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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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“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

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“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

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“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

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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.

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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.

“‘Cause I’m gonna be true … if you let me.” Judy (2019 film) and the National Theatre’s cinema broadcast of Fleabag (stage production)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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From The Standard: “Good things can come out of rage,” [Fleabag creator and Emmy-winning star Phoebe] Waller-Bridge said in an interview with the Guardian. A director once told her that she has the “gift of rage”. It made her want to find the rage in the characters she writes. “Once you know what makes someone angry, you can tell a lot about that person.” When asked what makes her angry, she replied: “I feel rage about casual and systemic sexism. I feel rage at how quickly the double standards could be balanced if men gave women the back up they need to stop us having to shout into our own vaginas all the time. But mainly I rage at myself for my own ability to let things slide because I’d rather be ‘nice’ than stand up for myself in an uncomfortable situation. My characters have streaks of fearlessness. I get a rush writing women who don’t care what you think. Probably to help me grow into being one.”

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    “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”
  • “How strange when an illusion dies. It’s as though you’ve lost a child.”
  • “I’ve always taken ‘The Wizard of Oz’ very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it. ”

– Judy Garland

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“Get over it.” Such an odd expression, and typically employed when someone else wants you to just move past something because your fixation upon whatever “it” may be is annoying to them, NOT because the speaker actually has a vested interest in your emotional well-being or in true resolution.

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Trauma never truly leaves us. That is the common theme in the two tour-de-force performances I had the good fortune of viewing last week: Renee Zellweger’s Oscar-buzzy turn as Judy Garland in Judy and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s National Theatre-in-cinemas broadcast of her one woman show Fleabag (which inspired the critically-acclaimed tv series of the same name).

More pointedly, in our patriarchal culture, trauma is the chief instrument of torture and control employed to bludgeon, isolate, and shame bright, brilliant, willful women.

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Judy Garland blazed like a supernova through her short life, her mistreatment as a child star yielding an adulthood riddled with addiction and anxiety which in turn engendered a final days stage persona that was raw, evocative, cathartic, electric, and unforgettable.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unbridled wit and wisdom are discomforting in the best ways, with a delivery both inviting and unsettling, speaking truths nobody expects to hear with a wink and a smile. In this sense, she’s a spiritual heir to the unpredictable live wire act of Judy Garland’s latter years. Blessedly, we live in a time, challenged and challenging as it may be, that awards Waller-Bridge with a well-deserved Emmy coronation (last week), as opposed to running her into the ground (so far).

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Neither Judy nor Fleabag (Waller-Bridge’s character is never named) can catch a break. Are their tragic circumstances of their own devising or are they symptomatic of a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with human beings that defy categorization? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Judy, like Fleabag, began life as a stage show, in this instance titled End of the Rainbow. The narrative details the final tumultuous days of screen legend Judy Garland’s career (portrayed with affection by an often unrecognizable Renee Zellweger). In the film, Garland takes up a concert residency in London to make ends meet and hopefully save up enough dough to reclaim her young children Lorna and Joey from her adversarial ex Sid Luft (the redoubtable Rufus Sewell at his glowering, wounded best).

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As Garland bounces around London, dodging her beleaguered handler Rosalyn Wilder (a wry Jessie Buckley) and falling into the arms of a starstruck gigolo Mickey Deans (a dishy but surprisingly wan Finn Wittrock), the isolation of her fame and the collective contempt for her basic human needs send her spiraling to the point of no return. Judy isn’t overtly a film about misogyny, and yet it is a movie about nothing but misogyny.

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The clunky flashbacks to Garland’s tortured youth on the MGM backlot are teleplay hackneyed, save for the looming specter of Louis B. Mayer (a really creepy Richard Cordery). He haunts the young Judy at every turn, squelching her rare moments of joy with a steady assault of body-shaming, victim-blaming, and outright gaslighting. The film posits that Garland’s shaky self-esteem, brittle persona, and desire to be a good mother above all else were deeply rooted in those brutal early years. Zellweger is at her best in the film’s second and third acts, as the betrayals mount and her tenuous grasp on reality slips further away, her white hot (and justifiable) rage finding its perfect outlet in her  jagged, jazzy, jittery concert magic.

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Beyond Zellweger’s remarkable physicality and her vocal performance (not exactly mimicking Garland but evoking her essence), the heart and soul of the film rests in a pivotal sequence when Judy seeks safe harbor with a pair of stage door fans: Dan and Stan (charming Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira), a middle-aged gay couple who have spent every penny they have to view the chanteuse perform night after night. She asks them plaintively, “Want to go get dinner?” Like any groupies, they are overjoyed by the request but then horrified when they discover every restaurant in town is closed and all they have to offer her is a plate of runny scrambled eggs in their humble flat. The scene in the couple’s apartment is quiet and heartwarming and devastating as the trio unearths their kinship as marginalized beings, hated by society for the very attributes that set them beautifully apart.

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The spiky id of the outcast also finds perfect expression in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, whether in television series form or in its original stage production. Waller-Bridge is an exceptional writer, but her ability as a performer to channel righteous indignation into a kind of rubbery guffaw over the arbitrary etiquette of modern living is damn genius. Seeing the stage show, it becomes clear that the tv series softens some of the title character’s edges, not diminishing her power but making her just a tetch more palatable to observe week after week. The stage production pulls no punches – nor are there any winsome appearances by Andrew Scott (Sherlock‘s Moriarty) as her fox-fearing, besotted priest boyfriend, alas – and the stage show is that much stronger as a result.

The stage character Fleabag may or may not be responsible ultimately for the suicide of her best friend, for the business failures of her guinea-pig themed cafe, for her fractured relations with her sister and father and stepmother, but she has ultimate agency. Every bad choice she makes is fully her own, as she careens through a world that is plagued with little wit and even less color. Fleabag just wants to feel. Something. Anything. And she uses sex in a failed overture to reclaim the narrative and to bring some kind of engagement with the zombies surrounding her. Not unlike the Judy Garland of Judy, the stage version of the Fleabag character spins into increasingly desperate situations, befuddled by the contempt people hold for her unyielding spark. Unlike Judy whose life ends with a tragic whimper, Fleabag’s tale ends with a defiant “f*ck off” as she tells a potential employer where, literally, he can go.

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So, maybe there’s hope yet. Good things can come from rage.

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I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you
Come rain or come shine
High as a mountain and deep as a river
Come rain or come shine

I guess when you met me, it was just one of those things
But don’t you ever bet me, ’cause I’m gonna be true if you let me

You’re gonna love me like nobody’s loved me
Come rain or come shine
We’ll be happy together, unhappy together
Now won’t that be just fine?

The days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or we’re out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine

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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.

“Everything old is new again.” The Dio’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder + a quick take on the film Bennett’s War

“Everything old is new again,” that Boy from Oz Peter Allen once musically observed. You live long enough and you see pretty much every trope and concept repeated in some form or fashion. In 2014, Robert Freedman’s and Steven Lutvak’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the belle of the Tony Awards, winning Best Musical among its other honors. The musical was itself based upon the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman which had inspired the 1949 Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

That said, I hadn’t seen the musical until taking in The Dio Theatre’s exceptional production (currently running), and I was struck by how it made me think of so many other works: Cy Coleman’s Little Me with its succession of bumped off suitors all played by one wunderkind actor; Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians with its episodic structure framed around a steadily mounting drawing room body count; Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood with its winking neo-operatic hyperbole; the gothic gallows whimsy of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies with one absurdly alphabetically-inspired ghastly death after another; and maybe even a bit of Neil Simon’s Murder By Death with its cavalier and circuitous satire of the entire murder mystery genre

I’m not sharing all of this pedantry to sound pretentious and pompous … though that very well may be the inadvertent effect I’ve achieved. I offer this perspective to say that I’m not sure I was completely sprung on A Gentleman’s Guide‘s source material as I couldn’t shake what felt like derivative familiarity. The plot concerns Monty Navarro, the lost heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune, and his devious machinations as he systematically eliminates the eight legitimate D’Ysquith relatives standing before him and untold wealth.  A Gentleman’s Guide tells that tale, tongue firmly in cheek, as one actor plays all the ill-fated D’Ysquiths in an episodic style that is less grand guignol and more Carol Burnett Show meets Gilbert and Sullivan.

Three paragraphs in, I’m not here to evaluate the book or music – that ship has sailed, and the rest of the theatre community seems to universally adore A Gentleman’s Guide. My task is to talk about The Dio’s production, and, as with all of the company’s storied output, the show is beautifully, thoughtfully mounted with technical aplomb, spectacular talent, pristine music direction, and touring production-level costume and set design.

Director Steve DeBruyne in collaboration with an A-list team – Matthew Tomich (set, lighting and sound), Norma Polk (costumes), Eileen Obradovich (props), Carrie Sayer (assistant direction), and Marlene Inman (music direction) – offers a show that is by turns immersive, inspiring, layered, and sparkling. The look and feel is like an unfolding storybook: arch sartorial splendor that would put Colleen Atwood to shame; family portraits that open Laugh In-style for the Greek chorus to observe the onstage shenanigans; clever digital projections depicting locales as diverse as the D’Ysquith manor, a towering abbey, and the Egyptian pyramids.  Inman has created a sonic landscape that is as splendid as it is overwhelming; the voices onstage could fill a space three times the size of The Dio. The musical abilities of this cast, in Inman’s exceptional hands, are something to behold.

Olive Hayden-Moore, Sarah Brown, David Moan, Angela Hench [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Standouts are David Moan (“Monty”) and Sarah Brown (“Phoebe,” Monty’s cousin … and dearly beloved). Moan and Brown have a deft touch for balancing the light comedy, dark themes, and vocal prowess required here. Moan is becoming a bit of a cottage industry around humanizing sociopaths, after his celebrated turns as Sweeney Todd and John Wilkes Booth (Assassins) at The Encore Theatre. Here Moan’s soaring voice is paired with a characterization that is as wry as it is poignant: an outsider always looking in, waiting for his moment to shine, even if that involves pushing a relative (or 8) off the proverbial (or literal) cliff.  Moan and Brown are at their best in the “slamming doors” number “I’ve Decided to Marry You” (also, arguably the most ear-wormy tune in the show) alongside Angela Hench (“Sibella”), depicting a love triangle gone zanily sideways. Hench is an incredible vocalist, but, at times, given the accent she employs, our table struggled to discern her lines.

Richard Payton as … The D’Ysquiths [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Local legend Richard Payton, as expected, milks every moment of excess and bombast in his multiple roles as the self-important D’Ysquiths. The scenery practically has teeth marks from his work here, and, as much fun as he is clearly having, some nuance does get lost in The Dio’s tight quarters. He is balanced by an exceptionally strong ensemble (Lydia Adams, Michael Bessom, Olive Hayden-Moore, Jared Schneider, Carrie Sayer, Maika Van Oosterhout, Mark Anthony Vukelich) also playing multiple roles. Their collective high point (other than some really funny fake ice skating) is “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” wherein Payton’s entitled queen bee “Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith” launches a series of successively disastrous philanthropic voyages to far flung corners of the globe, her exasperated retinue in tow.

I’m glad I saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I’ve been intrigued about the show, but, admittedly, in the end, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the concept. It is a lot of show, and coupled with dinner service makes for a lengthy evening. However, I am a fan of The Dio and the magic they weave in Pinckney, Michigan. Their production of A Gentleman’s Guide is accomplished, polished, and impressive. The degree of difficulty which this theatre company continues to embrace (and conquer) seemingly without a second thought is, in a word, inspiring. And the fact that they consistently deliver exceptional productions with grace, inclusion, humility, and kindness makes The Dio an absolute treasure.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through October 6 at The Dio. Tickets may be purchased here.

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So, like any household, we try to strike a balance in our choices, particularly where entertainment is concerned, hence we took in the low-budget motocross film drama Bennett’s War at my husband’s request.

It’s a formulaic sports-as-metaphor flick, but, on the balance, a likable one. Production values are that of a mid-range television pilot, and, other than country star Trace Adkins as a down-on-his-luck farmer, the cast is comprised primarily of unknowns. A few jingoistic moments made me cringe – notably a golden-hued Michael Bay-like opening wherein titular every man Marshall Bennett (a winning Michael Roark) has turned his motorcycle riding prowess into a tour of duty in Afghanistan. That tour doesn’t end well. Bennett ends up back home, injured and unable to race, his family farm facing foreclosure.

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However, Bennett has a beloved mechanic buddy Cyrus (a charming Ali Afshar, also serving as the film’s producer and curiously choosing to tell, in character, a couple of tone-deaf jokes at the expense of his fellow Arab Americans). The duo face down an enemy motocross team Karate Kid-style (remember that “everything old is new again” thing?), overcome a few narratively convenient setbacks, and save the farm (literally).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

You know what? I enjoyed Bennett’s War. The movie is well-cast, nicely paced, and mostly good-hearted. Bennett’s War is pleasant entertainment, zips by in a breezy 90 minutes, and doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Sometimes that’s just fine.

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Richard Payton [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

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

“Some kids play rougher than others.” Toy Story 4

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“Some kids play rougher than others,” intones a battle-worn Bo Peep (Annie Potts) to Woody (Tom Hanks), explaining that not every toy has a safe, beloved spot in a child’s play room.

I know someone is going to give me crap for this, but Toy Story 4 is the franchise installment Trump’s America deserves: darker, looser, even more pointedly existential than ever. The series has always had a sadistic tendency to torture audiences with one scene after another of cute, lovable toys in peril (darting through traffic, avoiding incineration, evading plaything-mutilating bullies, escaping the clutches of nerdy collectors), but Toy Story 4, while offering plenty of hair-raising slapstick sequences, has the temerity to ask the most haunting question of all: why are any of us alive?

The tool (no pun intended) whereby our plucky Pixar filmmakers hang the tale is a garbage pail-bound spork whom the film’s young human Bonnie (introduced at the heartwrenching end of Toy Story 3 inheriting Buzz and Woody and the gang from Andy) fishes from the trash to create, with the aid of putty, pipe-cleaners, and craft-store googly eyes, a Kindergarten companion dubbed “Forky.” As voiced with a Dostoyevsky-esque quaver by Tony Hale, Forky is torn between a destiny of disposability and the fact that this little girl has brought him to life as an adored plaything through childlike whimsy and a touch of Dr. Frankenstein hubris.

This is just weird (and welcomed) territory for the series.

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In the midst of Forky’s arrival, it becomes apparent to Woody that his days as a top draw in the play room have come to an end and that his primary mission at this point is to save Bonnie’s heart by keeping Forky from Forky’s more self-destructive impulses. Forky frequently yells “trash” with the longing of a drug addict, hurling himself headlong into any garbage heap he can find. It’s funny. And it’s not.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Along the way, Bonnie’s family rents an RV for a rustic road trip, and Woody and Forky find themselves lost (repeatedly), eventually landing in an antique shop, haunted by a 50s-era “talking baby doll” named Gabby Gabby (a delightfully chilling Christina Hendricks) whose voice box has long ago gone kaput. Her dream, like that of all the characters we’ve met over these four films and multiple spin-off shorts, is to simply have one child to truly love her. She may be the villain of Toy Story 4 but is utterly relatable and darn impossible to loathe.

To the rescue rides Bo Peep and her army of misfit lost toys. Long ago, Bo Peep (voiced brilliantly by Annie Potts, on quite the career renaissance between this and her genius turn as Young Sheldon‘s free-spirited granny) had been given away from the home Woody and Buzz originally inhabited. Sadly, they had all lost track of one another. Bo Peep, in counterpoint to Gabby Gabby, however, finds an owner-less life quite liberating, manning an “underground railroad” of sorts for all of the world’s lost toys, including a charming turn by Keanu Reeves’ as a failed Canadian Evel Knieval knock-off Duke Kaboom.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Toy Story 4 is an odd film and, as a result, may, with time, become my favorite in the series. Yes, there is warmth and nostalgia and a handful of feel-good tears, as expected, but there is also a pronounced, ominous quality, reflective of the free-floating anxiety I think most of us in the world feel these days. When the present is bleak and the future is smoggy, don’t we all just want someone to love us, write their first name on the bottom of our shoe, and believe the sun rises and sets upon us? We sure do. And Toy Story 4 posits that sometimes even that isn’t enough.

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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.

“You gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” Rocketman

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It’s like Elton John said to Bohemian Rhapsody, “Hey, hold my (now non-alcoholic) beer. Let me show you how a biopic of a 1970s/1980s, transcendent, groundbreaking, gay (but sorta conflicted and closeted-ish) rock god should be done.”

Rocketman is transporting, joyous, heartbreaking, bonkers, and damn brilliant.

And if you love Elton John’s music but occasionally have found Elton John himself a smidge unpleasant (as I have), Taron Egerton’s bravura reinvention/translation of Elton John’s essence in the title role will give you reason to love the man again. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that captures the sense memory of Elton at the peak of his powers while providing a very empathetic yet theatrical glimpse into the insecurity and heartbreak that fueled his greatest work.

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As directed by Dexter Fletcher (ironically, the helmer who came to the rescue of Bohemian Rhapsody when the embattled Bryan Singer walked off the set … too little, too late alas), Rocketman is simultaneously escapist and sobering, a beautifully constructed real-life fairy tale warning us of the false promise of celebrity excess and the corrosive power of self-denial. Oh, and it’s a full-blown g-damned musical with zero f*cks given – no apology, no shame – as a movie about Elton John’s life, depicted in broad operatic strokes, should be.

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The best songs from the storied output of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin (here delicately underplayed by a loving and sensitive Jamie Bell) basically form the blueprint for a Broadway musical anyway. Consequently, re-purposing ubiquitous story-songs like “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” “Saturday Night’s Alright,” “Your Song,” or “Benny and the Jets” outside a concert context as integrated narrative commentary becomes a rather effortless exercise. That said, Lee Hall’s script is a thoughtful biographical kaleidoscope, loose on facts and timeline, but laser-focused on allegory and atmosphere, incorporating Elton John’s greatest hits as if they were always meant to populate and propel the arc of the singer-songwriter’s life.

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Of course, the costumes are divine and period-specific. I haven’t seen this many marabou feathers, platform heels, and sequins since the heyday of The Match Game. Yet, the film never devolves into camp. This isn’t a movie marginalizing nor ridiculing the extremes of Elton John’s life. This is a film expertly designed to handhold all of its viewers toward greater empathy.

When Elton fearfully confesses his sexual identity to his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, perfectly fine, but apparently now typecast as cruel, self-absorbed hard-asses until the end of time), she responds, “I know. I’ve always known.” Yet, unlike films with lesser sensitivity toward this particular subject matter, the line is not delivered as a salve to Elton’s broken heart. Rather, it is the ultimate slight, as if she’s saying, “You’ve always been broken.” People may think they mean well with such a statement. Let me tell you, it’s not helpful.

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Admittedly, the filmmakers lay on a bit thick how toxic Elton John’s parents might have been. In addition to Howard’s blowsy dragon matriarch, Elton has a frosty, jazz-loving father (Steven Mackintosh) who abandons the family after Elton discovers his mother canoodling with a neighbor man in a sedan parked street-side. Gemma Jones does balance things out a bit as Elton’s sympathetic grandmother, but, at times, the family dynamic in Rocketman seems like cutting room footage from the Harry Potter films of that dreadful, sweaty, sour tribe who foster young Mr. Potter.

Similarly, Richard Madden as Elton’s manager/lover John Reid devolves quickly into Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling territory in the film’s second act. Thank goodness, Madden has such buoyant gravitas, keeping his portrayal watchable, even as the cliches mount up.

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Fortunately, Egerton (Kingsman, Sing) is a savvy enough actor to avoid portraying Elton as a shame-free martyr, embracing the character’s petulant, rage-filled, myopic dark side … and somehow emerging ever more likable in the process. Oh, and he does all of his own singing here, acquitting himself quite nicely with the challenging material

The film is framed by Elton John’s rehab stint in the late 80s/early 90s, and Egerton does a masterful job avoiding the maudlin pitfalls such a set-up could present. Early in the film, a Motown singer for whom Elton is playing keyboards cautions him, “You gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” I suspect all of us struggle with this existential conundrum in the tricky tension between our personal and professional lives, but none so dramatically nor devastatingly as Elton John. Rocketman walks the tightrope beautifully between reality and parable, leveraging the pinball wizardry of Elton John’s life as a cautionary tale for us all.

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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.

“I am one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.” Dumbo (2019)

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Well, I REALLY don’t understand the critics on this one. Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo is a treat, correcting the dated/troubling politics of the original, expanding the story in logical ways, and making strong declarations for animal rights and compassion overall. My eyes still hurt from ugly crying for two hours earlier today. Highly recommend.

The original animated Dumbo is a beautiful film but deeply odd, held in affection more in our collective foggy sense memory than in the reality of its execution. There is a downright racist depiction of crows as a minstrel chorus (one is even named, yes, “Jim Crow”). Dumbo and Timothy (the mouse) get drunk on champagne and have a hallucinatory trip this side of Woodstock (“pink elephants”). The flick is only 64 minutes long. And there’s an anthropomorphic train (“Casey, Jr.”). Oh, and we all pretty much hate circuses now and the horrors they’ve exacted upon brilliant, beautiful pachyderms over the decades.

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So, as much as I love the original film, and I truly do (in great part because it’s one of those seminal movie-going experiences that shaped a lifelong championing of animal rights and a loathing of bullying of any kind), Dumbo is, in fact, rife for updating and reinvention as Disney continues to strip mine their classic film library to pad quarterly profit earnings … er … expand artistic horizons.

Tim Burton is a director who specializes in Technicolor bad dreams. His relentless storybook/Edward Gorey-book sensibility is a logical fit for a narrative dripping in creepy circus tropes (clowns! leering audiences! mustache-twirling carnival barkers!), focused on the magic of mutant deformation (those ears! that flight!), and the central tragedy of which is the heartrending separation of mother and son (“Baby Mine”). I’ve often found Burton’s cinematic output wildly uneven and maddeningly frustrating with its unrealized potential, but I, for one, found Dumbo one of his stronger efforts in years.

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The script by Ehren Kruger is not terribly inventive but fills out the thin story line of the original with predictable but welcome subplots. The movie’s second half literally bites the hands that feeds in a fairly wicked satire of the antiseptically brutal capitalism of the Disneyland theme park concept itself.

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The cast is a starry array of Burton regulars: Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton (who has developed a lovely niche playing country club sleeze). In that battery-acid tone that is her trademark, Green  who portrays a glitzy diva trapeze artist in Keaton’s employ observes: “I am one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.”

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Colin Farrell is in fine form as a widower who returns from the war-front (WWI) sans one arm and with two young children who desperately need him to reclaim his heart and soul. He and his wife had been equestrian performers in DeVito’s shaggy “Medici Bros. Circus,” and Farrell is faced with the economic pressures of reframing his career amidst familial heartbreak. Enter one too-cute-for-words little blue-eyed-big-eared elephant to heal this tiny clan (see: PaddingtonMary Poppins) as Dumbo seeks to reunite with his own mama.

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Maybe I’m too soft a touch for a movie like this, but any film that ends with as a strong a statement I’ve seen from Hollywood in years that animals (CGI-generated or not) belong in nature and that they should be admired and respected and left alone is a winner in my book. Is it a cliche that pretty much every major character rallies by the film’s raucous conclusion to restore Dumbo and his ma to their jungle lives (save two or three souls who, spoiler alert, are grimly punished for their cruelty)? Maybe. But that’s a cliche I’ll take all day long.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

Hot damn!

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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