“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.” Exodus: Gods and Kings, Into the Woods, Annie, Big Eyes, and The Imitation Game

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“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.”

So says British wartime mathematician (and accidental spy) Alan Turing (as portrayed in The Imitation Game with comic grace and heartbreaking nuance by Benedict Cumberbatch) to a police detective investigating Turing on indecency charges during the post-war years.

Turing offers this hypothesis in revelation, not over his sexuality per se, but to this even deeper secret: that he, through his divination of modern computing, broke Nazi codes that provided crucial intelligence for the allies to win the war. His theorem on diversity of thought processes is offered when he is asked, “Do machines think?” Yet, his conclusion above applies to his life, or for that matter to any life, lived on the margins.

Buddha 1

My parents with Buddha

The film’s central hypothesis is that those who are most overlooked (if not reviled) become those who bring the change we most need. And this mantra applies in some part to every film I saw this holiday break, from Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals-and-Bible-verse epic Exodus: Gods and Kings to Rob Marshall’s long-gestating adaptation of Stephen Sondheim tuner Into the Woods to Tim Burton’s almost-but-not-quite-there kitsch docudrama Big Eyes to, yes, even Will Gluck’s unnecessary yet surprisingly pleasant reinvention of that cloying chestnut Annie. (In the thirty years it took us to get one cinematic Into the Woods, we’ve had three versions of Annie … but I digress.)

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?”

Night at the Museum 2

My parents with Ben Stiller

So sings The Baker’s Wife (portrayed with lilting restraint by an ever-impressive Emily Blunt) at a penultimate moment in the swirling, spiky postmodern fairy tale pastiche that is Into the Woods. Her character, literally defined by name as a possession (Baker’s Wife) finally claims one moment in life for herself, and the exhilaration and the horror of this gender-fried crossroads quite literally leads her off a cliff.

Paddington

Me and Paddington

 

 

 

 

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Amen. Each successive Christmas holiday reminds me of this in no uncertain terms. This festive season arrives faster and faster every year, in a sh*t-storm of commercialized mania and accelerated/accumulated guilt. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, I feel the calendar pages ripping away as I age mercilessly with each card I write or present I wrap in mindless tradition. Quite literally, in fact. My birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary are plunked smack in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s – the special, silly times of card games and Old Saint Nick seem to recede ever more into the rear-view mirror, as gray hairs dot my scalp, my waist ever expands, and my knees crackle and creak.

Annie 2

The cast of Annie … and my folks!

One of the seasonal traditions that still holds charm for me and for my family is going to the movies, escaping into the darkness of the cineplex, our faces lit only by the glow of a movie screen, as we lose ourselves in the fictional lives of twenty foot people, exploring their cinematic metaphors for the pain of our real lives, as they are indifferent to the din of our popcorn chomping.

 

(Someone in cyberspace just looked up from their computer/iPad/iPhone/whatever and said, “This isn’t a review? What is this??” Nope, it’s a blog – my blog and I’m writing about the films I saw this week through the present state of my heart. Get over it. I would argue that’s how most of us view movies – not through clever analyses of cinematography or semiotics but by how films make us feel.)

We were blessed with a banquet of great choices at the movie house this year, and these flicks made up, in part, for the inexorable sadness of seeing another year slip past.

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If time and temperament allow, I might write in more detail someday about one or all of these, but, for the nonce, I’m going to just jot out quick thumbnail reviews of each. These were the kinds of Leonard Maltin-esque blurbs I posted on Facebook a few years ago that prompted people to ask me to start a blog in the first place. It feels right to exercise (exorcise?) those muscles again …

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a return to triumphant form for director Ridley Scott. People have dismissed the film as ponderous and pedantic, but, they are missing the point. Biblical stories are richest and at their most compelling when told from a humanistic/historical perspective. That’s not blasphemy, you ring-dings – that’s inspiration. Christian Bale’s everyman-Moses is a believable portrait of a man at odds with himself and with a society he has outgrown. The narrative of Moses’ uncertain certainty that a new future and a new legacy must be paved for his children and his children’s children is subtly, deliberately told (or as subtle as a CGI-filled spectacle with skies that rain frogs can be). Joel Edgerton (his unfortunate resemblance to Nancy‘s Sluggo notwithstanding) as Ramesses is a fine match for Bale, telegraphing beautifully the earnest indignation of a king whose kingdom evaporates beneath his spray-tanned feet. The film’s key misstep is casting John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver as the Pharaoh and his Queen. WTF?!? I giggled every time the duo popped a kohl-rimmed eye onscreen. I’m a fan of color-blind casting – and that goes both ways – so I don’t buy into any of the controversy surrounding this film … but those two just stuck out like sore, overpaid Hollywood thumbs in an otherwise entertaining epic.

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Into the Woods is a perfectly manicured Hollywood treatment of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical. It isn’t as hermetically sealed as the wonderful yet claustrophobic Sweeney Todd, but it does suffer from a similar staginess. Director Rob Marshall can’t quite shake the stiffness of his TV-movie origins as he takes his spectacular cast from live locales to sound stages and back again. Fortunately, he has stacked the deck with a cast to die for. Nearly everyone (with the exception of a wan Johnny Depp as the wolf) rocks it – notably the aforementioned Blunt as well as Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and, of course (!), Meryl Streep as feminist-whirlwind-in-blue-haired-mischief as The Witch. Go for the spectacle but stay for her climactic number “Last Midnight,” which she delivers as a kind of last word tour de force on the B.S. that is Freudian mother-bashing.

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Annie is getting a lot of venom it doesn’t deserve. Folks, it’s not a very good musical to begin with. The 1982 John Huston movie is a bloated, abysmal mess. The 1999 Disney TV movie sequel (yes, directed by Rob Marshall – go figure) is an improvement because, like Into the Woods, they cast the darned thing correctly…but the show is just clunky in its bones. So I, unlike many of my Gen X peers, didn’t sweat it that Jay-Z and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith decided to produce a reinvented “modern” Annie. (Jay-Z scored a genius hip-hop hit over a decade ago when he sampled the treacly “Hard Knock Life” and turned that song on its square head.) With that said, I enjoyed this latest take on the trice-told tale (not counting the various direct-to-video sequels). Yes, the movie suffers from a kiddie-movie dumbing down of its game stars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Quvenzhane Wallis. If I saw one more spit-take with a mouthful of food from one of them I was going to scream – not funny … never funny … no one in real life ever. does. that. Stop it, Hollywood. Regardless, the Sia-produced remixes on the classic tunes offer a fun refresh (at least to my Tomorrow-beleaguered ear), and I, for one, enjoyed Diaz’ albeit-hammy-but-grounded Miss Hannigan. (Sorry, I am not a fan of Carol Burnett’s sloppy slurring take on the character in the original film. Another note to Hollywood: fake, floppy drunkenness? Stop it. Not funny.)

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Big Eyes? I think we all can agree those forlorn waifs with the saucer eyes are a pop culture trend best forgotten. However, the idea of mining America’s en masse lemming-like attraction to bad taste as a metaphor for cultural atrophy? THAT I can support. Alas, Tim Burton only gets us part of the way. Amy Adams does a credible job as the questionably talented but unquestionably victimized artist Margaret Keane. Unfortunately, the script imports some shallow truisms of Atomic Age misogyny from a very special episode of Mad Men, and Burton lets Christoph Waltz as Margaret’s megalomaniacal hubby Walter chew the scenery into balsa wood splinters. (Waltz becomes more of a Looney Tunes character every day.) Always delightful Terence Stamp gets all the film’s best lines as a New York Times art critic simultaneously horrified, bemused, and validated by America’s collective tackiness. The film has a chance to say some powerful things about creativity and gender and the crush of patriarchal economics … but it just implies them.

Movie 1

Me.

And back to The Imitation Game, in some respects the strongest of this overall decent pack of films. Cumberbatch, like those saucer-eyed waifs, lets his peepers do most of the talking. His Alan Turing is insufferably arrogant yet heartbreakingly winsome. The ache of his difference, his left-field intelligence, his sheer other-ness is conveyed through those haunted, limpid orbs of his. Keira Knightly (who usually makes me want to throw myself through a plate-glass window) is full of restrained charm. She is the counterpoint to Turing’s existence: another outsider – this time for her gender – whose outsized intelligence is marginalized and pooh-poohed, until these two spectacular oddballs find one another … and save the world. The script is thin at times (confusing at others), but Cumberbatch and Knightly make a crackerjack pair. Their final scene together is both tender and shattering.

Movie 4

End scene.

Any of my snark aside, all of these films are worth visiting and revisiting. The holidays are always a time of reflection, and the movies can be an important and therapeutic part of that process. We’ve got a week until we ring in 2015, so go spend some time in far off lands or heightened realities and see what they open in your own heart. More from Into the Woods

“Someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.”

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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.

Flattery will get you everywhere: Gone With The Wind Q&A with Bob Mackie

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I often opine that no one reads my blog. That’s not exactly true anymore, but like comedians I’ve loved – Kathy Griffin, Carol Burnett, Don Rickles, the late Jonathan Winters, and recently departed Robin Williams and Joan Rivers – being self-deprecating is a way of life … and a good strategy to try to keep the gremlins away. So, if somebody reaches out, tells me they read this blog, and asks me to share something nifty with all 12.5 of you readers out there, I do it!

Warner Brothers checked out my humble efforts here and sent me a transcribed interview with top fashion designer Bob Mackie who is best known for costuming entertainment icons such as Carol Burnett, Cher, and many others, providing his signature approach to costume design.

 

 

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Y’see, 2014 is the 75th anniversary year for producer David O. Selnick’s masterpiece (and my mom author Susie Duncan Sexton‘s favorite. film. ever.) Gone With the Wind. And all kinds of fancy stuff has been planned in celebration….and here’s the commercial: Warner Brothers upcoming limited and numbered release, Gone with the Wind 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray™ packaged with new collectible packaging, new memorabilia and new special features ($49.99 SRP) goes on sale September 30th at your favorite retailer.
From Warner Brothers –

Gone With the Wind‘s wardrobe is among the most celebrated in cinematic history and continues to influence designers today. The film impacted fashion designer Bob Mackie who has said “Mr. Plunkett was one of the most esteemed period costume designers of the Golden Age of film.”

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

More than perhaps any other movie, the costumes in Gone with the Wind brought the story to life.  From the crinoline hoops to the underskirt cages, costume designer Walter Plunkett and his team of seamstresses went to painstaking lengths to create the hundreds of elaborate costumes – including the famed ball gowns that epitomize the Southern Belle – for the film.

Many of the gowns required multiple versions reflecting different states of wear and tear to correspond with the different phases of the movie – pre-Civil War, during the war and after the war.  Consider that the war made it difficult, if not impossible, to access the luxurious fabrics and details because the fighting made the trade routes too dangerous, you’ll see this reflected in the costume design.  It’s the details like this that transport you to another world and which inspired so many other fashion designers.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Below is a transcript of the Mackie interview …

 

WARNER BROS. TRANSCRIBED INTERVIEW WITH BOB MACKIE

You designed the famous curtain dress for Carol Burnett Show for the infamous parody segment back in 1976. This year, Gone With The Wind celebrates its 75th year.  How did the parody come to be?  Where did your inspiration come from?

On the Carol Burnett Show we often did parodies of classic old movies.  It was inevitable that we would eventually take on Gone with the Wind, probably the most iconic and most seen film of the time.  Everyone in the TV audience knew the moment “Starlett” (Carol) took the drapes down from the window and dragged them up the stairs that she would soon reappear wearing a dress made from the drapes.  For me, in the real film when Scarlett appeared in her curtain dress, it was already hilarious.  So for several days I agonized over what to do with the drapes.  When an audience expects one thing and you surprise them with something else, usually you get a reaction.  Well, when Carol proudly came down the stairs wearing the drapes – with the curtain rod included – the audience went ballistic.  They say it was the loudest and longest laugh ever recorded on television.  As a costume designer I was relieved; I got my laugh.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

What elements of the famous dress worn by Scarlett O’Hara did you incorporate into the parody dress worn by Carol Burnett?

In the film, Scarlett was often quite ridiculous (thank God for Vivien Leigh).  For Carol to parody her was not a real stretch, and what juicy material to satirize.

What do you most love about Gone With The Wind?

Gone with the Wind is one of those films I can never turn off.  If I come upon it while channel surfing, I will stay up all night ’til it finishes.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

How did the movie inspire you as a Fashion Designer?  Does it continue to resonate with you today?

The film’s costume designer Walter Plunkett called me after seeing our show and asked me if he could have my sketch of the television version of the curtain dress.  I was honored and thrilled!  Mr. Plunkett was one of the most esteemed period costume designers of the Golden Age of film.  He also designed my favorite musical film Singing in the Rain.

What fashion secrets can real women borrow from Scarlett O’Hara and Gone With The Wind?  Should women give a damn about what others think?

The film Scarlett was ruthless in her fashion choices.  She knew what she wanted and was never afraid to push the boundaries of what the proper lady of the 1860s would or should not wear.  She certainly didn’t care what other people thought.  Today fashion is a little too free, easy and sloppy.  Oh, well.  Time marches on.

 

Thanks, Warner Brothers for helping me with my easiest (and darned quickest) blog entry ever! Fun reading these insights from Mackie – I will be sure to check out the box set … and NOW here’s MY commercial (below) …

________________

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.

 

Countdown: August – Osage County

Susie Duncan Sexton

Susie Duncan Sexton

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 7 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Don Sexton

Don Sexton

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY: “Whether you have survived a combative Thanksgiving family get-together, navigated the treacherous waters of a matriarch playing ‘who’s in the will/who’s out of the will’ games, or discovered relatives colluding with perfect strangers to undermine some special accomplishment of yours, you will find something to which you can relate in this caustic, fractious, anarchic dramedy. (Hey, I’m not saying the terrible things detailed above have happened to me and mine … oh, wait, who am I kidding? Of course they have.)”

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.

Mama’s Family redux … August: Osage County

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

No one can turn the knife quite like family. That seems to be the central premise of the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County.

Whether you have survived a combative Thanksgiving family get-together, navigated the treacherous waters of a matriarch playing “who’s in the will/who’s out of the will” games, or discovered relatives colluding with perfect strangers to undermine some special accomplishment of yours, you will find something to which you can relate in this caustic, fractious, anarchic dramedy.

(Hey, I’m not saying the terrible things detailed above have happened to me and mine … oh, wait, who am I kidding? Of course they have.)

The film is like an episode of Carol Burnett’s/Vicki Lawrence’s old sitcom Mama’s Family … if it had been co-written by Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet and Tennessee Williams … with directorial consultation by Ryan Murphy and David Fincher. The story is a bleak one with Sam Shepard, playing an alcoholic Sooner poet whose sell-by date has long expired, committing suicide and setting off a whole raft of fireworks as his drug-addled, cancer-stricken, chain-smoking widow (portrayed by Meryl Streep) tears through her assembled family of grieving ingrates and dopes.

Streep is a hoot, throwing vanity to the wind and not once making the critical error of having contempt for her spiky character Violet. She is authentic through and through, calcified by years of disappointment, betrayals, and brutality (both genuine and mythologized).

Julia Roberts as bossypants daughter Barb is Streep’s match, their scenes together crackling with sympathetic ugliness. I lost any affinity for Roberts ages ago, but it came back in spades while watching this entry in her illustrious career. She wrings comic gold from the sympathy/revulsion/love/hate she feels for her family, which also includes the very good Julianne Nicholson and the disappointingly so-so Juliette Lewis as her two sisters Ivy and Karen as well as a heartbreaking Benedict Cumberbatch as their cousin Little Charlie.

Rounding out this star-studded cast are Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as Charlie’s parents and the three sisters’ uncle and aunt. Martindale plays Streep’s wry, equally embattled sister Mattie Fae. These two are so good and so believable, beautifully centering the proceedings which often threaten to spin off into absurd melodrama.

Less effective are Ewan McGregor as Roberts’ yuppified, simpering husband or Dermot Mulroney as Lewis’ yuppified, slime-bucket fiance. Their respective performances are phoned in and dull, lost in the nigh-operatic ACTING! cacophony generated by their fellow cast members.

Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin is rather pedestrian as the daughter of Roberts and McGregor, rising to the fore only once when she delivers a deeply-felt monologue about the “fear we eat” when we consume animals. Her character is a vegetarian, and the monologue, imparted to her family at the post-funeral dinner table, clearly is a metaphor for the vicious consumption her relatives do of each others’ souls. And the fact that they all behave like jackals, immediately ridiculing the young girl’s beliefs, compounds the imagery.

I haven’t seen the stage version upon which this film is based, nor have I read it, so I can’t play the pretentious “I saw it on Broadway and I know how it is supposed to be performed so the movie sucks” card. I do suspect, however, that the film struggles, as so many adaptations do, expanding upon the insular, claustrophobic, sweaty envelope that the stage experience can so brilliantly create for an audience. Do you keep these characters trapped around the dinner table, or do you have them cavorting all about Oklahoma?

Director John Wells, who has worked primarily in television, has a workmanlike approach that doesn’t do much to open up the material, but wisely he just gets the heck out of the actors’ way and lets them do their scenery-chomping thing.

I will also suggest – and this is a criticism of the script and its source material (both written by Letts) – that the third act suffers from some over-baked, soap opera twists that I found rather silly. These plot points do set up a zinger of a scene with Roberts and Streep and some ill-fated plates of catfish, but overall they left me scratching my head a bit. Ah well.

As relentlessly dark as this material is, the film is fun and mostly moves at a brisk pace. I don’t know how well the years will treat it. I suspect it won’t age well and eventually will seem like a quirky exercise in pulpy camp. However, in its moment with most of its cast at the peak of their powers, it’s worth checking out … and probably cheaper than two hours of therapy.