“Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” The LEGO Batman Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Everything is (almost) awesome” in The LEGO Batman Movie, a spinoff from the 2014 surprise critical and box office hit The LEGO Movie. While LEGO Batman never quite achieves the warmhearted, dizzyingly progressive whimsy of its predecessor, it compensates with a bonkers absurdity that wouldn’t have been misplaced in a Road Runner cartoon.

Will Arnett returns to gravelly-voice the titular anti-hero, a Trump-esque (by way of Alec Baldwin) billionaire egomaniac whose idea of a good time is fighting (alone) an endlessly looped (and loopy) war on crime where the criminals never actually get locked up and the Batman soaks up a debatably earned shower of community accolades.

Arnett is a one-note hoot, and the filmmakers (director Chris McKay working with a mixed grab-bag of screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington) wisely supplement his singular focus with a sweet-natured supply of supporting characters.

Cast MVPs include a sparklingly feminist Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon (later dubbed “Batgirl,” who quips to Arnett, “Does that make you BatBOY, then?”), a gleefully earnest and utterly over-caffeinated Michael Cera as Dick Grayson (relishing every glimmering, discofied sequin of his admittedly peculiar but comic book accurate “Robin” costume), and a dry-as-a-martini Ralph Fiennes as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s dutiful, shaken-but-not-stirred majordomo Alfred Pennyworth.

Like The LEGO Movie (and just about any children’s movie made. ever.), The LEGO Batman Movie posits a primary thesis that family is everything, even if that family is made up of a collection of well-intentioned, mentally-suspect oddballs (so it’s a fact-based film). Arnett’s Batman comically resists any and all overtures by his friends (and enemies) to connect, collaborate, and love, driven in part by a lightly-touched-upon reference to Batman’s origins losing both of his parents to a gun-toting mugger in Gotham City’s aptly named “Crime Alley.” Alfred cautions Master Bruce, “You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”

This sets up a tortured bromance between Batman and his (sometimes) chief nemesis The Joker, voiced with consummate crazed sweetness by an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. The Joker just wants Batman to acknowledge that they have a special bond, but the Dark Knight’s cuddly sociopathy prevents him from admitting that they truly need each other. “I don’t currently have a bad guy. I’m fighting a few different people. I like to fight around,” Batman dismisses a lip-quivering, weepy-eyed Joker.

The Joker then sets on a path to flip this script, bringing a spilled toybox rogues’ gallery of delightfully random villains (King Kong, Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West and her Flying Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Dr. Who‘s Daleks, Clash of the Titans‘ Medusa and Kraken, Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors, Dracula, Joe Dante’s cinematic Gremlins, and a bunch of glowing skeletons) to destroy Gotham City, reclaim Batman’s attention, and re-establish their dotingly dysfunctional affection for one another.

What made The LEGO Movie such fun was its childlike ability to (s)mash-up incongruous genres (and intellectual properties), much like little boys and girls do with their actual toy collections, wherein it might not be uncommon for Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Barbie to team up against Captain America, He-Man, and Papa Smurf. It was nice to see this bit of anarchic, cross-promotional foolishness continue from one film to another.

For middle-aged comic books buffs, there are Easter Eggs galore. We get obscure Batman villains rarely seen in print, let alone film (Calendar Man? Crazy Quilt? Zebra-Man?!). There is a SuperFriends house party, hosted by Superman (Channing Tatum’s adorably frat boy-ish take on the character continued from The LEGO Movie) at his “Fortress of (Not-So) Solitude” complete with a DJ-ing Wonder Dog, a groovy Martian “Dance”-hunter, and an “It’s a Small World”-esque conga line of Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, Samurai, and the Wonder Twins. Perhaps most impressively, The LEGO Batman Movie manages to telescope nearly 80 years of Bat-history (comics, television, film) into a handful of nifty and very funny montages, simultaneously justifying LEGO’s iconically cracked take on the character while honoring all that has come before.

Upon Robin’s first joy ride in a hot rod-drawn-on-the-back-of-a-Trapper-Keeper version of The Batmobile, Batman turns to him, with his nails-on-a-chalkboard growl, and warns, “Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” And that is likely the most important message in these LEGO movies. Life is going to hand you a lot of lemons, so use your imagination and your inherent sense of joy to keep things fulfillingly messy … and, along the way, feel free to pour lemonade over the heads of anyone who tries to make you follow their arbitrary rules. Make your own rules, and break them freely and often.

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From my personal collection. Yes, I’m nuts.

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.

“You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” Spectre

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

James Bond needs a good foil … or two. Without a sharply defined counterpart, ideally played by a crackerjack BBC-er, against which to reflect and/or deflect, 007 is just a swaggering phallus with a peculiar penchant for martinis and gun-play. And that’s a bore.

Why was the last outing – Skyfall so good? Yeah, Adele’s theme song was one of the best we’ve heard in decades, and director Sam Mendes (Revolution Road, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead) applies a literary/theatrical craftsmanship that elevates film beyond mere verisimilitude to near-allegorical levels.

And, yes, Daniel Craig is the first actor to, you know, act while wearing Bond’s trademark tight-fitting bespoke suits and leaping tall fire escapes in a single bound – his chief charm being that he seems to sort of hate the character and plays Bond as someone who has a f*cking job to do, mate, and, if he has a shag and a drink along the way while slaying an army of vaguely malevolent thugs and baddies, so be it. He’s like your local cable guy if he were an international spy, that is, if said cable guy possessed the eyes of a malamute and the abs of an Abercrombie and Fitch model.

But the real reason Skyfall worked so freaking well?  We had the BOGO (buy-one-get-one-free, kids) joys of Judi Dench AND Javier Bardem, who gave Craig/Bond a film “mother” and a film “brother” against whom to play some crackling “family” dysfunction, with a sparkling amount of wit and a smothering amount of tension. That acting trifecta of Dench, Bardem, and Craig also had the benefit of a great yarn to tell, a fractured fairy tale origin of Bond’s Oliver Twist-meets-Batman upbringing, culminating in nigh-Shakespearean death, destruction, and dismemberment … and that’s just describing what happened to his family vacation home in those eerily snowy Swiss/Austrian/Nordic (?) mountains where these films always seem to conclude.

Alas, Spectre, as fun as it is (and it is fun – kind of a rainbow sherbet to cleanse the palate after the heavy shepherd’s pie that was Skyfall), has no such shining, scene-stealing yins to Craig’s yang. Christoph Waltz, who becomes more of a cartoon every time I see him, seems like the perfect person to play a Bond villain … in 1968. However, in the postmodern grit and wit of Craig’s Bond, Waltz is a bit of a snoozer. I suspect Spectre‘s BIG reveal – the Bond mythos legend whom Waltz portrays – is meant to bring the kind of shock and awe delight of the similar unveiling of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Star Trek Into Darkness. It didn’t.

But (spoiler alert), at least, we get the signature cat … and thuggish henchman (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista as the menacing and seemingly indestructible muscle Mr. Hinx … or Oddjob 2.0).

Ralph Fiennes as Bond handler “M” is no Dench, and he carries a constipated delivery in his few scenes that perhaps bespeaks some frustration that he had to retire Harry Potter‘s Darth Vader-esque Voldemort for a much less interesting 2nd banana role in the Bond franchise. At least Fiennes has nostrils in this series.

Much of the non-Craig spark comes from Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny. She is such a source of light in the film, I’m baffled why the filmmakers aren’t brave enough to mount a Bond/Moneypenny buddy flick. I’d go see that in a heartbeat. Ben Whishaw’s Q grows on me with each subsequent outing, as well, bringing a sardonic glee to torturing Bond with high-tech goodies the spy can’t have as 007 is perpetually in some kind of probationary limbo. (Isn’t Bond at risk of losing his job in every one of these latest forays? I realize Craig does a great job playing the rogue cop notes, but how is Bond still employed at this rate?)

John Logan’s screenplay packs a lot of punches (maybe two or three too many, yielding a near three-hour running time), but lacks the emotional wallop of Skyfall, which is to be expected, I suppose. The script’s biggest crime is falling prey to the two Bond women structural cliche, with the first character being a disposable femme fatale (the much more interesting Monica Bellucci) and the second a wary love interest who will be totally forgotten by the next film in the series (the bland Lea Seydoux).

(We also get one of the loopiest credits sequences in recent memory. Sam Smith’s song is pleasant enough, with a nicely subtle John Barry influence, but all the naked women writhing around with octopi and a shirtless Craig was just … troubling.)

The film aims to say something profound about how Orwellian our culture has become as we willingly submit to eye-in-the-sky surveillance and social media self-revelation, rendering privacy and freedom obsolete, all in a panicked and ultimately misplaced desire for security from nameless, faceless Terrorism with a capital “T.” In the process, we hand the keys to the kingdom to the real terror-mongers in our midst.

Ultimately, this zippy thesis gets lost in the shuffle – with four endings too many ranging from lots of buildings going “boom” to damsel-in-distress kidnappings to way too much Snidely Whiplash-monologuing from Waltz. Spectre also never capitalizes on the spookiness of its strongest sequence, the opening cat-and-mouse chase set among skull-and-crossboned revelers at Mexico City’s annual Day of the Dead celebration. Those early scenes impose a marvelously ominous claustrophobia and a sweaty delirium that the rest of film fritters away.

Spectre does a fine job drawing together the disparate threads of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, with various villains from those prior episodes dancing in and out of the story – one of them intones to Bond, “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” In fact, that cryptic phrase’s chaotic imagery could describe the entire Spectre viewing experience: volatile, transporting, thrilling even, but ultimately tangled up in its own aspirations – a fun but forgettable ride.

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12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel 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.

Coming out of the woods: Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour at Detroit’s Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

We had a debate about Taylor Swift at brunch today … well, not a debate so much as friendly banter, but, yes, about Taylor Swift. You see, I saw her stellar 1989 concert at Detroit’s Ford Field last night, and it seems to shock/awe/flabbergast that a grown (sort of) man appreciates the glittering pop output of one Ms. Swift. But I really do. Swift seems to be a polarizing force. Either you adore her or you really don’t ever, ever, ever like her style of wholesome-with-an-edge, high-waisted-Wonder-Bread-dominatrix, let-people-be-people, sh*tcan-the-jerks-in-your-life-with-a-smile jukebox jive.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

I don’t think it’s easy to transition from child star to adult phenomenon in the public eye. I don’t mean the drug-addled, gin-soaked misadventures of a young (baby) Drew Barrymore or a slipping-down-the-rabbit hole Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes. Rather, it’s probably worse for someone like Swift, whose Amazonian work ethic and drive for world domination must never give her a moment’s rest and which seems to make her a perennial target for critique.

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

The 1989 show, named after the year a wide-eyed Taylor (now 25 years old, natch) powered into this unsuspecting world, brings all of the pop (formerly country) powerhouse’s disparate influences into sharp relief. And it makes abundantly clear just how profound her transition has been from kiddie cult to global superstar. Watching last night’s show, I was struck by Swift’s confident swagger (and I normally hate swagger) but she wears it well.

She is not limited by gender, age, public perception, nor a cavalcade of A-list ex-paramours. NO.

She has reverse engineered the formula for inevitable, relentless singularity: one part Mick Jagger, two parts Madonna, a pinch of Janet, with a healthy sprinkling Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos self-mythologizing confessional. Well-played, kid. No one else quite cracked that code – not Britney, not Rihanna, not Gaga. Not even sure Beyonce did it … but watch your back for Miley. Most important? Last night’s show was fun. (And, yeah, I might have been one of the oldest and fewest Y-chromosomed attendees – but if the Church of Swift teaches us anything it’s “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.”)

Welcome to New York

Welcome to New York

The set list is essentially the 1989 album (from last fall) in its entirety with a few other now-classics (strange to say of songs not even five or so years old) thrown in (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Love Story”). Performance highlights included: a glitzy 42nd Street take on opener “Welcome to New York” with its swirling, infectious message of universal inclusion; a little Fosse in the stylized shadow-dancing of hypnotic “Blank Space;” some sweaty Velvet Rope-era Janet stylings on a molasses-throbbing “I Knew You Were Trouble” and a Rhythm Nation twist on rival-skewering “Bad Blood;” and straight-up Courtney Love guitar-raging on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (arguably the strongest reinvention of the bunch).

Bad Blood

Bad Blood

Before her (literally) soaring encore of the ubiquitous “Shake It Up” (staged as a can-can kick-line atop a spinning/floating catwalk), Swift closed with a stadium-rattling take on my personal 1989 favorite “Out of the Woods.” Against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of twisting Grimm Brothers trees and underneath giant spiraling paper airplanes, Swift nailed this Simple Minds/Tears for Fears/Kate Bush-homage, an anthem of empowerment and self-actualization and her ultimate thesis for this sleek, epic pop evening. You are you. Own it.

Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods

There were many surprises in an already jam-packed evening. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons popped up for a frisky duet on his own hit “Radioactive” that had the crowd in a frenzy. (Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get the 50K plus, sold-out crowd in a frenzy. They were going nuts over trivia questions about Taylor’s cats in the pre-show warm-up period.) Other members of the Swift celeb mafia put in video and live appearances – models GiGi Hadid and Martha Hunt walked the catwalk in “Style” to wish their singer-songwriter pal well, and Girls‘ Lena Dunham and the band Haim (not to mention, yes, Taylor’s cats Olivia and Meredith) offered their greetings from the big screens. (Is Swift the new Sinatra – and it’s not Jay-Z after all? Food for thought.)

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

The spectacle of the show was tasteful – more old-school Vegas than stadium bombast – with minimalist choreography, a series of subtle costume changes (all spangles and mini-skirts), a lot of rear-screen projection, and Taylor’s fabulously perfect 1989-bobbed haircut. (Seriously, she should never wear her hair any. other. way.) The niftiest touch of all? Every member of the audience was given a light-up wrist-band (RFID-powered?) that flashed and pulsed and changed colors to the stage activities. Such a simple thing, but had such a profound effect on the overall experience. The huge room at Ford Field looked like a twinkling galaxy, and all of us – young and, ahem, old – were gobsmacked by the clever inclusion of every one us in the concert staging.

The galaxy of wristbands

The galaxy of wristbands

The show is a reverent homage to an era which Swift couldn’t possibly remember – the late 80s. I do. Unlike Katy Perry’s Prismatic Tour (which I enjoyed), Swift is not winking at the Day-Glo era. She is embracing it and exploring those musical influences she never knew she had. I was 17 in 1989, and it was the year I started loving pop music from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation to Madonna’s Like a Prayer to, yes, Prince’s Batman. I still treasure those albums as they transport me to a simpler, maybe sillier, possibly less socially divisive time when a lifetime of opportunity still extended before me. Whether she knows it or not, Swift captured the summer fun of listening to pure pop escapism on my little red boombox on the sundeck of my parents’ house in 1989. Thank you, Taylor.

Linda's daughter Laura (right) with Taylor's mom Andrea

Linda’s daughter Laura with Taylor’s mom Andrea

P.S. Taylor loves Detroit. She first sang the National Anthem at a Lions game at Ford Field years ago, and she even brought her mom along last night to help usher ecstatic fans backstage. My pal Linda Cameron, mom of frequent Penny Seats cast-mate Matt Cameron, was there as a belated holiday present from her family, and Linda even got a chance to meet Mom Swift whom Linda described as a  “sweetheart.”

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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.

A Willy Loman for the internet era: Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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]

As a theater person who loves superheroes, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was the perfect cinematic storm for me: a film about an actor who walked away from a superhero franchise at the peak of his box office powers in order to rediscover his pretentious inner-theater muse … quite an intoxicating brew for yours truly.

Michael Keaton, whom I admit was most appealing to me back in his Mr. Mom days, plays the title character, an actor named Riggan Thomson. The film tracks the Quixotic enterprise to mount his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story … starring himself … and directed by … himself. If that conceit weren’t so believable in this egocentric day and age, it would be absurd. Keaton does his manic best, aided and abetted by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and his woozy one-continuous-take cinematic approach, to convince us that he is a failed superstar on the verge of a nervous break down.

After a clunky, self-aggrandizing first act, where all the players seem to be channeling Robert Altman-esque self-indulgence, the film kicks in and the enterprise becomes dizzyingly entertaining. Keaton is surrounded by a cast of superstars from Emma Stone playing his rehab-quirk-addled daughter to Zach Galifianakis as his neurotic consigliore to Edward Norton who steals the show as his Brando-ized Method (!) Acting co-star.

Once Norton enters the scene, the film finds its groove. (Norton can do no wrong in my book). Norton (both in character and in real-life) gives Keaton a similarly monumental ego against which to clash, and their scenes together are dynamite. The two actors create sparks as they literally beat each other to bloody pulps in their rehearsals for what appears to be one of the most turgid dramas that could ever grace the Great White Way. Norton is the saving grace (and secret weapon) of this film.

Birdman goes a long way to skewer our superhero-obsessed culture, casting many veterans of the genre, including Keaton (Batman), Norton (The Incredible Hulk), and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man). They knowingly wink at the camera, actors who long for real parts to play but who have been forced to play spandex-clad clowns (or their paramours) to pay the mortgage.

I will add, though, that, like some lesser Oscar-bait films, the metaphors are laid on a little thick. This film is no Being John Malkovich, with its thrilling heights of meta-lunacy. Riggan literally (there’s that word again) cuts off his nose to spite his face by the movie’s conclusion. You don’t get much more obvious than that … unless Riggan had actually bitten that hand (audience member’s? producer’s?) that feeds. If the movie had been any longer, I bet he would have.

What the film gets so, so very right is the petty, competitive, ugly world of theater, rife with people who claim to be part of a larger artistic community but who can’t wait to plunge the proverbial ice pick in the back of a scenery-chewing costar. And, there is a wonderful moment in the film where Keaton says everything every actor has ever wanted to say to a theater critic. He eviscerates a New York Times pundit over drinks in a speakeasy; she, the gate keeper of all Broadway success, is excoriated by Riggan for what he sees as her lack of actual artistic credibility, channeled as it is into destroying the hopes and dreams of those treading the boards. It is a highlight of the film, which spectacularly identifies the Faustian pact that performers make with the media to promote and support their unyielding insecurities.

As an aside, this film made me think about what kind of creative person I am, both as an actor and a critic. I have acquaintances who are what one might call more “artistic” than I … or perhaps more “affected” if one is being cruel. In this blog, I don’t write about camera angles or nuance or sociopolitical constructs … at least not much. I write about my visceral response as a regular person wandering from multiplex to multiplex. I don’t know if that makes me a good critic or bad critic … a good witch or a bad witch. And I don’t really care.

That’s the joy of social media and blogging. People in the Fourth Estate might resent that there are folks out there like yours truly writing our thoughts for all the world to see. Well, get over it.

This film nails how creative people tear each other down for a lack of external validation. We are extremely, unnecessarily competitive. Sometimes we’re overtly harsh to each other in our commentary, and sometimes our absence of comment is even more so. I will never understand that. I remember vividly a dinner conversation after a local performance of Legally Blonde the Musical. (Yeah, I was in that show.) My cast-mates let me know how some other community theater types had seen the production and had identified at length all the things they thought we were doing incorrectly. WTF?!?  It was Legally Blonde the Musical.  It’s a cruise ship show.  A cartoon. This ain’t Hamlet, kids. Why anyone who is in community theater (myself included) would knock someone else’s community theatre show is beyond me. But I digress.

Back to Birdman. While I applaud Iñárritu’s efforts to create a Rube Goldberg cinematic style that sweeps us seamlessly from one scene to the other – in what appears to be a two hour continuous take – at times, it was a bit visually nauseating for me.  Or maybe that’s his point: when anybody launches into the fool’s errand of performing live theater, it is an experience that creates headaches, stomachaches … visceral highs and lows.

I will admit that I didn’t love this movie. It felt more like a student exercise at times than a fully-realized film. But I often find myself on the outskirts of what critics hail as artistic entertainment. The movie goes to great lengths to lampoon those films that the masses adore; yet, it misses the fact that most of us go to movies for escapism not torture.

Regardless, I found myself compelled by Keaton’s performance, a Willy Loman for the internet era, who sells his soul for credibility yet only finds validation when he accidentally lands on YouTube.

I believe the writers stole a bit from Carol Channing’s life, If I recall, she tells a wonderful story of being locked in the alley during a performance of Hello, Dolly! having to come around to the front door and enter through the audience. Granted, she was in full costume and not dingy BVDs like Keaton’s Riggan Thomson. And maybe that’s most obvious and most appropriate metaphor of all. The emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Musical postscript …

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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.

“Destroy anything that’s different…” The Lego Movie

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Destroy anything that’s different,” exclaims one of the ubiquitous yellow-faced citizens of The Lego Movie‘s Orwellian-metropolis Bricksburg … employing such a chipper voice that he may as well be ordering a $37 cup of coffee or watching a mindlessly mind-numbing sitcom (which, by the way, he does).

This is how the deftly satirical “kiddie movie” opens, with the peppy denizens of a perfectly ordered society (constructed from little plastic bricks) extolling the virtues of conformity and their brain-dead escapist indulgences (like instruction manuals, caffeinated beverages, and reality TV).

As this gonzo movie opened, I wondered for a moment if I was watching Toy Story … or South Park. The Lego Movie, directed with sharp wit and a kind heart by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), has both worlds in its DNA, along with bits of Wreck-It Ralph, Who Framed Roger RabbitThe Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and the granddaddy of “toys that come to life and teach us important life lessons” flicks Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure. However, it never feels derivative for a second.

With a hero’s quest screenplay that seems like it was written by Joseph Campbell on crack, the movie details the journey of a lowly schlubb named Emmett (Chris Pratt) who revels in the petty details of his mundane, ordered, predictable life but who also can’t avoid the empty ache of loneliness. One thing leads to another, including finding a magic brick (the cutely named “Piece of Resistance”) that will inspire creativity and save the day from the villainous Lord Business (Will Ferrell), a shameless capitalist who spends his days plotting how to keep all the Lego-heads busy and bored and static.

Along the way, as in all such narratives, Emmett is joined by a ragtag group of allies – Wyldstyle (saucy Elizabeth Banks), Vitruvius (wizened yet whimsical Morgan Freeman), Batman (a very funny and very vain Will Arnett who nearly steals the show), and assorted other residents of the bottom of the toy bin (including an adorable cat/unicorn hybrid named Uni-Kitty that captured my heart … darn you, Alison Brie!). Oh, and Liam Neeson is a comic delight as a quite literal “good cop/bad cop” who chases our intrepid heroes all about Legoworld.

The plot is intentionally inconsequential and dripping with juvenilia (by design), all as set-up for a reveal that is a telling critique of our arrested development era. I don’t want to spoil it (though I think anyone over 12-years-old will see it coming), but the filmmakers offer a spot-on (though never mean-spirited) critique of adults (like yours truly) who can’t let go of the playthings of their youth but who have also put those material goods on such a pedestal they have forgotten what made those items special and treasured in the first place.

In this transformative moment, we see who we are (and shouldn’t be) today: a society that prizes ironic sentiment over real-time connection, materialistic perfection over messy emotion.

The movie zaps our middle-class, cookie-cutter lifestyle where everyone loves the same song, the same drinks, the same clothes, the same rules and where everyone overuses the word “awesome” to nauseatingly hyperbolic levels. In fact, the characters are lulled, as if by the Greek Sirens of yore, by an ear-wormy disco cheer-anthem (written by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh) that infinitely repeats the chorus “Everything is Awesome.” The Lego Movie, an incisive allegory disguised in the Trojan Horse of a children’s film, seems to caution, “If everything is awesome, then nothing truly is.”

Countdown: The Dark Knight Rises

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 22 days until release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s a snippet of Roy’s review of The Dark Knight Rises: “I will offer that all the players are saddled with way too many ominous, cryptic monologues. At times, the film is almost tediously Shakespearean in its speechifyin’—makes you wonder how these characters would, say, order a sandwich. It wouldn’t be quick, that’s for certain.”

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

Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie: Star Trek Into Darkness

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie. First time for everything.

I’m not exactly a Trekkie – before this J.J. Abrams-led reinvention of “Wagon Train in Space,” the only entry in the canon I truly loved was Star Trek IV (or as I always call it in our house: “the one with the whales”).

Like the recent craftily re-engineered James Bond (thank you, Daniel Craig and Judi Dench) and Batman (yup, you are ok by me, Christopher Nolan) franchises, 2009’s Star Trek and this new sequel Star Trek Into Darkness mine and refine the source material as if the filmmakers are re-staging one of Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays” to appeal to modern sensibilities.

Notably, Chris Pine as Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mister Spock eliminate the pork from their hammy forebears’ performances (William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy respectively) while keeping the trademarked tics (goony alpha male swagger and goonier pointy ears also respectively). What both do so smartly (and what brought me to tears at a significant twist in the film’s final act) is give these iconic characters vulnerability and flawed humanity. No offense Mr. Priceline Negotiator Shatner, but I will take Pine’s wounded-little-boy-compensating-for-his-deep-seated-insecurity-by-affecting-a-swaggering-prick persona over, well, your swaggering-prick-persona any day of the week.

The film wisely stocks its other iconic roles with a bevy of gifted character actors: Karl Urban (my personal favorite as the crusty, twinkle-eyed, metaphor-spewing Dr. Bones), Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Peter Weller, and the always phenomenal Bruce Greenwood. The ensemble work in these films is feisty, zippy, and fun and should be used as a case study in acting schools everywhere: how to engage your audience and create a credibly warm ensemble dynamic in the midst of rampant CGI, deafening explosions, tilt-a-whirl camera angles, and spoof-worthy use of lighting flares.

I will close on this point. Bar none the canniest thing Abrams does (similar to the casting of Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley in that other summer tent pole, a little movie called Iron Man 3) is select Sherlock‘s and War Horse‘s Benedict Cumberbatch (what a name!) as the film’s main big bad. He is a marvel, commanding every minute of screen time with his handsome yet slightly space alien visage and basso profondo voice. He almost seems bored with EVERYONE around him and, given his sociopathic mission in the film, that works swimmingly. With his nuanced menace, he joins the ranks of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and Javier Bardem’s Silva in the rogue’s gallery of perfect post-modern, post-millennial popcorn film villains.

A somber summer epic worth seeing: The Dark Knight Rises

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

A satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s powerful, earnest, at times too self-important take on the Batman mythos, the final film in his trilogy “Dark Knight Rises” is a somber summer epic. Will the movie find its way past the tragic circumstances surrounding its debut? Almost impossible to predict. But there is something strange that happens watching this film in light of that context: what was intended, no doubt, as an allegorical take on post-9/11 America with our nation’s rampant paranoia and wildly divisive political machinations, now becomes a rumination on violence begetting violence.

All the returning players bring an almost-PBS-miniseries gravitas to the proceedings – Oscar nominees/winners all, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are all a pleasure to watch. (Freeman and Oldman lead the pack, with Freeman providing the too-few moments of levity.) I will offer that ALL the players are saddled with way too many ominous, cryptic monologues. At times, the film is almost tediously Shakespearean in its speechifyin’ – makes you wonder how these characters would, say, order a sandwich…it wouldn’t be quick, that’s for certain.

New additions Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Tom Hardy as Bane, Marion Cotillard as a mysterious investor, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an eager young cop all turn in credible, engaging performances. Much has been written about Hardy’s Sean Connery-meets-Darth Vader vocal delivery, and, I may be in the minority, but I liked his villainous turn a great deal, almost as much as I liked Heather Ledger’s Joker.  The difference being that Hardy had, in reality, the harder row to hoe, saddled with that godawful mask, and conveying a great deal of anger and angst through only his eyes and physicality. I found Hathaway’s Catwoman a slinky, sly, snarky delight – the film brightens a bit every time she is on-screen. Gordon-Levitt, for once, is not doing his winky, dimpled, charming thing but gives a deep-feeling, humane grounding to the often over-the-top proceedings.

Yes, the film, like so many comic book adaptations, wraps up with a save-the-world-nuclear-doomsday scenario. That bit is beyond tired. Yet, I found fascinating the villains’ “Tale of Two Cities” plans (until that point) to foment a people’s revolution in the midst of an increasingly self-absorbed, detached society. At times, the film falls under the weight of its own lofty pretensions, and a bit more fun here and there couldn’t have hurt it. All in all, it is well worth seeing and should be applauded for trying to say something a bit deeper and more profound. These are messages we as a society are well past needing to learn – whether or not a movie of this ilk will accomplish that as we continue to skid off the rails is, as I said earlier, impossible to predict.