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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You view the world through a keyhole.” Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You view the world through a keyhole,” intones an  eyebrow-less (and bald) Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck), as the Ancient One – yet another in her long-line of eyebrow-less fortune cookie-philosophizing androgyne Yoda-lite characters – in Marvel Studios’ latest offering Doctor Strange.

Let’s face it, her synthetic ethereality is a lock for movies like this. How she isn’t sitting beside Stan Lee (on a bus, in a plane, on a boat, in a car) for every single one of his corny, ubiquitous cameos in these Marvel flicks is beyond me.

The recipient of her philosophical guidance in the film is one Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness), every bit her interplanetary match in the wide-eyed, chiseled-cheek-boned, glacial-foreheaded race for cinematic space alien beauty. Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, an egomaniac neurosurgeon whose egomania is totally justified by his remarkable skills in the operating room. Cumberbatch’s Strange wisely takes a page or two from the Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark “charming spoiled cad” playbook, layering in a welcome dollop or two of dyspepsia, contempt, and petulance.

As in any fairy tale … er … Marvel movie, our hero has a tragic flaw: Strange is a jerk.

  • He’s punished for it:  while driving his fancy sports car like an entitled and distracted prat, Strange finds his elegant surgeon hands crunched to paste in a grinding car accident.
  • He seeks redemption: under the tutelage of Swinton’s Ancient One, he learns some gobbledygook about not letting fear hold one back, realizing that what gets one here won’t get one there, and identifying who might have moved one’s cheese … or something that sounded vaguely like the counsel of a bad business self-help book one might be forced to read in an MBA class.
  • AND, voila!, he gains magical superpowers (plus, a nifty cape that behaves a bit like the mischievous, yet helpful, mice in Cinderella).

It’s all great fun with just the right touch of solemnity – the latter, no doubt, chiefly a contribution of the one-note, award-winning Brit gravitas that Swinton and Cumberbatch bring to everything they do. Director Scott Derrickson has cast the film exceedingly well. We also have Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) as Strange’s medical peer, confidante, and, yes, sometimes girlfriend (we can’t have everything). McAdams brings spark and wit, fire and intelligence, elevating Strange’s backstory in a compelling and heartfelt way. Mads Mikkelson (who seems consigned to always have black or bloody tears emanating from his unearthly peepers – see: LeChiffre in Casino Royale) is capably understated as Strange’s villainous foil Kaecilius. Benedict Wong (The Martian) delivers wry comic timing as Strange’s tutor/librarian/sidekick Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) successfully counterbalances Wong with ambivalent notes of resentful admiration toward Strange as friend/rival Mordo, foreshadowing intriguing future conflict.

Strange is visually sumptuous, taking the MC Escher stylings of Inception or Interstellar, losing the ponderous Christopher Nolan self-righteous self-aggrandizement, and amping up the kaleidoscopic fun. Skyscraper-lined city blocks fold upon themselves like origami; mirror images bend and twist and deceive; entire galaxies devolve into motes of dust. This movie is trippy, playfully updating, for the Millennial crowd, gonzo artist Steve Ditko’s 1960s psychedelic visuals of Doctor Strange’s original four-color adventures. Like Marvel’s recent Ant-Man, Doctor Strange succeeds by embracing the free-wheeling whimsy in its source material, but grounding the proceedings (and its audience) in our common humanity and the very real consequences of our bad judgment.

I have a confession to make. For the past month or maybe longer, I have not much felt like writing. Or had much interest in seeing movies for that matter. The results of our recent election (not to my liking) have thrown me for a bit of a loop. Additionally (and from a completely selfish perspective), in the past few weeks, I’ve had some heartbreak in my theatre life, we have had some of the mind-numbing/back-breaking “Money Pit” unforeseen distractions that all of us share as middle-aged homeowners, and I find myself looking down the barrel of an impending holiday season that (any more) seems to bring more mania than holly jolly.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yet, I keep thinking about that line from Swinton’s Ancient One character. Albeit cliched, the line is spot on (as cliches often are): we do view the world through a keyhole, a self-constructed self-pitying sliver of perspective, forcing us to lose the moment and live out-of-sync with our loved ones, with our surroundings, and with ourselves. That is the magic of loud, plastic, silly, allegorical movies like this. Every fable has its very important lesson, and we should never be too old to listen.

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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.

 

“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

“As Sigourney Weaver says, ‘Rescue, rehabilitation, release.'” Finding Dory

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pixar’s films are always a little heartbreaking; some might argue a little sadistic. You go in, hypnotized by the color and the light and the humor and the humaneness of the enterprise, and the brilliant Pixar storytellers sneak an emotional gut punch into the first 20 minutes or the last 20 minutes or some 20 minute interlude in the middle (Up, Toy Story 3, WALL*E, Inside Out, and, yes, Finding Nemo). It’s no surprise, then, that the opening sequence of Finding Dory pushes every button of heartbreaking familial angst imaginable.

Finding Nemo was such a perfectly self-contained modern American fable that a sequel not only seemed unnecessary but unimaginable. Yet, with Finding Dory, Pixar completes a cinematic thought that we never realized (13 years after the fact) remained unfinished: how did Dory (voiced brilliantly by Ellen DeGeneres) survive for years before meeting Nemo and his papa Marlin (Albert Brooks plumbing every depth of twitchy neurosis), afflicted as she was with no short-term memory, no “street sense” (“sea sense”), and no direction (literally)? Who was her family and how did she “just keep swimming” with no discernible life skills?

Finding Dory is about as existential as Pixar gets – it’s a bit like an Ingmar Bergman flick encrusted in cotton candy and Happy Meal Toys. And that’s a good thing. We open with a baby Dory, utterly beloved by two parents who want nothing but the best for their child but who palpably fret over her ability to function. If you don’t get a bit verklempt as Dory struggles to understand her parents’ earnest teachings, apologizing profusely for her intrinsic challenges (challenges that deserve no apology), then you have the emotional IQ of a piece of coral. In those opening moments, Finding Dory devastatingly captures the pathos of child hoping to please parents and of parents loving unconditionally but fearing for their child’s safety in a world designed for callous cruelty. (A dynamic that becomes even more devastating in light of recent tragic events in America.)

Baby Dory and her doting parents become separated (not Bambi tragic, but darn close), and the rest of the film maps the now adult Dory’s hero’s quest (with the well-intentioned, if occasionally condescending, aid of pals Marlin and Nemo) to find her long-lost folks, following the events of Finding Nemo. The film veers toward the formulaic, borrowing a bit too heavily from its predecessor, as Dory meets cute with a number of sea creatures that suffer their own particular ailments and disabilities. Eventually, our merry band finds itself at a sea-life rehabilitation facility/zoo where Dory believes her parents reside. In typical Pixar fashion, there are a series of Rube Goldberg-esque harrowing caper and chase sequences as Dory and new buddy Hank (a misanthropic, crafty octopus, voiced with wry subtlety by Ed O’Neill) make their way through the park to locate her family and solve the mystery of her upbringing.

To Pixar’s credit, just as in Finding Nemo, this film takes its shots at human interference (noble and otherwise) in the natural order. The ingenuity and pluck demonstrated by the sea creatures in Finding Dory runs in stark contrast to human impulse to capture and display said creatures, whether for the animals’ own preservation or for people’s entertainment. There is a funny running bit where Sigourney Weaver (likely a nod to her role in the similarly themed Avatar) serves as the marine park’s announcer, repeating as the “voice of God” that the park’s mission is “rescue, rehabilitation, and release.” It’s a not-so-subtle jab at DisneyWorld competitor SeaWorld, made even more pointed when Dory observes, “As Sigourney Weaver tells us, we need to rescue, rehabilitate, and release,” shortly before setting every resident loose in the nearby cove. (This action also involves Hank the Octopus driving a semi-truck into the ocean … but it is a Pixar movie.)

Further, Finding Dory carries a powerful message about diversity. Our differences – and what some may view as our respective deficiencies, physical or mental or otherwise – can (and should) be our greatest strengths. And while the world may tell us, in overt and subtle ways, that we should “know our limitations,” we are our own worst enemies if we accept this fallacious direction as fact.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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 can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

“How many lives is one man-cub worth?” Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46830494

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted by Hollywood a lot. In the next two years alone, we have two live action adaptations on the way, including Disney’s just-released remake of its own 1960s animated offering. There were versions made in the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, on television, live-action, animated, on and on. Even characters like Tarzan (and those countless adaptations and homages and rip-offs – hello, “George of the Jungle”) likely owe a debt to Kipling’s seminal work about a “man-cub” named Mowgli who is raised by wolves and finds himself at the crossroads of an animal culture war over who the true “king of the jungle” should be.

Like Kipling’s Just So Stories (which I actually prefer), the original format of The Jungle Book (and its sequel) is a series of allegorical tales, recounting Mowgli’s adventures, with anthropomorphic animals serving as avatars for the highs and lows of human culture (e.g. greed, pride, sloth, bravery, compassion, etc.). It is unsurprising, then, that the Mouse House, with its long history of invoking the innocence of our animal friends to teach kid life lessons (see: Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) would return to Kipling’s rich well time and again. (And the merchandising possibilities ain’t half bad either.)

I have to admit that I’m one of few people on the planet who just isn’t that terribly gaga over the Disney animated classic. The Sherman Brothers’ score isn’t as iconic as you might think – really, can you remember more than 2.5 songs from it? “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and … maybe “Trust In Me” (the latter standing out mostly because of Sterling Holloway’s trademark lateral lisp sibilant “ess” sounds). The animation is that regrettably flat Hanna-Barbera-esque style into which Disney fell from the late 60s to the early 80s. And the whole enterprise just seems clunkily episodic and ends on a weirdly dour and kinda creepy note about Mowgli’s burgeoning sexuality. Ewww.

That said, I’m happy to note that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man), while treating the source material and the beloved animated film with reverence, deftly course-corrects for a modern audience. The look of this remake is beyond lush. Building upon the remarkable CGI animal work of The Life of Pi, Favreau’s team gives us a fully realized jungle, teeming with gorgeously rendered, remarkably expressive creatures. He pulls shy of the kind of pandering “kid humor” we typically see in children’s films these days, though I got weary of hearing the word “cool” bandied about, as it was more jarring than inclusive. (Sorry, I can be a snob about stuff like that.)

I’ve been hot and cold over the wave of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings to date (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella), but this one gets it right. To this point, there has been a strange reticence to fully embrace the classic musical numbers associated with these films’ animated inspirations. Favreau cleverly sidesteps that issue, incorporating the aforementioned three numbers (the ones we actually remember) as spoken/sung interludes that flow naturally from the character set-ups and ditching the remaining numbers that would just be goofy and forced. As Baloo is about to launch into signature ditty “Bare Necessities,” he takes a meta-swipe at Mowgli’s assertion that a pledge chanted by the wolves earlier in the film was music: “That’s not a song. That’s propaganda.”

(The three songs – “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Trust In Me” – also make repeat appearances during one of the most intricate and beautiful end-credits sequences I can recall in ages. You must stick around for them – highly entertaining and a lovely recap celebration of the film you’ve just viewed. Good for Favreau – that is a lost art in Hollywood these days.)

The voice casting is spot on with Bill Murray (a lower-key “Baloo” than Phil Silvers’), Ben Kingsley (his “Bagheera”sounding more Daniel-Craig-tough-guy than a typical Kingsley performance), Idris Elba (a hauntingly ominous “Shere Khan”), Lupita Nyong’o (deeply affecting as Mowgli’s wolf mother “Raksha”), Scarlett Johansson (an ethereal “Kaa”), Giancarlo Esposito (a militant “Akela”) and Christopher Walken (being full-creepy-a**-Walken as “King Louie”). Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, mostly avoiding the adorable ragamuffin traps of the role but totally missing any of the feral survivalism that could have made for a truly transformative experience. Favreau does such a fabulous job immersing his audience in a layered world where wild kingdom danger lurks around every corner that Sethi’s day-at-the-mall pluck just didn’t quite complete the cinematic thought.

Favreau uses The Jungle Book‘s allegorical roots as a means of combating bullying in all its modern day forms. We live in a world where wannabe statesmen wag fingers, brutishly bloviate, and compare hand sizes; where school children bring semi-automatic rifles into the cafeteria and politicians fall all over themselves defending that “right” (such a funny choice of word); where gender, age, race, sexuality, class, species become an open invitation for hate and derision and alienation, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis). Favreau’s film is much less overtly political than those words might suggest, but just as Kipling used his stories to teach children lessons of kindness and acceptance, bravery and tolerance, Favreau (like Disney’s recent hit Zootopia) is challenging the kids (and parents)  in his audience to question their preconceptions and break apart the artificial boundaries separating us.

To that end, Favreau jettisons the original ending of Disney’s animated version (no doe-eyed potential paramour carrying a bucket of water this time), offering instead a tableau of an animal kingdom united against their oppressor(s). Early in the film, Akela asks, “How many lives is one man-cub worth?” How many indeed.

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LMA 16 3Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

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

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

“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia

Zootopia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?

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img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

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.

“Droid, please.” Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

With the clarion blast of John Williams’ trademark fanfare, a militaristic waterfall of brassy notes, Star Wars returns to the silver screen in “Episode VII,” otherwise known as The Force Awakens.

Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8) has been entrusted (wisely) by the slick branding minds at the Mouse House, LucasFilm’s new owners, to inject the franchise with a postmodern jolt of nostalgia-fueled adrenaline, after the late 90s/early 00s prequel series failed to sustain fanboy adoration.

Let me add that I find some of the rampant hatred of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith (oh, those names) a bit disingenuous, lemming-like, and arguably age-ist. We nerds were all lined up in geeky hysteria to devour those films, debate their merits, and consume every last bit of merchandising. Were we thrilled with the films? Not totally. Were they ponderous, meandering, and wooden? Heck, yeah. Did we care? No, because we loved this bizarre universe that was less sci-fi and more Land of Oz with its blend of preposterous names (Count Dooku?), anthropomorphic machinery, fuzzy Muppet-y sidekicks, and simplistic delineation of right from wrong.

Now, we all want to kick George Lucas to the curb, like some previous homeowner who had terrible taste in shag carpeting since we know so much better with our Ikea coffee tables and stainless steel appliances. We seem to be saying, “Go away, you doddering old man. We don’t care if you created all of this from broad cloth. You’re tiresome.” That bugs me. A lot. Maybe it’s because I’ll likely be 50 years old when this latest trilogy wraps up or because I will be forever grateful to Lucas for all the backyard adventures he fueled for this plucky only child, but I think he deserves a break and our gratitude.

…That said, I’m sure glad he didn’t direct this latest installment.

Abrams is not the most ingenious of directors. If Spielberg and Lucas, his most immediate forebears, were consummate recyclers of B-movie tropes (Indiana Jones, Jaws, and, yes, Star Wars), then Abrams is, at best, a fabulous remixer. He takes the Spielberg/Lucas greatest hits, adds a dash of irony, self-satirizing humor, marketing panache, and copious lens flares in a transfixing gift for cinematic misdirection. Take his two Star Trek films, for instance.  Great fun, right?  Yet, there is not one original thought between them that wasn’t already expressed a hundred times over in earlier Trek films and series. Into Darkness is pretty much a remake/reinvention of one of the better films Wrath of Khan infused with the earth-bound whimsy of the best Star Trek … The Voyage Home.

Roy_Star_Wars_2

Little Roy and Friends

That’s what Abrams does, and that’s just fine. The instinct for escapist self-preservation is Hollywood’s bread and butter, and, with the assured success of Force Awakens, Abrams is sure to be Tinseltown’s favorite son.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives us everything we want, with few surprises. While every other Star Wars film has debuted in May to provide air-conditioned cinematic asylum from the hottest days of the year, Force Awakens arrives just in time for Christmas. Not unlike those Disney Park rides that dump you right into a gift shop so you can load up on memory-preserving souvenirs, this film seems built to send you packing to Toys R Us posthaste for some last minute stocking stuffers. Just like the holidays, Force Awakens showers us with familiar, comforting indulgences.

X-Wing and Tie Fighters engaged in balletic dog fights, every sound effect you remember well-preserved but with new paint jobs so you’ll have to capture the newest miniature versions for your personal fleet at home. C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) are still fussy as ever, but with a little third-act intrigue to keep you guessing. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) remains adorable as a Golden Retriever on two legs who happens to be really adept at piloting the Millennium Falcon. Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher – who looks like she’s about to crack a joke every time she speaks, thank goodness) are a little grayer and wizened, mercifully winking at the proceedings but also providing much-needed flesh-and-blood poignancy. Any tears I shed were all due to the two of them – both from my joy at seeing them in these iconic roles again and in their ability to inhabit those characters, thirty years later, so effortlessly.

The plot (spoiler … well, 38-year-old spoiler) is pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars: A New Hope,  itself ripped off just two movies later for Return of the Jedi. Scary fascists (this time called “The First Order”) in matching outfits can’t tolerate free-thought or weirdly-featured cantina-frequenting creatures, so they build a big ol’ planet-sized armageddon machine; and Dorothy and The Tin Man and The Scarecrow and The Cowardly Lion blow it up real good and save the universe (for now). Actually, that sounds a bit like rhetoric from the Republican presidential debates. Maybe a disenfranchised Lucas is moonlighting for Trump these days?

Damn, Force Awakens is fun, though. Seeing beloved characters in a place and time you’ve worshipped since you were a kid is akin to the perfect extended family reunion … that is, if you liked your extended family. Abrams is a canny filmmaker. He uses the free-pass such familiarity brings to introduce a new generation (literally and figuratively) of characters who end up carrying the torch quite nicely. Furthermore, Abrams layers an Empire Strikes Back-style ominous gloom over Force Awakens’ Saturday matinee escapades – a sense of forboding that holds welcome promise for future installments.

Adam Driver (Girls) channels Millennial angst as antagonist Kylo Ren – imagine Darth Vader with ADHD. Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is all Errol Flynn swashbuckling swagger as pilot Poe Dameron.  John Boyega (Attack the Block) as turncoat Stormtrooper Finn and newcomer Daisy Ridley as scrappy orphan Rey are the heart and soul of the film. Like the film’s viewers, these two actors have grown up admiring the fantasy and the fiction of the Star Wars universe. Consequently, they bleed respect, wit, and warmth for their characters and for the heroic quests they get to play, yet they escape the overly reverent quagmire that afflicted prequel stars Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. (Boyega’s seemingly ad libbed “Droid, please.” to the equally affable, Chaplinesque, volleyball-shaped robot BB-8 exemplifies his free-wheeling, contemporary comic approach.)

I will also commend Abrams for bringing us our most diverse Star Wars cast yet, offering a galactic reflection of our earthly life today. About time.

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without an action-figure phalanx of oddball spirit guides and gleamingly militant heavies (played by a Love Boat-sized cast of “special guest stars”). Spotting them is like playing a space-faring game of Where’s Waldo? Look, Daniel Craig is a cheeky Stormtrooper! Look, Max Von Sydow is Alec Guiness! Look, Gwendolyn Christie is a cheeky chrome-plated Stormtrooper! Look, Domhnall Gleeson is Peter Cushing! Look, Andy Serkis is Gollum-channeling-The-Wizard-of-Oz! Look, Lupita Nyong’o is … Yoda?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will satisfy all you playground Han Solos and Leia Organas and Luke Skywalkers. Indeed, the 12-year-old boy in me was transported … a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In that sense, Abrams and crew did their job flawlessly. But this installment was easy. The audience was waiting and appreciative to see the old band back together, playing the classic tracks we know and love.

The trick for the upcoming films (to mix Abrams’ Star franchises blasphemously)? To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no (hu)man has gone before.

I look forward to it.

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Roy_Star_WarsReel 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.

 

 

 

 

 

She’s fun; she’s frisky; and she doesn’t give a f*ck. Madonna’s #RebelHeart Tour in #Detroit

Madge

Madge

Madonna albums are like cast recordings for a film or stage musical. You buy the album before you have a sense of the visual or of the narrative that overlays the music.

Iconic

Iconic

It isn’t until you watch the music performed live or in video form that you really “get” the intent.

Holiday

Holiday

And then the album becomes a kind of souvenir, an aural remembrance of the pageant and all its themes and provocations.

That is not to say Madonna’s music doesn’t stand on its own (generally it does, even the lesser works … <cough> Hard Candy) but it doesn’t really come alive until you see, sense, feel, taste (?) the spectacle swaddling her nursery rhyme-like tunes.

I’ve had the good fortune now to have seen her live on four occasions (and one additional stalking moment when I spied her gliding into a Traverse City movie theatre for the premiere of her documentary I Am Because We Are; I was perched precariously with one knee on a parking meter and one foot on John’s shoulder at the time to get the best view I could … I’m not subtle).

Body Shop

Body Shop

In 2001, she brought her Drowned World Tour (supporting Music and Ray of Light) to Detroit after years of not stopping in the Motor City. I had practically committed to memory the cheeky joys of Blonde Ambition and The Girlie Show (both of which had been broadcast on HBO) so the somber, take-no-prisoners/play-no-hits/look-at-me-wearing-a-kilt-and-playing-an-electric-guitar-badly approach of this production was an unintentional let down.

Holiday

Holiday

I wanted camp and kitsch and got sturm und drang. As the years have passed, I’ve come to reconsider my initially superficial disappointment with that show, realizing that she was predicting musically and visually the angst and anxiety and chaos that have come to define America in the 21st Century. Go figure.

Iconic

Iconic

I caught The Sticky and Sweet Tour when it stopped at Ford Field in 2008. While Hard Candy was a bit of a Milk Dud upon first listen, that show which supported the much-maligned album opened a world of confectionery delights in its rainbow-colored, kaleidoscopic staging.

In many respects, the show was a return to multi-culti appropriation form for the Material Girl as her years living hand-to-mouth in New York and her interests in hip-hop, eastern rhythms, and gypsy folk were distilled into a revelatory, propulsive brew.

Bitch, I'm Madonna

Bitch, I’m Madonna

A dark heart still beat at the center of the show as Madonna continued to channel a justifiable rage against the machine, skewering a society that consumes relentlessly and persecutes shamelessly.

If the dark heart of Sticky and Sweet was hidden behind a coating of tasty caramel, it was on full corrosive display in The MDNA Tour (supporting the EDM-chugging album of the same name). Madonna, freshly divorced from director Guy Ritchie, was letting her angry Id freak flag fly, and it was glorious … and cold.

Whereas the album at times seemed a meandering if compelling mess, the show was a silver bullet to the heart of America, with a series of pneumatic projection screens that raised and lowered to depict gun-ridden crime scenes, oppressive religious structures, and a cracked political landscape. It was a brilliant show though a tad impenetrable and joyless.

Madonna and Nicki Minaj

Madonna and Nicki Minaj

With my talented pal - actor and designer - Barbie Weisserman

With my talented pal – actor and designer – Barbie Weisserman

Which brings us to her latest – The Rebel Heart Tour – which was performed at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena last night (October 1).

I’m a big fan of the particular record this tour supports (see my review here) which, to me, is a spiritual sequel to the caustic, intoxicating Erotica album but with a level of maturity, exhaustion, and peace that only 20+ years of living could bring. Needless to say, I was curious, excited, and a bit nervous about what interpretations she might bring to this superior collection of ditties.

She did great.

The show is a standard Madonna production, with top-of-the-line choreography, lightning fast costume changes, a healthy dose of sociopolitical sniping, and some flat-out stunning visuals (both digital and set design). What sets this show apart from the three live shows already described is that, well, Madonna seems happy. Not goofy or forced or self-aggrandizing. Just happy.

Lourdes

Lourdes [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]

Her University of Michigan-attending daughter Lourdes was seated just a few rows over from us and Madonna’s father was somewhere in the crowd, so Madonna seemed genuinely, authentically giddy to be back home.

(By the way, watching Madonna’s daughter beam with pride and delight as her famous mom did her thing pretty much made the show. I suggest that somebody set up a live-feed of Lourdes to run on a screen somewhere at every tour stop from here on out.)

Material Girl

Material Girl

The show is structured in the Madonna boilerplate: four sections – a religious pastiche, a desert garage, a Latin party, and the roaring 20s. New songs from Rebel Heart are juxtaposed with left-of-center arrangements of classic hits, in a successful effort both to freshen up the old and validate the new.

Our seats

Our seats [Image Created by Becca Mansfield]

Set changes are simple but effective, achieved mostly through digital projections and some props, and Madonna’s costumes are less glam than we typically see and more utilitarian, a base costume for each of the four sections, adjusted with the addition or deletion of pieces depending on the song being performed.

The stage

The stage

One of my favorites from the new album – the title track “Rebel Heart” – is a high point of the evening. Madonna strums a guitar (she’s gotten quite proficient at it over the past 15 years!), standing alone on the catwalk stage (shaped like a crucifix, a heart at the end and spanning the entire arena floor), with a series of fan-created tribute images behind her.

Who's That Girl

Who’s That Girl?

As we watch hundreds of interpretations of Madonna’s famous mug morph one into another – water color, photo collage, pen and ink, and so on – what would have once seemed yet another exercise in her seemingly limitless supply of hubris is instead touching and loving, a capstone on an exceptional career that continues to brim with unbridled potential.

Her mother's daughter [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]

Her mother’s daughter [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]

As I viewed those images, I thought of college-age Lourdes sitting a few rows away, gobsmacked myself at how time slips away and wondering what must be going through Madonna’s daughter’s head as she watches countless depictions of her mother’s famous stances and poses sail by.

The show is riddled with such visceral, thoughtful, and, yes, entertaining moments. Opener “Iconic” with a guest video appearance from Mike Tison is a bombastic gut punch, Zack Snyder’s 300 if designed by Bob Mackie, with Madonna, the Warrior Queen, descending from the ceiling in a gilded cage.

Music

Music

Thereafter, we quickly enter Madonna’s favorite territory – pop blasphemy lite – with a sequence that ends in a “Last Supper” tableau, that is if the Last Supper had been held in a discotheque in Miami. What a pip!

The show slows down a bit after that, allowing both performers and audience, to stop clutching their pearls and to catch their breath.

Motown

Motown

As Madonna strums away, she turns classic chestnut “True Blue” into a campfire ode and makes the raunchy “Body Shop” sound like a salute to old-fashioned courtship and love.

Classic club track “Deeper and Deeper” makes a glorious return to stage in one of the most epic line-dances I’ve ever seen, and we even got a winking re-branding of “Material Girl” (a perfect song that Madonna has always inexplicably claimed to hate, which is a shame because it’s … perfect).

True Blue

True Blue

Merchandise!

Merchandise!

Madonna, possibly still smarting from not getting cast in Chicago, struts atop a steeply angled platform, dressed as a 20s flapper and crooning all those famous “some boys” lines from the tune, knocking one male dancer after another off her perch as they slide down the raked stage into a tuxedo-garbed heap on the floor.

There is a glorious flamenco-style medley of her classic tunes that spins out of Madonna’s torreodor-from-space visioning of her recent hit “Living for Love,” and she slaps “Like a Virgin” on the behind and turns it into a dub-step R&B banger. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Brilliantly.

And then there was the moment where she sang “La Vie En Rose” … in powerful voice … in French … with a ukulele. Simply because her daughter loves the song and asked her to sing it. Not a dry eye in the house.

Barbie with new friends all the way from Australia - Glenn and Philip

Barbie with new friends all the way from Australia – Glenn and Philip

(I daresay this is a direction she might want to pursue more fully for her next reinvention. Please? If Lady Gaga can monkey around with Tony Bennett, Madonna can go full Edith Piaf.)

The show has its flaws. Any big arena tour doesn’t hold up under intense scrutiny. These are circus acts for the new millennium, full of false emotions, phony posturing, smoke and mirrors.

MeBut what Madonna does so well on this tour is humanize: herself, her personae, her history, her songs, her legacy.

We have lived with a rigid, defensive Madonna for about 15 years now (I blame Guy Ritchie … or England), and we are starting to get our quintessentially American street urchin, our mugging-Horatio-Alger-rag-dolly back, and I couldn’t be happier. She’s fun; she’s frisky; and she doesn’t give a f*ck.

Welcome back, Madge.

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CakeSpeaking of Rebel Hearts …

This past Sunday, September 27, I married my long-time partner John Mola in a ceremony officiated by Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor and Pastor Ian Reed Twiss and attended by a small gathering of family and friends. We honored our guests with donations to the Huron Valley Humane Society and also gave, on behalf of the wedding officiants, to Equality Michigan, 826Michigan, and the Jim Toy Center.

John and Roy

John and Roy

Dinner at Weber’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, immediately followed the ceremony and included a three-tiered wedding cake that gave a nod to John’s and my shared interests in Disney, superheroes, and classic cars.

Family

Family

Our parents Susie and Don Sexton and Luci and Simone Mola (respectively) presented the grooms, and readings (1 John 4: 16-21; excerpt from the Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, and “Maker of Heaven and Earth – All Things Bright and Beautiful” poem by Cecil Frances Alexander) were given by Stephanie Kassman, Rachel Green, and Gabby Rundall (our niece). Lori Rundall, John’s sister, presented the toast, and photographs of the event were taken by Gabby Rundall and Kyle Lawson.

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Vision in green – Zach & Susie

About the day, my mom wrote on her blog (here) …

“Took a tumble off some steps and directly into prickly shrubbery, rode in a limousine–my virgin ride, kept my hat on, lost my dress and my shoes, urged the Ann Arbor mayor to prevent deer culling, learned I am not alone in detesting Bing Crosby, spoke to a journalist about the Last Tango in Paris and why I sorta love Trump and not Bernie and that I want to vote for Hillary, posed with Zach because we are kindred spirits and love mint green, met my second minister that I see eye to eye with since the beginning of time, and today am sore all over ‘my little body’? And the wedding occurred on schedule in spite of it all and was the happiest moment of my lifetime! Congrats, John and Roy ♥!!!!

John and I dearly love this description – it makes me smile every time I read it!

Ian, John, Roy, & Christopher

Ian, John, Roy, & Christopher

Thanks to our parents and our family for their love and support and their unyielding championing of bravery and authenticity and kindness. Thanks to our friends for giving us this wonderful network of fun and joy. Thanks to Ian and Christopher for their guidance and their important and gracious roles in making it all “official.” Thanks to the Supreme Court for doing the right thing in the face of a wall of political foolishness.

IMG_2894And, I can feel John rolling his eyes now, but thanks to performers and artists like Madonna, who have pushed for compassion and inclusion for decades for us all, for anyone who is different or who is judged unfairly based on gender, age, race, species, sexuality, faith, financial status, and so on. We are a nation that can do so much good by just being kind. Let’s do more of that.

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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 Bookbound, Common 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’ll never look at Thomas the Tank Engine the same way: Marvel’s Ant-Man

"Ant-Man poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ant-Man_poster.jpg#/media/File:Ant-Man_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, for us comic book nerds, the fact that an “Ant-Man” film even exists is a remarkable achievement. If you’d asked me at age 11 – the absolute peak of my superhero, four-color mania – whether I could envision a day when a character this seemingly obscure to mainstream America would one day get the big budget blockbuster treatment by no less than the Walt Disney Company (by way of Marvel Studios), I would have passed out in a fit of hyperventilating giggles.

Well, geeks do grow up. And make movies, apparently.

So how does Ant-Man, Marvel Studios’ latest cinematic installment (number 12 in the official “Marvel Cinematic Universe” which began with Iron Man), fare with this now-middle-aged, possibly-more-jaded, arguably-cape-and-spandex-fatigued comic fanatic?

Blessedly, its off-kilter quirks ultimately outstrip its more pedestrian corporate intentions, culminating in a zippy fourth-act that marries Marvel’s trademark frat boy jollies with a more subversively refreshing sense of play.

So, said with less pretension, I (more or less) dug it.

The film began life in the hands of celluloid anarchist Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) who eventually walked away from the picture, no doubt when the oppressive merchandising hounds at Disney likely felt things were getting too gleefully weird. In stepped director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down with Love – wtf?!?) and screenwriter Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) to bring the film to completion.

Strangely, what we all predicted would be a stylistic train-wreck works better than it should. The bro culture of McKay, the TV-movie pacing of Reed, and the middle-finger-to-the-sky of Wright have yielded the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of superhero films: a little salty, a little sweet, utterly predictable, and pleasantly forgettable.

For the uninitiated, Ant-Man is a character from the early days of Marvel Comics, and his claim to fame (other than being one of the founding members of The Avengers) is that he can shrink to microscopic size and command an army of friendly ants to do his bidding. Now if that isn’t a natural fit for a multi-million-dollar motion picture, what is?

Fortunately, Wright was savvy enough to cast Paul Rudd in the lead role, Rudd’s shaggy dog Gen X entropy having calcified in his 40s into chiseled leading man cynicism and loopy dyspepsia. Rudd’s skewed charms work beautifully in this minor epic, stitching together the otherwise meandering script and giving the proceedings a wide-eyed, mischievous sparkle.

The film is less save-the-planet-from-obliteration (though no film in the genre can totally escape that cliched trope) as it is bonkers heist film. Rudd’s Scott Lang, recently released from prison on a burglary conviction, falls back into old (bad) habits in the hopes of catching up on child-support payments for his estranged daughter. Lang’s ex-wife, portrayed by Judy Greer (again, criminally underused in a big budget tent-pole), is playing house with a cop (Bobby Cannavale – why is this ham still cast in anything?), and Lang takes up with his old gang of misfit toys (led by a preciously addled Michael Pena) to try to set things right.

Eventually, their hijinks lead them to scientist Henry Pym (Michael Douglas being all Michael Douglas-y … boring) and his daughter Hope (a luminous – but tragically bewigged – Evangeline Lilly). Y’see, back in the day, Pym invented the Ant-Man suit to fight big, bad Russkies in the Cold War (or something); Lang steals the suit to make a quick buck (’cause Pym secretly wants him to … of course); and then they all set out together to defeat the real big bad Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, all meaty, glistening sleaze), Pym’s former protege who has taken over Pym’s company and wants to make teeny tiny super soldiers to take over the world.

Good googly wooglies, that is a convoluted plot to try to synopsize. Definitely a script written by a schizophrenically focus-grouped committee.

Regardless, there is more goodhearted fun in any five minutes of Ant-Man than in the entire bloated excess of Avengers: Age of Ultron (a film, by the way, which I didn’t hate … but I don’t remember liking very much three months later either). Ant-Man‘s cast (with the exception of Douglas who just comes off stiff and constipated) is all loose-limbed fun, reveling in a succession of tart and tasty character moments and never taking one damn bit of it too seriously.

The film ends with a Tex Avery high-wire-act of a fight sequence, mining all the comic tension possible from having a hero (and antagonist) who can hide among carpet fibers. You will never look at Thomas the Tank Engine the same way ever again. I only wish the filmmakers (any and all of them) had been so creative, so brave for the entirety of the film. Maybe the next set of Marvel Studio focus groups can offer that feedback for the inevitable sequel(s).

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.