Counterpoint: “A movie is a movie until they go to odd extremes?” My mom takes on Oscar-winner Parasite

By Susie Duncan Sexton (my ma)

Viewed PARASITE…what do I think? I dunno? At all. But Academy Award winner? WTF? Beyond me how that happened. Gonna take me three days to forget it?

I think I kinda hated it to pieces? I’d like to feel happy now and then? Or at least englightened and hopeful? This was uneven and tricksterish and grim and odd… I see a point to it all, but I already am just bright enough to have known the point without sitting still for three hours reading dialogue stream underneath humans attempting to act out some message or other? Naughty me?

The tried and true theme of class collisions and the very worst of humanity and its general cluelessness and victimization and nuttiness and self-centeredness. Who needs to wallow in it? Bad enough on a daily level. It exists everywhere even in living rooms across the globe if people are lucky enough to have living rooms? JOKER got the message across much more provocatively and, hopefully, meaningfully and artistically? How in the world this incarnation of misery bounced onto the scene and into consciousness and got multiple film awards is totally puzzling.

ReelRoy…occasionally he and I disagree, and that is rare but choice! (Spencer Tracy word there!)

Some of the stuff I have loved over a half century does not always hold up I admit…but hey, slop is slop…manipulation I resent from young film makers, and I felt manipulated? And I would have if this thing debuted years ago…and it could have…sorta? How about THE GREAT GATSBY which I do NOT adore…but it serves the purpose fine?

Hallelujah… I do not feel so nuts now that I think I hated this thing? I am usually not this critical. A movie is a movie until they go to odd extremes?

P.S. James Corden said the week after the Oscars he was enjoying listening to all the people who pretended to watch it. I thought that was cute. I forgot to share that. I damn near gave up on it early on…and later on as well? Ha!

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things that nobody notices.” Cats (the movie!), Bombshell, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Little Women (2019), The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Where’d You Go Bernadette?

We were the ONLY people in the theatre. And this was Cats’ second day showing at Columbia City’s Bones Theatre

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).

“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”

The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.

Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.

As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.

“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women

Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshell depicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.

The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast

Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.

I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.

We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue One and arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.

“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women

Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.

The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.

Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …

Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.

The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.

Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.

“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell

Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.

Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.

The Man Who Invented Christmas uses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.

His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.

There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.

Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.

As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.

“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

 

2019 Holiday Collage

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript …

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

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

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

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

Alan Moore, Watchmen

“Fear is what can’t be trusted.” Frozen 2

Frozen 2 has a difficult task: justify its existence as more than an unnecessary cash grab sequel to a multi-billion-dollar, unexpected-franchise-spawning original that was kind of a rip-off of the Broadway musical Wicked (which was, itself, a watered-down derivative of a much more interesting novel).

And, for the most part, Frozen 2 succeeds. Not unlike this summer’s Toy Story 4, the lack of a predetermined intellectual property roadmap is liberating, yielding a trippy, dark, existential exploration that surprises, delights, and traumatizes.

Frozen 2 (is that REALLY the best title they could devise?) is beautiful and kinda loopy in a New Agey sort of way. Not sure exactly what I sat through, but I loved its messages of inclusion and empowerment, even if its plot line seems to throw Avatar, Pocahontas, The Fifth Element, Wicked, Marianne Williamson’s brain, and Frozen the First in a blender. Songs are fab too.

I’m not sure the world needed an origin story explaining Elsa’s snow queen powers, even if the potential revenue stream to befall the Mouse House makes such a cinematic move unavoidable. That said, I applaud the filmmakers for doing so with a conscience, muddled as the final results may be.

In essence, without spoiling too much, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristin Bell) discover that their forebears in the Arendelle royal family might not have been as kind as they should have been to the land’s indigenous Northuldra people. In a timely nod to our nation’s own Thanksgiving mythologizing, the first time their grandfather broke bread with the native tribe inhabiting the “enchanted forest” outside Arendelle, he might have had nefarious colonizing motives. It is then up to Elsa and Anna – alongside returning buddies Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) and Kristoff and his beloved reindeer Sven (both voiced by Jonathan Groff) – to unearth the truth, bring peace to the natural order (reflected in weather patterns run amuck – sound familiar?), and right the historical wrongs. If Disney was ever to offer a populist counterpoint to xenophobic MAGA tribalism it is Frozen 2.

The film doubles down on the zany Nordic fantasy elements suggested by the bizarre rock trolls in the first film, with Frozen 2 offering flame lizards, anthropomorphic wind currents, water horses, bolder giants, and more cryptic hieroglyphs than you could hurl a Rosetta Stone at. It all works better than it should, woven together by our collective fondness for the characters, all voiced with warmth and whimsy by the principals, and for the music.

Songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert López have outdone themselves on the numbers here, jettisoning any singsong qualities of the first’s films ditties in favor of musical comedy complexity and emotional depth. There are no “ear worms” in this score which is a compliment to the songwriters and the filmmakers who allow more character-driven nuance in. I’ll take this film’s “Into the Unknown” or “When I Am Older” or “Lost in the Woods” or “Show Yourself” or “The Next Right Thing” over the prior entry’s “Let It Go” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” any day, all day long.

As Elsa notes ominously toward the film’s conclusion: “fear is what can’t be trusted.” If Frozen 2 is as inescapable as its predecessor was and successfully socializes themes of inclusion, equality, fairness, and acceptance among our youth (and their parents), then Disney deserves to fill its corporate coffers with a mountain of box office gold ten times over.

BONUS: Honored!! I was quoted by Law.com’s Frank Ready in “5 Challenges Facing Firms Trying to Boost Marketing With Tech,” which includes discussions of app development, podcasts, YouTube/video, social media, and open-source software: https://lnkd.in/em6NSpr (subscription may be required) … excerpt …

“They assume that you’re a good lawyer. They want to see that you’re a decent human being and that you’re engaged in our world,” Sexton said. “We need to put all of that in language that appeals, yes to millennials, but again, to millennials on the way toward appealing toward everyone else. And the manner in which millennials are reshaping our culture and the way we think, we have to keep an eye towards that.” …

Modern audiences are bombarded by content, and for every firm that adopts a video channel or sets up a podcast booth, there’s probably another lawyer out there doing the exact same thing.

To stand out, attorneys may have to emphasize personality over personal accomplishments and perhaps even begin contemplating the true meaning of the words “free of charge.” #lmamkt

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

______________________

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

– Judy Garland

______________________

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

______________________

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

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

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

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

______________________

[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.

“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

 

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

_______________________

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.

“Someone left the cake out in the rain.” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Every day in America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Oh, no
MacArthur Park” (Jimmy Webb)

We live in uneasy times. I am beginning to suspect we always have. Maybe it comes with getting older, or maybe it’s the all-consuming nature of modern media, but I now question the golden hue surrounding historical violence for noble causes which we all once read about in our history classes. I fear waking up every morning for what the headlines may bring with my breakfast cereal.

Friday night, my parents and I saw Quentin Tarantino‘s latest auteur epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Saturday, we woke up to news that another in an apparently endless series of twenty-something, white male gunmen had taken it upon himself to drive from Dallas to El Paso to enact a hate-filled, murderous killing spree. Sunday, we woke up to news that a seemingly similar individual decided to do the same thing in Dayton, Ohio. Both men arguably were informed by a steady diet of anger and violence, entitlement and disenfranchisement: all-reaching toxic masculinity. Now, we find ourselves in another mind-numbing news cycle of finger-pointing and empty talking points, American flag lapel pins and “thoughts and prayers,” which will all be quickly forgotten days from now when a royal family member has a baby or a sitting president stirs his simmering pot of Twitter-fied bile.

The sobering theme throughout is that all those deserving blame abdicate any and all responsibility. Hollywood and video game makers say art doesn’t influence people, but merely reflects our present reality. Gun manufacturers say guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Politicians say it is a “complicated” issue and they are looking into it, often blaming a nonexistent mental health safety net they effectively dismantled years ago (through de-funding) and turning a blind eye to the campaign donations they’ve greedily accepted from pro-gun lobbyists and voters. Motivating it all? Myopic self-preservation and a willful desire to keep the gravy train of capitalism rolling along.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In essence, it is this blood-sticky mess that Tarantino seems to be directly addressing with his film. Tarantino’s own relationship with cinematic violence has seemingly transitioned from sophomoric glee about how low he could go to a genuine conflict over entertainment’s role in fueling our revenge fantasy culture.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an elegiac picaresque tale of a California that may only exist in the mind’s eye: 1969, when Hollywood, and by extension America, was at odds with itself, some of us still clinging to the antiseptic safety of Eisenhower dreams against a countervailing influence of angry young people dissatisfied with a military/industrial complex that generates nothing but hardware and heartache.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A wonderfully world-weary Leonardo DiCaprio as failing TV Western star Rick Dalton finds himself increasingly marginalized, relegated to guest star villainous turns on turgid nightly dramas. The active rejection of the Western as metaphor for American moxie was ramping up, replaced by crime dramas and superhero shows, equally as violent and just as superficial.

At Rick’s side is his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, oh-so-charming and oh-so-casually malevolent – a beach bum Marlboro man with a secret history of true-life violence ever percolating under his gleaming exterior as he saunters through the chintzy, cardboard back lots of Tinseltown.  “More than a brother, just short of a wife,” Kurt Russell’s omniscient narrator observes about the duo, characters based in part on the legendary real-life bromance of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.

The pair move together in tandem in uncertain waters, a couple of aging sharks whose hollow, posturing machismo is perhaps going out of fashion. The film industry is beginning to embrace a new kind of shallow, in fact: talking a good game about “method acting,” as represented in a crucial scene between DiCaprio and a wise-beyond-her years eight-year-old female actor (“NOT actress … that is a ridiculous term,” she observes) – a scene-stealing performance by Julia Butters. Next door to Rick’s groovy Hollywood Hills home resides a couple symbolic with this sea change, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the latter played with angelic puckishness by Margot Robbie. (I admit Quentin’s filmic attitude toward women remains a bit of a problematic cipher for me, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, for now, in great part due to Kill Bill.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Anyone who hid a copy of Helter Skelter behind their eighth grade history textbooks to avoid lectures about the great violence that begat this country, only to marinate in the prurient details of the Manson Family, may guess what happens next. The La Cielo Drive home and Sharon Tate herself are synonymous with the sickening nexus of celebrity and serial murder, Hollywood and true crime. Tate is remembered not for her film work, but the gruesome way her life met its untimely end. Well, you may think you know what is going to happen, but Tarantino, in his inimitable fashion as filmdom’s resident juvenile delinquent, is going to toy with your expectations, all the while commenting mercilessly, if somehow also affectionately, on the utter superficiality of men playing cowboy in the backyard.

As always, Tarantino’s cinematography and overall framing is perfection, the movie a loving homage to buddy comedies of the late 60s and 70s, yet with a very dark undercurrent. No detail is left unturned, and it is the kind of movie which film geeks could watch forty times and still miss layers of winking commentary buried in a radio ad or billboard or prop in the background. This may be the director’s most carefully curated film ever. I particularly took note of how the soundtrack is peppered with popular ditties of the era but covered by out-of-fashion pop performers trying to stay relevant in a hippie dippy age (e.g. Robert Goulet doing his best Richard Harris on “MacArthur Park”).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even in casting, Tarantino is commenting on the ephemeral nature of the entertainment enterprise (beautiful Brad Pitt as reasonably attractive Leonardo DiCaprio‘s stunt double?!) as well as the ever elusive desire by performers to leave a legacy.  Andie MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley plays a free-spirited ragdoll of a Manson family member. Bruce Dern, a counterculture figure in and of himself, pops up in a pivotal scene as the notorious Spahn Movie Ranch’s decrepit owner, unknowingly housing an army of leering Manson acolytes whose sole desire is to take down the very establishment once central to the ranch’s Western film output. Al Pacino, another actor associated with the dramatic transformation in cinema in the 1970s, plays a maneuvering and cynical agent who lays bare the ugly truths of commerce driving the money-mad, fame-seeking inhumanity in Hollywood. Everyone is pretty damn terrific, and whether they are in on the joke or not is uncertain.

As self-serious as my analysis appears to be, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. It is meandering, episodic, sometimes maddening to follow, Tarantino continuing to tell stories as a nesting series of parentheticals. It is both nostalgic and critical, transporting you to another era, well aware of the insidious influence that that time continues to have on us all. Tarantino’s Hollywood is populated with lost souls – TV actors on the decline, movie stars on the ascent, and serial killers on the prowl – for whom celebrity-seeking and name-making is job one, regardless what that task does to themselves, their souls, or anyone surrounding them.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I can’t reveal a thing about the ending, without spoiling a twist that is both telegraphed and unexpected. Let me say that the fairy tale allusion in the title as well as its direct reference to Sergio Leone’s blood-soaked epic Once Upon a Time in America are intentional. The film offers us a happy ending of sorts, while graphically depicting the reality of the cartoon violence Rick Dalton and his contemporaries once promulgated via black-and-white television sets. This film is both Tarantino‘s least violent film and his most. The film’s ambling pace lulls the audience into complacency, so the carnage when it comes – fast, furious, and brutal – is that much more disarming.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is at once a love letter to another time and a cautionary tale, with a chillingly implied postscript that history does indeed repeat itself. And that all of us are too vain to ever really do anything to stop it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Everybody knows the damn truth
Our nation lied, we lost respect
When we wake up, what can we do?
Get the kids ready, take them to school
Everybody knows they don’t have a chance
To get a decent job, to have a normal life
When they talk reforms, it makes me laugh
They pretend to help, it makes me laugh
I think I understand why people get a gun
I think I understand why we all give up
Every day they have a kind of victory
Blood of innocence, spread everywhere
They say that we need love
But we need more than this
– “God Control” (Madonna)

___________________

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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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.

“If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” Disney’s Aladdin (2019)

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” – Aladdin
  • “Steal an apple and you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom and you’re a statesman.” – Jafar
  • “We should only be as happy as our least happy subject.” – Princess Jasmine

(Taken together, all might as well be explaining the current state of world politics.)

I found Disney’s live action reimagining of Aladdin pretty delightful and a welcome, inclusive, and, dare I say, much-needed feminist update of the original. (Note: I liked this spring’s equally critically reviled Dumbo a LOT too, so fair warning.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, we all adored Robin Williams, but we forget that he is (arguably) the essential (sole?) reason the original animated film is held in such esteem. I think director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) rebalances the proceedings with a well-rounded and integrated effort in his live action remake. Does it occasionally suffer from some TV movie flatness (a la Disney’s own Once Upon a Time or The Descendants)? Maybe. Do the musical numbers look a bit like they were lifted from a 1980s cruise ship commercial? Probably. But on the whole, I thought it was a lot of fun. And don’t get me wrong. I was nuts about the original and saw it about five times in the cinema during my sophomore year of … college. So, yes, I’m a soft touch for this material, and also one who has a well-earned fondness for the original.

Disney’s storied 90s animated output was, on balance, comprised of big Broadway-esque musicals that made it ok for a sh*t-ton of Gen Xers and Millennials to like show tunes, fairy tales, AND cartoons again. The flicks earned oodles of money in process. Nowadays, since just about any movie can be viewed (legally or illegally) on an iPad via YouTube, the idea of Disney “re-releasing” the “classics” from the “vault” via DVD/VHS/carrier pigeon is a quaint memory. Consequently, the Mouse House has to find a new way to monetize their intellectual property for the children of the children of the children of all their original audiences. Hence, remade enterprises like the recent live action Dumbo, the upcoming Lion King, and this Aladdin.

Folks, it’s Disney. If they can wring a nickel out of a t-shirt or doll or knapsack featuring some obscure character from, say, The Aristocats, they sure as hell are going to get another billion dollars from one of their most popular animated flicks of all time: Aladdin.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The nice thing here is that Aladdin is actually pretty good, a pleasant early summer diversion, that leans into Will Smith’s estimable charms while putting a governor on his out-sized ego and that offers us a forward-thinking story line about people of color living as, you know, people and acquitting themselves with agency and wit and heart.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even villainous Jafar gets a makeover here. Describing the original animated version of Jafar as ethnic caricature would be … kind. In the hands of Marwan Kenzari, Jafar is still pretty despicable, but with a motivation that is more political than icky-for-icky’s sake and who isn’t as creepily fixated on marrying the unwilling Jasmine. The downside is live-action Jafar is, well, a little bland, not-to-mention kinda pretty, so his menace ends up more subtle than overt. That said, it’s a stronger performance than I think many will initially recognize. (His sidekick parrot Iago is toned down too – nary a squawking voice of Gilbert Godfried in earshot.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Our leads Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine respectively are, yes, Disney dreamy, but they also have grit and spark underlying all that glamor. Scott particularly approaches each scene with an unselfconscious irony and fiery whimsy that gives us a very un-princessy princess (blessed be). By the way, in this update, Jasmine is less interested in romance than in being named (rightfully) sultan. Yasss, queen!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday Night Live‘s Nasim Pedrad is great fun as Jasmine’s confidante and handmaiden, the newly created character Dalia, who suffers no fools gladly either. When Scott steps forth to deliver the score’s one new song, the anthemic “Speechless” (crafted by original composer Alan Menken with an assist from The Greatest Showman‘s/La La Land‘s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), a star is born, and the Disney princess merchandising machine gets a much-needed shot of #ImWithHer feminism:

I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless

‘Cause I’ll breathe when they try to suffocate me
Don’t you underestimate me
‘Cause I know that I won’t go speechless

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the end, though, Aladdin is still a rollicking fairy tale adventure, and Ritchie paces it as such. Musical numbers? Nah, not his forte, but he makes them work in an insular, oversaturated, Bollywood-lite sort-of-way. The marketplace shenanigans and palace intrigues, however, are all rock solid. Will Smith? Not a singer. But he can move and he lights up a screen like no other. (Robin Williams wasn’t exactly Pavarotti.) In Smith’s hands, the jazzy cut-up “Friend Like Me” gets a Fresh Prince hip-hop makeover, and it works far better than my description makes it sound. No one in the production is taking this material too damn seriously. Shakespeare, it ain’t. And that’s just fine.

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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.

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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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.