“Page-turners they were not.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Christmas Story Live!, and the failure of marketing

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are few pieces of holiday entertainment about which I am more excited than the arrival of a new Star Wars flick or a live television musical event, and, yet, somehow, it took me a good week get around to watching Disney/LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and soon-to-be-Disney-corporate-stablemate FOX’s A Christmas Story Live! In part, that is because we insane monkeys (humanity writ large) feel the absurd need to cram ALL POSSIBLE JOY and festivity into the four-plus week span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, leaving January a bleak and empty month of snow drifts and credit card bills. Consequently, the things we might put at the top of our list under any normal circumstances slide depressingly to the bottom of our “must do”s.

Yet, there was something else about both Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! … I wasn’t that excited to see either. The messaging and advertising surrounding both events couldn’t have “buried the lede” worse, and I believe that the “backlash” or audience disappointment in both is less a result of the quality of the work (both are actually excellent in wildly divergent ways) and more a result of misaligned promotional efforts.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Did you know Christmas Story Live!, brilliantly directed with military precision and classic Broadway charm by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski, was a musical by Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) before you started watching? We theatre geeks did, but all of the commercials promoting the three-hour event conveniently bypassed that there would be, you know, singing and dancing galore. As a result, Twitter lit up like the “dumpster fire,” which internet trolls accused the show of being, with self-righteous indignation that “childhoods were being ruined” by the introduction of “musical numbers” to such a “great classic.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s also note, for the record, that the original 1983 Christmas Story (which is a pretty perfect confection, even if it suffers from some now-tone-deaf misogyny and racism) was a flop that only found life in video store rentals and through HBO’s habit back then of running forgotten films 38 times a day. It has become beloved, but that doesn’t mean some tinkering couldn’t benefit the timeworn tale.

It’s an absolute shame that audiences didn’t embrace this new production, and I can only hope that this TV-musical finds its own cult following on YouTube or NetFlix or whatever venues now allow 8-year-olds to watch any piece of entertainment to the point of nausea. The cast for A Christmas Story Live! was sublime, from a warm and winning Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents to a crackling Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer as the teacher and Mrs. Schwartz respectively. Nary a beat was missed, and even the to-be-expected line flubs (“purkey”) were handled with grace and aplomb. The role of Ralphie was split between a lovely and magically omnipresent Matthew Broderick (adult narrator Ralphie) – who mixed just the right holiday cocktail of sentiment and cynicism – and a remarkable Andy Walken (child Ralphie) – who buried all annoying “look at me” child actor tics in a star-making performance that propelled every scene with heart and raw talent. Walken is one to watch.

(By the way, broadcasters, please cut down the number of in-show commercials. You’re killing the momentum and joy of a stage-show-on-TV by shilling for Old Navy every 8 minutes.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Much like FOX’s production of Grease Live!, the camera whizzed and swooshed from interiors to back lot streetscapes to fantasy playgrounds and back again accompanied by a literal army of extras who populated each locale with verve. Standout numbers included Gasteyer’s “In the Market for a Miracle,” Rudolph’s “What a Mother Does,” Diamantopoulos’ “A Major Award,” Krakowski’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and the children’s ensemble “When You’re a Wimp.” The musical expands on the original film’s notions of inclusion balanced with the bittersweet comic realities of half-remembered holiday times, giving the female characters an agency and authority lacking in the 1983 script and discovering shades of sympathy for both the bullies and the bullied on the playground and in life. (Including PSAs for folks to go out and adopt rescue dogs like those amazing canine thespians portraying the Bumpus hounds didn’t hurt either.) It’s just a shame FOX was too chicken to promote the musical honestly and directly. I triple-dog-dare the execs to rethink their approach if there is a next time, but I’m sure the suits will blame the show itself and not their mishandling of its promotion.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My lumps of coal aren’t only reserved for FOX’s marketing team, but Disney/LucasFilm’s as well. (For those Star Wars fans who have patiently – or impatiently – read through my analysis of A Christmas Story Live!, thank you. Now go watch it, and fast forward through the commercials.) The ads for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were nigh inescapable. No shock there. Disney has pretty successfully re-established the franchise as a holiday tradition – first with 2015’s The Force Awakens, then last year’s Rogue One – and that means advertising the bejeezus out of each new film’s imminent arrival.

However, the ads for Last Jedi overplayed the “trust no spoilers, for there be amazing twists and turns here” hyperbole. We nerds who grew up anxiously awaiting the familial, Shakespearean revelations offered by each subsequent episode of the previous two trilogies walked into Last Jedi ready to gobble up a smorgasbord of “galaxy far, far away” secrets: who was Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); who are Rey’s parents; why has Luke Skywalker withdrawn from life; how does Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) keep her armor so dang shiny; why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) such a pouty brat? The marketing for the film had us all whipped into a lather that had nothing to do with the actual film Rian Johnson gave us, and that also is a damn shame. We do get a few of these answers, but mostly Johnson challenges whether or not any of those questions should be asked in the first place.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Was the film too long by half, suffering from a meandering and episodic structure that seemed more suited to the small screen than the large? Perhaps. Did Johnson riff on The Empire Strikes Back‘s structure in a similarly derivative way to J.J. Abram’s lifting passages wholesale from A New Hope for Force Awakens. Kinda. Was it disappointing that Johnson basically thumbed his nose at our expectations for the same regurgitated Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff that has fueled every Star Wars movie to date?  Damn straight. And rather exhilarating as well. Like cold water in one’s face on a mid-December evening.

I admit I was bored silly at times, and I nervously giggled at some (perhaps intentional) Spaceballs-esque series-self-satire. (Could that New Order/Resistance three hour-long-slow-ass chase through space be any weirder?). However, I also appreciated that – yes, not unlike A Christmas Story Live! – Johnson mines and reinvents the source material, jettisoning the self-satisfied reverence holding it back and embracing the core essence of what hippie Baby Boomer filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg and Henson were trying to achieve with their 70s and 80s cinematic fantasias. Lucas always came this close to feminism and to embracing diversity in his films, but always fell short, leaving us with the same white male space-knights-in-shining-armor we’ve always had. Johnson, with Last Jedi, gives us a Star Wars allegory rich with thorny and difficult implications for modern-day America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

An “evil empire” propping up and propped up by the one-percent (note: I hated the “casino planet” sequence in Last Jedi, until I realized how truly subversive it is) aims to squash the “spark” of individuality across the galaxy. They are challenged at every turn in Last Jedi by a rag-tag band of characters who wouldn’t be out of place among the human cast of Sesame Street … or a Benetton ad: a feisty female mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t going to suffer any fools gladly; an “I’m-With-Her” battle-scarred princess-cum-general (Carrie Fisher) who leads with wit not super-powers; a purple-haired-don’t-nobody-mansplain-to-me admiral (Laura Dern) who carries her own agenda with no apologies; a fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) who gets his impulsive swagger handed back in shreds by Fisher and Dern and likes it; a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) who finally learns that love not self-aggrandizing-self-sacrifice is true heroism; and a nascent Jedi who learns that the lessons she needed were in her own heart all along (Daisy Ridley).

The cast, for the most part, is great, saddled with a talky script that fails to match the pure swashbuckling-zip of previous films in the series. Blasphemous as it may sound, I wasn’t  particularly taken with Fisher’s performance, which appeared to run the gamut from sort-of-exhausted to “I’m so tired of this sh*t.” Mark Hamill, on the other hand, delivers a career-best turn as a defeated and curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker for whom life has been crueler and less rewarding than the once optimistic farm boy had ever anticipated. Hamill is no Sir Alec Guinness (by a long shot). Yet, it is interesting and a tad surreal to see Hamill now playing the cranky Jedi mentor to a young whippersnapper (Ridley) at roughly the same age Guinness was when he appeared in a similar role (Obi Wan Kenobi) in A New Hope.

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I exited the theatre from The Last Jedi disappointed and ambivalent. However, as I reflected the next day, I realized I was doing a disservice to the film Rian Johnson made because it didn’t align with the film I expected. I daresay it deserves a second viewing, on its own merits and divorced from its own discombobulated marketing campaign.

As one character (who shall remain a surprise for those who haven’t seen Last Jedi) wryly observes about a stack of old Jedi training manuals, “Page-turners they were not.” Both The Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! are more thoughtful and challenging than the easy and comfortable “page-turner”  nostalgia pitched in their respective marketing campaigns. I hope they both get their due.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Wild (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wild is an interesting film, and, on the whole, I liked it quite a bit. It’s great to see Reese Witherspoon digging in and acting again. I had begun to find latter-day Witherspoon (post-Walk the Line) a bit self-satisfied and, well, smug, and this based-on-a-true-story-as-turned-into-a-New-York-Times-bestseller role allows her to strip off the starry veneer and (mostly) give us some of the nuanced acting that her early career promised.

Where the film falters (at least for cynical me) is in what I would like to dub the Julie & Julia conundrum: a biographical film based on a regular ol’ person’s memoir, a tome that hangs on an oh-my-God-will-you-believe-THIS gimmick that makes great fodder for teary Oprah interviews or saucy segments on The View. In the case of, say, Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’ failed writer seems to declare, “Aw, what the heck! I’m just going to cook a different, fabulous Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. I have no intention of becoming famous for it and leveraging it as a marketing hook to jump-start a literary career doused in flop sweat. Nope. Not me. I’m authentic.”

In the case of Wild, our protagonist Cheryl Strayed (interesting last name, given the subject matter) implodes after the sudden death of her beloved mother, throwing her marriage and her family and her English major lit aspirations (she’s a feminist because she references Erica Jong? that made me wince) in a garbage can, pouring kerosene on it, and lighting the whole kit and kaboodle on fire as she discovers the joys of sex addiction, heroin addiction, and just plain addiction. What saves her sullen, sputtering butt? Well, she just happens to see a guidebook to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (mind you, this is while sauntering into a drugstore for a pregnancy test ’cause she thinks she’s with child but not sure whose) and then determines that heading on a thousand mile vision quest will heal her soul. Oh, and if you didn’t know how rotten she was at this point, you later learn that she and her brother shoot her mother’s prized horse after mama’s death because they didn’t have the resources to care for it?!?! Um, how about offering it for adoption/rescue? Just a thought.

That preceding paragraph came across sh*ttier than I intended, but I’m leaving it there for all to ponder at will. It’s not this film’s problem, but our reality television/prurient tall tale tell-all culture has me wondering sometimes as to the veracity of stories like this one and the relative ease with which they translate from journal to blog to novel to Academy Award-glittering event film.

Regardless, Jean Marc-Vallee leaves behind any of his TV movie tendencies (see any of Jennifer Garner’s scenes in Dallas Buyers Club) and transforms the source material into cinematic poetry. The film is akin to a “memory play” where the central characters/audience float surreally in and out of present and past, and Vallee has a genius command of music and sound and imagery to evoke the kind of sense memory that snaps one back to happy and not-so-happy moments in time. Vallee and his game cast, which also includes a heart-breakingly luminous Laura Dern as Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s mother, allow for some marvelous bits of situational humor to shine through all the pathos – that is a real gift and essential for a movie like this, which could easily become a dark, cliched slog.

In the end, though, the movie lives or dies on Witherspoon’s epically back-packed shoulders, and her performance is a triumph. As she showed us so many years ago with her brilliant channeling of the What Makes Sammy Run? farce that is American politics (be it national, local, or … student council) in Election, Witherspoon with her jutting jaw, limpid eyes, and tortured/tortuous inner life excels when playing the unlikable. Pick Flick! Her Cheryl Strayed is raw-boned and relatable, someone whose misery has toxified her soul, not to mention anyone else’s within a five-mile radius of her.

Yet, Witherspoon never comes off maudlin, self-pitying, scenery-chewing. Her emotional collapse is chiefly internal (save some awkward heroin-den flashbacks that likely should have been left on the cutting room floor), and her trek along the rugged trail is believable and … kind of inept in its execution. Strayed makes lots of mistakes – think Cast Away in the woods which makes it all the more heroic in the end.

And, as for that horse situation (’cause you totally know THAT is what bothered me endlessly)? Strayed/Witherspoon is haunted by it (think Equus without all the weird Freudian freaky BS), and, as she journeys through California, animal life is a constant. A beautiful fox that very well may be the avatar of her late mother (the CGI was a bit clunky on that otherwise neat concept), an alpaca that she comes across in the wood (yeah, you read that correctly, but it leads to one of the film’s sweetest moments when she finds the grandma/grandson pair who care for the creature), little tree frogs that visit her in the night, and a whimsical encounter with a caterpillar. I’m sure I’m reading what I want to here, but Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s last words in the film are: “My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Damn right.

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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.

“I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed.” The Fault in Our Stars (film)

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]

What has happened to me? Have I been taken to the dark side by young adult fiction? Or are the cinematic charms of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort simply to blame? (Wow, those are some monikers – what is with every millennial having a kooky name? God love yuppie parents and their precious aspirations.)

First, I lavished praise on Divergent (see here) starring Woodley and featuring Elgort (as her brother). Now, I find myself equally enthused about The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s worldwide bestseller about young cancer patients finding love for the first time. This go-round, Woodley and Elgort aren’t siblings, but rather are the oncologically-challenged paramours in question. (That took a bit of getting used to after Divergent‘s familial dynamic. Just sayin’…)

Nothing about this movie, in the abstract, is something I should have liked. I don’t like sappy love stories (e.g. Nicholas Sparks!). I don’t like cancer dramas where illness becomes metaphor for tragic courage (e.g. Love Story!). I don’t like teen angst played out by beautiful people who’ve never had a zit in their lives and live in “middle class” homes that look like spreads in Better Homes & Gardens (e.g. pretty much any show that doesn’t feature superheroes or monsters on The CW and ABC Family … and even a few that do!).

However, I found The Fault in Our Stars quite remarkable. The film is too long by a good 20 minutes, and it has its fair share of After School Special stomach-turning goop. Yet, it also has a poignant spikiness and warm-hearted cynicism that I found refreshing.

Woodley is lovely as “Hazel,” the film’s narrator and protagonist – a young woman who has spent much of her young life in hospitals, who lugs around an oxygen tank, and who obsesses about “the only honest book about death” she’s ever read – An Imperial Affliction. She is sick of being sick, but she’s also up-to-here with well-meaning folks who push her to join prayer circles and support groups. (I don’t know if it’s happenstance or by design that the film is set in Indianapolis, but Hazel’s eyeball-rolling, scorched-earth reaction to a class held in a Hoosier church basement by a twee born-again sitting atop a latch-hook-rug depicting the “heart of Jesus” had me at “hello.”)

Woodley and Elgort (“Gus”) meet cute in the church parking lot, when he, also a cancer sufferer, offers her a cigarette. See, he carries a pack around at all times, never lighting them, both for shock value and because, after losing one leg to cancer, he likes to “keep death between his teeth,” one unlit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips.

Never ooky, always honest, continually charming, Elgort and Woodley are a luminous screen couple. Yes, the specter of cancer is always near, but the film deftly skewers Camille-esque cliche by depicting the realities of the illness and the pharmacological insanity of modern healthcare without devolving (much) into maudlin soap opera.

People who know they are dying can be really sh*tty with the healthy and unhealthy folks around them, but they also can tap into an exuberance for living life that the rest of us can’t hope to touch. The movie captures both with subtlety and nuance, with much credit going to its talented young co-stars.

Laura Dern is her affecting, capable self as Hazel’s pragmatically optimistic mother, and Willem Dafoe is a quiet hoot as Hazel’s literary hero, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who, let’s just say, doesn’t feel one iota of condescending compassion for “Make-a-Wish” kids.

At one point, Dafoe hisses, “I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed,” seemingly putting Hazel in her place for once and for all. What he fails to realize is that Hazel, full of a self-awareness few ever achieve, wants neither his pity nor his kinship. She simply wants truth and respect. That‘s a fine summer movie message in my book.

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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.