“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.

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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.)

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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”).

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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.

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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)

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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.

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

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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.)

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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)

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    “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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

“If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Shazam! (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The entirety of the superhero film genre deals with issues of identity and family and belonging. The best entries – Superman, Dick Tracy, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Versetransport us to escapist realms while metaphorically helping reconcile the harsh reality of our daily lives vs. our wish fulfillment fantasy to champion all underdogs and right all wrongs. This disconnect between the inner child who still feels all things are possible and the jaded adult who fears the best of life has passed one by keeps us spinning the wheel at the superhero box office in the hopes of finding our ultimate champion on the silver screen.

And Shazam! comes pretty damn close.

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Based on the classic Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel, Shazam was  acquired by DC Comics in a copyright dispute in the 1950s over the character’s (overstated) similarities to Superman. DC, ironically in turn, lost the rights to use the name (but not the character) “Captain Marvel” to Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and Marvel’s version of “Captain Marvel” had her cinematic debut one month ago. Consequently, DC’s “Captain Marvel” now goes by “Shazam,” which in actuality is the magic word young Billy Batson exclaims to become “The Big Red Cheese” Captain Marvel (but we can’t actually call him “Captain Marvel” any more). Clear as mud? Thanks a lot, intellectual property laws. (It’s all explained much better and in much more detail here.)

None of this matters one whit to your ultimate enjoyment of David F. Sandberg’s film treatment of Shazam (which was also a corny Saturday morning Filmation live action series in the 1970s and a Republic serial in the 1940s). For the casual film-goer, the more relevant comparison is to Tom Hanks’ classic comedy Big as a wish fulfillment fantasy of a little boy lost who assumes adulthood (and superpowers) will solve all his real-life problems (spoiler alert: they don’t). Shazam even offers an onscreen nod to Big’s FAO Schwartz super-sized floor piano keyboard duet.

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Asher Angel (think young Zac Efron, but a bit less precious) plays foster kid Billy Batson, ever on the hunt for the birth mother he lost years ago at a winter carnival and who mysteriously never reclaimed her son. Batson bounces from group home to group home until he lands at the beautifully blended foster home of Rosa and Victor Vasquez (warm and earthy Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). Overeager and lonely foster brother Freddy Freeman (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer in a dynamite and heartbreaking turn) introduces Billy to the nerdy joys of super hero trivia, and, before we know it, flash-bam-boom!, Billy finds himself one subway stop away from the magical “Rock of Eternity,” imbued with magical abilities by an ancient wizard (an almost unrecognizable Djimon Hounsou).

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When Billy shouts “Shazam!” (acronym of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury and the respective abilities of each), the young boy transforms into 6’3″ Zachary Levi (Chuck, Tangled, She Loves Me) whose sitcom/musical comedy ethos paired with a physique that now seems to have muscles-on-top-of-muscles makes him the perfect choice for this whimsical hero.

The film is saddled, as are most comic book adaptations alas, with a “take over the world” megalomaniac antagonist. This time, Mark Strong plays Dr. Sivana, and, in his typical glowering skinny/tall-British-Stanley-Tucci-with-dodgy-dental-work-way, Strong meanders about the film, saying vaguely apocalyptic things and shooting energy bolts from his hands. He’s completely unnecessary.

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Thematically, Strong’s primary contribution seems to be to further the film’s exploration of family lost and family gained. Sivana’s father is a Lex Luthor-esque SOB, played by the go-to actor for Lex-Luthor-esque SOBs John Glover (Gremlins 2, Smallville … where, in fact, he played Lex Luthor’s dad) whose brutal parenting style predictably turns his little lad into a grade-A psychopath.

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Shazam! works best when the film turns its gaze toward the adorable band of misfits in Billy’s foster home. The child actors are loving, lovable, believable, and kind. The challenges Billy endures embracing his new home and relinquishing his dream of reuniting with his birth mother are poignant and accessible and juxtapose nicely with the comic farce of him learning to be a proper super hero. Levi is an utter delight playing a 14-year-old boy in an (overgrown) man’s body, attempting superheroics when all he really wants to do is gobble junk food and play video games. At one point, Batson in his superhero persona observes, “If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Amen to that. Amen to that.

 

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Thanks to my boss Susan and coworker Megan for this! #wishfulfillment

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

“It is new and different. Therefore, we should fear it.” Ralph Breaks the Internet

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Happy New Year! We finally saw Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet. Don’t make fun of our movie choice because it took a month and a half to get there. Or because it is, well, Ralph Breaks the Internet. The flick is a clever and zippy analysis of the light and dark sides of the internet and a logical extension of the franchise. The Disney princess sequence which has gained the lion’s share of the film’s buzz is indeed loony meta-perfection. The last 20 minutes of the movie feel a bit labored and darkly existential, like the filmmakers just had NO idea how to wrap the thing up, but otherwise the movie is a delight.

About the original film, I wrote six years ago:

“Does Disney’s latest animated foray Wreck-It Ralph live up to the peppy pixelated promise of its retro fun trailer? Not quite. Is it an enjoyable pre-holiday diversion with a lot of heart to accompany its endlessly merchandisable premise? Absolutely. A shameless amalgam of Disney’s own Toy Story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Tron, this film deftly imagines a world in which video game characters (from across thirty years of canon beloved by Gens X & Y, Millennials, and beyond) live, laugh, argue, and play after the neighborhood video arcade takes its last round of quarters for the evening. Clever touches and pop cultural references abound, with the Donkey Kong-esque titular character Ralph, warmly voiced by the ever-reliable John C. Reilly, trying to shake off three decades of villainy to gain acceptance from his digital cohorts.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This synopsis basically holds true of the 2018 sequel as well. However, Wreck-It Ralph 2 benefits, like the Toy Story sequels before it, from a built-in audience familiarity with its premise. Going in, we carry few (if any) expectations for a groundbreaking narrative or breathtaking visual experience and are settled in for some cinematic comfort food. On that front, Ralph Breaks the Internet more than delivers.

The vintage arcade that houses Ralph, Sugar Rush racing game’s Vanellope von Schweetz (an impishly acerbic Sarah Silverman), and their sundry digital buddies adds “WiFi” internet access for its young patrons’ convenience. After a mishap involving the steering wheel controller attached to Vanellope’s game console, Ralph and Vanellope use said WiFi to take a wild and woolly trip into the far reaches of the internet to retrieve a replacement.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The same aesthetic inventiveness from directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore that benefited the first film is on display here, depicting the interwebs as a glistening Emerald City-style metropolis, populated with perky chirping Twitter birds, YouTube-inspired video cafes, and an ebay shopping complex that borrows liberally from Target and IKEA and the Mall of America. Oh, and just like the real internet, the denizens of Ralph‘s mythic world know that one should never read the comments section.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Vanellope and Ralph’s friendship is put to the test when she is lured by the manic, violent pleasures of an online Grand Theft Auto-style game Slaughter Race and its a**-kicking heroine Shank (a wry Gal Gadot). After a satirical meet-up with all the Disney princesses (which is somehow both ultimate Disney-corporate synergy and a bold send-up of Mouse House excess), Vanellope sings her own “I’m Wishing”/”Part of Your World”/”Belle”-style anthem of longing, the zany “A Place Called Slaughter Race”: “What can it be that calls me to this place today?/This lawless car ballet, what can it be?/Am I a baby pigeon sprouting wings to soar?/Was that a metaphor?/Hey, there’s a Dollar Store!” (and so on).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ultimately, the core message of Ralph Breaks the Internet is that true friendship can withstand any challenge or geographical distance. Ho hum. The more important takeaways are that women are people too, free-thinking and bold, and that nothing is gained in life without a sense of risk and adventure. As the arcade characters are cautioned by one of their own when “WiFi” enters their midst: “It is new and different. Therefore, we should fear it.” Pshaw!

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Yours truly modeling my new birthday coat (FAUX fur collar). My mother thinks I look like the creature from “The Shape of Water.” LOL.

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

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

Hot damn!

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

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