The Oscars … A Final Word on 2017

 

US-OSCARS-SHOW

All: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The #Oscars … a final word. I always enjoy the show. A family tradition, we watched every year. We enjoyed the spectacle. We appreciated the good and the great amidst the marketing and the gamesmanship. We embraced the sense of community and the half-baked overtures at social consciousness. We lived for those odd and memorable moments that set one year apart from another. And we relished that we live in a country where this kind of goofy escapist display is celebrated.

 

89th Annual Academy Awards - Show

All in all, I liked last night’s show. And I’m grateful for the arts on all levels – from shameless commerce to high-falutin’ … glad it is ALL there for our consumption.

Other than that delightfully bizarre ending (La La Land wins … oops, sorry … give those back. Moonlight wins!), I thought this year’s Oscar telecast was a good-hearted and balanced production, and, while I am not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, I thought he did a decent job of poking fun at the right personalities without being too invasive/obtrusive. And the whole enterprise moved as efficiently as it ever does, with a high point being the musical numbers … for once.

Here are some parting shots, culled from my social media observations of the evening …

  • Emma Stone,Ryan Gosling,Mahershala AliEmma Stone! And now she has an #Oscar … so we get a little break from the relentless charm offensive? Pretty please?
  • I know we are supposed to love Matt and Ben, but they seem like marginally interesting guys with whom I may have gone to high school.
  • Dammit. “Both Sides Now”?!? That song makes me a puddle. Perfect choice.#SaraBareilles #JoniMitchell #InMemoriam
  • “Dedicated to all the kids who sing in the rain. And all the moms who let them.” – “City of Stars” Best Song acceptance
  • Oh my! John Legend singing “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” … beautiful and elegant throwback to another era. A little Sammy Davis, a little Johnny Mathis, a little Nat King Cole. A lot of gorgeous.
  • Javier Bardem + Meryl Streep = swoon!gettyimages-645743660
  • “To save one life is to save all of humanity.” – White Helmets Oscars acceptance
  • Miracle of miracles. Seth Rogen actually made me laugh. #schuylersistersbucketlist
  • Audible – 1984, Zachary Quinto – commercial. For the win. #Orwell
  • This tour bus thing is a pretty funny bit. And Nicole, Ryan, Denzel, Jennifer, Meryl, Jeff, etc are playing along beautifully. #Gary
  • Yes. Zootopia! Most cleverly subversive film of the year. (And here comes the Moana debate again…)
  • Great ad, Cadillac. Though, it would have been better as Chevrolet. #CadillacNotTheEverymanCar … Cadillac … cars for fancy people … no, wait, for the common man … no, wait. Fancy people. Yeah. Fancy people.
  • Shirley MacLaine, still looking adorable, and still milking the reincarnation jokes…
  • US-OSCARS-SHOW“People and words and life and forgiveness. And grace.” – Viola Davis
  • “I love Lady Gaga’s grandma’s house.” – Ellen (I am not sure what the ad was for, but that line made me LOL.)
  • For the first time … in, like, ever … the music on the #Oscars is (mostly) on point. But I’d like Lin-Manuel to stop rapping. For a long time.
  • “We don’t discriminate based on country of origin here in Hollywood. We discriminate based on age and weight.” – Jimmy Kimmel
  • Words I thought I’d never type. Suicide Squad, Oscar winner.
  • John Travolta should send Warren Beatty a cookie basket. Adele Dazeem is a distant memory now. #Oscars

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89th Annual Academy Awards - ShowReel 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.

 

“You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” Spectre

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

James Bond needs a good foil … or two. Without a sharply defined counterpart, ideally played by a crackerjack BBC-er, against which to reflect and/or deflect, 007 is just a swaggering phallus with a peculiar penchant for martinis and gun-play. And that’s a bore.

Why was the last outing – Skyfall so good? Yeah, Adele’s theme song was one of the best we’ve heard in decades, and director Sam Mendes (Revolution Road, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead) applies a literary/theatrical craftsmanship that elevates film beyond mere verisimilitude to near-allegorical levels.

And, yes, Daniel Craig is the first actor to, you know, act while wearing Bond’s trademark tight-fitting bespoke suits and leaping tall fire escapes in a single bound – his chief charm being that he seems to sort of hate the character and plays Bond as someone who has a f*cking job to do, mate, and, if he has a shag and a drink along the way while slaying an army of vaguely malevolent thugs and baddies, so be it. He’s like your local cable guy if he were an international spy, that is, if said cable guy possessed the eyes of a malamute and the abs of an Abercrombie and Fitch model.

But the real reason Skyfall worked so freaking well?  We had the BOGO (buy-one-get-one-free, kids) joys of Judi Dench AND Javier Bardem, who gave Craig/Bond a film “mother” and a film “brother” against whom to play some crackling “family” dysfunction, with a sparkling amount of wit and a smothering amount of tension. That acting trifecta of Dench, Bardem, and Craig also had the benefit of a great yarn to tell, a fractured fairy tale origin of Bond’s Oliver Twist-meets-Batman upbringing, culminating in nigh-Shakespearean death, destruction, and dismemberment … and that’s just describing what happened to his family vacation home in those eerily snowy Swiss/Austrian/Nordic (?) mountains where these films always seem to conclude.

Alas, Spectre, as fun as it is (and it is fun – kind of a rainbow sherbet to cleanse the palate after the heavy shepherd’s pie that was Skyfall), has no such shining, scene-stealing yins to Craig’s yang. Christoph Waltz, who becomes more of a cartoon every time I see him, seems like the perfect person to play a Bond villain … in 1968. However, in the postmodern grit and wit of Craig’s Bond, Waltz is a bit of a snoozer. I suspect Spectre‘s BIG reveal – the Bond mythos legend whom Waltz portrays – is meant to bring the kind of shock and awe delight of the similar unveiling of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Star Trek Into Darkness. It didn’t.

But (spoiler alert), at least, we get the signature cat … and thuggish henchman (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista as the menacing and seemingly indestructible muscle Mr. Hinx … or Oddjob 2.0).

Ralph Fiennes as Bond handler “M” is no Dench, and he carries a constipated delivery in his few scenes that perhaps bespeaks some frustration that he had to retire Harry Potter‘s Darth Vader-esque Voldemort for a much less interesting 2nd banana role in the Bond franchise. At least Fiennes has nostrils in this series.

Much of the non-Craig spark comes from Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny. She is such a source of light in the film, I’m baffled why the filmmakers aren’t brave enough to mount a Bond/Moneypenny buddy flick. I’d go see that in a heartbeat. Ben Whishaw’s Q grows on me with each subsequent outing, as well, bringing a sardonic glee to torturing Bond with high-tech goodies the spy can’t have as 007 is perpetually in some kind of probationary limbo. (Isn’t Bond at risk of losing his job in every one of these latest forays? I realize Craig does a great job playing the rogue cop notes, but how is Bond still employed at this rate?)

John Logan’s screenplay packs a lot of punches (maybe two or three too many, yielding a near three-hour running time), but lacks the emotional wallop of Skyfall, which is to be expected, I suppose. The script’s biggest crime is falling prey to the two Bond women structural cliche, with the first character being a disposable femme fatale (the much more interesting Monica Bellucci) and the second a wary love interest who will be totally forgotten by the next film in the series (the bland Lea Seydoux).

(We also get one of the loopiest credits sequences in recent memory. Sam Smith’s song is pleasant enough, with a nicely subtle John Barry influence, but all the naked women writhing around with octopi and a shirtless Craig was just … troubling.)

The film aims to say something profound about how Orwellian our culture has become as we willingly submit to eye-in-the-sky surveillance and social media self-revelation, rendering privacy and freedom obsolete, all in a panicked and ultimately misplaced desire for security from nameless, faceless Terrorism with a capital “T.” In the process, we hand the keys to the kingdom to the real terror-mongers in our midst.

Ultimately, this zippy thesis gets lost in the shuffle – with four endings too many ranging from lots of buildings going “boom” to damsel-in-distress kidnappings to way too much Snidely Whiplash-monologuing from Waltz. Spectre also never capitalizes on the spookiness of its strongest sequence, the opening cat-and-mouse chase set among skull-and-crossboned revelers at Mexico City’s annual Day of the Dead celebration. Those early scenes impose a marvelously ominous claustrophobia and a sweaty delirium that the rest of film fritters away.

Spectre does a fine job drawing together the disparate threads of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, with various villains from those prior episodes dancing in and out of the story – one of them intones to Bond, “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” In fact, that cryptic phrase’s chaotic imagery could describe the entire Spectre viewing experience: volatile, transporting, thrilling even, but ultimately tangled up in its own aspirations – a fun but forgettable ride.

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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.

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.

Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie: Star Trek Into Darkness

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, I cried in a Star Trek movie. First time for everything.

I’m not exactly a Trekkie – before this J.J. Abrams-led reinvention of “Wagon Train in Space,” the only entry in the canon I truly loved was Star Trek IV (or as I always call it in our house: “the one with the whales”).

Like the recent craftily re-engineered James Bond (thank you, Daniel Craig and Judi Dench) and Batman (yup, you are ok by me, Christopher Nolan) franchises, 2009’s Star Trek and this new sequel Star Trek Into Darkness mine and refine the source material as if the filmmakers are re-staging one of Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays” to appeal to modern sensibilities.

Notably, Chris Pine as Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mister Spock eliminate the pork from their hammy forebears’ performances (William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy respectively) while keeping the trademarked tics (goony alpha male swagger and goonier pointy ears also respectively). What both do so smartly (and what brought me to tears at a significant twist in the film’s final act) is give these iconic characters vulnerability and flawed humanity. No offense Mr. Priceline Negotiator Shatner, but I will take Pine’s wounded-little-boy-compensating-for-his-deep-seated-insecurity-by-affecting-a-swaggering-prick persona over, well, your swaggering-prick-persona any day of the week.

The film wisely stocks its other iconic roles with a bevy of gifted character actors: Karl Urban (my personal favorite as the crusty, twinkle-eyed, metaphor-spewing Dr. Bones), Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Peter Weller, and the always phenomenal Bruce Greenwood. The ensemble work in these films is feisty, zippy, and fun and should be used as a case study in acting schools everywhere: how to engage your audience and create a credibly warm ensemble dynamic in the midst of rampant CGI, deafening explosions, tilt-a-whirl camera angles, and spoof-worthy use of lighting flares.

I will close on this point. Bar none the canniest thing Abrams does (similar to the casting of Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley in that other summer tent pole, a little movie called Iron Man 3) is select Sherlock‘s and War Horse‘s Benedict Cumberbatch (what a name!) as the film’s main big bad. He is a marvel, commanding every minute of screen time with his handsome yet slightly space alien visage and basso profondo voice. He almost seems bored with EVERYONE around him and, given his sociopathic mission in the film, that works swimmingly. With his nuanced menace, he joins the ranks of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and Javier Bardem’s Silva in the rogue’s gallery of perfect post-modern, post-millennial popcorn film villains.

Kicking the world in its collective teeth: Skyfall

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Skyfall, the 23rd “official” James Bond film, is about as perfect an escapist adventure film as I’ve seen. By the way, the spoofy, 60s Casino Royale and the unauthorized Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again don’t count in the sanctioned tally of Bond films…BUT, if they did, that would make for a nifty 25 films in 50years…ah well.

I did not get a chance to see Quantum of Solace, which, from what I understand, was a wise choice, but I adored Daniel Craig’s first Bond outing Casino Royale. That would be the serious, gritty one with the villain who cried blood while gambling…ewwww. To my mind, the actorly, rugged Craig is the perfect Bond, barely masking what appears to be contempt for and occasional bemusement with a world gone horribly awry as he kicks said world in its collective teeth.

This latest film fires on all cylinders – action, drama, emotion, and even a bit of comedy. The comic moments blessedly never veer into high-camp Roger Moore territory… there are more than a few clever allusions, however, to the goofy charms of early films in the series. Director Sam Mendes brings gravitas to the proceedings, working with screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade to give us a backstory for 007 that leads to a powerful, engaging, and rather heartbreaking finale. The film owes a bit of its DNA to classic cat-and-mouse thrillers like Charade as well as more recent popcorn fare like Silence of the Lambs (for its villain’s creepy plexiglass cell escape) and The Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises (with its backdrop of have/have not inequality that supercharges social anarchy against a flawed social system). Ensemble players Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, and Helen McCrory are all reliably excellent – what a cast!

But beyond Craig’s nuanced, charmingly surly performance, supported by a dream BBC miniseries-style cast, what is the film’s best “special effect”? That would be none other than Javier Bardem. He internalizes the epic, broadly drawn supervillainy of previous Bond antagonists, turning it into a charmingly twisted, Freudian pretzel of a characterization. Bardem’s Silva is fascinating, transfixing, and utterly relatable/revolting. The chemistry between Craig and Bardem is electric. Don’t miss this one, folks. Smart, sharp fun.