“What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” The Nice Guys

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Nice Guys. Imagine Boogie Nights as a frothy Abbott and Costello cinematic confection with a healthy sprinkling of The Rockford Files on top. Served with a side of Starsky & Hutch … or Bugs & Daffy.

Set in a smoggy/syphilitic 1977 Los Angeles, director/screenwriter Shane Black’s comic noir caper flick revels in just how damned ugly the Me Decade was. Film has a tendency to romanticize an era or to toy cutely with a period’s quirky extremes. Black time travels without commentary. The characters in this film aren’t living in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are simply living. Or attempting to live.

Beyond the flawless set decoration and precise costume design, Black is aided and abetted by the sparks that fly when you throw the unlikeliest of co-stars together: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Glowering gravitas meets wicked whimsy.

That said, the awkwardly delicious alchemy these two titans demonstrated on the talk show circuit promoting the film isn’t as evident onscreen as one might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe ends up garnering more laughs because he is always so. darn. grounded.  He’s funny simply because he’s not trying to be. Gosling indulges cartoonish impulses a few too many times, not trusting the comedy of situational contrast to do the heavy lifting. (Gosling has yet to outgrow the “isn’t it just a riot to see a handsome adult man let loose an ear-piercing community theatre shriek when he’s scared?” tic. Be careful, Ryan, for that way rests Johnny Depp’s sputtering career.)

Regardless, Crowe and Gosling are pretty freaking adorable together, and the whole enterprise plays like a pilot episode of a vintage TV-series that never got picked up. The plot is, well, kind of a meandering mess … just like a grainy 1970s TV crime drama. I kept waiting for Jaclyn Smith or Gavin MacLeod  to show up as a “very special guest star.” (We do get a Lynda Carter shout out, though.) There are double- and triple-crosses aplenty as a porn actress (literally) crashes through a family’s living room, and her death starts a spiraling series of murders and other sordid shenanigans. Oh, and there is intrigue about the auto industry and catalytic converters and how in the world Kim Basinger’s character managed to have Botox before the procedure was ever invented.

Gosling, as private eye Holland March, and Crowe, as hired muscle Jackson Healy, initially find themselves at cross purposes (with Gosling’s pretty mug on the receiving end of Crowe’s brass knuckles). Grudgingly, the duo partner up as the violence mounts and their befuddlement grows. A big part of the movie’s charm is that Crowe and Gosling gleefully portray characters whose detective skills are as suspect as their collective intelligence, with Holland’s precocious daughter Holly March (portrayed by a captivating Angourie Rice) serving as a wise-beyond-her-years Nancy Drew to Gosling/Crowe’s dim bulb Hardy Boys.

Rice’s performance is dynamite with a sharp feminist subtext. As  the “grown up” characters find themselves derailed by patriarchy run amuck (porn, corrupt manufacturing, prostitution, the Oil Crisis … the 70s at its worst), Rice’s Holly is clear-eyed, vigilant, incisive, defying the limitations and stereotypes society seeks to impose. “Don’t say, ‘And stuff.’ Just say there are whores here,” Gosling intones at one point, attempting to correct his daughter’s grammar and missing the misogynist irony in his declaration. The look in Rice’s eye reveals that her character does not lose the irony.

Holly is always ten steps ahead of her father and, without Holly’s continual intervention, the titular Nice Guys would still be attempting to solve the film’s mystery well into the late 1980s. Or they’d be dead.

I’m hoping this feminist dynamic is intentional on Black’s part, a storyteller whose filmography (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through Iron Man 3) typically co-opts and reinvents B-movie formula, inverting its clichés as satiric critique of our baser instincts. I suspect this is by design, the film’s random (gratuitous?) naked porn stars notwithstanding.

With The Nice Guys, Black is trying to have his cake and eat it too. And he succeeds. Mostly. In a larger sense, Black is using the indulgent myopia of the 1970s as a reflection of how little we have changed as a nation. Basinger, plays a Department of Justice operative (in a bit of meta-casting, referencing her earlier – better – work in both L.A. Confidential  and 8 Mile) whose definition of “justice” is protecting the (then) fat cats in the Detroit auto industry. In the final act, she delivers the film’s punch line: “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” Even as today’s Detroit reinvents itself as a hipster paradise of urban farming, artisanal soaps, and craft cocktails, the lesson in Basinger’s remark remains prescient. An America that lives for itself and only itself will quickly find itself trapped in yesteryear’s polyester leisure suit.

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The Nice Guys PostersReel 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.

“Are we ever going to be better than this?” We Are Your Friends

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Someday Hollywood will figure out what to do with Zac Efron. He’s had success  – obviously (High School Musical, Neighbors) – but he always seems to be nipping at the edges of super-stardom. A baby John Travolta or Tom Cruise, trapped in amber, all smoky pout, wounded charm, and barracuda ambition, but with nowhere terribly great to channel it. Heaven help us if he discovers Scientology.

Sadly, We Are Your Friends, his latest gambit to cement leading man status has been dead-on-arrival at the box office and is now pegged as a dismal and historic failure.

And that’s a shame because the movie ain’t half bad.

It’s a bit of a paint-by-numbers affair, cribbing from so many “lost in the valley” (literal and figurative) films depicting an aspiring hustler from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good by lurking around the darker side-alleys of pop culture, nightlife, and fame – see: Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights, 8Mile, Swingers, Magic Mike, Step Up (hell, 75% of Channing Tatum‘s filmography-to-date, qualifies in fact).

In the case of We Are Your Friends, titled after the mid-aughts EDM hit by Justice vs. Simian, Efron and his collaborators, including director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph (Catfish), attempt to capitalize on the white-hot ascension of Southern California DJ-culture and said EDM (that would be “electronic dance music” to us fogies who used to call it, say, house or acid or techno or disco or … er … dance music).

With a healthy expectation for audience members to suspend our disbelief, former Disney star Efron plays a scruffy San Fernando Valley ne’er-do-well whose days (and nights) are spent in a drug-addled, thumping-bass haze as he and his pals bounce from club to couch to club again. The script is an under-baked affair, wisely relying on Efron’s charisma (which he has in spades) to fill in the (many) gaps where a bit of character-development might have saved the day.

Efron’s character Cole Carter (yeah, that name – trying a bit too hard for Cali cool guy chic, if you ask me) is an aspiring musician/producer/DJ with little direction and even fewer resources. In the kind of happenstance collision that only occurs in movies like this, Cole shares a cigarette with – and therefore befriends – world-class DJ (and jerk) James Reed (engagingly played by a glowering Wes Bentley, looking like Chris Evans’ sozzled, emaciated twin).

James gives Cole some superficial tutelage (the EDM Obi-Wan Kenobi version of “write what you know” … which is “grab some weird sounds on your iPhone that you hear around your house and put them in a song”). During a drunken night in Vegas, Cole steals James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski of Gone Girl and Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” video – oy.); James and Cole have an awkwardly staged fight in a bathroom stall; they stop speaking. Cole, consequently, loses a gig that would change his life; James and Cole make up; Cole finally takes his mentor’s advice and “hears the world”; they make up again. Cole performs said gig in front of an American Apparel warehouse (!), offering a hypnotically existential “let’s recap everything you just saw with some flashbacks, looped beats, and smoldering glances from Mr. Efron” denouement, and all is right with the world, when Cole and Sophie reunite over pie at a vegan cafe where she is now waitressing. Whew. Try that with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland!

Efron almost single-handedly keeps the proceedings from running off the rails into soap opera schmaltz. His beautiful loser gravitas gave Neighbors some much needed spice; and the same is true for We Are Your Friends. He is aided and abetted by an appealing group of misfits that trail around behind him. Shiloh Ferndandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston play Cole’s bedraggled Valley Boys, as if Entourage were filmed in a Salvation Army somewhere.

After a third-act tragedy strikes this merry band of get-rich-quick schemers, the young thespians do some of their best work in the flick. It’s not their fault that we’ve seen this coming-of-age-in-postmodern-sprawl a million times now and that it was already tired the first time Steven Soderbergh visited this dusty cinematic strip mall. I just wish these actors had a more-focused script with which to work, one that spent time developing the interpersonal dynamic beyond the dreamer/hothead/nerd/gigolo cyphers the actors are given to play.

We Are Your Friends benefits from a game cast and a director (this is Max Joseph’s feature debut) who has a reasonably solid handle on pacing and visuals. (Joseph seems to be a Fight Club/David Fincher junkie as he has a lot of clever fun – nearly careening into self-indulgence – with rotoscoped animation, title cards, and subtitles.) Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up-to-snuff, and a tighter job in editing would have likely helped as well.

At one point in the film, Cole’s buddy Squirrel (as played by Alex Shaffer) asks, “Are we ever going to be better than this?” – a query which becomes a clarion call for the misbegotten generation depicted in the film. And this same question might be asked of Efron’s sputtering movie career, full as it is of such unrealized promise. Time will tell.

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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 big, dumb himbo of a film: Magic Mike XXL

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Magic Mike XXL is a big, dumb himbo of a film, as unnecessary and aimless as the central road trip to  a Myrtle Beach “stripper convention” (do those even exist?!) which it depicts.

Is the movie mindlessly entertaining with occasional shaggy charms? Of course. Does it suffer from lazy-cash-grab-sequelitis? You betcha.

I recall finding the original Magic Mike a warm-hearted surprise, with a shocking amount of depth and a keen eye toward skewering a hypocritical Southland (namely Florida), all surface Americana propriety with a scabrous, sleazy undercurrent bubbling to the surface.

That film’s intrepid band of “male entertainers,” led in a breakout actor/producer role by winsome Channing Tatum, may have been beautiful externally but, to a one, also held a tangled web of insecurities, addictions, dreams deferred, and stunted emotions inside.

It was a revelatory mix of voyeurism and schadenfreude. I wrote in my original review: “Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.”

Sadly, Magic Mike XXL jettisons both its original director (Soderbergh, who now steps in as cinematographer) and any attempt at depth. As directed by Gregory Jacobs, the dark grit of, say, a Saturday Night Fever is now replaced with the DNA of National Lampoon’s Vacation‘s meandering, prurient travelogue.

That said, the film’s chief strength remains its cast. From Tatum to Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello through Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez, the boys all realize the way to their movie audience’s collective heart is not through an ab-tastic bump-and-grind but by telegraphing (what the paltry script will allow of) their respective characters’ inner-lives and bro-culture shortcomings. (Manganiello’s deftly comic routine in a convenience store with a bag of Cheetos, a bottle of water, and a surly clerk is worth the price of admission alone.)

There is also fun to be had as Jada Pinkett Smith takes over the swaggering cowboy emcee role from Matthew McConaughey. Who knew she could out cheese Mr. “All right, all right, all right” for dorky machismo? And, yes, she is doing that same posturing, tongue-clicking, finger-wagging thing she does in every movie (and episode of Gotham), but it’s a refreshing bit of zest in this slog of a film.

Elizabeth Banks pops up, channeling a variation of the fiercely intelligent, big-haired, predatory-entrepreneur-in-cupcake-clothing she does so well, and Andie MacDowell is luminous in yet another in her long line of Southern-fried doyenne kooks. The screen nearly breaks in half every time MacDowell gives one of those “cat-that-ate-the-canary” grins of hers.

A game and sparkling cast is sadly wasted here. The dance sequences are ineptly filmed (seriously, Soderbergh was the cinematographer here?!?). Narrative set pieces are interminable and dull (particularly the sequence where we first meet Pinkett Smith at her creepy bordello with its weirdo glowing couches and cave-like “Bride of Dracula” decor). The music selections are forgettable and crass. And the final conceit that each of Tatum’s cohorts will channel their true passion (painting, weddings, frozen yogurt?!?!) through their climactic routines is laughably bizarre.

Run, don’t walk, away from this one, kids. And, Hollywood, how about being brave enough to cast Tatum and Bomer (who has a glorious voice, by the way) in an honest-to-goodness musical with, you know, singing and dancing and choreography that keeps its participants all standing upright? That would be a charming escape and a much better use of the talents (and brains) of all involved. Just a thought.

____________________________

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.

Countdown: Silver Linings Playbook

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

The countdown continues! 15 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of Silver Linings Playbook: “Make no mistake, Russell is offering pointed commentary on how we deal with mental illness in this country. Yes, people may need ‘help,’ but not pharmaceutical, not pigeonholing. There is a wonderful scene where both characters speak knowingly about the horrors of the various drugs they have had to endure but in a totally cavalier way, like kids comparing comic books or baseball cards they may have collected.”

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.

Countdown: Magic Mike

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Let the countdown begin! Just 24 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

“Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.”

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

World of broken toys: Silver Linings Playbook

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]

OK, I have to fess up. I went into Silver Linings Playbook with axes to grind: Sullen, dull Jennifer Lawrence can’t be that good. The movie couldn’t be nearly as strong as the awards-season fawning implies. Bradley Cooper must be just doing his same smarmy/winsome crap. Jessica Chastain was robbed at the SAG Awards (and no doubt soon-to-be shanghaied at the Oscars too).

Wrong.

This is a sweet, deeply affecting film. My quibbles? I’m not totally on board the David O. Russell train. As a director, I feel like he aspires to be Paul Thomas Anderson grungy/dirty/epic (see: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) while riffing on a Robert Altman we’re-so-groovy-with-our-overlapping-improvised-dialogue vibe (see: Nashville, The Player, or my guilty pleasure Popeye). BUT he does consistently wring great performances from his players and has a lovely eye for skewering populist middle American conventions (see: The Fighter) .

I wasn’t nuts about Robert DeNiro or Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s haunted, crackpot parents. They had moments of authenticity, but mostly they seemed like they were well-heeled Yuppies slumming and winking at their hardscrabble Italian/Phildelphian roles. Their early scenes were the worst culprits of goofy look-at-us-make-up-the-dialogue-as-we-go-along bits.

(A sidebar plea: American directors, please, I implore you, just stop this improv junk, along with the twitchy, handheld camera stuff. The only people who can do this are the British…and maybe Australians…and only with Mike Leigh in charge – see: Secrets & Lies).

HOWEVER, what did I like…no, love…about this film? Lawrence and Cooper, especially when he was onscreen with Lawrence. Oh, and I adored always reliable Julia Stiles as Lawrence’s materialistic/tightly-wound sister. She nails the young Gen Y cloying mommy thing with that constant need to remodel/remake/reproduce. Love her!

The plot of the film just sounds ridiculous when you read about it: young man loses it when he catches his wife cheating on him; he is released under the care of his parents, though he still struggles with bipolar disorder; he meets cute with a young widow similarly afflicted; they enter a dance competition and simultaneously bet all his father’s money on a football game with a triumphant, fist-pumping Hollywood outcome for all. End scene.

Only…it’s not exactly like that. What you don’t get from that synopsis is that Lawrence  and Cooper zig when they might have zagged. They are broken toys hurt deeply by a world that only knows how to hurt. They are surrounded by friends and family who are just as afflicted (though not conveniently “diagnosed” for their “problems”). Cooper has a line at the end of the film about the world having a million ways to break our hearts.

The film addresses mental illness/health deftly and humanely. We may label people “ill”  out of our own fear or a desire to avoid any inconvenience they may cause us…when all of us are struggling with our own demons every day. Perhaps we do it out of resentment: “I can keep my genie in its bottle, so why can’t you?” Who knows. But it is hypocritical and unfair.

Cooper and Lawrence are quiet forces of nature. Blunt instruments with hurricanes of sadness roiling right beneath the surface. Anyone who knows me may not be surprised at this analogy, but they reminded me of abused, neglected strays one brings home to rehabilitate: gun shy, scared, sad, perhaps aggressive but with much stifled love to give.

Make no mistake, Russell is offering pointed commentary on how we deal with mental illness in this country. Yes, people may need “help,” but not pharmaceutical, not pigeonholing. There is a wonderful scene where both characters speak knowingly about the horrors of the various drugs they have had to endure but in a totally cavalier way, like kids comparing comic books or baseball cards they may have collected.

The most powerful statement the film makes is that what truly heals a broken heart/mind are kindness, attention, passion, and understanding.  Much humor is derived from the fact that these two characters are brutally, unflaggingly, purely honest. Like children. And what a wonderful way to be.

Don’t be discouraged by the bait-and-switch marketing: Magic Mike

Description: Film poster; Source: Amazon [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: Amazon]

Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.

Channing Tatum takes the slick dance moves of his breakthrough Step Up and actually applies some real acting this time. His street smarts and desperation mix with a winning charm and wit in a great performance, equaled by that of pseudo love interest Cody Horn. She’s dynamite – one of the more believable romantic leads in film in a long time because first and foremost she is a friend.

Matthew McConaughey (spelling?) has finally found a sleazy role that fits his greasy, country-fried personality, and Matt Bomer and the other supporting players gleefully supply the more comic moments of the film. I suspect many may be disappointed by the bait-and-switch nature of the film’s marketing campaign, but I liked that fact that the film gives a pretty unflinching look at the sad, unremarkable, and heartbreaking lives of these beautiful losers.