“But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?” Thor: Ragnarok

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest – Thor: Ragnarok – is about as delightful a film to come from the Marvel/Disney machine as we’ve yet seen.

Marrying the free-wheeling whimsy of Ant-Man with the trippy nothing-is-too-zany visual style of Dr. Strange, layering in the heart and humanity of the Captain America films, and playing off the wackadoodle Shakespearean promise of Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) nonetheless delivers a completely unique vision and a superhero flick for the ages.

There is nary a shred of evidence of the micromanaged focus-grouping that seems to have plagued other entries in Marvel’s now 17-movie strong cinematic universe: the unfunny, overbaked narrative mush of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; the ponderous “how-many-action-figures-can-we-cram-into-this-for-merchandising” clutter of Avengers: Age of Ultron; the just plain dull-as-dishwater “end-is-nigh” pretense of, yes, Thor: The Dark World.

No, Thor: Ragnarok belies its title with a light-as-air zip and a screwball comic touch that plays beautifully to star Chris Hemsworth’s Cary-Grant-trapped-in-Tab-Hunter’s-body charms. Hemsworth’s gift is in simultaneously embracing the absurd and the self-serious, mining Thor’s lovable arrogance in uncertain circumstances for “fish-out-of-water” laughs. Akin to Shakespeare’s better “history” plays (say, Henry IV with its introduction of the iconic Falstaff), Ragnarok honors the operatic complexity of its source Norse mythology by juxtaposing the light and the dark, the goofy and the grand, to play out the prodigal son’s/hero’s quest to overcome both palace intrigue and the intoxicating lure of interstellar adventure to find his proper path to the throne.

The film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Waititi is obviously fueled by a love of the corny sci-fi box office bombs that littered HBO’s schedule in the early and mid 80s (post-Star Wars) like Krull, Beastmaster, Flash Gordon, Buckaroo Banzai, and so on – movies that I myself watched in a constant loop, attracted to the gonzo so-bad-it’s-great storytelling and campy visuals. In fact, Mark Mothersbaugh’s Moog-synth score sounds like it was written for an arcade game in 1983. And that’s a fabulous thing. (There is also an epic use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in segments that bookend the film. It’s a touch that not only enlivens the two sequences in which the tune is used but adds a nice layer of meta commentary – “we come from the land of the ice and snow” – about finding one’s home and one’s place in this world.)

However, Waititi isn’t on a nostalgia trip; he isn’t interested in self-indulgence. Rather, with a Howard Hawks-esque (Bringing Up Baby) command of pacing, set-up, visual jokes, and patter, Waititi delivers a character-driven romp that celebrates a lost soul embracing his destiny and learning a touch of humility along the way. Of course, in this case, the lost soul happens to be the Norse God of Thunder and a superheroic Avenger who pals around with the Hulk, but that’s beside the point. Odin (a wry Anthony Hopkins) consoles his son at one point, when Thor is bemoaning the loss of his magic hammer Mjolnir, “But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?”

The plot is almost impossible to encapsulate, but I’ll try. Thor and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston reclaiming the smarmy twinkle that made the character such fun initially) are on a search to find their father Odin who is hiding out in Norway. Early on, they encounter Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange in a witty cat-and-mouse sequence that telegraphs that Ragnarok won’t be your typical Marvel flick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eventually, Loki and Thor discover that their father has concealed both a dark history from them and the existence of a sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, all slither and swagger and having a devil of a good time) who has returned to Asgard to take over the universe and wear some really fierce eyeliner and multi-horned headgear. Thor and Loki get shunted by Hela to Sakaar, a planet of garbage and misfit toys, where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster runs a Let’s Make a Deal-meets-Gladiator “Contest of Champions.” (This is the best use of Goldblum’s insidious, out-sized, googly-eyed demeanor in years.)

Lo and behold, Thor’s old buddy The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo fully embracing the sweet/sour rampaging baby characterization from the Avengers films) is somehow on Sakaar too. The boys fight; they make up; they fight again; and eventually, with the aid of new compatriot Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson bringing the boozy, bossy fun), return to Asgard and save the day (more or less) from Hela’s machinations. Whew.

Oh, and Karl Urban (Star Trek, Dredd, Pete’s Dragon) pops up as Hela’s right-hand thug Skurge the Executioner, and, as always, Urban brings a nuanced inner-conflict and a compelling screen presence to a character who in lesser hands would have been a screaming, raving slab of testosterone. One day, I’d like to see him in a movie that doesn’t require special effects, if they make those any more.

In the end, though, the film is a showcase for Hemsworth’s effervescent wit and steroidal comedy and for Waititi’s sure-handed cinematic voice and eye-popping visuals. Hemsworth is at a difficult career crossroads: a household name actor in international box office blockbusters who doesn’t yet seem like a star. Perhaps this turn will change that. If not, he and Waititi need to team up again posthaste and, maybe this time, sans capes. Hemsworth is that rare performer – a beautiful human specimen with the comic genius of an ugly duckling. Waititi is that rare director – one who loves all films and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the best and the worst but deftly avoids self-indulgence and derivativeness. As Goldblum’s Grandmaster says in response to Thor’s use of his lightning powers, “Out of your fingers … was that, like, sparkles?” Indeed, Hemsworth plus Waititi generate nothing but cinematic sparkles. Here’s hoping for more.

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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.

“What if this man is your Hasselhoff?” Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel movies always suffer a bit from sequelitis. The first entry in any given super-franchise of theirs always has a fizzy independent spirit and a distinct point of view that resonates, even amidst the blockbuster marketing hype and merchandising mania. Invariably, the second entry arrives a bit bloated, a bit self-satisfied, over-playing the light froth that worked the first time around, under-playing the humanity that connected, and over-stuffing the proceedings with far too many “special guest stars” and comic geek catnip “Easter Eggs.”

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, directed again by James Gunn, tries to have its cake and eat it too, embracing these follow-up pitfalls in one cheeky meta nod after another (even the title itself) while never really skewering them enough to keep the flick from feeling focus-grouped within an inch of its life.

All your favorites return: Chris Pratt has Han Solo-esque fly boy Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as sardonic a**-kicker Gamora, Dave Bautista as cuddly nihilist Drax, Bradley Cooper voicing Ed-Asner-in-raccoon form Rocket, and Vin Diesel voicing the now adorable (and very marketable) tree creature Baby Groot. We even get flinty Michael Rooker back as Quill’s loved/hated proxy daddy Yondu and perpetually sullen Karen Gillan as Gamora’s thundercloud sister Nebula.

Oh, but if that’s not enough – Kurt Russell, being his most blow-dried Kurt Russell smarm/charm self, shows up as Quill’s “birth” father “Ego, the Living Planet.” (Yup, your read that correctly.) And Sly Stallone keeps popping up as some kind of somnambulant Jiminy Cricket to failed space pirate Yondu.

There are a race of video game playing golden hued Oscar Statue clones – the Sovereign – led by a Cate Blanchett-aping Elizabeth Debicki as their queen Ayesha. Chris Sullivan from This is Us appears as a crabby mutineer with the regrettable name  Taserface. Sean Gunn from Gilmore Girls nips at the edges as Yondu’s turncoat major domo Kraglin. And Pom Klementieff is the most welcome new addition as Ego’s aide-de-camp Mantis, an naive empath whose heart is as big as her anxiety and ignorance.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film, like any space opera, is choppy and episodic, hopping from one interchangeable  MC Escher-over-designed planet to another, one ear-rattling nausea-inducing firefight to the next, as our band of scruffy misfits bicker and squabble on their way to discovering the “important life lesson” that we anticipated from beat one.

Guardians, Vol. 2 opens with a CGI-de-aged Russell wooing Star-Lord’s mother in 1980, all feather-coiffed and hot rod convertible Mustang’ed swagger. The strains of the admittedly addictive “Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl,” seeping through every corner of the theatre’s immersive Dolby Surround Sound.  The first film left us with the question: who is Star-Lord’s father?

Alas, the sequel already answered said question in the ubiquitous television ads that have been airing since January’s Super Bowl. And as for the actual narrative impulse of Guardans, Vol. 2? It aims to compel us amidst the flat-one-liners and scatalogical digs that family doesn’t make us but rather we make the family we want. However, hitting us over the head with a homily just gives the audience a headache, not enlightenment.

At one point, Gamora (Saldana) reminds Quill (Pratt) of a story he had shared with her previously: that, as a boy, he told the other children at school that his real father was David Hasselhoff, the “great” actor of TV who drove a talking car and possessed the “voice of an angel.” She then queries, “What if this man [Kurt Russell – ‘Ego’] is your Hasselhoff?” It is a genuinely sweet/sad/funny moment, the kind the original film had naturally in spades – lovable in its absurd earnestness. Unfortunately, with Vol. 2 the set-up is far too labored, making the poignant punchline an afterthought – even including Hasselhoff himself in a couple of unnecessary cameos after this exchange AND adding a weird Hasselhoff disco-ditty to the film’s available-at-Target-now soundtrack. Talk about gilding the lily.

I believe Gunn had the best of intentions, taking mythological/Freudian father/son God complex fixations and running them through a madcap Friz Freleng blender, in the hopes of crafting a hero’s quest that was as irreverent as it was moving. It just didn’t work for me. And that makes me sad.

Early in the film, Drax (Bautista) cautions Quill on the ways of love that there are “those who dance and those who do not.” I enjoyed the film just fine, but it felt far too much like work and I felt far too exhausted when  I exited the theatre 2.5 hours (and five?!? bonus mid-credits scenes) later. There are movies that dance – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 – and there are those that don’t – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Next time, let’s hope the gang is a bit lighter on their feet.

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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.

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

"Carol (film) POSTER" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carol_(film)_POSTER.jpg#/media/File:Carol_(film)_POSTER.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

NERD

NERD

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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.

“Have courage and be kind.” Disney’s Cinderella (2015)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m sorry, but Helena Bonham Carter pretty much ruins any and every movie she’s in. Maybe she was good once. I can’t recall. As it is, she just seems like an inept community theatre actor with an inflated sense of self, horrid comic timing, terrible diction, and a propensity for bug-eyed mugging.

There I said it. I feel better (sort of).

Bonham Carter as the Bibbidi Bobbidi bad/boring Fairy Godmother is by far the worst thing in Disney’s latest live action fairy tale reboot Cinderella, directed by Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh. (No more Shakespeare for him, apparently – just Disney’s princesses and superheroes now.)

As you may recall, I loathed Tim Burton’s needlessly fussy, narratively obtuse, utterly tone deaf reinvention of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s journey over the rainbow in Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful was just as as clunky, misbegotten, and laborious. Disney’s last go-round at reinvention, Maleficent was marginally better, simply because they had the good sense to cast redoubtable Angelina Jolie (and her flawless cheekbones) as the titular fairy/witch/whatever. Maleficent was (at least) attempting to say something interesting about women’s rights, animal rights, human rights, even if it collapsed under the weight of far too-much overbearingly pixelated CGI chicanery. (Sidenote: the less said about the Nicholas Cage-starring The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the better.)

In Cinderella‘s case (Bonham Carter notwithstanding), Disney’s latest attempt to breathe flesh-and-blood life into two-dimensional fantasy gets more right than it gets wrong. Starting with Branagh, the Mouse House has stacked the deck this time with top-shelf talent that knows the best way to super-charge heartfelt whimsy is to bring a pinch of BBC-gravitas.

Branagh’s direction has a steady-hand, using an economy of scale (no overblown special effect sequences here) to re-focus audience attention on actors and story and emotion. (Crazy, eh?) He puts his faith in one supreme “special effect” and that would be Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s sympathetically villainous stepmother Lady Tremaine.

Blanchett is clearly having a ball in her Joan Crawford-by-way-of-Dr.-Seuss acid green mermaid gowns, casting sparks from her cat-like eyes as the venom practically glistens from her ruby-lined, perfectly-spaced pearly whites. She leaps off the screen as an intoxicating blend of cartoon caricature and pungent pathos.

Does she have a moment or two where she could/should have dialed it back a bit? Oh yeah. Yet, when she and her stepdaughter (ably played by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James) have their final quiet-storm confrontation over one recently discovered (by Blanchett) glass slipper, all Blanchett’s scenery-chewing mishegoss to that point is validated. In fact, the film is worth viewing, if for no other reason, for that one scene, where Blanchett with a sidelong glance and a turn of phrase synthesizes the heartache and turmoil faced by women of any and all generations. Is Cinderella feminist? Maybe. Maybe not, but it sure is in that moment.

James is a fine Cinderella with enough pluck to offset the damsel-in-distress undercurrents that might make modern audiences otherwise blanch. Equally her match is Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden as her subtly charming prince, a royal who is less polished perfection and more fellow lost soul. When they first meet cute in the woods, she compels him to see hunting as a horror, and I nearly yelped with joy. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she pleads. And he agrees.

The rest of the cast from wizened Derek Jacobi as the king to luminous Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) as Cinderella’s late mother to Stellan Skarsgard as a scheming duke all acquit themselves nicely, though never quite rising above a pedestrian TV-movie-esque malaise that occasionally blankets the sluggishly humorless script. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera bring da noise as stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella respectively. They are suitably loud and obnoxious, from their behavior to their Easter-egg-colored attire, and do the work required of them, though a touch more nuance couldn’t have hurt.

Alas, Bonham Carter brings the whole enterprise to a crashing halt during the sequence that should have been the brightest spot. Lifting Cinderella up with magic and hope and beauty and opportunity after she has been so cruelly bullied by her stepmother and stepsisters should be an effervescent, ebullient, and joyous moment.  In Bonham Carter’s mush-mouthed delivery, accented as it is with half-assed hand gestures and under-baked characterization, it’s a slog.

Furthermore, why did they choose not to make this a musical? There aren’t that many songs in the original animated version, and, even though Bonham Carter is a pretty hopeless singer, having that dopey song would have aided her immeasurably, I suspect.

Regardless, the film is sumptuously appointed with costumes and set design. I haven’t seen a movie this beautiful in years. And 90% of the cast gets it so very right. It’s not a great film. Much of it will be forgotten in the light of the next day (not unlike Cinderella’s famed pumpkin coach) but the message repeated throughout (as taught to Cinderella by her dying mother) to “have courage and be kind” is a lesson all of us need, all day every day, regardless our age, background, or station.

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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.

“Only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I suppose it tells you something about how excited I was (or rather wasn’t) to see the final installment in the never-ending Hobbit trilogy that it took me nearly two months to catch it finally in the theatre. I’m pretty sure this weekend was the last possible chance for me to have seen The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies on the big screen, and, if I had missed it?

Well, that would’ve been a shame as I enjoyed this one thoroughly … but, shhhh, don’t tell anyone. (See my takes on the other two entries in the series here and here.)

Yes, this one suffers from the same bloated storytelling that plagues the other two installments, a narrative pushed pulled and prodded from Tolkien’s singular source material well past its breaking point.

Regardless, longtime Lord of the Rings-mastermind Peter Jackson steers the story of Bilbo Baggins to a thrillingly warmhearted dénouement. One might argue that Jackson’s chiefest contribution in his second Middle Earth trilogy rests in shining a spotlight on Martin Freeman before a worldwide audience. The sweetness of these films is carried almost exclusively on Freeman’s narrow Hobbit shoulders as the titular Baggins. Freeman brings just the right mix of anxiety, sadness, worry, pluck, and winking silliness to the enterprise.

For me, one of the best moments in this latest film highlights the wry, quiet texture Freeman offers, alongside his always-sparkling co-star Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. In the film’s final moments, the two weary souls sit side-by-side on a log, and, channeling the spirit of Laurel and Hardy, Martin (foreshortened to appear one/third McKellen’s height) looks quizzically exasperated as McKellen futzes endlessly with his silly hippie pipe.  The silent expressions they exchange are darling and human and comically relatable, reminding us why any of us ever cared about these movies to begin with.

One scene later, McKellen’s Gandalf intones – as cautionary praise – to Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, “Remember you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The delivery and the sentiment plus Freeman’s reaction are touching and ominous and make it all worth the price of admission. Lord knows, any one of us in the audience feels like that “little fellow” pretty much 24/7 in this lunatic “real” world which always seems ready to spin right off its axis.

The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies (cumbersome title notwithstanding) wraps everything up neatly, albeit having a good chunk of the movie dedicated to one seemingly endless fight scene among dwarfs, elves, orcs, humans, eagles, worms, dragons, bats, and Lord-knows-what-else. We get a last look at thunderously thrilling dragon Smaug (dulcet-voiced by Benedict Cumberatch); we learn the fate of the intrepid band of dwarfs seeking to reclaim their homeland; and we send Bilbo back to the Shire in a lovely dovetail with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The cast remains a starry array of accomplished actors (Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace), all of whom bring gravitas and believability amidst the bewigged LARP-ing foolishness.  Richard Armitage nicely rounds out the character arc of dwarf king Thorin’s descent into madness and ultimate redemption. (He actually gave me the PTSD chills that I was missing from Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper, dude.) And Luke Evans, looking like a much-scruffier version of Robert Goulet’s Lancelot, is a swashbuckling thrill as his character Bard finally fulfills his hero’s journey.

Six Middle Earth movies in and I still can’t remember any character names, nor do I understand what they are ever talking about, but I applaud the actors’ ability to make me care. Sometimes observing Jackson’s cinematic output has felt like watching a foreign film with no subtitles, but he has done such an incredible job immersing us and his talented cast in a richly detailed world that the journey is worth the periodic confusion (for us Tolkien lay-people).

No, I’ve never read the books (blasphemy, I know); nor, at this late date, am I every likely to do so. And I’m grateful to Peter Jackson for bringing Middle Earth so vibrantly to the big screen so that I never have to (read, that is). Yet, I hope Jackson takes a good long break from revisiting these storybook lands, as I don’t think I can spend another nine hours in a darkened movie theater with all those pointy eared mythic creatures for at least another ten years.

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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.

“Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.” Gone Girl (film review)

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]

Bruise black social satire or toxic tragedy (or both) of the fallacious state of American marriage, David Fincher’s dark film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark best-selling novel Gone Girl is compelling and timely, but, at least for this viewer, not as visionary nor as iconoclastic as its hype would suggest.

Doesn’t mean it’s not a crackerjack film, but the ideas herein have been covered in many (and sometimes better) ways. While watching the 2.5 hour flick, I thought often of such clammy classics as The Children’s Hour, Vertigo, Charade, The Days of Wine and Roses, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Double Indemnity and even (arguably) lesser works like The War of the Roses, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Body Double. Heck, I even sense a bit of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible in Gone Girl‘s DNA.

However, what this new entry in mind-f*ck cinema does very well is distill all those disparate influences into a saucy, curdled stew of …

  • the petty evils spouses exact on each other
  • the caustic calcification of love gone wrong
  • the thorny economic necessity of the institution called marriage
  • the disastrous poisons that egomaniacal pursuit of outside adoration and praise introduces into the delicate private workings of any relationship
  • our present-day/post-OJ world of “he said/she said” criminal psychodrama
  • the preening desire of us Gen X’ers to glibly document our every thought, feeling, and deed
  • and social climbing run amok in a Recession-blighted era of unfunded McMansions, too many babies, and too little compassion.

Whew! And Flynn, efficiently and effectively adapting her own novel, partners beautifully with Fincher (for at least the film’s first half) in dangling delicious uncertainty before us. For those unfamiliar with the novel, in essence, Flynn has created a black comedy out of our TMZ/Perez Hilton/Nancy Grace-fueled penchant to celebrate, devour, abandon, and repeat on a 24/7 news cycle prurient stories of philandering spouses who murder each other, their children, or their neighbors or who seemingly evaporate into thin air, only to be found months later in someone’s basement, the bottom of a river, or hanging out at a shopping mall food court.

The “gone girl” in question – Amy – is expertly portrayed by Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, Jack Reacher) in a super-tricky performance (is she dead? is she alive? what is/was she up to?) that somehow invokes a lot of Cate Blanchett with a sprinkling of Kelly McGillis, Kathleen Turner, Grace Kelly, and Kim Novak. Amy vanishes (amidst broken glass and blood splatters) from the plastic-perfect home she shares with husband Nick (Ben Affleck being perfectly typecast for his prototypical Ben Affleck-iness) the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary.

The first half of the film tracks Nick’s many media, social, and other political missteps as evidence mounts, pointing to him as the likely culprit. Y’see, Amy and Nick, being sickening hipster fancy-pants, have played a “cute” game annually where she leaves him little riddles and clues to his anniversary present and sends him on a “darling” goose chase to figure out what “artisanal” surprise she has in store. So, this year, said clues take Nick (and his new friends, the police) closer and closer to a grotesque image of domestic brutality and potential murder.

But then, the movie reaches the halfway mark, and everything we thought we knew is turned sideways. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun, but, both Pike and Affleck do a splendid job offering characters as unlikable as they are relatable. At one point, Pike intones during her narration of events, “Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.”

They are supported by a strong cast that all neatly walk that fine line between dramatic potboiler and broad satire: an oily Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s possibly sadistic ex, an even oilier Tyler Perry as Nick’s defense attorney, Saturday Night Live-alum Casey Wilson as a delightfully wackadoodle neighbor, Missi Pyle as an even wackadoodlier TV shock news host, and stage vets Carrie Coon as Nick’s long-suffering sister and David Clennon and Lisa Banes as Amy’s media-whoring parents. Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ slithering score is a character unto itself, providing the perfect note (pun intended) of menace throughout.

Fincher is so good at creating a claustrophobic world where tension and humor come from familiarity and contempt. I adored The Social Network and Fight Club, and Gone Girl nearly approaches the dizzying fever dreams those films crisply achieved. Alas, the film (and Pike) are burdened with a third act that veers away from the Hitchockian to the Verhoeven-ian. Amy’s narrative has a sharp post-feminism lilt for much of the film but devolves into vagina dentata foolishness in the film’s final moments. To me, that was disappointing, if not inevitable in our misogynistic day and age.

Maybe I’m just a killjoy, but when both characters are as believably rotten as Nick and Amy, let’s not default to the old poor henpecked hubby trope with a dose of Rosemary’s Baby-bait-and-switch as an otherwise fine dark satire rumbles to its denouement.

Like last fall’s superior PrisonersGone Girl aims to say something profound about the “little pink houses for you and me” that provide cold comfort when we are faced with the violent horrors those closest to us can callously inflict. Yet, Gone Girl falls short. In this current moment, when people are withholding marriage from one group by claiming its sanctity for another, Gone Girl is just the poison pill our hyperbolic national debate needs. I just wish the film or the book (or both) had had the courage to see its dark thesis through to the story’s final frames.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

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.

“The U.S. Army might not care about art, but they sure as sh*t care about gold!” The Monuments Men

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I am the sort of person that, if I see a forlorn Lego mini-figure abandoned in a snowy mud puddle as I’m leaving the movie theatre, will “rescue” it, put it in my pocket, wash it off when I get home, and set it on a shelf in our over-crowded basement alongside sundry other “misfit toys.”

(Yeah, that happened tonight.)

So, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort The Monuments Men, in which a ragtag team of sentimentally minded art lovers bands together to snatch classic sculptures, paintings, and other works from the fiendish grip of the Nazis in World War II, spoke to this “leave no stuff behind” part of my soul. (I likely need an intervention.)

A less rambunctious hybrid of Raiders of the Lost Art, Inglourious Basterds, National Treasure, and Clooney’s own Ocean’s 11 trilogy, The Monuments Men is b-movie silliness disguised as a “based on true events” prestige picture. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The plot, which is a bit wispy, concerns Clooney’s character convening a number of his aging buddies (museum curators, architects, and scholars who include Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, and John Goodman) for one last great adventure, taking on Nazi forces in the latter days of the war and returning lost works to their original owners (both private collectors and museums).

Y’see, the film posits that Hitler, a failed painter turned insane dictator, is hoarding as much of Europe’s great art as he can get his grubby mitts on, aiming to populate a proposed “Fuhrer Museum” with his haul. I don’t know how accurate that is – it very well may be – but it conveniently offers the film its “stop Darth Vader’s Death Star at all costs” whiz bang roller coaster motivation.

The film does stop periodically in its “gang of great joes making the world safe for democracy/creativity” whimsy to ground us in the stark realities of the era (albeit rather superficially). A few characters do not emerge unscathed; we see varied references to the darkest atrocities of the Nazi regime; and Clooney, at the film’s conclusion, has a marvelous speech delivered to a captured SS officer sharply illustrating both the broad scope and ugly futility of Hitler’s hate-filled tyranny.

Largely, however, the film is a frolic and a throwback to a simpler cinematic era. In fact, some of the movie’s most salient observations emerge from comic throwaway lines. At one point, when “The Monuments Men” (they actually were called that) unearth a ton of gold bricks (the entire Nazi treasury) alongside some stolen art, the joint chiefs swoop in and take credit for the find. Goodman intones, “The U.S. Army might not care about art, but they sure as sh*t care about gold.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I have to say that I adore latter-day Bill Murray (I wasn’t as much a fan of his younger days, post-Saturday Night Live.) He has transitioned from shaggy, petulant misanthrope to a warm, world-weary presence. Maybe I am just as exhausted by this planet now as he has always been, but I find his gentle emotional dyspepsia completely identifiable. He even accomplished the impossible for me and made his film sidekick Bob Balaban tolerable … and even kinda cute.

Cate Blanchett, so good in the recent Blue Jasmine, has another great, if more understated turn here, as a frustrated art curator who may or may not be a Nazi sympathizer. She has to pull off a tricky part that is one part 40s spitfire moll, one part “Marian the Librarian,” and two parts tortured aesthete. She does a fine job, quietly grating and heartbreaking at the same time.

Continuing my track record of crying at the darndest movies, I found myself weepy (and snotty) a couple of times. (I won’t tell you where, though one may involve Jean Dujardin and a horse and one may include Clooney’s aforementioned speech.) Yup, add The Monuments Men alongside Star Trek Into Darkness, Captain Phillips, and even The Lego Movie as films that made me (and likely no other humans on the planet) cry.

Damsels in distress? I don’t think so … Gravity and Blue Jasmine

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A few months ago, I decided to review a Miley Cyrus CD because I was being ornery about seeing either Captain Phillips or Gravity. Lord, I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved (and still love) Miley’s Bangerz (her delightful MTV Unplugged special last week being vindication of that earlier review) … but I was certainly wrong in my snooty dismissal of both Captain Phillips and Gravity.

Gravity is an art film in theme park ride clothing. The superb director Alfonso Cuaron (who helmed my beloved A Little Princess and Children of Men) gives us a woozy and claustrophobic take on deep space survival like nothing I’ve ever seen. (I caution anyone with a propensity for sea sickness from seeing the IMAX 3D version … unless you come prepared with a case of Dramamine.)

Cuaron takes the sweaty paranoia of Kubrick’s 2001 and ups the ante one-hundredfold. The concept is as absurd as can be: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts (!) on opposite ends of the skill spectrum, and, after runaway space debris shreds their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope upon which they are making repairs, they find themselves playing hopscotch across the star-field from American to Russian to Chinese space stations.

Try not to think about the set-up too much and just go with the exquisitely filmed, edited, and paced flow. Honestly, Clooney is the film’s weakest link – sometimes I wonder if his face cramps from holding those endearingly twinkly smug expressions all the time. He basically serves the thankless role of being Sandra Bullock’s “Jiminy Cricket in Space” offering wise counsel, always preternaturally calm despite all hell breaking loose every five minutes.

Bullock is fine as the protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone, having to carry 90% of the film on her own. I have to admit I wonder how much stronger the film might have been with an unknown in her role. I was hyper-conscious of her sheer Bullock-ness the whole time, especially the umpteenth time she squealed “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” in that trademark exasperated “aren’t I a regular joe?” manner she brings to every role.

Regardless, Gravity is an efficiently gripping marvel – a 90-minute Cast Away-in-space – exemplifying in crisp detail  that “if anything can go wrong it will.” Cuaron’s masterwork is a techno allegory on our ability as opportunistic animals to adapt and to evolve and to survive in the face of endless calamity.

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Speaking of endless calamity, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine also centers on one woman’s quest to thrive in a world hellbent on throwing roadblock upon roadblock in her path. Like some tilt-a-whirl mash-up of Blanche DuBois, Auntie Mame, and Courtney Love, Cate Blanchett in the title role rocks the house in Allen’s latest. She is amazing.

(She is, by all accounts, the Oscar front-runner for Best Actress this year … and rightly so. No one can touch her.)

I have often struggled with Allen’s films – they can feel half-baked, disjointed, and thrown-together. Not Blue Jasmine; like Bullets Over Broadway or Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen has a solid narrative here, trucking along with a surety of purpose and a compelling, tragic inevitability.

One can’t help but wonder if Allen is exorcising some personal familial demons with this one, perhaps serving penance for his well-documented patriarchal wrongs. And given the Mia Farrow camp’s very public reaction/meltdown of late, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Nonetheless, Blue Jasmine is spectacular filmmaking. Blanchett’s Jasmine is a clenched-jaw Manhattan socialite whose house-of-cards world collapses around her when her philandering, conniving Bernie Madoff-esque husband (a pleasantly subdued Alec Baldwin) commits suicide after being indicted for fraud. Jasmine moves into her sister’s shabby digs in San Francisco to reclaim some semblance of her former life (and her soul). Sally Hawkins is phenomenal as the trashy heart-of-gold sisterly counterpoint to Blanchett’s frayed-nerves pretension.

The film tracks back and forth between Blanchett’s current circumstances and the heartaches in the past that brought her there. Allen and Blanchett make a stellar team, giving us a wry, raw, and visceral treatise on gender politics and social warfare. Jasmine learns the hard way that money (and Xanax and vodka martinis) can’t buy happiness and that revenge (while sometimes essential) brings its own kind of karmic blowback.

Blanchett is a slow-burn supernova, bouncing corrosively off a stellar supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale as a comically emo Stanley Kowalski, Peter Sarsgaard as a twee Kennedy-wannabe, and Andrew Dice Clay (!) as Hawkins’ thuggishly wounded ex. But the movie is at all times Blanchett’s. She walks a phenomenal high-wire act, balancing heartbreak, disappointment, betrayal, arrogance, and abject fear, sometimes in a single line delivery. Hers is a performance for the record books, personifying our era’s raw neuroses, economic desperation, emotional materialism, and chemically induced numbness.

I think I’ll take Blanchett navigating a rotten life over Bullock navigating a collapsing space station any day…though both actors fabulously turn the tired cliche of the “damsel in distress” on its tired, simplistic, reductive noggin.

“Satisfaction is not exactly my strong suit…” Thor: The Dark World

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I hate it when I’m so excited about a movie, and it ends up just dull. I almost would rather it be a crash-and-burn disaster (see: Green Lantern) ’cause then at least I can get the church pew giggles about how godawful it is. Alas, Thor: The Dark World is neither fabulously fun nor campily tragic…just stinkily tedious.

I’m a comic book nerd – I make my loved ones suffer through all kinds of crappy flicks (see: Ghost Rider…BOTH of ’em). However, the first Thor, directed by no less than SIR Kenneth Branagh was a delight, balancing the majesty of Norse mythology with some zippy fish-out-of-water humor as lumbering Thor made his way through Midgard (that would be Earth to us mere mortals) tripping over all of our clunky technology and superstitious ways.

Unfortunately, the jokes in this follow-up are pretty much non-existent – other than cute, quirky sitcom actor Kat Dennings doing her cute, quirky sitcom thing in her Jimmy Olsen-esque sidekick gig. (There is a nice, witty moment toward the film’s tail end between Thor, his hammer, and a coat-rack … but that would be about it.)

As a result, the film ends up ponderous and stultifying. The majority of the movie is spent in Asgard itself, which now unfortunately looks like a Thomas Kinkade CGI take on The Lord of the Rings’ elf castle place where pointy-eared Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving stood around glowing … but I digress.

Heaven help the actors here – Idris Alba, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Chris Hemsworth do the best they can with some high falutin’ faux Shakespearean dialogue about Norse history, royal intrigue, and some floaty ether that can blow up the “Nine Realms” (whatever those are). Of course,  Tom Hiddleston as Loki gets all the best lines … or knows best how to deliver the groaners with which the cast is saddled. He is a mercurial delight, at one point intoning, “Satisfaction is not exactly my strooooong suit,” looking as bored as I was at that point in the proceedings.

The less said about Natalie Portman as Thor’s love interest the better – or Stellan Skarsgard as her kooky scientist pal for that matter. Both made me cringe every time they were on screen. Could someone please encourage early retirement for them both?

Marvel/Disney, I’ve got an idea for the inevitable sequel. Call it Loki: The Only Interesting One, and just follow Hiddleston around as he shops at Target, goes to the theatre, rescues stray dogs, and takes a nap. That would be an infinitely more engaging film. Don’t believe me? Check out this cute clip.