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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot damn!

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

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I don’t like stupid.” A weekend of iconoclasts: Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), and An Evening with Bill Maher

Bill MaherIt was a weekend of iconoclasts in Indiana as I spent the past two days in the Hoosier state with Johnny Depp, Lily Tomlin, and Bill Maher.

Well, I actually spent the past two days with my equally free-thinking parents who defy geographic boundaries, and we all took in movies and a show that featured these three performers.

Bill MaherNamely, Black MassGrandma, and An Evening with Bill Maher.

Bill Maher, explaining how he got into some controversy in a debate last fall with Ben Affleck (of all people), noted that he “just doesn’t like stupid things.”

Bill MaherAnd in his worldview, that idea encompasses any government or faith or group of self-important, judgmental blowhards who want to diminish the rights and freedoms of others, particularly those who chronically find themselves on the short end of every stick.

Susie and Bill

Susie and Bill

Fair enough. In fact, this notion of raging against stupid things defined all of this weekend’s entertainment.

Our first rule breaker of the weekend was Black Mass‘ Johnny Depp, so immersed in the look and feel of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, one might suspect he forgot to pay much mind to character development along the way. You know Johnny – he loves those colored contacts, that pancake makeup, and disarmingly fake-ass teeth. At least in this film, we didn’t have to suffer through any zany chapeaus.

Regardless, it is an impressive if uneven performance in an impressive if uneven film. Bulger, not unlike cinematic forebear Hannibal Lecter, definitely doesn’t like stupid. The film, directed with a more-or-less sure hand by Scott Cooper, marries the gruesome and the sparkling in surprising and inventive ways, and Bulger, at least in Depp’s portrayal, exacts a delightfully cracked code of punishing the moronic. Early in the film, Depp as Bulger tells a meddling police officer, “Do you think I’d warn you when I’m going to hurt you? No, you won’t see it coming.” Throughout the film, anyone who breaches Bulger’s plainspoken code, right and wrong, inevitably finds themselves two or three scenes down the road on the wrong end of a gun or more likely bare-fisted death blows.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Black Mass details the rise and fall and disappearance of real-life Boston “Southie” gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Alas, familiarity breeds contempt, and we’ve seen too many fictionalized versions of this and similar stories over the past decade: The Departed, The Town heck, American Hustle. While Depp gives the role his all, it’s just not quite enough to take the film to fresh levels. He may have had too much reverence for the character (or for his prosthetics), and Bulger sometimes seems like a ghost in his own film.

However, Benedict Cumberbatch turns in some of his best work as Bulger’s starched straight-arrow politico brother, a successful senator from Boston. Benedict must have seen Depp’s cosmetic indulgence and headed 180 degrees in the other direction. Smart move. Cumberbatch resists the urge to play any predictable notes of sturm und drang. Cumberbatch gives us the consummate politician – likable, gracious, but with the kind of studied ethical ambivalence that makes looking the other way seem like moral high ground.

Joel Edgerton, as the brothers’ childhood friend, also does a fine job in a pivotal role as an FBI agent who may fancy himself the long arm of the law but, in the end, enjoys frequenting Miami discotheques with mobster buddies a bit too much. The point/counterpoint of the film comes from the devil’s gambit Edgerton plays, cutting a deal with Whitey to provide what ultimately proves to be specious intel to the FBI regarding his fellow crooks. By the time anyone realizes, the die is cast and decades have passed wherein Whitey Bulger builds an empire with his FBI buddy indeterminately complicit in the act.

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Other standouts include Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, and W. Earl Brown. In fact, that is a big part of the film’s problem – too many characters, all well cast, but with not nearly enough time to develop fully. It is a testament to the performances and to the director that they stand out as they do.

As visceral and immersive as the film is, it just isn’t quite the gut punch I’d hoped. The narrative gets lost in a thicket of Scorsese-light subplots focusing on Bulger’s many “business ventures” (hailai! vending machines! sending weapons to the Irish Republican Army!), when what we most needed to see and explore were the serpentine interpersonal relationships of the two brothers, their family and their friends.

Giving us a much richer portrayal of an original gangster is Lily Tomlin in Chris Weitz’ charming ball of familial toxins Grandma. Tomlin plays a writer and academic whose longtime partner recently died, whose daughter has stopped speaking to her, and whose granddaughter turns to her in a moment of crisis. The film takes the form of an inter-generational road trip (which we’ve seen too many times before – and as recently as, say, Tammy or The Guilt Trip), but in this case sharp writing, smart feminist sub (and super) text, and flesh and blood authenticity transform cliché into revelation.

"Grandma Movie Poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg#/media/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There will be a host of boneheads out there who will stubbornly refuse to see this film because Tomlin’s granddaughter has turned to her grandmother to help her pay for an abortion. Damn, I’m tired of knee-jerk closed-mindedness. Honestly, it’s not a film about abortion. It’s a film about humanity – those of us living in the here and now, faced with darkly comic daily tragedies that only the mundane can bring.

We have become a country of squawkers who so viciously judge everyone else’s choices in the abstract that we’ve completely forgotten the real people behind those choices, people struggling to get lives back on track or to fulfill their deepest potential. You know what? The path any of us take to get there is no one’s damn business. This film celebrates that notion, warts and all.

The film suffers from some clunky transitions, endemic of the low-budget indie, but, on the whole, Tomlin and the film really zing, heightened by the deft help of a supporting cast that includes … genius, heartfelt Marcia Gay Harden as Tomlin’s loopy, jagged little pill of a careerist daughter; Judy Greer earnest and raw as Tomlin’s frustrated girlfriend; Julie Garner, a saucy millennial dandelion as Tomlin’s suffering, sputtering, spiraling granddaughter; firecrackers Laverne Cox and Elizabeth Pena (in her last role) as a couple of Tomlin’s cronies; and Sam Elliott as an open wound of an ex-husband, all swagger, self-righteousness, and melancholy.

But ultimately this is Tomlin’s show. This film is the perfect synthesis of the platform she has championed for decades: we are all outsiders on this planet, and no one more so than women. Why define and limit opportunity based on rudimentary biological constructs? Why is every choice women make questioned and challenged, and emotional, financial, clinical, occupational resources are funneled away in those moments when they are most needed, out of some kind of institutionalized patriarchal spite.

A quiet storm of misanthropic joy, Tomlin wages a postmodern Sherman’s March, across Los Angeles, in pursuit of the meager dollars needed to fund her granddaughter’s procedure. She suffers no fools gladly – from a standoff with John Cho in a pretentious coffee shop that displaced a women’s clinic (you haven’t lived until you see Tomlin write “f*ckhead” in spilled coffee on a snooty barista’s floor) to a heart-wrenching (and crazy funny) defense of her granddaughter when they finally arrive at the actual clinic where the procedure will be performed. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but what a pro-life little princess does to express her “love of humanity” (with Tomlin on the receiving end) is as telling as it is hysterical.

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Tomlin’s character is a broken heart in bullet-proof armor, fed up with a society that undervalues humanity, especially anyone who lives on the margins, pigeonholed by age, gender, sexuality, or, hell, hairstyle.

Bill Maher, may walk a similar path through life, at least as evidenced by his stand-up routine. As the host of Politically Incorrect and Real Time, Maher has always wielded snark like a machete, cutting down rigid, conservative political idiocy at every turn. Whereas a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert are a bit more equal opportunity, taking as many digs at Democrats as Republicans, Maher saves most of his ire for Republicans, championing any underdog he sees persecuted by increasingly shrill right-wing pundits and blowhards.

Bill MaherMuch like Tomlin’s Grandma, Maher’s routine Saturday night at the Fort Wayne Embassy took no prisoners.  With an impish and childlike glee, Maher swung for the fences, excoriating the pompous asses currently running for president. I’ll let you figure out who his chief targets were. One hint: all of them.

I had, perhaps unfairly, found Maher a bit misogynistic in the past. I love that he comes to the aid of all creatures great and small – he is a longtime board member for PETA. However when it came to women, it has often felt like he left his conscience and consciousness in some back hallway of the Playboy Mansion.

Saturday night’s show went a long way toward correcting that perception, as 90 to 95% of his routine actively subverted conventional concepts of gender and sexuality. He nailed a bit on how different cultures define and imprison women via the sartorial choices dictated by fashion or religion.

However, in the show’s final minutes, Maher took a strange left turn that seemed to be an ill-advised concession to menopausal chauvinists – which is too bad cause there weren’t any that I could spy in the beautifully diverse sold out crowd. He went down a strange path of wondering when “his group” – apparently men who date women half their age – would be “celebrated,” going on to re-enact Cialis and Viagra advertisements. It was as unconvincing as it was odd and overreaching – “Look at me! I may be a liberal, but I’m a baby boomer man, and I dig the ladiiiiieeesss.” Whatever. I’m not buyin’ what you’re sellin’, Maher.

Bill MaherI will admit that embedded in his concluding riff was a keen observation that a certain group of men are still driven entirely by preoccupation with their nether regions and not with their brains. Yet, unlike any other era, they have access to a medical industry and clinical research to make their pubescent dream$ reality.

However, it was, to say the least, murky, as to whether Maher saw himself with pride as part of the crumbling Casanova club or as their court jester. It was a strange note of ambivalence to end an otherwise scorchingly consistent evening of social insight and tolerance.

To watch any comedian for two hours is a bit of a marathon. It’s a lot to ask of them, and it’s a lot to ask of the audience, but Maher rose to the occasion, and, with the assistance of a handy notebook full of laminated pages, he kept the momentum coursing through a wide array of topics, chiefly political though not exclusively.

We were also offered brief glimmers of what his upbringing was like in a Catholic home raised by two liberals who always championed the poor and the downtrodden. He didn’t open his veins for the audience – he’s anything but a memoirist. Yey, by showing us a peek into what sounded like an idyllic and inclusive home, he revealed that underneath whatever emotional Kevlar he has strapped on, there is a sweet and wounded heart beating inside.

His relentless barbs take on a different tone in that context. The marginalized kid is Maher, and this is his ultimate revenge fantasy on all the dopes who bullied him in life. It’s like Death Wish with jokes as his weapons and idiot politicians as his prey.

The party's over

The party’s over

Maher opened with some well-deserved digs at Indiana in 2015, much to the delight of the capacity crowd. About Hoosier leaders like Governor Mike Pence, Maher crowed, “Why, they don’t have the book learning to get into a tractor pull!” To be among thousands of like-minded liberals from across Northeast Indiana (I mean, I’ve never seen the Embassy so packed) was a revelation for my parents who often feel isolated and sad for holding such progressive beliefs in the community – a place that seems to buy (and spread) the thick, sticky, divisive, fear-mongering balm Fox and Friends slops across the land every A.M.

The party's over

The party’s over

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Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Maher’s words electrified a big room of open brains, thirsting for a different kind of dialogue, one where we could talk, laugh, commiserate, re: the significance of global warming or to deride and dismiss hypocritical ravings of multiple-married conservatives who fail to see how their behavior undermines their beloved institution of wedded bliss.

Sitting in that huge performance space of the Embassy, encrusted as it is in gilt and cherubs and velvet – an artifact of another time; being part of a crowd of raving regular folks who happened to dig tolerance and laughter; having been informed by two films the night before that questioned how we see ourselves and how we measure the success of a life fulfilled, I thought, “Hey, am I at a kind of big tent revival? Evangelism for the Anti-Elmer Gantry age? Well, sign me up for another round.”

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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.

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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’?”

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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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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.

Living in a cage: Zero Dark Thirty

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The downside to Oscar season is that sometimes you see a movie after all the nominations and critical hype have rolled in and said movie buckles under all that trophy-festooned weight.

Happily, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest Zero Dark Thirty is not one of those films. Did I love this movie? Not really. It actually left me kind of cold, but I suspect that was the point.

The film doesn’t make any effort to ingratiate itself to the viewer. In fact, it feels like homework…like reading an intriguing chapter in a kinda dull poli sci textbook.

The film details the CIA’s ultimately successful decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The most pleasant surprise? The film, while indeed patriotic, does not traffic in fist-bumping, simple-minded, Lee-Greenwood’s-so-proud-to-be-an-American, self-aggrandizing flag-waving. In fact, this film is the total opposite.

Its brand of patriotism is much more nuanced. Like this year’s similarly themed Argo, Americans are a scruffy bunch, using ingenuity, persistence, and downright luck, mixed with a heaping dose of obsession, insecurity, and uncertainty, to save the day. In fact, always excellent Kyle Chandler plays almost identical roles in each film. The central characters are kind of a hard bunch to root for, in fact. No white hats here.

Is Jessica Chastain, as the CIA analyst who has an almost preternatural sixth sense about tracking Public Enemy #1, Oscar-winning good? Yup, she pretty much is.  It’s not a showy role – no scenery chewing, other than one sort of testy hallway chat with her boss (the aforementioned Chandler). Rather, Chastain paints a believable portrait of a careerist operative whose calloused growth parallels the nation’s growing frustrations and distaste with the CIA’s free-ranging intelligence-gathering techniques.

The supporting cast is roundly excellent from James Gandolfini to Chris Pratt, Mark Strong to Jennifer Ehle. Joel Edgerton is a particular standout as Chastain’s haunted compatriot.

The film paints a vivid portrait of how our world has changed, probably mostly for the worse. Violence is the only language anyone can speak, and the “heroes” and “villains” become a blur, employing interchangeable tactics to achieve spurious victories. The film’s most telling metaphor? The cage. Every character lives in one – some literally, some figuratively – with little solace, little meaningful connection.