“I retain the right to be moved by those little things that nobody notices.” Cats (the movie!), Bombshell, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Little Women (2019), The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Where’d You Go Bernadette?

We were the ONLY people in the theatre. And this was Cats’ second day showing at Columbia City’s Bones Theatre

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).

“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”

The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.

Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.

As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.

“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women

Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshell depicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.

The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast

Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.

I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.

We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue One and arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.

“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women

Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.

The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.

Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …

Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.

The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.

Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.

“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell

Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.

Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.

The Man Who Invented Christmas uses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.

His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.

There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.

Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.

As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.

“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

 

2019 Holiday Collage

 

“I can only see the world as it should be.” Murder On The Orient Express (2017) AND Daddy’s Home 2

Hollywood gets a lot of flak, much of it deserved, but the crime perpetrated by Tinseltown that may bother me the most is when a talented cast is completely squandered in servitude to a lame script and lousy direction.

The Thanksgiving movie offerings this year all have left something to be desired, but we were misfortunate enough to see two of the worst offenders back to back last night. Murder on the Orient Express and Daddy’s Home 2. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. We paid money to see these two movies in sequence. Maybe the problem is with us.

The first is an unnecessary remake of a far superior Sydney Lumet film, based on the original Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie. It is yet another self-serious, self-satisfied confectionery indulgence from director/star Kenneth Branagh, who fancies himself the poor man’s Laurence Olivier, when he, in reality, may be the poor man’s Benny Hill.

The second is an unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary broad farce, holding a far too indulgent and yuppified mirror to the mixed up sociopolitical and familial dynamics in modern middle-class America. It stars Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as an ex-husband/father and new husband/stepfather, respectively, whose own fathers John Lithgow and Mel Gibson, also respectively, crash Christmas and demonstrate that they are as boneheaded and as consumed with unflattering male ego as their sires.

NOTE: the movie isn’t smart enough to actually do anything with that premise, and it’s too frightened of its Trump-triggered audience demographic to actually skewer these idiotic men.

Both films favor set decoration and bleak whimsy over script and character development. Orient Express pursues arch tedium over anything resembling flesh and blood characterization, fetishizing starched linens and glistening martini glasses and anthropomorphizing its titular train to the point one wonders if Branagh is simply trying to capture the imaginations of too many young adults weened on the also creepy and tedious Polar Express.

Daddy’s Home conversely, is the kind of film that seems to hold National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as a kind of high art that could only be improved if the “Nancy Meyers’ school of filmmaking” (middle-class characters living amidst-Better Homes and Gardens residential-porn they couldn’t actually afford in real life) had installed a Sub Zero fridge in Randy Quaid’s “the-sh*tter’s-full” Winnebago. Daddy’s Home is the kind of movie where a character cuts down a cell phone tower, thinking it is a Christmas tree, and gets charged $20,000, and everyone just laughs and shrugs and says, “Now, who is going to pay for that?” This inane, unrelatable incident occurs after the cast has engaged in an interminable sequence where they decorate – top-to-bottom, inside-and-out – a vacation home they are RENTING for the holidays. Who does that? In real life, this family would be trying to figure out how to pay the credit card bills they ran up to buy presents nobody actually wants and would end up in both divorce and bankruptcy courts when slapped with a $20,000 bill for destruction of public property. Or maybe they would be in jail. Fa la la la.

Orient Express is the kind of film where all of the characters have less depth than those found in a Clue board game, but lounge around all casual-cool-dramatic in beautifully appointed train cars (which seem much larger than humanly possible) as if they are posing for a Vanity Fair cover. It is the kind of film where people spout portentous philosophy (“I can only see the world as it should be.” – Poirot) and glower at each other across petits fours. Whodunnit? Who cares?

When one film (Orient Express) offers the best Johnny Depp performance in years (not saying much … and, by the way, spoiler alert, he is the titular murder) and the other (Daddy’s Home) makes John Cena as its final act complication seem practically Oscar-worthy, something ain’t right in the mix.

NOTE: Kenneth, a mustache that covers half your face and renders your speech incomprehensible is not character development. You are no Wes Anderson. And I don’t like Wes Anderson.

NOTE: Mel, swaggering around like an aging muscle man whose tummy has become a beach ball and who believes FOXNews offers great lessons in parenting and social graces is not character development. That is just you. And we don’t like you.

To the rest of the luminaries who collected a paycheck to appear in these movies – John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem DaFoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, I’m looking at you – you all know better. Next time an easy payday comes along, please just say no.

Finally, I want to correct the statement with which I began this piece. The worst crime Hollywood commits is hypocrisy. Women are not disposable commodities. Violence is not comedy. Respect for each other, for our individuality, for our unique spirit is essential.

Daddy’s Home 2 is by far the bigger offender because jokes about kissing/spanking little girls or about men “just being men” in Las Vegas or about fathers hitting on the mothers of their sons’ classmates are not funny. They are gross.

Hollywood, if you want us to buy the rhetoric that you are rejecting the worst offenders in your midst, make better movies. More responsible movies. Movies that don’t joke out of both sides of their mouths where animal rights or gun control or human equality are concerned. Stop trying to cater to every demographic. That lack of moral compass is the antithesis of what these holidays are truly about.

Rant over.

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.

“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.

A prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids? The Theory of Everything

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Stephen Hawking is a bit of a pig (with apologies to our swine brethren). At least that is one takeaway from The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biopic of A Brief History of Time‘s famed physicist author.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the profound physical limitations that ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) imposed on his keen, unearthly scientific intellect, Hawking apparently always remained a bit of a 1960s Cambridge “lad” with a prurient taste for Penthouse Magazine and red-headed nursemaids.

This aspect of Hawking’s personality isn’t as prominent in the film as that lead-in might suggest, but it still stands in stark relief to the thirty-year devotion his first wife Jane offers him, from his early days struggling with the disease through the publication of his seminal work. Jane doesn’t suffer silently, though, as she herself is depicted as toying with an extra-marital dalliance with her church choir director (sweetly underplayed by Stardust‘s Charlie Cox), whom she later marries. (Someday, someone has to make a movie about how many trysts start off in the church choir.) Marsh, working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on Jane’s own Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, does not shy from showing Hawking as a flawed but brilliant man.

The best weapon in Marsh’s cinematic arsenal is Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) in a jaw-droppingly transformational performance as Hawking. Redmayne, never showy in that “I’m not an animal!” Elephant Man way, immerses himself … no, subsumes himself … in Hawking’s evolutionary physicality, from the occasional stutter step and cramped hand of his early 20s to the fetal crab-like nature of his present life. It is astonishing. Yet, the impish light never leaves Redmayne’s eyes, conveying Hawking’s exceptional genius, when the script fails to give us much scientific substance behind his discoveries.

In general, the Hollywood biopic is a flawed genre, cursed from its inception to cram a lifetime into two-plus hours. People become ciphers, reduced to a CliffsNotes existences, as hairstyles and fashion choices and home furnishings magically change around them, decade by decade.

Like such recent examples as Helen Mirren in The Queen or Michelle Williams in My Life with Marilyn (or even Judi Dench in Philomenablech), Redmayne rises above a predictable “based on true events” script that tends to telegraph its punches. Look! Young Stephen drops a piece of chalk. Look! Hunky choir director is making goo-goo eyes at his new mezzo soprano Jane Hawking. Look! Marital tension boils over at a garden party Christening where Stephen’s parents confront both son and daughter-in-law separately about their life choices, foreshadowing their ultimate implosion. Redmayne so fully inhabits Hawking’s inner/outer life that we (mostly) look past the workmanlike narrative.

Every bit Redmayne’s acting match is Felicity Jones (Northanger Abbey) as Stephen’s long-suffering wife. It is to Jones’ credit that she never descends into self-pity or martyrdom, but rather reveals a multi-layered person whose path has brought a mixed bag of reward, betrayal, fulfillment, and disappointment. The script saddles Redmayne and Jones throughout with a half-baked debate over science versus spirituality, unfortunately never resolved in any particularly meaningful way.

Rounding out the cast are David Thewlis as Stephen’s long-term faculty mentor and a criminally under-used Emily Watson (oh, I love her) as Jane’s patient mother.

The film is beautifully shot in gauzy light, like a box of old photographs. The approach suits the woozy material well, which spans thirty-or-so years, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. The filmmakers generally get the feel and look of each decade right – Cambridge in the Hawkings’ early days serves as a kind of shabby Camelot fairy tale setting, replaced later by garish, clunky 80s environs as their marriage crumbles.

I wish that I loved The Theory of Everything. It is supremely well-acted, but ultimately the conventionality of the narrative hurts the film’s overall impact. I found myself deeply moved by Redmayne and Jones but left a bit cold where Mr. Hawking himself is concerned. Perhaps that is the film’s point after all (though not a groundbreaking revelation) … all genius comes at a price, and the act of discovery is often much more interesting than the final summation.

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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.

There is nothin’ like a dame…who deserves a better movie: Philomena

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is it strange that I prefer my Judi Dench (DAME Judi Dench, if you’re nasty) shaken and not stirred? I wish they hadn’t killed her off last year in Skyfall so I could anticipate her next round of icily maternal spy-mastering and forget the dreck that is Philomena.

OK, this British tragicomic trifle isn’t that bad but it ain’t that good either.

I had high hopes for this one as I always enjoy Dench (she could read the phone book for all I care) as, unlike some UK thespians, she cuts through the pretense and offers her perfect cadence, crisp diction, and profound stares in an earthy and relatable way.

Pairing her with the reliably wry and delightful Steve Coogan (see: Hamlet 2 … no, really, see Hamlet 2 … right now!) seems inspired. And, while I’m not much a fan of director Stephen Frears – whose movies just seem scruffily overwrought to me, The Queen notwithstanding – he is a workmanlike director whom I assumed would be wise enough to just wind his actors up and start the cameras rolling.

All that said, Dench and Coogan are just fine, but the script is sorely lacking. This would have been a marvelous hour-long holiday special teleplay on Masterpiece Theatre or something, but as a nearly 2-hour film, the thin material is stretched to its breaking point. Dench and Coogan look quite bored for about a third of the film, to be honest – and so was I.

The plot, as it is, concerns a young girl in 1950s Ireland who finds herself “in the family way” as they say and is slapped in a nunnery to have the child, endure assorted abuses, do a lot of the nuns’ laundry (yeah…really), and then have her toddler torn from her arms and sent to America to live with a wealthy couple. Flash forward to the present, said toddler now would be 50 years old, and Dench is hellbent to find him and finally meet him, with the assistance of recently “sacked” journalist Coogan.

This sets up what is arguably the dullest road trip on film. (I kept hoping for them to cross paths with The Guilt Trip‘s much funnier though critically maligned duo Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, but, alas, no.) Coogan and Dench go to America, have some funny exchanges on the back of an airport go-cart thing, have some more fish-out-of-water interactions at the hotel omelette station, and then find her son … via the INTERNET (?!?!). They couldn’t have accomplished that remaining in merry old England?

Then they episodically interview a number of folks with whom her son had interacted over the years, get some sad news (which I won’t spoil), chase down some more people, and then race back to England for a throw down with the nuns who treated Dench so shabbily. THAT last part I enjoyed, and it’s the moment when Coogan finally comes alive with that wild-eyed, exasperated, ticked off Brit thing he does so well.

The movie traffics in a few horrendous mid-90s cliches and attempts to say some deep things about gender, age, class, and faith, but it all comes off as a pencil sketch of a movie that could have been so much more.

I did very much enjoy the movie’s point of view that the intent and the reality of organized religion couldn’t be farther from one another, yet there was nothing groundbreaking nor bold in the telling. Cruel and hypocritical people use the umbrella of the church to get their jollies doing cruel and hypocritical things in the name of “morality.” Irritates the living daylights out of me but I would rather watch a movie tackle that pernicious issue in a stronger, more confident manner.

I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but these actors deserve a much better film. You can plaster “based on a true story” on any flick, but, if the proceedings aren’t compelling, well-written, or thoughtful, you may as well just pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and save yourself a trip to the theatre.

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

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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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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.