“What’s there tells a story, if you read between the lines.” Hidden Figures

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The human mind. Regardless the gender, race, age, creed, ethnicity of the physical form carrying that brain around, intellect can be the great unifier, driving humanity’s greatest contributions to this planet. Sadly and too often, our simplistic yet unrelenting cultural need to categorize and compartmentalize makes us lock away – belittling, ignoring, neglecting – the contents of brilliant minds in a vault of misogyny, prejudice, fear, and hate.

Hidden Figures is more than a film about how endemic institutional sexism and racism nearly derailed the American space program – a program so often held, perhaps erroneously, as the beaming example of progress and inclusion, inspiring multicultural fables from Star Trek to EPCOT Center.

Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a heartbreaking yet inspiring, trenchant yet forgiving, tear-jerking yet intellectual, timebound yet timeless allegory/cautionary tale for the mistakes we Americans are doomed to repeat when we let our baser, viler instincts cloud our appreciation for how diversity – the essential fabric of the much-vaunted U.S. of A. experience – enriches/enhances/enables our collective ability to problem-solve, defy the odds, and dream huge.

This movie got to me. Bigly.

The film’s marketing campaign – effective as it has been (giving Rogue One a run for its money at this weekend’s box office) – gives the impression of yet another in a too-long line of Lifetime-telefilm-meets-Oscar-bait-lets-wrap-American-racism-in-the-golden-hued-bubble-wrap-of-safe-historical-distance flicks. And, yes, the selfsame gorgeous cinematography, the jewel-toned zing of too-crisp-1960s fashion and decor and cars, the winking let-us-take-a-breather comic relief, the anachronistic pop music score (Pharrell Williams doing double duty as the film’s producer and composer) are all there.

Don’t be fooled. There is a stronger, more cutting message at play here than, say, in DreamWorks’ similarly positioned, cozy race fairy tale The Help. Whether Hollywood realizes it or not, too often big budget films dealing with race and gender bias unintentionally perpetuate the very bias they are attempting to decry. The persecuted class is too often “rescued” by someone (usually a pleasant, conflicted, well-heeled white person, male or female) who steps outside the cultural norms of the persecutors to pave the way for social justice. You know what? That’s an annoying trope that needs to retired. Doesn’t mean it’s untrue, but we’ve seen it. A lot. And whether we accept it or not, said trope seems engineered to let everyone off the hook, selling tickets because we all leave the theatre feeling good with our heads still buried in the sand.

Hidden Figures is slyer work, and I, for one, am grateful for that fact. You do leave the theatre “feeling good,” but for a different reason – one you may not see for days or even weeks. Crackerjack Taraji P. Henson (Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner for Empire, Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) portrays one of NASA’s resident human “computers” Katherine Johnson. She states, while faced with a particularly vexing mathematical problem, “What’s there tells a story if you read between the lines.” Amen. The protagonists of Hidden Figures – African-American women thinking and feeling in an era, not unlike the present one, where their thoughts and emotions are not only unappreciated but vigorously unwanted – do not need a rescuer or a hero. They save themselves – not to mention the space program and American pride – with their wits and their will and their very American drive to realize their own ambitions.

The film in its entirety is perfection, but Henson is the rocket fuel that keeps the enterprise propelled. She is a star, eminently watchable, with a character actor’s gift for definition, nuance, and differentiation. She inhabits and frames every scene with such spark and such drive, with such believable caution and frustration, with such compassion and inquisitiveness that you never want her to leave the screen. Henson rarely overplays any moment – there are very few over-the-top snippets where you say, “Oh, that’s the clip they will play at the Oscars.” The few outsized aspects to the performance are so righteously earned that they land like the perfect punctuational flourishes in a fine symphony. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this film nearly as much with anyone else in the role.

Nonetheless, Henson is aided and abetted by strong turns from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as data expert Dorothy Vaughan in another derivation of Spencer’s trademark world-weary “take no mess” tenacity and Grammy-nominated R&B wunderkind Janelle Monae (Moonlight) as engineering savant Mary Jackson whose peppery perspective gleefully, warily challenges the status quo at every fork in the road (“Civil rights ain’t always civil“).

Oscar-winner Kevin Costner was born to play 1960s sad-sack, pocket-protected, horn-rimmed, progressive misanthropes slogging through government jobs, searching for one bright spot in a sea of bureaucrats (see JFK and about half of his filmography). As space program director Al Harrison, Costner’s scenes with Henson crackle at the heart of the film: two human beings, neither of whom could really give two damns about race or gender, in love with the idea of solving big problems but burdened by a corporate culture (and society writ large), cutting off its collective nose to spite its collective face so threatened by authentic wit and wisdom, consumed by petty jealousy, and immobilized by resentment. Costner ruefully intones at one point, “We can’t justify a space program that doesn’t put anything into space.”

Golden Globe-winner Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) is also great as a mid-level NASA manager who inadvertently blocks progress at every turn, dutifully following a governmental system rigged against forward-thinking yet somehow intended to land a man on the moon. Dunst is so underrated; I wasn’t even sure it was her until I looked up the cast list on my phone halfway through the film (with apologies to my movie-seat neighbors). Dunst rejects the indulgence of playing juicy, stereotypical “racist villain” notes in the film, presenting instead a believably bedraggled functionary who knows her paycheck is contingent upon her being a rule-following twit.

Less successful in that regard, Jim Parsons (Emmy-winner for The Big Bang Theory) is underwhelming in his role as Henson’s rival and nemesis Paul Stafford. Without Sheldon Cooper’s OCD-nerd-centric tics, Parsons just comes off as a dull, hateful milquetoast. That may have been by design on the part of director Theodore Melfi but could have been accomplished more effectively and interestingly with a lesser-known actor.  On the other end of the spectrum, Glen Powell is a bit too twinkle-eyed in his “Prince Charming buying the world a Coke” portrayal of astronaut John Glenn. To his credit (and the film’s detriment), Powell leaps off the screen every time he appears – like Ed Norton’s prettier, caramel-dipped brother – but he is just “too-too” for me, disrupting the workaday credibility of the film’s depiction of NASA.

However, these are minor quibbles, made more obvious when the film surrounding them is so good. Film’s about the space program (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity) always use America’s race to the stars as a metaphor for human progress but frequently get side-tracked by the technical mumbo jumbo and with countless shots of retro Americans slack-jawed and gawking at the sky. Hidden Figures isn’t that movie, with the exception of a few corny shots of retro Americans slack jawed and gawking at the sky as Glenn makes his nail-biting return to earth in the film’s final moments. Hidden Figures is a movie about brilliant minds, unfairly marginalized by American superficiality, for whom mathematics is a language unto itself (the film runs rings around A Brilliant Mind in that regard). That language presents a path whereby three transcendent voices cut through the crap and the clutter of America’s sad “traditions” of sexism and racism. Hidden Figures is the movie America needs right now.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[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.

“Feed the right wolf.” Disney’s Tomorrowland (2015 film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Find the ones who haven’t given up. They are the future.” So says George Clooney at the end of Brad Bird’s latest Disney offering Tomorrowland, inspired as much by Disney’s ubiquitous theme parks (from which it derives its inspiration) as it does Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and … Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

In fact, this may be the first children’s film that directly addresses – so darkly, so interestingly, so strangely – global warming among other mankind-created global calamities. I can’t recall the last kiddie flick that depicted so darn many mushroom clouds, or had such a nihilistic sentiment at its gooey center. Good for Brad Bird.

Clearly a passion project for the director, the film suffers, alas, from a narrative lumpiness. It is composed almost like a junior novella, with very abrupt chapter breaks, and an unclear sense of the overall purpose until the crackerjack final act.

Regardless, the journey is an entertaining and worthwhile one, at least philosophically. As I find myself personally at a crossroads in life – looking back at what erroneously seemed an idyllic small-town, all-American way-of-life and now dreaming of a much-needed present/future state when we all can embrace empathy, kindness, and love, regardless our geographically defined boundaries – the film hit a raw nerve for me.

Ostensibly, the film is about Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton, a young, overeager space-loving kid horrified that America has given up on all dreams of galactic exploration. Casey discovers a magic pin that gives her glimpses of a sparkling utopia where we all live hand-in-hand, driving electric cars, zipping to-and-fro in bullet shaped sky-trains, and all wearing flowing garb designed in collaboration between Vera Wang and Judy Jetson (?). (Oh, and everybody in the future is fit. No fast food, no gluten, and, yeah, I bet vegan. Go figure.)

In truth? The film is really about George Clooney’s Frank Walker, a bright-eyed young boy born of nuclear optimism now a middle-aged sot calcified by millennial atrophy. He sees a world that he hoped would be (pushed to be), its limitless potential now squandered by petty greed and intentional hate. The classic baby boomer dilemma.

Casey sparks a reluctant optimism in Frank, as they meet cute, amidst a gaggle of murderous robots blowing up Frank’s steampunk farmhouse. They travel to Tomorrowland in hopes of preventing global catastrophe. Tomorrowland, you see, is an alternate dimension designed as a free-thinking societal construct, intended to gather humanity’s best and brightest in order to effect great change, but now turned to seed. Hugh Laurie, all glowering smarm, is its chief magistrate.

Robertson, who unfortunately has the acting range of a peanut, mugs and screams shamelessly, but Clooney with his oily charm is the perfect antidote. It takes quite a bit of screen time for him to finally emerge, but when he does the film starts firing on all cylinders.

Tomorrowland (the place … in the film) is a marvel of design, taking many cues from but never limited by the aesthetic of Disney’s theme park Tomorrowland(s) as well as the original designs for EPCOT – all swooping spirals, glittering towers, and burnished concrete.

As I understand it, Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury were pals, and they and their creative legacies share a similar take on the “future,” a concept as nebulous as it is thrilling. For these mid-century marvels, the future is a pearly veneer with a toxic venom ever curdling underneath. Both men telegraphed a healthy agnosticism and distrust of humanity – see Bambi, for one – with a deep desire to see us collectively rise above our own insularity and self-absorption … once and for all. Fat chance.

Brad Bird does a fine job capturing and forwarding this idea in Tomorrowland. The film is not perfect, a bit tedious at times, but it is a worthwhile summer blockbuster exercise in challenging how stunted we have become. At one point Casey says something to this effect: “There are two wolves. One bright and hopeful and one dark and cynical. Which wolf wins? Whichever one you feed. Feed the right wolf.”

Feed the right wolf.

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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.

Supercross, Part Deux: AMA Monster Energy Supercross at Detroit’s Ford Field

IMG_0633IMG_0642Me? Write about sporting events? Yeah, I don’t think so.

IMG_0635As a result, you are just getting some random, blurry iPhone photos, illustrating our second AMA Monster Energy Supercross event in as many weeks, this time at Detroit’s own Ford Field.IMG_0645

(Last week’s event at Daytona International Speedway gets a shout-out here.)

IMG_0643This weekend, Supercross returned to the Motor City after a six-year absence, which was an odd gap since Motown has always brought sold-out crowds … but nonetheless we’re glad to see it back at Ford Field.

IMG_0638So, who won the big event tonight? James Stewart. No, not this James Stewart. THIS James Stewart.

Watch out, ESPN – here comes Reel Roy Reviews.

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IMG_0635IMG_0634Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events!

IMG_0636In 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.

Visiting another planet – EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival, Dandelion Communitea Cafe, Magic Bands, Cafe Verde, and Daytona Supercross

Lady and the Tramp go green

Lady and the Tramp at EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival (Photo by Author)

Orlando, Florida is like visiting another planet. A plastic, overpopulated, abundantly colorful, manic far-satellite where they charge you a quarter every time you take a breath.

Last year, we visited Orlando’s sister kitsch-world Las Vegas, and, in 2014, we made our return to Central Florida after a three year hiatus.

It is just as delightfully suffocating as I recall.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually find comfort in super-commercialized, super-merchandised, super-programmed environments. (Some day I will be brave enough to post photos of our basement filled with sentimental, entertainment-themed tsotchkes culled from years of visiting the Disney Bubble and places like it.)

But it is a rather exhausting place to be, making one ever more grateful for the quiet moments amidst a pile of dirty laundry and credit card receipts when one finally returns home.

Call her MISS Poppins!

Call her MISS Poppins! (Photo by Author)

The “polar vortex” continues to grasp at the edges of impending springtime, and our weather was rainy and downright cold most of the time. (I even bought an over-priced knit hat at Disney’s Old Key West gift shop … to wear alongside cargo shorts and flip flops. Quite a look, if I do say-so myself … like a drunken Gorton’s Fisherman at a frat party.)

Nonetheless, we hit the outlet malls, the gift shops, and the tourist traps like the good capitalist lemmings Orlando requires.

Some highlights:

I’m not much for “food and wine festivals,” but we happened upon EPCOT’s annual International Flower and Garden Festival. What I would have otherwise thought would bore me to tears was actually delightful – if topiaries artificially contorted into the familiar shapes of classic Disney characters is your thing. Surprisingly, it was mine. Who knew? I wonder if my neighbors will mind this summer when I turn our hedges into the cast from Toy Story? (View the full photo album here.)

Kermit and Piggy promote good eating ... and their new movie

Kermit and Piggy promote good eating … and their new movie (Photo by Author)

Even better than the mouse-eared horticulture was the fact that Disney went all out with vegetarian and vegan fare throughout the festival. Each stop around EPCOT’s trademark World Showcase offered at least two or three vegetarian/vegan options and they were good. My favorite was this weird buttery tart scalloped eggplant thingie with a warm beet salad. Yeah, Top Chef‘s Tom Colicchio I will never be – I wouldn’t even be able to describe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make it sound enticing.

The update to EPCOT’s Test Track is less an overhaul and more a redeco, with the cornier aspects replaced with sleek digital effects and black-light piping everywhere. It works well, though at times I felt I was zooming around Tron‘s rec room.

Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Disney’s Boardwalk was sublime as always … at least food-wise. The chef stopped by our table and worked out an incredible Mediterranean vegetarian spread just for us. Our server, though, seemed to have woken up on the corner of Cranky and Crabby Avenues, while some fellow waitstaff thought it would be nifty to tell the kids at a nearby table to throw their flatware to the ground repeatedly, screaming “Opa!” every time. I may be getting too old for this…

Woody salutes you

Woody salutes you at EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival (Photo by Author)

Disney continues to tinker with ways to make you feel even more cash-poor and over-managed during and after your visit. Maybe I am just old and cranky, but I feel they have passed the tipping point in this regard. A one day visit to one park is now over $100 a ticket and there is very little that is new or engaging at this point. In fact, there are visible signs of deterioration and “cast member” malaise at every turn.

Compounding the frustration is this new invention called the “Magic Band” which would make Orwell faint. With great cheerful fanfare (one of the few times I saw downright joy from a Disney employee this trip) you are issued these micro-chipped bracelets adorned with the silhouette of Mickey’s head. These bracelets (conveniently linked directly to your checking account) are your “keys to the world” whereby your every move, purchase, encounter is tracked, measured, predicted, and modified. In fact, while wearing the d*mn thing, I even had a story about them pop up on my iPhone.

Disney's Boardwalk on an overcast evening

Disney’s Boardwalk on an overcast evening (Photo by Author)

The concept is that they make everything easier as you don’t have to carry a wallet or keys and you just touch “mouse-to-mouse” on any kiosk or cash register or door around the mammoth resort. I didn’t like it, and I wonder how Disney CEO Robert Iger would take it if I show up next time with jar full of quarters and an abacus. I may try that.

We made our way to a long-time favorite – no Magic Bands required: Dandelion Communitea Cafe, a progressive vegetarian/vegan restaurant well outside the white-gloved, four-fingered reach of the Mouse. If you’re an animal-loving, adventurous vegan/vegetarian, this place is heaven. And, if you’re not, you will be after leaving. The food is so good, and the people are just delightful and authentic and caring. Try the “hunny mustard tempeh nuggets” – seriously. Do it. Your stomach … and chickens … will thank you. Dandelion’s motto is “If anything can go right … it will.” Good for them. I have to remember that now that I’ve returned to snowy Michigan where the sport du jour is “car swallowing/tire shredding-pothole dodging.”

Reducing our carbon footprint ... on our way to a gas-hazed motorcycle race

Reducing our carbon footprint … on our way to a gas-hazed motorcycle race (Photo by Author)

Our rental Prius (we really were hippies on this trip) also transported us to Cafe Verde in New Smyrna Beach en route to Supercross at the Daytona Speedway. (Yeah, you read that sentence correctly.) Cafe Verde is a relaxing, vegetarian/vegan-friendly establishment with a wide-range of Mexican and Italian-adjacent menu items. Eggplant struck again, as my favorite item was this dip made from said vegetable pureed along with … some other stuff. Told you I’m not a cook, but I know what’s tasty!

We wrapped up our long weekend of vegan-living by hanging out on the Daytona International Speedway track with a gaggle of Supercross fans. We have eclectic tastes to be sure.

Daytona Supercross

Daytona Supercross
(Photo by Author)

Supercross, for the uninitiated, is a sport whereby a bunch of pleasant young fellows (who seem to hail primarily from Florida, California … and Australia?) ride rumbling dirt-bike motorcycles across a man-made muddy track with an endless series of ramps and ruts and hills and peaks (oh my!). These riders are as much acrobats as racers as they sail through the air with the greatest of ease. And, as you can imagine, the people-watching is priceless with a refreshing cross-section of humanity united in their love of standing out in the cold on a steeply banked Daytona track watching these gentlemen and their flying machines.

As much fun as we had, it’s always good to be home again. And I guess that is the best part of taking any trip. (As a side note, I think I’m going to bury my souvenir Magic Bands in a lead-lined box in the backyard for fear of Uncle Walt tracking me on any and all my grocery trips to Meijer.)

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language, and Crazy Wisdom 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.