“You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” 20th Century Women

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” – Dorothea (Annette Bening)

Given the historic events of this weekend, notably the (International) Women’s March, seeing the acclaimed new semi-autobiographical film by director Mike Mills (Beginners) seemed like an inspired, appropriate, and perhaps too-on-the-nose choice, so view it we did.

The film is really good – not so sure it’s great – but, with its marvelous cast, humane and conscientiously inclusive perspective, and immersive approach that impressively turns back the viewer’s clock to 1979, 20th Century Women is worth your attention.

Inspired by his gratitude for his own mother and sisters, Mills, who calls the film a “love letter to the women who raised him,” paints a fictionalized portrait of his own unconventional upbringing that is warm and nostalgic, critical and illusory.

Imagine Norman Rockwell spending his formative years in counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.

In Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (a remarkable and raw Annette Bening), abandoned by her husband, is raising son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann showing nary a sign of “child star” schmaltz) in a ramshackle Victorian with as much character and in as much disrepair as its inhabitants. Perhaps to make ends meet or, more likely, in an Auntie Mame-like gesture of keeping life as one never-ending banquet, Dorothea has rented rooms to a cast of characters, including potter and auto mechanic (?) William (Billy Crudup in all his shaggy, boho charm) and photographer and Talking Heads-aficionado Abbie (a luminous and heartbreaking Greta Gerwig). Rounding out this band of lovable misfits, Elle Fanning (Maleficent) plays Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend whose acts of teen rebellion are lifted straight from a “Me Decade” ABC Afterschool Special; yet, in Fanning’s capable hands, Julie’s defiance is hauntingly and, at times, comically authentic.

(NOTE: Crudup and Gerwig are on a roll, recently turning in nuanced performances as Theodore H. White and Nancy Tuckerman, respectively, in the exceptional Jackie.)

Films in 20th Century Women‘s milieu – the quirky, uber-liberal, “hippie Addams Family” residing in a sprawling but dilapidated  homestead, arguing unrealistically about existential philosophy, and experimenting with alternative realities – too often devolve into the kind of twee “coming-of-age” self-indulgence that makes my skin crawl. Yes, Grand Budapest Hoteldirector Wes Anderson, I’m looking at you.  Blessedly, 20th Century Women is no Royal Tennenbaums.

Mills contextualizes his film with chronology-bending narrative (the voice-overs that relate characters’ backstories and future activities are a clever and sobering touch), rich period details (including iconic photography, music, decor, and video of the era – the characters’ varied reactions to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence speech” are particularly telling), and evocative time-lapse cinematography (including an overt reference to landmark-documentary-of-the-era Koyaanisqatsi with its still-stinging indictment of the ephemeral foolishness of mankind). If you survived the 70s, this film will speak to you on many levels.

As for the film’s feminism, it is as sly an overview as I’ve ever seen on film – as elusive and confounding as the topic can be in a United States of America that glorifies our free-will and independence while simultaneously fearing our free-will and independence. Mills’ script, aided and abetted by delicate performances all around, deftly weaves in and out of the core principle that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Bening’s Dorothea (born in 1924) is regularly labeled throughout the film has having “come from the Depression,” she herself embracing that tag, obsessed with big band music and carefully tracking her stocks in the newspaper every day. Yet, she is also attracted to the infinite possibility of this messy new world before her, approaching its ugly rock-n-roll and libertine mores with alternating fascination and revulsion. The tension Dorothea suffers as a free-agent wanting to explore this evolving society versus her role as a parent fearing its potential dark repercussions is palpable. Regarding her son, Dorothea laments to Abbie at one point, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”

When Abbie introduces Dorothea’s son Jamie to the books Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan and Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian, he chooses to read a particular passage to his mother, one that highlights the marginalization and invisibility unfairly cast upon an individual due to age and gender. It is a tender moment wherein he is using another’s text to evoke understanding. Dorothea’s visceral response is even more revealing when she dismisses the gesture outright, indicating that her very personal experience on this planet cannot be reduced or codified into a few well-meaning “modern” paragraphs. Bening is understated yet devastating in this scene, a quiet storm moment exemplifying beautifully the delicate balancing act in 20th Century Women: reclaiming the voice of the individual … which is as feminist an act as one can imagine.

“She smokes Salems because they’re healthy.” – Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” The Nice Guys

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Nice Guys. Imagine Boogie Nights as a frothy Abbott and Costello cinematic confection with a healthy sprinkling of The Rockford Files on top. Served with a side of Starsky & Hutch … or Bugs & Daffy.

Set in a smoggy/syphilitic 1977 Los Angeles, director/screenwriter Shane Black’s comic noir caper flick revels in just how damned ugly the Me Decade was. Film has a tendency to romanticize an era or to toy cutely with a period’s quirky extremes. Black time travels without commentary. The characters in this film aren’t living in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are simply living. Or attempting to live.

Beyond the flawless set decoration and precise costume design, Black is aided and abetted by the sparks that fly when you throw the unlikeliest of co-stars together: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Glowering gravitas meets wicked whimsy.

That said, the awkwardly delicious alchemy these two titans demonstrated on the talk show circuit promoting the film isn’t as evident onscreen as one might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe ends up garnering more laughs because he is always so. darn. grounded.  He’s funny simply because he’s not trying to be. Gosling indulges cartoonish impulses a few too many times, not trusting the comedy of situational contrast to do the heavy lifting. (Gosling has yet to outgrow the “isn’t it just a riot to see a handsome adult man let loose an ear-piercing community theatre shriek when he’s scared?” tic. Be careful, Ryan, for that way rests Johnny Depp’s sputtering career.)

Regardless, Crowe and Gosling are pretty freaking adorable together, and the whole enterprise plays like a pilot episode of a vintage TV-series that never got picked up. The plot is, well, kind of a meandering mess … just like a grainy 1970s TV crime drama. I kept waiting for Jaclyn Smith or Gavin MacLeod  to show up as a “very special guest star.” (We do get a Lynda Carter shout out, though.) There are double- and triple-crosses aplenty as a porn actress (literally) crashes through a family’s living room, and her death starts a spiraling series of murders and other sordid shenanigans. Oh, and there is intrigue about the auto industry and catalytic converters and how in the world Kim Basinger’s character managed to have Botox before the procedure was ever invented.

Gosling, as private eye Holland March, and Crowe, as hired muscle Jackson Healy, initially find themselves at cross purposes (with Gosling’s pretty mug on the receiving end of Crowe’s brass knuckles). Grudgingly, the duo partner up as the violence mounts and their befuddlement grows. A big part of the movie’s charm is that Crowe and Gosling gleefully portray characters whose detective skills are as suspect as their collective intelligence, with Holland’s precocious daughter Holly March (portrayed by a captivating Angourie Rice) serving as a wise-beyond-her-years Nancy Drew to Gosling/Crowe’s dim bulb Hardy Boys.

Rice’s performance is dynamite with a sharp feminist subtext. As  the “grown up” characters find themselves derailed by patriarchy run amuck (porn, corrupt manufacturing, prostitution, the Oil Crisis … the 70s at its worst), Rice’s Holly is clear-eyed, vigilant, incisive, defying the limitations and stereotypes society seeks to impose. “Don’t say, ‘And stuff.’ Just say there are whores here,” Gosling intones at one point, attempting to correct his daughter’s grammar and missing the misogynist irony in his declaration. The look in Rice’s eye reveals that her character does not lose the irony.

Holly is always ten steps ahead of her father and, without Holly’s continual intervention, the titular Nice Guys would still be attempting to solve the film’s mystery well into the late 1980s. Or they’d be dead.

I’m hoping this feminist dynamic is intentional on Black’s part, a storyteller whose filmography (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through Iron Man 3) typically co-opts and reinvents B-movie formula, inverting its clichés as satiric critique of our baser instincts. I suspect this is by design, the film’s random (gratuitous?) naked porn stars notwithstanding.

With The Nice Guys, Black is trying to have his cake and eat it too. And he succeeds. Mostly. In a larger sense, Black is using the indulgent myopia of the 1970s as a reflection of how little we have changed as a nation. Basinger, plays a Department of Justice operative (in a bit of meta-casting, referencing her earlier – better – work in both L.A. Confidential  and 8 Mile) whose definition of “justice” is protecting the (then) fat cats in the Detroit auto industry. In the final act, she delivers the film’s punch line: “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” Even as today’s Detroit reinvents itself as a hipster paradise of urban farming, artisanal soaps, and craft cocktails, the lesson in Basinger’s remark remains prescient. An America that lives for itself and only itself will quickly find itself trapped in yesteryear’s polyester leisure suit.

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The Nice Guys PostersReel 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.

Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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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.

“Toxic and poisonous choices”: American Hustle

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Sometimes the toxic and poisonous choices are the only ones available to us,” pontificates Jennifer Lawrence, the one (pseudo) bright spot in David O. Russell’s latest sprawling, shaggy dog, broken soul epic American Hustle.

In my humble opinion, the most toxic choices are those artistic ones made by the actors and their director in this simplistic and disappointing misfire.

Hopelessly miscast age-wise as Christian Bale’s wife (!) and playing a derivative of the same neurotic screwball she took to Oscar-winning glory in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook (also directed by Russell), Lawrence seems to be the only cast member having any fun in the ABSCAM-inspired farce. Her zaniest bit comes at the expense of an ill-fated microwave (dubbed “the science oven”) and an aluminum foil covered tray of lasagna.

Don’t get me wrong – Lawrence is as hammy as the rest of her colleagues (Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner) but she has the good sense to keep winking at the camera as she collects her paycheck.

I will tell you plainly: I did not like this movie … at all. And I wonder if I’m missing something, given all the critical fawning over it. Or is David O. Russell now one of those “Emperor’s New Clothes”-style directors who has turned in enough awards-show-bait over the years that he can put together a half-baked cartoon and reap endless accolades? Or maybe I’m just a cynical turd.

With such a rich backdrop as skeezy 70s-era New York, populated by no end of colorful sociopaths and parasites, you’d think Russell could have given us a Scorcese-level master class in ensemble betrayals, double-crosses, and deception. Alas, we get a mess of Altman-lite overlapping improv, corny Studio 54 cast-off costuming, and a confusing script that barely scratches the surface of the ABSCAM scandal, padding out underwritten scenes with overdone montages set to cliched Me Decade tunes. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, indeed.

(And, yes, even America’s goony ditty “Horse with No Name” makes its requisite appearance. Poor song.)