“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

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In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

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They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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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.

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.” Incredibles 2

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney Pixar’s Incredibles 2, picking up 14 years (!) after the last film hit theatres, is about as subversive as a movie full of pixelated superheroes can be. This is the film our country needs right now. People will flock to this – Blue States on the coasts and Red States in the middle – and none will be the wiser that directing wunderkind Brad Bird has given us the ultimate Ray Bradburdy-esque allegory for our topsy turvy political times.

For instance, Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl – offered a Faustian contract by media-hack Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to publicly redeem superheroes who have been outlawed in the Incredibles’ flawlessly production-designed mid-century moment – queries, “To help my family I have to leave it. To fix the law, I have to break it.” Does that sound familiar … or what?! (I won’t even get into our present debate over the horror of separating immigrant families from their children at the border … oh, Elastigirl, how we need you right now.)

The first Incredibles surprised us all, billed as it was as a four-color throwback to superhero shenanigans of movie matinee yore. Yet, in reality, it was a brilliantly executed existential treatise on surviving in a world of ageist disposability and politically charged hypocrisy. In both films, Bird uses the titular Spandex’d family (homage as they are to Marvel’s own Fantastic Four) to explore thorny issues of identity politics, socioeconomic disparity, and xenophobia. (For those of you rolling your eyes, watch the first film again and tell me I’m wrong. In fact, I would argue that, taken together, The Incredibles are a far better “spiritual adaptation” of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen than Zack Snyder’s slavishly literal 2009 film treatment of said graphic novel.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Bird has woven into both films an infectious love of 60s caper-television fare a la Mission: Impossible, The Man from UNCLE, and Jonny Quest, aided and abetted by his pitch-perfect musical soundtrack partner Michael Giacchino, whose shameless worship of Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, and Herbie Hancock is as obvious as the “i” on Mr. Incredible’s Buick-sized chest.

Of all Pixar’s storied output, The Incredibles films go the greatest distance, creating a self-contained universe of exceptional design and unimpeachable character and holding an outsized mirror to the heartbreaking flaws in our present reality.

Incredibles 2 is one of those rare sequels that meets if not exceeds its predecessor. This may be the Godfather 2 of Pixar flicks.

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The first film debuted before Marvel Studios’ ascent to cinematic glory, not to mention Marvel’s subsequent acquisition by Disney, and this sequel appears after the first major chapter of Marvel’s meteoric rise comes to a close with Avengers: Infinity War. Not sure what to make of that, but The Incredibles‘ wry, relatable commentary is arguably far more sophisticated than that of any other superhero flicks we have seen … or likely ever will. (I’m pretty sure this is the only superhero movie, let alone animated film, I’ve ever seen that has used the word “conflate” in a line of dialogue.)

We meet our heroes, one day following the events of the first film, as they continue to bump along in life – Olympian gods suffering through the mundanities of middle American subsistence. The super-family’s well-intentioned intervention of a bank heist goes awry, and they find themselves in the slammer and without the aid of their super-handler Rick Dicker, who has decided a life of retirement is preferable to one of damage control for a family of super-powered freaks. He observes ruefully, “You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.”

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In Dicker’s absence, PR maven Winston Deavor steps forward with a scheme to celebrate Elastigirl and thereby rehabilitate the negative image “supers” have suffered in The Incredibles-universe for years. Mr. Incredible (with heart-breaking comic voice work by Craig T. Nelson) is left at home with a super-powered infant Jack-Jack (whose anarchic impulses yield increasingly zany and haunting consequences) as well as two angsty tweens: the invisible Violet and the speedster Dash. Oh, and Deavor’s sister Evelyn (a delightfully sardonic Catherine Keener) may or may not be on the side of the angels. TBD.

The movie touches on just about every zeitgeist issue hitting today’s headlines: women who have lived far too long in the shadows of men; the dilemma of finally finding one’s “moment” when the obligations of daily life make it impossible to actually enjoy it; a fear-mongering government whose reach far exceeds its grasp; and the unerring need of the media and elected officials to scapegoat the marginalized for all of society’s failings. Not incidentally, Incredibles 2 is a funny-as-hell, fizzy-a$$ bottle-rocket of entertainment.

Yes, fan-favorites Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, all wisenheimer perfection) and Edna Mode (director Brad Bird doing double-duty as the voice of the fussy Edith Head-inspired “capes and cowls” designer) make their triumphant returns. Mode particularly enjoys a delightful sequence where her take-no-prisoners approach to fashion ends up yielding exceptional parenting tips to Mr. Incredible: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”

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The film’s antagonist declares in the movie’s final act that “superheroes make us weak,” asserting that our reliance on escapist fare prevents us from living our most authentic lives.

It’s a twisty and cynical bit of meta-commentary, embedded as it is in a film produced by a media empire (Disney’s) raking in billions from our foolhardy fantasies that Captain America will somehow save our hides from the real-life fascists ruining our country. Fair enough.

But all hail Pixar for yet again offering us – under the deceptive and intoxicating guise of family friendly entertainment – a healthy dose of philosophical medicine just when we desperately need it … a big gulp of fortifying spinach to counteract the real-life Krytonite sapping our spirits on a daily basis. (Yes, I just mixed my Popeye and Superman metaphors. Go sue me, Lex Luthor.)

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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.

“Family is not an ‘f’-word.” Deadpool 2 and Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Ah, summer. The time we all look forward to all year long … until it’s actually here. We get to be outside. We get to do back-breaking yard-work. We get to enjoy the sun. We get to sweat through our dress clothes every day at work. We get to escape our troubles watching one blockbuster movie after another in the soothingly air-conditioned multiplex. We get to pay through the nose to be bombarded by an unyielding series of overblown, unwatchable chase scenes as latex-clad superheroes and blaster-wielding space-farers (most of them now owned in whole or in part by Disney) battle for the hearts and minds of John Q. Public.

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Here we are, 2018. We’ve already witnessed Marvel’s Avengers storm cinemas, and I’m still a bit shell-shocked by what I did (and didn’t) see. Now, we steel ourselves for the one-two punch of Deadpool 2 (produced by 20th Century Fox in affiliation with Marvel Entertainment … though as Wall Street tells us Fox is soon to be owned outright by Marvel/Disney) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (released by Disney’s LucasFilm studio, less than six months after The Last Jedi underwhelmed some and thrilled a few more). I was prepared for the worst, and I was pleasantly surprised by both.

I thought the original Deadpoolwas a breath of fresh (raunchy) air, a genius bit of commerce that simultaneously lampooned the superhero genre (in the broadest Tex Avery-style possible) while laughing its red-and-black-ski-masked head all the way to the bank. I feared Deadpool 2 would be a stultifying, self-indulgent, self-satisfied, bloated, and unnecessary money-grab. The brainchild of producer and star Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool 2 welcomes a new director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, John Wick) and a new raison d’etre. After burning the cape-and-cowl zeitgeist to the ground with the first flick, this latest chapter imbues our titular anti-hero with a compelling backstory and a heartbreaking new frenemy (Josh Brolin’s superb-I-won’t-break-character-for-any-bit-of-tomfoolery “Cable”) … while still frying our retinas and shaming us for any adoration we may still hold for these kind of films. And, yeah, admittedly it’s still kind of an unnecessary and bloated money-grab.

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Nonetheless, I had a ball. I would have loved to have had 30 minutes of my life back from its lengthy run-time, but I had a ball.

(What happened to the fine art of the perfectly paced 90 minute or 1 hour 45 minute movie? Have filmmakers forgotten the time-tested strategy of “leaving the audience wanting more”? Asking for a friend …)

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Similarly, I was wary that Solo: A Star Wars Story, with its troubled production history, would be a bust. LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Streethelmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had filmed nearly 90% of the movie when they were unceremoniously booted in the 11th hour and replaced with Ron Howard. Further, there is much hand-wringing this weekend in the House of Mouse that the latest Star Wars installment only broke $100 million domestic. Boo hoo.

Well, Solo is pretty damn fun and utterly heartfelt and overall a delight … and also would greatly benefit from having a tighter running time.

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I’ll be blasphemous for a moment (I can’t wait for the comments). I actually like Alden Ehrenreich’s take on the title role. Solo details the “origin story” of this legendary character first portrayed by Harrison Ford, detailing Solo’s misspent youth meeting cute with Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, running rings around Billy Dee Williams), and, um, the Millennium Falcon. I thought Ford was gangbusters as Indiana Jones, but his Han Solo was occasionally too aloof, too smug for the “scruffy nerf-herder” he actually was purported to be. Ehrenreich brings a refreshing “little boy lost” quality to the role, not dissimilar to Chris Pine’s blessed de-Shatnerizing of the iconic role of Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot. My two cents. Let the hateration commence.

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Both Deadpool 2 and Solo are glorified heist movies, employing the “building the perfect team to complete the perfect job” conceit as an excuse to explore what it means to be a family.  The best heist flicks (Channing Tatum’s Logan Lucky a great recent example) present us a collection of colorful, misdirected ne’er-do-wells who discover a higher reason for being – the fellowship of man – on their way to doing something truly despicable. Deadpool even offers us the poetic bon mot “family is not an ‘f’-word” as our favorite mutant mercenary loses his true love (a luminous Morena Bacarin) and fills his broken heart with a collection of wackadoodle buddies (the aforementioned Brolin as “Cable,” Stefan Kapičić as a comically CGI’d “Colossus,” Zazie Beetz as a dynamite take-no-prisoners “Domino,” and Leslie Uggams as Deadpool’s cantankerous roommate “Blind Al”).

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Likewise, Solo is populated with a rogues’ gallery of character players. Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (her feisty, feminist, rabble-rousing ‘droid L3-37 deserves her own outing ASAP), Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Joonas Suotamo, and aforementioned Donald Glover all turn in standout moments in an otherwise overstuffed enterprise. Emilia Clarke is particularly impactful as Han Solo’s hometown love Qi’ra, resisting “femme fatale” cliches and presenting a conflict-ridden soul who will persevere by golly, despite a galaxy-full of misogynistic roadblocks.  (I also must note that the train-robbing scene in Solo is one of the crispest staged action sequences in the Star Wars series in quite a while.)

Neither film is perfect, nor does either need to be. We have become a film-going culture that consumes its heroes in episodic narrative gulps – as if Charles Dickens had written in less prosaic terms about people who wore tight pants and could bend steel with their bare hands. Wait, he didn’t?

Deadpool 2 and Solo are way-stations in their respective decades-long cinematic franchises: X-Men and Star Wars. The fact that both offer a bit of humanistic allegory – some nutrition along with their empty popcorn calories – is quite remarkable and welcome.The fact that they will both sell truckloads of overpriced action figures and smirkingly ironic t-shirts is a given. Welcome to 21st century America.

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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.

“It’s like a pirate had a baby with an angel.” Avengers: Infinity War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel. I love you. Disney. I love you. I’ve got nerd cred. I’ve been reading comic books for nearly 40 years. I have piles of them squirreled away all over our house. I have a small army of action figures that, if I had any sense about me, I’d put in boxes and not display everywhere like I’m a character from Big Bang Theory.

So, please, my fellow fan-kids, don’t lose your collective minds when I say Avengers: Infinity War is kind of a big ol’ meh.

I’ve got people already on my Facebook page arguing a) we’ve waited 10 years for THIS so it MUST be AMAZING; b) if Lord of the Rings is long and boring but was made for the geeks, then this can be just as episodic and ponderous too; c) Roy, you just don’t GET it … Empire Strikes Back was dark and sad so this is a logical step in the Marvel narrative.

Folks, my critique of this film is not with the source material, and if I – a 45-year-old man who carries a well-worn velcro wallet which I bought at Hot Topic (!)  and which is festooned with ALL the Marvel characters – feel letdown by the film, it is NOT a personal slight to you.

I don’t envy Infinity War directors The Russo Brothers who had to follow the zippy bottle rocket that was Black Panther, a film which successfully balanced the hyper-detailed mythology which those of us far too immersed in comic book lore desire with a sharp, cinematic storytelling that enveloped general audiences in an inspiring and evocative new world.

On the whole, the Russos do a great job in Infinity War of balancing far too many personalities. I can only imagine the war room they set up to figure out which spandex-clad beings would show up where and at what time and how many lines they did or didn’t receive (let alone then wrangling the egos of actors portraying said superheroes). This is no Batman & Robin debacle, nor is it a Watchmen-level slog or a Batman v. Superman cluster.

About 80% of Infinity War is transfixing and, well, fun. It is episodic to a fault, but the characters are drawn consistently from their respective franchises without any jarring beats, and there is a kicky joy to seeing Tom Holland’s delightfully irreverent Spider-Man lost in space or watching Chris Hemsworth’s Thor team up with Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket Raccoon. Hemsworth’s God of Thunder is by far the brightest spot in the film; Dave Bautista’s Drax has one of the flick’s funnier lines when he opines that Thor “looks like a pirate had a baby with an angel.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pretty much everyone from the Black Panther cast fares well also, bringing some much needed buoyancy and energy to the film’s saggy late-middle section. All the returning Avengers play to their strengths as best they can in an overcrowded film. Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man) is still so Robert Downey, Jr. Chris Evans is stoic and warm and rather square as Captain America. Mark Ruffalo is pleasantly fussy as Bruce Banner (The Hulk). Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch) are pros so they make the most from underwritten roles that mostly require them to look worried and wave their arms around periodically. And so on.

At the heart of the film is a very interesting and thoughtful dynamic between “big bad” Thanos (a surprisingly nuanced motion capture performance from Josh Brolin) and his adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Thanos’ villainous motivation (not dissimilar from Killmonger’s in Black Panther) is that society is incapable of caring for itself and that, with resources as finite as they are, the best solution is simply to slaughter half the population of the universe. Okey dokey. His daughters – who tend to hang out with the heroic Guardians of the Galaxy – aren’t down with that, and their familial tension, in a nod toward King Lear, gives the film a much-needed narrative grounding.

However, ultimately, the Russos have far too many moving parts to address, let alone future franchises to set up, so the dysfunctional Thanos family reunion gets overshadowed quickly. I won’t spoil any surprises (to be honest, there aren’t as many surprises as pre-release marketing would have you believe), but there is a substantial and gutting moment between Thanos and Gamora around the mid-way mark. The scene works so well, in an almost Dickensian fashion (think the sadder, creepier parts of A Christmas Carol), due to Brolin’s and Saldana’s performances. Saldana particularly breaks your heart. As an audience member, I was invested.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yet, a final act then follows that piles up the body count (not a spoiler – I’m not saying who) and just as quickly establishes a mechanism where all that mayhem could be undone (not a spoiler – I’m not saying how). I, personally, felt emotionally cheated. The film ends with a fairly dispassionate and obtuse note, and we are left wondering “what next?” Unlike, say Empire Strikes Back which concludes with a Saturday matinee cliffhanger as somber as can be (“will we see Han again? where is Luke’s hand? who’s his daddy really?”), we already basically know the outcomes in Infinity War will be reversed. It feels like a bait and switch. I didn’t like it when Superman “died” in Batman v. Superman, and I don’t much care for it here, even though Infinity War is The Godfather compared to anything DC has released.

(By the way, I’m tired of everyone now saying a bleak middle chapter with a non-ending in a genre film series has a raison d’etre just because of the role The Empire Strikes Back plays in the original Star Wars trilogy. So there.)

I apologize for my rant. I apologize for my indulgences with this “review.” Infinity War is not a bad film. In fact, it’s an interesting exercise in corporate synergy that is far more artistic than it might have been in other hands in another era. I enjoyed so many moments in the film, but, ultimately it doesn’t hang together in the compelling, capstone tapestry I’d hoped it would. Like Drax’s description of Thor, this movie is a bit like a “pirate has had a baby with an angel” – trying to accomplish too much (crowd-pleaser, merchandise machine, epic denouement to a decade of pretty damn great movies) with a whole lot of heart but just not quite enough substance. This movie left me exhausted.

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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 feel like I won an #Oscar today. I have my own hashtag #BeARoySexton ?!?

I can’t even begin to express how much this means to me. Heather Morse-Geller has been an inspiration and a mentor to me, and I’m happy that whatever influence I’ve mustered has helped spread the word about her insight and expertise.

“Roy is as important to me as any content redistributor I could pay. And the best way I can return the favor is to pay it forward. So I challenge us all to #BeARoySexton. Share some content, include a note of WHY it’s important for your network to stop what they are doing and read it. And do it for fun and for free.”

This is such an honor: https://www.legalwatercoolerblog.com/2018/03/20/roy-sexton-effect-win-friends-influence-content/ #lmamkt

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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.

‪Honored to be one of #AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite

Well, that’s nifty! Honored to be one of AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite – here.

I love movies, musicals, superheroes, cartoons, action figures, & miscellaneous geekery. I love talking about them even more. Ask me anything!

I’ve been posting my movie musings at www.reelroyreviews.com for five years now … much to the chagrin of true arbiters of taste. And at one point a publisher (Open Books) decided to turn my online shenanigans into a couple of books. I tend to go see whatever film has been most obnoxiously hyped, marketed, and oversold in any given week. Art films? Bah! Won’t find too many of those discussed by yours truly. And every once in awhile, I may review a TV show, theatrical production, record album, concert, or book (yeah, probably not too many of those either). So ask me anything … I act, sing, write, laugh, cry, collect, and obsess in my downtime … and I market lawyers to pay the bills.

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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.

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.

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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.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

“Page-turners they were not.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Christmas Story Live!, and the failure of marketing

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are few pieces of holiday entertainment about which I am more excited than the arrival of a new Star Wars flick or a live television musical event, and, yet, somehow, it took me a good week get around to watching Disney/LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and soon-to-be-Disney-corporate-stablemate FOX’s A Christmas Story Live! In part, that is because we insane monkeys (humanity writ large) feel the absurd need to cram ALL POSSIBLE JOY and festivity into the four-plus week span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, leaving January a bleak and empty month of snow drifts and credit card bills. Consequently, the things we might put at the top of our list under any normal circumstances slide depressingly to the bottom of our “must do”s.

Yet, there was something else about both Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! … I wasn’t that excited to see either. The messaging and advertising surrounding both events couldn’t have “buried the lede” worse, and I believe that the “backlash” or audience disappointment in both is less a result of the quality of the work (both are actually excellent in wildly divergent ways) and more a result of misaligned promotional efforts.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Did you know Christmas Story Live!, brilliantly directed with military precision and classic Broadway charm by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski, was a musical by Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) before you started watching? We theatre geeks did, but all of the commercials promoting the three-hour event conveniently bypassed that there would be, you know, singing and dancing galore. As a result, Twitter lit up like the “dumpster fire,” which internet trolls accused the show of being, with self-righteous indignation that “childhoods were being ruined” by the introduction of “musical numbers” to such a “great classic.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s also note, for the record, that the original 1983 Christmas Story (which is a pretty perfect confection, even if it suffers from some now-tone-deaf misogyny and racism) was a flop that only found life in video store rentals and through HBO’s habit back then of running forgotten films 38 times a day. It has become beloved, but that doesn’t mean some tinkering couldn’t benefit the timeworn tale.

It’s an absolute shame that audiences didn’t embrace this new production, and I can only hope that this TV-musical finds its own cult following on YouTube or NetFlix or whatever venues now allow 8-year-olds to watch any piece of entertainment to the point of nausea. The cast for A Christmas Story Live! was sublime, from a warm and winning Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents to a crackling Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer as the teacher and Mrs. Schwartz respectively. Nary a beat was missed, and even the to-be-expected line flubs (“purkey”) were handled with grace and aplomb. The role of Ralphie was split between a lovely and magically omnipresent Matthew Broderick (adult narrator Ralphie) – who mixed just the right holiday cocktail of sentiment and cynicism – and a remarkable Andy Walken (child Ralphie) – who buried all annoying “look at me” child actor tics in a star-making performance that propelled every scene with heart and raw talent. Walken is one to watch.

(By the way, broadcasters, please cut down the number of in-show commercials. You’re killing the momentum and joy of a stage-show-on-TV by shilling for Old Navy every 8 minutes.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Much like FOX’s production of Grease Live!, the camera whizzed and swooshed from interiors to back lot streetscapes to fantasy playgrounds and back again accompanied by a literal army of extras who populated each locale with verve. Standout numbers included Gasteyer’s “In the Market for a Miracle,” Rudolph’s “What a Mother Does,” Diamantopoulos’ “A Major Award,” Krakowski’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and the children’s ensemble “When You’re a Wimp.” The musical expands on the original film’s notions of inclusion balanced with the bittersweet comic realities of half-remembered holiday times, giving the female characters an agency and authority lacking in the 1983 script and discovering shades of sympathy for both the bullies and the bullied on the playground and in life. (Including PSAs for folks to go out and adopt rescue dogs like those amazing canine thespians portraying the Bumpus hounds didn’t hurt either.) It’s just a shame FOX was too chicken to promote the musical honestly and directly. I triple-dog-dare the execs to rethink their approach if there is a next time, but I’m sure the suits will blame the show itself and not their mishandling of its promotion.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My lumps of coal aren’t only reserved for FOX’s marketing team, but Disney/LucasFilm’s as well. (For those Star Wars fans who have patiently – or impatiently – read through my analysis of A Christmas Story Live!, thank you. Now go watch it, and fast forward through the commercials.) The ads for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were nigh inescapable. No shock there. Disney has pretty successfully re-established the franchise as a holiday tradition – first with 2015’s The Force Awakens, then last year’s Rogue One – and that means advertising the bejeezus out of each new film’s imminent arrival.

However, the ads for Last Jedi overplayed the “trust no spoilers, for there be amazing twists and turns here” hyperbole. We nerds who grew up anxiously awaiting the familial, Shakespearean revelations offered by each subsequent episode of the previous two trilogies walked into Last Jedi ready to gobble up a smorgasbord of “galaxy far, far away” secrets: who was Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); who are Rey’s parents; why has Luke Skywalker withdrawn from life; how does Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) keep her armor so dang shiny; why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) such a pouty brat? The marketing for the film had us all whipped into a lather that had nothing to do with the actual film Rian Johnson gave us, and that also is a damn shame. We do get a few of these answers, but mostly Johnson challenges whether or not any of those questions should be asked in the first place.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Was the film too long by half, suffering from a meandering and episodic structure that seemed more suited to the small screen than the large? Perhaps. Did Johnson riff on The Empire Strikes Back‘s structure in a similarly derivative way to J.J. Abram’s lifting passages wholesale from A New Hope for Force Awakens. Kinda. Was it disappointing that Johnson basically thumbed his nose at our expectations for the same regurgitated Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff that has fueled every Star Wars movie to date?  Damn straight. And rather exhilarating as well. Like cold water in one’s face on a mid-December evening.

I admit I was bored silly at times, and I nervously giggled at some (perhaps intentional) Spaceballs-esque series-self-satire. (Could that New Order/Resistance three hour-long-slow-ass chase through space be any weirder?). However, I also appreciated that – yes, not unlike A Christmas Story Live! – Johnson mines and reinvents the source material, jettisoning the self-satisfied reverence holding it back and embracing the core essence of what hippie Baby Boomer filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg and Henson were trying to achieve with their 70s and 80s cinematic fantasias. Lucas always came this close to feminism and to embracing diversity in his films, but always fell short, leaving us with the same white male space-knights-in-shining-armor we’ve always had. Johnson, with Last Jedi, gives us a Star Wars allegory rich with thorny and difficult implications for modern-day America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

An “evil empire” propping up and propped up by the one-percent (note: I hated the “casino planet” sequence in Last Jedi, until I realized how truly subversive it is) aims to squash the “spark” of individuality across the galaxy. They are challenged at every turn in Last Jedi by a rag-tag band of characters who wouldn’t be out of place among the human cast of Sesame Street … or a Benetton ad: a feisty female mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t going to suffer any fools gladly; an “I’m-With-Her” battle-scarred princess-cum-general (Carrie Fisher) who leads with wit not super-powers; a purple-haired-don’t-nobody-mansplain-to-me admiral (Laura Dern) who carries her own agenda with no apologies; a fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) who gets his impulsive swagger handed back in shreds by Fisher and Dern and likes it; a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) who finally learns that love not self-aggrandizing-self-sacrifice is true heroism; and a nascent Jedi who learns that the lessons she needed were in her own heart all along (Daisy Ridley).

The cast, for the most part, is great, saddled with a talky script that fails to match the pure swashbuckling-zip of previous films in the series. Blasphemous as it may sound, I wasn’t  particularly taken with Fisher’s performance, which appeared to run the gamut from sort-of-exhausted to “I’m so tired of this sh*t.” Mark Hamill, on the other hand, delivers a career-best turn as a defeated and curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker for whom life has been crueler and less rewarding than the once optimistic farm boy had ever anticipated. Hamill is no Sir Alec Guinness (by a long shot). Yet, it is interesting and a tad surreal to see Hamill now playing the cranky Jedi mentor to a young whippersnapper (Ridley) at roughly the same age Guinness was when he appeared in a similar role (Obi Wan Kenobi) in A New Hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I exited the theatre from The Last Jedi disappointed and ambivalent. However, as I reflected the next day, I realized I was doing a disservice to the film Rian Johnson made because it didn’t align with the film I expected. I daresay it deserves a second viewing, on its own merits and divorced from its own discombobulated marketing campaign.

As one character (who shall remain a surprise for those who haven’t seen Last Jedi) wryly observes about a stack of old Jedi training manuals, “Page-turners they were not.” Both The Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! are more thoughtful and challenging than the easy and comfortable “page-turner”  nostalgia pitched in their respective marketing campaigns. I hope they both get their due.

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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). 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?” Thor: Ragnarok

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest – Thor: Ragnarok – is about as delightful a film to come from the Marvel/Disney machine as we’ve yet seen.

Marrying the free-wheeling whimsy of Ant-Man with the trippy nothing-is-too-zany visual style of Dr. Strange, layering in the heart and humanity of the Captain America films, and playing off the wackadoodle Shakespearean promise of Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) nonetheless delivers a completely unique vision and a superhero flick for the ages.

There is nary a shred of evidence of the micromanaged focus-grouping that seems to have plagued other entries in Marvel’s now 17-movie strong cinematic universe: the unfunny, overbaked narrative mush of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; the ponderous “how-many-action-figures-can-we-cram-into-this-for-merchandising” clutter of Avengers: Age of Ultron; the just plain dull-as-dishwater “end-is-nigh” pretense of, yes, Thor: The Dark World.

No, Thor: Ragnarok belies its title with a light-as-air zip and a screwball comic touch that plays beautifully to star Chris Hemsworth’s Cary-Grant-trapped-in-Tab-Hunter’s-body charms. Hemsworth’s gift is in simultaneously embracing the absurd and the self-serious, mining Thor’s lovable arrogance in uncertain circumstances for “fish-out-of-water” laughs. Akin to Shakespeare’s better “history” plays (say, Henry IV with its introduction of the iconic Falstaff), Ragnarok honors the operatic complexity of its source Norse mythology by juxtaposing the light and the dark, the goofy and the grand, to play out the prodigal son’s/hero’s quest to overcome both palace intrigue and the intoxicating lure of interstellar adventure to find his proper path to the throne.

The film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Waititi is obviously fueled by a love of the corny sci-fi box office bombs that littered HBO’s schedule in the early and mid 80s (post-Star Wars) like Krull, Beastmaster, Flash Gordon, Buckaroo Banzai, and so on – movies that I myself watched in a constant loop, attracted to the gonzo so-bad-it’s-great storytelling and campy visuals. In fact, Mark Mothersbaugh’s Moog-synth score sounds like it was written for an arcade game in 1983. And that’s a fabulous thing. (There is also an epic use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in segments that bookend the film. It’s a touch that not only enlivens the two sequences in which the tune is used but adds a nice layer of meta commentary – “we come from the land of the ice and snow” – about finding one’s home and one’s place in this world.)

However, Waititi isn’t on a nostalgia trip; he isn’t interested in self-indulgence. Rather, with a Howard Hawks-esque (Bringing Up Baby) command of pacing, set-up, visual jokes, and patter, Waititi delivers a character-driven romp that celebrates a lost soul embracing his destiny and learning a touch of humility along the way. Of course, in this case, the lost soul happens to be the Norse God of Thunder and a superheroic Avenger who pals around with the Hulk, but that’s beside the point. Odin (a wry Anthony Hopkins) consoles his son at one point, when Thor is bemoaning the loss of his magic hammer Mjolnir, “But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?”

The plot is almost impossible to encapsulate, but I’ll try. Thor and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston reclaiming the smarmy twinkle that made the character such fun initially) are on a search to find their father Odin who is hiding out in Norway. Early on, they encounter Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange in a witty cat-and-mouse sequence that telegraphs that Ragnarok won’t be your typical Marvel flick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eventually, Loki and Thor discover that their father has concealed both a dark history from them and the existence of a sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, all slither and swagger and having a devil of a good time) who has returned to Asgard to take over the universe and wear some really fierce eyeliner and multi-horned headgear. Thor and Loki get shunted by Hela to Sakaar, a planet of garbage and misfit toys, where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster runs a Let’s Make a Deal-meets-Gladiator “Contest of Champions.” (This is the best use of Goldblum’s insidious, out-sized, googly-eyed demeanor in years.)

Lo and behold, Thor’s old buddy The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo fully embracing the sweet/sour rampaging baby characterization from the Avengers films) is somehow on Sakaar too. The boys fight; they make up; they fight again; and eventually, with the aid of new compatriot Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson bringing the boozy, bossy fun), return to Asgard and save the day (more or less) from Hela’s machinations. Whew.

Oh, and Karl Urban (Star Trek, Dredd, Pete’s Dragon) pops up as Hela’s right-hand thug Skurge the Executioner, and, as always, Urban brings a nuanced inner-conflict and a compelling screen presence to a character who in lesser hands would have been a screaming, raving slab of testosterone. One day, I’d like to see him in a movie that doesn’t require special effects, if they make those any more.

In the end, though, the film is a showcase for Hemsworth’s effervescent wit and steroidal comedy and for Waititi’s sure-handed cinematic voice and eye-popping visuals. Hemsworth is at a difficult career crossroads: a household name actor in international box office blockbusters who doesn’t yet seem like a star. Perhaps this turn will change that. If not, he and Waititi need to team up again posthaste and, maybe this time, sans capes. Hemsworth is that rare performer – a beautiful human specimen with the comic genius of an ugly duckling. Waititi is that rare director – one who loves all films and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the best and the worst but deftly avoids self-indulgence and derivativeness. As Goldblum’s Grandmaster says in response to Thor’s use of his lightning powers, “Out of your fingers … was that, like, sparkles?” Indeed, Hemsworth plus Waititi generate nothing but cinematic sparkles. Here’s hoping for more.

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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.