“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Moonlight

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“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” NOT a line from Oscar Best Picture Moonlight. I know this. Obviously, it’s one of the more pointed (no pun intended) lyrics from one of Beauty and the Beast‘s signature tunes “Gaston,” performed most recently by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Disney’s runaway blockbuster remake.

Last weekend I saw two movies – Beauty and the Beast (reviewed here) and Moonlight (on what was likely one of its last remaining weekends in movie theaters). I dashed off a fawning review (pun intended) of Beauty and the Beast, but I needed more time for Moonlight to marinate in my noggin.

(My parents just saw saw Beauty and the Beast last night, and judging from their less than glowing reaction to the film, some of you out there may think I should have have spent a bit more time mulling that movie’s virtues and flaws as well.)

One of the elements I found so refreshing in Disney’s remake is its upending of the primacy of traditional masculinity (despite the hyperbolic gay panic surrounding the film in some less-enlightened quarters). Much more clearly than its animated precursor, this 2017 version positions the athletic, muscular, debonair, trophy-hunting male (Gaston) as the true “beast” of the title.

Moonlight has a similar questioning of masculinity running throughout its narrative, albeit more nuanced, though no less allegorical. I know I’m twisting my analysis into a pretzel comparing these two films, and it is really just the happenstance of seeing them the same weekend, but I do find this intriguing.

There is a danger viewing a critically lauded film after it has won Best Picture. Your expectations far exceed what any film could withstand. That was true for me of Moonlight as well, but with a week’s worth of reflection, I see the power in this deceptively simple story of a young African-American man – told in three chapters (boyhood, adolescence, adulthood) – navigating a world that is economically, culturally, racially, socially structured to prevent the natural and healthy evolution of one’s truest self.

James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Moonlight, as written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, traces the building of such a mask, and ends (hopefully) with its ultimate removal.

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We meet the silent, sullen, and fearful Chiron (Alex Hibbert in one of the purest, most compelling child performances ever captured onscreen) as he runs from a pack of bullies, ultimately hiding out in an abandoned drug house.  His rescuer Juan (in a detailed but subtle Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali) is by all external appearances the prototypical “alpha male” – a successful businessman (in this case, the business so happens to be selling crack cocaine) who cuts a sinewy, shark-like path through the mean streets of Liberty City, Miami. Yet, his hard, intimidating exterior hides a soulful sadness and an empathy for young Chiron.

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He brings the boy home to his girlfriend Teresa (a luminous Janelle Monae) whose sweet exterior conceals a steely but well-intentioned determination. They care for the boy, give him a boost of confidence, and take him home to his loving but misguided mother Paula (the always exceptional Naomie Harris).

The script saddles Paula with a cliched crack addiction (the drugs fueling which, of course, we come to find are actually supplied by Juan), but it is a testament to the exceptional acting that this narrative device is haunting and believable and sidesteps Lifetime TV-melodrama. At one point Juan counsels Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Ain’t no one can make that decision for you.” Juan’s intent with this advice is for Chiron to be true to himself, but as the film’s narrative continues to stack the deck against Chiron, we see how impossible such a simple notion actually can be.

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In the film’s second section, we see Chiron enter high school, a troubled young man marginalized and brutalized for his unseen, undefined “difference.”

Ashton Sanders is exceptional as Chiron during this chapter, with a raw-boned anxiety that evokes Anthony Perkins or James Dean at their most heartbreaking. For a brief moment, Chiron finds love, but it turns sour really fast with a violence-begets-violence sequence that is as heartrending as it is inevitable.

The film then again flashes forward for its third and final chapter. Chiron is an adult now, having survived some unspeakable off-screen horrors in America’s juvenile reform system.  The doleful muteness of his youth has now curdled into an intractable, intimidating silence. Chiron at this age – as played with brilliant physicality and wounded nuance by Trevante Rhodes – is an imposing figure, a doppelganger for his childhood mentor Juan. He is earning a healthy living selling drugs on the streets of Atlanta, his sensitive soul lost amidst layers of literal and figurative armor. (One spot of humor comes from the ostentatious “grills” he insists on wearing over his teeth, another example of his desire to harden himself before a world that has repeatedly rejected him.) The film seems to suggest we become what we know, sometimes in spite of our best selves, simply to survive. Life as ouroboros.

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The film concludes as Chiron reunites over dinner with his childhood friend Kevin (a warm, funny, and wary Andre Holland). We see the layers of galvanized steel forged from terror upon terror start to melt away, and we are left with the broken soul underneath. The final shot of the film is Chiron resting his head on his friend’s shoulder, perhaps relieved he can finally be himself, devoid of the culture’s artificial expectations of what it means to be a man.

And that is the reason we need this movie right now.

There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re ev’ryone’s favorite guy
Ev’ryone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why …

 – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, “Gaston”
 
 We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear The Mask”

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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.

“People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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There’s “Something There,” all right. Disney’s 2017 live action Beauty and the Beast is an absolute delight. Maybe I just needed a movie like this right here, right now, but this update spoke to my heart and soul and had me staying through every last bit of the credits, with tears streaming down my cheeks and a big smile on my face.

I’ve been agnostic about the artistic need (not the commercial one) for the unyielding march of Disney’s flesh-and-blood remakes/reinventions, since the runaway success of the garishly underwhelming Alice in Wonderland. True, each subsequent entry has improved upon the last, from the DOA Oz the Great and Powerful to the well-cast if underwritten feminism of Maleficent, from the poignant but ultimately forgettable Cinderella to the sparkling eco-parable The Jungle Book, culminating in last summer’s exemplary if underappreciated Pete’s Dragon.

Beauty and the Beast (not unlike its animated forebear) takes the lessons from all that came before and synthesizes them into a crackerjack entertainment. Yes, there is the requisite if servile devotion to iconic imagery and character beats (the blue dress, the yellow dress, an elegant waltz in a cerulean-hued ball room, Gaston’s Freudianly overcompensating pompadour). Yes, the film suffers from a borderline overuse of CGI. For a “live action” remake, there is likely as much if not more animation in this version than the last, and poor Emma Watson (“Belle”) does her level best to act in awe of the green-screen universe surrounding her. I can imagine the direction: “Emma, a plate is flying at your head now. The forks are doing a can-can. A feather duster just sailed past your ears!” And, of course, there is a Disney Store stockroom’s worth of infinitely merchandisable new characters – dolls, Tsum Tsums, magnets, action figures, porcelain statues, and home goods … oh, the home goods.

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) has embraced it all but never to the detriment of story or character, fleshing out the more problematic elements of the source material and casting some of Hollywood’s best and brightest (and most empathetic) to deliver the goods. Do we really want kids fantasizing about Stockholm Syndrome as a path to true love? Thankfully, Emma Watson (Harry Potter) brings a feminist agency to Belle that is refreshing and necessary. The character will never be Gloria Steinem, but even Steinem mined captivity in the Playboy Mansion as a launchpad to address the objectification and mistreatment of women. (Too pedantic or too glib of me? Probably both.)

Kevin Kline plays Belle’s father Maurice, bringing some of the strongest character development to the piece, haunted by a desire to protect his only daughter from a world that claimed his beloved wife too soon. It seems to be a requirement that every Disney protagonist loses a parent (or two) as a spark for their hero’s quest, but Condon, alongside screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, gives us a haunting and loving portrayal of a father-daughter united by tragedy but undeterred in intellectual curiosity.

As before, Belle is an oddity in her “poor, provincial town” because, well, she likes to read … and to challenge the status quo and to question why anyone should simply accept with gratitude the lot in life they are handed. What once seemed like a quaint notion in a nearly 30-year-old cartoon, now seems frighteningly au courant in 2017 America. Early in the film, Maurice describes Belle’s mother to his child as a way of helping Belle cope with the small-minded community in which they are trapped, “People mocked her. Until the day they all started imitating her.” Preach.

Through a series of minor calamities and overt misdirection, Belle finds herself at the castle of the Beast (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), a foppish prince who was transformed into a monster because of his unrepentant vanity and cruelty. The Beast holds Belle hostage in exchange for her father’s life, after Maurice tries to steal a rose from his garden. Nice guy, eh?

Bletchley Circle‘s Hattie Morahan does a fine job with her limited screen-time as the sorceress who curses the prince. In fact, the entire opening sequence, narrated by Morahan, is a surreal homage to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 take on the material; it is a rather un-Disney-like preamble, with l’enfant terrible (Stevens, again), prior to his transformation, contemptuously awash in a baroque swirl of powdered wigs, fright makeup, and gilded … everything. (In other words, a typical Saturday afternoon at Mar A Lago.) It’s so repulsively camp that we as an audience have zero sympathy for what befalls the prince and his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time waitstaff. You do the crime, you do the time.

As for Stevens’ work as the Beast, I don’t envy any actor whose performance is buried under a mountain of computer-generated pixels, but, like Robbie Benson before him, the trick to this character is in the voice work, and Stevens’ evolution from feral to forlorn to fetching is spot on.

Regarding the enchanted crockery, cutlery, and assorted housewares who populate the Beast’s castle, Condon offers us an embarrassment of riches. Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson all have a ball with their respective roles, with McKellen, Thomspon, and McGregor as standouts. The original film was no slouch in that department either (Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers), and this next generation similarly provides comic relief and even greater melancholy as the Beast’s “family,” loyal to a fault and ever-hopeful that he will find himself and, in the process, discover true love and break the curse. Condon’s casting is flawless here.

Rounding out the ensemble, Luke Evans (The Hobbit series) portrays a Gaston that is not “roughly the size of a barge” but whose smarmy ego, rampant insecurity, and loathing of women and animals are ginormous. Gaston has always been the true “beast” of the story, and this production doesn’t shy away from depicting him as the worst of all male impulses and an unfortunate corollary to the darker elements in present day society. A little bit Robert Goulet and a little bit Errol Flynn and a whole lot of unbridled id, Evans is on fire throughout. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) as sidekick LeFou is more understated than the trailers (or the silly trumped-up controversy surrounding the flick) would have you believe. Gad’s sweaty, subservient fawning over Gaston is balanced with some lovely notes of self-doubt that provide a more thoughtful characterization than I was expecting.

And, yes, the songs. All of the ones you know and love – and that will be keeping you awake in a continuous loop in your noggin at two in the morning – are all there. The song stylings of this cast won’t put any Broadway babies out of a job, but they all acquit themselves nicely, using the relative intimacy of film over stage to inject these anthemic numbers with a healthy dose of nuance. There are four new songs contributed by original composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice (Howard Ashman wrote the lyrics for the original score). I, for one, thought the additional numbers blended seamlessly, with particular standouts being “Days in the Sun” (beautifully expressing the longing of the house staff to return to their human forms) and “Evermore” (the Beast’s big number wherein he finally knows what true love is only to see it walk out his castle door). These numbers sound like Sondheim cast-offs that just didn’t quite make the cut for Sweeney Todd. And that’s a compliment.

This new model Beauty and the Beast may disappoint some for not reinventing enough, and it may trouble others for contemporizing too much. I, for one, thought it was just right. The 2017 version remains a tale as old as time, true as it can be, and speaks to the underdogs, the marginalized people, those who are bullied by the cool kids or punished for being too indulgent. Indeed, it is bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong. Beauty and the Beast reminds us that life does get better.

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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.

“Only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies

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I suppose it tells you something about how excited I was (or rather wasn’t) to see the final installment in the never-ending Hobbit trilogy that it took me nearly two months to catch it finally in the theatre. I’m pretty sure this weekend was the last possible chance for me to have seen The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies on the big screen, and, if I had missed it?

Well, that would’ve been a shame as I enjoyed this one thoroughly … but, shhhh, don’t tell anyone. (See my takes on the other two entries in the series here and here.)

Yes, this one suffers from the same bloated storytelling that plagues the other two installments, a narrative pushed pulled and prodded from Tolkien’s singular source material well past its breaking point.

Regardless, longtime Lord of the Rings-mastermind Peter Jackson steers the story of Bilbo Baggins to a thrillingly warmhearted dénouement. One might argue that Jackson’s chiefest contribution in his second Middle Earth trilogy rests in shining a spotlight on Martin Freeman before a worldwide audience. The sweetness of these films is carried almost exclusively on Freeman’s narrow Hobbit shoulders as the titular Baggins. Freeman brings just the right mix of anxiety, sadness, worry, pluck, and winking silliness to the enterprise.

For me, one of the best moments in this latest film highlights the wry, quiet texture Freeman offers, alongside his always-sparkling co-star Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. In the film’s final moments, the two weary souls sit side-by-side on a log, and, channeling the spirit of Laurel and Hardy, Martin (foreshortened to appear one/third McKellen’s height) looks quizzically exasperated as McKellen futzes endlessly with his silly hippie pipe.  The silent expressions they exchange are darling and human and comically relatable, reminding us why any of us ever cared about these movies to begin with.

One scene later, McKellen’s Gandalf intones – as cautionary praise – to Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, “Remember you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.” The delivery and the sentiment plus Freeman’s reaction are touching and ominous and make it all worth the price of admission. Lord knows, any one of us in the audience feels like that “little fellow” pretty much 24/7 in this lunatic “real” world which always seems ready to spin right off its axis.

The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies (cumbersome title notwithstanding) wraps everything up neatly, albeit having a good chunk of the movie dedicated to one seemingly endless fight scene among dwarfs, elves, orcs, humans, eagles, worms, dragons, bats, and Lord-knows-what-else. We get a last look at thunderously thrilling dragon Smaug (dulcet-voiced by Benedict Cumberatch); we learn the fate of the intrepid band of dwarfs seeking to reclaim their homeland; and we send Bilbo back to the Shire in a lovely dovetail with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The cast remains a starry array of accomplished actors (Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace), all of whom bring gravitas and believability amidst the bewigged LARP-ing foolishness.  Richard Armitage nicely rounds out the character arc of dwarf king Thorin’s descent into madness and ultimate redemption. (He actually gave me the PTSD chills that I was missing from Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper, dude.) And Luke Evans, looking like a much-scruffier version of Robert Goulet’s Lancelot, is a swashbuckling thrill as his character Bard finally fulfills his hero’s journey.

Six Middle Earth movies in and I still can’t remember any character names, nor do I understand what they are ever talking about, but I applaud the actors’ ability to make me care. Sometimes observing Jackson’s cinematic output has felt like watching a foreign film with no subtitles, but he has done such an incredible job immersing us and his talented cast in a richly detailed world that the journey is worth the periodic confusion (for us Tolkien lay-people).

No, I’ve never read the books (blasphemy, I know); nor, at this late date, am I every likely to do so. And I’m grateful to Peter Jackson for bringing Middle Earth so vibrantly to the big screen so that I never have to (read, that is). Yet, I hope Jackson takes a good long break from revisiting these storybook lands, as I don’t think I can spend another nine hours in a darkened movie theater with all those pointy eared mythic creatures for at least another ten years.

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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.

Countdown: The Hobbit – Desolation of Smaug

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 18 days until release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

“…the second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (seriously? these are the best titles you can come up with, Jackson? I guess Attack of the Clones was taken), is a rip-snortin’, jolly good time.”

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.

Now THAT was fun! The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Last year I just wasn’t that nuts about the first installment of Peter Jackson’s planned fim trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. You can revisit my ire here.

And I stand by these words, “If I feel the original [Lord of the Rings] trilogy – where one film = one book – seems a bit padded, you can imagine my distaste for having The Hobbit broken into a wallet-gouging three films.”

HOWEVER, the second installment – The Desolation of Smaug (seriously? these are the best titles you can come up with, Jackson? I guess Attack of the Clones was taken) – is a rip-snortin’, jolly good time.

All the ponderous and self-satisfied back story and set up has been dispensed with in the first film, so the cast and crew is free to let the Errol Flynn-esque, Saturday morning serial freak flags fly. The film is a good thirty minutes too long and suffers yet again from a terribly unsatisfying non-ending ending.

Yet, all of the players are clearly having a ball and that carries over to the audience experience. Benedict Cumberbatch (is he everywhere this year?!?) steals the show – without ever showing his face – as the voice and motion-captured physicality of the titular villain, the dragon Smaug. The very theatre rumbles with his presence, and you can’t (and dare not) look away for a moment.

The rest of the cast acquits themselves nicely amongst the manic proceedings which involve some nonsense about reclaiming a mountain and finding some shiny jewel thing. Martin Freeman comes into his own as our central protagonist Bilbo Baggins, capitalizing on comic sympathies garnered during the first outing.

Ian McKellen is fine but a bit underused in a confusing subplot that involves Orcs, a cheesy looking castle, and the film series’ Big Bad (Sauron). I greatly enjoy Richard Armitage as the brooding Thorin – just when I as an audience member feel totally exasperated by the shenanigans onscreen, he seems to be as well and grounds everything with a sneer and a sidelong glance. Heck, I even like Orlando Bloom this go-round, which is saying something as watching him is typically akin to watching paint dry for me.

New to the series, Lee Pace, Ryan Gage, and Stephen Fry are welcome additions, with Fry bringing an almost Dickensian whimsy to his role as a sleazy mayor of a floating fishing village that makes Popeye‘s Sweethaven look like Metropolis. Luke Evans also adds a fine level of swashbuckling gravitas to the key character of Bard who helps our intrepid band reach the final leg of their interminable journey.

I happened to see this one in Jackson’s much-vaunted “high frame rate 3D” which, once you get past the nauseatingly hyper-crisp visual clarity, completely immerses you in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It’s like watching a soap opera/video game hybrid … on the sound stage where it’s being filmed with the actors spitting and sweating in your face in real time. Lovely, eh? Not sure I completely recommend it, but it’s worth experiencing … once.

In sum, the film is fun escapist fare with a shot of adrenaline that reminds us why movies can be such a joy. I have no idea what I saw, and I won’t remember 80% of the plot tomorrow … and I don’t much care.