The Movies We Loved in 2014 — By Friends of the Blog

Proud to be in such esteemed company! Thanks, Gabriel, for including me! Here’s my contribution – be sure to read the complete blog post at Gabriel’s site …

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Nightcrawler
by Roy Sexton

The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.

Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.

As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.

Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.

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Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his books, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats theatre company.

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Read the original post …

Gabriel Diego Valdez

We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.

My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and…

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“I wish I had cancer. At least, they get a pink ribbon to wear.” Still Alice

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Still Alice, like life itself, is quietly and beautifully devastating. Julianne Moore is as good in this as anything I’ve ever seen her do, and she is beyond deserving of every accolade she has received for the role of Dr. Alice Howland. Moore resists every temptation to play Howland’s struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s in a maudlin, condescending, or self-pitying way. Rather, she gives us a rich and fully developed characterization – a deep-feeling and intellectual human losing control of her very being.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is directed with great grace and humanity by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. They have surrounded Moore with an exceptional supporting cast, from Alec Baldwin as her loving but identifiably selfish husband to Kate Bosworth as their straight-arrow, OCD, super-WASP daughter. The real revelation in the film is Kristen Stewart (Twilight) as the Howlands’ other daughter, a seemingly self-absorbed aspiring actress who ends up being the most pragmatic and empathetic member of the family. Stewart matches Moore in terms of subtlety and delicate character work, avoiding the “walking wounded/black sheep” cliches and revealing a great gift for authentically portraying the perennially misunderstood.

The film suffers, as so many Hollywood productions do, from some precious production design; Hollywood loves to fetishize the upper-middle-class family where both parents are well-heeled, progressive, accomplished careerists. In this case, Alice and John Howland are faculty members at Columbia University, residing in a tony brownstone in New York while maintaining a shabby chic vacation home in Saugatuck – with decor straight from the Restoration Hardware catalog, subdued fashion of the Anthropologie ilk, and too many cutesy stops for Pinkberry frozen yogurt. The family hosts Christmas dinners that would make Martha Stewart swoon, with freshly scrubbed progeny humble-bragging about their sparkling careers in law and medicine, gabbing about in vitro fertilization, drinking wine, and making small talk about NPR.

Yet, that fairy tale context very well may be part of the film’s point, that even these perfect specimens of humanity can be felled in the blink of an eye by an unforeseen medical diagnosis. The cast does a marvelous job creating a portrait of a loving family that is as competitive and neurotic as they are accomplished and polished. Vast chunks of the film are spent in the kitchen or around the dining room table with food as a catalyst (as it is in most American homes) for the deepest, thorniest conversations.

For Moore’s Alice Howland, a professor of linguistics, language is essential. The inability to access a word, to complete a thought, to recall a name demolishes Alice. Moore’s superhuman command of body language, of the light in her eyes, of the quiver of her lips telegraphs the firestorm of panic, anxiety, and abject fear plaguing Alice as her mind proceeds to fail her at an alarming rate of decay.

I had a theatre director (Ohio State’s Rex McGraw) once tell me that the best way to get an audience to cry is to portray a character trying not to cry, that the audience’s cathartic impulse while watching a character grapple to contain emotion will unleash their own floodgates. Boy, does Moore get that. Who would have thunk it back when I was watching Moore play Frannie Hughes (and her naughty identical British half-sister Sabrina!) on sudser As the World Turns in the 80s, that one day I would be sobbing buckets over her tour de force balancing act in Still Alice as a frightened yet brave soul resisting with every fiber of her being the marginalization that her disease by its very nature necessitates.

I guarantee you will be a puddle on the floor when Moore gives her heart-stopping speech at an Alzheimer’s conference at the film’s midpoint. She is subdued and subtle and detailed and immersive, simultaneously controlled and raw. For one last brief shining moment, Moore’s Alice (who at another point in the film quips, “I wish I had cancer. At least, they get a pink ribbon to wear!”) reclaims herself before the waves of this insidious disease wash her away almost entirely.

I highly recommend this film, not simply as a spectacular treatise on a disease that is both nefarious and leveling, but especially as a beautiful and torturous portrait of a (more or less) typical American family stoically going through the motions of falling apart.

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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.

“Best-dressed rebel in history …” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I will admit that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is just not exactly my cup of tea. My first exposure was the initial episode in the cinematic franchise, starring Jennifer Lawrence. My biggest issue, ultimately, may have been with the marketing, which likely didn’t do the movie (or its source material) any favors.

Y’see, I grew up in a small town, the daily paper of which now peppers its pages every fall with one image after another of young bow-hunting girls and their “prizes” – bloody deer carcasses. Lots of them. One sad image after another of a toothy kid, grinning madly, not as if they’d just won a science fair or a spelling bee, but because they killed some defenseless creature. And that bugs me. Are these kids the target audience for these movies? Or are people who find this kind of “sportsman”-proselytizing offensive the audience? I don’t know.

The reason I share this bit of soap-boxing is because the original film seemed oddly positioned at some strange Venn Diagram nexus where Harry Potter-philes and Twi-hards meet neurotic survivalists and Cabela’s frequent flyer-card holders. I wasn’t exactly sure the core demographic, and perhaps Hollywood was trying a bit too hard to appeal to all comers. I heard a lot of rhetoric that somehow Katniss Everdeen, “the girl on fire,” with her furrowed brow and propensity for zapping squirrels and people with her trusty bow and arrow was a great antidote to the Disney princess affliction that was miring our nation’s young women in a malaise of pink chiffon. Maybe. But are those the only two choices? Archery and violence or toddlers and tiaras? Sigh.

Well, I guess I played my hand a bit early on this one, eh?

Said marketing/positioning celebrated the games aspect of the narrative, while missing entirely the inherent social satire. Granted, the marketers likely chose the more sale-able commodity, but, for someone persnickety like yours truly, this approach has made it that much harder for me to warm up to this particular franchise. (Divergent is more my speed.)

Blessedly, The Hunger Games film series has evolved and moved past the gimmicky hook of watching teenagers slaughter each other before national audiences in an oppressed dystopian near-future. (Gee, why is it that I don’t get that these flicks are good wholesome family fun?!) This brings us to the third installment in the franchise (after The Hunger Games and Catching Fire), the awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

Those of you ready to jump down my blogging throat in dismissal of my critique of the series’ omnipresent marketing framework? How’s about you read that title again: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. And convince me that the third book in this literary trilogy was not unnecessarily hacked into two parts to fill Lionsgate’s coffers with extra coin. Just sayin’. (No, I’m not the first to point this out, but it seems a fair critique on all fronts.)

This latest film continues the revolution that Katniss began fomenting in Panem (the future stand-in for an America run into the ground, no doubt by a lethal combo of Democrats and Republicans). Mockingjay spends the bulk of its running time underground, quite literally, as Katniss and her pals find themselves sequestered away in the mysterious District 13, a militarized sector that all had thought long-destroyed.

District 13 is the home of the Rebel Alliance (oops, wrong franchise) … the rebellion led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, a subtle-yet-steely breath of fresh gravitas) with the assistance of games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly a bore in one of his final roles), weapon-smith Beetee (always sparkling Jeffrey Wright), and fashionista-cum-PR-wonk Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, a standout as she curdles Effie’s cartoonish buffoonery into sharp social commentary). The saving grace of these films has always been in the casting (Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have both done some of their best work in the series), and this entry is no exception.

Unfortunately, Jennifer Lawrence and her bag of actorly tricks are starting to show some wear and tear with Mockingjay. The film is two hours of treading water before the big blowout with movie number four, and Lawrence suffers for it. (As do sidekicks Liam Hemsworth as Gale and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta.) Lawrence, saddled with what appears to be an Elvira wig from a bad Halloween costume, glares and pouts, glowers and mopes, without a heckuva lot to do. There’s a lot of talking and talking and talking about various political machinations, most of which bored me silly, and, by the time, Lawrence loses her sh*t in the third act because Peeta is in some grave peril (yet again), I found myself giggling and not one whit concerned for any of these thinly drawn characters.

Here is the interesting concept that Mockingjay (Part 1!) presents, however: wars are won and lost not by bravery or valor or even violence, but by public relations. The sly-est and most engaging moments in the film are when the forces of good and bad start to blur in their relentless uses of videographic propaganda (kinda like our fall election). The first two films laid this groundwork with jack-o-lantern-headed reality TV pundit Caesar Flickerman (a truly unhinged Stanley Tucci) and his broadcast of the super-violent Hunger Games as both public diversion and punitive restraint (boob tube as carrot and stick). This latest entry shows how that machine is employed in times of great social unrest, echoing eerily some of the latest trials and tribulations affecting race relations in present-day America.

For a series so superficially savvy about the strategic implications of marketing and PR on societal oppression, you’d think The Hunger Games’ real-world advertising campaigns wouldn’t seem so tone-deaf. At one point, Effie hisses with glee at Katniss, “You are going to be the best-dressed rebel in HISTORY!” Banks as Effie clearly gets the irony of that line and zings it to the rafters. But, then, I remembered seeing a Katniss Barbie doll (dressed in the same chic skin-tight jump suit) at Wal-Mart earlier this Black Friday “sell, sell, sell!” week, and I realized how hollow that irony actually was. Talk about winning the battle and losing the war…

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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.

Raw nerves and open wounds: Carrie (2013 remake)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps it is because I feel particularly overloaded at this moment, having reached my fill of bullying, condescension, and passive aggression in this world. Maybe it is the power of an iconic horror story that owes more to Grimms’ fairy tales than it does to schlock like Friday the 13th. Regardless, I found the current cinematic update of Stephen King’s Carrie deeply affecting. I even shed a tear or two … but I am known to cry at really weird things.

We all know this story of a young, introverted, bullied telekinetic with a religious fanatic mother and a passel of snotty classmates who would just as soon throw toiletries at the girl as provide her any comfort. Oh, and there’s a well-meaning gym teacher who is more narrative device than character. And a prom in a cafegymatorium (do they still have those?) with a precariously positioned (and quite literal) bucket o’ blood. You know the rest.

Brian DePalma directed the original film which starred a preternatural Sissy Spacek as the titular anti-heroine and an operatically epic Piper Laurie as her wild-haired ma Margaret White who seemingly settled into her spooky Maine town by way of some long-lost Tennessee Williams’ purple-prose drama.

The original film had a truly dumb “sequel” in the late 90s about a girl who wasn’t named Carrie, had better hair, but also was treated shabbily and went gonzo at the film’s end, blowing up goth teens and super-chic glass houses with her frontal lobe. And there was an equally forgettable TV adaptation about ten years ago. Oh, and a disastrous (but unlike Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark … what does that title even mean?) commercial bomb of a Broadway musical, recently revived off-Broadway. (It should be noted that the show has a beautiful score by Michael – brother of “It’s My Party” Lesley – Gore.)

And now this take on the tale. It does seem to have become Gen X’s twisted version of the oft-adapted Cinderella story.

This time around, talented director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss) swaps out DePalma’s twitchy edge and campy Hitchcockian homage to emphasize the tortured familial love of a mother and daughter, collectively haunted and tortured by a world not of their making.  By bringing in a postmodern eye toward gender and class politics, Peirce takes what is basically a pretty slight story and creates a heartbreaking allegory of cruelty begetting cruelty, violence begetting violence.

Julianne Moore, unlike Piper Laurie, is an understated marvel as Margaret White. Moore always does tightly coiled rage really well.  (She looks like her very teeth hurt). She takes this character from what could have been a kitschy harridan and makes her a relatable portrait of fearful parental intention that has LOST (!) its way. She gives us a Margaret whose deep despair over an unkind world has led her to use religious fervor as both sword and shield, inadvertently abusing her own daughter in her attempts to protect Carrie.

Chloe Grace Moretz, who clearly has a long and interesting career ahead, is quite good as Carrie, though she is at her finest in those scenes where she has a stronger acting partner, like Moore or the underrated Judy Greer as gym teacher Miss Desjardin. Moretz stumbles a bit at the beginning, overdoing the feral wild-eyed/shrugged-shoulders bit. The pivotal (and just plain weird) scene in the girls’ locker room just comes off sillier than ever.

However, once the film heads down its inevitable track toward the Prom from Hell (which I secretly have always loved ’cause the concept of “prom” is so goony to me), she is wonderful. She brings a sweetness and assuredness to the characterization that I haven’t seen in any of the other adaptations, and it works really quite well. As a result, when the bad stuff (I mean, really bad stuff) happens to her, I felt my stomach in knots as tears welled up in my eyes. Say what you will, but I’ve never cried before when that damn bucket dumps its Karo Syrupy contents all over the poor lass’ noggin.

The rest of the cast is ok, but a bit like they just escaped from a shiny new teen drama on The CW. Lone standout Portia Doubleday as the vile little ringleader Chris Hargensen did give me the heebie jeebies. She is fun (?) to watch, and you are truly galvanized and relieved by the humiliating mutilation Carrie hands her at the film’s blazing conclusion. It is a clever (and sadly timely) touch to have Hargensen use social media to further her abuse of poor Carrie White.

The original film was a reflection of its scruffy, counterculture-addled times depicting a generation of lost, out-of-control  juvenile delinquents who have proceeded in turn to raise their own progeny. Sadly, this second decade of the 21st century reminds me of those years, though the media resources teens use to devour their own have changed dramatically. Why remake Carrie right now? Why the hell not?