“Are you an Avenger?” “…Yeah … basically.” Spider-Man: Homecoming

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“Spider-Man,  Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves, just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man.” …So opened the ridiculously ear-wormy theme song to the classic animated Spider-Man TV show from 1967.

And in the past two decades, indeed, here came all the Spider-Men, an army of cinematic treatments and a revolving door cast that rivaled only the Batman and James Bond franchises for the head-spinning number of changes over the years.

Tobey Maguire helped usher in this modern age of comic book blockbuster as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy in the early 2000s. While we finally had Marvel movies worthy in scope of that storied company’s impressive legacy, I always found Maguire’s take a bit insipid, whiny and cloying. Yet, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, James Franco as Harry Osborn, JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and Alfred Molina (!) as Doctor Octopus? Sheer perfection.

 

Then, Andrew Garfield swung into the scene as Peter with Emma Stone in tow as Gwen Stacy in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man pair of films. I thought we’d found our perfect duo, as this real-life/onscreen couple brought a shambling, bumbling, shoe-gazing charm that got us closer to Peter’s time-tested place as the “never can win” anti-Archie Andrews of teen comicdom. The only problem was Garfield and Stone looked like 30-year-olds playing 16 again. We did get another great Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Sally Field and Martin Sheen respectively – I’m sensing a theme here. Maybe those are the roles to play!

Yowza, though, the latest incarnation Spider-Man: Homecoming – directed with gleeful anarchic surety by Jon Watts – gets it just right!  The film stars a Peter Parker for the ages – British actor Tom Holland (Billy Elliot the Musical) – in a pitch perfect blend of winsome geekiness, outer New York boroughs cockiness, and sparkling Broadway dancer agility. This movie is an utter gem.

(What is happening Hollywood? Are you finally hitting your stride with these superhero flicks? Between this latest installment and June’s Wonder Woman, comic book movies have truly found their groove, embracing character and humor and fully leveraging the allegorical nature of these icons to celebrate our common humanity and to explore the dire need for compassion and heart in this little world of ours. And both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming feel like movies about, dare I say it, real people! I’ll take it.)

For years, the Spider-Man franchise was under sole license to Sony Pictures (in a deal struck in the late 90s before Marvel Studios as we know it now existed). The magic minds at Disney’s Marvel (chiefly president and creative visionary Kevin Feige) couldn’t get their hands on the web-slinger for their “shared universe” of movies that began with the crackerjack first Iron Man film. Oh, how times change. With the ongoing runaway success of Marvel Studios (and the relative box office disappointment of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man series), the suits got to talking, a deal was struck, and Spidey made his first showstopping appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Holland’s brief screen time in that flick all but assured us fanboys that Hollywood finally was getting Ol’ Webhead completely right.

And they sure did. Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the bulk of its action in and around Peter’s unashamedly nerdy high school (Midtown School of Science and Technology) and his shaggy band of friends whose brains are their super power and for whom discovery and analysis and LEGOs and adventure and academic decathlons are waaaay cooler than football games and proms.

The film wisely eschews yet another retelling of Peter’s transformation origin story, and just dives right into the action with a quick recap (no pun intended) of Spider-Man’s involvement in the superhero tensions of Civil War, told of course from a starstruck Millennial’s POV as captured in shaky, grainy video snippets on Peter’s cell phone.

As sunny sweet as Peter’s world is, this is still a planet in pain, suffering the everyday strife of  uncertainty that a costumed crusader battle won’t erupt overhead (nearly as worrisome as what a real-life president may Tweet at any given moment). And just as in our society, there are those who see opportunity in other’s distress.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (“The Vulture”) whose failure as a legit contractor turns around when he starts stealing and repurposing debris from these superhero battles on the black market. His animosity (and covetousness) toward the one-percenters of the world is evident when he sneers at Robert Downey, Jr.’s visage on a TV screen, “A$$holes who made this mess [Stark’s Avengers] get paid to clean it up [Stark Enterprises’ subsidiary Damage Control].” No one does sad-sack country club-wannabe bitter middle-aged male contempt like Keaton, and this former Batman/Birdman (meta casting if there ever was any) is brilliant in this role.  Oh, and, by the way, Keaton sports big scary robot wings … but this is a Marvel movie after all.

Inevitably, Spider-Man and the Vulture cross paths (and again … and again), with a number of dizzying aerial battles for the action junkies in the crowd. However, what makes their tension work is that both characters are outsiders, scrambling to prove their respective worth to a society that sees them as invisible. (Not to mention a final act twist that I did not see coming and that raises the stakes – and connection – between these two characters exponentially.)

Peter spends most of the film trying to reclaim Tony Stark’s attention, pretending to his fellow students that he has an “internship” with the famed entrepreneur when in reality he spends every night waiting by the phone in the hopes of getting “the call” to join Stark’s Avengers squad permanently. When his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan, an utter joy as Peter’s hyperventilating wingman) discovers Peter’s secret identity, he breathlessly inquires, “Are you an AVENGER?” Peter looks aside, with sadness in his eyes and embarrassment in his heart, replying, “Yeah … basically …” The film is rife with punchy/poignant character moments like that.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

So, when The Vulture and Spidey clash, it is from a narrative-driven conflict of needs and philosophies. Keaton’s Vulture keeps his criminal enterprise going to “stick it to the man,” to fund the lavish lifestyle to which he’s now become accustomed, and, thereby, to remind the world he is a force to be reckoned with – not to be tossed aside like the refuse he salvages.

Spider-Man, on the other hand, is certain that by stopping these schemes in their tracks, he will finally get the adulation and validation he desperately craves from Tony Stark and the mainstream superhero community. Each fight between The Vulture and Spider-Man is truly a fight for their lives.

That dramatic tension between Keaton and Holland powers the film but never overwhelms it. Admittedly, most of their fight sequences could have been trimmed by three-to-five minutes each, and the film would have been all the stronger for the cuts.

Ultimately, however, the heart and soul of the film is Peter Parker and his love of family and friends.

Marisa Tomei is dynamite as Aunt May (there we go again), never a victim but always cautious that New York isn’t the limitless playground Peter perceives it to be. Her crack comic timing wrapped in a gauze of May’s world-weary worry is the film’s most essential special effect.  Anyone who still thinks her Oscar for My Counsin Vinny was in error can go take a long leap off a short pier.

Disney Channel alum Zendaya is a revelation as Peter’s acerbic pal Michelle, who sees through the gangly immaturity of her fellow academic decathletes to the potential greatness they offer. Michelle has never met a social cause she didn’t embrace. Her teacher/coach says to her, when she refuses to enter the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves, “Protesting is patriotic.” Damn straight.

And we get great character turns by Tyne Daly as a tough bureaucrat with a decent heart, Donald Glover as a tough hoodlum with an even kinder heart, and Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) as a not-so-tough bully with pretty much no heart at all. Revolori, in particular, is fun casting as Parker’s legendary rival Flash Thompson, typically depicted as a Nordic bruiser of a football player. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, he is portrayed by an actor of Guatemalan descent and serves as Parker’s chief competition on the academic decathlon team. Nice.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is, ultimately, a love letter to the American “melting pot.” All shapes and sizes – and ethnicities and races and ages and genders – of humanity are proudly on display, relentlessly pursuing their dreams and proudly challenging the status quo. That is what makes America great. And always has.

Oh, and this is a movie that makes a point to show Spider-Man going back to rescue a cat from a blazing convenience store. And to have Chris Evans channeling his adorably goofy comic side as a Captain America who makes earnest public service announcements against bullying in public schools. That’s my kind of America.

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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 can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

“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.

“How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t evolve?” Avengers: Age of Ultron

"Avengers Age of Ultron" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg#/media/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Avengers: Age of Ultron is all you might hope it should be. And that’s part of its problem.

I feel in writing this review that I may as well be discussing a plate of really fabulous spaghetti: so much tasty sameness, so many empty carbs, no discernible beginning/middle/end, satisfying a craving that I didn’t know I had, leaving me a bit bloated … and yet I will happily eat it again after my sense-memory has recovered.

Joss Whedon, beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer architect and director of the first Avengers, returns to helm this sequel. This will be blasphemy to some of my geek brethren, but Whedon is no auteur. (I hold out hope that Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors The Russo Brothers will be the ones who finally deliver The Godfather of superhero genre flicks. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was close but a bit too pompously high-falutin’ for my tastes.) Whedon carries an episodic TV sensibility to his film projects. And that’s ok, but, once you’re aware that he seems to work in 28-minute long “beats,” you start to feel the clock ticking.

And, wowzers, does the clock tick with Ultron. With trailers (and the need to get there so early that you aren’t sitting on the front row gazing up Chris Hemsworth’s flaring Asgardian nostrils), your rear is in a theatre seat nearly three hours. The film is straining at the seams with just so much Marvel muchness that you wonder if a cleaner, clearer narrative had been focus-grouped into this orgiastic merchandising hydra by the good folks at Disney.

Regardless, the film offers much to delight both comic book loons like myself and the average Marvel moviegoer who doesn’t know Ant-Man from an ant, man. (Sorry.)

Whedon wisely knows that the audience for these cinematic beasts adores brightly-lit four-color action peppered with jazzy comic asides and a healthy dose of soap-opera-lite character beats. He also (with the help of super-producer Kevin Feige, who really should be in the movie marketing hall-of-fame at this point) realizes that the perfect ensemble, gifted with acting chops that exceed the material but with a keen sense of wit and gratitude to enjoy the ride anyway, turns a workmanlike summer blockbuster transcendent.

Mark Ruffalo continues to steal the show as beautiful loser Bruce Banner (Hulk), with just the right hint of Bill Bixby’s gloom married to his own shaggy twinkle. Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) gives as good as she gets in her cat-and-mouse flirtation with Ruffalo, and, while I’m sure most of the audience was squirming/snoozing as they awaited the next CGI-encrusted battle sequence, I really enjoyed those quieter moments.

Similarly, Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), who came off as a glowering dullard in previous installments, really gets a chance to exercise his comedic action chops and soulful humanity. I won’t spoil the cinematically invented back-story they layer on Hawkeye, but this fanboy for one was a fan of the fairly significant change the filmmakers made from long-standing comic canon. Hawkeye suddenly becomes the heart and soul of a franchise that hitherto kept him far on the periphery.

The rest of the cast is solid and fun as expected. Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Hemsworth (Thor), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man) are frothy delights, offering as much banter this time as they do alpha-male action. Downey is blessedly restrained, offering a hint of unintentionally gleeful malice – an ominous note of what may yet come to the franchise. He is counter-balanced nicely by Evans who telegraphs the audience’s own mounting anxiety over a planet that is quickly becoming overstuffed with people/creatures/beings with too many abilities/too few ethics.

Newcomers include twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who weirdly enough played spouses in last year’s Godzilla reboot) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). They are all fine in rather under-written, slightly confusing roles. While it’s fun to see these Marvel legends in the flesh, they really weren’t necessary and detracted from the other characters we’ve come to know and love. This is the danger with all of these comic book movies – how do you keep the nerds (myself included) happy and sell lots of toys without devolving into carnival kitsch? The film skates a fine line and nearly goes over the edge.

Finally, though, this Marvel entry gets its villain so very right (not unlike the oily charisma of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki). Ultron, as voiced by slippery eel James Spader (I’m starting to wonder if Marvel films are where all smart aleck ex-Brat Packers go to die?), is frightening, ominous, charming, and essential. He intones early in the film, “How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t eeeeevooooolve.” (Darn right, brother – I need that needle-pointed on a pillow, stat).

Of course, robotic overlord that he is, Ultron – created by Stark himself as a means of creating “lasting peace” – asserts that the only logical way to create lasting peace is to render all of humanity extinct. Now there is an allegory for our fractious times. I won’t spoil the adventure on how he gets there (I’m not even totally sure I followed all the muddled machinations myself), but I got quite a perverse kick from Spader’s Ultron and his well-intentioned sociopathy.

(I should have never admitted that last bit, I suppose? Maybe Marvel will need someone to play the villain in their next summer opus? Sign me up!)

Go to Avengers: Age of Ultron for the Marvel-fied comfort food … but stay for the dark bon-bon (Spader) at the film’s anarchic core.

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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.

“Are humans more concerned with having than being?” Lucy (2014)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We finally got around to seeing Lucy, the Luc Besson-directed thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. (We do have a dog named Lucy, so I’m not sure why we didn’t get to it sooner? Hmmm…)

WTF, ‘Murica?

I don’t know if I’m horrified or delighted (or both) at the financial success enjoyed domestically this summer by this loopy, French existentialist, nonsensical genre mash-up of the much superior Bradley Cooper-starrer Limitless, John Travolta’s Phenomenon, the little-seen (and also superior) Chris Evans-flick Push, and Besson’s own La Femme Nikita (unnecessarily remade as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda) and The Fifth Element (with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich).

Don’t get me wrong – I was totally entertained during Lucy‘s blessedly expeditious 90-minute running time, but, every fifteen minutes or so, the script seems to jettison its own internal narrative logic (let alone anything remotely connected to real-world physics, biology, information technology, or screenwriting 101) as it careens toward a denouement that makes the final moments of, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Terrence Malick’s, well, anything look like the gritty, grounded urban dramas of Sidney Lumet.

The set-up (bear with me) is that Lucy (Johansson) is a college student (I think?) in Taipei (I think?) who has a one-week (?) stand with Richard, a skeezy beau wearing a cheap straw cowboy hat and awful, rose-colored (really.) wrap-around Bono-style sunglasses. They have an interminably cutesy exchange outside a fancy hotel as Richard tries to convince Lucy to deliver to a guest one of those stainless steel briefcases that only seem to exist in Hollywood movies (or holding poker chips at the last-minute holiday gift display at JCPenney).

Richard (Dick, get it?) ends up handcuffing Lucy to said suitcase (ah, bondage – is this a movie about female empowerment?), and shoves her into the hotel lobby, at which time an army of black-suited, indeterminately Asian mobsters swarm about her, put her through h*ll, shove some space-rock crack-esque drugs in her tummy, pop her on a plane, and leave her in a third-world dungeon somewhere. After she is brutalized by her captors, the bag of purple diamelles or whatever burst in her stomach, giving her the ability to increasingly access the remotest reaches of her brain.

See, we mere mortals access only 10% – which is why we make stupid decisions like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians or wearing PajamaJeans or eating Funyuns – but Lucy gets all kinds of nifty skills, like telepathy and computer programming and rocking stylish mini-dresses, when her cerebral cortex goes into overdrive.

Besson helps us neanderthals in the audience follow along by periodically flashing black and white percentages on the screen – 10%, 20%, 30%, 99% – not to mention random images of cheetahs chasing gazelles and Quest for Fire-extras discovering, er, fire. Deep, man.

Spoiler alert! As Lucy gets more and more authority over the idiots populating this Big Blue Marble, she starts to quite literally evaporate because her cells are multiplying at such a rapid rate her body can’t hold her consciousness (I think?). The film then becomes a race against time as a) Lucy heads to Europe to track down the remaining shipments of the glowy purple narcotics; b) hooks up with a hunky hawk-nosed French cop; c) runs away from and, inexplicably, does not use her super-brain to blow up the horde of angry Asian mobsters; d) has a sit-down with sage old wry Morgan Freeman doing that sage old wry Morgan Freeman thing as an academic who has been conveniently narrating the film up to this point to explain this whole “we only use 10% of our brains” nonsense; and, e) after surreally meeting our collective ancestor “original” cave-monkey-person Lucy, figures out how to ensure her own immortality by taking the form of a star-festooned … thumb drive.

(One could argue that the way the film ends actually tees up Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her. Heck, Lucy’s last message to humanity appears as a text on a cell phone. Just think about that! Minds blown. 🙂 )

All that said, I rather enjoyed myself at this idiotic movie.

Why? Besson is an incredibly stylish filmmaker – alongside Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, The Insider) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator), he is arguably one of the most. The visuals in Lucy POP!, with brilliant use of grime and fluorescent light, color contrast and international locales, jazzed with trippy intercuts and hyperkinetic pacing.

The wisest choices of all, though, were made in casting Johansson and Freeman who wink at the junk material without ever condescending to it. Freeman especially seems to be having a good time with what could have been a thankless role, both befuddled and surprised that his life’s theoretical work has apparently come to blazing life in the form of Lucy.

Johansson didn’t used to be my cup of tea. Not sure why. However, I’ve grown to appreciate her – both as a performer and a human – more and more, and, in Lucy, I loved every note of the fear, anger, inquisitiveness, exasperation, and (finally) magnanimous indifference she wrings from the paper-thin script.

Like any popcorn film that tries too hard to say something so philosophical, Lucy ends up not saying much at all. There is a zippy line early in the film that holds such promise but is never revisited: “Are humans more concerned with having than being?” I’m not sure that intriguing question is ever actually answered. In the end, Lucy only works as a movie if you don’t think about it too much…which is pretty ironic for a film that ostensibly is about using every last bit of our brains.

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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.

“The world as it is … not how we’d like it to be.” Captain America: The Winter Soldier

As all the Marvel movies go, my hands-down favorites feature Captain America. So I approached Captain America: The Winter Soldier with some trepidation that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. How wrong I was.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The first Captain America film did a lovely job borrowing nostalgic pixie dust from films like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, and director Joe Johnston grounded those proceedings in postmodern yet earnestly American messages of anti-bullying and of championing the underdog. The follow-up, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, takes that Americana quilt-work and ups the ante, delving deep into the dark heart of post-millennial U.S. society.

In the years since September 11th, we have seen fear and anxiety chip away at the most American of values: tolerance and courage, freedom of thought and sincere kindness. The film attacks that dilemma square on, albeit with Marvel Studios’ now-trademark escapism, wit, and whiz bang effects.

I dare not spoil any of the twists and turns, and, while some have compared this sequel to 70s government conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, it is more of a pulpy roller coaster ride than a tightly coiled potboiler. Regardless, it is smart and well done and expertly paced.

Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and, unlike his flippant work as another superhero Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four series, he exudes a soulful sadness as a man quite literally out of his own time and depth. His heartache over an America that has strayed so far afield from his World War II-era “Greatest Generation” perspective is palpable.

The plot details the explosive corruption that runs through all levels of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization – that CIA/Interpol-hybrid that has been a unifying element in all Marvel’s cinematic output. This sequel draws cleverly on thematic elements established in the first Captain America entry, specifically the Nazi villains’ monstrous notion that ethnic, spiritual, intellectual cleansing will bring about order in a chaotic world. Winter Soldier neatly turns that concept on its head, alluding to how some Americans today seem to share that same nefarious concept: that the only way to avoid anarchy, violence, and societal decay is to quite literally eliminate all those people who threaten “order” in their questioning of the powers-that-be.

Robert Redford is a fascinating and welcome addition to the Marvel Universe, playing Alexander Pierce, a Washington bureaucrat whose Machiavellian intentions are simultaneously noble and suspect. Bringing a nuance we don’t always get to see in these movies (with nary a glib moment), Redford telegraphs sincere, profound, and arguably misdirected concern for a world that he feels has gone totally off the rails. He is the kind of comic book heavy that only a steady diet of FoxNews and MSNBC could inspire.

The other supporting players, including Scarlett Johansson, Emily Van Camp, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Frank Grillo, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Jenny Agutter, and Anthony Mackie, rise to the material, providing gravitas and the occasional (much-needed) lighter moment (or two). Sebastian Stan as the titular Winter Soldier is a heaping helping of imposing glower, and he makes the most of a rather underwritten role (not unlike Tom Hardy’s Bane in Dark Knight Rises).

Unfortunately (and this is the only minor quibble I had with the film), the movie does little with the Winter Soldier’s fascinating, Terminator-meets-Manchurian Candidate back story. Hopefully, the inevitable third film will fill in those gaps.

Superhero flicks have, in aggregate, become an ever-expanding cinematic metaphor for the angst that blankets our planet – movies of note include Bryan Singer’s X-Men films (e.g. civil rights/tolerance), Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (e.g. class warfare, Orwellian nanny states), and now both Captain America entries. These films employ a kind of four-color funnies code with larger-than-life heroes and villains standing in for the mundane, insidious cruelties we enact daily.

Samuel L. Jackson notes at one point early in the film, “This is the world as it is … not how we’d like it to be” – nailing a haunting fear and sadness most of us over 40 grapple with daily. Not sure where the movie Marvel Universe goes from here as the studio’s architects are clearly picking poignancy and punch over popcorn and pizzazz. But I for one can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Bonus! ( … apropos of nothing … )

This Thursday, April 10 at 7 pm, Common Language in Ann Arbor (317 Braun Ct.) will host a mixer. I will be signing books, and theatre colleagues from The Penny Seats (including Rachel Murphy, Lyn Weber, Rebecca Biber, Nick Oliverio, Barbara Bruno, and now John Mola) will offer interpretive readings of some of my wilder essays. Light refreshments will be provided. See you there! Nice coverage from Sarah Rigg and MLive here.

Thanks to Ryan Roe and the Tough Pigs: Muppets Fans Who Grew Up website for this shout-out to Reel Roy Reviews and my review of Muppets Most Wanted. Be sure to check out the site – it’s a lot of fun!

Finally, enjoy this video interview of yours truly from last week’s Legal Marketing Association conference. Thanks to Lexblog and the Lexblog Network and Kevin McKeown for this opportunity!

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