“If you dream it, you can achieve it” – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Prom, Midnight Sky, Wonder Woman 1984 … and Cimarron?

Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

From Sunset Boulevard

“If you dream it, you can achieve it.” – Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) in Wonder Woman 1984

“Nothing good is born from lies.” – Diana (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman 1984

Sadly, this seems to be the season of watching big ticket blockbusters crammed onto a home screen. Furthermore, this seems to be the season where all of your Facebook friends march like lemmings to tell you what you’re supposed to think of said offerings before you even have had a chance to view them for yourself. Being the good-natured contrarian that my parents raised, I find myself in direct opposition to much of the feedback I’ve observed. To me, The Prom was kind-hearted escapism-with-attitude, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a stagy self-indulgent slog, Midnight Sky was a resonant Truman Capote-meets-Ray Bradbury short (long) story, and Wonder Woman 1984 was a candy-coated (admittedly overstuffed) confection.

I loved The Prom. I, for one, like unapologetic musicals, and this Ryan Murphy production reads like Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, High School Musical, and Bye Bye Birdie had a socially progressive movie baby. Much needless ado has been made about (formerly?) beloved Carpool Karaoke maven James Corden playing a gay character, claiming his take is offensively stereotypical. Many critics’ descriptions have been as troubling as what they accuse Corden of perpetuating, if you ask me.

To me, it is one of Corden’s better and more thoughtful performances, layering broad comedy in a compelling gauze of pathos, to effectively depict a man struggling to find his path in the margins (in career, physicality, and, yes, sexuality). Corden is part of a free-wheeling quartet of Broadway narcissists (all compensating for respective ghosts of failures past) who descend on a small Indiana town to “rescue” it from its own prejudices after the local PTA shames and embarrasses a young lesbian (luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) in a way that would make even John Travolta’s character in Carrie cringe.

Meryl Streep (channeling a caustic yet charming mix of Patti LuPone and Susan Lucci), Nicole Kidman (at her most winsomely fragile), and Andrew Rannells (all bounding and puppyish joy) are Corden’s partners in well-intentioned, occasionally misplaced crime, and they have fabulous chemistry. Kerry Washington is suitably evangelically vampy as the rigid PTA president, and Keegan-Michael Key is a pleasant surprise (both as a singer and actor) as the high school’s show tune loving principal. Tracey Ullmann pops up as Corden’s regretful Midwestern ma, and their reconciliation scene is a lovely little masterclass in heightened understatement.

Oh, right, I did say the movie is kicky fun, but nothing I’ve written here much indicates why. Working from Matthew Sklar’s buoyant Broadway production, Murphy and team overdo everything in all the right ways, juxtaposing all-too-real intolerance and heartache (basically everyone in the film is guilty of uninformed prejudice of one kind or another) with the metaphysical joys of unhinged singing, dancing, glitter, and sequins. All ends (predictably) happily, almost Shakespearean (if Shakespeare listened to Ariana Grande), and I dare you not to sit through the end credits with a stupid, hopeful grin on your face.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also adapted from the stage, as legendary director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s play to the screen. I suspect my disappointment is more to do with the source material than Wolfe’s sure-handed if claustrophobic direction. To be honest, I wanted more of Viola Davis’ dynamite Ma Rainey and less of … everyone else. Davis has one scene worthy of the Hollywood time capsule, eviscerating the misogynistic and racist capitalist machine that steals artists’ voices (quite literally as Rainey is committing her vocals to vinyl) and tosses people to the curb when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The film depicts one day in a Chicago recording studio as Rainey fights with, well, anyone who crosses her path in defense of her vision and to retain her integrity in a world that reduces her to a commodity. THAT is the movie I wanted to see, but Wolfe gives preferred time to Rainey’s studio musicians, a group of men whose primary purpose seems to be representing inter-generational animosity among those with a Y-chromosome. Perhaps I’ve just had my fill for one lifetime of toxic male posturing, but I grew weary of their (endless) scenes.

In total, the film feels like it never really escapes the confines of the stage, and I may be among the few viewers underwhelmed by Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His work seems hammy and like he is in search of another movie altogether. I could be wrong, but the overwhelming praise for Boseman here feels like groupthink rhapsodizing given that he is no longer with us. I’m going to hell. See you there. Boseman remains a singular talent, but I don’t think time will be kind to this particular role, Oscar-winning as it likely will be.

Wonder Woman 1984 follows the loping narrative style of all inexplicably beloved films made in, well, 1984, and thereby is a kind of referendum on the cardboard excess and shallow instant gratification of that hollow era, nostalgia for which continues to plague us in insidious ways to this very day.

I found it nicely character driven with a strong cast and with a warm and (mostly) light touch, but plagued by some script/logic problems in its final act. All in all, it met my comics-loving expectations, and I enjoyed what they were doing. Gal Gadot remains a commanding presence in a way we just don’t see in screen stars these days. She’s not an actor per se, but she is a star.

Director Patty Jenkins has great Rube Goldberg-esque fun with one improbable action sequence after another. All were clearly nods to similar films of the 80s featuring, say, Superman or Indiana Jones but enhanced through modern Fast and the Furious-style tech and suspension of disbelief. I’m not looking for pragmatism in a movie like this. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and WW84 did that for me

Jenkins makes the smart choice of casting talent who will connect the dots in a wafer-thin script. In the film, Kristen Wiig consistently makes smart acting choices as her character progresses from heartbreakingly nerdy sidekick to sullen and insolent supervillain, never losing the heartache of exclusion underneath it all. I thought she was a refreshing and inspired choice to play Barbara Minerva/Cheetah.

Dreamy/witty Chris Pine doesn’t get much dialogue/plot to work with as newly resurrected love interest Steve Trevor, but he shines nonetheless, wringing laughs from fish-out-of-water nuance without ever belaboring the joke.

Pedro Pascal balances Trumpian satire and Babbitt-esque tragedy as a gilded charlatan who believes 80s greed is the key to self-acceptance. He’s grand until the dodgy final act strands him somewhere on manic Gene Wilder-isle, and the film limps to its inevitable world-saving resolution.

I also think if people had watched WW84 on the big screen, they would have walked away with a different vibe. Some may disagree, but there’s a hidden psychological bump to paying for a ticket and investing time away from home (one WANTS the movie to be good) that is erased by the small screen – which has little to do with what is actually being viewed. IMHO.

The global warming parable Midnight Sky (directed by and starring George Clooney), however, benefits from small screen viewing. That said, the film’s outer space, nail biting, race-against-time elements have all been covered (sometimes better) in The Martian, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and George Clooney’s own Gravity. Hell, throw in Event Horizon, Sunshine, and The Black Hole for good measure.

Rather, I enjoyed the film’s quiet moments with Clooney as the sole (maybe?) survivor on an ice-covered Earth, as he fights the elements, time, and his own failing health to deter a deep-space crew from returning to their certain death on an uninhabitable planet. I didn’t give two hoots about the space mission, which included Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone, all doing their level best to make us care. However, I was transfixed by an almost unrecognizable Clooney who checked his golden boy charm at the door and exquisitely projected the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of someone nearing the literal end. So, in other words, how most of us feel in 2020.

If it were up to me, I would edit out all of the space-faring scenes and leave the film’s focus on George Clooney alone in a post-apocalyptic arctic, yielding a transcendent hour-long Twilight Zone episode.

Now, let’s see how I fare in the Twitterverse when I finally turn to watching Disney’s/Pixar’s Soul

Postscript … what follows is an email sent to my mother Susie Sexton this afternoon about 1960’s classic Cimarron. They don’t make movies like this any more, and that’s a shame.

From IMDB’s synopsis: “The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife’s anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources.”

I just finished Cimarron and liked it very very much. I do think that Edna Ferber captures perhaps somewhat formulaically but absolutely effectively, the passage and snowballing magnitude of time and life, with a lovely progressive sensibility (pun unintended).

Maria Schell is exquisite. I don’t think the film would’ve been half as good without her in it. I really like Anne Baxter too. Their one scene together is quite understated and powerful.

Glenn Ford is of course great too, but Maria Schell really got to me. She acts in a style ahead of its time. It’s a beautiful film, but at least in the first ten minutes I kept expecting them to burst into song. When it really digs into their struggle and unpredictable relationship, it’s very powerful. The supporting cast was of course great since all of those people had been in one million films already.

Thanks for recommending this! Love you!

My family loves movies. We always have. It is our cultural shorthand, and every holiday – until this one – has been spent in communion over what movies we saw, how they made us think and feel, and what these films might say about our culture and its advancement. That is in short why I write this blog. I can’t imagine watching a movie without having the opportunity to share how it speaks to my heart and mind.

Thank you for reading these thoughts of mine for nearly ten years (!), inspired as they are by a lifetime of loving movies.

“Droid, please.” Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

With the clarion blast of John Williams’ trademark fanfare, a militaristic waterfall of brassy notes, Star Wars returns to the silver screen in “Episode VII,” otherwise known as The Force Awakens.

Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8) has been entrusted (wisely) by the slick branding minds at the Mouse House, LucasFilm’s new owners, to inject the franchise with a postmodern jolt of nostalgia-fueled adrenaline, after the late 90s/early 00s prequel series failed to sustain fanboy adoration.

Let me add that I find some of the rampant hatred of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith (oh, those names) a bit disingenuous, lemming-like, and arguably age-ist. We nerds were all lined up in geeky hysteria to devour those films, debate their merits, and consume every last bit of merchandising. Were we thrilled with the films? Not totally. Were they ponderous, meandering, and wooden? Heck, yeah. Did we care? No, because we loved this bizarre universe that was less sci-fi and more Land of Oz with its blend of preposterous names (Count Dooku?), anthropomorphic machinery, fuzzy Muppet-y sidekicks, and simplistic delineation of right from wrong.

Now, we all want to kick George Lucas to the curb, like some previous homeowner who had terrible taste in shag carpeting since we know so much better with our Ikea coffee tables and stainless steel appliances. We seem to be saying, “Go away, you doddering old man. We don’t care if you created all of this from broad cloth. You’re tiresome.” That bugs me. A lot. Maybe it’s because I’ll likely be 50 years old when this latest trilogy wraps up or because I will be forever grateful to Lucas for all the backyard adventures he fueled for this plucky only child, but I think he deserves a break and our gratitude.

…That said, I’m sure glad he didn’t direct this latest installment.

Abrams is not the most ingenious of directors. If Spielberg and Lucas, his most immediate forebears, were consummate recyclers of B-movie tropes (Indiana Jones, Jaws, and, yes, Star Wars), then Abrams is, at best, a fabulous remixer. He takes the Spielberg/Lucas greatest hits, adds a dash of irony, self-satirizing humor, marketing panache, and copious lens flares in a transfixing gift for cinematic misdirection. Take his two Star Trek films, for instance.  Great fun, right?  Yet, there is not one original thought between them that wasn’t already expressed a hundred times over in earlier Trek films and series. Into Darkness is pretty much a remake/reinvention of one of the better films Wrath of Khan infused with the earth-bound whimsy of the best Star Trek … The Voyage Home.

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Little Roy and Friends

That’s what Abrams does, and that’s just fine. The instinct for escapist self-preservation is Hollywood’s bread and butter, and, with the assured success of Force Awakens, Abrams is sure to be Tinseltown’s favorite son.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives us everything we want, with few surprises. While every other Star Wars film has debuted in May to provide air-conditioned cinematic asylum from the hottest days of the year, Force Awakens arrives just in time for Christmas. Not unlike those Disney Park rides that dump you right into a gift shop so you can load up on memory-preserving souvenirs, this film seems built to send you packing to Toys R Us posthaste for some last minute stocking stuffers. Just like the holidays, Force Awakens showers us with familiar, comforting indulgences.

X-Wing and Tie Fighters engaged in balletic dog fights, every sound effect you remember well-preserved but with new paint jobs so you’ll have to capture the newest miniature versions for your personal fleet at home. C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) are still fussy as ever, but with a little third-act intrigue to keep you guessing. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) remains adorable as a Golden Retriever on two legs who happens to be really adept at piloting the Millennium Falcon. Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher – who looks like she’s about to crack a joke every time she speaks, thank goodness) are a little grayer and wizened, mercifully winking at the proceedings but also providing much-needed flesh-and-blood poignancy. Any tears I shed were all due to the two of them – both from my joy at seeing them in these iconic roles again and in their ability to inhabit those characters, thirty years later, so effortlessly.

The plot (spoiler … well, 38-year-old spoiler) is pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars: A New Hope,  itself ripped off just two movies later for Return of the Jedi. Scary fascists (this time called “The First Order”) in matching outfits can’t tolerate free-thought or weirdly-featured cantina-frequenting creatures, so they build a big ol’ planet-sized armageddon machine; and Dorothy and The Tin Man and The Scarecrow and The Cowardly Lion blow it up real good and save the universe (for now). Actually, that sounds a bit like rhetoric from the Republican presidential debates. Maybe a disenfranchised Lucas is moonlighting for Trump these days?

Damn, Force Awakens is fun, though. Seeing beloved characters in a place and time you’ve worshipped since you were a kid is akin to the perfect extended family reunion … that is, if you liked your extended family. Abrams is a canny filmmaker. He uses the free-pass such familiarity brings to introduce a new generation (literally and figuratively) of characters who end up carrying the torch quite nicely. Furthermore, Abrams layers an Empire Strikes Back-style ominous gloom over Force Awakens’ Saturday matinee escapades – a sense of forboding that holds welcome promise for future installments.

Adam Driver (Girls) channels Millennial angst as antagonist Kylo Ren – imagine Darth Vader with ADHD. Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is all Errol Flynn swashbuckling swagger as pilot Poe Dameron.  John Boyega (Attack the Block) as turncoat Stormtrooper Finn and newcomer Daisy Ridley as scrappy orphan Rey are the heart and soul of the film. Like the film’s viewers, these two actors have grown up admiring the fantasy and the fiction of the Star Wars universe. Consequently, they bleed respect, wit, and warmth for their characters and for the heroic quests they get to play, yet they escape the overly reverent quagmire that afflicted prequel stars Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. (Boyega’s seemingly ad libbed “Droid, please.” to the equally affable, Chaplinesque, volleyball-shaped robot BB-8 exemplifies his free-wheeling, contemporary comic approach.)

I will also commend Abrams for bringing us our most diverse Star Wars cast yet, offering a galactic reflection of our earthly life today. About time.

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without an action-figure phalanx of oddball spirit guides and gleamingly militant heavies (played by a Love Boat-sized cast of “special guest stars”). Spotting them is like playing a space-faring game of Where’s Waldo? Look, Daniel Craig is a cheeky Stormtrooper! Look, Max Von Sydow is Alec Guiness! Look, Gwendolyn Christie is a cheeky chrome-plated Stormtrooper! Look, Domhnall Gleeson is Peter Cushing! Look, Andy Serkis is Gollum-channeling-The-Wizard-of-Oz! Look, Lupita Nyong’o is … Yoda?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will satisfy all you playground Han Solos and Leia Organas and Luke Skywalkers. Indeed, the 12-year-old boy in me was transported … a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In that sense, Abrams and crew did their job flawlessly. But this installment was easy. The audience was waiting and appreciative to see the old band back together, playing the classic tracks we know and love.

The trick for the upcoming films (to mix Abrams’ Star franchises blasphemously)? To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no (hu)man has gone before.

I look forward to it.

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Roy_Star_WarsReel 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.