A room of her own (#OscarsSoRight?): The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; The Darkest Hour

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I’m finally catching up with all of the Oscar-nominated films from year-end 2017. There are many culprits for this delay, chiefly among them the fact that, for some reason, many of these flicks don’t make it to the hinterlands of the Midwest until weeks after their initial release dates. My tendency toward over-commitment in daily life may also be to blame. C’est la vie. I’ve finally viewed The PostThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; and The Darkest Hour.

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I can safely say the Academy got so much so right this year. (I’m sure they were nervously awaiting my seal of approval. Not.)

Much (digital) ink has already been spilled on these movies, and I’m feeling a touch lazy so I won’t go into great detail about any of them. I will admit that personally only The Post and The Darkest Hour truly spoke to me, but I found all five to be thoughtfully composed with unique and arguably essential points-of-view and with timely themes, no doubt provoking many minds and healing many hearts in this rather contentious era.

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However, what resonated with me most about all five films was the strength and agency of their leading female characters. Rarely have we seen a class of Oscar-nominated films (I, Tonya included) where the bravery, wit, wisdom, and tenacity of women are so consistently celebrated and intelligently explored. Perhaps it’s the Trump effect, a cultural reclamation on behalf of Hillary, an anticipation of #MeToo and #TimesUp, or just a much-needed evolution (and growing up) in Hollywood. Who knows?

“Keep your finger out of my eye.” Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee to Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham in The Post

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In The Post, Meryl Streep gives one of her most nuanced portrayals in an already incredible catalogue of film work. Her Katherine Graham is faced with an unwinnable, dare I say, Sophie’s Choice: save her family’s paper The Washington Post from financial ruin through a tricky public offering or take on the President of the United States and risk imprisonment to honor the paper’s history of journalistic integrity by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Graham is “mansplained” up one side and down the other throughout the film. Streep’s portrayal is sensitive to the social and historical context that women were acculturated to lean on men and seek their counsel if and when they were “permitted” any decision-making authority at all. Ostensibly, Spielberg’s beautifully paced and utterly compelling movie is an allegory for our present times when we have a president who sees the Bill of Rights as less inalienable and more ignorable. However, I saw the film primarily as a powerful and subtle depiction of a woman (Graham) reclaiming her authority and driving our nation towards inexorable truth. It’s a performance for the ages, IMHO.

“You’re culpable because you joined the gang.” – Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes to her town minister in Three Billboards

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Speaking of performances for the ages, we then have Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand is possibly the most cathartic and relatable actor of her generation, capable of channeling the inherent tension and internal conflict of id, ego, and superego unlike any other. Mildred may be her finest acting work, alas in a film that doesn’t quite rise to her admittedly stratospheric level. Mildred’s daughter was raped and then immolated, and, in Mildred’s frustration that the local police have been incapable of solving the horrific crime, she finds the bluntest instrument at her disposal (the titular “three billboards”) to send a crystal clear message that wouldn’t be out of place on an N.W.A. record. McDormand is haunting and funny, heartbreaking and infuriating as a woman whose voice just can’t be stifled by her small-minded small-town. I think I would have enjoyed the piece better as a one-woman show as most of the supporting cast offer more superficial readings of their respective characters. Further, a mid-film narrative twist nearly co-opts the whole enterprise in favor of Woody Harrelson’s far-less-interesting Sheriff Willoughby. Sam Rockwell (Deputy Dixon) is both hammy and poignant as a foil for and target of McDormand’s rage, and, by the time the film runs its course, the idea of a Thelma and Louise-style “road picture” with the two actors isn’t without its potential charms.

“Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” – Lois Smith’s Sister Sarah Joan to Soairse Ronan’s Lady Bird in Lady Bird

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Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, is a loving and scruffy slice-of-life with luminous Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a thoughtful and maddening and deep-feeling teen whose conscious rejection of organized religion and of conventional thinking runs afoul of her own desires to be liked and accepted and to “fit in” with her Catholic school’s “popular kid” crowd. Any human who has ever wanted to be their authentic (weird) selves but ALSO get to sit at the best lunch table in school can totally relate (which means all of us). Ronan is brilliant in the role, as is Laurie Metcalf as her worried, worrying, worrisome mother Marion whose noble wishes to protect and to provide are as alienating as they are well-intentioned. The film is a delight, but gets bogged down mid-way with a conventional (if not completely appropriate) Mean Girls-esque subplot of Lady Bird rejecting her theatre nerd friends for the loose collection of pot-smoking athletes and gum-snapping rich kids who rule the school. The film is so interesting and so believable to that point that I found the predictability of that coming-of-age narrative a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, Ronan, Metcalf, and Gerwig give eloquent voices to the frustrations and fears of women navigating a rigged system where their respective needs and desires are often pitted in opposition to one another.

“Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.” – wall calendar in The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water, directed with fairy tale elan by Guillermo del Toro, is like a soft core E.T.-meets-The Red Shoe Diaries. A co-worker of mine said it was more like a naughty Edward Scissorhands. I will accept that friendly amendment to my cinematic comparison. Shape of Water had my favorite cast of any of these films. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, and Richard Jenkins are all exceptional in their own rights, let alone collected in one place, in service to a visionary fable of tolerance, compassion, and love. Yet, the film overall left me cold. Perhaps, I’m a prude, but the random bits of “sexy time” between Hawkins’ Eliza and Jones’ otherworldly “Amphibian Man” were disruptive to the gentle narrative at play. I also could have done without said Amphibian Man biting the head off one of Jenkins’ beloved cats, even if the moment is offered as an example of predatory innocence. Yuck. Regardless, Hawkins offers a brilliant and heartrending portrayal of a mute woman whose expressiveness far exceeds vocalization, and Shannon nearly steals the picture as a government official whose myopic masculinity and arrested development result in nothing but ugliness, violence, and missed opportunity.

“You are strong because you are imperfect.” – Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clementine Churchill to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour

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As for Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, yes, it is a movie which features a gobsmacking transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. And, yes, Oldman is altogether breathtaking in his depiction of Churchill’s genius eccentricity, shocking isolation, and dogged determination. However, the excellence of his work and of the film itself is greatly aided and abetted by the work of cast-mates Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-long-suffering wife Clementine and Lily James as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-wide-eyed assistant Elizabeth Layton. The three actors bring sparkling life to Theory of Everything screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s chatty script, and, while Churchill was clearly the odd-man-out where British politicos were concerned, his ultimate success could be attributed as much to the women in his life as to his own fiercely independent spirit. These are exceptional performances in a pretty good film.

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In The Post, Streep’s Graham quotes English essayist Samuel Johnson: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all.” Her point, in the context of the film, is that society has not encouraged women to speak their truths, so the act of doing so, while arguably initially inelegant, is as shocking as it is necessary. In the case of these five films, truth is delivered elegantly and compellingly, and the class of Oscar nominees this year goes a long way toward giving women, as Virginia  Woolf once implored, a “room of their own.”

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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.

“If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” Baby Driver

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Increasingly, we seem like a society of hermits, coexisting in our own separate little digital bubbles – a self-enforced solitude sparked either by anxiety or exhaustion or a combination thereof. We interact with each other via screens and emojis and Snapchat filters and snarky GIFs … but we never truly connect.

Maybe I’m just a cranky old man, but I’m fascinated and annoyed by how many people I see grocery shopping, commuting, eating lunch, and so on without ever removing their ubiquitous iPhone earbuds, as if the most mundane activities must all be accompanied by one’s own personal soundtrack or as if to signify to any and all passers-by, “I am not someone who wants to speak to you, to interact with you, or to acknowledge your existence.”

And it is with this conceit that Baby Driver, the latest opus from gonzo director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End), turns the genres of both the movie musical and the car chase thriller on their respective ears. Literally.

In the titular role of “Baby,” Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars, Divergent, Carrie) takes full advantage of his pouty good looks – which veer from insolence to wonderment and back again – and of his overgrown puppy dog 6’4″ frame to portray a Millennial whose tortured childhood has led him to a life of a crime as the supremely gifted getaway driver for a smooth-talking, Teflon-coated Atlanta crime boss (a delightfully Yuppified Kevin Spacey).

You see, Baby suffers from tinnitus, acquired as a wee lad in a horrific car accident when his squabbling parents squabbled just a bit too much and neglected to see they were about to ram into the back of a semi. And music – as supplied by a suitcase full of old iPods – is the only thing that soothes his ringing ears (and aching heart).

Furthermore, his love of vintage pop, rock, and jazz helps him escape the personal horror that is chauffeuring Spacey’s gang of sociopaths, which includes a magnificently bonkers Jon Hamm (Million Dollar ArmMad Men) and a less magnificently/more annoyingly bonkers Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained, Annie), from heist to heist. Baby, as portrayed in a star-making turn by Elgort, is nearly mute (by choice) and rarely removes his headphones (nor his sunglasses) which irritates just about every Gen Xer/Baby Boomer in his immediate orbit.

What aggravates them even further is that, shielded as he is in his own little tune-filled universe, he is savvier, is a more skilled driver, and is more in command of the details in his environment than all of Spacey’s goons put together. It’s a sly commentary on the evolution/devolution we see generationally in America today.

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Similar to Bjork’s Selma in Lars von Trier’s brilliant Dancer in the Dark, Baby’s world is a seamless auditory marvel as day-to-day sounds and movements morph into musical cues he hears through his headphones and vice versa. The car chases (aplenty) are all choreographed to the tunes in Baby’s head, often to the chagrin – and bodily harm – of his passengers. (Baby even turns on windshield wipers in time to the music, when there isn’t a drop of precipitation in the sky.)

The novelty of Baby Driver is in Wright’s direction and staging, if not so much in the plot itself. Perhaps predictably, Baby is a gangsta with a heart of gold, saving what cash he can from his jobs to care for his deaf foster father (portrayed with great affection by CJ Jones) who is confined to a wheelchair. As cloying as that plot detail sounds, it actually is quite affecting and grounds the movie nicely. Baby meets cute with a sunny waitress named Debora, portrayed by a luminous Lily James (Cinderella), and, in turn, Baby plots his (of course) doomed escape from a life of crime.

Things don’t go easily for Baby (nor should they), and the film’s final act gets a bit too bloody for its own good. As a Dolly Parton-quoting postal worker foreshadows to Baby when, unbeknownst to her, he is casing her workplace for an upcoming robbery, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

Nonetheless, Baby Driver is a high-octane summer blast, with choreography that would make Gene Kelly swoon (albeit involving a rogues’ gallery of classic cars and rat-a-tat machine guns) and with a soundtrack to die for. Any film that manages to incorporate Blur’s quirky “Intermission” into an ominous set-piece, that can use Dave Brubek’s “Unsquare Dance” to make a routine coffee run seem Fosse-esque,  and that can find a way of making Young MC seem hip again is ok in my book.

It’s only a shame that Wright didn’t just go ahead and have his thugs burst into outright song – I mean he has hammy-a$$ singers Spacey, Foxx, and Elgort, not to mention Paul Williams (!) in his cast. At times, Baby Driver seems like more of a musical than La La Land did. Maybe a movie mash-up of Guys and Dolls and The Fast and the Furious is next on Wright’s cinematic agenda. If so, I’ll be there.

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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.

“Have courage and be kind.” Disney’s Cinderella (2015)

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I’m sorry, but Helena Bonham Carter pretty much ruins any and every movie she’s in. Maybe she was good once. I can’t recall. As it is, she just seems like an inept community theatre actor with an inflated sense of self, horrid comic timing, terrible diction, and a propensity for bug-eyed mugging.

There I said it. I feel better (sort of).

Bonham Carter as the Bibbidi Bobbidi bad/boring Fairy Godmother is by far the worst thing in Disney’s latest live action fairy tale reboot Cinderella, directed by Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh. (No more Shakespeare for him, apparently – just Disney’s princesses and superheroes now.)

As you may recall, I loathed Tim Burton’s needlessly fussy, narratively obtuse, utterly tone deaf reinvention of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s journey over the rainbow in Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful was just as as clunky, misbegotten, and laborious. Disney’s last go-round at reinvention, Maleficent was marginally better, simply because they had the good sense to cast redoubtable Angelina Jolie (and her flawless cheekbones) as the titular fairy/witch/whatever. Maleficent was (at least) attempting to say something interesting about women’s rights, animal rights, human rights, even if it collapsed under the weight of far too-much overbearingly pixelated CGI chicanery. (Sidenote: the less said about the Nicholas Cage-starring The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the better.)

In Cinderella‘s case (Bonham Carter notwithstanding), Disney’s latest attempt to breathe flesh-and-blood life into two-dimensional fantasy gets more right than it gets wrong. Starting with Branagh, the Mouse House has stacked the deck this time with top-shelf talent that knows the best way to super-charge heartfelt whimsy is to bring a pinch of BBC-gravitas.

Branagh’s direction has a steady-hand, using an economy of scale (no overblown special effect sequences here) to re-focus audience attention on actors and story and emotion. (Crazy, eh?) He puts his faith in one supreme “special effect” and that would be Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s sympathetically villainous stepmother Lady Tremaine.

Blanchett is clearly having a ball in her Joan Crawford-by-way-of-Dr.-Seuss acid green mermaid gowns, casting sparks from her cat-like eyes as the venom practically glistens from her ruby-lined, perfectly-spaced pearly whites. She leaps off the screen as an intoxicating blend of cartoon caricature and pungent pathos.

Does she have a moment or two where she could/should have dialed it back a bit? Oh yeah. Yet, when she and her stepdaughter (ably played by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James) have their final quiet-storm confrontation over one recently discovered (by Blanchett) glass slipper, all Blanchett’s scenery-chewing mishegoss to that point is validated. In fact, the film is worth viewing, if for no other reason, for that one scene, where Blanchett with a sidelong glance and a turn of phrase synthesizes the heartache and turmoil faced by women of any and all generations. Is Cinderella feminist? Maybe. Maybe not, but it sure is in that moment.

James is a fine Cinderella with enough pluck to offset the damsel-in-distress undercurrents that might make modern audiences otherwise blanch. Equally her match is Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden as her subtly charming prince, a royal who is less polished perfection and more fellow lost soul. When they first meet cute in the woods, she compels him to see hunting as a horror, and I nearly yelped with joy. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she pleads. And he agrees.

The rest of the cast from wizened Derek Jacobi as the king to luminous Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) as Cinderella’s late mother to Stellan Skarsgard as a scheming duke all acquit themselves nicely, though never quite rising above a pedestrian TV-movie-esque malaise that occasionally blankets the sluggishly humorless script. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera bring da noise as stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella respectively. They are suitably loud and obnoxious, from their behavior to their Easter-egg-colored attire, and do the work required of them, though a touch more nuance couldn’t have hurt.

Alas, Bonham Carter brings the whole enterprise to a crashing halt during the sequence that should have been the brightest spot. Lifting Cinderella up with magic and hope and beauty and opportunity after she has been so cruelly bullied by her stepmother and stepsisters should be an effervescent, ebullient, and joyous moment.  In Bonham Carter’s mush-mouthed delivery, accented as it is with half-assed hand gestures and under-baked characterization, it’s a slog.

Furthermore, why did they choose not to make this a musical? There aren’t that many songs in the original animated version, and, even though Bonham Carter is a pretty hopeless singer, having that dopey song would have aided her immeasurably, I suspect.

Regardless, the film is sumptuously appointed with costumes and set design. I haven’t seen a movie this beautiful in years. And 90% of the cast gets it so very right. It’s not a great film. Much of it will be forgotten in the light of the next day (not unlike Cinderella’s famed pumpkin coach) but the message repeated throughout (as taught to Cinderella by her dying mother) to “have courage and be kind” is a lesson all of us need, all day every day, regardless our age, background, or station.

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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.