“I barely even know what to order for lunch.” Carol (2015)

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Director Todd Haynes (he of artisanally crafted, spotlessly curated, hermetically sealed art-house fare like Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, and Safe) and Cate Blanchett (she of Oscar-winning, delicately-nuanced, steely, and cat-like turns in Blue Jasmine, Notes on a Scandal, Oscar and Lucinda, and Elizabeth) would seem to be a match made in cinematic heaven. In fact, they have worked together once before on the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There in which Blanchett was acclaimed for her portrayal of Dylan. (That film is an ensemble effort in which a number of actors play allegorical aspects of the famed troubadour at different stages of his life…at least that’s the simplest explanation I can give of that knotty flick.)

Haynes and Blanchett collaborate again on Carol, a film treatment of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (a much more interesting title if you ask me). Interestingly, Blanchett entered the popular consciousness in another Highsmith adaptation, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Blanchett had already been nominated for the Academy Award for Elizabeth when she appeared as the memorably nosy Meredith in Ripley, but Ripley is likely the first time mainstream audiences sat up and took notice of her crackerjack blend of Golden Age moxie and arch feminism.

Ripley is a Hitchcockian potboiler (akin to Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which was adapted by Hitchcock) and translates mid-century Freudian psychosexual turmoil into high-crime intrigue; conversely, Carol keeps its heartache and indiscretions grounded in the crushing civility of Atomic Age Americana.

Blanchett’s Carol Aird is a moneyed Manhattan suburbanite, married to a doting and suffocating husband, Harge (Super 8‘s Kyle Chandler, an Arrow Collar/James Garner-paper doll of a fellow). However, she worships their only daughter, Rindy. (Yes, this is the kind of movie where characters have names like Harge and Rindy, smoke cigarettes from silver cases, drink martinis at lunch, and wear driving gloves. all. the. time.)

We learn that Carol has recently had an affair with childhood friend (and Rindy’s godmother) Abby (an ever-luminous Sarah Paulson – 12 Years a Slave, American Horror Story), a fling that has sent Harge into a male ego death spiral, even though the relationship is over and Abby has transitioned from paramour back to confidante. This sets the stage for Carol, while purchasing a Christmas present for her daughter, to “meet cute” with a darling department store clerk (and amateur photographer) Therese Belivet (deftly portrayed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara – imagine an alternate universe where Audrey Hepburn plays a Sapphic “Rory Gilmore” who happens to work at Bloomingdale’s and is partial to wearing multi-colored tam hats).

What the film delivers is a claustrophobic yet sophisticated era, in which decorum rules the day to the detriment of one’s soul. The film moves at a glacial pace, which I suspect is entirely by design, as these two women circle each other, transfixed by their forbidden attraction.

I will add, though, that I had zero understanding of why these women loved one another, other than that the film’s narrative required it. Both Blanchett and Mara have such delicious presence, but neither of them seem to be having one damn bit of fun. There is just no joy here. Again, maybe that’s the point, but rounding into the second hour when this dynamic duo launches into an aimless road trip (that ends up in Waterloo, Iowa, of all places), I just didn’t feel the spark.

The love Carol has for daughter Rindy is palpable (I dare you to keep a dry eye when Chandler and Blanchett have a pas de deux in their lawyers’ office over custody of the child), but I was ambivalent about the connection between Carol and Therese.

Haynes’ films are chilly and soapy. That’s part of his Douglas Sirk schtick, and he uses that retro frame as postmodern commentary on what we have gained and what we have lost as a society. In Haynes’ world, there is always a price for liberty, but, part of the issue with Carol, is that I never found myself invested enough in the main characters to feel their pain.

Blanchett and Mara are doing great actorly work, particularly in their early scenes. Blanchett strikes a delicate balance of detached heartache and predatory lust, while Mara offers a loving portrayal of a kid coming to grips with her place in a world that can be devastatingly cruel to women of any stripe. Yet, I never totally buy them as people. The first lunch date between Carol and Therese is a hoot; Carol confidently orders creamed spinach, poached eggs, and a dry martini, and Therese blankly looks at the server as says, “I’ll have the same,” later wailing, “I barely even know what to order for lunch!” as a comic indicator of the deep waters in which she now finds herself.

I wish Haynes had the willingness to give us more of that movie, one in which two humans find a confidence and a comfort through the wit and humor of shared experience and mutual anxiety. As it is, Carol feels a bit like a film trapped in the amber of nostalgic male panic.




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.

Guitar heroes and heartaches: Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

Howie Day

Howie Day

I’m not much for folk music (see my review of Inside Llewyn Davis) or, for that matter, guitar-driven singer/songwriters. So, when our friend Bonnie offered an extra ticket to see Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I had vague memories of Day as an early aughts pop/rock folkie with the following attributes: an inescapable (and kinda bland) radio hit “Collide,” a reputation as having been Britney Spears’ rehab rebound boy toy, some TMZ-style controversies that involved berating flight attendants and throwing cell phones, and a Russell Crowe-esque fiery temper (that last point being the most intriguing to me).

It’s a shame that this is his legacy to ignorant lay-people like yours truly, because he is phenomenal.

The joy of seeing a musician live when you know pretty much none of their songs is that every tune is a new discovery. (My apologies to those Howie Day fans looking for a set-list or some other detail from tonight’s show. I have no idea what the songs were titled.)

Bonnie and Roy

Bonnie and Roy

Day was such a compelling presence, with just his honey-husky voice, his Liev Schreiber-ish look, a guitar and a microphone, and (his secret weapon) some astonishing gizmo that let him record, dub, layer, and re-layer his own voice and instrumentation in real time. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I’m sure someone out there knows the name for this, but he had a device on the floor that he would tap with his foot and record a snippet of guitar or voice or some other noise that would then loop and repeat and become the accompaniment for any given song. This technique – which was part dusty troubadour, part Ibiza-bound DJ – was transfixing and transporting.

This beat-infused folktronica (lord, I always hated that term, yet here I am using it) offered a surreal soundscape for the heartache dripping from every lyric. While Day gave sparkling between-song  patter (he kept returning to the notion that he really should have seen the film Noah today if he was going to perform at a venue called “The Ark”), every song he played related the tale of someone abandoned by love, by friends, by life. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe the musical stories he wove.

Shane Piasecki

Shane Piasecki

Opening act Shane Piasecki was a sunny counterpoint to Day’s melodic solemnity. Piasecki – resembling some mashed up hybrid of Ed Norton, Bob Dylan, and James Franco – captivated the audience with his shaggy dog charm, playing guitar and harmonica and vocalizing, with studied casual aplomb. His numbers all had a loping frat boy charm but with a musical sophistication that belied his youthful demeanor. He had the audience in the palm of his hand … and that was prior to him telling us he had to rush back to his mischievous dog at the hotel where he’s staying before the establishment lost every last pillow to the canine’s canines.

If these two wandering minstrels find their way to your town (or somewhere nearby), do not hesitate to check them out. You won’t be disappointed. I, for one, bought all of Piasecki’s musical output (four CDs – $35 in total) at the merchandise table, and Day’s are now added to my Amazon cart for ordering posthaste!


Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Countdown: Inside Llewyn Davis

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 5 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

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

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s Review of Inside Llewyn Davis: “I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.”

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

Folk music is hateful stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis

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I have to start with a disclaimer …

I cannot tolerate a movie where animals are hurt or in peril. I knew going into Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the acerbic yet cynically humanistic writer/director team Joel and Ethan Coen, that a runaway cat is a central narrative element. Hell, the orange tabby is on the damn poster, clutched in the titular anti-hero’s arms as Llewyn saunters down a busy New York street.

Have you ever tried to hold a cat in one arm, a guitar in the other, while walking down a bustling thoroughfare?!? Exactly.

I will offer for my fellow animal advocates (spoiler alert!) that the cat is ok. Sort of.

A cat runs out a fire escape window and disappears. A cat reappears. A cat makes it home. A cat takes a road trip to Chicago. And a cat (or something) has a limp-inducing near miss with a car on a snowy road. Might be the same cat. Might not. I’m not sure what all these orange cats signify, but the Coen Brothers love their oddball metaphors, even if PETA (or yours truly) is inflamed in the process.

(As a side note, for viewers like me who, yes … of course! … worry about cinematic animal safety much more than that of human counterparts, there is a website for us. Thanks to Kim Elizabeth Johnson for alerting me to it.)

So, with that point made, how is the movie? Quite good actually. It is one of the Coens’ most sedate offerings, bleakly transporting viewers to grungy Greenwich Village in the 1960s where the folk music scene appears to be atrophying before the ascent of pop derivatives like Bob Dylan and his ilk.

Llewyn, played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, is a failed troubadour, whose singing partner is long gone and who subsists on a steady diet of cigarettes, self-loathing, and couch-crashing at a succession of annoyed friends’ apartments. Isaac is a marvel, resisting every urge to make Llewyn one bit redeeming or likable. He is a wretched human (with a lovely voice) consumed by a toxic brew of pretension, insecurity, jealousy, bitterness, condescension, and holier than thou artsy-fartsiness.

(Oh, how I’ve known too many dudes like this fellow – folks who are so got by their own disappointments that they have to kick sand in the faces of any and everyone else with the tiniest shred of talent or even the slightest bit of creative happiness. Ah, that felt better.)

Often with a Coen Brothers film (in fact their best ones – like Barton Fink or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men), you’re left wondering: what was their intention exactly? This film, like others in their oeuvre, offers their trademark circular non-ending ending, and, as we departed the theatre, I overheard a few folks asking, “What was that about?”

I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.

With this acidic lens, the Coens turn their filmic gaze on folk music, one of the more self-satisfied forms of artistic expression. At surface, folk music has always been about gathering the tribe to celebrate our commonality; yet, in reality, it is usually a vehicle for some twee turtleneck-wearing phony to look down his or her nose at middle-class plebes who are scraping by with their staid corporate lives and suffocating mortgage payments.

The Coens dive right into the heart of that notion, and not with the campy satire of Christopher Guest’s similarly themed A Mighty Wind, but with the unsympathetic bruised heart of a Sidney Lumet or a John Cassavetes with just a smidge of their own asburdist twinkle.

The supporting cast is populated with assorted odd ducks stepping on the heads of their fellow “artists” in hopes of making a buck or two. Justin Timberlake is adequate in a throwaway role as an earnest folkie who writes a really godawful song with unsurprising populist appeal. John Goodman is sheer brilliance as a mean-as-a-rattlesnake jazz musician who shows his contempt for Llewyn and his chosen genre with a steady stream of vitriol, leveled at what he deems inane and amateurish musicianship. The normally exquisite Carey Mulligan struggles a bit with a one-note role (and equally bad wig) as an ambitious ladder-climbing folkie who may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s child.

Previously mentioned feline concerns aside, I recommend Inside Llewyn Davis to anyone who has found themselves lost in a creative bubble, not sure whom to trust or where to go. As they say, karma will get you, and perhaps that is the ultimate lesson we glean from Llewyn’s neglect of cats and people. What goes around comes around. And folk music is hateful stuff.