Thank you, Wabash College (and Karen Linn Handley!), for this lovely shout out to my mom Susie Sexton in the latest alumni magazine. She and my father Don Sexton loved Wabash and the positive and profound impact attending and, later, working there had upon me.
I still remember vividly the day they dropped me off for freshman year, her standing in front of Sparks Hall (right after a shutter on the stately building crashed off its hinges to the ground) exclaiming with pride, “Go and have fun! Enjoy this!” That exhortation may have been an immediate response to me tearfully asking them to take me back home. As I understand, my mom herself cried during the entire car ride back to Columbia City when they left me that day, but I never got one hint of her own anxiety about setting me on my path. To be honest, I was even a bit shocked that she seemed so ready to get rid of me! ￼
My mom had an incredible superpower to be the eye of a hurricane in the truly important moments and to exemplify bravery when others were caving around her. That takes an incredible energy, selflessness, and love – it also takes a toll on the person who sets that intrepid tone day after day, year after year. The older I get the more I realize what a high wire act that can be. I will always be grateful for that quality my mother had and how I benefited from it.
I’m glad this particular issue’s theme is “gratitude” as that is what I’m feeling right now.
Please check out Editor Kim Johnson’s excellent foreword – she nails with candor and warmth and wit the anxiety we all are feeling these days and how moments of pause and of appreciation can re-center us.
Part 2 …
My grandma Edna Duncan had an inimitable way of decorating for the holidays. If I were to give her style a descriptor, I’d call it “how to avoid putting up a tree while still seeming festive for the grandkids by utilizing one’s fireplace, some tinsel and garland, and assorted marginally Christmas-related items.” There was a nurse doll (still scratching my head about that one), a handful of glass ornaments, some mid-century flocked reindeer, a half-drained snow globe or two, and THIS little item. (Well, not THIS very one pictured, but you get the idea.)
I’m guessing some liquor vendor gave this novelty promo item to my novelty-promo-item-loving grandpa Roy Duncan (this apple doesn’t fall very far from THAT tree) when he ran #ColumbiaCity’s “Blue Bell” (Wrangler Jeans) factory. I’m not sure how/if it survived years of inquisitive grandkids (myself included) pushing the lid down off sequence, shoving fingers in the automaton pups’ mouths, and plugging and unplugging and plugging it back in. I also don’t know where the original ended up, but I decided late one night the other week to see if I could find a replacement on eBay.
Lo and behold, my insomnia-fueled nite owl online shopping adventures struck gold. And $150 later (Merry Christmas to ME!), this very cute and, yes, incredibly annoying piece has been added to our own eclectic decor. Let the holiday traditions live on!
Now, when and if I start gifting bottles of Old Spice cologne with checks lovingly affixed (not to mention wearing little straw hats), you’ll know my transformation into Edna Duncan is complete!
Yoda does NOT look amused. 🤣
Part 3 …
I am truly lucky to have a wonderful friend with whom I also happen to work. I’ve known Megan McKeon maybe about 10 years now? But we first actually collaborated in 2015 on a Legal Marketing Association – LMA International annual conference quick start panel. Fellow panelists Heather Morse-Geller and Gina Furia Rubel said, “We gotta get Megan to join us!” They were absolutely right. Few people are as devoted, as hard-working, as caring as Megan.
Flash forward a few years later, and Megan introduced me to Clark Hill. Heather told me that I MUST take the job – as she saw it as the right next step for me. Don’t tell Heather I said this, but she’s darn right 99% of the time! 😉
This legal marketing community blesses us with guardian angels at every turn, and three years ago when I received the distinct privilege to work with Megan my life improved for the better. I’ve never worked harder in my life, been challenged to be a better professional, or had someone so consistently in my corner as I have had with Megan, and our wonderful boss Susan Ahern, and our incredible colleagues.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, it’s late. And I’m in a reflective mood. And this magical surprise (pictured above) appeared on our front doorstep. Admittedly, one can argue it’s a year early as I will be president elect of the international association next year and president the following. Nonetheless, when my husband opened this, thinking he was going to find new floor mats for his Jeep 😅, we both squealed with delight. Of course, being me, I couldn’t get this on our movie poster wall fast enough.
(NOTE: I added the word “elect” to the image in the hopes of avoiding controversy! 😅)
This gift puts such a big smile on my face after one hell of a year. Everyone knows I love movies obsessively, but Megan has a distinct giftgiving prowess and somehow she found somebody who could turn me into my own movie poster. The tagline is hysterical: “Only the marketing is legal.” 🤣
Fun fact, Megan took this picture of me – and it is one of my favorites. We were in Chicago, on a sidewalk patio, shortly after I had started with the firm (halfway between a couple of my quarterly nervous breakdowns 😂), waiting for Ray Koenig and Susan to join us for drinks. Little did that naive Roy know what incredible adventures were ahead. But I’m looking at this poster, reflecting on the past year, the past three years, the past 10 years, incredibly grateful for what our legal marketing community has given all of us and for this friendship with dear Megan. Love you, Megan.
I hope everyone rings in 2022 with love in their hearts and an appreciation for what makes us each uniquely perfect in our own beautifully fallible ways. My holiday prayer.
The world has been so upside down for so long that it’s hard to reconcile what “normal” even is anymore … if there ever was a “normal” in the first place. For my family, Thanksgiving wasn’t really much about turkey (vegetarianism tends to hamper the typical American holiday diet) or large gatherings (if you met my extended clan you’d understand). Rather, we typically were cloistered away in the dark comfort of the cineplex – sometimes taking in as many as three movies in a row, much to the chagrin of my father’s aching back and wallet. Tickets are expensive enough, but you’ve never seen us hit that concession stand!
2021 has been rough. It hasn’t been the sweet relief from 2020 all had hoped it to be. I lost my beloved mother, but her spirit is with me every day. I’ve lost track of what letter of the Greek alphabet this virus and its endless variants have adopted as nomenclature. I feel sadder and fatter and more exhausted than ever in my life. There have been bright spots, sure, but I feel myself aching for the mundane joys of life circa 2019 (and earlier) more and more.
Hell, writing this blog entry is both comforting and daunting. I crave the click of the keys under my fingers, barely keeping pace with the popcorn thinking in my addled brain. Yet, I also feel like someone has asked me to enter an Olympic pole-vaulting competition as I stare at this blank screen.
My wonderful dad and I started some new traditions this year, with an eye toward our past. We met up with new pals for lunch (try the Lucky Moose/Turtle if you’re in Fort Wayne, Indiana – wonderful atmosphere and service and a menu that goes on for days, including many veg-friendly options), and we rekindled some longstanding friendships (Phyllis and Scott Gates are lovely, loving, lively hosts with a cocktail and appetizer array that deserves a Michelin star). And, yes, we finally got back into the movie theatre, safely masked and distanced with hand sanitizer at the ready. We skipped the concession line, though, for multiple and obvious reasons, and my father’s wallet breathed a sigh of relief.
We caught up with three marvelous films over the holiday. As I have the unfortunate habit of forcing patterns that may or may not actually exist on random collections, it was clear, at least to me, that King Richard, Belfast, and House of Gucci – taken together – explore, dissect, and celebrate the power of family – the good, the bad, the ugly, the essential, and everything in between.
King Richard covers the developmental years of tennis aces Venus and Serena Williams and the fierce commitment of their parents Richard and Brandi. This is Will Smith’s best work in years as he imbues Richard with a haggardly leonine focus that walks the fine line between Great Santini-esque obsession and Mister Rogers’ “you can do anything as long as you’re having fun” positivity. I guarantee you’ll never look at tennis shorts and knee-high athletic socks the same way again!
Aunjanue Ellis is an understated marvel as mom Brandi, a fine counterpoint to Richard’s relentless push, filling in the humanity where Richard’s parenting falls short. Jon Bernthal is a delight as endlessly exasperated yet mindfully hopeful coach Rick Macci. His Dorothy Hamill-ish bob deserves an Oscar. The film – never a bore and consistently entertaining – ends where it should, at the beginning of Venus’ pro career and offers unassailable proof of the foundation to success that involved parenting provides.
In Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast, the parents play a similar yin-yang role in their children’s lives. Jamie Dornan (shedding all the ooky kink of his Fifty Shades of Greydays) and Caitriona Balfe are on the razor’s edge of heartbreak, their idyllic neighborhood torn asunder by the Protestant/Catholic “troubles” in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. The push-pull of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs hangs over the picture, as Dornan’s character urges the family to leave for greener pastures, and Balfe struggles with her husband’s profligacy and not losing the creature comforts of family and friends sharing child-rearing duties.
Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds are akin to a warm, woolen, slightly scratchy blanket as Dornan’s ever-present parents, and Jude Hill is a luminous find as the young protagonist Buddy, golden child of the family. Filmed in lush black and white, the film is a throwback to coming of age fables set against the backdrop of cultural turmoil like To Kill a Mockingbird, at times a bit too artsy for its own good, but leaving the viewer with a poignant, optimistic gut punch as the family finds its legs again.
“These are your ghosts. Not mine,” Maurizio Gucci (a compelling Adam Driver deftly balancing giddy nebbishness and aloof austerity) declares to his father, Gucci fashion empire scion Rodolfo (a miscast Jeremy Irons, desperately in search of an Italian accent by way of Downton Abbey), a spectre who lives hopelessly in the past. Ridley Scott’s fizzy, haunting House of Gucci exposes the dark underbelly of family survival: love and admiration that curdles into resentment and maneuvering. Much has been written (unfairly) about the film and its script, claiming it’s a loose amalgamation of riffs last seen on Dynasty and Dallas. Hogwash. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of escapist disco-era glitzy materialistic fun to be had, though.
And, no, Lady Gaga – who is incredibly nuanced and infinitely watchable as Maurizio’s ambitious, brilliant, tortured wife Patrizia – does not sound like Natasha of Bullwinkle fame. I was fine with the accents and mannerisms throughout the cast, Lyons notwithstanding. Italia! (I’ve never seen so many cigarettes smoked or espressos drunk in my life.) Pacino is in fine form as swaggering yet bedraggled Aldo Gucci, and a thrillingly unrecognizable Jared Leto is heartbreaking comic relief as Aldo’s dingbat-yet-deeply-misunderstood child Paolo.
But the star of the show is Gaga – she continues the stunning movie star path she began inA Star is Born, commanding the screen like Liza Minnelli or Susan Hayward, vibrating with the fiery frustration of a woman who knows the way ahead but can’t quite reach past the male egos around her. Like Liza, her eyes can flare from limpid to enraged in a nanosecond. I’d watch her read the phone book at this point.
Family defines us, shapes us, inspires us, frustrates us, comforts us. These three films unpack in beautiful form how one reconciles individuality in the face of such influence. Highly recommend them as a triple feature. Popcorn, candy, and soda pop optional.
Holiday postscript … in the spirit of new traditions
LINK TO FULL PHOTO ALBUM: https://lnkd.in/e_A5CyUM … It’s the hap-happiest season of all. In part because I sort of dust for once in anticipation of putting up our mammoth tree, at which time I spend HOURS nestling what seems like 1,000 ornaments amidst its branches. I know some might go for aesthetics or theme in their holiday decor. But we’re not much on restraint. No, we go for nostalgia.
Every well-loved, slightly tired knickknack or ornament we unearth reminds us of happy times – and a few not-so-happy – but all essential. Yes, John and I have ordered a personalized stocking for Hudson (on its way). And, no, we don’t want to think about packing all this holly jolly away in a little over a month. We shall just enjoy the season as the world spins nuttier and wilder every day.
And thanks, Don and Corinne, for this nifty shirt from Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., reputedly the purveyors of Frank Sinatra’s fave gherkin. Alas, Frank didn’t accompany today’s festive shenanigans – but Jennifer Nettles, Kylie Minogue, and Taylor Swift kept us humming (and singing) along. Happy holidays!
And thank you, Lori, Andrew, and Gabby – between you all and my mom Susie, you account for about 90% of those thousand ornaments on our tree! ❤️
Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is back this Thursday to kick off December with host Roy Sexton and his guest, Scott Lawrence, the man responsible for Roy’s professional headshots. Did you know that Roy moonlights as a superhero? He has the headshot to prove it, thanks to Scott!
Roy and Scott will talk about the fine art of personal and professional branding and how having a range of headshots is essential in this glittering age of digital marketing. Different audiences require different looks and styles to create lasting engagement.
Scott observes, “I believe people hire people, so you must use a professional image that reflects who you really are. … I’m a headshot photographer with a business background. Get noticed with an authentic professional headshot. Leave your selfies behind. I work with individuals in customized sessions. We discuss your personal brand and craft an image that sends just the right message to your followers – both professional and personal. I also help large organizations to properly highlight their people – the most valuable asset.”
Join us Thursday, December 2nd at 3 PM ET right here on Facebook
Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is brought to you by: By Aries and Kates Media.
“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).
“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him
Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”
The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.
Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.
As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.
“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women
Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshelldepicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.
The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast
Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.
I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.
We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue Oneand arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.
“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women
Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.
The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.
Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …
Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.
The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.
Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.
“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell
Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.
Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.
The Man Who Invented Christmasuses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.
His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.
Where’d You Go,Bernadette?,directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.
There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.
Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.
As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.
“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him
I’m not always sprung on the big ol’ dumb, vulgar, “high concept” (ironic turn of phrase) film comedy.
There is an army of moviegoers who can quote every line from the National Lampoon’s Vacation series, Airplane!, Neighbors, The Naked Gun or Horrible Bosses. I’m not that fellow.
There are exceptions for me – Bridesmaids, the FIRST Bad Santa, Bad Words, Borat. Maybe the naughty movies I like all must start with the letter “B”?
I’m no prude, and I don’t mind seeing some big screen debauchery, as long as it’s in service to a story. And if the ribald flick in question celebrates a misfit or two, giving the marginalized among us a chance to shine? All the better.
Let’s just say I’m shocked how much I enjoyed Office Christmas Party. On its surface, it looks like a frat boy fever dream (and it sort of is), waving the PARTY! bro culture flag from a wobbly pedestal of cheap beer kegs. Yet, something else is afoot in this particular entry of a tired, yet lucrative, genre: kindness.
The narrative is feather weight. A tech company in Chicago struggles to find its footing after the death of its founder amidst the Cain-and-Abel feuding of his two children. T.J. Miller (Deadpool) plays Clay, a Millennial ne’er-do-well with a Santa-sized heart-of-ADHD-gold, and Jennifer Aniston is an arsenic-in-the-eggnog hoot as sister Carol, a Scrooge in training for whom the holidays are a mind-numbing drain on the firm’s bottom line.
With an interest solely in her standing with the company board and with Wall Street, Carol cancels all holiday festivities and threatens drastic job cuts throughout the charmingly dysfunctional organization. (A timely holiday tale this!) Consequently, Clay schemes with his merry band of misfit colleagues (Jason Bateman, Oliva Munn, Kate McKinnon, Rob Corddry, Vanessa Bayer, Sam Richardson) to throw the be-all-end-all of office holiday shindigs, in an effort to save their year-end financials (and thereby the company) by wooing a potential new client (Courtney B. Vance, simultaneously slumming and classing the film up, a deceptively understated and utterly charming performance).
The titular party itself – ostensibly the centerpiece of this admittedly overlong movie – is perhaps surprisingly not the film’s high point. There are funny bits once the sozzled chaos kicks in, but mostly the soiree itself is cluttered and silly, not particularly funny, badly filmed, and occasionally too gross to be believed. However, I saw the party the way I see the shark in Jaws: a necessarily evil around which to hang the much better and more engaging story elements and performances. You know the shark is coming, but it is the suspense of getting there and the fall-out after the fact that is really interesting.
Aniston fares best in the enterprise, taking what is essentially an extended cameo and ruling the film with a turn of her stiletto heels and a flick of her acid tongue. I never bought Aniston as “America’s sweetheart” – from Friends through the Enquirer headlines to a host of empty-caloried rom-coms. As “America’s slightly wounded, understandably-pissed-off mean girl,” she’s a stitch. She fires off the film’s best lines and moments, from her showdown with a bratty Cinnabon-stealing rugrat in an airport lounge to her Russian-speaking, krav maga throwdown with three mob enforcers in a South Side speakeasy (yes, you read that correctly). Bateman deadpans to her would-be opponents, “Be careful. She’s made of nothing but salad and Smart Water.”
Bateman, as the company’s chief tech officer, is less smarm, more broken-hearted sweet than I’ve ever seen him. That color looks good on him. Munn is world-weary, observant fun as Bateman’s development partner, whose feminist savvy and tech smarts ultimately save the day for all.
As a meddlesome, anxiously PC human resources manager, McKinnon wrings mirth and sparkle from every moment she’s onscreen (of course!), but, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saddling the woman with wigs that make her look like she stepped off an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. It’s part of her gimmick, but it sure isn’t necessary to making her riotously funny. Funny – edgy and relatable – is just in her soul. About her beloved mini-van, McKinnon’s character opines, “It’s a Kia. It’s what God would drive.”
(And, while we’re at it, let’s cast McKinnon, Aniston, and Munn in a cerebral comedy that doesn’t involve wigs nor an EDM-thumping soundtrack nor body shots nor gratuitous nudity. The three of them have dynamite chemistry together and deserve a better film.)
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
This brings us to Miller. I suspect, in part, this film has been engineered as a marketing ploy to jet fuel his minor-key career into the junk blockbuster comedy movie star stratosphere (e.g. Kevin Hart, Adam Sandler, and a bunch of other un-funny men whose careers cause me mental anguish). I don’t think it’s going to work. To his credit, Miller subsumes himself to the ensemble, but he is also really one note. Playing the shaggy-haired, spoiled, left-of-center party boy is a limited run, and Miller may have already overstayed his welcome. Perhaps, not unlike Office Christmas Party, he will surprise us, embracing more of the nerdy sweetness that makes him endearing and losing the raise-the-roof shenanigans that make him obnoxious? Time will tell.
As for Office Christmas Party, underneath its holiday gross-out gimmicks, this is a movie where people care about one another and where the existential threat of losing one’s job has meaning beyond setting up the next joke. Where Miller and company succeed is in the camaraderie and care they show their fellow man. Directed with workmanlike vigor by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, sitcom stupid set-ups abound, but there are lovely quiet moments as well. For instance, Bateman’s office-rounding as he starts his day is filled with gentleness, redirecting various associates as they bully one another or spin perilously out-of-control under the white hot glare of office politics. Furthermore, as the film devolves into broad comic silliness (car chases and the like), the primary characters still worry about each other, and their actions (extreme and cartoonish as they are) still come from a place of compassion. This might be one of the first office Christmas parties where you’ll want to spend more time in the office and less time at the party.
Talk of the Town publishing editor Jennifer Zartman Romano writes in her intro, “Soon, the Historic Blue Bell Lofts, a senior housing facility, will be completed in Columbia City. In the meantime, columnist Susie Duncan Sexton reflects on her memories of the Blue Bell factory.”
Here is an excerpt from the piece: “Observing that impressive restoration feat from afar thrills my very soul. I look forward to grabbing a hard hat and touring the completed facility sooner rather than later. I have driven by the Whitley Street location multiple times. The lump in my throat and the beating of my heart transform into a beaming smile on my old wrinkled, liver-spotted face. Blue Bell, Incorporated has been my life since birth! Happy to have been a part of this metamorphosis!” Read the column by clicking here.
“Adversaries in commerce” is a phrase as recurrent in David O. Russell’s latest opus Joy as the falling snow from the film’s advertising materials (posters, trailers, promotional clips – see, left, over there?). The film, which offers an allegorically fictionalized take on the biography of “Miracle Mop” inventor and QVC/Home Shopping Network luminary Joy Mangano, wears a comfortable Dickensian/It’s a Wonderful Life vibe, subtly marrying the holiday-centric themes of merchandise-obsessed America, familial love as rampant dysfunction, and the ebb and flow of seasonally-induced introspection.
Joy details the trials and tribulations of its titular hero, a person with an agile and inventive mind, finding herself stymied by a motley assemblage of “adversaries” (and allies) in “commerce,” many of whom arrive in the guise of earnest or envious (or both) family members. Joy sees commercial opportunities in the mundane – a reflective, choke-free flea-collar here, a hands-free mop there – but the patriarchal world she inhabits marginalizes her gifts while simultaneously pirating her ingenuity. Tale as old as time …
Jennifer Lawrence, joining Russell for their third collaboration after her Oscar win in his Silver Linings Playbookand her nomination for his American Hustle, is utterly transfixing in her most believable turn to date. The film’s and Lawrence’s chief gift is how normal all the abnormal seems; Lawrence (and, by extension, the audience) lives Joy’s life, finding laughter and poignancy and tears where all of us find those things: family gatherings, business meetings, arguments with spouses, reading a story to our children, trying to convince a stranger to take a chance on an idea.
Some may (and will) argue with me, but this is the most feminist set of cinematic ideas to come down the pike in a while. Yes, Joy is inventing a mop, a symbol to some of domestic oppression, but, in the act of transforming its utility, she reclaims this symbol as her own. Her journey to get her thoughtfully designed functionality in the hands of other like-minded consumers becomes a hero’s quest, tilting at male-dominated windmills of finance, retail, media, manufacturing, and legal contracts. It’s not a showy role. Her turns in Silver Linings or American Hustle gave her many more cracked P.O.V. tics with which to play, but, in this film, Lawrence is all the better for Joy’s absence of quirk.
The surety with which Joy moves through life can seem nebulous at times. We are introduced to her as a little girl who empirically states that “I don’t need a prince.” That is the constant in her life, but she isn’t a volatile trail blazer either. She is a Valedictorian with a caretaker’s spirit, leveraging the strength (and madness) of the family and friends and opposition around her, quietly and calmly observing the world as it is and periodically dashing forth to change how it could be. It’s a masterful, nuanced performance.
Lawrence is aided and abetted by what is quickly becoming Russell’s version of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players, a stellar repertory supporting cast that includes Russell vets Robert DeNiro as Joy’s time-warped fiend of a father, Bradley Cooper as a slick television producer with a heart of gold, and Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s meddlesome sibling rival, alongside newcomers Virginia Madsen as Joy’s sparkling kook of a soap opera obsessed mom, Diane Ladd as Joy’s fairy godmother/grandmother, Isabella Rossellini as DeNiro’s moneyed girlfriend and Joy’s snake-skinned benefactor, Dascha Polanco as Joy’s steadfast pal and confidante, and Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s charming ex-husband and trusted consigliere. Susan Lucci and Donna Mills even pop up in a couple of brilliantly gaga cameos.
My husband John says that his test of a good film is if it “takes him somewhere” and makes him feel as if he is there in that place and time, living the moments with the characters onscreen. I mentioned this to my parents as we were leaving the theatre, and we all agreed that, by that criteria, this is a perfect film.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Alas, we were less enamored of Joy‘s Christmas 2015 box office “adversary in commerce” The Big Short, equally an ensemble piece packed with star power but falling far short (pun intended) of Joy‘s exquisite music box pathos. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) from the book by Michael Lewis, fancies itself a bold hybrid of Ocean’s Eleven‘s ring-a-ding boy band swagger and Michael Moore’s progressively incendiary documentarian instincts.
Unfortunately, it’s neither. Jennifer Lawrence has more swagger in one confrontation with some misogynistic QVC middle managers, than Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, or John Magaro manage collectively against monolithic Wall Street through the entirety of The Big Short. (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong as Carell’s bullpen of hedge-fund managing second bananas do have some firecracker moments, but they are few and far between.) Melissa Leo puts in a sharp appearance as a ratings agency employee who happily, if improbably, exposes the game afoot when even the guardians at the gate will play for pay.
The film attempts to explicate for us common folk the ins and outs of the housing market collapse in 2008. McKay has been on record as saying this is the most important story of our time and that his film will make crystal clear the who, what, how, and why so that any audience member will understand what transpired. Wrong.
McKay, alongside co-screenwriter Charles Randolph, has given us Wolf of Wall Street-lite, with a mess of characters messily drawn, offering the sketchiest of backgrounds. Hey, Christian Bale’s former MD Michael Burry is a financial savant. Know why? ‘Cause he wears no shoes and plays the air drums while listening to death metal in his rent-by-the-hour office. Oh, Steve Carell’s Mark Baum lost a brother to suicide so he’s all angst-ridden now, wanting to topple the very financial system that still provides his daily income … so he’s noble, but broken. Get it? Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert gave up this seedy Wall Street live for the noble world of organic gardening – see, he’s going to make something … from the earth. And on and on.
Each character shows up like they are going to enter the road race from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World without any of the wit, the charm, or, heaven help us, the plot.
McKay does little to ground us in why we should care about any of this, other then some clunky asides that are meant to be Funny or Die! camp, randomly inserting celebrities like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath (fire your agent, Robbie!), Anthony Bourdain making fish chowder, or Selena Gomez at a roulette wheel. In that, “aren’t we in-crowd cute?” way, these Fantasy Island castaways turn to the camera, ostensibly simplify some complex economic concept (which ends up more confusing than ever), wink, and then turn back to whatever insipid task before them. It just doesn’t work. And it’s annoying. McKay seems to want it both ways: take this topic very seriously, but don’t mind while we make fun of said topic like sophomoric smart asses.
There was an interesting film here. This isn’t it. I’m not sure McKay’s politics got in the way of making a focused, coherent film, as I’m not sure after watching The Big Short what those politics might even be. Only Ryan Gosling and, to a lesser degree, Christian Bale escape unscathed.
Gosling and Bale seem like they are in another movie entirely (probably once they realized the script was an incoherent mess, they started dog paddling for any port in the storm). Gosling sparkles as the film’s narrator, embracing his fourth-wall-breaking conceit with wry, near-Shakespearean aplomb. He’s a hoot to watch. Bale is less delightful but an oddly thundering presence, a man-child thumbing his nose at a financial system (and likely a film) that ultimately doesn’t appreciate (nor deserve) his superhuman talents.
Like Joy, there was something to be said in The Big Short about a society that worships the almighty dollar above integrity, kindness, and humanity. Where Joy weaves an inspiring yet delicate fable of victory over a cruel and unkind system, The Big Short becomes mired in its own smug condescension, victim to the very machine it aims to skewer.
Enjoy these cards (handmade by my dad Don Sexton) and these photos of us enjoying the whimsical presents given by my mom Susie Sexton. We had such a wonderful holiday weekend – I hope you did too!
“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.
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’?”
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.
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.
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.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
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.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
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.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
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.)
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
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.
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.
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.”
Just 17 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!
Here’s what Roy thought about The Guilt Trip: “The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spider web of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.”
Christmas is rough. It’s an emotionally, physically, financially exhausting gauntlet. And, please, no “reason for the season” kickback. I can’t take anymore cornpone trumped-up “War on Christmas” and “you better honor my good old fashioned values” talk when someone dares to suggest this end-of-year retail bonanza is anything but an overhyped, overbaked marketing ploy foisted on us all.
(And I might add: that internationally embarrassing and entirely unnecessary dust-up about the Southern-fried dipsticks in Duck Dynasty and their inane social views has about finished me off on any and all “values talk” at this point. Sarah Palin, you should be proud – your insidious, brain-dead buffoonery is complete. The nation has become completely addle-headed. Cue spooky lightning bolt and thunder effects.)
I love my time with my family over the holidays – the movies and card games with my parents in Indiana, the quiet moments after the holiday has passed at home in Michigan enjoying the new gifts and getting ready for shiny Baby New Year’s imminent arrival. Unfortunately, this year Typhoid Roy hit and I managed to infect everyone in my path with the ugliest cold/flu hybrid this side of a Michael Crichton novel. Consequently, our standard film marathon was trimmed to just one flick – the delightful Saving Mr. Banks – while the rest of the holiday was spent dozing with visions of NyQuil and Kleenex dancing through our heads.
Fortunately for us, Banks is a keeper. The film is an exploration of the unending challenges Walt Disney faced convincing author P.L. Travers that he and his film studio would respect the spirit of her literary creation in bringing Mary Poppins to cinematic life. The movie suffers from a rather conventional narrative structure with a few too many clunkily intrusive flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in dusty rural Australia. Overall, though, Banks is a gem.
Emma Thompson takes the fussy personage of Travers and spins comedic (and dramatic) gold from the character. Travers’ unease with the Mouse House’s carnival huckster ways leads her to throw barrier upon barrier in Disney’s unceasing path. The poignant joy of the film is the discovery as to why Travers is so resistant … and I’m not going to spoil your potential “fun” (fun being debatable, as I suspect you will shed as many tears as I did).
She is well met in Tom Hanks who succeeds marvelously in the unenviable task of taking on the iconic role of Walt Disney himself. With a twinkle in his eye, Hanks resists the urge to play too far to the cuddly “Uncle Walt” end of the spectrum, tempering his portrayal by hitting all the right notes of Disney, the canny businessman. Hanks and Thompson dance a fine tango of two strong personalities, scarred by life but undeterred in their respective visions.
The supporting cast is outstanding, including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ relentlessly cheerful driver, Jason Schwartzman as one of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Rachel Griffiths as a Travers’ family member who may (or may not) have inspired the Poppins character, Kathy Baker as Disney’s impish executive assistant, Bradley Whitford as the put-upon screenwriter, Ruth Wilson as Travers’ long-suffering mother, and most notably Colin Farrell as Travers’ beloved, fancy-free, ultimately tragic father.
Farrell is in great respect the heart and soul of the film, turning in a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a father, whose steady diet of whimsy and rye leads him to a number of questionable if well-intentioned parenting decisions.
Ultimately, the film serves as a Valentine to true family values, the ones whereby we in the present try to honor the spirit and aspirations of our forebears. Travers is depicted lovingly and honestly by Thompson as an artist who struggles to make meaning of a fractured childhood, exploring the written word to create an indelible flight of fantasy that could provide sanctuary to others like her and that would honor and redeem the father she dearly loved.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Given that rampant illness kept me generally confined, there are a few home viewing options to mention. Jobs with Ashton Kutcher (!) in the title role as Apple’s storied founder is a meandering dud. Everyone in the cast seems to have done less research than reading half a Vanity Fair article on Silicon Valley’s hey day, mumbling their lines ‘neath shaggy 70s ‘dos. I was bored silly and I don’t think that was the influence of my cold medicine.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The Way Way Back on the other hand is a witty and touching romp, detailing the travails of a poor sad-sack kid stuck at a summer beach house with his mother (the always dependable Toni Collette) and her stultifyingly arrogant, menopausal-jock-bully boyfriend (the also great Steve Carrell playing the drama for once and eerily reminding me of some relatives whom I would just as soon forget). It’s one of those “aren’t we proud to be an indie film!” movies with a lo-fi pop-punk soundtrack and plenty of glowering, but there is much sweetness afoot, particularly when the boy finds his muse in Sam Rockwell’s scruffy water park lothario.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Finally, I read a book. Yes, a book! Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean. In both visual and written detail, the book rhapsodizes over the talent, beauty, and ambition of the once and forever Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh’s dynamism leaps off the page. The author stumbles a bit with a near canonization of Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, whom I’m not convinced was as saintly as implied. Regardless, the book is an exuberant and frothy look at a true star who blended celebrity and craft with genius-level precision and who left this world too soon, haunted by a career that lends itself too easily to wildly veering swings of colossal fame and crushing rejection.
To come full circle, happy 45th wedding anniversary today (December 28th) to my parents Susie and Don Sexton – I’m very proud of them! And, yeah, it happens to be my birthday today too. I told you the holidays are something for my family! Thanks for reading…
Well, when I started this adventure called Reel Roy Reviews a little over a year and a half ago, my first review – perhaps just to telegraph to readers how few standards I had – was of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection Program. No lie – proof here.
As if to come (shamefacedly) full circle at this holly jolly holiday time of reflection and penance, this fifty-eighth (!) entry in my weird, lightly trafficked corner of blogdom highlights Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas. And, yeah, we still should have known better. It is just dreadful.
(Tyler Perry, that dollar store indie-auteur, is helping me formulate a new supposition: the more possessive apostrophes in a film’s title, the worse the cinematic outcome.)
Perry is no dummy. His bread and butter is Madea, and, as poorly (under)written as his scripts are and as shoddy as his direction, that character – a loving (and honest) homage to his mother – remains the bright spot in the Perry universe. As broadly as she is drawn (sometimes spinning perilously into full-blown cultural offense), Madea as a characterization, I would argue, belongs in the cinematic canon of franchise comedy series players like Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, or Francis the Talking Mule.
Strange company, I realize, but when Perry is firing on all saucy cylinders, his Madea transcends the sub-par narrative context in which she’s placed and can make me laugh like a kid watching Laurel and Hardy reruns on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It’s just too bad Perry as a filmmaker doesn’t know his limitations – imagine if Hal Roach thought he was Ingmar Bergman.
This brings us to Perry’s latest – A Madea Christmas – which is one of his weakest efforts to date. He bears the remarkable distinction of actually getting worse as a filmmaker the more movies he directs.
As an aside, the high-water mark for the series (which isn’t saying much) remains Madea Goes to Jail, which leverages Madea’s ongoing rage at the cosmic ineptitude of mankind to great effect, most notably during a run-in in a Kmart parking lot. Madea Goes to Jail also has the good sense to include Viola Davis (at a time before we all realized how amazing she is) in one of Perry’s trademark melodramatic subplots: some nonsense about Rudy from The Cosby Show becoming a drug addicted prostitute … and then finding Jesus. Davis, whose actorly commitment could make an episode of Full House bearable, plays the prison counselor that gets Rudy (and Madea) back on track and offers one of the rare instances of a compelling character-driven performance in a Perry film.
A Madea Christmas on the other hand features the magical acting chops of … Larry the Cable Guy. And he’s one of the most subdued (and funny) people in this mess. Color me astounded. Kathy Najimy (who should fire her agent) and Larry play liberals-in-rednecks’-clothing whose son secretly marries Madea’s niece. Madea, of course, is fine with all of it, as long as she gets to crack wise and crack heads. The girl’s mother, histrionically played by Anna Maria Horsford as if she thinks the movie’s audience is located somewhere on the moon, is less than thrilled by her daughter’s choice of life mate. Bad 1980s TV movie hijinks ensue.
There’s a bizarre subplot about a dam that has cut off water from the town and is robbing the hateful farmers there of crop-growing potential; a Christmas pageant sponsored by the conglomerate that built said dam and that now wants to deprive the town of their “Christ in Christmas” by making the event a non-denominational “Holiday” pageant (with no – gasp! – nativity); and a school that apparently is located right inside the town hall (!), has six students, and is run by sweet-faced principal Lisa Whelchel (yeah, The Facts of Life‘s Blair) whose notion of the separation of church and state is decorating her classrooms with Christmas-light-festooned crosses. It’s like Sam Walton’s fever-dream.
Mr. Perry, I implore you – take some time off. Cranking out two movies a year does not a great director make. Assess what you do well (fish-out-of-water comedy, class warfare satire) and what you don’t (poignant melodrama, humanist messages) and be brave enough to let someone else … anyone else … direct you (as Madea) in one of your scripts. That would be the best holiday gift of all to those moviegoers (like yours truly) who keep waiting (but probably not for much longer) for you fully to realize your potential.
One of the things I look forward to most every holiday season is the movie marathon I share with my parents. Hollywood back-loads all their great Oscar bait films from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and every year my parents and I try to cram in as many as we can in a three-to-four day period. Invariably, we have a number of disappointments along the way.
Let me be clear, sometimes we do all of this in a single day. I think our record may be four movies in one twenty-four hour period…but that was also a day where we got so intoxicated by movie magic and stale popcorn that we saw anything with the right start time that allowed us to go from one movie right into the next (tickets purchased for all, of course). I believe on that auspicious occasion, in our weakness, we saw The Golden Compass…I think we were the only three people in America who ever saw The Golden Compass. It was pretty turgid.
So what cinematic treasures did Santa leave in our collective stocking this year? Three super-hyped, market-saturating, blockbuster-hopefuls: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and The GuiltTrip. You know what? All three were perfection – that has never happened in the brief history of the Sexton Family’s Hide-from-the-Bothersome-Relatives-Holiday-Film-Fest.
Les Miserables ran the risk of not meeting the breathless anticipation whipped up through its ubiquitous and compelling advertising campaign. Happily, it far exceeded our expectations in every way. Much has been written about Tom Hooper’s decision to have his actors act and sing the challenging music live, as opposed to recording in a studio weeks before filming, only to lip sync before the cameras. It works and works well.
We listened to the soundtrack album the night before seeing the movie, and I’m still not sure if that was a good or bad idea. The CD is not exactly fun listening. Yet, it did prepare us for the vocal stylings of the key performers, and, as viewers, we were perhaps better equipped to appreciate the film as narrative. My mom said it best, “It’s like watching a film with sub-titles…you just get used to the singing and after a point forget you are even watching a musical…in a good way.”
I enjoyed every performer in the film, and any flaws, in my estimation, are inherent in the source material. For instance, I don’t much care for the young lovers storyline, and the nefarious Dickensian innkeepers even less so. Regardless, everyone in the ensemble – notably Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne – executes their piece in Victor Hugo’s ever-unfolding diorama of some French Revolution (I’m still not sure which one) breathtakingly. I cried countless times. Darn, this movie is cathartic.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
I don’t much want to get into a debate about the merits of Russell Crowe’s performance as Inspector Javert. People are hung up on his singing style – which I for one thought was just fine, though we did have our doubts when listening to the CD before seeing the film. What I ask is that you view his performance as that of a consummate actor in service to story in a cinematic way. He could play the role as Snidely Whiplash. He doesn’t. He underplays to great effect, against the overall hammy-ness of the show’s origins, offering a stolid, pedantic take on his character’s rigid moral code. I liked him a lot. ‘Nuff said.
Django Unchained is pure Tarantino in form and style and exceptionally crafted in every way. Strangely, both Django and Les Miz (I sort of hate that nickname by the way), released together on Christmas Day, explore themes of persecution, faith, oppression, and the redeeming hope of friendship and love. Who’d-a-thunk?
In Django’s case, a lot of ink has been spilled already about the violence, gunplay, and prodigious use of the “N-word” (another diminutive that always bugs me). Do I admit to feeling a bit squeamish at times during the film for these reasons? You betcha. Was I more bothered that some thuggish teenagers in the Midwestern audience with me were laughing un-ironically at these elements? God, yes. Is that Tarantino’s fault? Emphatically, no.
What Tarantino has been doing to great effect through his last several films – the Kill Bill two-parter, Inglourious Basterds, and now Django – is put our societal propensity for violence, pettiness, ugliness under a tight microscope. He directs particular ire at our American condition to view the different with derision and hate and anger. With Django, he may as well throw battery acid on the Southland, exposing the inherent hypocrisy of good Christians whose economic standing was achieved on the bloody backs of far too many African-Americans.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
If nothing else, go see this one for Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura turn as the well-heeled owner of a plantation cheekily named Candyland. He is a whirlwind of oily smiles, fey mannerisms, and unbridled bile. I adored watching him in the film. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx more than hold their own, but the film springs fully to life when DiCaprio joins the proceedings. Pay close attention when he brings his doctor’s bag into the dining room – that scene alone is Oscar-worthy. Not the time you want to take a potty break.
Finally, The Guilt Trip … if one of these things is not like the others, I suppose it is this film, but it is no less perfection in my eyes. I am astounded at the negative reviews I have read on this one. I suspect the film is a victim of its holiday timing and its star power (Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen). If it had been quietly released in March or some other time, perhaps viewers would give it a fair chance…or maybe not.
Regardless, this is a gem of a little film. As actors, both Streisand and Rogen can be undermined by their own excesses (see Prince of Tides and The Green Hornet respectively). Yet, in this film, they are authentic, subtle (or at least what passes for subtlety for either), and thoroughly charming as a mother and son trapped in one tiny car together on a cross-country road trip.
The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spiderweb of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.
That’s it folks…and if you see three people next Christmas Day schlepping a monster-size bucket of popcorn from one Fort Wayne, Indiana-theatre to the next, give us a wave…and discourage us from seeing another Golden Compass.