“We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are MORE than?” Split, Sing, and Lion (yeah, you read that correctly)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Why are we here? What makes life worth living? Where is our place in this (increasingly strange) world?

Maybe I’m just going through some kind of existential mid-life crisis. (Hey, who’d like to produce this 44-year-old singing all of his favorite ill-suited pop songs – Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Madonna, Bjork – as an expression of manopausal self in a cabaret extravaganza? It will be your best theatre going experience of the past 14.75 years. I guarantee!) Regardless, the three films viewed this weekend – seemingly drawn from a grab bag of fourth quarter 2016 offerings – all explore beautifully the very reason we dwell on this loony planet.

Split is a return to form for Hitchcock/Spielberg aspirant M. Night Shyamalan, chiefly because he was wise enough to cast it with a crackerjack James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) and Betty Buckley (Carrie, Tender Mercies). (At one point while viewing, I wished Shyamalan had had the moxie to have staged this as a two-hander play with these two lightning bolts. Equus would have seemed like Oklahoma! by comparison.)

The film is a mash-up – a little bit of Silence of the Lambs, a touch of Primal Fear, a skosh of Dressed to Kill, a dab of Prisoners, a spritz of, well, any and all of Shyamalan’s other films (save The Last Airbender – the less said about that one, the better). We have a central figure “Kevin Wendell Crumb,” portrayed brilliantly by McAvoy (with just a hint of Baby Jane camp), suffering from dissociative identity disorder, as 23 different personalities (some nice, some really naughty) play ping-pong with Kevin’s daily routine. Buckley, as Dr. Karen Fletcher, is his cautious, morbidly transfixed therapist, whose ethereally calm demeanor and career aspirations keep her engaged with Kevin’s Sybil-esque shenanigans.

The plot details Kevin’s devolution into something called “The Beast” (think Silence of the Lambs‘ “Buffalo Bill” with, yes, super powers) as he kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in one of those byzantine, blue-lit subterranean lairs that only seem to exist in really creepy movies. Dr. Fletcher starts to catch wise as various (kinder) personalities in Kevin’s psyche begin sending her panicked emails in the middle of the night. I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns, but the Hitchcockian “fun” derives from Buckley’s Fletcher calmly, relentlessly querying McAvoy’s Kevin about his nightly doings. Much like Hitchock’s late-career Psycho, Shyamalan’s Split is a directorial resurgence that simultaneously exploits the audience’s most prurient interests while giving us a Playhouse 90-style character study. McAvoy is a creepy hoot, and Buckley does yeoman’s work as a wary proxy for the audience’s revulsion/fascination. (My favorite quote from the film? When Buckley’s Fletcher describes the restaurant Hooters: “It’s like if Henry VIII ran a fast food franchise.”)

At one point, Buckley’s Fletcher asks plaintively, “”We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are more than?” The film’s central thesis is a half-realized query about whether or not mental illness is a kind of super power. It’s an intriguing idea not fully baked in the film, but Buckley’s delivery of that line, coupled with McAvoy’s scenery-chewing performance, gives me hope for the inevitable sequel.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

And then I saw Sing, an animated film about koalas and elephants and pigs and porcupines and mice trying (literally) to find their voices in a world that had passed them by. Do I know how to plan a weekend at the movies?

Guess what? Sing is brilliant and surprisingly moving. If you are not crying at the film’s conclusion wherein every misfit animal featured heretofore takes the stage and seizes the spotlight with deep-feeling abandon, well, then I feel sorry for you,  you cold, emotionless curmudgeon!

The plot of Sing is a nifty corollary to Zootopia, which depicted a similar land where all creatures great and small coexist (mostly) in harmony, struggling (like us all) to make a decent living, pay the bills, and have a bit of joy. “Buster Moon,” a disarmingly charmingly skeezy koala (voiced by Matthew McConaughey finding the perfect role for his disarmingly charmingly skeezy career) is trying to revive his failing theatre by hosting a music competition. His best buddy (a trust-fund lamb voiced by an ever-dopey John C. Reilly) asks, “Singing competition? Who wants to see another one of those?” Well, this one? You will want to see.

Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Taron Egerton (Kingsman … SUCH a voice – like a choir-boy Robbie Williams), Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), Tori Kelly vocalize for the menagerie (pig, porcupine, ape, mouse, elephant – respectively) that joins Buster on his preposterous adventure. I found myself a bucket of salty tears when Kelly’s shy elephant Mimi belts Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” at the film’s jubilant finale. Maybe it’s because I know what it feels like to be a misfit singer who has been excluded from others’ “reindeer games,” but I found Sing to be a riotous, thoroughly enjoyable celebration of letting all of us find and exercise our unique voices in this increasingly stifling world. I can’t wait for this inevitable sequel either.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, Lion. Oh, Lion I wish I knew how to quit you. This film knocked me to the floor – either because of its excellence or because my low blood sugar from sitting in a darkened theatre for hours on end finished me off. Lion – the feature directorial debut by Garth Davis – relays the true story of Saroo Brierley (portrayed with zero guile as a child by Sunny Pawar and with heartbreaking ambivalence as an adult by Dev Patel) as he finds himself lost from his family in India and, ultimately, adopted by a well-meaning Australian couple (a haunting Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Reminiscent of the the Jack Lemmon/Sissy Spacek classic Missing, Lion captures the devastating claustrophobia of a family separated by geography, time, bureaucracy. The toddler Saroo’s inability to communicate (he speaks Hindi and nearly no one else around him does) nor to identify his home (he accidentally ends up on a decommissioned train that takes him from a small town, the name of which he mispronounces, to the overpopulated metropolis of Calcutta) is the stuff of nightmares. The film plays fast and loose with narrative chronology, as the adult Saroo tries to unravel the mystery of his life before being adopted. Everyone is excellent, with Kidman giving her most subtle, nuanced performance in ages – one scene in particular where she palpably renders the tension of the adoptive parent to balance truth versus security as her child tries to make sense of his upbringing. Lion is a remarkable film, as full of hope as it is heartbreak.

I cried a lot this weekend at the movie theatre. Singing elephants, multiple personality protagonists, and displaced Indian orphans: all transfixing metaphorical representatives of our own existential pain over belonging, finding ourselves, and seeking a path forward. Well done, Hollywood. Well done.

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Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

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.

“They worship everything and value nothing.” La La Land

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is La La Land the second (or even third or fourth) coming of the great movie musical? Not exactly. To call it a “musical” seems a bit overblown, as the flick’s songs (by newcomer Justin Hurwitz) come and go more like incomplete yet tuneful doodles as opposed to full-fledged numbers. The choreography is about two notches above a rhythmic walk down the street, and the singing … well … the singing makes Rex Harrison’s trademarked talk/sing (see My Fair Lady, Dr. Dolittle) sound like Adele at Carnegie Hall. Yet, I think that half-assed musicality is all by design on the part of director Damien Chazelle, who was responsible for Whiplash, one of my favorite films of the last ten years.

So, please, stop billing La La Land as a lush, glowing tribute to the glory years of the American movie musical. The film happily, gleefully wraps itself in all the tropes of the genre, much like The Artist (the two films are spiritual and stylistic cousins) used silent film to tell a similar narrative of ambitious if downtrodden performers navigating the despair and loneliness of love and ladder-climbing in the City of Dreams (Los Angeles). However, it ain’t a musical – at least for those of us expecting a behind-the-curtain songfest like Singin’ in the Rain or Funny Face. Much like Whiplash, it is a film with music, melodies seeping through every corner of its DNA. And that’s ok.

The genre that the film really exemplifies (a genre that isn’t really a genre except anywhere in my own head) is the movie-that-exists-solely-for-the-sake-of-a-final-act-punchline-that-brings-the-rest-of-the-film-into-stark-relief-and-makes-you-go-“oh-THAT’s-what-I’ve-been-watching-for-the-past-two-hours.” Think The Sixth Sense (or anything else by gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan).  I’m pretty certain this will be the only review that compares La La Land to a movie where Bruce Willis is a ghost (20-year-old spoiler alert!).

La La Land is surprisingly and refreshingly dark, but you don’t realize that until hours after viewing. It unspools in a light, frothy homage to films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which also beats with a candy-colored heart of darkness). Two (literally) star-crossed lovers – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – find mutual affection in their shared failure, he a struggling jazz pianist of the purest and most pretentious variety and she a failing actress bouncing unsuccessfully from one insultingly mind-numbing TV-pilot audition to another. Naturally, they fall for each other. It is a musical after all; oh wait, I just said it wasn’t. Much.

As their lives spiral up and down and back again (“me here at last on the ground … you in mid-air”), the movie details the toxic effects that unshared, ill-timed success and failure can have on a relationship of creative types torn between each other and egomania. The songs, as they are (“City of Stars” being the most memorable … or at least the most hummable), are used effectively to illustrate the pointed emotional moments of Gosling and Stone’s shared lives. Imagine A Star is Born (Judy and James, not Barbra and Kris – please) structured as the dreamlike nervous breakdown of Dancer in the Dark (directed by renowned sadist Lars von Trier and scored by renowned wood nymph Bjork).

This is the point in the review where you look at the screen and say, “Dammit, Roy, stop being an obtuse show-off! Did you like this movie or not?!”

I did. Very much. And here’s why. As a musical, it’s unremarkable (I’ve driven that point into submission). As a treatise on the fleeting nature of time and love and ambition, on the hollow reward of financial success and critical acclaim, on the haunting nature of missed opportunities and second-guessing one’s life choices, La La Land is a powder keg. The first hour? I thought to myself, “This is kind of insipid. Gosling and Stone are charming as always, but they embarrass me a little bit. Why are they so awkward and unsure. Why can’t they sing? Why are they floating on the ceiling of a planetarium? Am I supposed to be moved by this? Is Rebel Without a Cause as referenced in this flick intended to be a metaphor for something?” Well, the characters are gawky as hell because, at that point in their lives and careers, they would be.

In fact, Gosling edges Stone out a bit in the film’s first half, channeling the fourth-wall-breaking sparkle he demonstrated in The Big Short, with a winning “little boy lost” cynicism. Passing a group of actors rehearsing on the Warner Brothers’ back lot where Stone works as a barista in a forgotten coffee shop, he ruefully observes of the desperate thespians, “They worship everything and value nothing.”

But, then, life hits this duo right in the solar plexus (plexi?), and La La Land gets really interesting. Their shabby chic world together experiences a few wins but even more losses. They drift. They fight. They become more sure of themselves and reluctantly admit that life must lead them away from each other. And they sing (sort of).

In defense of Stone, her big solo (in the spot of what we used to call an “11 o’clock” number like “Ladies Who Lunch” or “Rose’s Turn” that spins all the key themes into one fist-raising, anthemic exclamation point) is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” a full-throated yawlp that shows us, yes, she can sing, and, boy, can she act.

Then, THEN, in the film’s final moments, Chazelle hits you with a Gene Kelly-esque montage/remix/rewind/dream-dance ballet (I’ve always hated those, until this one) that puts the preceding narrative in perspective and leaves you gutted, wondering about your own life choices, what has worked, what hasn’t, and what might have been. Now, that‘s a musical. No, it isn’t. It’s something new entirely. That’s why I loved this movie.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

Bleeding gratitude for her Little Monsters – Lady Gaga’s ArtRave tour at Detroit’s Joe Louis

The Lady herself

The Lady herself

Little Monsters, Mama Monster did you proud in the “D” tonight. Lady Gaga rocked the house at Joe Louis Arena and made me a Gaga-believer.

I freely admit that her last effort ArtPop left me a bit cold. I’d been a fair-weather fan all along, absolutely adoring some of her hook-laden hits  and scratching my head on others. Lyrically, she occasionally seemed to be picking at Tori Amos’ or Bjork’s verbally tortured scraps, yet the uptempo accompaniment always kept bringing me back for more.

Opening number

Opening number

 

 

 

But that needle skipped the record, quite literally, when I heard ArtPop for the first time, the only cut speaking to me on any level being the incredibly infectious “Applause.”

However, watching Lady Gaga’s ArtRave tour tonight, suddenly all of ArtPop snapped into perfect relief. Like watching a musical after only hearing the cast album, every number made sense in the context of Gaga’s Jeff-Koons-meets-Haruki-Murakami vision.

And most importantly Gaga seemed to be having fun. She was an inferno, dancing with military precision, belting like some Liza Minnelli/Janis Joplin lovechild, and commanding us, like some hippie dippy drill sergeant, to accept and to love and to move.

Her stage

Her stage

I fell head over heels in adoration with this talented woman tonight.

Often dressed like The Birth of Venus (by way of the Jersey Shore) or like The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula (by way of Sigmund the Sea Monster), Gaga definitely had a “we’re all in one big aquarium together” vibe going. Her backup dancers were dressed as sea creatures more often than not, and the amazingly tight orchestra seemed to be playing from the inside of a fabulous sand castle onstage.

With my pal Terry (and a Little Monster behind us)

With my pal Terry (and a Little Monster behind us)

Gaga tore through all the familiar hits – from “Poker Face” to “Paparazzi” to “Bad Romance” – landing on my personal favorite “Born This Way” as an exquisite piano ballad (as opposed to its typical four-on-the-floor sonic blast). The song took on a touching resonance that it never had when Madonna (the queen of swipe-as-homage) called it a “reductive” version of Madge’s “Express Yourself.”

(Really, Madonna, I love you, but that was unnecessary. There’s room for us all in Gaga’s big tent.)

Applause

Applause

But most notably, Gaga – whether schtick or sincerity or both – opened her heart (sorry, Madonna, couldn’t help it) time and again to the fans surrounding her fabulously asymmetrical catwalk of a stage and to those of us in the cheap seats, imploring us to be kind to one another, to be tolerant of difference, and to be empathetic in every action and deed. She bleeds gratitude for her followers, and to witness that in person is the greatest spectacle of all.

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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.