“We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are MORE than?” Split, Sing, and Lion (yeah, you read that correctly)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Why are we here? What makes life worth living? Where is our place in this (increasingly strange) world?

Maybe I’m just going through some kind of existential mid-life crisis. (Hey, who’d like to produce this 44-year-old singing all of his favorite ill-suited pop songs – Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Madonna, Bjork – as an expression of manopausal self in a cabaret extravaganza? It will be your best theatre going experience of the past 14.75 years. I guarantee!) Regardless, the three films viewed this weekend – seemingly drawn from a grab bag of fourth quarter 2016 offerings – all explore beautifully the very reason we dwell on this loony planet.

Split is a return to form for Hitchcock/Spielberg aspirant M. Night Shyamalan, chiefly because he was wise enough to cast it with a crackerjack James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) and Betty Buckley (Carrie, Tender Mercies). (At one point while viewing, I wished Shyamalan had had the moxie to have staged this as a two-hander play with these two lightning bolts. Equus would have seemed like Oklahoma! by comparison.)

The film is a mash-up – a little bit of Silence of the Lambs, a touch of Primal Fear, a skosh of Dressed to Kill, a dab of Prisoners, a spritz of, well, any and all of Shyamalan’s other films (save The Last Airbender – the less said about that one, the better). We have a central figure “Kevin Wendell Crumb,” portrayed brilliantly by McAvoy (with just a hint of Baby Jane camp), suffering from dissociative identity disorder, as 23 different personalities (some nice, some really naughty) play ping-pong with Kevin’s daily routine. Buckley, as Dr. Karen Fletcher, is his cautious, morbidly transfixed therapist, whose ethereally calm demeanor and career aspirations keep her engaged with Kevin’s Sybil-esque shenanigans.

The plot details Kevin’s devolution into something called “The Beast” (think Silence of the Lambs‘ “Buffalo Bill” with, yes, super powers) as he kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in one of those byzantine, blue-lit subterranean lairs that only seem to exist in really creepy movies. Dr. Fletcher starts to catch wise as various (kinder) personalities in Kevin’s psyche begin sending her panicked emails in the middle of the night. I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns, but the Hitchcockian “fun” derives from Buckley’s Fletcher calmly, relentlessly querying McAvoy’s Kevin about his nightly doings. Much like Hitchock’s late-career Psycho, Shyamalan’s Split is a directorial resurgence that simultaneously exploits the audience’s most prurient interests while giving us a Playhouse 90-style character study. McAvoy is a creepy hoot, and Buckley does yeoman’s work as a wary proxy for the audience’s revulsion/fascination. (My favorite quote from the film? When Buckley’s Fletcher describes the restaurant Hooters: “It’s like if Henry VIII ran a fast food franchise.”)

At one point, Buckley’s Fletcher asks plaintively, “”We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are more than?” The film’s central thesis is a half-realized query about whether or not mental illness is a kind of super power. It’s an intriguing idea not fully baked in the film, but Buckley’s delivery of that line, coupled with McAvoy’s scenery-chewing performance, gives me hope for the inevitable sequel.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

And then I saw Sing, an animated film about koalas and elephants and pigs and porcupines and mice trying (literally) to find their voices in a world that had passed them by. Do I know how to plan a weekend at the movies?

Guess what? Sing is brilliant and surprisingly moving. If you are not crying at the film’s conclusion wherein every misfit animal featured heretofore takes the stage and seizes the spotlight with deep-feeling abandon, well, then I feel sorry for you,  you cold, emotionless curmudgeon!

The plot of Sing is a nifty corollary to Zootopia, which depicted a similar land where all creatures great and small coexist (mostly) in harmony, struggling (like us all) to make a decent living, pay the bills, and have a bit of joy. “Buster Moon,” a disarmingly charmingly skeezy koala (voiced by Matthew McConaughey finding the perfect role for his disarmingly charmingly skeezy career) is trying to revive his failing theatre by hosting a music competition. His best buddy (a trust-fund lamb voiced by an ever-dopey John C. Reilly) asks, “Singing competition? Who wants to see another one of those?” Well, this one? You will want to see.

Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Taron Egerton (Kingsman … SUCH a voice – like a choir-boy Robbie Williams), Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), Tori Kelly vocalize for the menagerie (pig, porcupine, ape, mouse, elephant – respectively) that joins Buster on his preposterous adventure. I found myself a bucket of salty tears when Kelly’s shy elephant Mimi belts Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” at the film’s jubilant finale. Maybe it’s because I know what it feels like to be a misfit singer who has been excluded from others’ “reindeer games,” but I found Sing to be a riotous, thoroughly enjoyable celebration of letting all of us find and exercise our unique voices in this increasingly stifling world. I can’t wait for this inevitable sequel either.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, Lion. Oh, Lion I wish I knew how to quit you. This film knocked me to the floor – either because of its excellence or because my low blood sugar from sitting in a darkened theatre for hours on end finished me off. Lion – the feature directorial debut by Garth Davis – relays the true story of Saroo Brierley (portrayed with zero guile as a child by Sunny Pawar and with heartbreaking ambivalence as an adult by Dev Patel) as he finds himself lost from his family in India and, ultimately, adopted by a well-meaning Australian couple (a haunting Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Reminiscent of the the Jack Lemmon/Sissy Spacek classic Missing, Lion captures the devastating claustrophobia of a family separated by geography, time, bureaucracy. The toddler Saroo’s inability to communicate (he speaks Hindi and nearly no one else around him does) nor to identify his home (he accidentally ends up on a decommissioned train that takes him from a small town, the name of which he mispronounces, to the overpopulated metropolis of Calcutta) is the stuff of nightmares. The film plays fast and loose with narrative chronology, as the adult Saroo tries to unravel the mystery of his life before being adopted. Everyone is excellent, with Kidman giving her most subtle, nuanced performance in ages – one scene in particular where she palpably renders the tension of the adoptive parent to balance truth versus security as her child tries to make sense of his upbringing. Lion is a remarkable film, as full of hope as it is heartbreak.

I cried a lot this weekend at the movie theatre. Singing elephants, multiple personality protagonists, and displaced Indian orphans: all transfixing metaphorical representatives of our own existential pain over belonging, finding ourselves, and seeking a path forward. Well done, Hollywood. Well done.

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Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

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.

“They worship everything and value nothing.” La La Land

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is La La Land the second (or even third or fourth) coming of the great movie musical? Not exactly. To call it a “musical” seems a bit overblown, as the flick’s songs (by newcomer Justin Hurwitz) come and go more like incomplete yet tuneful doodles as opposed to full-fledged numbers. The choreography is about two notches above a rhythmic walk down the street, and the singing … well … the singing makes Rex Harrison’s trademarked talk/sing (see My Fair Lady, Dr. Dolittle) sound like Adele at Carnegie Hall. Yet, I think that half-assed musicality is all by design on the part of director Damien Chazelle, who was responsible for Whiplash, one of my favorite films of the last ten years.

So, please, stop billing La La Land as a lush, glowing tribute to the glory years of the American movie musical. The film happily, gleefully wraps itself in all the tropes of the genre, much like The Artist (the two films are spiritual and stylistic cousins) used silent film to tell a similar narrative of ambitious if downtrodden performers navigating the despair and loneliness of love and ladder-climbing in the City of Dreams (Los Angeles). However, it ain’t a musical – at least for those of us expecting a behind-the-curtain songfest like Singin’ in the Rain or Funny Face. Much like Whiplash, it is a film with music, melodies seeping through every corner of its DNA. And that’s ok.

The genre that the film really exemplifies (a genre that isn’t really a genre except anywhere in my own head) is the movie-that-exists-solely-for-the-sake-of-a-final-act-punchline-that-brings-the-rest-of-the-film-into-stark-relief-and-makes-you-go-“oh-THAT’s-what-I’ve-been-watching-for-the-past-two-hours.” Think The Sixth Sense (or anything else by gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan).  I’m pretty certain this will be the only review that compares La La Land to a movie where Bruce Willis is a ghost (20-year-old spoiler alert!).

La La Land is surprisingly and refreshingly dark, but you don’t realize that until hours after viewing. It unspools in a light, frothy homage to films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which also beats with a candy-colored heart of darkness). Two (literally) star-crossed lovers – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – find mutual affection in their shared failure, he a struggling jazz pianist of the purest and most pretentious variety and she a failing actress bouncing unsuccessfully from one insultingly mind-numbing TV-pilot audition to another. Naturally, they fall for each other. It is a musical after all; oh wait, I just said it wasn’t. Much.

As their lives spiral up and down and back again (“me here at last on the ground … you in mid-air”), the movie details the toxic effects that unshared, ill-timed success and failure can have on a relationship of creative types torn between each other and egomania. The songs, as they are (“City of Stars” being the most memorable … or at least the most hummable), are used effectively to illustrate the pointed emotional moments of Gosling and Stone’s shared lives. Imagine A Star is Born (Judy and James, not Barbra and Kris – please) structured as the dreamlike nervous breakdown of Dancer in the Dark (directed by renowned sadist Lars von Trier and scored by renowned wood nymph Bjork).

This is the point in the review where you look at the screen and say, “Dammit, Roy, stop being an obtuse show-off! Did you like this movie or not?!”

I did. Very much. And here’s why. As a musical, it’s unremarkable (I’ve driven that point into submission). As a treatise on the fleeting nature of time and love and ambition, on the hollow reward of financial success and critical acclaim, on the haunting nature of missed opportunities and second-guessing one’s life choices, La La Land is a powder keg. The first hour? I thought to myself, “This is kind of insipid. Gosling and Stone are charming as always, but they embarrass me a little bit. Why are they so awkward and unsure. Why can’t they sing? Why are they floating on the ceiling of a planetarium? Am I supposed to be moved by this? Is Rebel Without a Cause as referenced in this flick intended to be a metaphor for something?” Well, the characters are gawky as hell because, at that point in their lives and careers, they would be.

In fact, Gosling edges Stone out a bit in the film’s first half, channeling the fourth-wall-breaking sparkle he demonstrated in The Big Short, with a winning “little boy lost” cynicism. Passing a group of actors rehearsing on the Warner Brothers’ back lot where Stone works as a barista in a forgotten coffee shop, he ruefully observes of the desperate thespians, “They worship everything and value nothing.”

But, then, life hits this duo right in the solar plexus (plexi?), and La La Land gets really interesting. Their shabby chic world together experiences a few wins but even more losses. They drift. They fight. They become more sure of themselves and reluctantly admit that life must lead them away from each other. And they sing (sort of).

In defense of Stone, her big solo (in the spot of what we used to call an “11 o’clock” number like “Ladies Who Lunch” or “Rose’s Turn” that spins all the key themes into one fist-raising, anthemic exclamation point) is “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” a full-throated yawlp that shows us, yes, she can sing, and, boy, can she act.

Then, THEN, in the film’s final moments, Chazelle hits you with a Gene Kelly-esque montage/remix/rewind/dream-dance ballet (I’ve always hated those, until this one) that puts the preceding narrative in perspective and leaves you gutted, wondering about your own life choices, what has worked, what hasn’t, and what might have been. Now, that‘s a musical. No, it isn’t. It’s something new entirely. That’s why I loved this movie.

______________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“Pray for the best; prepare for the worst” – Prisoners

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]

In post-9/11 America, paranoia and violence, xenophobia and religion have become a toxic brew. It is in these murky waters that the new film Prisoners trucks.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve who shows a surprising level of fair-mindedness for our nation’s current warts-and-all rugged surburban survivalism. The atmosphere is overcast and thick, defined smartly by the bleak Midwestern weather that typically blankets the Thanksgiving holiday.

Even that choice is symbolic – for what are we truly thankful anymore when real (or imagined) bogeymen lurk around every corner … and we are armed to the teeth to shoot them (as well as any neighbors who get caught in the crossfire)?

I can’t even begin to summarize the mobius strip of a plot in the limited space here. (That’s what Wikipedia is for, after all!) The long and the short of it is that two families  – one deer-hunting, Jesus-loving, stranger-phobic and the other yuppified, highly-educated, inclusive – venture across their tract home lawns to break bread on Thanksgiving only to find the young daughters of each brood seemingly vanish into thin air.

The prime suspect is RV-driving, greasy-haired, 80s-glasses-wearing Boo Radley-in-training Paul Dano (a mumble-mouthed marvel). And, as you have no doubt gathered from the trailers, hot-headed Hugh Jackman, for whose character violence is a deep-seated expression of his faith, abducts the supposed kidnapper and brutally tries to “Gitmo” the truth out of him.

The sad reality – and the film’s ultimate revelation – is that there is no black and white “truth,” in even the most horrific of circumstances, and violence only begets … well … more violence. I won’t spoil the “fun” as it were, but there are surprises (but blessedly not M. Night Shyamalan-style SHOCKS!) aplenty. The twists are all logical and integral to the plot, leaving the viewer with the perspective that if only the characters, in their rush-to-CNN/Fox-News-judgment, had slowed down for just one minute, they would have seen the real picture much sooner.

The film is a series of muted grays – visually and emotionally. Just when you feel certain in your philosophical alignment with one character (say, Jackman’s righteously raging papa) or another (say, Jake Gyllenhaal’s “facts will set you free” police detective), the story – like life – ebbs and flows and leaves you questioning your … faith.

At times, the film is a bit obviously symbolic in the way early Hitchcock could be: rain = sadness and torment, frost and snow = frustration, children = innocence lost, plaid = middle class. Yet, there is also extraordinarily complex thematic work here that I will be mulling for days.

Most notably, at the heart of the film, there is a jigsaw puzzle of faith and disillusionment and self-determination. The mantra “pray for the best; prepare for the worst” gets repeated at least a half dozen times by Jackman and occasionally by Gyllenhaal. The irony is (without ruining the film) that all of Jackman’s prayer and preparations actually make things worse while Gyllenhaal’s agnostic “slow and steady wins the race” approach proves (arguably) best in the end.

This is a mightily powerful film, extremely well acted. The powerhouse cast also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard (who brought me to tears for some reason nearly every time he was onscreen), Len Cariou, and an especially crackerjack Melissa Leo (about whom I potentially could write another entire entry but only by completely spoiling the intricate plot).

I don’t know how I will feel about this film tomorrow or next week or next month (my parents who viewed it Friday warned me about that) but I am so glad I saw it. I suspect this film will become a dark and unsettling touchstone for our era, and I hope one that will cause those brave few among us to question their deeply ingrained assumptions/prejudices about their fellow man.

Cost of feeling: Two Muses production of Next to Normal

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: Two Muses Theatre]

This isn’t a review. If anything it’s an ode to a phenomenal local professional production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal.

(In full transparency, several of my friends have been involved in putting this production together … and I even donated a nickel or two to the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund it.)

I had seen a few numbers from the Broadway production of this challenging show on the 2009 Tony Awards, and I promptly bought the two-disc cast album, but I had not yet ever had the privilege of seeing it.

It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey, details in rock opera form the travails of a young couple as they careen toward middle age, navigating Yuppie-dom, petulant teenagers, and a predilection for making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. A traumatic cloud hangs over their McMansion, the truth of which is revealed M. Night Shyamalan-style toward the end of the first act.

This narrative context – which shares its genetic code with such tragic familial dramas as The Subject Was Roses, Glass Menagerie, Fear Strikes Out, Ordinary People, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or All My Sons – is the perfect framework to explore the thorny topic of mental illness in today’s America. Our overeager societal penchant for pharmacological solutions receives the most caustic critique, though the authors have plenty to say about gender, age, economics, and the medical profession writ large.

The musical ends with an open-ended if nebulous note of hope, a hope that seems to rely chiefly on honesty, candor, risk-taking and acceptance as the true road to any mental recovery from a catastrophic event.

For those who haven’t seen this show, my words above may be, excuse the expression, maddening. I don’t mean to be coy (Roy! – with apologies to Paul Simon) but if I say more I will spoil the twist that sets the show toward its inevitable conclusion. So there. (You know you’re headed to Wikipedia right … about … now!)

Keeping in mind my admission that many of these folks are friends and acquaintances, the Two Muses cast, in my estimation, was uniformly excellent. With minimal staging, heartfelt performances, and a blessedly light touch, the six-person ensemble (Diane Hill, Nathan Larkin, John DeMerell, Aubrey Fink, Rusty Daugherty, and Richard Payton) delivered an exceptional show. Hill and DeMerell captured beautifully the delicate and painful dance of a couple perfectly wrong for one another, whose youthful good intentions have calcified into painful resentment.

With expert direction by Hill and Barbie Weisserman (including additional staging by Frannie Shepherd Bates) and strong musical support from Jamie Brachel (and fully visible musicians sharing the stage with the actors), this production strips away any visual distraction, simply and effectively using lighting, movement, and a simple chrome dining table and chairs to evoke a wide vary of locations, moments, and emotions.

So, here’s the punchline, Metro Detroiters. You only have one more shot to see this stellar production. Run don’t walk to the Two Muses website – www.twomusestheatre.org – and get your tickets for tomorrow (Sunday, June 30) afternoon. You won’t be sorry!