“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Moonlight

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“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” NOT a line from Oscar Best Picture Moonlight. I know this. Obviously, it’s one of the more pointed (no pun intended) lyrics from one of Beauty and the Beast‘s signature tunes “Gaston,” performed most recently by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Disney’s runaway blockbuster remake.

Last weekend I saw two movies – Beauty and the Beast (reviewed here) and Moonlight (on what was likely one of its last remaining weekends in movie theaters). I dashed off a fawning review (pun intended) of Beauty and the Beast, but I needed more time for Moonlight to marinate in my noggin.

(My parents just saw saw Beauty and the Beast last night, and judging from their less than glowing reaction to the film, some of you out there may think I should have have spent a bit more time mulling that movie’s virtues and flaws as well.)

One of the elements I found so refreshing in Disney’s remake is its upending of the primacy of traditional masculinity (despite the hyperbolic gay panic surrounding the film in some less-enlightened quarters). Much more clearly than its animated precursor, this 2017 version positions the athletic, muscular, debonair, trophy-hunting male (Gaston) as the true “beast” of the title.

Moonlight has a similar questioning of masculinity running throughout its narrative, albeit more nuanced, though no less allegorical. I know I’m twisting my analysis into a pretzel comparing these two films, and it is really just the happenstance of seeing them the same weekend, but I do find this intriguing.

There is a danger viewing a critically lauded film after it has won Best Picture. Your expectations far exceed what any film could withstand. That was true for me of Moonlight as well, but with a week’s worth of reflection, I see the power in this deceptively simple story of a young African-American man – told in three chapters (boyhood, adolescence, adulthood) – navigating a world that is economically, culturally, racially, socially structured to prevent the natural and healthy evolution of one’s truest self.

James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Moonlight, as written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, traces the building of such a mask, and ends (hopefully) with its ultimate removal.

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We meet the silent, sullen, and fearful Chiron (Alex Hibbert in one of the purest, most compelling child performances ever captured onscreen) as he runs from a pack of bullies, ultimately hiding out in an abandoned drug house.  His rescuer Juan (in a detailed but subtle Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali) is by all external appearances the prototypical “alpha male” – a successful businessman (in this case, the business so happens to be selling crack cocaine) who cuts a sinewy, shark-like path through the mean streets of Liberty City, Miami. Yet, his hard, intimidating exterior hides a soulful sadness and an empathy for young Chiron.

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He brings the boy home to his girlfriend Teresa (a luminous Janelle Monae) whose sweet exterior conceals a steely but well-intentioned determination. They care for the boy, give him a boost of confidence, and take him home to his loving but misguided mother Paula (the always exceptional Naomie Harris).

The script saddles Paula with a cliched crack addiction (the drugs fueling which, of course, we come to find are actually supplied by Juan), but it is a testament to the exceptional acting that this narrative device is haunting and believable and sidesteps Lifetime TV-melodrama. At one point Juan counsels Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Ain’t no one can make that decision for you.” Juan’s intent with this advice is for Chiron to be true to himself, but as the film’s narrative continues to stack the deck against Chiron, we see how impossible such a simple notion actually can be.

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In the film’s second section, we see Chiron enter high school, a troubled young man marginalized and brutalized for his unseen, undefined “difference.”

Ashton Sanders is exceptional as Chiron during this chapter, with a raw-boned anxiety that evokes Anthony Perkins or James Dean at their most heartbreaking. For a brief moment, Chiron finds love, but it turns sour really fast with a violence-begets-violence sequence that is as heartrending as it is inevitable.

The film then again flashes forward for its third and final chapter. Chiron is an adult now, having survived some unspeakable off-screen horrors in America’s juvenile reform system.  The doleful muteness of his youth has now curdled into an intractable, intimidating silence. Chiron at this age – as played with brilliant physicality and wounded nuance by Trevante Rhodes – is an imposing figure, a doppelganger for his childhood mentor Juan. He is earning a healthy living selling drugs on the streets of Atlanta, his sensitive soul lost amidst layers of literal and figurative armor. (One spot of humor comes from the ostentatious “grills” he insists on wearing over his teeth, another example of his desire to harden himself before a world that has repeatedly rejected him.) The film seems to suggest we become what we know, sometimes in spite of our best selves, simply to survive. Life as ouroboros.

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The film concludes as Chiron reunites over dinner with his childhood friend Kevin (a warm, funny, and wary Andre Holland). We see the layers of galvanized steel forged from terror upon terror start to melt away, and we are left with the broken soul underneath. The final shot of the film is Chiron resting his head on his friend’s shoulder, perhaps relieved he can finally be himself, devoid of the culture’s artificial expectations of what it means to be a man.

And that is the reason we need this movie right now.

There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re ev’ryone’s favorite guy
Ev’ryone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why …

 – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, “Gaston”
 
 We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear The Mask”

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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’s the end of the world as we know it … Chappie and Insurgent

Indiana's Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in ... private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in … private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Oh, Indiana, my Indiana … home of my upbringing and constant source of horrified bemusement and righteous indignation in my adulthood.

The latest and greatest affront to all creatures great and small in Indiana is the so-called “Religious Freedoms Restoration Act,” which, no matter how you want to spin the rhetoric, is intended to make the narrowly-defined, faith-based, mid-century  (you pick the century) morality (?) of a bunch of Bible-thumping, pitchfork-wielding Hawthorne caricatures the law of that land wherever and whenever you try to go buy … baked goods?

And, yes, I’ve heard the rationalization that, “Well, all these other states had it, and Bill Clinton, the big ol’ dirty heathen, put this in place over 20 years ago at the Federal level, so why are Audra McDonald and Miley Cyrus and Angie’s List being so mean to us. We are just good Christian folks here.” Riiiight. And if Jimmy jumped down a well, would you all go, too? Please? There’s nothing nice about this legislation (or its timing); it is quite simply petty, spiteful, vindictive, and mean.

I had a Facebook “debate” with a soon-to-be-former Fort Wayne newscaster on another former Fort Wayne newscaster’s wall, and I ended my remarks thus,  “If Indiana doesn’t want to LOOK bad, stop passing legislation like this that really only serves the purpose of MAKING INDIANA LOOK BAD. (Not to mention pandering to the blood lust of a certain fringe demographic to secure their future votes – the same people who claim to want ‘small government’.) And, yes, all those other places that have this legislation look bad too, but this is the freshest one. Congrats.”

To be clear, losing one’s cultural hegemony does not qualify as “persecution.”

(And don’t even get me started on the fun, wholesome family pastime of “pig wrestling” in Indiana and other states. Yes, that is a thing. Sadly. I can’t imagine this is what Jesus had in mind. Just sayin’. Oh, I do digress. This is a blog about movies, right?)

It is with this mindset last night that I set forth on a double feature of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent. While neither film is Tolstoy, it is interesting how both traffic in themes of persecution, isolation, pogrom-like social mandate, and government and big business collusion run amuck.

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Chappie, the more ambitious of the two, is directed by Blomkamp, who specializes in such Bradbury-esque allegory and class-warfare dystopia as District 9 (segregation) and Elysium (healthcare). With Chappie, he pilfers his narrative from a hodge podge of references: Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Robocop, Short Circuit, 2001 to varying degrees of success.

The plot is rather simple: a military-industrial complex (headed up by Sigourney Weaver at her most teutonic) is supplying Johannesburg (which must be the “new” Beirut in film) with a fresh supply of robot cops, who, in their emotionless, unrelenting style can put a steely hard thumb in the heart of crime. Her star employee (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has invented the “robo-cops” but wants to introduce free-thinking sentience to the strange rabbit-eared creatures.

His rival at the company is Hugh Jackman being all “bad Hugh Jackman” … which basically means him glowering while saddled with a awful mullet haircut and Steve Irwin/Croc Hunter wardrobe choices. Crikey those shorts are short! Jackman’s character has created the Dick-Cheney-special of all robot law enforcement: something called the “moose,” a tank-like device that, in Jackman’s words, isn’t a “godless creature” (vis a vis the autonomous robo-cops) but is rather a machine that will be, um, super efficient at killing people … a lot of people. (I didn’t say the metaphor was subtle here, just appreciated.)

Patel ends up creating one robot with a winning personality – “Chappie” – a baby Energizer bunny who likes He-Man cartoons but gets in with the wrong crowd (a set of “gangsters” who make the acting work of Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel seem subtle by comparison). Chappie causes all kinds of ruckus when Jackman realizes he can leverage Chappie’s very existence (and the uncontrollable nature of his robot brethren) to unleash discord and create the kind of violent societal conflict that makes people want to sign over any and all civil liberties. (See a pattern here?)

Chappie (the film) is interesting if a bit recycled/derivative, and it runs out of steam at the 2/3 mark. I grew very tired of Chappie’s family of thugs and would have enjoyed more development of the Patel/Jackman rivalry. Simplistic as it is, their characters’ implied debate of creator rights vs. created rights, independent thought vs. jack-booted control, authentic innovation vs. corporate profiteering is timely, frightening, and essential.

I would be remiss if I didn’t crow about Sharlto Copley’s stellar motion capture work as Chappie. His is the most fully-realized characterization in the film as our heart aches for this innocent, animal-esque creature desperately trying to survive and thrive and feel and love in a muddled world that he didn’t (nor wouldn’t) create. That performance is a keeper and likely deserves a more substantive film.

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Insurgent continues in this near-future-there-but-for-the-grace-of-someone-goes-our-society vein. It is the second part of the young adult series Divergent, based on the books by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James along with Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, and Octavia Spencer. Naomi Watts joins the fun this time as yet another mysteriously motivated, first-name only “faction leader” … actually make that “factionless” leader – the nomadic “Evelyn.”

I noted in my review of Divergent (here) that, as young adult fantasy series go, this one is closest to something I can stand. It’s obviously not as popular as Hunger Games or Twilight, but, for me, it offers a more humane and humanistic look at our collective foibles.

Again, this ain’t deep stuff and it’s just as violent (if not more so) as those other series. However, the little socialist in my heart finds the central conceit of the Divergent books/movies very appealing: a culture that has decided to solve its problems by segregating its people along personality lines being rocked to its core when a young woman emerges who demonstrates exceptional abilities across the continuum of all those very traits (heaven forbid!). It’s not deep, but it’s feminist (lite), it’s inclusive, and it’s a wonderfully educational metaphor for  young people to understand that a society is strengthened not weakened by diversity. Again, not subtle, but obviously much-needed right now.

Insurgent as a film feels like a bit of a placeholder as the series kicks into high gear with the upcoming final two installments, and that’s ok. Woodley has done stronger character work elsewhere, but those key moments where she needs to telegraph her utter frustration with her role as society’s new messiah are delivered with aplomb. That’s pretty much all she needs to do here.

James, still Anthony-Perkins-on-steroids, does a better job this time establishing that he isn’t just all smoldering petulance but that he has a heart and a brain. Winslet continues to be an icily bureaucratic delight as the calculating Jeanine, whose nefarious actions at every turn belie her hollow rhetoric for “peace and unity.” (Sound familiar?) Finally, Miles Teller mounts a much-needed charm offensive in this installment, no doubt realizing that this isn’t Ibsen and the dour delivery from everyone in the first film was a bit of a buzz kill. He is a charmingly oily sparkplug as the dubiously motivated Peter.

When one’s soul is at sea because the world and its leaders seem hellbent on plain meanness, it helps to see a couple of movies (even if they aren’t that terribly great) that reflect a point of view that some of us do see through this insidious crap in real time. The fact that hundreds of people might be like-minded enough to put together a film (or two) for the masses that might sow some seeds of popular dissent? Well, that’s the kind of balm I go to the movies to receive. It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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

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

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

“The future is for those who know where they belong” – Divergent

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Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I am not exactly a fan of young adult fiction or the various movies it has spawned over the past 10 years. Twilight makes me snoozy; The Hunger Games leaves me peckish (and cranky), and gooey dreck like The Mortal Instruments just gives me a sugar headache.

Imagine my surprise, then, at how much I enjoyed Divergent. I’ve been dragging my heels to see it, waiting until the last possible moment, as it has been in theaters over a month. In fact, my showing tonight only had one person in it: me.

It is yet another dystopian fantasy in which society has (more or less) survived some unidentified cataclysm. A new order has been put in place to keep all of us well-behaved, monochromatic, and … a little dull. In Divergent‘s case, humanity has been organized into factions according to some key defining personality trait; for example the Dauntless are courageous or the Abnegation are selfless or the Erudite are, well, really smart.

Akin to Harry Potter’s famous sorting hat, teens in this society are forced to choose which faction will serve as their tribe/home for the rest of their days. Said coming-of-age ceremony seems to involve hallucinogenic drugs, plasma screen televisions, and some very unfortunate outfits that appear to have been designed by Eileen Fisher on a very bad day.

Shailene Woodley, portrays “Beatrice,” the heroine of our tale. She is a member of Abnegation, the selfless folks, and her parents are played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn (who are always so good at being stately and worried). Beatrice’s father serves some role in local government, though I wasn’t ever entirely clear what. All I could figure is that society is now led by a rather boring yet politely dysfunctional city council from hell.

Unsurprisingly, the parents in Divergent-world are hopeful that their children end up staying in the faction of their birth, but that is not always the case. Hence, the title “divergent” pertains to young people who defy tidy categorization. This diversity of thought and attitude seems to be the bane of existence for Kate Winslet’s “Jeanine” who heads up the power-hungry Erudite clan – as indicated by her smart Hillary Clinton haircut and Donna Karan-esque navy blue suits.

The bulk of the film is spent setting up the rules of this future society and, when Woodley is in fact revealed to be “divergent,” tracking how she will survive a society that doesn’t much want her in it. She is mentored by the hunkily haunted “Four,” portrayed by newcomer Theo James, channeling an Anthony Perkins-ish, glowering charm.

I found the proceedings much smarter than what is typically on display in these kinds of films. I suppose the casting of Winslet is a sign that director Neil Burger (The IllusionistLimitless) had something greater in mind for this one. It reminded me at times of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, both of which depict near-future societies whose well-meaning, peace-keeping totalitarianism results in widespread mediocrity and a crushing fear of the unique. Orwell’s allegorical legacy continues … praise be!

At one point, Winslet’s character ominously declares, “The future is for those who know where they belong.” Perhaps its just my paranoid middle age speaking but our society today seems to fear the unknown more than ever. The cinematic parable of Divergent (and its two planned sequels) strikes me as so powerful at this precarious cultural crossroads where we find ourselves. So, for once in my movie-going life, I’m actually looking forward to the second installment in one of these teen oriented sci-fi fantasias. Heaven help me.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Oh, what hath J.K. Rowling wrought? Beautiful Creatures

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Oh, what hath Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling wrought? The thudding, relentless march of young adult fantasy novels featuring wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, orcs and angst has consumed bookshelves and movie screens for over a decade now.

And for every cinematic blockbuster adaptation – Twilight (blech) or Hunger Games (groan) – the Netflix superhighway is littered with non-starters like The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, I Am Number Fourand Percy Jackson.

Where does Beautiful Creatures, the latest attempt to create a pubescent tentpole franchise sprinkled with pixie dust and Stridex, fit in that continuum? Well, artistically, it’s a lot of fun with a full wink and a smirk at its self-important teenage-targeted forebears…which, commercially, of course, means it will be a big ol’ flop.

Director Richard LaGravenese, who showed such promise with his directorial debut Living Out Loud, does a credible job here, though his pacing is more workmanlike than inspired. Wisely, however, he has stocked his film with a host of Oscar winners/nominees, including Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons as well as talented Emmy Rossum (of Phantom of the Opera-fame) and delightful character actors Margot Martindale and Eileen Atkins.

The cast has a ball with their plummy roles as witches and warlocks debating some incomprehensible nonsense about whether or not young “caster” Lena (played with minimal pretense and maximum warmth by newcomer Alice Englert) will usher in a dark or light age. Doesn’t really matter because the cast is so engaging.

Most noteworthy is Lena’s young “mortal” boyfriend Ethan, portrayed by another newcomer Aiden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is a perfectly postmodern blend (perhaps too self-consciously at times) of Anthony Perkins and James Dean if channeled through the face and voice of Leonardo DiCaprio (with bits of Dougray Scott and James Franco thrown in for good measure). Weird, I know. But true. And he is transfixing. I suspect his career will be one to watch.

I think what I enjoyed most is the fact that the film is sending up its young adult fiction conventions and cliches all while reveling in them. LaGravenese, doing double duty as screenwriter (other credits include my personal favorites The Ref, A Little Princess, and Unstrung Heroes), weaves in smart and fun allusions (and plenty of overt references as well) to some more substantial literary contributors like Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Charles Bukowski,  William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

Set in a small South Carolina backwoods town, Beautiful Creatures uses its corn-pone, crispy-fried, Dixie-goth setting to send up “Red State” religious and intellectual ignorance and fear. Some of it is a bit too “on the nose,” even for my broad and cynical tastes, but I liked that the filmmakers were willing to bite their thumbs at the very audiences who may be flocking to see this film. My favorite line? When young Ethan relates about the local library, “This is my church, this is where my family comes to worship what’s holy: ideas.” Good for him.