors are loving, lovable, believable, and kind. The challenges Billy endures embracing his new home and relinquishing his dream of reuniting with his birth mother are poignant and accessible and juxtapose nicely with the comic farce of him learning to be a proper super hero. Levi is an utter delight playing a 14-year-old boy in an (overgrown) man’s body, attempting superheroics when all he really wants to do is gobble junk food and play video games. At one point, Batson in his superhero persona observes, “If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Amen to that. Amen to that.

 

______________________

Thanks to my boss Susan and coworker Megan for this! #wishfulfillment

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I have nothing to prove to you.” Captain Marvel

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest offering Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the cinematic superhero pantheon. The film is more quietly groundbreaking than, say, Wonder Woman or Black Panther because Oscar winner Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers simply belongs at the table, without apology or explanation. Perhaps we’ve turned a corner … at least where these movies are concerned. Now, if only the rest of the world would follow suit.

And if only Captain Marvel had been a bit more interesting.

As a film, Captain Marvel is entertaining and pleasant and altogether unremarkable. It feels like an extended episode of ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, replete with a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as Agent Nick Fury and a similarly CGI’d Clark Gregg as Fury’s sidekick Phil Coulson. The film takes place waaaay back in 1995 (when did that year become retro? it still feels like yesterday), hence the Industrial Light and Magic cinematic plastic surgery on Jackson and Gregg. The effect isn’t as creepy as it once was (see: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand …. ayiiiii!), although both of Jackson’s and Gregg’s faces do look a bit like shiny ice rinks, and Gregg resembles a dour Gene Kelly now more than ever.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck cram in a handful of too-cute-by-half visual references to icons of the era, like Blockbuster Video stores, pay phones, and NIN (Nine Inch Nails) tee-shirts. There’s Goose, an adorable cat who is actually an alien in disguise and who easily could have been a running joke in Men In Black. And the soundtrack is loaded with hits from the flannel and grunge era – Garbage! Hole! Elastica! Des’ree! TLC! Ya gotta be … chasin’ waterfaaaaallls.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Unlike Bumblebee, which invoked a bygone era to add color and context, Captain Marvel‘s filmmakers treat the setting as both novelty and afterthought. The 90s environs just feel kinda “meh.” Taking viewers back nearly 25 years seems designed chiefly as a means of allowing Marvel to retcon their universe and to correct one of their rare tone-deaf choices: that is, not featuring a strong woman lead until 21 (!) films into their Marvel Studios’ storied run.

All of that said, Captain Marvel does succeed in introducing a smart and interesting hero into the Marvel Universe. On this International Women’s Day weekend, it’s also canny marketing. As Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel states plainly to her honey-colored alpha male mentor / anti-hero Yon-Rogg (an effectively smarmy/charming Jude Law), “I have nothing to prove to you” (right before blasting him into the side of a mountain in their climactic battle).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is populated with a galaxy of solid character players from Annette Bening as Danvers’ former (and current) boss (it makes sense when you see the flick) to Ben Mendelsohn as a disarmingly funny frog-like alien (with an inexplicable Australian accent) to  Lashana Lynch as Carol’s long-suffering bestie.

Captain Marvel is fun and forgettable, and it’s greatest legacy may be that it delivers its ass-kicking star with a shrug … like, why is this a big deal in 2019 to have a blockbuster comic book movie with a woman in the leading role?

“No need to whine, boy./Like a wind up toy, you stutter at my feet.” – Elastica, “Stutter.”

___________________

[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’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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • 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!);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • 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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

_____________________

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.

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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 African-American/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?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

After a multiversal quantum physics experiment gone awry, Miles finds himself surrounded by a Benetton ad’s worth of fellow Spider-people: proto-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]

_________________________

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.

“You put a dime in him? You have to let the whole song play out.” Marvel’s Ant-Man and The Wasp

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ant-Man and The Wasp is fun, whimsical, kind-hearted, and a welcome palate cleanser after the ominous, rather gloomy Avengers: Infinity War. The flick is a bit like Everybody Loves Raymond in Spandex … with shrink-ray powers. If Marvel ever aims to create a weekly sitcom, they should start here. 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The first Ant-Man was an amiably frothy trifle that somehow still managed to achieve a lovely emotional resonance around the importance of family.

Director Peyton Reed, who has helmed both films so far in the series, maintains a light touch regarding the super-heroics in the second film, while diving deeper into the ties that bind Scott Lang (Paul Rudd as Ant-Man’s alter ego) to his daughter Cassie (a thoroughly natural Abby Ryder Fortson), to his ex-wife and her new husband (Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale mugging for the cheap seats), to his adopted crime-busting buddies Hank Pym (a sparkling Michael Douglas) and Hank’s daughter Hope (an a**-kicking Evangeline Lilly, who’s never been better), and to his fellow-ex-con-now-business-partner Luis (endearing Michael Pena, who could read the phone book onscreen and still get laughs without detracting from the story or his fellow performers).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The actors collectively seem to be thinking, “We’re making a sequel? We didn’t think they’d make one, let alone two, movies about a character named ‘Ant-Man’!?!” That loose, grateful, and frisky camaraderie is blessedly evident onscreen.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

To Reed’s credit, the film slyly defies the conventions of its genre. There is a ton of action, but it all follows the rhythms of a musical comedy or a silent film, more than it does those of a violently cathartic summer blockbuster. Car chases don’t kill time or amp up excitement but seem designed solely to stack up the sight gags: a giant-sized Hello Kitty! Pez dispenser is used to dispatch a gang of motorcycle thugs, for instance.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sequences that could have been milked for unnecessary suspense (and to pad screen time) end logically and efficiently, but only after maximizing any comic returns. For example, Ant-Man and Wasp skulk about Cassie’s school in a manner that is more Bringing Up Baby than Mission: Impossible. They are there to a find a piece of tech which the little girl has inadvertently brought to show and tell, and, rather believably, they find what they are seeking with minimal shenanigans (albeit after a couple of really funny sight gags) and are back on the road in no time. (Unfortunately, that scene does say a little too much about how easy it is to sneak in and out of a public school.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

To be honest, the fact that this is a movie about super-heroes almost seems incidental to character development. How about that?

Furthermore, there really aren’t any true villains in the film. At least not in the traditional “comic book” sense. No flame-haired antagonist wants to see the world burn or redirect global resources to his faux-martyred tribe. No, that story line is unfortunately playing out in (sur)real-life these days.

Instead, narrative complications arise from the various characters’ self-interests being at cross-purposes or from the characters having just plain old bad-timing, such as …

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • Hank and Hope have cooked up some cosmic doo-hickey to rescue Hank’s wife/Hope’s mother Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer who basically just plays Michelle Pfeiffer any more) from the “Quantum Realm” (think: lava lamp meets Spirograph) but don’t have all the geegaws they need to make it work.
  • An international arms dealer (Walton Goggins, always a pleasure in his otherworldly Bruce Dern-on-amphetamines way) AND the FBI (led by a comically inept Randall Park, serving as a timely punching bag for the many Comey-haters in the audience) are both after Hank and Hope for assorted-basically-inconsequential reasons.

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • Scott is the only one who can help Hope and Hank find mama but they’re ticked at Hank for stealing technology from them … PLUS he is on house arrest so he really shouldn’t be gallivanting around San Francisco in his Ant-Man costume.
  • Luis is trying to get Scott to focus on the security business they have started, specifically on a big bit of business they are pitching to a potential client.
  • There’s a creature named Ghost wandering around and causing trouble (a creepy Hannah John-Kamen laying the angst on a bit too thick). Ghost is slowly dissipating into the ether and, in order to survive, needs to do something vaguely vampiric to Janet van Dyne, that is if and when Janet gets rescued from, yes, the “Quantum Realm.”

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • Oh, and Laurence Fishburne is in this thing too, as befuddled as the rest of us by the plot. And that’s just fine.

If it sounds like the story-line is a big pile of indigestible spaghetti, it kind of is, but it doesn’t matter. The film keeps everything small (pun intended) and relationship-driven. These characters are thoughtfully drawn and are portrayed by a team of pros, none of whom take any of it too seriously, but nonetheless weave believable and compelling situational dynamics. The film unspools episodically, meandering here and there, yet it never is boring. No character in the film seems to have any real command of their own lives – save Evangeline Lilly’s Hope who is about as inspiring and self-assured a character as we’ve seen since Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. That alone is quite refreshing.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In one of the more absurd asides, Luis, late in the film, is injected with a truth serum. With his voice emanating from all of the various characters/actors, we are treated to a blow-by-blow, side-splitting re-enactment of everything that has transpired heretofore in both films. The scene is completely unnecessary, utterly brilliant, and totally bonkers; I’m not doing it justice in my description. Regardless, the sequence exists not solely to entertain but to remind us of character and of humanity and of family in its many permutations. As one of Luis’ compatriots’ observes in that moment, “You put a dime in him? You have to let the whole song play out.” And isn’t that true for any one of us?

Go see Ant-Man and The Wasp for some much-needed escapism in these dark times. Stay for the essential reminder that we all have stories to tell and that we all want to love and be loved in return.

_______________________________

[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.