“Modulating to the Stars” – The Dio’s Forever Plaid … Plus, Aaron C. Wade’s Possessive and Purple Rose’s Harvey

Matthew Wallace, James Fischer, Steve DeBruyne, Angel Velasco as The Plaids [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

In our household, we really dig The Dio – Livingston County, Michigan’s professional dinner theatre, a true labor of love from Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich. The company recently received a boatload of well-deserved Wilde Award Nominations for recent productions The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years, including nominations for DeBruyne and Tomich themselves individually. (I’m looking forward to co-hosting the upcoming awards night on August 28 with my partner-in-shenanigans EncoreMichigan.com‘s publisher David Kiley.)

So John and I, who had both seen separate productions of the musical revue Forever Plaid about twenty years ago (mine in Columbus, Ohio and starring my delightfully talented buddy Joey Landwehr, and John’s in Ferndale, Michigan), have been eagerly awaiting The Dio’s production. I am happy to report that The Dio’s version honors the storied musical, infusing lovely grace notes of anarchy and poignancy that neither John nor I recalled noticing before.

Directed with graceful efficiency by DeBruyne and ably assisted by Dan Morrison (another Wilde nominee – I’m sensing a trend here), The Dio’s Forever Plaid clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes (not including the dinner service beforehand).

Crisp music direction to bring out the lush harmonies and to keep pace with the mile-a-minute medleys is crucial, and Brian Rose (who also gets pulled into the onstage hijinks) meets and exceeds that requirement.

Our friends Rob Zannini and Aaron Latham joined us. Aaron once served as house manager for Andy Williams’ Branson theatre, so he had LOTS of fun insight into this show’s era!

Costume designer Norma Polk gives the Plaids just the right touch of mid-century charm. And Tomich, as always, does a masterful job, leveraging lighting, set, and sound design to make The Dio’s challenging space work beautifully for the show’s unique needs, in this case a nightclub just beyond the Pearly Gates.

The conceit of Forever Plaid is that a quartet of harmonizing AV nerds – who have more affinity for AM-radio staples like Perry Como and Harry Belafonte than for The Beatles or Elvis Presley – are struck down by a busload of Catholic schoolgirls, schoolgirls who are on their way to catch The Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Plaids were en route to record their first album, but, due to said unfortunate bus collision, they end up in heaven (or some Copacabana proximity of it) to play their final concert, just as America is switching its radio dials from light frothy pop to jangly/jarring rock-n-roll.

The Dio’s cast not only nails the smooth sounds of late 50s boy bands, but they deliver rich characterizations that are as hysterical as they are heartbreaking. As group leader Franky, DeBruyne is the consummate “big brother” – a loving, occasionally frazzled asthmatic, keeping the other three from spinning into apoplexy, aided and abetted by his trusty inhaler. “We will modulate to the stars,” he enthuses in one of his many pep talks to the boys.

Akin to the lovechild of Clark Gregg (Agents of SHIELD) and John Leguizamo, Angel Velasco is a delight as nosebleed prone Jinx, whose debilitating shyness melts away when he gets his brief moment in the spotlight.

James Fischer is a gleeful mix of smarm and charm as Sparky, who can barely master the au courant Spanish lyrics of “Perfidia” when they are written on his hand.

And Matthew Wallace is a tear-jerking ball of sunshine as the bespectacled Smudge, whose escape into the vinyl grooves of his beloved 45 collection (which he carries everywhere in a beat-up suitcase, complete with a not-so-hidden Mickey Mouse decal) gives the show its sweet/sad center.

Wallace, Fischer, DeBruyne, Velasco [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

Anyone who appreciates this era of music (as I do) will geek out over the set list, which includes “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Undecided,” “Magic Moments,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and so on. All are delivered with an admirable balance of reverence and cheek, with subtle-but-damn-funny choreography that winks at the twee style these classic guy groups exemplified.

Showstopper “Lady of Spain,” toward the show’s conclusion, is staged as a salute to The Ed Sullivan Show, complete with references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, and the entire “really big shoooow” gang. Sadly, this thought crossed my mind: “In ten years, if someone does this show again, will anyone in the audience know what the hell is going on during this sequence.” Dammit.

The Dio’s Forever Plaid wraps the performer’s nightmare in a gauzy blend of nostalgia, satire, and candy-sweet harmonies. For those who feel marginalized by the status quo, standing before an audience and opening your heart through the magic of lyrics and melody is a revelation, and to have it all taken away in an instant is as tragic as can be. Kudos to this production for honoring the silly escapism of the show while embracing its darker underscore. That is a rich harmony, indeed.

One more weekend to see Forever Plaid at The Dio. And get your tickets now as the last several performances have been sold out.

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[Image source: Possessive’s Facebook page]

If the Plaids share an aspirational obsession with achieving “that perfect chord,” the characters in Aaron C. Wade’s directorial film debut Possessive suffer from a more debilitating and prurient kind of obsession. Wade was our exceptional properties master on Ann Arbor Civic’s recent production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he did double (and triple) duty as our show photographer and videographer. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

His first film reveals exceptional potential for crafting cinematic narrative that is as compelling as it is repulsive. That’s a compliment, by the way, and I’m pretty certain he will be quite thrilled with that assessment.

You can find out more about his film by checking out the fan page here, where you will also find a link to the full film as well as updates on its upcoming DVD release. The film’s description reads, “The film Possessive is a romantic thriller story about a man with a well-hidden deviant core and a mentally unstable woman who claims him for her own.” Yup, and then some!

I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns Wade has in store for Possessive‘s viewers, but he has written a script that is as raw as it is confessional. He frames each scene with a visceral immediacy that is remarkably discomforting, and he has cast the production with an eclectic and talented team of local unknowns who exhibit a brave and impressive lack of vanity. Wade’s leads Sarah Lovy and Terence Cover (“Donald Reagan”) wring every bit of bruise black satire from this tragicomedy – two lost souls whose fetishized obsessions with the details of each other’s lives prevent them from ever actually knowing one another.

I look forward to seeing Wade’s future work. He is one to watch. And how great that we have so much remarkable local talent willing to share their gifts with the world.

(Check out Aaron’s assessment of Fenton Village Players’ current production of Thoroughly Modern Millie here.)

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[Image source: The Purple Rose’s Facebook page]

Finally, here is another kind of obsession – the affection of Elwood P. Dowd for his invisible friend “Harvey,” a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall “pooka” who takes the form of an anthropomorphic rabbit in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.

Currently, Chelsea, Michigan’s Purple Rose Theatre (also nominated for a number of Wilde Awards) is performing this theatrical classic. I have not yet seen it, but the reviews have been stellar.

That said, I wanted to give a shout out to my former St. Joseph Mercy Health System colleague Jaclyn Klein who organized a remarkable talk back after the Sunday, July 16 matinee performance. Members of the cast and crew alongside St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea Hospital physicians discussed how attitudes toward mental health have changed for the better (or worse) since the play debuted in 1945. The presentation, ably facilitated by local news personality Lila Lazarus, was live streamed on Facebook. You can catch the video here. Kudos to all!

Harvey runs through August 26, and tickets can be purchased here.

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Everybody loves The Dio! Ran into my Xanadu/Urinetown castmate Paige Martin and Urinetown castmate Maika Van Oosterhout at the performance

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 you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” Baby Driver

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Increasingly, we seem like a society of hermits, coexisting in our own separate little digital bubbles – a self-enforced solitude sparked either by anxiety or exhaustion or a combination thereof. We interact with each other via screens and emojis and Snapchat filters and snarky GIFs … but we never truly connect.

Maybe I’m just a cranky old man, but I’m fascinated and annoyed by how many people I see grocery shopping, commuting, eating lunch, and so on without ever removing their ubiquitous iPhone earbuds, as if the most mundane activities must all be accompanied by one’s own personal soundtrack or as if to signify to any and all passers-by, “I am not someone who wants to speak to you, to interact with you, or to acknowledge your existence.”

And it is with this conceit that Baby Driver, the latest opus from gonzo director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End), turns the genres of both the movie musical and the car chase thriller on their respective ears. Literally.

In the titular role of “Baby,” Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars, Divergent, Carrie) takes full advantage of his pouty good looks – which veer from insolence to wonderment and back again – and of his overgrown puppy dog 6’4″ frame to portray a Millennial whose tortured childhood has led him to a life of a crime as the supremely gifted getaway driver for a smooth-talking, Teflon-coated Atlanta crime boss (a delightfully Yuppified Kevin Spacey).

You see, Baby suffers from tinnitus, acquired as a wee lad in a horrific car accident when his squabbling parents squabbled just a bit too much and neglected to see they were about to ram into the back of a semi. And music – as supplied by a suitcase full of old iPods – is the only thing that soothes his ringing ears (and aching heart).

Furthermore, his love of vintage pop, rock, and jazz helps him escape the personal horror that is chauffeuring Spacey’s gang of sociopaths, which includes a magnificently bonkers Jon Hamm (Million Dollar ArmMad Men) and a less magnificently/more annoyingly bonkers Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained, Annie), from heist to heist. Baby, as portrayed in a star-making turn by Elgort, is nearly mute (by choice) and rarely removes his headphones (nor his sunglasses) which irritates just about every Gen Xer/Baby Boomer in his immediate orbit.

What aggravates them even further is that, shielded as he is in his own little tune-filled universe, he is savvier, is a more skilled driver, and is more in command of the details in his environment than all of Spacey’s goons put together. It’s a sly commentary on the evolution/devolution we see generationally in America today.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Similar to Bjork’s Selma in Lars von Trier’s brilliant Dancer in the Dark, Baby’s world is a seamless auditory marvel as day-to-day sounds and movements morph into musical cues he hears through his headphones and vice versa. The car chases (aplenty) are all choreographed to the tunes in Baby’s head, often to the chagrin – and bodily harm – of his passengers. (Baby even turns on windshield wipers in time to the music, when there isn’t a drop of precipitation in the sky.)

The novelty of Baby Driver is in Wright’s direction and staging, if not so much in the plot itself. Perhaps predictably, Baby is a gangsta with a heart of gold, saving what cash he can from his jobs to care for his deaf foster father (portrayed with great affection by CJ Jones) who is confined to a wheelchair. As cloying as that plot detail sounds, it actually is quite affecting and grounds the movie nicely. Baby meets cute with a sunny waitress named Debora, portrayed by a luminous Lily James (Cinderella), and, in turn, Baby plots his (of course) doomed escape from a life of crime.

Things don’t go easily for Baby (nor should they), and the film’s final act gets a bit too bloody for its own good. As a Dolly Parton-quoting postal worker foreshadows to Baby when, unbeknownst to her, he is casing her workplace for an upcoming robbery, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

Nonetheless, Baby Driver is a high-octane summer blast, with choreography that would make Gene Kelly swoon (albeit involving a rogues’ gallery of classic cars and rat-a-tat machine guns) and with a soundtrack to die for. Any film that manages to incorporate Blur’s quirky “Intermission” into an ominous set-piece, that can use Dave Brubek’s “Unsquare Dance” to make a routine coffee run seem Fosse-esque,  and that can find a way of making Young MC seem hip again is ok in my book.

It’s only a shame that Wright didn’t just go ahead and have his thugs burst into outright song – I mean he has hammy-a$$ singers Spacey, Foxx, and Elgort, not to mention Paul Williams (!) in his cast. At times, Baby Driver seems like more of a musical than La La Land did. Maybe a movie mash-up of Guys and Dolls and The Fast and the Furious is next on Wright’s cinematic agenda. If so, I’ll be there.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

This. Is. Fun. #Drood

The cast of Drood

 

Love. This. Cast. (Photos by Aaron C. Wade. Swiping from Ron Baumanis. Get your tix NOW at www.a2ct.org – June 1-4)

 

Alisa Mutcher Bauer as Princess Puffer and Kimberly Elliott as Rosa Bud


We are having a ball. You will too. Don’t miss it.

 

Yours truly as Jasper and Kimberly Elliott as Rosa Bud

 

Jasper is nuts and Rosa seems innocent enough. Did one of them murder Edwin Drood? Solve the mystery yourself at The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Ann Arbor Civic Theatre – http://www.A2CT.org/tickets

#EveryAudienceVoteCounts

 

Vanessa Bannister as Edwin Drood

 

Jared Hoffert as The Chairman

 

Layout by JM Atwood – all photos here and above by Aaron C. Wade

More info on JM Atwood at his design studio’s Facebook page

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

“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Moonlight

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” NOT a line from Oscar Best Picture Moonlight. I know this. Obviously, it’s one of the more pointed (no pun intended) lyrics from one of Beauty and the Beast‘s signature tunes “Gaston,” performed most recently by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Disney’s runaway blockbuster remake.

Last weekend I saw two movies – Beauty and the Beast (reviewed here) and Moonlight (on what was likely one of its last remaining weekends in movie theaters). I dashed off a fawning review (pun intended) of Beauty and the Beast, but I needed more time for Moonlight to marinate in my noggin.

(My parents just saw saw Beauty and the Beast last night, and judging from their less than glowing reaction to the film, some of you out there may think I should have have spent a bit more time mulling that movie’s virtues and flaws as well.)

One of the elements I found so refreshing in Disney’s remake is its upending of the primacy of traditional masculinity (despite the hyperbolic gay panic surrounding the film in some less-enlightened quarters). Much more clearly than its animated precursor, this 2017 version positions the athletic, muscular, debonair, trophy-hunting male (Gaston) as the true “beast” of the title.

Moonlight has a similar questioning of masculinity running throughout its narrative, albeit more nuanced, though no less allegorical. I know I’m twisting my analysis into a pretzel comparing these two films, and it is really just the happenstance of seeing them the same weekend, but I do find this intriguing.

There is a danger viewing a critically lauded film after it has won Best Picture. Your expectations far exceed what any film could withstand. That was true for me of Moonlight as well, but with a week’s worth of reflection, I see the power in this deceptively simple story of a young African-American man – told in three chapters (boyhood, adolescence, adulthood) – navigating a world that is economically, culturally, racially, socially structured to prevent the natural and healthy evolution of one’s truest self.

James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Moonlight, as written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, traces the building of such a mask, and ends (hopefully) with its ultimate removal.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We meet the silent, sullen, and fearful Chiron (Alex Hibbert in one of the purest, most compelling child performances ever captured onscreen) as he runs from a pack of bullies, ultimately hiding out in an abandoned drug house.  His rescuer Juan (in a detailed but subtle Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali) is by all external appearances the prototypical “alpha male” – a successful businessman (in this case, the business so happens to be selling crack cocaine) who cuts a sinewy, shark-like path through the mean streets of Liberty City, Miami. Yet, his hard, intimidating exterior hides a soulful sadness and an empathy for young Chiron.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

He brings the boy home to his girlfriend Teresa (a luminous Janelle Monae) whose sweet exterior conceals a steely but well-intentioned determination. They care for the boy, give him a boost of confidence, and take him home to his loving but misguided mother Paula (the always exceptional Naomie Harris).

The script saddles Paula with a cliched crack addiction (the drugs fueling which, of course, we come to find are actually supplied by Juan), but it is a testament to the exceptional acting that this narrative device is haunting and believable and sidesteps Lifetime TV-melodrama. At one point Juan counsels Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Ain’t no one can make that decision for you.” Juan’s intent with this advice is for Chiron to be true to himself, but as the film’s narrative continues to stack the deck against Chiron, we see how impossible such a simple notion actually can be.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the film’s second section, we see Chiron enter high school, a troubled young man marginalized and brutalized for his unseen, undefined “difference.”

Ashton Sanders is exceptional as Chiron during this chapter, with a raw-boned anxiety that evokes Anthony Perkins or James Dean at their most heartbreaking. For a brief moment, Chiron finds love, but it turns sour really fast with a violence-begets-violence sequence that is as heartrending as it is inevitable.

The film then again flashes forward for its third and final chapter. Chiron is an adult now, having survived some unspeakable off-screen horrors in America’s juvenile reform system.  The doleful muteness of his youth has now curdled into an intractable, intimidating silence. Chiron at this age – as played with brilliant physicality and wounded nuance by Trevante Rhodes – is an imposing figure, a doppelganger for his childhood mentor Juan. He is earning a healthy living selling drugs on the streets of Atlanta, his sensitive soul lost amidst layers of literal and figurative armor. (One spot of humor comes from the ostentatious “grills” he insists on wearing over his teeth, another example of his desire to harden himself before a world that has repeatedly rejected him.) The film seems to suggest we become what we know, sometimes in spite of our best selves, simply to survive. Life as ouroboros.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film concludes as Chiron reunites over dinner with his childhood friend Kevin (a warm, funny, and wary Andre Holland). We see the layers of galvanized steel forged from terror upon terror start to melt away, and we are left with the broken soul underneath. The final shot of the film is Chiron resting his head on his friend’s shoulder, perhaps relieved he can finally be himself, devoid of the culture’s artificial expectations of what it means to be a man.

And that is the reason we need this movie right now.

There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re ev’ryone’s favorite guy
Ev’ryone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why …

 – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, “Gaston”
 
 We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear The Mask”

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[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 always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Logan

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Logan, the latest entry in the now ten (!) film X-Men movie canon from 20th Century Fox, really, really, really wants to be seen as serious cinema. Any time Johnny Cash’s now-cliched bluegrass cover of Nine Inch Nails’ tortured soul anthem “Hurt” is used in a flick’s trailer, you know you are in art school-aspirational territory.

(Dammit, Christopher Nolan, but your somber, bruise-black tone poem The Dark Knight must have been a real decade-long buzz kill for other directors in the comic book film genre. Folks, pretension ain’t entertainment. Movies can be smart and fun. Unclench. See: Deadpool.)

For 50% of its overlong running time, Logan comes within a razored-claw’s-breadth of hitting the mark. Yes, the allusions to George Stevens’ far superior Shane (including Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier actually watching the flick on a hotel room TV) and to just about any blood-and-dust-caked entry in Sam Peckinpah’s oeuvre are a bit too on-the-nose. However, those allusions are refreshing (if not downright surprising) in a film universe where we are supposed to accept Halle Berry’s ongoing struggles with stultifyingly bad wigs as the height of character development. (Bar none, Hugh Jackman is the best special effect these films have had in their arsenal in their nearly 20-year run.)

With 2013’s The Wolverine, director James Mangold did yeoman’s work rescuing the X-franchise’s beloved Wolverine from the character’s first solo outing – 2009’s disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood). Lord, saving the character from that clunky title would have been enough. As evidence of Mangold’s leaning toward nihilistic simplicity, in fact, the titles have gotten more streamlined and look-I’m-a-grown-up grim with The Wolverine (just stick a “the” in front of anything … it sounds epic … seriously … try it: THE Mousepad, THE Saucepan, THE Q-Tip) and, now, Logan, which sounds less like a superhero movie and more like an artisanal bistro.

The Wolverine gave us a mutant-on-the-lam chase through the Japanese underworld with a zippy French Connection vibe that breathed new life into the character while honoring his comic book roots as an occasional samurai-for-hire. It was grounded by but also popped with a panoply of espionage thriller tropes, and Jackman seemed to be having a ball. Like all the films in the X-Men film universe, it suffered from a junky final act that was the cinematic equivalent of an eight-year-old throwing all of his/her action figures into a washing machine and setting the cycle to “spin,” creating more narrative loose ends than it resolved.

Logan is a logical next step, especially in this new era where “Hard R” (blood! guts! nudity! random eff-bombs!) superhero flicks now make truckloads of cash. (Thanks, again, Deadpool). While, heretofore, Wolverine’s legendary “berserker rage” has been safely shielded behind the no-gore filter of a toy-aisle-Taco-Bell-kids-meal-friendly PG-13 rating, Logan assumes all the tykes who saw the first X-Men film (2000) in wide-eyed wonderment at their parents’ knees are now safely beyond the age of R-rated consent. And, boy, does the carnage reign free in this movie.

The film begins in yellow-hued, grungy Texas in the year 2029, and Logan (hundreds of years old at this point, as we’ve learned from earlier films) is at the end of the line. His body is shot, his soul is worse, he is driving a limousine for moolah, and he and Professor Charles Xavier are living a hardscrabble existence in what appears to be an old grain silo. Their onscreen relationship here could best be described as one-part The Odd Couple, two-parts King Lear, with a pinch of Sam Shepard’s True West. They cohabitate with a fussy majordomo and mutant nursemaid Caliban (a haunting Stephen Merchant) as Xavier spirals into the latter stages of dementia, a diagnosis which is kind of a big deal when you also happen to possess the psychic power to wipe out half of the continental United States if your migraine gets out of hand.

This odd little band plans to ride out their days until Logan saves up enough money to buy a yacht (yes, a yacht), so that they – the only mutants remaining after some nebulously described cataclysm in the recent past – can escape the mutant-hating governmental rabble that runs ‘Murica (sound eerily familiar?). Oh, and Logan is probably going to commit suicide after they leave, but that just adds to the existential “fun.”

This set-up sounds odd. Hell, it is odd. I think that’s why I really dug the early scenes of the film, establishing this off-kilter “new normal” in the typically sleek, escapist X-Men universe. It reads like a stage play you might catch on PBS’ Great Performances on a Sunday night, when you’re feeling too lazy to change the channel – a piece that is not profound enough to have had a long run on Broadway but is peculiar enough to hold your interest on the small screen.

Into this mix, a young mutant appears, bearing strangely similar attributes to Logan, analogous enough that questions of parentage are raised. Newcomer Dafne Keen plays Laura (known in the comics as X-23), a preteen whose feral tendencies, extremely violent outbursts, and mute glowering are initially transfixing but wear a bit thin as the film proceeds. Naturally, the feds are chasing Laura, which brings the military-industrial complex as represented by a ham-bone Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant to Logan’s front door … er … grain silo and sends the entire mutant band on the run across Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota.

Jackman is soulful throughout, and he channels the same world-weary tension of straining to keep a moral high ground while being consumed by the righteous rage of marginalization that he rode to an Oscar nomination in Les Miserables. Alas, he doesn’t sing this time, but he looks ten times as haggard … so that’s something. Jackman and Stewart have some touching moments, and Jackman has great chemistry with Keen in the film’s first half when they are still at odds with one another, like caged animals sizing up the competition.

There is a harrowing yet lovely scene where Professor Xavier reclaims a bit of his youthful nobility, rescuing horses that have gotten loose on a frighteningly busy freeway, which in turn leads to a brief respite where our mutants break bread with the gracious and grateful family to whom the equines belong. ER‘s Eriq LaSalle is quietly impressive as the patriarch – good to see him again. However, the film then takes a decidedly nasty turn, really embracing that R-rating (the horses are all fine, but – spoiler alert – things don’t work out quite so well for anyone else), and the silly and gratuitous horror movie carnage that follows left me disaffected – and saddened for where I had hoped the movie would have gone. Subsequently, I never quite reconnected with the brooding and pastoral quality that the first half of the film engendered, and the film’s final poignant moments – intended to deliver emotional payoff – don’t feel earned, ringing hollow when life seems so disposable to the filmmakers.

The talented cast and the film itself suffer from a running time (nearly two and a half hours) that doesn’t withstand the conventionality of the film’s road movie second half, and the flick’s final act is uncomfortably reminiscent of the denouement of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I didn’t much enjoy seeing a bunch of young mutants run pell mell through the woods fearing for their lives as they were brutalized by government thugs back in 2009, nor again in 2017. I wonder what a little cinematic discipline – a tighter running time and curbing the grand guignol indulgences – might have offered Logan. I suspect that a bit more restraint would have gotten Mangold’s film closer to those classic allegorical Westerns to which he clearly aspires.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Early in the film, Stewart’s Xavier, in deshabille and surrounded by the discarded detritus of a decaying life, looks ruefully at Jackman’s Logan and says, “I always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Using these iconic characters to explore the ephemeral nature of existence, Magold made a good film. It’s just too bad he didn’t have the self-control to make a great one.

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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.

“We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are MORE than?” Split, Sing, and Lion (yeah, you read that correctly)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Why are we here? What makes life worth living? Where is our place in this (increasingly strange) world?

Maybe I’m just going through some kind of existential mid-life crisis. (Hey, who’d like to produce this 44-year-old singing all of his favorite ill-suited pop songs – Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Madonna, Bjork – as an expression of manopausal self in a cabaret extravaganza? It will be your best theatre going experience of the past 14.75 years. I guarantee!) Regardless, the three films viewed this weekend – seemingly drawn from a grab bag of fourth quarter 2016 offerings – all explore beautifully the very reason we dwell on this loony planet.

Split is a return to form for Hitchcock/Spielberg aspirant M. Night Shyamalan, chiefly because he was wise enough to cast it with a crackerjack James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) and Betty Buckley (Carrie, Tender Mercies). (At one point while viewing, I wished Shyamalan had had the moxie to have staged this as a two-hander play with these two lightning bolts. Equus would have seemed like Oklahoma! by comparison.)

The film is a mash-up – a little bit of Silence of the Lambs, a touch of Primal Fear, a skosh of Dressed to Kill, a dab of Prisoners, a spritz of, well, any and all of Shyamalan’s other films (save The Last Airbender – the less said about that one, the better). We have a central figure “Kevin Wendell Crumb,” portrayed brilliantly by McAvoy (with just a hint of Baby Jane camp), suffering from dissociative identity disorder, as 23 different personalities (some nice, some really naughty) play ping-pong with Kevin’s daily routine. Buckley, as Dr. Karen Fletcher, is his cautious, morbidly transfixed therapist, whose ethereally calm demeanor and career aspirations keep her engaged with Kevin’s Sybil-esque shenanigans.

The plot details Kevin’s devolution into something called “The Beast” (think Silence of the Lambs‘ “Buffalo Bill” with, yes, super powers) as he kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in one of those byzantine, blue-lit subterranean lairs that only seem to exist in really creepy movies. Dr. Fletcher starts to catch wise as various (kinder) personalities in Kevin’s psyche begin sending her panicked emails in the middle of the night. I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns, but the Hitchcockian “fun” derives from Buckley’s Fletcher calmly, relentlessly querying McAvoy’s Kevin about his nightly doings. Much like Hitchock’s late-career Psycho, Shyamalan’s Split is a directorial resurgence that simultaneously exploits the audience’s most prurient interests while giving us a Playhouse 90-style character study. McAvoy is a creepy hoot, and Buckley does yeoman’s work as a wary proxy for the audience’s revulsion/fascination. (My favorite quote from the film? When Buckley’s Fletcher describes the restaurant Hooters: “It’s like if Henry VIII ran a fast food franchise.”)

At one point, Buckley’s Fletcher asks plaintively, “”We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are more than?” The film’s central thesis is a half-realized query about whether or not mental illness is a kind of super power. It’s an intriguing idea not fully baked in the film, but Buckley’s delivery of that line, coupled with McAvoy’s scenery-chewing performance, gives me hope for the inevitable sequel.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

And then I saw Sing, an animated film about koalas and elephants and pigs and porcupines and mice trying (literally) to find their voices in a world that had passed them by. Do I know how to plan a weekend at the movies?

Guess what? Sing is brilliant and surprisingly moving. If you are not crying at the film’s conclusion wherein every misfit animal featured heretofore takes the stage and seizes the spotlight with deep-feeling abandon, well, then I feel sorry for you,  you cold, emotionless curmudgeon!

The plot of Sing is a nifty corollary to Zootopia, which depicted a similar land where all creatures great and small coexist (mostly) in harmony, struggling (like us all) to make a decent living, pay the bills, and have a bit of joy. “Buster Moon,” a disarmingly charmingly skeezy koala (voiced by Matthew McConaughey finding the perfect role for his disarmingly charmingly skeezy career) is trying to revive his failing theatre by hosting a music competition. His best buddy (a trust-fund lamb voiced by an ever-dopey John C. Reilly) asks, “Singing competition? Who wants to see another one of those?” Well, this one? You will want to see.

Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Taron Egerton (Kingsman … SUCH a voice – like a choir-boy Robbie Williams), Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), Tori Kelly vocalize for the menagerie (pig, porcupine, ape, mouse, elephant – respectively) that joins Buster on his preposterous adventure. I found myself a bucket of salty tears when Kelly’s shy elephant Mimi belts Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” at the film’s jubilant finale. Maybe it’s because I know what it feels like to be a misfit singer who has been excluded from others’ “reindeer games,” but I found Sing to be a riotous, thoroughly enjoyable celebration of letting all of us find and exercise our unique voices in this increasingly stifling world. I can’t wait for this inevitable sequel either.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, Lion. Oh, Lion I wish I knew how to quit you. This film knocked me to the floor – either because of its excellence or because my low blood sugar from sitting in a darkened theatre for hours on end finished me off. Lion – the feature directorial debut by Garth Davis – relays the true story of Saroo Brierley (portrayed with zero guile as a child by Sunny Pawar and with heartbreaking ambivalence as an adult by Dev Patel) as he finds himself lost from his family in India and, ultimately, adopted by a well-meaning Australian couple (a haunting Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Reminiscent of the the Jack Lemmon/Sissy Spacek classic Missing, Lion captures the devastating claustrophobia of a family separated by geography, time, bureaucracy. The toddler Saroo’s inability to communicate (he speaks Hindi and nearly no one else around him does) nor to identify his home (he accidentally ends up on a decommissioned train that takes him from a small town, the name of which he mispronounces, to the overpopulated metropolis of Calcutta) is the stuff of nightmares. The film plays fast and loose with narrative chronology, as the adult Saroo tries to unravel the mystery of his life before being adopted. Everyone is excellent, with Kidman giving her most subtle, nuanced performance in ages – one scene in particular where she palpably renders the tension of the adoptive parent to balance truth versus security as her child tries to make sense of his upbringing. Lion is a remarkable film, as full of hope as it is heartbreak.

I cried a lot this weekend at the movie theatre. Singing elephants, multiple personality protagonists, and displaced Indian orphans: all transfixing metaphorical representatives of our own existential pain over belonging, finding ourselves, and seeking a path forward. Well done, Hollywood. Well done.

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Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

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 get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” 20th Century Women

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” – Dorothea (Annette Bening)

Given the historic events of this weekend, notably the (International) Women’s March, seeing the acclaimed new semi-autobiographical film by director Mike Mills (Beginners) seemed like an inspired, appropriate, and perhaps too-on-the-nose choice, so view it we did.

The film is really good – not so sure it’s great – but, with its marvelous cast, humane and conscientiously inclusive perspective, and immersive approach that impressively turns back the viewer’s clock to 1979, 20th Century Women is worth your attention.

Inspired by his gratitude for his own mother and sisters, Mills, who calls the film a “love letter to the women who raised him,” paints a fictionalized portrait of his own unconventional upbringing that is warm and nostalgic, critical and illusory.

Imagine Norman Rockwell spending his formative years in counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.

In Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (a remarkable and raw Annette Bening), abandoned by her husband, is raising son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann showing nary a sign of “child star” schmaltz) in a ramshackle Victorian with as much character and in as much disrepair as its inhabitants. Perhaps to make ends meet or, more likely, in an Auntie Mame-like gesture of keeping life as one never-ending banquet, Dorothea has rented rooms to a cast of characters, including potter and auto mechanic (?) William (Billy Crudup in all his shaggy, boho charm) and photographer and Talking Heads-aficionado Abbie (a luminous and heartbreaking Greta Gerwig). Rounding out this band of lovable misfits, Elle Fanning (Maleficent) plays Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend whose acts of teen rebellion are lifted straight from a “Me Decade” ABC Afterschool Special; yet, in Fanning’s capable hands, Julie’s defiance is hauntingly and, at times, comically authentic.

(NOTE: Crudup and Gerwig are on a roll, recently turning in nuanced performances as Theodore H. White and Nancy Tuckerman, respectively, in the exceptional Jackie.)

Films in 20th Century Women‘s milieu – the quirky, uber-liberal, “hippie Addams Family” residing in a sprawling but dilapidated  homestead, arguing unrealistically about existential philosophy, and experimenting with alternative realities – too often devolve into the kind of twee “coming-of-age” self-indulgence that makes my skin crawl. Yes, Grand Budapest Hoteldirector Wes Anderson, I’m looking at you.  Blessedly, 20th Century Women is no Royal Tennenbaums.

Mills contextualizes his film with chronology-bending narrative (the voice-overs that relate characters’ backstories and future activities are a clever and sobering touch), rich period details (including iconic photography, music, decor, and video of the era – the characters’ varied reactions to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence speech” are particularly telling), and evocative time-lapse cinematography (including an overt reference to landmark-documentary-of-the-era Koyaanisqatsi with its still-stinging indictment of the ephemeral foolishness of mankind). If you survived the 70s, this film will speak to you on many levels.

As for the film’s feminism, it is as sly an overview as I’ve ever seen on film – as elusive and confounding as the topic can be in a United States of America that glorifies our free-will and independence while simultaneously fearing our free-will and independence. Mills’ script, aided and abetted by delicate performances all around, deftly weaves in and out of the core principle that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Bening’s Dorothea (born in 1924) is regularly labeled throughout the film has having “come from the Depression,” she herself embracing that tag, obsessed with big band music and carefully tracking her stocks in the newspaper every day. Yet, she is also attracted to the infinite possibility of this messy new world before her, approaching its ugly rock-n-roll and libertine mores with alternating fascination and revulsion. The tension Dorothea suffers as a free-agent wanting to explore this evolving society versus her role as a parent fearing its potential dark repercussions is palpable. Regarding her son, Dorothea laments to Abbie at one point, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”

When Abbie introduces Dorothea’s son Jamie to the books Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan and Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian, he chooses to read a particular passage to his mother, one that highlights the marginalization and invisibility unfairly cast upon an individual due to age and gender. It is a tender moment wherein he is using another’s text to evoke understanding. Dorothea’s visceral response is even more revealing when she dismisses the gesture outright, indicating that her very personal experience on this planet cannot be reduced or codified into a few well-meaning “modern” paragraphs. Bening is understated yet devastating in this scene, a quiet storm moment exemplifying beautifully the delicate balancing act in 20th Century Women: reclaiming the voice of the individual … which is as feminist an act as one can imagine.

“She smokes Salems because they’re healthy.” – Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)

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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

___________________

[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.

______________________

[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.