“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

Countdown: Bangerz

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 10 days left until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Some nice early reviews from Roy’s readers…

  • Zach London: “I thoroughly enjoy your reviews. They are short, well-written, and insightful. For movies I have already seen, your reviews articulate things that my subconscious brain recognized but my conscious brain did not. Congratulations on this accomplishment!”
  • Michael Lesich: “I’ve been a fan of Roy’s movie reviews for some time. Armed with a sharp tongue, a quick wit, and an absolute love of movies and theater, Roy brings a passionate and independent voice to movie reviews. Whether you love-em-or-hate-em, Roy’s reviews are never dull. I’m just an average guy, but when I see a new movie, I often check out Roy’s review to get a sense of whether they are worth spending my hard-earned money and scarce time to see them. Grab the popcorn, a giant soda, and a pair of 3D glasses, and get ready to enjoy this book!”
  • Mary Shaull: “Roy Sexton is a brilliant, talented observer of film and life. He can say in a few words exactly what the rest of us wish we could say. He does it for us in this delightful book. Write on, Roy!”

Here’s a snippet of Roy’s review of Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz: “Lord, I’m tired of all the Miley-hatin’. She’s a cute gremlin of a girl trying to distance herself from a smothering Disney-funded-life, for which she should probably feel very grateful. But who can blame her for trying to express her own personality outside the pervasive marketing bubble of the Mouse House?”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Twerking, tongue all a-twangle: Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lord, I’m tired of all the Miley-hatin’. She’s a cute gremlin of a girl trying to distance herself from a smothering Disney-funded-life, for which she should probably feel very grateful. But who can blame her for trying to express her own personality outside the pervasive marketing bubble of the Mouse House?

The last time I felt this over-protective of a pampered, overpaid pop princess was was when Britney shaved her noggin and started hitting people over the head with umbrellas (ellas, ellas, ellas, ay!). Wow, I LOVED that period of Britney’s career!

And the first time I felt this way was when Madonna released the underrated Erotica album and overrated Sex book (and completely bat-sh*t movie Body of Evidence) to much over-heated media alarm during my sophomore year of college. Yeah, Britney and Madonna survived quite well (thank you very much) without my nerdish big brotherly over-worry…and I suspect Miley will too.

I don’t typically review music albums here (though I buy a lot of them). However, I have zero interest in the current slate of Oscar-bait Fall films. I do not want to watch Gravity‘s Sandra Bullock moon around, quite literally, as an astronaut divorced from her George Clooney-piloted shuttle (really?!?! who cast that one?!!?).  Nor do I want to suffer through Captain Phillip‘s Tom Hanks besieged by nautical pirates straight from central casting. (Now, if Johnny Depp’s fey, bejeweled Jack Sparrow made an appearance in either film, I might check them out, but no…)

SO, with that said, you, dear reader, are getting a micro-review of Miley Cyrus’ unfortunately titled CD (or whatever the download generation calls them) Bangerz. And, you know what? It’s freaking fantastic.

Why did Miley feel the need to twerk, tongue all a-twangle, in nude-colored underwear on MTV last month? ‘Cause no states, neither red nor blue, would set her free of her godawfully tangled Hannah Montana wig and the Disney-fied alter ego that it represented.

But you know what (again)? Ain’t nobody talkin’ ’bout Hannah now… so good on ya’, Miley!

How about the album? Hey, it’s a pop album, so it’s going to be a catch-all-of-crazy … and a darn infectious one. There are beautifully melodic offerings like album opener “Adore You” and monster hit “Wrecking Ball” (naked Miley video notwithstanding).

However, the real winners are when Miley lets her freak flag FLY – nothing like a liberal progressive redneck who doesn’t give one rat’s a$$ what any of us think, putting together an album on sale at both Target and Wal-Mart … with varying bonus tracks for retail!

What the heck does that preceding sentence mean? Check out “4X4,” Miley’s ode to monster trucks, with a special appearance by singer/rapper Nelly, that sounds like the track Jessica Simpson should have contributed to The Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack. Or “FU” (title self-explanatory) that sounds like a bizarro mash-up of The Scissor Sisters and The Sherman Brothers and that pretty much tells ex-fiance Liam Hemsworth that (without question) Cyrus is over him … and, for that matter, over all swaggering dudes by the sound of it.

Of course “We Can’t Stop” (which alongside fellow Hollywood-progeny Robin Thicke’s “Parallel Lines” was an inescapable 2013 summer anthem) is zanily fantastic. But the album standout is (unfortunately) a bonus track “On My Own.” This is Miley’s big pop anthem, a hybrid of the best stripper-pole-Britney-Spears and persecuted-dance-pop-Michael-Jackson. I can’t get enough of that song.

There are many other great tracks: the Pharrell Williams-produced “#getitright” (I hate that hashtag gimmick and I hate boudoir come-on songs, but darn if this one isn’t catchy) or uber-pissed-off stomper “Do My Thang” or delightfully subversive “Someone Else” (which has Madonna-esque fun interpolating 1 Corinthians 13:4 … you know, that whole “Love is patient, love is kind” claptrap).

It’s a fun album and possibly a great one. Who cares what Miley had to do to get our attention! It worked. It made me buy the CD, and I’ve been listening to it all week.

And one more thing… As much as I love Annie Lennox, Sinead O’Connnor, Kelly Clarkson, and all the other pop divas who have thrown acid in Miley’s face, all of their critiques come off as sour grapes. This next generation-post-feminist-icon-in-the-making is “doing her own thang” and telling all of us to go take a flying leap … as we line up eagerly in the check-out line to buy her special edition CD … with bonus tracks!