“Dog Almighty.” A Thanksgiving analysis of the films Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is no question that this world feels more than a bit broken these days. Over this Thanksgiving holiday, we took in three films that all deal with our shared past, present, future imperfect in poignant, heartrending, riotous, and allegorical ways: Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs. In essence, all three deal with the fact that our world is governed by people who don’t always have our best interests at heart … nor, in fact, have any interests but their own in mind.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley‘s best-selling memoir, is a gut punch with a surprisingly light touch – as much about family, faith, being true to one’s own self, and integrity as it is about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. Directed with a balanced and nuanced approach by Joel Edgerton (who also plays the head conversion “therapist” with a refreshing lack of Snidely Whiplash-ism), the film withholds judgment on well-meaning parents whose hearts are in the right place even if their actions couldn’t be more out-of-touch. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are absolute magic as an Arkansas couple whose capital-C Christianity defines every square inch of their lives. He is a pastor AND runs a Ford dealership where the salespeople begin each day with a group prayer. Ah, the American Southland. Am I being judgy? Ah well.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lucas Hedges ably portrays their prototypical all-American golden boy Jared – a basketball-playing, cheerleader-dating, Mustang-driving alpha-male-in-training. Except, he isn’t. He’s a sensitive and dutiful son following the recipe-for-life set before him by his noble if misguided parents, still striving to define himself in a world far too ready to box him in with hetero-normative conventions. The irony is that Jared is the purest soul, lost amidst elders who purport purity yet are more obsessed with human sexuality than the supposed “deviants” they seek to condemn. The textbook definition of “thou dost protest too much.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The chief strength of the film is how believably this trio of acting pros – Kidman, Crowe, and Hedges – weaves together a family dynamic that is sad and warm and funny and never melodramatic. This is an essential film and must be viewed by everyone, particularly those arrogant and hypocritical enough to weigh in on social issues that they lack the empathy to fully comprehend.

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What is it about Australians – like Crowe and Kidman – that they are capable of translating the American experience to film better than most Americans? And here we have fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman offering a pensive, detailed, reserved, dynamite turn as 1988 presidential hopeful Gary Hart in director Jason Reitman’s stellar flick The Front Runner. Jackman is aided and abetted by the always magnificent Vera Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering but never victimized wife. Jackman and Farmiga are a formidable acting combination, and I would love to see them do something again soon.

Jackman has always been a twinkling presence (a true blue Greatest Showman) – sometimes even a glowering, steroidal, twinkling presence  (Wolverine … and Jean Valjean) – but I had my doubts that he had the chops to be unapproachable and unlikable yet still admirable in a ripped-from-the-headlines character role like this. I was wrong. (I do think his hair and makeup people should be fired, though, for the weird dusty mop they plopped on his noggin in the film.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reitman has surrounded his leads with a fantastic supporting cast – including exceptional JK Simmons and Alfred Molina as two sides of the same benevolent puppet-master coin, the first as Hart’s campaign manager and the latter as The Washington Post’s editor. Furthermore, Reitman uses the controversy surrounding Hart’s infidelity which derails his campaign as a sharp-eyed allegory on today’s contentious and never-ending donnybrook between politicians and news media.

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Is a public figure’s personal life fair game for the media? Is a private transgression a worthy public measure of integrity? Do people care, or do they only care when it benefits their party of affiliation? And what of the ongoing invisibility and disposability of women in said process, be they spouse or mistress or aide or voter?

The film raises all of these questions in the context of what once seemed a charmingly bygone era, yet offers us, today, no easy answers. Significantly, Reitman turns the mirror on ourselves, challenging the viewer to assess his or her own culpability in perpetuating this madness, and that is a marvelous hat trick.

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But would you believe me when I said that the best and most pointed analysis of our current milieu comes from what is ostensibly a children’s animated film about dogs banished to a garbage heap island by a Japanese magistrate who prefers cats over canines? I predict masters theses will be written about Isle of Dogs at liberal arts colleges and universities all over the land 20 years from now.

I’m not crazy about director Wes Anderson. Twee sarcasm is not usually something that screams “great night at the movies” to me. His Isle of Dogs (now on home video), blessedly, is anything but.

Imagine Richard Adams’ novel Plague Dogs or George Orwell‘s Animal Farm adapted to film by Quentin Tarantino, using Manga-stylized puppets and stop-motion animation. Isle of Dogs is sweet-natured yet caustic, escapist yet blisteringly critical, whimsical yet horrifying. If there is a movie that pushes and explores and avails itself of every inch and vista what the artsy fartsies call “cinema,” this is it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The script is layered and thoughtful and addresses everything from animal rights to totalitarianism to the twin toxicities of apathy and wishful thinking. The film’s core message, beyond that we should be kind to animals and to each other and that tolerance and inclusion heal? It’s this: if you want this damn world to change, get in there and change it. Anderson seems to be directly addressing any children watching his film that if you see oppression or evil, take it upon yourselves to stop it. Adults are too fat and lazy to care. The young human protagonists in this film are heroic in a way that goes beyond the fantasy role-playing of, say, Dorothy Gale or Katniss Everdeen, presenting young audience members with salient and actionable examples to follow.

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Oh, and the voice cast is to die for, including Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, and, yes, Yoko Ono. The titular dogs are, yes, adorable but with agency and surety and never one moment of infantilism.

Hot damn!

Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and appreciation. It’s also a time to think about what’s next and where you want to go. This seemingly serendipitous combination of films does indeed add up to a pretty important road map. One worth following. For that, I am thankful.

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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 just don’t want to lose the part of me that is, you know, talented.” A Star Is Born (2018)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I wasn’t certain the world needed another version of A Star Is Born: 1937 – Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; 1954 – Judy Garland and James Mason; 1976 – Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; and now 2018 – Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. And we nearly had a version starring Beyonce and directed by (shudder) Clint Eastwood.

(I’ve always thought they should revisit the Garland musical with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, but, alas, I think that ship has sailed.)

I was wrong about the need for this latest version. Dead wrong. Director and star Bradley Cooper has made an exceptional film and the perfect version of this timeworn story for our post-millennial malaise.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

For those who’ve seen any or all of the previous versions, the familiar fractured fairy tale story beats remain: male star at his peak meets female unknown; the parabolic trajectories of their respective careers intersect as hers is on the ascent and his is …not so much; he has substance abuse problems; she wins a major award and he embarrasses the crap out of her on live TV; things continue to spiral and tragedy ensues, but like a phoenix from the ashes, she reclaims her destiny in a triumphant final number. Exeunt.

Yet, this version is unlike the others. The simplistic, melodramatic narrative belies a more nuanced approach that jettisons broadly drawn archetypes and he said/she said outright villainy. Rather than mire in toxic masculinity his character Jackson Maine (an homage-in-name-only to James Mason’s “Norman Maine” in the 1954 film), Cooper gives us a man broken by such impulses (as evidenced by his neglectful father), a man whose heart is so shattered that all he knows to do is sing and drink (a lot). But he’s not mean. He’s basically sweet. Lost. And consummately effed up.

Following a concert performance and in pursuit of more liquor, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar, and, rather than act like a macho jackass, settles in and enjoys the show. Lady Gaga’s Ally is an occasional performer there, and her version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” catches Jackson’s eyes and ears.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In all other versions (at least as I recall), the story takes a Svengali-like approach in that the male character remakes the woman into the titular “star.” She is beholden to him, at some level, for her success – or at least he thinks so, and the less-enlightened dudes in the audience might inadvertently sympathize with his plight.

Cooper, working from a script written in collaboration with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, offers a more balanced approach. These two incomplete souls heal each other, with Ally’s spirit and agency bringing much needed light into Jackson’s world and he merely holding open the door through which her natural talent can shine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a result, the dynamic changes greatly in the second and third act, wherein, in other versions, the male character  typically becomes a fiend. Jackson isn’t a fiend. He’s just a mess. That is both refreshing and a tad problematic story-wise. We see Ally transform into a pop diva over which Jackson becomes mildly contemptuous … and she ain’t having any of that. “I don’t want to lose the part of me that is, you know, talented,” she notes. Ally is very much her father’s daughter (Andrew Dice Clay is manopausal magic as her doting meat-head daddy); and she may be a devoted caretaker (to Jackson, to her family), but she is no sucker. The disastrous co-dependence that derails the couples in other versions of the story isn’t as evident (that’s a good thing), but it does tend to take a little steam out of this iteration’s mid-section as we wait for Jackson’s disaffection for the industry (and himself) to lead inevitably to some heartbreaking choices.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen previous takes on the story, but things don’t end well for Jackson. Cooper stages those moments so delicately, so artistically, so humanely. And when Ally has her final “say” through song, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As for the music? That is the third star of this crackerjack film. Written by Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son), Gaga, and Cooper, the songs are a touch Black Keys, a bit Shooter Jennings, and not exactly my cup of tea, but utterly perfect in context. This is the rare movie where the moments that work so well in the trailer work even better in the finished product. You’ve seen the highlights, but you have no idea how impactful they will be in context.

“The Shallow” is most likely to become the “I Will Always Love You” or “My Heart Will Go On” inescapable movie hit of this decade. However, in the film when Ally takes that stage and Gaga’s triumphant, hurricane wail lets loose as the ultimate validation of a female voice that has been ignored and mistreated? Your hair will literally stand on end. Gaga is a fantastic talent – she knows how to break your heart and then turn on a dime and allow you to soar alongside her. That’s a rare gift. Cooper does such a fantastic job staging the thunderous concert footage, you truly feel immersed in the performative aspects of these characters’ lives.

At one point, Sam Elliott – all beautiful silvery Sam-Elliott-trademark-gravitas as Jackson’s older brother (it makes sense in the film) – intones to Ally, “All the artist can tell you is how they see those 12 notes [in an octave]. Jackson loved how you saw those notes and what you had to tell.” At core, this is a film about compassion and about intention and about loving those who love us no matter how broken we/they may be. Jackson sings, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” Indeed, it’s well past time. Well past time.

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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.

In Whitley County covers BroadwayWorld recognition – PLUS, video of numbers from “Life is a Cabaret” #cabaret4relay

Thank you, Bridgett Hernandez and In Whitley County, for this lovely coverage of my recent BroadwayWorld Detroit / BroadwayWorld / Cennarium Award for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Mystery of Edwin Drood. And for the connections you make between play and work and how important it is to have both.

Plus, enjoy these videos of numbers from the final dress rehearsal of “Life is a Cabaret” – click to view. Thanks, Lia, for capturing! You can also view as a continuous playlist here – more videos will be added as available.

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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.

Canton Chamber of Commerce Business Spotlight on “Life is a Cabaret,” February 7, benefiting American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life (VIDEO)

Enjoy this video coverage of our upcoming cabaret performance: https://youtu.be/B5HoWBkM3wU – the Canton Chamber sure did a lovely job covering our event. Cabaret producer/director Denise Staffeld is exceptional, isn’t she? As is music director Kevin Robert Ryan – and, yes, you get to hear me sing in this clip. (And, to my animal loving friends, I have nothing to do with that coyote commercial in the middle of this, nor am I particularly thrilled with the guidance it offers toward the end.) Tix for Feb 7 are going fast! Click here.

A live musical fundraiser featuring Broadway tunes. Hosted by Relay for Life in partnership with Women’s Life Society Chapter 827, Chicks for Charity. Enjoy delicious desserts & a Cold Stone Creamery Ice Cream Bar; while bidding on the Silent Auction. Cash Bar will also be available. Join us with residents of Canton, Plymouth and surrounding communities to kick-off the annual fund-raising season. All proceeds and donations will benefit the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth to attack cancer from every angle. Be entertained at ‘Life is a Cabaret’ while attacking cancer. Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth is May 19, 2018 in Heritage Park, Canton. Relay for Life is a team fundraising event where team members take turns walking around the pond in Heritage Park. A complementary luncheon for Cancer Survivors is also held during the event. Relay is the signature fundraising event of the American Cancer Society. Reception 6pm-7pm. Performance 7pm-9pm.

www.cantonvillagetheater.org

Ticket Information

Adults  $22.00

Senior  $22.00

Youth  $22.00

Tickets: Online or visit or call the theater 10am-2pm Monday-Friday. 734-394-5300 ext 3. PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE. CALLS WILL BE RETURNED WITHIN 24 HOURS OR WEEKEND CALLS BY END OF DAY MONDAY. All ages must have a ticket. No refunds or exchanges.

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.

“She skated better when she was enraged.” I, Tonya (Plus, poetry readings, resolutions, and cabarets, oh my!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I, Tonya is a troubling film … and not for just the obvious reasons. Yes, director Craig Gillespie’s take on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal does a good job highlighting America’s obsessive and misogynistic need to pit women against one another, regardless the tragic outcomes that may result. Yes, Steve Rogers’ script addresses the notion that competitive ice skating is a sport that often favors artifice over reality, faux-elegance over athleticism. The film nails the tragic economic disparity in this country that can toxify and curdle unfulfilled and unrecognized raw talent into resentment, rage, and unbridled violence.

Yet, it’s the film’s tone that I found most unsettling. There is probably no other way to go than “dark comedy” for an insane and still-somewhat-unresolved story like this: one skater from the “wrong side of the tracks” and one skater with a perceived “princess complex,” surrounded by a band of male idiots who thought it would be a nifty idea to turn the lead-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics (with an eventful stop at Detroit’s Cobo Hall) into a road-show Goodfellas as performed by the cast of Green Acres.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The cast is beyond reproach. Deserving Golden Globe winner Allison Janney (Spy, Tammy, The Help) dazzles and horrifies as Tonya’s “mommie dearest” LaVona whose intentions may be noble but whose approach to child rearing is two shades to the right of the Marquis de Sade. Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Logan Lucky) is perhaps a bit too pretty but nonetheless gives us a hauntingly comic portrayal of an abusive milquetoast in Jeff Gillooly. Ethereally engaging Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is suitably and allegorically icy as Tonya’s coach.

Of course, Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, Wolf of Wall Street) rocks the title role. Robbie is an absolute firecracker of a performer, and, while exceptional as Harding, I’m not sure we’ve yet seen that one landmark career-making turn from her. I’m certain it’s on the horizon, but I, Tonya in its entirety doesn’t quite rise to the commitment of what Robbie is doing here.

I also admit that, while Robbie gets Harding’s swagger and little-girl-lost qualities just so, she doesn’t quite have the look. I, like most of America, have wearied of Amy Adams, but watching a documentary of Harding following the film, it was clear that Adams is more of a doppelganger for the troubled athlete.

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And that brings me back to the film’s tone: a bit Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona, Fargo), a bit Gus Van Sant (To Die For), and a heaping helping of postmodern cynicism, but not nearly enough heart. The tragic circumstances of  Harding’s upbringing are bandied about as cutesy one-liners, and the choreographed sequences of domestic abuse (Harding’s mother and husband both dish out brutal beatings on the poor soul) are almost treated like musical interludes. Even the heartbreaking yet admittedly hilarious lament from Robbie’s Harding that “I get hit every day, but Nancy Kerrigan gets hit once, and the whole world sh*ts!” comes off more like a punchline than an authentic assessment of America’s trivialization of violence toward women.

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Perhaps I am overly sensitive in this moment of “#MeToo/#TimesUp. Perhaps I have seen too often how insidious and destructive the evil-that-men-do can be to the self-esteem and self-worth of women. Perhaps I just thought I, Tonya was trying to have its cake and eat it too -painting Harding as this heartbreaking misunderstood ice queen Icarus while lobbing spitballs at the back of her head, just in case America wasn’t quite ready to forgive her yet.

As Janney’s LaVona intones in one of the many “mockumentary” style interviews sprinkled throughout the film, “She [Tonya] skated better when she was enraged.” The film gives us an ugly, bruising, arguably self-indulgent depiction of why Harding should be and was enraged, but  it is never quite brave enough to offer her much sympathy or redemption. That may be the saddest crime of all.

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Miscellany …

  • [Biber with – clockwise – Sexton, Rachel Biber, & Rebecca Winder]

    Had a great time Saturday, January 14 with these crazy kids celebrating the launch of pal Rebecca Biber’s first book of poetry Technical Solace from Fifth Avenue Press. [Photos by Rebecca Winder here.] Enjoyed playing Johnny Carson to Rebecca for the reading/Q&A at lovely Megan and Peter Blackshear’s exceptional store Bookbound in Ann Arbor. Thanks to a great crowd including Rebecca Winder, Rachel Biber, Barry Cutler, Beth Kennedy, Toby Tieger, Russ Schwartz, Peggy Lee, Steven Wilson, John Mola, and more. You can purchase the book at Bookbound or via Amazon. Click here. Ann Arbor District Library’s Pulp reviews the event here.

[Musical director Kevin Robert Ryan and Sexton – photo by Denise Staffeld]

  • Thanks, Jennifer Zartman Romano and Talk of the Town Whitley County, for running this announcement! Whitley County native Roy Sexton is among the cast of “Life is A Cabaret,” a live musical theatre fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. The performance is planned for February 7, 2018, at 7 p.m. in Canton, Michigan at Canton Village Theater. The live musical fundraiser will feature Broadway tunes. The event is hosted by Relay for Life in partnership with Women’s Life Society Chapter 827, Chicks for Charity. Attendees will enjoy delicious desserts from a Cold Stone Creamery ice cream bar while bidding on the silent auction. A cash bar will also be available. All proceeds and donations will benefit the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth, MI to attack cancer from every angle. Tickets are $22. For ticketing information, click here or call 734-394-5300 ext 3. If there is no answer, leave a message and your call will be returned within 24 hours.
  • Thanks, Legal Marketing Association, for this shout out in the latest Strategies magazine.

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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.

[Biber & Sexton, photo by Rebecca Winder]

“When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” The Greatest Showman

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This may seem a quaint notion, but sometimes it’s nice to have a movie that is simply affirming and joyous and a celebration of what can be best in the human spirit. That is The Greatest Showman‘s raison d’etre. The subject of PT Barnum‘s now-controversial life may seem an unlikely vehicle for such a film, but that is indeed what we have with Hugh Jackman‘s latest. I absolutely loved this movie.

With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, composers of La La Land and the recent Christmas Story Live!, the film will never be accused of being high-art, but then that is not what Barnum‘s stock-in-trade was either. With our present distaste for circuses and with the revisionist history that sees Barnum as less of an inclusive and big-hearted entrepreneur and more of an unethical and selfish opportunist, viewers are best-served to check those preconceptions at the door and approach the film as if Barnum is a mythological figure from American folklore, a la Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Barnum (Jackman) chides a theatre critic who has no use for the ringmaster’s brand of populist entertainment, “A theatre critic who can’t find joy in the theatre. Now, who’s a fraud?” It seems to be as much a definition of Barnum’s artistic philosophy as a caution to Twitter trolls in the audience ready to hate on The Greatest Showman‘s gee willkers approach to American cultural history.

Helmed by first-time director Michael Gracey (who had a reported assist from Logan‘s James Mangold) and with a screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast), the film offers a cursory look at the significant and recognizable moments in Barnum’s life, like story beats in an oft-told fable … with a heaping helping of Horatio Alger-ism: we Americans can be whoever and whatever we want to be, regardless how checkered our pasts (hell, just look at the White House and Capitol Hill).

This is not a detailed, cynical, warts-and-all biopic but rather a heartfelt and inspirational allegory (bordering on the twinkling best of Hallmark Hall-of-Fame‘s legendary output) that material success cannot substitute for authentic love. And that is just fine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hugh Jackman is totally in his element, throwback as he is to a Hollywood of another era where corny was not only king but was embraced and celebrated by the masses. It is a refreshingly positive (albeit whitewashed) take on a legendary American captain of industry – the kind of story-telling that was prevalent in 1950s Tinseltown technicolor fantasias … or that librarians used to read aloud to us third-graders in our elementary school reading circles.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, The Greatest Showman is smart enough to supercharge the proceedings with a percussive, propulsive, almost martial, contemporary pop score to hook a generation of audiences weaned on High School Musical or Glee.

This simplistic approach with its anachronistic score is surprisingly effective, at times both insidiously engaging and pleasantly disarming. Highlights include rousing opener “The Greatest Show,” no-business-like-show-business anthem “Come Alive,” bromantic stomp-duet “The Other Side,” swoony/lurchy ballad “Rewrite the Stars,” and rafter-rattling curtain call “From Now On.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The bones of the story are not dissimilar to those of Barnum!, the 1980 Cy Coleman Broadway stage musical starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, but the proceedings couldn’t be more fresh or modern. Disney Channel alumni Zendaya and Zac Efron deliver lovely paper doll turns in this 21st century panto-play. Michelle Williams is luminous, simultaneously distant and winsome – arm candy with an iron will – as Barnum‘s stoic wife Charity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is rounded out with a strong team of stage alumni who relish every moment of this big-screen cartoon. Kealla Settle as Lettie Lutz, the “bearded lady,” is one to watch. Her mid-movie barnstormer “This is Me” brings down the house with a can-you-hear-the-people-sing intensity that should leave you exhausted and enraged and damned “woke” … if you have any heart at all.

The filmmakers (tom) thumb their noses at depth, knowing that the best celebration of Barnum’s life as a huckster purveyor of humbug would be to deliver free-wheeling holiday escapism that energizes and enthralls. Yet, embedded within the cotton candy fluff is a timely and haunting message of acceptance and understanding and compassion.

Sociopolitically, the film does continue the troubling trope of “beautiful white dude as multiculti savior.” However, it marries that message to a final act comeuppance for Barnum. Per the film, Barnum’s fatal flaw is always looking past the talent in his midst to see who else might be coming through the door, breaking the most important of hearts in his unyielding aspiration for validation from an American elite that continually rejects his kind. After a final act tragedy, Barnum’s family of freaks confronts him with this brutal truth, licking their wounds, rallying the troupe, and reminding us all that the greatest show exists with those who’ve been loyal to us all along.

It’s all quite obvious and Hollywood-shallow self-serving, but I admit I cried and cheered and stomped my feet. Sometimes the corniest message – the most heartfelt one – is the one we all need to hear again and again. As Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (in an ethereal if underdeveloped portrayal by Rebecca Ferguson) warns Barnum, “When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” Family is what you make it, true success begins at home, and there is a place at the table for us all. Amen. #thisisme

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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 always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Logan

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Logan, the latest entry in the now ten (!) film X-Men movie canon from 20th Century Fox, really, really, really wants to be seen as serious cinema. Any time Johnny Cash’s now-cliched bluegrass cover of Nine Inch Nails’ tortured soul anthem “Hurt” is used in a flick’s trailer, you know you are in art school-aspirational territory.

(Dammit, Christopher Nolan, but your somber, bruise-black tone poem The Dark Knight must have been a real decade-long buzz kill for other directors in the comic book film genre. Folks, pretension ain’t entertainment. Movies can be smart and fun. Unclench. See: Deadpool.)

For 50% of its overlong running time, Logan comes within a razored-claw’s-breadth of hitting the mark. Yes, the allusions to George Stevens’ far superior Shane (including Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier actually watching the flick on a hotel room TV) and to just about any blood-and-dust-caked entry in Sam Peckinpah’s oeuvre are a bit too on-the-nose. However, those allusions are refreshing (if not downright surprising) in a film universe where we are supposed to accept Halle Berry’s ongoing struggles with stultifyingly bad wigs as the height of character development. (Bar none, Hugh Jackman is the best special effect these films have had in their arsenal in their nearly 20-year run.)

With 2013’s The Wolverine, director James Mangold did yeoman’s work rescuing the X-franchise’s beloved Wolverine from the character’s first solo outing – 2009’s disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood). Lord, saving the character from that clunky title would have been enough. As evidence of Mangold’s leaning toward nihilistic simplicity, in fact, the titles have gotten more streamlined and look-I’m-a-grown-up grim with The Wolverine (just stick a “the” in front of anything … it sounds epic … seriously … try it: THE Mousepad, THE Saucepan, THE Q-Tip) and, now, Logan, which sounds less like a superhero movie and more like an artisanal bistro.

The Wolverine gave us a mutant-on-the-lam chase through the Japanese underworld with a zippy French Connection vibe that breathed new life into the character while honoring his comic book roots as an occasional samurai-for-hire. It was grounded by but also popped with a panoply of espionage thriller tropes, and Jackman seemed to be having a ball. Like all the films in the X-Men film universe, it suffered from a junky final act that was the cinematic equivalent of an eight-year-old throwing all of his/her action figures into a washing machine and setting the cycle to “spin,” creating more narrative loose ends than it resolved.

Logan is a logical next step, especially in this new era where “Hard R” (blood! guts! nudity! random eff-bombs!) superhero flicks now make truckloads of cash. (Thanks, again, Deadpool). While, heretofore, Wolverine’s legendary “berserker rage” has been safely shielded behind the no-gore filter of a toy-aisle-Taco-Bell-kids-meal-friendly PG-13 rating, Logan assumes all the tykes who saw the first X-Men film (2000) in wide-eyed wonderment at their parents’ knees are now safely beyond the age of R-rated consent. And, boy, does the carnage reign free in this movie.

The film begins in yellow-hued, grungy Texas in the year 2029, and Logan (hundreds of years old at this point, as we’ve learned from earlier films) is at the end of the line. His body is shot, his soul is worse, he is driving a limousine for moolah, and he and Professor Charles Xavier are living a hardscrabble existence in what appears to be an old grain silo. Their onscreen relationship here could best be described as one-part The Odd Couple, two-parts King Lear, with a pinch of Sam Shepard’s True West. They cohabitate with a fussy majordomo and mutant nursemaid Caliban (a haunting Stephen Merchant) as Xavier spirals into the latter stages of dementia, a diagnosis which is kind of a big deal when you also happen to possess the psychic power to wipe out half of the continental United States if your migraine gets out of hand.

This odd little band plans to ride out their days until Logan saves up enough money to buy a yacht (yes, a yacht), so that they – the only mutants remaining after some nebulously described cataclysm in the recent past – can escape the mutant-hating governmental rabble that runs ‘Murica (sound eerily familiar?). Oh, and Logan is probably going to commit suicide after they leave, but that just adds to the existential “fun.”

This set-up sounds odd. Hell, it is odd. I think that’s why I really dug the early scenes of the film, establishing this off-kilter “new normal” in the typically sleek, escapist X-Men universe. It reads like a stage play you might catch on PBS’ Great Performances on a Sunday night, when you’re feeling too lazy to change the channel – a piece that is not profound enough to have had a long run on Broadway but is peculiar enough to hold your interest on the small screen.

Into this mix, a young mutant appears, bearing strangely similar attributes to Logan, analogous enough that questions of parentage are raised. Newcomer Dafne Keen plays Laura (known in the comics as X-23), a preteen whose feral tendencies, extremely violent outbursts, and mute glowering are initially transfixing but wear a bit thin as the film proceeds. Naturally, the feds are chasing Laura, which brings the military-industrial complex as represented by a ham-bone Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant to Logan’s front door … er … grain silo and sends the entire mutant band on the run across Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota.

Jackman is soulful throughout, and he channels the same world-weary tension of straining to keep a moral high ground while being consumed by the righteous rage of marginalization that he rode to an Oscar nomination in Les Miserables. Alas, he doesn’t sing this time, but he looks ten times as haggard … so that’s something. Jackman and Stewart have some touching moments, and Jackman has great chemistry with Keen in the film’s first half when they are still at odds with one another, like caged animals sizing up the competition.

There is a harrowing yet lovely scene where Professor Xavier reclaims a bit of his youthful nobility, rescuing horses that have gotten loose on a frighteningly busy freeway, which in turn leads to a brief respite where our mutants break bread with the gracious and grateful family to whom the equines belong. ER‘s Eriq LaSalle is quietly impressive as the patriarch – good to see him again. However, the film then takes a decidedly nasty turn, really embracing that R-rating (the horses are all fine, but – spoiler alert – things don’t work out quite so well for anyone else), and the silly and gratuitous horror movie carnage that follows left me disaffected – and saddened for where I had hoped the movie would have gone. Subsequently, I never quite reconnected with the brooding and pastoral quality that the first half of the film engendered, and the film’s final poignant moments – intended to deliver emotional payoff – don’t feel earned, ringing hollow when life seems so disposable to the filmmakers.

The talented cast and the film itself suffer from a running time (nearly two and a half hours) that doesn’t withstand the conventionality of the film’s road movie second half, and the flick’s final act is uncomfortably reminiscent of the denouement of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I didn’t much enjoy seeing a bunch of young mutants run pell mell through the woods fearing for their lives as they were brutalized by government thugs back in 2009, nor again in 2017. I wonder what a little cinematic discipline – a tighter running time and curbing the grand guignol indulgences – might have offered Logan. I suspect that a bit more restraint would have gotten Mangold’s film closer to those classic allegorical Westerns to which he clearly aspires.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Early in the film, Stewart’s Xavier, in deshabille and surrounded by the discarded detritus of a decaying life, looks ruefully at Jackman’s Logan and says, “I always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Using these iconic characters to explore the ephemeral nature of existence, Magold made a good film. It’s just too bad he didn’t have the self-control to make a great one.

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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.

“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.

It’s the end of the world as we know it … Chappie and Insurgent

Indiana's Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in ... private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in … private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Oh, Indiana, my Indiana … home of my upbringing and constant source of horrified bemusement and righteous indignation in my adulthood.

The latest and greatest affront to all creatures great and small in Indiana is the so-called “Religious Freedoms Restoration Act,” which, no matter how you want to spin the rhetoric, is intended to make the narrowly-defined, faith-based, mid-century  (you pick the century) morality (?) of a bunch of Bible-thumping, pitchfork-wielding Hawthorne caricatures the law of that land wherever and whenever you try to go buy … baked goods?

And, yes, I’ve heard the rationalization that, “Well, all these other states had it, and Bill Clinton, the big ol’ dirty heathen, put this in place over 20 years ago at the Federal level, so why are Audra McDonald and Miley Cyrus and Angie’s List being so mean to us. We are just good Christian folks here.” Riiiight. And if Jimmy jumped down a well, would you all go, too? Please? There’s nothing nice about this legislation (or its timing); it is quite simply petty, spiteful, vindictive, and mean.

I had a Facebook “debate” with a soon-to-be-former Fort Wayne newscaster on another former Fort Wayne newscaster’s wall, and I ended my remarks thus,  “If Indiana doesn’t want to LOOK bad, stop passing legislation like this that really only serves the purpose of MAKING INDIANA LOOK BAD. (Not to mention pandering to the blood lust of a certain fringe demographic to secure their future votes – the same people who claim to want ‘small government’.) And, yes, all those other places that have this legislation look bad too, but this is the freshest one. Congrats.”

To be clear, losing one’s cultural hegemony does not qualify as “persecution.”

(And don’t even get me started on the fun, wholesome family pastime of “pig wrestling” in Indiana and other states. Yes, that is a thing. Sadly. I can’t imagine this is what Jesus had in mind. Just sayin’. Oh, I do digress. This is a blog about movies, right?)

It is with this mindset last night that I set forth on a double feature of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent. While neither film is Tolstoy, it is interesting how both traffic in themes of persecution, isolation, pogrom-like social mandate, and government and big business collusion run amuck.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Chappie, the more ambitious of the two, is directed by Blomkamp, who specializes in such Bradbury-esque allegory and class-warfare dystopia as District 9 (segregation) and Elysium (healthcare). With Chappie, he pilfers his narrative from a hodge podge of references: Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Robocop, Short Circuit, 2001 to varying degrees of success.

The plot is rather simple: a military-industrial complex (headed up by Sigourney Weaver at her most teutonic) is supplying Johannesburg (which must be the “new” Beirut in film) with a fresh supply of robot cops, who, in their emotionless, unrelenting style can put a steely hard thumb in the heart of crime. Her star employee (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has invented the “robo-cops” but wants to introduce free-thinking sentience to the strange rabbit-eared creatures.

His rival at the company is Hugh Jackman being all “bad Hugh Jackman” … which basically means him glowering while saddled with a awful mullet haircut and Steve Irwin/Croc Hunter wardrobe choices. Crikey those shorts are short! Jackman’s character has created the Dick-Cheney-special of all robot law enforcement: something called the “moose,” a tank-like device that, in Jackman’s words, isn’t a “godless creature” (vis a vis the autonomous robo-cops) but is rather a machine that will be, um, super efficient at killing people … a lot of people. (I didn’t say the metaphor was subtle here, just appreciated.)

Patel ends up creating one robot with a winning personality – “Chappie” – a baby Energizer bunny who likes He-Man cartoons but gets in with the wrong crowd (a set of “gangsters” who make the acting work of Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel seem subtle by comparison). Chappie causes all kinds of ruckus when Jackman realizes he can leverage Chappie’s very existence (and the uncontrollable nature of his robot brethren) to unleash discord and create the kind of violent societal conflict that makes people want to sign over any and all civil liberties. (See a pattern here?)

Chappie (the film) is interesting if a bit recycled/derivative, and it runs out of steam at the 2/3 mark. I grew very tired of Chappie’s family of thugs and would have enjoyed more development of the Patel/Jackman rivalry. Simplistic as it is, their characters’ implied debate of creator rights vs. created rights, independent thought vs. jack-booted control, authentic innovation vs. corporate profiteering is timely, frightening, and essential.

I would be remiss if I didn’t crow about Sharlto Copley’s stellar motion capture work as Chappie. His is the most fully-realized characterization in the film as our heart aches for this innocent, animal-esque creature desperately trying to survive and thrive and feel and love in a muddled world that he didn’t (nor wouldn’t) create. That performance is a keeper and likely deserves a more substantive film.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Insurgent continues in this near-future-there-but-for-the-grace-of-someone-goes-our-society vein. It is the second part of the young adult series Divergent, based on the books by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James along with Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, and Octavia Spencer. Naomi Watts joins the fun this time as yet another mysteriously motivated, first-name only “faction leader” … actually make that “factionless” leader – the nomadic “Evelyn.”

I noted in my review of Divergent (here) that, as young adult fantasy series go, this one is closest to something I can stand. It’s obviously not as popular as Hunger Games or Twilight, but, for me, it offers a more humane and humanistic look at our collective foibles.

Again, this ain’t deep stuff and it’s just as violent (if not more so) as those other series. However, the little socialist in my heart finds the central conceit of the Divergent books/movies very appealing: a culture that has decided to solve its problems by segregating its people along personality lines being rocked to its core when a young woman emerges who demonstrates exceptional abilities across the continuum of all those very traits (heaven forbid!). It’s not deep, but it’s feminist (lite), it’s inclusive, and it’s a wonderfully educational metaphor for  young people to understand that a society is strengthened not weakened by diversity. Again, not subtle, but obviously much-needed right now.

Insurgent as a film feels like a bit of a placeholder as the series kicks into high gear with the upcoming final two installments, and that’s ok. Woodley has done stronger character work elsewhere, but those key moments where she needs to telegraph her utter frustration with her role as society’s new messiah are delivered with aplomb. That’s pretty much all she needs to do here.

James, still Anthony-Perkins-on-steroids, does a better job this time establishing that he isn’t just all smoldering petulance but that he has a heart and a brain. Winslet continues to be an icily bureaucratic delight as the calculating Jeanine, whose nefarious actions at every turn belie her hollow rhetoric for “peace and unity.” (Sound familiar?) Finally, Miles Teller mounts a much-needed charm offensive in this installment, no doubt realizing that this isn’t Ibsen and the dour delivery from everyone in the first film was a bit of a buzz kill. He is a charmingly oily sparkplug as the dubiously motivated Peter.

When one’s soul is at sea because the world and its leaders seem hellbent on plain meanness, it helps to see a couple of movies (even if they aren’t that terribly great) that reflect a point of view that some of us do see through this insidious crap in real time. The fact that hundreds of people might be like-minded enough to put together a film (or two) for the masses that might sow some seeds of popular dissent? Well, that’s the kind of balm I go to the movies to receive. It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.

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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.

Shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety … X-Men: Days of Future Past

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

How many Oscar winners and nominees does it take to put together a successful comic book adaptation? Apparently, a boatload.

The per capita of Academy Awards/nominations among the cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past is astounding: Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page, Michael Fassbender … not to mention talented folks like Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Evan Peters, and even director Bryan Singer who likely may find themselves on the receiving end of a nod or a statuette of their own one day.

As comic book adaptations go, this is about as good as they get, marrying a bit of the self-serious sermonizing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films with the gee whiz ironic whimsy of Jon Favreau’s and Shane Black’s respective Iron Man movies.

Having Singer return to the franchise (he rather unsuccessfully left to direct the bloated Superman Returns) is a stroke of much-needed genius. Other than last summer’s quietly effective The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, or the zippy promise of Matthew Vaughn’s retro romp X-Men: First Class (Vaughn gets a writing credit on Days of Future Past), the series had started to lose its way with over-marketed, under-delivering, freakishly-merchandised failures like X-Men: The Last Stand (yeah, I’m a Brett Ratner hater too) or clunkily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood who went from Tsotsi and Rendition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine … wtf?)

Singer, not unlike J.J. Abrams with his seamless Star Trek reboot, brings us quite literally full-circle, mining all that has come before and brilliantly weaving the series’ best and crispest elements into a crackerjack narrative. The plot is a riff on Chris Claremont’s/John Byrne’s iconic “Days of Future Past” comics storyline from the early 80s. It details Wolverine’s mind-bending time travel leap from a dark dystopian future full of death and pain and murky CGI to a swinging 1970s full of death and pain and cheesy poly blends, all to avert a handful of historical moments that spark the creation of mutant-murdering robot Sentinels whose nefarious deeds bring about that nasty future everyone wants to avoid.

Clear as mud? It doesn’t matter ’cause the ride is a helluva lot of fun. The film isn’t perfect. I found this grim future-shock framing set-up with its overbaked Holocaust allusions, its bleak visuals, and its mopey characters and their endlessly ominous pronouncements rather tedious. Halle Berry (so miscast from the very first film) as weather-manipulating Storm still seems like she’s phoning her performance in from some all-inclusive Caribbean resort where they supply her an infinite series of bad white/gray wigs. And as much as I love McKellen and his comrade-in-arms Patrick Stewart as Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier respectively, they both appear to be marking time and collecting a paycheck (albeit a pretty hefty one).

However – and this is so key – all that Charles Dickens-meets-Philip K. Dick dreariness is essential to the fun once our time traveling mutant everyman (that would be Jackman with a crackling world-weary wit as Wolverine) hits the Me Decade. Everything comes alive.

McAvoy is so good – funny and haunting – as the young Xavier who has let his life (and fabulous mansion/school) go to seed. Fassbender (young Magneto) as the chillingly beautiful Malcolm X yin to McAvoy’s Martin Luther King yang is sharp as ever. The film smartly returns to Singer’s core hook: that mutant persecution is a righteous summer-blockbuster allegory for all the -isms/-phobias that plague our society and for the tension that always has and always will exist between the philosophies of blending/integration and of fighting/individualism.

All the players in the 1970s portion of the film acquit themselves nicely, from Lawrence’s fiery person-on-a-mission Mystique to Hoult’s worried caretaker Beast to Dinklage’s well-intentioned, quite-misguided military industrialist Trask.

The film’s best moments come from Evan Peters’ much-too-brief screen-time as speedster Quicksilver. He rocks every single freaking moment he has, like nothing I’ve ever seen in one of these tentpole epics. He wrings comic gold out of one word (“whiplash”) and has an absolute Bugs Bunny-esque ball torturing a gaggle of Pentagon guards, all set to the strain’s of Jim Croce’s time-warped classic “Time in a Bottle.” Give this character/actor his own movie. Now.

The smartest move of all in this very smart film? There is no villain. There is no mustache-twirling, blow-up-the-world, video-game-destructo fool in a cape leading us to a predictably cacophonous denouement. Nope. Everyone is their own worst enemy in this movie. Just like life. Fear and hate, self-loathing and prejudice those are the villains in this film, a movie which serves as a shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety.

Most importantly, X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves us with hope. No situation and no person are ever beyond redemption, as Stewart tells McAvoy in one of the film’s trippiest and most heartfelt moments. Amen to that.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.