“People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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There’s “Something There,” all right. Disney’s 2017 live action Beauty and the Beast is an absolute delight. Maybe I just needed a movie like this right here, right now, but this update spoke to my heart and soul and had me staying through every last bit of the credits, with tears streaming down my cheeks and a big smile on my face.

I’ve been agnostic about the artistic need (not the commercial one) for the unyielding march of Disney’s flesh-and-blood remakes/reinventions, since the runaway success of the garishly underwhelming Alice in Wonderland. True, each subsequent entry has improved upon the last, from the DOA Oz the Great and Powerful to the well-cast if underwritten feminism of Maleficent, from the poignant but ultimately forgettable Cinderella to the sparkling eco-parable The Jungle Book, culminating in last summer’s exemplary if underappreciated Pete’s Dragon.

Beauty and the Beast (not unlike its animated forebear) takes the lessons from all that came before and synthesizes them into a crackerjack entertainment. Yes, there is the requisite if servile devotion to iconic imagery and character beats (the blue dress, the yellow dress, an elegant waltz in a cerulean-hued ball room, Gaston’s Freudianly overcompensating pompadour). Yes, the film suffers from a borderline overuse of CGI. For a “live action” remake, there is likely as much if not more animation in this version than the last, and poor Emma Watson (“Belle”) does her level best to act in awe of the green-screen universe surrounding her. I can imagine the direction: “Emma, a plate is flying at your head now. The forks are doing a can-can. A feather duster just sailed past your ears!” And, of course, there is a Disney Store stockroom’s worth of infinitely merchandisable new characters – dolls, Tsum Tsums, magnets, action figures, porcelain statues, and home goods … oh, the home goods.

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) has embraced it all but never to the detriment of story or character, fleshing out the more problematic elements of the source material and casting some of Hollywood’s best and brightest (and most empathetic) to deliver the goods. Do we really want kids fantasizing about Stockholm Syndrome as a path to true love? Thankfully, Emma Watson (Harry Potter) brings a feminist agency to Belle that is refreshing and necessary. The character will never be Gloria Steinem, but even Steinem mined captivity in the Playboy Mansion as a launchpad to address the objectification and mistreatment of women. (Too pedantic or too glib of me? Probably both.)

Kevin Kline plays Belle’s father Maurice, bringing some of the strongest character development to the piece, haunted by a desire to protect his only daughter from a world that claimed his beloved wife too soon. It seems to be a requirement that every Disney protagonist loses a parent (or two) as a spark for their hero’s quest, but Condon, alongside screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, gives us a haunting and loving portrayal of a father-daughter united by tragedy but undeterred in intellectual curiosity.

As before, Belle is an oddity in her “poor, provincial town” because, well, she likes to read … and to challenge the status quo and to question why anyone should simply accept with gratitude the lot in life they are handed. What once seemed like a quaint notion in a nearly 30-year-old cartoon, now seems frighteningly au courant in 2017 America. Early in the film, Maurice describes Belle’s mother to his child as a way of helping Belle cope with the small-minded community in which they are trapped, “People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Preach.

Through a series of minor calamities and overt misdirection, Belle finds herself at the castle of the Beast (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), a foppish prince who was transformed into a monster because of his unrepentant vanity and cruelty. The Beast holds Belle hostage in exchange for her father’s life, after Maurice tries to steal a rose from his garden. Nice guy, eh?

Bletchley Circle‘s Hattie Morahan does a fine job with her limited screen-time as the sorceress who curses the prince. In fact, the entire opening sequence, narrated by Morahan, is a surreal homage to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 take on the material; it is a rather un-Disney-like preamble, with l’enfant terrible (Stevens, again), prior to his transformation, contemptuously awash in a baroque swirl of powdered wigs, fright makeup, and gilded … everything. (In other words, a typical Saturday afternoon at Mar A Lago.) It’s so repulsively camp that we as an audience have zero sympathy for what befalls the prince and his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time waitstaff. You do the crime, you do the time.

As for Stevens’ work as the Beast, I don’t envy any actor whose performance is buried under a mountain of computer-generated pixels, but, like Robbie Benson before him, the trick to this character is in the voice work, and Stevens’ evolution from feral to forlorn to fetching is spot on.

Regarding the enchanted crockery, cutlery, and assorted housewares who populate the Beast’s castle, Condon offers us an embarrassment of riches. Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson all have a ball with their respective roles, with McKellen, Thomspon, and McGregor as standouts. The original film was no slouch in that department either (Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers), and this next generation similarly provides comic relief and even greater melancholy as the Beast’s “family,” loyal to a fault and ever-hopeful that he will find himself and, in the process, discover true love and break the curse. Condon’s casting is flawless here.

Rounding out the ensemble, Luke Evans (The Hobbit series) portrays a Gaston that is not “roughly the size of a barge” but whose smarmy ego, rampant insecurity, and loathing of women and animals are ginormous. Gaston has always been the true “beast” of the story, and this production doesn’t shy away from depicting him as the worst of all male impulses and an unfortunate corollary to the darker elements in present day society. A little bit Robert Goulet and a little bit Errol Flynn and a whole lot of unbridled id, Evans is on fire throughout. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) as sidekick LeFou is more understated than the trailers (or the silly trumped-up controversy surrounding the flick) would have you believe. Gad’s sweaty, subservient fawning over Gaston is balanced with some lovely notes of self-doubt that provide a more thoughtful characterization than I was expecting.

And, yes, the songs. All of the ones you know and love – and that will be keeping you awake in a continuous loop in your noggin at two in the morning – are all there. The song stylings of this cast won’t put any Broadway babies out of a job, but they all acquit themselves nicely, using the relative intimacy of film over stage to inject these anthemic numbers with a healthy dose of nuance. There are four new songs contributed by original composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice (Howard Ashman wrote the lyrics for the original score). I, for one, thought the additional numbers blended seamlessly, with particular standouts being “Days in the Sun” (beautifully expressing the longing of the house staff to return to their human forms) and “Evermore” (the Beast’s big number wherein he finally knows what true love is only to see it walk out his castle door). These numbers sound like Sondheim cast-offs that just didn’t quite make the cut for Sweeney Todd. And that’s a compliment.

This new model Beauty and the Beast may disappoint some for not reinventing enough, and it may trouble others for contemporizing too much. I, for one, thought it was just right. The 2017 version remains a tale as old as time, true as it can be, and speaks to the underdogs, the marginalized people, those who are bullied by the cool kids or punished for being too indulgent. Indeed, it is bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong. Beauty and the Beast reminds us that life does get better.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“With great power comes great irresponsibility.” #Deadpool

Deadpool If Quentin Tarantino re-imagined Bugs Bunny as a fourth-wall-bursting, profane, cavalier, heartbroken, mutant mercenary with a death wish, it would look something like Marvel’s latest cinematic offering (through Fox, not Disney) Deadpool.

Ryan Reynolds stars as the titular anti-hero (affectionately dubbed “The Merc with a Mouth”), and he has never been so charming, so lovable, so offensively juvenile, so obscene, or so humane. Reynolds has always been too much of a glimmering, beautiful smart-ass for me, like Johnny Carson on steroids (literally), and, even though he may hold the record for playing different super hero personae (Blade III, the regrettable Green Lantern, and the unforgivable movie Deadpool 1.0 in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), I’ve never really left a film of his without the strong desire to smack him across his smirking, pretty boy mug.

Maybe that’s why I liked this Deadpool so much, which wisely torches any and all Reynolds’ previous super hero work to date in a series of winking inside jokes throughout the film. Screaming irreverence notwithstanding (which I absolutely loved), the film hides Reynolds (and his cheese-tastic visage) under a spectacularly expressive red and black mask (the costumer deserves a medal) or under a football field’s worth of latex scar tissue (when said mask is removed), liberating Reynolds to be the big, sweet, friskily asexual, flaming nerd he’s always desired to be. It suits him beautifully.

The film, which spins out of the decidedly more family-friendly X-Men movie universe, isn’t as unconventional as it purports to be. Yes, Reynolds alongside director Tim Miller (directing his first feature after a career in animation – explaining the Tex Avery influences) freely lampoon and celebrate the super hero genre, gleefully biting the many hands (Marvel, Hollywood, Disney, misogyny, bro-culture) that feed them. However, the film’s chassis is as conventional as they come – yet another comic book origin story where boy meets girl; boy gets terminal cancer; boy abandons girl because he doesn’t want her to see him wither away; boy hooks up with creepy-skid-row-scientists-conducting-sadistic-experiments-in-a-murky-basement-somewhere; boy gets super powers, curing his cancer, but also gets really ugly; boy puts on a super suit to gain revenge on skid row scientists; boy avoids girl ’cause he’s really ugly now, but still lurks around all Phantom of the Opera style; boy beats up the creep who scarred him (literally) with the help of a couple of comically wayward X-Men; boy gets girl back after she punches him repeatedly for ever leaving her in the first place. Finis.

Hmmm … well, maybe the movie is not that conventional. What sets Deadpool apart, ultimately, is how deftly the film marries the prurient and the gentle. The adoration and respect that Reynolds’ Wade Wilson (later Deadpool) shows his fellow lower-class misfit Vanessa (deftly played by Gotham’s Morena Baccarin, lighting up the screen with naughty screwball feminist camp) is genuine and tender (when they aren’t smacking each other with riding crops). The kindness and the mutual admiration Deadpool has for his blind, Ikea-loving, foul-mouthed septuagenarian roommate Blind Al (portrayed with scene-stealing delight by an unrecognizable Leslie Uggams!) is precious and heart-warming (when they aren’t talking about crack cocaine, firearms, and the near-sensual comfort of their Crocs footwear). The sweet and salty bromance between Reynolds and barkeep Weasel (nebbishly scruffy T.J. Miller, used much more effectively here than in that godawful Transformers flick) is a grounded and welcome respite from all the four-color absurdity (when they aren’t starting bar fights by sending alcoholic beverages with risque names from one table of thugs to another).

This film is a hoot and is wildly inappropriate for anyone under 18 or anyone over 18. I applaud the filmmakers for taking on the challenge of an R-rated comic book adaptation, and, while indulging many of their baser instincts, maintaining the sense of joy and inclusion that propels the most successful, broad-reaching super hero films. Deadpool stands in marked contrast to movies like Kingsman or Watchmen or 300 that wear their ugly outcast alienation on their collective sleeves (or, in the case of 300, lack of sleeves … or, in the case of Watchmen, lack of pants), movies with a kind of baked-in, intractable sexism.

I suppose we can thank (?) 300/Watchmen director Zack Snyder (and friends) for creating that new brand of sexism, one in which the purveyors claim that the true sexists are those preoccupied by the sexism? By golly, don’t you dare try to prevent these alpha-aspirational men (?) from being MEN! Grrrr. OK, neither Snyder nor his ilk have ever said that – though films like 300 are really freaking Freudian, in a bad P90X, artisanal craft beer-drinking, Paleo Diet way. Hell, maybe I’ve just had too many wobbly political debates on Facebook this week? #FeelingBernt? But I digress …

Whatever the case, Deadpool is a welcome divergence from those dark and gritty, self-serious comic book adaptations and offers plenty of scatalogical foolishness to satiate your inner 8th grader, while infusing the genre with a truly subversive love for underdogs of any and all stripes (among us all) – and that will satisfy your exhausted outer grown-up.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Director Todd Haynes (he of artisanally crafted, spotlessly curated, hermetically sealed art-house fare like Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, and Safe) and Cate Blanchett (she of Oscar-winning, delicately-nuanced, steely, and cat-like turns in Blue Jasmine, Notes on a Scandal, Oscar and Lucinda, and Elizabeth) would seem to be a match made in cinematic heaven. In fact, they have worked together once before on the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There in which Blanchett was acclaimed for her portrayal of Dylan. (That film is an ensemble effort in which a number of actors play allegorical aspects of the famed troubadour at different stages of his life…at least that’s the simplest explanation I can give of that knotty flick.)

Haynes and Blanchett collaborate again on Carol, a film treatment of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (a much more interesting title if you ask me). Interestingly, Blanchett entered the popular consciousness in another Highsmith adaptation, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Blanchett had already been nominated for the Academy Award for Elizabeth when she appeared as the memorably nosy Meredith in Ripley, but Ripley is likely the first time mainstream audiences sat up and took notice of her crackerjack blend of Golden Age moxie and arch feminism.

Ripley is a Hitchcockian potboiler (akin to Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which was adapted by Hitchcock) and translates mid-century Freudian psychosexual turmoil into high-crime intrigue; conversely, Carol keeps its heartache and indiscretions grounded in the crushing civility of Atomic Age Americana.

Blanchett’s Carol Aird is a moneyed Manhattan suburbanite, married to a doting and suffocating husband, Harge (Super 8‘s Kyle Chandler, an Arrow Collar/James Garner-paper doll of a fellow). However, she worships their only daughter, Rindy. (Yes, this is the kind of movie where characters have names like Harge and Rindy, smoke cigarettes from silver cases, drink martinis at lunch, and wear driving gloves. all. the. time.)

We learn that Carol has recently had an affair with childhood friend (and Rindy’s godmother) Abby (an ever-luminous Sarah Paulson – 12 Years a Slave, American Horror Story), a fling that has sent Harge into a male ego death spiral, even though the relationship is over and Abby has transitioned from paramour back to confidante. This sets the stage for Carol, while purchasing a Christmas present for her daughter, to “meet cute” with a darling department store clerk (and amateur photographer) Therese Belivet (deftly portrayed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara – imagine an alternate universe where Audrey Hepburn plays a Sapphic “Rory Gilmore” who happens to work at Bloomingdale’s and is partial to wearing multi-colored tam hats).

What the film delivers is a claustrophobic yet sophisticated era, in which decorum rules the day to the detriment of one’s soul. The film moves at a glacial pace, which I suspect is entirely by design, as these two women circle each other, transfixed by their forbidden attraction.

I will add, though, that I had zero understanding of why these women loved one another, other than that the film’s narrative required it. Both Blanchett and Mara have such delicious presence, but neither of them seem to be having one damn bit of fun. There is just no joy here. Again, maybe that’s the point, but rounding into the second hour when this dynamic duo launches into an aimless road trip (that ends up in Waterloo, Iowa, of all places), I just didn’t feel the spark.

The love Carol has for daughter Rindy is palpable (I dare you to keep a dry eye when Chandler and Blanchett have a pas de deux in their lawyers’ office over custody of the child), but I was ambivalent about the connection between Carol and Therese.

Haynes’ films are chilly and soapy. That’s part of his Douglas Sirk schtick, and he uses that retro frame as postmodern commentary on what we have gained and what we have lost as a society. In Haynes’ world, there is always a price for liberty, but, part of the issue with Carol, is that I never found myself invested enough in the main characters to feel their pain.

Blanchett and Mara are doing great actorly work, particularly in their early scenes. Blanchett strikes a delicate balance of detached heartache and predatory lust, while Mara offers a loving portrayal of a kid coming to grips with her place in a world that can be devastatingly cruel to women of any stripe. Yet, I never totally buy them as people. The first lunch date between Carol and Therese is a hoot; Carol confidently orders creamed spinach, poached eggs, and a dry martini, and Therese blankly looks at the server as says, “I’ll have the same,” later wailing, “I barely even know what to order for lunch!” as a comic indicator of the deep waters in which she now finds herself.

I wish Haynes had the willingness to give us more of that movie, one in which two humans find a confidence and a comfort through the wit and humor of shared experience and mutual anxiety. As it is, Carol feels a bit like a film trapped in the amber of nostalgic male panic.

NERD

NERD

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

MLK holiday movie marathon (VIDEO): Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper

Enjoy this quick video synopsis of movies we saw over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend – Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper. (You can read the full reviews of all four below this entry).

 

And thanks to The Columbia City Post & Mail for this additional shout-out for the release of Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming!

Post and Mail RRR2 Redux

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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.

Les Miserables in a wrestling ring: Foxcatcher

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like some Oscar-bait cross between Million Dollar Arm and Sunset Boulevard with a pinch of Psycho and Jane Eyre thrown in, Foxcatcher details the sordid tale of Olympic gold-medal wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz and their dubiously motivated benefactor John E. du Pont. The film is a slow moving, frosty enterprise that deftly skewers the out-of-touch misanthropy of one-percenters, the sweaty desperation of competitive athletics, and the strange sycophantic creatures known as athletic boosters.

Steve Carell, richly deserving his recently minted Oscar nomination, portrays the scion of the American chemical dynasty as a heartbreakingly creepy, incestuously inbred superpatriot whose preoccupation with Americana and misplaced mommy issues leads him to adopt a cadre of wrestlers to live and train on his sprawling estate. Vanessa Redgrave – in all of her three minutes of screen time – exonerates any lingering Freudian implications about du  Pont’s mother, Jean, a world class horse trainer. With just a flicker of those legendary eyes and a pursing of the lips, Redgrave telegraphs, with a quietly, comically poignant thunderstorm intensity, her profound disappointment and confusion over the oddball son she raised.

You see, John du Pont runs around in a Revolutionary War three-quarter length jacket (when he’s not rocking a cheesy wrestling coach track suit), buys tanks to tool around his property, goes skeet shooting with the local police, insists that people call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle,” snorts cocaine, and decorates his home in a faux colonial style that would have been tacky during the ’76 Bicentennial. In other words, he would be a great addition to the Bush family. Sorry.

He aims to overshadow his mother’s equestrian accomplishments by helping Mark Schultz (and thereby ‘Murica) bring home the gold at the ’88 Seoul Olympics. Du Pont is a pathetically amateurish wrestler himself, with a very kinky preoccupation with singlets and wrestling mats. And an even kinkier preoccupation with the younger Schultz brother, as portrayed by Channing Tatum.

Tatum hasn’t gotten the accolades garnered by Carell as du  Pont or by Mark Ruffalo as Mark’s older brother David. That’s a shame. Tatum turns in a brilliant variation of his standard lunkhead routine, swiping a bit from James Dean’s Cal Trask (East of Eden) playbook as the wounded, ever-ignored baby brother. It is this broken spirit that connects Mark with du Pont in a toxic brew of clammy co-dependence. As du Pont continues to derail the younger Schultz with his sociopathic manipulation, the thick-headed heartbreak of Tatum’s emotionally stunted Mark Schultz is palpable. His breakdown in a hotel room at the Olympic trials is epically harrowing (if not a touch overbaked).

Ruffalo, as always, is scruffy perfection as Tatum’s brother. He captures the pathetic swagger of an athlete whose accomplishments were forgotten before they even really began. Olympic gold for these brothers is more of a dead end than an open door. Ruffalo is warm and lovely and appropriately stilted in all of his interactions with family, not quite as stunted as his brother Mark … but awfully close. When he finally meets his tragic end, it is both shocking and expected but no less horrifying.

Director Bennett Miller, like Carell and Ruffalo, also has been nominated for an Oscar, though his recognition is arguably the least deserving. Bennett is brave enough to let the quiet moments speak for themselves, capitalizing on the expressiveness of his crackerjack cast to great effect. The movie’s strongest moments are in its silences; the most telling exchanges from a wordless look of disdain from one character to another.

However, the film’s pacing is ponderous, and, occasionally, Bennett allows the flick to devolve into TV movie clichés:  Mark Schultz now has highlights in his hair … so he must be having an illicit relationship with du Pont; Mark Schultz is surrounded by beer bottles, so he must be letting training slide; Du Pont is snorting cocaine during a helicopter ride, so he must be a reckless ne’er do well; David Schultz can’t remember simple things like picking up his kids from school, so let’s have him write notes on his own hand like “pick up kids” which must show what a regular Joe he is. Ain’t that cute?

Regardless, the film is very much worth seeing, for the implications it offers regarding the super rich in this country … of their inability to understand the hopes and dreams of the rest of us, of their inability to see that we aren’t here as chattel for their amusement.  To me, that was the most powerful message of all in the film, like Les Miserables in a wrestling ring.

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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.

Countdown: The Guilt Trip

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

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.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Boys of Summer: Man of Steel

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

All I can say is thank heavens for Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. (Not a sentence I thought I would ever type.)

These two veterans give Man of Steel, the latest big screen Superman treatment, much-needed heart, warmth, and vitality.

Now, that’s not to say Man of Steel is bad. Quite the opposite in fact. The film is stocked with a phenomenal cast of Oscar-nominated/winning actors: the aforementioned duo playing Ma and Pa Kent as well as Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Michael Shannon as General Zod, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. All of them bring an almost BBC-level Shakespearean gravitas to the four-color (albeit grittily muted) proceedings.

Furthermore, relative newcomer Henry Cavill is a perfect Superman, particularly for a postmodern era. He exudes the noble sadness of a person caught between two worlds, a haunted soul hoping that both worlds (in this case, Krypton and Earth) find a means to rise above their darker natures. He makes the most of too few moments of wit, most in exchange with a crackerjack Adams, and he powers through some painfully-obvious shots of otherworldly beefcakery. Alas, at times, it seemed as if director Zack Snyder was more inspired by the latest Abercrombie & Fitch catalog than the DC Comics source material. (From 300 to Watchmen to Man of Steel, Freud would have a field day with Snyder’s hyper-stylized oeuvre.)

My biggest issue with the film would be its chronic video-game aesthetic that starts to grind the viewer into paste as pop-eyed, scowling, yet compelling Shannon’s Zod fights … and fights … and fights … and fights with Cavill’s Superman, pretty much turning Metropolis into a smoking crater. The sheer improbability of all the destruction waged hurts the otherwise credible dynamic established by this great cast.

But back to Lane and Costner. With very little screen time, they made a believer out of this viewer … that the all-American values these adoptive parents impart in their son aren’t some goody goody impulse. Rather, these values are a tool the couple use to keep their child safe, helping him blend into a small-town/small-minded world that would otherwise loathe him for his exceptional talents. A fresh and interesting lens through which to view an oft-told American myth.

If last summer’s Dark Knight Rises, which was directed by Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan, was a parable of 99 per centers run amuck, then this follow-up plays on today’s crazed paranoia – among neo-cons and bleeding hearts alike – of an imminent fascist state controlling all thought, action, and deed. Crowe’s Jor-El rockets his baby boy to Earth to show his Kryptonian people a different way, a life of free-will, hope, and joy. Problem with that is that we Americans can be a cowardly and fearful lot … so thank goodness little Kal-El (soon to be Clark Kent) stumbles upon a prototypical humanist couple in a Kansas cornfield.

And you know the moment that brought me to tears? (SPOILER ALERT!) When the filmmakers have Pa Kent meet his maker going back and rescuing the family pooch from a CGI-swirly tornado barreling down a stretch of Kansas interstate. Yes, the dog survives, and Costner gets his glow-y Field of Dreams moment right before getting swallowed by the twister. He looks knowingly at his space alien boy as if to say, “Be humble, do the right thing, and always help all creatures great and small.” And inadvertently, it was also a moment of a former blockbuster boy of summer (Costner) passing the torch onto a new one (Cavill).

How I spent my Christmas vacation…Les Miz, Django, and Babs

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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 Guilt Trip. 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.

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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 Dayexplore 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.

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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.