“I don’t recognize this world.” “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Justice League

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Justice League isn’t getting a fair shake. At all. Was there far too much hype, including an insane amount of expectation put on this film to be DC’s answer to the cinematic superhero genre’s watershed Avengers? Indubitably. Did DC dig its own grave by playing coy about reviews and critical response in advance of Justice League‘s pre-Thanksgiving release? Yep. Is the critical backlash reflective of years of pent-up frustration that producer/director Zack Snyder continues to crank out one  overindulgent, sophomoric, bleak video-game-by-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-esque flick after another? Darn tootin’.

And that’s a shame.

Justice League is a lot of fun with a crackerjack cast and a ton of lovely character beats (no doubt courtesy of co-director/screenwriter Joss Whedon – Avengers, Buffy – who stepped in when Snyder left the production after a family tragedy). A few years ago, this film would have been a critical and popular blockbuster, but in a year that brought us smarter, savvier, and edgier comic book fare like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming,Logan, and DC’s own Wonder Woman, Justice League pales in comparison as it pretty much aims for the Saturday matinee crowd and succeeds on those popcorn terms.

The plot is more or less lifted from The Avengers … and any superhero movie of the 80s or 90s. There is a rather forgettable villain in the form of Steppenwolf (part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods saga), a tragically Shakespearean character in print, rendered CGI-mundane and unrecognizable (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) in the film. He journeys to Earth to conquer our planet and thereby reclaim his place in the royal family of his intergalactic despot nephew Darkseid. The “MacGuffins” (a la Marvel’s “infinity stones”) are three “Mother Boxes” that have been hidden on Earth thousands of years ago by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and mankind and that, when united, will create some globby-swirly-Jackson-Pollock-looking “engine of destruction” to wipe all of us from the globe. Steppenwolf is aided by an army of screeching bug-warriors called Parademons who primarily serve the purpose of letting our Super Friend heroes bash and smash in a fairly bloodless PG-friendly way.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now that you’ve read that byzantine description, please note that none of that matters. What does matter is the delightful dynamic created among luminous a$$-kicker Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and DC Universe newcomers Ezra Miller as a delightfully manic and winsome Flash and Jason Momoa as a brash and swaggering yet completely adorable Aquaman. The bit with Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is particularly priceless.

Ben Affleck seems to be running on vapors at this point as Batman, but his sullen exhaustion just accentuates the sparkling character work of Gadot, Miller, and Momoa. The trio also brings out the best in Henry Cavill, who heretofore seems to have struggled with the balance of homespun charm and godlike awe required of Superman. We even get to see Superman crack a joke or two and … wait for it …smile!

(Spoiler alert: surprising no one, Cavill, whose character died in the previous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justicelord, THAT TITLE?!?! – is brought back to life in a fairly convoluted but nonetheless poignant sequence that evokes as much of Joss Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does DC’s classic Death of Superman comics event.)

Rounding out the League is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who in the comics actually started his career as a Teen Titan but was upgraded to League founding member in one of DC Comics’ never-ending and exhausting universe reboots a few years ago). Fisher is saddled with a burdensome CGI “costume” that only affords him about 1/3 of his face with which to turn in any kind of performance. Alas, he gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thought he did credible work conveying the Frankenstein’s monster dilemma of having remarkable powers (in this case, 90% of his body being replaced with robot parts) at the expense of losing his humanity and any kind of so-called “normal” life.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are a number of fun turns in the supporting cast from Jeremy Irons’ acerbic Alfred Pennyworth to JK Simmons’ hard-boiled yet hopeful Commissioner James Gordon. Amy Adams does her best with a handful of underwritten Lois Lane-in-mopey-mourning scenes, and Diane Lane continues to breathe feisty life into Superman’s Ma Kent. Billy Crudup (once Doctor Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s overbaked Watchmen) is heartbreaking as Barry Allen’s/The Flash’s falsely incarcerated papa. Amber Heard’s Mera (eventually Aquaman’s wife) looks the part but has far too little to do, and the same can be said for Connie Nielsen’s Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, regrettably downgraded to mere cannon fodder.

The film’s color palette is brighter than anything we’ve seen in the DC oeuvre to date (save Wonder Woman), replacing the sepia tones of Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad or Man of Steel with some pops of four-color glory, especially as the film barrels toward its denouement. Danny Elfman’s score is also notable in that it boldly incorporates themes from previously “out of continuity” DC films like the original Superman and Batman movies, sonically (at least) indicating that maybe DC learned a lesson from the success of the humane and witty Wonder Woman and is allowing a little life and joy into the larger franchise.

Justice League seems to offer a message of transition, ending on an optimistic note of friendship and collaboration, family and hope. We haven’t seen too much of that in DC’s films since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the “official” kick-off of DC’s extended cinematic universe Man of Steel. That lack of joy has hobbled these films to date (again, save Wonder Woman). I can only wish that audiences ignore Justice League‘s critical drubbing and give the frisky if simplistic adaptation a chance and reward the filmmakers for this much-needed course correction.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Irons’ Alfred reflects to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne early in the film, “I don’t recognize this world.” Bruce replies, “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Amen. DC did just that with Justice League, IMHO.

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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.

“True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.” Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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At the mid-point of Zack Snyder’s action figure fever dream Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (holy bejeezus do I still hate that title!), Diana Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) sizes up a surly, grizzled, poster-child-of-arrested-development Bruce Wayne and posits, “True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.”

That cutting insight could describe our current presidential primary carnival as much as it does the central conflict in DC Comics’ latest cinematic opus. Delivered as it is by one of the most compelling characters in the film (a sleek yet playful Gal Gadot), it becomes the closest thing Dawn of Justice has to a thesis statement.

Picking up where the financially successful but emotionally hollow Man of Steel ended, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize the rampant, inane video game violence which concluded the earlier film by doubling down (hate that expression) on that narrative misstep. Whereas Man of Steel started compellingly but quickly devolved into a scrap pile of muddy fight scenes, jarring explosions, and broken toys, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize such lazy film-making by leveraging it to create character motivation. In short, Superman knocked down one of Batman’s buildings, and the Dark Knight is pissed.

Yet, here’s the thing, Dawn of Justice, unlike Man of Steel, ends up being more than just the sum of its testosterone addled parts. It’s actually rather good and kind of fun, and, accidentally or on purpose, it is the ideal allegory for a year (make that an era) in which we as a nation are much too cynical to accept whatever good comes our way (or that others do on our behalf), hellbent as we are to turn every moment, every accomplishment, every person into a chance to rip at the seams of our own cultural fabric – where “culture wars” play out across keyboards and cable TV erupting in violence in shopping malls and school cafeterias.

I know I’m in the minority on this film. Yet, the way we as a nation all have fallen all over ourselves (like lemmings?) decrying Dawn of Justice since its debut – that the film is some colossal cinematic f*ck-up the likes of which we haven’t seen since Liz Taylor thought that a lot of eyeliner would make her suitably Egyptian in Cleopatra –  exemplifies how breathlessly hyperbolic we’ve all become. I hypothesize, in fact, that may be what this film is trying to say to us: that we are a nation of provincial villagers wielding pitchforks and torches, ever-ready to tear apart our would-be heroes and saviors.

Maybe that’s why no one likes this flick?

The physical showdown between Batman and Superman serves as the centerpiece of the film’s marketing, but I think that sales job does a disservice to the actual battle that grounds the film: a philosophical one. Admittedly, Snyder is not as nuanced a hand as, say, Christopher Nolan, and said philosophical debate (self-determination vs. paternalism; agnosticism vs. faith; xenophobia vs. inclusion; aggression vs. hope) gets bogged down pretty quickly in soap opera theatrics and stunning but emtpy-calorie IMAX compositions. Regardless, I applaud Snyder for trying and for giving us a film with more layers than its current audience may be willing to see.

Hey, this is saying something coming from me because, heretofore, I’ve seen Snyder as a hack, and I know I’m swimming upstream given the critical and popular vitriol Dawn of Justice has received. The film is not without its problems – it’s too long by 30 minutes, fight scenes are about as cluttered as a utility room junk drawer, the plot tries to be All the President’s Men meets The French Connection using Tinker Toys and Silly Putty, and the proceedings are just way too darn earnest and self-serious. However, for a film the conception of which is just a step or two above a Saturday morning cartoon (seriously, any movie that uses “versus” in the title has two strikes going in the door), I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was, by the thoughts the film generated, and by the performances therein.

As noted, Gadot brings a joyous fire to her regrettably limited screen-time. (If nothing else, Dawn of Justice should have us all pretty geeked for Wonder Woman next year – I predict it will be the Captain America of the DC Cinematic Universe, emotionally resonant and full of heart and wit. At least, I hope so. Warner Brothers has a rare gift for squelching a good thing.) Ben Affleck is a strong presence as well, marrying his innately louche bearing with an expressively sad anger. He is by far the most physically imposing Batman we’ve ever seen on film, at times dwarfing Henry Cavill’s Brylcreem’d Superman. Cavill always looks like he stepped from a comic book page, though it’s obvious he struggles mightily to overcome the darkness of the material to give Kal-El his requisite homespun nobility. The glimmers of kindness and of regret which Cavill ekes out are a tonic, and one can only hope the stifling gloom of Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel relents in future installments, and we get to see a more joyous (and jocular) Superman in action.

The supporting cast is a galaxy of pros from Amy Adams’ plucky if kinda dour Lois Lane to Laurence Fishburne’s blessedly lively Perry White (one zinger: “The American conscience died with Robert, Martin, and John.”) to Jeremy Irons’ perpetually (and comically) perturbed Alfred Pennyworth. Irons deserves a medal for wringing the film’s very few laugh-out-loud moments from his second banana asides with Bruce Wayne. Snyder should go back and study those scenes which deftly balance the “end-is-nigh” gravitas he so loves with a world-weary-wit that the audience desperately needs. Diane Lane does her worried best with a thankless damsel-in-distress turn as Superman’s ma Martha Kent, and Holly Hunter is constipated fun as a Washington bureaucrat who can’t decide if Superman is an angel from heaven or a devil in spandex.

Jesse Isenberg’s Lex Luthor is the controversial flash point in this production. Either you love him or you hate him. I suspected I would want to throw my popcorn every time his smug rictus graced the screen. In fact, the opposite was true. I never found him “ha-ha” funny for a moment (not sure if I was supposed to), but I thought he ably balanced layers of disconcerting smarm and sociopathic guile like a malevolent, drunken pledge-master at a fraternity rush party. His performance is polarizing, but it worked for me, in a film that seemed as much a critique of destructive male ego run amok as it was itself a filmic artifact of destructive male ego run amok.

I’m giving Snyder more credit than he likely deserves. I’ve seen little evidence in any of his other movies of any kind of sincere feminist impulse, but somehow (inadvertently?) in Dawn of Justice he has given us a superhero film that skewers the wanton recklessness of male posturing. As Diana (Gadot) somberly observes at the film’s conclusion, “Man made a world where standing together is impossible.” Now, if the filmmakers could just let Wonder Woman wear something other than a star-spangled bathing suit, we’d be getting somewhere …

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img_4560Reel 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.

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.” Exodus: Gods and Kings, Into the Woods, Annie, Big Eyes, and The Imitation Game

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.”

So says British wartime mathematician (and accidental spy) Alan Turing (as portrayed in The Imitation Game with comic grace and heartbreaking nuance by Benedict Cumberbatch) to a police detective investigating Turing on indecency charges during the post-war years.

Turing offers this hypothesis in revelation, not over his sexuality per se, but to this even deeper secret: that he, through his divination of modern computing, broke Nazi codes that provided crucial intelligence for the allies to win the war. His theorem on diversity of thought processes is offered when he is asked, “Do machines think?” Yet, his conclusion above applies to his life, or for that matter to any life, lived on the margins.

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My parents with Buddha

The film’s central hypothesis is that those who are most overlooked (if not reviled) become those who bring the change we most need. And this mantra applies in some part to every film I saw this holiday break, from Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals-and-Bible-verse epic Exodus: Gods and Kings to Rob Marshall’s long-gestating adaptation of Stephen Sondheim tuner Into the Woods to Tim Burton’s almost-but-not-quite-there kitsch docudrama Big Eyes to, yes, even Will Gluck’s unnecessary yet surprisingly pleasant reinvention of that cloying chestnut Annie. (In the thirty years it took us to get one cinematic Into the Woods, we’ve had three versions of Annie … but I digress.)

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?”

Night at the Museum 2

My parents with Ben Stiller

So sings The Baker’s Wife (portrayed with lilting restraint by an ever-impressive Emily Blunt) at a penultimate moment in the swirling, spiky postmodern fairy tale pastiche that is Into the Woods. Her character, literally defined by name as a possession (Baker’s Wife) finally claims one moment in life for herself, and the exhilaration and the horror of this gender-fried crossroads quite literally leads her off a cliff.

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Me and Paddington

 

 

 

 

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Amen. Each successive Christmas holiday reminds me of this in no uncertain terms. This festive season arrives faster and faster every year, in a sh*t-storm of commercialized mania and accelerated/accumulated guilt. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, I feel the calendar pages ripping away as I age mercilessly with each card I write or present I wrap in mindless tradition. Quite literally, in fact. My birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary are plunked smack in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s – the special, silly times of card games and Old Saint Nick seem to recede ever more into the rear-view mirror, as gray hairs dot my scalp, my waist ever expands, and my knees crackle and creak.

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The cast of Annie … and my folks!

One of the seasonal traditions that still holds charm for me and for my family is going to the movies, escaping into the darkness of the cineplex, our faces lit only by the glow of a movie screen, as we lose ourselves in the fictional lives of twenty foot people, exploring their cinematic metaphors for the pain of our real lives, as they are indifferent to the din of our popcorn chomping.

 

(Someone in cyberspace just looked up from their computer/iPad/iPhone/whatever and said, “This isn’t a review? What is this??” Nope, it’s a blog – my blog and I’m writing about the films I saw this week through the present state of my heart. Get over it. I would argue that’s how most of us view movies – not through clever analyses of cinematography or semiotics but by how films make us feel.)

We were blessed with a banquet of great choices at the movie house this year, and these flicks made up, in part, for the inexorable sadness of seeing another year slip past.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If time and temperament allow, I might write in more detail someday about one or all of these, but, for the nonce, I’m going to just jot out quick thumbnail reviews of each. These were the kinds of Leonard Maltin-esque blurbs I posted on Facebook a few years ago that prompted people to ask me to start a blog in the first place. It feels right to exercise (exorcise?) those muscles again …

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a return to triumphant form for director Ridley Scott. People have dismissed the film as ponderous and pedantic, but, they are missing the point. Biblical stories are richest and at their most compelling when told from a humanistic/historical perspective. That’s not blasphemy, you ring-dings – that’s inspiration. Christian Bale’s everyman-Moses is a believable portrait of a man at odds with himself and with a society he has outgrown. The narrative of Moses’ uncertain certainty that a new future and a new legacy must be paved for his children and his children’s children is subtly, deliberately told (or as subtle as a CGI-filled spectacle with skies that rain frogs can be). Joel Edgerton (his unfortunate resemblance to Nancy‘s Sluggo notwithstanding) as Ramesses is a fine match for Bale, telegraphing beautifully the earnest indignation of a king whose kingdom evaporates beneath his spray-tanned feet. The film’s key misstep is casting John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver as the Pharaoh and his Queen. WTF?!? I giggled every time the duo popped a kohl-rimmed eye onscreen. I’m a fan of color-blind casting – and that goes both ways – so I don’t buy into any of the controversy surrounding this film … but those two just stuck out like sore, overpaid Hollywood thumbs in an otherwise entertaining epic.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into the Woods is a perfectly manicured Hollywood treatment of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical. It isn’t as hermetically sealed as the wonderful yet claustrophobic Sweeney Todd, but it does suffer from a similar staginess. Director Rob Marshall can’t quite shake the stiffness of his TV-movie origins as he takes his spectacular cast from live locales to sound stages and back again. Fortunately, he has stacked the deck with a cast to die for. Nearly everyone (with the exception of a wan Johnny Depp as the wolf) rocks it – notably the aforementioned Blunt as well as Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and, of course (!), Meryl Streep as feminist-whirlwind-in-blue-haired-mischief as The Witch. Go for the spectacle but stay for her climactic number “Last Midnight,” which she delivers as a kind of last word tour de force on the B.S. that is Freudian mother-bashing.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Annie is getting a lot of venom it doesn’t deserve. Folks, it’s not a very good musical to begin with. The 1982 John Huston movie is a bloated, abysmal mess. The 1999 Disney TV movie sequel (yes, directed by Rob Marshall – go figure) is an improvement because, like Into the Woods, they cast the darned thing correctly…but the show is just clunky in its bones. So I, unlike many of my Gen X peers, didn’t sweat it that Jay-Z and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith decided to produce a reinvented “modern” Annie. (Jay-Z scored a genius hip-hop hit over a decade ago when he sampled the treacly “Hard Knock Life” and turned that song on its square head.) With that said, I enjoyed this latest take on the trice-told tale (not counting the various direct-to-video sequels). Yes, the movie suffers from a kiddie-movie dumbing down of its game stars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Quvenzhane Wallis. If I saw one more spit-take with a mouthful of food from one of them I was going to scream – not funny … never funny … no one in real life ever. does. that. Stop it, Hollywood. Regardless, the Sia-produced remixes on the classic tunes offer a fun refresh (at least to my Tomorrow-beleaguered ear), and I, for one, enjoyed Diaz’ albeit-hammy-but-grounded Miss Hannigan. (Sorry, I am not a fan of Carol Burnett’s sloppy slurring take on the character in the original film. Another note to Hollywood: fake, floppy drunkenness? Stop it. Not funny.)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Big Eyes? I think we all can agree those forlorn waifs with the saucer eyes are a pop culture trend best forgotten. However, the idea of mining America’s en masse lemming-like attraction to bad taste as a metaphor for cultural atrophy? THAT I can support. Alas, Tim Burton only gets us part of the way. Amy Adams does a credible job as the questionably talented but unquestionably victimized artist Margaret Keane. Unfortunately, the script imports some shallow truisms of Atomic Age misogyny from a very special episode of Mad Men, and Burton lets Christoph Waltz as Margaret’s megalomaniacal hubby Walter chew the scenery into balsa wood splinters. (Waltz becomes more of a Looney Tunes character every day.) Always delightful Terence Stamp gets all the film’s best lines as a New York Times art critic simultaneously horrified, bemused, and validated by America’s collective tackiness. The film has a chance to say some powerful things about creativity and gender and the crush of patriarchal economics … but it just implies them.

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Me.

And back to The Imitation Game, in some respects the strongest of this overall decent pack of films. Cumberbatch, like those saucer-eyed waifs, lets his peepers do most of the talking. His Alan Turing is insufferably arrogant yet heartbreakingly winsome. The ache of his difference, his left-field intelligence, his sheer other-ness is conveyed through those haunted, limpid orbs of his. Keira Knightly (who usually makes me want to throw myself through a plate-glass window) is full of restrained charm. She is the counterpoint to Turing’s existence: another outsider – this time for her gender – whose outsized intelligence is marginalized and pooh-poohed, until these two spectacular oddballs find one another … and save the world. The script is thin at times (confusing at others), but Cumberbatch and Knightly make a crackerjack pair. Their final scene together is both tender and shattering.

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End scene.

Any of my snark aside, all of these films are worth visiting and revisiting. The holidays are always a time of reflection, and the movies can be an important and therapeutic part of that process. We’ve got a week until we ring in 2015, so go spend some time in far off lands or heightened realities and see what they open in your own heart. More from Into the Woods

“Someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: 12 Years a Slave

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Only 2 days remain until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s what Roy thought about 12 Years a Slave: “…a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity prop up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Countdown: Her

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

My childhood home

My childhood home

The countdown continues! 6 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Thanks to Kat Kelly-Heinzelman (read her blog here) for her friendship and support! She writes, “Check out my new profile picture; I think you will like it, Roy. LOL! Hope you’re having a good day … I love it [Reel Roy Reviews]. Have been reading since I got it. Good so far!”

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of HER: “Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent ‘operating system’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Driving our collective spirit underground: Her and 12 Years a Slave

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Whenever the Academy Award nominations are announced, I suddenly feel pressure … like I’m in college again and I have an imminent final exam for which I haven’t read one chapter in our assigned texts the whole semester.

Blessedly, the various movie studios’ marketing departments kick into overdrive at Oscar time, and many movies we might have missed the first time around get a second run in theatres (and not only the art houses, but in those big stadium jobs with the good/lousy Sbarro pizza).

So, my Martin Luther King Day was spent in the multiplex for one of my stranger double feature combinations: Spike Jonze’s Her and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. This duo still doesn’t to compare to my high (low?) watermark when I paired the childlike whimsy of stop-motion animation Coraline with the Nazi-in-hiding sexual perversity of The Reader … I felt like such a creeper that day.

At first blush, Her and 12 Years a Slave would seem to bear little in common, other than critical acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. However (and I don’t think this is just because I am force-fitting patterns that might not otherwise exist), both films, in very different ways and settings, address the disconnect that has long-plagued American life, in which religion or economics or technology engender empty separations and cruel abuses (physical, emotional, or plain neglectful), driving our collective spirit underground.

In the case of Her, which I found a slightly stronger film, Jonze paints a depressing near future – not quite dystopian, but burnished and bland and beautifully designed as if IKEA and Dwell Magazine bathed the world in minimalist chic – in which smart phone technology has become so integrated into our every waking moment that every human interaction is filtered and measured by a handheld device.

Looking like the nebbish-y hipster offspring of Charlie Chaplin and Kurt Vonnegut, Joaquin Phoenix is deeply affecting as a Byronesque romantic lost in a sea of bits and bytes after his author wife (Rooney Mara, continuing her sharp-edged roll) leaves him. Phoenix’s Theo just wants to feel something … anything

As you are likely aware from the ubiquitous advertising, Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent “operating system” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).

Amy Adams plays the third woman in Theo’s life, a longtime friend (and likeliest soul-mate of all), who also struggles to find meaningful interaction in a world where all the rough edges have been sanded to apathetic perfection. Adams shines in her scenes with Phoenix, and I enjoyed her performance here as Theo’s fellow lost soul so much more than I did her work in American Hustle.

The film borrows heavily from the aforementioned Vonnegut (Harrison Bergeron popped into my mind for some reason) as well as Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric) with a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac and Stanley Kubrick’s HAL for good measure. Theo spends his days composing hand-written notes for folks too busy to compose these missives themselves. (He doesn’t actually do the penmanship, but dictates into a computer that generates them.) And he spends his evenings, in an empty/disheveled apartment with fabulous views of downtown L.A., playing video games, pining for his ex, and wooing his computer.

Her is a starkly composed ode (and cautionary tale) to a society (ours) that has lost its heart, displacing flesh-and-blood dialogue with glib texts, microblog snark, and social media stalking. I don’t know that I loved it, but I sure can’t stop thinking about it.

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If Her worries about where American society is headed, 12 Years a Slave shows us where we’ve been and possibly how little we’ve changed. 12 Years a Slave gives us a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity props up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.

I respect the work McQueen has done with this story, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. I will say, however, that I am not as transfixed by 12 Years a Slave as others seem to have been. Perhaps my judgment is affected by how delayed I am in getting to see this one, a film that couldn’t possibly live up to the expectation generated by months of critical praise.

Personally, I also have long-struggled with the idea of the very important historical film – be it Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan or others like them – the subject matter of which is so rightfully raw that one might feel discouraged to openly criticize the filmmakers’ artistic interpretation.

Regardless, this movie is extremely well-acted and, once it finds its narrative groove, is a powerful gut punch. I mostly had issues with the episodic and unconvincing (to me) first third of the film, from the set-up of Northup’s life as a free man in Saratoga, New York through his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and onto his purchase by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. (Yup, Cumberbatch again. I hope he earns a long vacation after the 118 films in which he appeared this year. He has been excellent in everything.)

Once Northup (portrayed with a weary incredulity by Chiwetel Ejiofor) lands with the cruel, equally defeated slave master Epps (Michael Fassbender) the movie has you on the edge of your seat. Fassbender does his best work to date, channeling the small-minded rage and belligerence of a Southerner deeply disaffected by life yet believing his faith and his race entitle him to bullying dominion over all creatures great and small. Sarah Paulson is equally crackerjack as his spiteful, heartbroken, spoiled belle of a wife.

The scenes between Ejiofor and Fassbender twist like a knife in the gullet, and viewers with modern sensibilities may reflect on how little some aspects of our country have changed since the horrific days when slavery was an American institution. Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as Ejiofor’s fellow slave – an object of Fassbender’s economic admiration, sexual depravity, and violent tyranny – who is doubly damned for her race and her gender.

In this hectic awards season, as various film producers and their respective studios engage in ever-escalating gamesmanship to score trophies for the “home team,” it is easy to lose why some films speak to our souls. I think I will be reflecting for some time on both Her and 12 Years a Slave – well after the gold statuettes are all handed out – and what these films say about our uniquely American condition: ambition, cruelty, love, segregation, prosperity, racism, sexism, ageism, apathy, and … freedom.

“Toxic and poisonous choices”: American Hustle

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“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.)

Boys of Summer: Man of Steel

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All I can say is thank heavens for Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. (Not a sentence I thought I would ever type.)

These two veterans give Man of Steel, the latest big screen Superman treatment, much-needed heart, warmth, and vitality.

Now, that’s not to say Man of Steel is bad. Quite the opposite in fact. The film is stocked with a phenomenal cast of Oscar-nominated/winning actors: the aforementioned duo playing Ma and Pa Kent as well as Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Michael Shannon as General Zod, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. All of them bring an almost BBC-level Shakespearean gravitas to the four-color (albeit grittily muted) proceedings.

Furthermore, relative newcomer Henry Cavill is a perfect Superman, particularly for a postmodern era. He exudes the noble sadness of a person caught between two worlds, a haunted soul hoping that both worlds (in this case, Krypton and Earth) find a means to rise above their darker natures. He makes the most of too few moments of wit, most in exchange with a crackerjack Adams, and he powers through some painfully-obvious shots of otherworldly beefcakery. Alas, at times, it seemed as if director Zack Snyder was more inspired by the latest Abercrombie & Fitch catalog than the DC Comics source material. (From 300 to Watchmen to Man of Steel, Freud would have a field day with Snyder’s hyper-stylized oeuvre.)

My biggest issue with the film would be its chronic video-game aesthetic that starts to grind the viewer into paste as pop-eyed, scowling, yet compelling Shannon’s Zod fights … and fights … and fights … and fights with Cavill’s Superman, pretty much turning Metropolis into a smoking crater. The sheer improbability of all the destruction waged hurts the otherwise credible dynamic established by this great cast.

But back to Lane and Costner. With very little screen time, they made a believer out of this viewer … that the all-American values these adoptive parents impart in their son aren’t some goody goody impulse. Rather, these values are a tool the couple use to keep their child safe, helping him blend into a small-town/small-minded world that would otherwise loathe him for his exceptional talents. A fresh and interesting lens through which to view an oft-told American myth.

If last summer’s Dark Knight Rises, which was directed by Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan, was a parable of 99 per centers run amuck, then this follow-up plays on today’s crazed paranoia – among neo-cons and bleeding hearts alike – of an imminent fascist state controlling all thought, action, and deed. Crowe’s Jor-El rockets his baby boy to Earth to show his Kryptonian people a different way, a life of free-will, hope, and joy. Problem with that is that we Americans can be a cowardly and fearful lot … so thank goodness little Kal-El (soon to be Clark Kent) stumbles upon a prototypical humanist couple in a Kansas cornfield.

And you know the moment that brought me to tears? (SPOILER ALERT!) When the filmmakers have Pa Kent meet his maker going back and rescuing the family pooch from a CGI-swirly tornado barreling down a stretch of Kansas interstate. Yes, the dog survives, and Costner gets his glow-y Field of Dreams moment right before getting swallowed by the twister. He looks knowingly at his space alien boy as if to say, “Be humble, do the right thing, and always help all creatures great and small.” And inadvertently, it was also a moment of a former blockbuster boy of summer (Costner) passing the torch onto a new one (Cavill).