“How far I’ll go.” The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Disney’s Moana

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I always cringe a bit when I hear the phrase “coming of age” applied to a cinematic or literary or televised narrative. It bespeaks an unwarranted nostalgia for an awkward, nauseating, hormonal epoch which we all share and which we all should forget. Forever. Thoroughly. 

(And people who gleefully remain stuck in their high school years, glorying in the minutiae of their pubescent lives can’t be trusted. Not one whit. They just ain’t right.)

I wonder if what really bothers me about the term is that the “coming of age” concept – let’s charitably upgrade it to the term “personal evolution,” shall we? – should not be limited to one’s teenage decade, when one generally has the perspective of a fruit-fly.  

Do any of us at any age really ever overcome the free-floating, rampant anxiety of peer pressure, isolation, and capriciousness caused by our fellow man on this Big Blue Marble? Nope.

Blessedly, two current films – one a perky animated musical fairy tale and the other … well … not – turn this tired formula on its head, giving us a pair of parables that stealthily inspire while tweaking the status quo.

The Edge of Seventeen, named after the Stevie Nicks’ ditty, which inexplicably never actually appears in the film, stars True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a breath of fresh toxin for whom all the mores and conventions of American youth, public education, and “being cool” are utterly confounding. Unlike spiritual forebears Juno or Mean Girls or Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, doesn’t hold teen life in contempt, as some abstract planet populated by satirical (though accurate) stereotypes. Rather, the film uses the petty disappointments and soul-sucking betrayals of high school days as metaphor and lens for our common, fallible humanity.

Nadine, whose beloved father has passed away, navigates (really poorly) a minefield of family and friends, including a sympathetically caustic Kyra Sedgwick as the mother hanging on by a thread, Glee‘s Blake Jenner in a sweetly understated turn as the golden boy brother whose “head is much too large” for his body, and a wry Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s bored/boring history teacher in another version of his now-trademark folksy sot-with-a-heart-mentor persona (see: Hunger Games‘ Haymitch Abernathy). Newcomer Hayden Szeto steals every scene as Nadine’s classmate and swooning suitor, his open-heart and sharp-wit sympatico with Nadine’s mind – the rare teenage cinematic male not depicted as some skeezy perv.

But the movie is Steinfeld’s. Capitalizing on the Oscar-nominated authenticity she exemplified in her film debut (True Grit) but jettisoning any Coen Bros-dictated pretense and quirk, Steinfeld gives us as pure a depiction of youth-in-revolt as any we may have seen on film (save James Dean in East of Eden – that one’s untouchable). And what makes it even better? Her performance is damn funny. Angst is awkward, and we all can relate to it, but, if you deftly mine the comic gems from emotional pratfalls, you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.

We are all just one bad day away from feeling like we are in adolescent hell all over again, and Edge of Seventeen, built so beautifully around Steinfeld’s layered, affecting portrayal of a young person continually at odds with the ever-shifting rules of a game she doesn’t much want to play, is a revelation.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney’s Moana is the sunny, show-tune-spewing, computer-generated yin to Edge of Seventeen’s yang. Based loosely on Polynesian mythology, the 56th animated offering from the Mouse House, relates the hero’s quest of a teenage girl (Moana, voiced with luminous empathy by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as she seeks the aid of a mischievous but debilitated demigod (Maui, portrayed with smarmy sparkle by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to prevent the destruction of her island home.

Moana isn’t a princess, a point made most emphatically throughout the film; she is the island chief’s daughter. Moana’s respected place as a leader in the hierarchy of rule is never in question, nor is she smitten with some princely suitor. (Of course, it’s a Disney flick so she has a couple of adorably merchandisable sidekicks – in this instance, a pig and a rooster.) The narrative tension is built on her transition to authority, on her solving the impending calamity that will destroy her people, and on her asserting her independence from the cultural norms. Bully for Disney.

I wonder if directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) had in the back of their minds that the timing of this film, coupled with the potential election of America’s first female president, would have offered an impactful statement to young audience members about celebrating the power of equality (gender, race, ethnicity) and leadership therein.  Of course, now there is some unintended irony in the timing, but the message is more essential than ever.

The songs are all written by the inescapable Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) along with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. This may be blasphemy in theatre circles, but, as talented as Miranda may be, his compositions (to my ear) suffer from a repetitiveness of style and form, bordering on monotony. Lucky for Moana, this tendency actually suits animated film (better than the stage), where familiarity speeds action and emotional connection.

That said, the music is all perfectly fine, with Moana’s anthemic “How Far I’ll Go” serving in glowing fashion as this film’s “Part of Your World” or “Belle,” sans any lingering strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” passivity or longing.

Maui’s signature ditty “You’re Welcome” is catchy but underwritten. However, as delivered by consummate showman Johnson (why hasn’t he been cast in a full-blown, live musical yet?!), the number becomes a transcendent, careening take-down of male id and superego.

The standout song for this viewer, though, is “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement as a mountainous crab (yep.), encrusted in gems and precious metals. Imagine if The Jungle Book‘s “Trust In Me” had been written and performed by David Bowie … on a deeply troubling acid trip. In fact, that entire sequence is one of the film’s trippiest (and there are a lot of surreal moments throughout), employing black light, disco ball flourishes, and a Busby Berkeley-choreographed cascade of tropical fish. Is an animator’s penchant toward psychedelia evidence of great inventive genius or of lazy time-filling? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to watch anything these days – movies, TV, cat videos on YouTube – without politicizing the moment. I think many of us, right now, share a palpable fear for the future of diversity in this nation, a nation that’s fundamental core should be tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. That said, and at the risk of overstating my case, movies like Edge of Seventeen and Moana give me hope. We can be good. We can be better than we are. We can celebrate the oddballs, the misfits, and those among us yearning to breathe free. Let’s keep that up, ok?

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moana-pigReel 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 guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person” – Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Mockingjay_Part_2_Poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What passes for entertainment these days, it could be argued, shows a glib disregard for humanity, grace, and life itself. It’s a bit ironic, given that Hollywood tends to be first to get in line for humanitarian causes, yet the chief blockbuster product rolling from the City of Dreams on a quarterly basis is awash in cinematic bloodletting. I don’t know what to make of that.

I’ve long struggled with my distaste for The Hunger Games saga for this very reason. People tell me to lighten up, but often they are the same people who celebrate photos in their local paper of young girls and boys, bow in hand, grinning madly over their latest “trophy kill.” Violence begets violence, and when does it stop?

Surely, Hollywood doesn’t influence behavior – it’s just a movie, right? But, then, why did Chrysler partner with Lionsgate on this latest installment to cross-promote cars (which just seemed to be odd synergy, regardless)? Sorry, folks, you don’t get to pick and choose what people will emulate (rampant consumerism) or won’t (rampant disregard for life).

Not only did I already have this predisposition going into Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, but the world has spent the better part of a week trying to reconcile the senseless violence in Paris, France and wagging hundreds of politicized fingers at governments or refugees or religions in a misplaced, manic desire to place blame on anyone but the actual perpetrators … and, for that matter, to shift focus away from our own collective collusion in this endless stream of mind-numbing violence, real and fictional, that dances across myriad screens.

It’s funny, and a bit sad then, that this final Hunger Games installment actually clarifies what it’s all about, Alfie, and what it’s been about, all along: a cautionary tale (albeit a simplistic, pubescent soap opera one) about the very world we have become – a world where violence is used for theatrical purposes to divide and conquer, to prop up the 1% and their self-selected preening dictators, and to oppress any and all of those dumb enough to allow mindless fear to curdle into unbridled hate.

Perhaps, the fact that this fourth film has opened with the smallest box office total of any in the series (albeit still exceeding $100M) suggests that the world sees less entertainment in its own follies than it once did? This film is a tough pill to swallow right now in the midst of the real-life tragedies facing us all.

Mockingjay – Part 2 suffers from the excesses of its immediate predecessor – or said more plainly, the greed of Lionsgate to attenuate the final book’s narrative into two films. Part 2 is just much too long, mopey, and meandering, after a Part 1 that was all of those things and a bore.

That said, this movie finally delivers what stands as the series’ punchline and thesis: absolute power – in a media-saturated age – not only corrupts absolutely, but does so with a rationalizing, self-obsessed, materialistic, nihilistic glee. Like the ubiquitous reality shows that Suzanne Collins’ literary creation ostensibly lampoons, the prize – in this case control of all humanity – must be won at any cost, and, if one freely jettisons their own humanity along their path to the crown, well, so be it.

In a line that practically made me stand up and applaud, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss hisses – as she begins to see the shameless willingness of “on/off again” boyfriend Gale (played with less and less gusto by otherwise charming Liam Hemsworth) to sacrifice morality for victory – “I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person.” Darn tootin’.

This is not groundbreaking insight, of course. Shakespeare covered this idea in just about every play, comedy or tragedy … but it is potentially heady stuff for today’s masses if delivered in a smart, playful, and authentic way. Unfortunately, for me, this film series seemed perpetually torn between the Ray Bradbury/Kurt Vonnegut/Clockwork Orange-esque battery acid allegory it could have been (should have been) and the escapist PG-13 Subway-sandwich selling, middle America revenge fantasy it actually was.

For those following the films – and (gulp) loving them – Mockingjay Part 2 won’t disappoint. Jennifer Lawrence continues her emotionless, robotic hero quest as Katniss. This actor shows so much spark anywhere else that I’m just baffled by what a dud she is here. Regardless, Lawrence is still the glue holding this enterprise together. When she discovers the [spoiler alert] big reveal that the dictator she hopes to unseat (Donald Sutherland’s President Snow) will be replaced by one conceivably even more ruthlessly cavalier (Julianne Moore’s President Coin), Lawrence does yeoman’s work quietly selling the point to all of us in the cheap seats: “Look, bloodlust gets you nowhere. People are evil, duplictious sh*ts. They don’t care about each other, and those desperately seeking power are exactly the people who should. not. ever. get. it.” (Maybe Lawrence could moderate the next GOP presidential debate? Bow and arrow in hand?)

The film has an ample amount of political intrigue, some fun twists, a couple of seat-jumping scares, and a sparkling supporting cast (largely wasted). It’s a bit of a Hunger Games greatest hits: Stanley Tucci’s TV huckster Caesar Flickerman for a hot second spewing some Fox News-style bile; Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy looking even more bedraggled and annoyed with all of it, but still saddled with life-coaching that makes Yoda look like a Quentin Tarantino character; Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket now completely de-fanged but again fabulously bewigged as her chief role seems to be serving as Katniss’ valet; Sam Claflin’s vainglorious Finnick Odair and Natalie Dormer’s caustically pragmatic Cressida now reduced to cannon fodder.

Jena Malone fares best as Katniss’ frenemy Johanna Mason, chewing the cardboard scenery and reaching through the screen and grabbing us by the collective lapels. She seems to say, “You know this is kinda nuts right? That this series made so much money? Now, stop whining and moping and pay attention to the nuggets buried way deep in this thing and start giving a crap about your own lives and about each other.” Or maybe I’m projecting a bit.

Best part of Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 – for me?  That it’s over.

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12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel 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.

 

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.

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]

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.

Talk of the Town features Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Thanks to Jennifer Romano and Talk of the Town! Read here. Quote from yours truly: “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

BONUS: Enjoy this fabulous new blog entry from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton – provocative and fun! Read “Got (almond) milk? Books, movies, politics, culture, and AGRIganda” by clicking here.

Excerpt: “Regarding BUT HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK jazz, my mother ALWAYS asked that question. Guess what? She very seldom had actually read the books herself; I preferred to write my book reports based on the more enjoyable movie versions!”

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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.

Day I read a book … The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report

Freak Foundation Operatives ReportYou know what question I’m tired of hearing? “Did you read the book?”

I get asked this repeatedly when I see a movie based on a piece of literature (sometimes using that term very loosely), if I dare to have some issue with the film: its narrative structure, character choices, execution, blah, blah, blah. The questioner always seems to imply that my review is somehow thereby deficient, that I didn’t do my homework.

This scrutiny arose when I found the Twilight movies a tedious bore, when I thought Hunger Games was overrated nonsense, when I dubbed Mortal Instruments insipid idiocy, when I felt American Sniper was dangerous propaganda, and when I perceived Wild to be self-aggrandizing tell-all myth-making. I didn’t read any of these uber-popular tomes – I only saw the film treatments. And I’m not going to read the books. Stop asking me. Please.

(In my defense, I loved the films of Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars, without perusing the best-sellers on which they were based.)

Here’s the thing. I don’t want to have to read the book to understand and enjoy the movie. A good movie adaptation will anchor the narrative pulse points in a novel or biography and add visual flair to make the piece cinematic, comprehensible, and it’s own entity. Think Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Black Stallion, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Foxcatcher. Hell, think Gone Girl.

If it’s that imperative to read the book and see the movie to get the complete entertainment value, well, I just won’t. To me, that’s lazy film-making, and that’s coming from someone too lazy to read the books. So there.

“Day I Read a Book” – Jimmy Durante

 

But, guess what? I read a book – my pal Tom Joyce’s engaging The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report … and I liked it! To paraphrase Super Bowl halftime superstar Katy Perry: “I read a book … and I liked it!”

If Kurt Vonnegut and Janet Evanovich had a baby whose doting uncles were Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Mickey Spillane, that baby very well might be Tom Joyce. The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report relates the sordid and satirical tale of Batley, a small post-industrial town in Central Pennsylvania, a burg terrorized by a nasty group of thugs (“The Slain”) and populated with a carnival tent full of freaks and weirdos (and that’s just the City Council). The central mystery (and it’s a compelling one) is why this town has been targeted, who’s pulling the strings, and why.

I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but the book is a zippy page-turner with just the right balance of mirth and mayhem to engage the most jaded of readers (me).

Joyce employs a rotating cast of narrators, including a hard-boiled and hard-drinking gumshoe; a universally reviled local journalist (named, oddly enough, “Tom”); and assorted colorful characters, including, among others, a foul-mouthed little person who runs a road-side freak show, a confidence man who grows increasingly less confident in his choice of allies, and a huckster demonologist/psychologist with a heart of gold.

Joyce has a great pulpy literary voice, informed with a cheeky sensibility, a knowing cynicism about the uniquely American ability to wave the flag while we stab each other in the back, and a genuine flair for marrying creeping crud, visceral thrills, and rich Mayberry-quirk  characterization. This book is naturally cinematic in its execution, cable-ready for HBO or AMC or (likely) FX to develop a raw, ribald anthology series from the frothy material.

The novel is composed of a series of journal entries, letters, documents, and reports (via the various narrators delineated above) offering the cumulative effect that we, as readers, are suddenly privy to a hotbed of small-town intrigue as the mystery unfolds through hearsay, redirects, and anecdotes (see Carrie, The Color Purple, or even The Sound and the Fury for other examples of this technique). This, coupled with Joyce’s pragmatic, glib, and witty writing style, makes for an adventurous reading experience – Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew for adults.

Here’s looking forward to big screen (or small screen) adaptation, wherein I can finally ask others, “Did you read the book?”

You can order at Tom Joyce’s The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report by visiting his free-wheeling blog here.

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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.

“Best-dressed rebel in history …” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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]

I will admit that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is just not exactly my cup of tea. My first exposure was the initial episode in the cinematic franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence. My biggest issue, ultimately, may have been with the marketing, which likely didn’t do the movie (or its source material) any favors.

Y’see, I grew up in a small town, the daily paper of which now peppers its pages every fall with one image after another of young bow-hunting girls and their “prizes” – bloody deer carcasses. Lots of them. One sad image after another of a toothy kid, grinning madly, not as if they’d just won a science fair or a spelling bee, but because they killed some defenseless creature. And that bugs me. Are these kids the target audience for these movies? Or are people who find this kind of “sportsman”-proselytizing offensive the audience? I don’t know.

The reason I share this bit of soap-boxing is because the original film seemed oddly positioned at some strange Venn Diagram nexus where Harry Potter-philes and Twi-hards meet neurotic survivalists and Cabela’s frequent flyer-card holders. I wasn’t exactly sure the core demographic, and perhaps Hollywood was trying a bit too hard to appeal to all comers. I heard a lot of rhetoric that somehow Katniss Everdeen, “the girl on fire,” with her furrowed brow and propensity for zapping squirrels and people with her trusty bow and arrow was a great antidote to the Disney princess affliction that was miring our nation’s young women in a malaise of pink chiffon. Maybe. But are those the only two choices? Archery and violence or toddlers and tiaras? Sigh.

Well, I guess I played my hand a bit early on this one, eh?

Said marketing/positioning celebrated the games aspect of the narrative, while missing entirely the inherent social satire. Granted, the marketers likely chose the more sale-able commodity, but, for someone persnickety like yours truly, this approach has made it that much harder for me to warm up to this particular franchise. (Divergent is more my speed.)

Blessedly, The Hunger Games film series has evolved and moved past the gimmicky hook of watching teenagers slaughter each other before national audiences in an oppressed dystopian near-future. (Gee, why is it that I don’t get that these flicks are good wholesome family fun?!) This brings us to the third installment in the franchise (after The Hunger Games and Catching Fire), the awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

Those of you ready to jump down my blogging throat in dismissal of my critique of the series’ omnipresent marketing framework? How’s about you read that title again: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. And convince me that the third book in this literary trilogy was not unnecessarily hacked into two parts to fill Lionsgate’s coffers with extra coin. Just sayin’. (No, I’m not the first to point this out, but it seems a fair critique on all fronts.)

This latest film continues the revolution that Katniss began fomenting in Panem (the future stand-in for an America run into the ground, no doubt by a lethal combo of Democrats and Republicans). Mockingjay spends the bulk of its running time underground, quite literally, as Katniss and her pals find themselves sequestered away in the mysterious District 13, a militarized sector that all had thought long-destroyed.

District 13 is the home of the Rebel Alliance (oops, wrong franchise) … the rebellion led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, a subtle-yet-steely breath of fresh gravitas) with the assistance of games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly a bore in one of his final roles), weapon-smith Beetee (always sparkling Jeffrey Wright), and fashionista-cum-PR-wonk Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, a standout as she curdles Effie’s cartoonish buffoonery into sharp social commentary). The saving grace of these films has always been in the casting (Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have both done some of their best work in the series), and this entry is no exception.

Unfortunately, Jennifer Lawrence and her bag of actorly tricks are starting to show some wear and tear with Mockingjay. The film is two hours of treading water before the big blowout with movie number four, and Lawrence suffers for it. (As do sidekicks Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta.) Lawrence, saddled with what appears to be an Elvira wig from a bad Halloween costume, glares and pouts, glowers and mopes, without a heckuva lot to do. There’s a lot of talking and talking and talking about various political machinations, most of which bored me silly, and, by the time, Lawrence loses her sh*t in the third act because Peeta is in some grave peril (yet again), I found myself giggling and not one whit concerned for any of these thinly drawn characters.

Here is the interesting concept that Mockingjay (Part 1!) presents, however: wars are won and lost not by bravery or valor or even violence, but by public relations. The sly-est and most engaging moments in the film are when the forces of good and bad start to blur in their relentless uses of videographic propaganda (kinda like our fall election). The first two films laid this groundwork with jack-o-lantern-headed reality TV pundit Caesar Flickerman (a truly unhinged Stanley Tucci) and his broadcast of the super-violent Hunger Games as both public diversion and punitive restraint (boob tube as carrot and stick). This latest entry shows how that machine is employed in times of great social unrest, echoing eerily some of the latest trials and tribulations affecting race relations in present-day America.

For a series so superficially savvy about the strategic implications of marketing and PR on societal oppression, you’d think The Hunger Games’ real-world advertising campaigns wouldn’t seem so tone-deaf. At one point, Effie hisses with glee at Katniss, “You are going to be the best-dressed rebel in HISTORY!” Banks as Effie clearly gets the irony of that line and zings it to the rafters. But, then, I remembered seeing a Katniss Barbie doll (dressed in the same chic skin-tight jump suit) at Wal-Mart earlier this Black Friday “sell, sell, sell!” week, and I realized how hollow that irony actually was. Talk about winning the battle and losing the war…

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

“The future is for those who know where they belong” – Divergent

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I am not exactly a fan of young adult fiction or the various movies it has spawned over the past 10 years. Twilight makes me snoozy; The Hunger Games leaves me peckish (and cranky), and gooey dreck like The Mortal Instruments just gives me a sugar headache.

Imagine my surprise, then, at how much I enjoyed Divergent. I’ve been dragging my heels to see it, waiting until the last possible moment, as it has been in theaters over a month. In fact, my showing tonight only had one person in it: me.

It is yet another dystopian fantasy in which society has (more or less) survived some unidentified cataclysm. A new order has been put in place to keep all of us well-behaved, monochromatic, and … a little dull. In Divergent‘s case, humanity has been organized into factions according to some key defining personality trait; for example the Dauntless are courageous or the Abnegation are selfless or the Erudite are, well, really smart.

Akin to Harry Potter’s famous sorting hat, teens in this society are forced to choose which faction will serve as their tribe/home for the rest of their days. Said coming-of-age ceremony seems to involve hallucinogenic drugs, plasma screen televisions, and some very unfortunate outfits that appear to have been designed by Eileen Fisher on a very bad day.

Shailene Woodley, portrays “Beatrice,” the heroine of our tale. She is a member of Abnegation, the selfless folks, and her parents are played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn (who are always so good at being stately and worried). Beatrice’s father serves some role in local government, though I wasn’t ever entirely clear what. All I could figure is that society is now led by a rather boring yet politely dysfunctional city council from hell.

Unsurprisingly, the parents in Divergent-world are hopeful that their children end up staying in the faction of their birth, but that is not always the case. Hence, the title “divergent” pertains to young people who defy tidy categorization. This diversity of thought and attitude seems to be the bane of existence for Kate Winslet’s “Jeanine” who heads up the power-hungry Erudite clan – as indicated by her smart Hillary Clinton haircut and Donna Karan-esque navy blue suits.

The bulk of the film is spent setting up the rules of this future society and, when Woodley is in fact revealed to be “divergent,” tracking how she will survive a society that doesn’t much want her in it. She is mentored by the hunkily haunted “Four,” portrayed by newcomer Theo James, channeling an Anthony Perkins-ish, glowering charm.

I found the proceedings much smarter than what is typically on display in these kinds of films. I suppose the casting of Winslet is a sign that director Neil Burger (The IllusionistLimitless) had something greater in mind for this one. It reminded me at times of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, both of which depict near-future societies whose well-meaning, peace-keeping totalitarianism results in widespread mediocrity and a crushing fear of the unique. Orwell’s allegorical legacy continues … praise be!

At one point, Winslet’s character ominously declares, “The future is for those who know where they belong.” Perhaps its just my paranoid middle age speaking but our society today seems to fear the unknown more than ever. The cinematic parable of Divergent (and its two planned sequels) strikes me as so powerful at this precarious cultural crossroads where we find ourselves. So, for once in my movie-going life, I’m actually looking forward to the second installment in one of these teen oriented sci-fi fantasias. Heaven help me.

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

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…HBO’s Behind the Candelabra

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I debated whether or not even to review HBO’s latest event biopic Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. I haven’t felt this ambivalent about a film since 2010’s goth-ballet-thriller-mess Black Swan…and, to this day, I still don’t know how I feel about that one.

I will admit that I was transfixed by this peek into the gilded cage in which Liberace lived, loved, and controlled all those around him. Michael Douglas is a marvel. I forgot I was watching him, though I don’t know that I ever truly believed I was watching Liberace.

At times, I was transfixed the way one might be driving past a car accident on the highway.

As a kid, Liberace gave me the heebie jeebies. Not because of his mincing, sequined, over-baked stage persona (who cares!) but because he seemed so inauthentic and full of campy self-loathing. Well, the film nails that vibe, and offers a portrait (much like HBO’s recent Phil Spector) of a celebrity who created a carnival about himself to escape the reality of his own personal demons.

Most of the supporting players are great – Rob Lowe as a plastic-faced Faustian cosmetic surgeon, Scott Bakula as a sad-sack Liberace-groupie of some sort, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s oily manager/love life hit man, and even Matt Damon as Farrah-haired paramour Scott Thorson.

As the film careens to its sloppy final act, Damon struggles to find his footing in those jilted years that prompted Thorson to write the book upon which this movie is based; however, Damon does create a compelling, sad, and appropriately skeezy portrait of Thorson’s early years with “Lee” (Liberace’s nickname).

The weak link in the cast is Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. Like most of Reynolds’ recent performances, she seems to be phoning it in from 60s-era Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In with her cartoon-y Slav-esque accent and Mrs. Doubtfire/Jimmy Durante fake proboscis.

What bothered me about the film? That part is tricky. I may be over-thinking, but why make this film? If we needed a film about Liberace (and I’m still not sure we did), why base it on a dubious tell-all (now out-of-print) written by a drug-addled, oft-jailed ex-lover? Are the filmmakers giving us the inside view of a talented man (Liberace) who, due to the circumstances of his era/audience/success, was chronically incapable of living an authentic, open, loving life? Or are they inadvertently inciting a bit of a “gay panic” playing winky/wink/nudge/nudge “dress-up” in the sweaty, paranoid era when Studio 54, Mr. Roper, Reaganomics, and the AIDS crisis collided?

Not sure. Is this film worth seeing? I think so. But, as I am prone to do, I worry about its interpretation out-of-context.

And, yes, I had a similar worry about the interpretation of the satirically violent Hunger Games with its atonally giddy Harry Potter-esque marketing campaign. So maybe I am just a worrier. As Liberace espouses late in the film, “Too much of a good thing…is wonderful.”

Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean…

Oh, what hath J.K. Rowling wrought? Beautiful Creatures

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, what hath Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling wrought? The thudding, relentless march of young adult fantasy novels featuring wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, orcs and angst has consumed bookshelves and movie screens for over a decade now.

And for every cinematic blockbuster adaptation – Twilight (blech) or Hunger Games (groan) – the Netflix superhighway is littered with non-starters like The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, I Am Number Fourand Percy Jackson.

Where does Beautiful Creatures, the latest attempt to create a pubescent tentpole franchise sprinkled with pixie dust and Stridex, fit in that continuum? Well, artistically, it’s a lot of fun with a full wink and a smirk at its self-important teenage-targeted forebears…which, commercially, of course, means it will be a big ol’ flop.

Director Richard LaGravenese, who showed such promise with his directorial debut Living Out Loud, does a credible job here, though his pacing is more workmanlike than inspired. Wisely, however, he has stocked his film with a host of Oscar winners/nominees, including Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons as well as talented Emmy Rossum (of Phantom of the Opera-fame) and delightful character actors Margot Martindale and Eileen Atkins.

The cast has a ball with their plummy roles as witches and warlocks debating some incomprehensible nonsense about whether or not young “caster” Lena (played with minimal pretense and maximum warmth by newcomer Alice Englert) will usher in a dark or light age. Doesn’t really matter because the cast is so engaging.

Most noteworthy is Lena’s young “mortal” boyfriend Ethan, portrayed by another newcomer Aiden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is a perfectly postmodern blend (perhaps too self-consciously at times) of Anthony Perkins and James Dean if channeled through the face and voice of Leonardo DiCaprio (with bits of Dougray Scott and James Franco thrown in for good measure). Weird, I know. But true. And he is transfixing. I suspect his career will be one to watch.

I think what I enjoyed most is the fact that the film is sending up its young adult fiction conventions and cliches all while reveling in them. LaGravenese, doing double duty as screenwriter (other credits include my personal favorites The Ref, A Little Princess, and Unstrung Heroes), weaves in smart and fun allusions (and plenty of overt references as well) to some more substantial literary contributors like Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Charles Bukowski,  William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

Set in a small South Carolina backwoods town, Beautiful Creatures uses its corn-pone, crispy-fried, Dixie-goth setting to send up “Red State” religious and intellectual ignorance and fear. Some of it is a bit too “on the nose,” even for my broad and cynical tastes, but I liked that the filmmakers were willing to bite their thumbs at the very audiences who may be flocking to see this film. My favorite line? When young Ethan relates about the local library, “This is my church, this is where my family comes to worship what’s holy: ideas.” Good for him.