“Are you an Avenger?” “…Yeah … basically.” Spider-Man: Homecoming

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“Spider-Man,  Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves, just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man.” …So opened the ridiculously ear-wormy theme song to the classic animated Spider-Man TV show from 1967.

And in the past two decades, indeed, here came all the Spider-Men, an army of cinematic treatments and a revolving door cast that rivaled only the Batman and James Bond franchises for the head-spinning number of changes over the years.

Tobey Maguire helped usher in this modern age of comic book blockbuster as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy in the early 2000s. While we finally had Marvel movies worthy in scope of that storied company’s impressive legacy, I always found Maguire’s take a bit insipid, whiny and cloying. Yet, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, James Franco as Harry Osborn, JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and Alfred Molina (!) as Doctor Octopus? Sheer perfection.

 

Then, Andrew Garfield swung into the scene as Peter with Emma Stone in tow as Gwen Stacy in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man pair of films. I thought we’d found our perfect duo, as this real-life/onscreen couple brought a shambling, bumbling, shoe-gazing charm that got us closer to Peter’s time-tested place as the “never can win” anti-Archie Andrews of teen comicdom. The only problem was Garfield and Stone looked like 30-year-olds playing 16 again. We did get another great Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Sally Field and Martin Sheen respectively – I’m sensing a theme here. Maybe those are the roles to play!

Yowza, though, the latest incarnation Spider-Man: Homecoming – directed with gleeful anarchic surety by Jon Watts – gets it just right!  The film stars a Peter Parker for the ages – British actor Tom Holland (Billy Elliot the Musical) – in a pitch perfect blend of winsome geekiness, outer New York boroughs cockiness, and sparkling Broadway dancer agility. This movie is an utter gem.

(What is happening Hollywood? Are you finally hitting your stride with these superhero flicks? Between this latest installment and June’s Wonder Woman, comic book movies have truly found their groove, embracing character and humor and fully leveraging the allegorical nature of these icons to celebrate our common humanity and to explore the dire need for compassion and heart in this little world of ours. And both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming feel like movies about, dare I say it, real people! I’ll take it.)

For years, the Spider-Man franchise was under sole license to Sony Pictures (in a deal struck in the late 90s before Marvel Studios as we know it now existed). The magic minds at Disney’s Marvel (chiefly president and creative visionary Kevin Feige) couldn’t get their hands on the web-slinger for their “shared universe” of movies that began with the crackerjack first Iron Man film. Oh, how times change. With the ongoing runaway success of Marvel Studios (and the relative box office disappointment of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man series), the suits got to talking, a deal was struck, and Spidey made his first showstopping appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Holland’s brief screen time in that flick all but assured us fanboys that Hollywood finally was getting Ol’ Webhead completely right.

And they sure did. Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the bulk of its action in and around Peter’s unashamedly nerdy high school (Midtown School of Science and Technology) and his shaggy band of friends whose brains are their super power and for whom discovery and analysis and LEGOs and adventure and academic decathlons are waaaay cooler than football games and proms.

The film wisely eschews yet another retelling of Peter’s transformation origin story, and just dives right into the action with a quick recap (no pun intended) of Spider-Man’s involvement in the superhero tensions of Civil War, told of course from a starstruck Millennial’s POV as captured in shaky, grainy video snippets on Peter’s cell phone.

As sunny sweet as Peter’s world is, this is still a planet in pain, suffering the everyday strife of  uncertainty that a costumed crusader battle won’t erupt overhead (nearly as worrisome as what a real-life president may Tweet at any given moment). And just as in our society, there are those who see opportunity in other’s distress.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (“The Vulture”) whose failure as a legit contractor turns around when he starts stealing and repurposing debris from these superhero battles on the black market. His animosity (and covetousness) toward the one-percenters of the world is evident when he sneers at Robert Downey, Jr.’s visage on a TV screen, “A$$holes who made this mess [Stark’s Avengers] get paid to clean it up [Stark Enterprises’ subsidiary Damage Control].” No one does sad-sack country club-wannabe bitter middle-aged male contempt like Keaton, and this former Batman/Birdman (meta casting if there ever was any) is brilliant in this role.  Oh, and, by the way, Keaton sports big scary robot wings … but this is a Marvel movie after all.

Inevitably, Spider-Man and the Vulture cross paths (and again … and again), with a number of dizzying aerial battles for the action junkies in the crowd. However, what makes their tension work is that both characters are outsiders, scrambling to prove their respective worth to a society that sees them as invisible. (Not to mention a final act twist that I did not see coming and that raises the stakes – and connection – between these two characters exponentially.)

Peter spends most of the film trying to reclaim Tony Stark’s attention, pretending to his fellow students that he has an “internship” with the famed entrepreneur when in reality he spends every night waiting by the phone in the hopes of getting “the call” to join Stark’s Avengers squad permanently. When his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan, an utter joy as Peter’s hyperventilating wingman) discovers Peter’s secret identity, he breathlessly inquires, “Are you an AVENGER?” Peter looks aside, with sadness in his eyes and embarrassment in his heart, replying, “Yeah … basically …” The film is rife with punchy/poignant character moments like that.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

So, when The Vulture and Spidey clash, it is from a narrative-driven conflict of needs and philosophies. Keaton’s Vulture keeps his criminal enterprise going to “stick it to the man,” to fund the lavish lifestyle to which he’s now become accustomed, and, thereby, to remind the world he is a force to be reckoned with – not to be tossed aside like the refuse he salvages.

Spider-Man, on the other hand, is certain that by stopping these schemes in their tracks, he will finally get the adulation and validation he desperately craves from Tony Stark and the mainstream superhero community. Each fight between The Vulture and Spider-Man is truly a fight for their lives.

That dramatic tension between Keaton and Holland powers the film but never overwhelms it. Admittedly, most of their fight sequences could have been trimmed by three-to-five minutes each, and the film would have been all the stronger for the cuts.

Ultimately, however, the heart and soul of the film is Peter Parker and his love of family and friends.

Marisa Tomei is dynamite as Aunt May (there we go again), never a victim but always cautious that New York isn’t the limitless playground Peter perceives it to be. Her crack comic timing wrapped in a gauze of May’s world-weary worry is the film’s most essential special effect.  Anyone who still thinks her Oscar for My Counsin Vinny was in error can go take a long leap off a short pier.

Disney Channel alum Zendaya is a revelation as Peter’s acerbic pal Michelle, who sees through the gangly immaturity of her fellow academic decathletes to the potential greatness they offer. Michelle has never met a social cause she didn’t embrace. Her teacher/coach says to her, when she refuses to enter the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves, “Protesting is patriotic.” Damn straight.

And we get great character turns by Tyne Daly as a tough bureaucrat with a decent heart, Donald Glover as a tough hoodlum with an even kinder heart, and Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) as a not-so-tough bully with pretty much no heart at all. Revolori, in particular, is fun casting as Parker’s legendary rival Flash Thompson, typically depicted as a Nordic bruiser of a football player. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, he is portrayed by an actor of Guatemalan descent and serves as Parker’s chief competition on the academic decathlon team. Nice.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is, ultimately, a love letter to the American “melting pot.” All shapes and sizes – and ethnicities and races and ages and genders – of humanity are proudly on display, relentlessly pursuing their dreams and proudly challenging the status quo. That is what makes America great. And always has.

Oh, and this is a movie that makes a point to show Spider-Man going back to rescue a cat from a blazing convenience store. And to have Chris Evans channeling his adorably goofy comic side as a Captain America who makes earnest public service announcements against bullying in public schools. That’s my kind of America.

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

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

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

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

 

“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.

Fun.

I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?

(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)

The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.

The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?

Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.

However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.

That said, The Hateful Eight entertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”

Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?

For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.

It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.

Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.

Somebody wake me when Oscar season is over.

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img_3692-1Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours.” Fantastic Four (2015)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m an ornery pain. I’m the only person in America (or possibly the world) who didn’t like Frozen, yet I adored notorious flops The Lone Ranger and John Carter. I find prestige Oscar-winners like Crash or Birdman overrated messes, but I can watch Xanadu in an endless loop. (Though even I admit Xanadu stretches the acceptable limits of “guilty pleasure.”) When most of humanity flocks to something or flees from it, I’m always headed in the opposite direction. Hell, I even kinda liked Jonah Hex. You probably should just stop reading … now.

And it is with this context that we come to Chronicle-director Josh Trank’s reboot of Fantastic Four, admittedly a film that we, as a downward spiraling culture, did not need, given that the “First Family of Marvel Comics” already hit the silver screen twice in the past ten years in a pair of much campier, candy-colored offerings.

I suppose, given all of the hyperventilating sky-is-falling press over this late summer entry, I expected this new Fantastic Four to be a laugh-out-loud howler of a train wreck, not unlike that last Transformers movie (a movie I might add that nobody liked but still made a billion dollars). It wasn’t … at least not to me and the two other people in last night’s screening room.

I was pleasantly surprised that I actually, sort of, enjoyed myself. Word of warning: it is a very somber affair, but with zero gravitas and even less fun. However, the smart play Josh Trank makes (that is, before he completely disavowed his work on the flick in a Twitter rant a few weeks back) is in staging his film in a creepy, David Cronenberg-lite horror universe, where, say, being turned into a man on fire or a man made of rubber or a man made of orange rocks or a woman who can’t see her own hand is not necessarily a whimsical day at the park. It’s a logical approach, and Trank has cast his film with some of the best young talents in Hollywood, all acquitting themselves nicely.

Yet,  it’s not the glib August superhero escapist fare anyone expected in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy moment, not does it have the courage to be full-blown creep-fest either, so Fantastic Four just sort of floats dormant in some audience-confounding, foggy nether realm. In short, I liked the movie’s tone directionally and the cast in concept and the unrealized potential best, which is strange praise indeed.

Playing the titular heroes are Whiplash‘s Miles Teller (“Reed Richards”), House of Cards‘ Kate Mara (‘Susan Storm”), Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordan (“Johnny Storm”), and Turn‘s Jamie Bell (“Ben Grimm”). The cast’s standout, Bell has a criminal dearth of screen-time, but, in his few stoic minutes, he sets a beautifully glowering tone of disaffected youth that propels and enriches what passes for character development in the movie’s relatively brisk running time.

All that said, much of the film is a drag, but, for some reason, I found its dreary sensibility and general mopiness compelling. Nope, we did not need yet another origin story of these heroes, but that’s what we get. This time instead of rocketing into space, our intrepid foursome explore another dimension (where they gain their amazing abilities … er … deformities) while attending the Baxter Institute, a kind of Hogwarts for Science Geeks in Midtown Manhattan.

By far, the weakest part of the film is its villain Victor Von Doom, a Draco Malfoy without the charm or the pretty platinum hair. In the comics (goofy name notwithstanding), this is a character who can be so fascinating with his Oedipal complex, inferiority complex, God complex, and all around prissy pissiness. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why filmmakers haven’t figured out he is the proto-Darth Vader and deserves a film of his very own. Ah well. At this rate, between Toby Kebbell’s not-ready-for-The-CW posturing in this iteration and Julian McMahon’s pretty boy voguing in the prior films, we will be lucky if we see Dr. Doom selling mouthwash and toothpaste during Saturday morning cartoons.

The film is nothing but 90 minutes of set-up, which would be fine if there was a payoff, but the proceedings completely fall apart in the final act, a clutch of computer-generated nonsense in the “other dimension,” the “otherness” being some billowing clouds, a lot of steam, and goofy floating rocks. Our heroes have to stop Doom from blowing up our world or throwing us all into a black hole or giving us gas from cheap popcorn … or something. Wait, what was this movie about again?

And that’s a shame, because until the film’s final moments, I actually dug it. Maybe Fantastic Four will find a second life as a pleasant, dreary televised diversion on rainy Sunday afternoons, and maybe (one day) someone will finally give this classic family of four-color misfits the smart but zippy movie treatment they deserve. Or not.

Early in Fantastic Four, Reg E. Cathey – playing Franklin Richards, the stony-faced scientist father of Susan and Johnny Storm – rumbles ominously, “The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours.” And, dammit, the Fantastic Four film franchise is giving us nothing but opportunities. Sigh.

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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.

Guest review … Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

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: Google Images]

Last year about this time, my talented pal Rebecca Biber and I traded point/ counterpoint on The Grand Budapest Hotel. I loathed it (see here), and she loved it (see here).

Twelve months later, we find ourselves at (not quite as extreme) loggerheads over the similarly Oscar-recognized film Whiplash (now available on DVD/Blu-Ray and via streaming video). It was one of my top three films of the year (alongside Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher). I daresay for Ms. Biber … it would not be similarly ranked (though she did seem to enjoy aspects of the film).

Check out her assessment of Whiplash below, and you can revisit my take here.

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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: Google Images]

Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

By Rebecca Biber

Accuracy. That’s the object of the game—and the mind games. Tempo accuracy, pitch accuracy, being on time for the gig and keeping yourself and the music in irreproachable order. And in its evocation of certain states of mind or stages of life, Whiplash is fairly accurate. But the film suffers from a cluster of small miscalculations, dropped beats, and overeager entrances.

I went in hoping to experience, for once, a film about musicians that was believable, at least on the order of good fiction. My hopes had been dashed over the years by healthily-hyped but thoroughly disappointing movies from Shine to Hilary and Jackie to Mr. Holland’s Opus, only to be renewed by meaningful cinematic pieces like Ray, Bird, and A Late Quartet. It might not make sense, at first, to lump these all into the same genre: after all, some are biopics, others are purely fictional; some treat classical musicians’ lives and careers while others depict jazz musicians. But they are all of a piece, in that they all portray stereotypes of struggling artists. Brilliant artists consumed and, usually, destroyed by mental illness, substance abuse, personal grief, or all of the above. Whiplash is in the same vein, but the twist is that the tortured young artist here chooses to be at the mercy of a merciless mentor.

Whiplash started out as a portrayal of music school I could relate to. The protagonist, Andrew Neiman, faces competitiveness, endless rehearsal and practice, and the utter loneliness that accrues from living only for the pursuit of perfect musicianship, deriving one’s sense of self exclusively from that, rather than from any internal or family-based sense of worth (despite the best efforts of warm Jewish dad Paul Reiser). People do practice to the point of injury. The presence of women in jazz is still, sadly, negligible. Music professors and students have a relationship closer to that of master and apprentice in a medieval trade guild than the service-oriented relationship prevalent in the wider academic world. Often, our mentors are not people we like. They are sometimes people whose appeal as role models is lost on anyone other than their devotees. Certainly, J.K. Simmons’s portrayal of Terence Fletcher is over the top in its vitriolic verbosity and turn-on-a-dime moments of sweetness contrasted with utter sadism. Young Neiman readily begins to adopt Fletcher’s ways, turning tough guy himself and taking out his anger on peers and drum heads like.

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: Google Images]

And here’s where writer/director Damien Chazelle started to lose me. When you are portraying a specific world, such as that of a conservatory, you must adhere to the governing rules thereof. Its jargon, its specific codes of behavior. Any musician watching the film can’t help but be annoyed by the errors piling up: a sequence depicting rising piano notes showed the pianist’s hand moving down the keyboard. One doesn’t scribble over the charts in ink, because all of the (expensive) music is on loan from the school. Music professors and students don’t fling or destroy their equipment, no matter how frustrated they feel (again, following genre pattern: a bizarre scene in Hilary and Jackie has Emily Watson freezing her cello, and a fistfight in A Late Quartet endangers priceless violins more than the men themselves). You can’t actually live in a practice room. Worst of all is the over acting. The more intensely Neiman plays, the more spasmodically his face contorts. He spends the entire film convincing us how hard he is working. Take a look, sometime, at a percussionist playing a strenuous piece: he or she will be almost preternaturally still, facial features showing a Zen-like concentration and focus of energy.   To put it another way, when you are working extremely hard at the instrument, there is no time or attention left to devote to grimacing and mouthing swears. (The over-playing phenomenon is my only complaint about the otherwise excellent Charlie Parker biopic; Forest Whitaker should have noticed that a saxophonist’s fingers move minutely when playing fast and that enthusiasm or inventiveness at the instrument does not translate to frenetic physical movement. The sound is bop, the technique used to achieve it bears no visual resemblance.)

Speaking of Charlie Parker, it seems that all jazz students and jazz films have to invoke the Bird legend. The story that Fletcher and Neiman volley between them has become both a cautionary tale and a gauntlet thrown down to those who might not have the personal tenacity to achieve the fulfillment of their talent through practice. But the Charlie Parker story—that he thought he was good until a better musician took him down a few notches by tossing a cymbal at him onstage—doesn’t fit with the narrative of Whiplash or, more generally, with the story of a striving music student. Parker was a gigging musician, not a conservatory boy. And the privileged few who gain admission to conservatory go there looking for toughness, not for pats on the back. That the audience is supposed to disbelieve or admonish Fletcher for his ruthlessness is, itself, unbelievable, as his brand of humiliation coupled with exactitude is unusual only as a matter of degree, not of form. Once the narrative turns to the question of Fletcher’s ouster from his position, the movie wants to have it both ways. Either we are viewing a film about politically correct university dons fearing a lawsuit from appalled parents, or we are seeing the raw process of how music students get toughened, personally and professionally, in their closed rooms.

Neiman, as a character, also wants to have it both ways. He craves Fletcher’s approval, yet questions his decision making and, in fact, sabotages his bandmates by performing unprepared (and possibly concussed). He wants to be a decent guy—or at least receive the benefits a nice guy is entitled to—but not have to answer for his failures. This characterization struck me as the truest part of the film: the essentially conflicted kid/young adult, aspiring to professionalism but achieving a kind of precocious crankiness instead. (Full disclosure, as an undergrad music major I was once broken up with by a guy because he said he needed to practice more. I got a slightly shorter version of the speech Neiman delivers to his girlfriend Nicole in the film.) Certain plot points do follow a strange internal logic: when Fletcher pulls the rug out from under Neiman yet again, the trick only works because Neiman has chosen to isolate himself from his peers through personal nastiness, modeling his mentor. Had he had even one friend in the band, that guy would have said, “Hey, what do you think of that last-minute set list change?”

Biber and Sexton

Biber and Sexton

Kudos for the one moment of absolute accuracy Chazelle delivers on the nature of music making: Neiman, at the dinner table with some obnoxious jock cousins, gives as good as he gets in a fight over whose activities matter more, athletes or musicians. The young drummer has just described winning a competition with his select ensemble. One of the cousins says, “But how can you judge a music competition? Isn’t that subjective?” And Andrew replies, flatly, “No.”

Some things that appear vague or subjective are in fact easy to discern, if your senses are attuned: either a drummer is rushing or dragging the tempo. Either a professor corrects his students effectively, caring only for the music itself, or creates unnecessary personal drama which takes focus away from the music. I didn’t buy the central conceit of the Fletcher character, despite Simmons’s compelling performance. There are many ways to motivate, and the most effective motivators don’t get personal because they don’t need to. It’s gratuitous, like Neiman’s flashy fills at the beginning. It belies the idea of superb performance. If you want a student to count in 14/8, you don’t get in his way by throwing around insults and ethnic slurs. The audience is supposed to see Fletcher’s method as leading inevitably to Neiman’s success, but it doesn’t. Achieving conservatory admission, being in the right place at the right time, an ability to collaborate (which Neiman sorely lacks): all these things will count more than a semester under the tutelage of one crazy guy with a really good ear.

Where Whiplash started in the realm of believability, it ended in the realm of pure fantasy, and a dark fantasy at that. That’s not an objection, as the idea of mentor and protégé meeting in a cruel yet mutually pleasurable musical duel could only occur in that cloudy realm where the audience agrees to sit through a five-minute trap set solo and the competition judges don’t disqualify the ensemble. In a way, this skewing of the music movie genre was much more enjoyable than the preposterous treacle of Shine or the bloodless melodrama of Hilary and Jackie. But it was mere entertainment; it stopped short of genuine emotional plangency. There was no one to sympathize with, and no one to root for, except maybe the patient horn section that saw the whole episode through with true professional aplomb and jazz cool.

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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 Movies We Loved in 2014 — By Friends of the Blog

Proud to be in such esteemed company! Thanks, Gabriel, for including me! Here’s my contribution – be sure to read the complete blog post at Gabriel’s site …

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Nightcrawler
by Roy Sexton

The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.

Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.

As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.

Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.

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Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his books, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats theatre company.

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Read the original post …

Gabriel Diego Valdez

We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.

My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and…

View original post 4,860 more words

Deal with the devil: Whiplash (2014)

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]

Boy, when the Oscars get it wrong, they get it spectacularly wrong. I’ve already referenced what I see as a colossal eff-up in the way they recognized (barely) the socially incisive/incendiary Selma and Foxcatcher, but, now that I’ve finally seen Whiplash and based on what we all think we know about the impending awards, the fact that this f*cking (sorry.) fantastic movie hasn’t been nominated for more and that it likely will be eclipsed for the big prize by Birdman or Boyhood (not to mention missing out on the word-of-mouth box office bonanza lifting American Sniper and The Imitation Game) is, well, a crock.

(I think I have been so impacted by this incredibly immersive flick that I’m channeling J.K. Simmons’ foul-mouthed, corrosively-brilliant jazz music instructor Terence Fletcher. Simmons will no doubt be the lone Oscar-winner from Whiplash, and his acknowledgment will be richly deserved.)

Based on the real-life experiences of writer/director Damien Chazelle, who performed in the Princeton High School studio band, Whiplash tells a small tale in epic brushstrokes, a two-man character drama with the pacing and tension of a slasher film. Simmons’ bullying Fletcher is an instructor at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory, and Andrew Neiman, as underplayed extraordinarily by the Oscar-robbed Miles Teller, is a first-year student who aspires to be Buddy Rich and has the social graces of Genghis Khan. These two musically gifted misanthropes are a match made in hell, and the fireworks that erupt as Fletcher uses every abusive trick in the book to inspire “greatness” from his protege are horrifying, visceral, thrilling, and, in Fletcher’s defense, effective.

Teller’s Neiman is a super-talented, uber-driven simp who treats his doting father (Paul Reiser, a loving portrait of justifiable parental anxiety) with courteous disdain and his momentary girlfriend (Glee’s Melissa Benoist showing refreshing depth in a cameo role) as a roadblock to his wunderkind aspirations. The film and Teller make no attempt to victimize Neiman – he is not very likable but he is completely relatable. We all have had a moment (or two) where the desire for fame or success or advancement lead us down a soulless, soul-sucking path into the arms of a sure-minded, deal-making devil.

Fifty-plus years ago, Whiplash would have been a spectacular episode of Playhouse 90 with Lee J. Cobb as the teacher and Martin Sheen as the student. Chazelle’s confident direction has that classic series in its DNA, and Whiplash has all the sweaty, anxious discomfort of the best allegories. Unlike Birdman, which (albeit deftly) eviscerates performers’ egomania and obsession with “craft” in a rather smug and self-satisfied insular way, Whiplash reveals the raw, nasty, competitive ugliness underpinning too many arts cultures – the kind of crucible where a teacher/director plays emperor/tyrant/god in a tightly-fenced kingdom, achieving amazing results but at the cost of everyone’s humanity. The film’s denouement is a brilliant war of sidelong glances, sweat, blood, and musical cues all set to the hypnotically propulsive  jazz standby “Caravan.”

As I sit here watching the Grammy Awards (at this moment, the ever delightful Tom Jones in a duet with fabulous Lady-Tom-Jones-in-training Jessie J), I can’t help but reflect on what the various nominees and winners have endured and inflicted in their various meteoric ascents, descents, and comebacks. That’s the power of a film like Whiplash. While the film narrows its gaze on the misanthropy inherent in the jazz world, the cat-and-mouse inter-generational combat of instructor and student apples to any art form, industry, or workplace. Don’t miss this tightly coiled, perfect little/big film.

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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.