“This is the last day we will be this young.” Girls Trip

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Girls Trip is so bawdy and raucous and, yes, delightful that it makes Bridesmaids look like Anne of Green Gables. Yet, there is something more significant than jaw-dropping raunch in the shared DNA of these two films. (And isn’t it troubling and a little sad that we are still comparing any ribald comedy featuring a group of female friends to one admittedly wonderful flick from six years ago? For every one Bridesmaids or Girls Trip, there are about 48 more gross-out comedies featuring men, and those don’t all get compared to The Hangover.)

No, what brings these two films together – Girls Trip and Bridesmaids – is heart and humanity but, most especially, the thrilling audacity to critique patriarchy and to celebrate female agency and intelligence through the cinematic hook of unrepentant madcap naughtiness.

Such a shame that there aren’t more movies like that. “It’s a hoot,” as one satirically out-of-touch business executive observes when Girls Trip‘s leads derail a televised cooking show midway through the film, but, dammit, if she isn’t right.

Portraying the “Flossy Posse,” a quartet of old college buddies whose wit is only superseded by their moxie is an A-team of crackerjack comic talent: Queen Latifah (Chicago, Bringing Down the House, Beauty Shop), Jada Pinkett Smith (Gotham, Set It Off), Regina Hall (Scary Movie), and deliciously scene-stealing Tiffany Haddish (Keanu).

As only movie “logic” can represent, the friends have pursued wildly divergent careers: celebrity gossip blogger, clinician, self-help guru, and businesswoman (respectively). The fact that this sitcom setup works as well as it does is a testament to this foursome’s talents as well as to Malcolm D. Lee’s smoothly effervescent direction and blackish‘s duo Kenya Barris’ and Tracy Oliver’s empathetic and intuitive script. The initial scenes depicting each of the four leads in their daily lives crackle with comic tension and a heightened but lovely reality.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hall’s character Ryan Pierce is on the fast-track to superstardom, aided and abetted by her hunky former pro-football player husband Stewart, as portrayed with just the right balance of glitz and menace by Mike Colter (The Good Wife, Luke Cage). She is invited to offer the keynote speech at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans at the same time a large discount retailer is courting her and her husband to launch a lifestyle line of clothing and household goods. (Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous. It is. And the movie knows this too. Thank goodness.) Ryan decides to invite her buddies to join her for, you guessed it, a “girls trip” to counteract the fact that they’ve all grown apart over the past few years, and the foursome boards a plane and head to New Orleans. As Ryan tells the group, “This is the last day we will be this young.”

Pretty quickly, they all realize that the picture perfect lives they purport to lead are all kind of a mess, and, through the course of a their long weekend (and some truly audacious comic set pieces I can’t even begin to describe here), they reclaim the people they once were. If you aren’t choked up when Hall finally delivers that keynote and talks about the dreams and hopes she had as an individual back in college and how life and her rocky marriage have derailed her from being her most authentic self, well, you’ve got a heart of stone. Or you are under 40.

[ADDENDUM: Susanna Leonard noted on LinkedIn: Bone picking: ‘Or you’re under 40’ – I promise you, women in their 30s can identify quite well with losing the dreams of their college-years. I finished college almost 15 years ago… I think I get it.” Right on, Susanna – I stand corrected. I was viewing strictly from the POV of a 40-something – the exact age of the film’s characters, in fact – and that was wrong. I appreciate that you took the time to read and to comment.]

On its surface, Girls Trip is just a sassy, raunchy summer night at the movies, and, on that level alone, it will be quite a crowd-pleaser. However, the depth of love and anger roiling underneath the surface of these women’s 25-year-long friendship has an authenticity and relatability seldom captured in this genre of film.

Haddish is the nuclear bomb in their midst. Forgive me yet another Bridesmaids comparison, but she is the Melissa McCarthy who swipes the picture away yet somehow remains a consummate ensemble player, elevating everyone to a higher level of performance. She is the quartet’s trickster and its broken/beating heart, who blithely ignores bad news and good advice and emerges victorious in any situation. She is a revelation.

But, then so is Smith – I’d forgotten what an actor she can be. Yes, she can play the anarchic spitfire in her sleep. (Her crime boss Fish Mooney was the only reason to watch Gotham – if there were an Emmy for “best use of lacquered fingernails,” she’d have ten.) And I tire of watching her and husband Will walk the red carpet as if they just descended from Mount Olympus. So, I had my doubts when I realized she was playing the requisite frumpy fuddy duddy in the group. She is a wonder in the part, rediscovering the impish joys of her youth, yet never devolving into self-indulgent clowning and always retaining the anxious, caring core of her character. When she proudly emerges with four bedazzled denim vests for her pals to wear on their trip and is told dismissively by the others that her sartorial efforts look like they belong to “the My Little Pony motorcycle club,” her hurt is as palpable as the line is glibly funny.

Queen Latifah is the only cast member who seems a bit lost amidst the shenanigans. Her character is faced with mounting debts and a failed career, and there is a melodramatic tension introduced at the midpoint between her character and Hall’s. It doesn’t completely work, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the picture either. Consequently, Latifah is forced to react knowingly to the broader bits Smith and Haddish get to explore and carry the maudlin moments when the quartet have their predictable (though really well played) final act meltdown. Latifah typically has such a presence, and, in Girls Trip, she ends up being a bit of a background player. In the inevitable sequel, maybe she’ll regain her edgy footing.

So grab thee a cosmo and a bag of popcorn and your best pals, and head over to the cinema posthaste for a weekend on the town with these screwball comediennes of the 21st century. They are a hoot.

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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.

A big, dumb himbo of a film: Magic Mike XXL

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Magic Mike XXL is a big, dumb himbo of a film, as unnecessary and aimless as the central road trip to  a Myrtle Beach “stripper convention” (do those even exist?!) which it depicts.

Is the movie mindlessly entertaining with occasional shaggy charms? Of course. Does it suffer from lazy-cash-grab-sequelitis? You betcha.

I recall finding the original Magic Mike a warm-hearted surprise, with a shocking amount of depth and a keen eye toward skewering a hypocritical Southland (namely Florida), all surface Americana propriety with a scabrous, sleazy undercurrent bubbling to the surface.

That film’s intrepid band of “male entertainers,” led in a breakout actor/producer role by winsome Channing Tatum, may have been beautiful externally but, to a one, also held a tangled web of insecurities, addictions, dreams deferred, and stunted emotions inside.

It was a revelatory mix of voyeurism and schadenfreude. I wrote in my original review: “Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.”

Sadly, Magic Mike XXL jettisons both its original director (Soderbergh, who now steps in as cinematographer) and any attempt at depth. As directed by Gregory Jacobs, the dark grit of, say, a Saturday Night Fever is now replaced with the DNA of National Lampoon’s Vacation‘s meandering, prurient travelogue.

That said, the film’s chief strength remains its cast. From Tatum to Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello through Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez, the boys all realize the way to their movie audience’s collective heart is not through an ab-tastic bump-and-grind but by telegraphing (what the paltry script will allow of) their respective characters’ inner-lives and bro-culture shortcomings. (Manganiello’s deftly comic routine in a convenience store with a bag of Cheetos, a bottle of water, and a surly clerk is worth the price of admission alone.)

There is also fun to be had as Jada Pinkett Smith takes over the swaggering cowboy emcee role from Matthew McConaughey. Who knew she could out cheese Mr. “All right, all right, all right” for dorky machismo? And, yes, she is doing that same posturing, tongue-clicking, finger-wagging thing she does in every movie (and episode of Gotham), but it’s a refreshing bit of zest in this slog of a film.

Elizabeth Banks pops up, channeling a variation of the fiercely intelligent, big-haired, predatory-entrepreneur-in-cupcake-clothing she does so well, and Andie MacDowell is luminous in yet another in her long line of Southern-fried doyenne kooks. The screen nearly breaks in half every time MacDowell gives one of those “cat-that-ate-the-canary” grins of hers.

A game and sparkling cast is sadly wasted here. The dance sequences are ineptly filmed (seriously, Soderbergh was the cinematographer here?!?). Narrative set pieces are interminable and dull (particularly the sequence where we first meet Pinkett Smith at her creepy bordello with its weirdo glowing couches and cave-like “Bride of Dracula” decor). The music selections are forgettable and crass. And the final conceit that each of Tatum’s cohorts will channel their true passion (painting, weddings, frozen yogurt?!?!) through their climactic routines is laughably bizarre.

Run, don’t walk, away from this one, kids. And, Hollywood, how about being brave enough to cast Tatum and Bomer (who has a glorious voice, by the way) in an honest-to-goodness musical with, you know, singing and dancing and choreography that keeps its participants all standing upright? That would be a charming escape and a much better use of the talents (and brains) of all involved. Just a thought.

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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.

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.” Exodus: Gods and Kings, Into the Woods, Annie, Big Eyes, and The Imitation Game

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“But just because they think differently, that doesn’t mean that they do not think.”

So says British wartime mathematician (and accidental spy) Alan Turing (as portrayed in The Imitation Game with comic grace and heartbreaking nuance by Benedict Cumberbatch) to a police detective investigating Turing on indecency charges during the post-war years.

Turing offers this hypothesis in revelation, not over his sexuality per se, but to this even deeper secret: that he, through his divination of modern computing, broke Nazi codes that provided crucial intelligence for the allies to win the war. His theorem on diversity of thought processes is offered when he is asked, “Do machines think?” Yet, his conclusion above applies to his life, or for that matter to any life, lived on the margins.

Buddha 1

My parents with Buddha

The film’s central hypothesis is that those who are most overlooked (if not reviled) become those who bring the change we most need. And this mantra applies in some part to every film I saw this holiday break, from Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals-and-Bible-verse epic Exodus: Gods and Kings to Rob Marshall’s long-gestating adaptation of Stephen Sondheim tuner Into the Woods to Tim Burton’s almost-but-not-quite-there kitsch docudrama Big Eyes to, yes, even Will Gluck’s unnecessary yet surprisingly pleasant reinvention of that cloying chestnut Annie. (In the thirty years it took us to get one cinematic Into the Woods, we’ve had three versions of Annie … but I digress.)

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?”

Night at the Museum 2

My parents with Ben Stiller

So sings The Baker’s Wife (portrayed with lilting restraint by an ever-impressive Emily Blunt) at a penultimate moment in the swirling, spiky postmodern fairy tale pastiche that is Into the Woods. Her character, literally defined by name as a possession (Baker’s Wife) finally claims one moment in life for herself, and the exhilaration and the horror of this gender-fried crossroads quite literally leads her off a cliff.

Paddington

Me and Paddington

 

 

 

 

“Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Amen. Each successive Christmas holiday reminds me of this in no uncertain terms. This festive season arrives faster and faster every year, in a sh*t-storm of commercialized mania and accelerated/accumulated guilt. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, I feel the calendar pages ripping away as I age mercilessly with each card I write or present I wrap in mindless tradition. Quite literally, in fact. My birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary are plunked smack in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s – the special, silly times of card games and Old Saint Nick seem to recede ever more into the rear-view mirror, as gray hairs dot my scalp, my waist ever expands, and my knees crackle and creak.

Annie 2

The cast of Annie … and my folks!

One of the seasonal traditions that still holds charm for me and for my family is going to the movies, escaping into the darkness of the cineplex, our faces lit only by the glow of a movie screen, as we lose ourselves in the fictional lives of twenty foot people, exploring their cinematic metaphors for the pain of our real lives, as they are indifferent to the din of our popcorn chomping.

 

(Someone in cyberspace just looked up from their computer/iPad/iPhone/whatever and said, “This isn’t a review? What is this??” Nope, it’s a blog – my blog and I’m writing about the films I saw this week through the present state of my heart. Get over it. I would argue that’s how most of us view movies – not through clever analyses of cinematography or semiotics but by how films make us feel.)

We were blessed with a banquet of great choices at the movie house this year, and these flicks made up, in part, for the inexorable sadness of seeing another year slip past.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If time and temperament allow, I might write in more detail someday about one or all of these, but, for the nonce, I’m going to just jot out quick thumbnail reviews of each. These were the kinds of Leonard Maltin-esque blurbs I posted on Facebook a few years ago that prompted people to ask me to start a blog in the first place. It feels right to exercise (exorcise?) those muscles again …

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a return to triumphant form for director Ridley Scott. People have dismissed the film as ponderous and pedantic, but, they are missing the point. Biblical stories are richest and at their most compelling when told from a humanistic/historical perspective. That’s not blasphemy, you ring-dings – that’s inspiration. Christian Bale’s everyman-Moses is a believable portrait of a man at odds with himself and with a society he has outgrown. The narrative of Moses’ uncertain certainty that a new future and a new legacy must be paved for his children and his children’s children is subtly, deliberately told (or as subtle as a CGI-filled spectacle with skies that rain frogs can be). Joel Edgerton (his unfortunate resemblance to Nancy‘s Sluggo notwithstanding) as Ramesses is a fine match for Bale, telegraphing beautifully the earnest indignation of a king whose kingdom evaporates beneath his spray-tanned feet. The film’s key misstep is casting John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver as the Pharaoh and his Queen. WTF?!? I giggled every time the duo popped a kohl-rimmed eye onscreen. I’m a fan of color-blind casting – and that goes both ways – so I don’t buy into any of the controversy surrounding this film … but those two just stuck out like sore, overpaid Hollywood thumbs in an otherwise entertaining epic.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into the Woods is a perfectly manicured Hollywood treatment of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical. It isn’t as hermetically sealed as the wonderful yet claustrophobic Sweeney Todd, but it does suffer from a similar staginess. Director Rob Marshall can’t quite shake the stiffness of his TV-movie origins as he takes his spectacular cast from live locales to sound stages and back again. Fortunately, he has stacked the deck with a cast to die for. Nearly everyone (with the exception of a wan Johnny Depp as the wolf) rocks it – notably the aforementioned Blunt as well as Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and, of course (!), Meryl Streep as feminist-whirlwind-in-blue-haired-mischief as The Witch. Go for the spectacle but stay for her climactic number “Last Midnight,” which she delivers as a kind of last word tour de force on the B.S. that is Freudian mother-bashing.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Annie is getting a lot of venom it doesn’t deserve. Folks, it’s not a very good musical to begin with. The 1982 John Huston movie is a bloated, abysmal mess. The 1999 Disney TV movie sequel (yes, directed by Rob Marshall – go figure) is an improvement because, like Into the Woods, they cast the darned thing correctly…but the show is just clunky in its bones. So I, unlike many of my Gen X peers, didn’t sweat it that Jay-Z and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith decided to produce a reinvented “modern” Annie. (Jay-Z scored a genius hip-hop hit over a decade ago when he sampled the treacly “Hard Knock Life” and turned that song on its square head.) With that said, I enjoyed this latest take on the trice-told tale (not counting the various direct-to-video sequels). Yes, the movie suffers from a kiddie-movie dumbing down of its game stars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and Quvenzhane Wallis. If I saw one more spit-take with a mouthful of food from one of them I was going to scream – not funny … never funny … no one in real life ever. does. that. Stop it, Hollywood. Regardless, the Sia-produced remixes on the classic tunes offer a fun refresh (at least to my Tomorrow-beleaguered ear), and I, for one, enjoyed Diaz’ albeit-hammy-but-grounded Miss Hannigan. (Sorry, I am not a fan of Carol Burnett’s sloppy slurring take on the character in the original film. Another note to Hollywood: fake, floppy drunkenness? Stop it. Not funny.)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Big Eyes? I think we all can agree those forlorn waifs with the saucer eyes are a pop culture trend best forgotten. However, the idea of mining America’s en masse lemming-like attraction to bad taste as a metaphor for cultural atrophy? THAT I can support. Alas, Tim Burton only gets us part of the way. Amy Adams does a credible job as the questionably talented but unquestionably victimized artist Margaret Keane. Unfortunately, the script imports some shallow truisms of Atomic Age misogyny from a very special episode of Mad Men, and Burton lets Christoph Waltz as Margaret’s megalomaniacal hubby Walter chew the scenery into balsa wood splinters. (Waltz becomes more of a Looney Tunes character every day.) Always delightful Terence Stamp gets all the film’s best lines as a New York Times art critic simultaneously horrified, bemused, and validated by America’s collective tackiness. The film has a chance to say some powerful things about creativity and gender and the crush of patriarchal economics … but it just implies them.

Movie 1

Me.

And back to The Imitation Game, in some respects the strongest of this overall decent pack of films. Cumberbatch, like those saucer-eyed waifs, lets his peepers do most of the talking. His Alan Turing is insufferably arrogant yet heartbreakingly winsome. The ache of his difference, his left-field intelligence, his sheer other-ness is conveyed through those haunted, limpid orbs of his. Keira Knightly (who usually makes me want to throw myself through a plate-glass window) is full of restrained charm. She is the counterpoint to Turing’s existence: another outsider – this time for her gender – whose outsized intelligence is marginalized and pooh-poohed, until these two spectacular oddballs find one another … and save the world. The script is thin at times (confusing at others), but Cumberbatch and Knightly make a crackerjack pair. Their final scene together is both tender and shattering.

Movie 4

End scene.

Any of my snark aside, all of these films are worth visiting and revisiting. The holidays are always a time of reflection, and the movies can be an important and therapeutic part of that process. We’ve got a week until we ring in 2015, so go spend some time in far off lands or heightened realities and see what they open in your own heart. More from Into the Woods

“Someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.”

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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.