“When I saw Gummi Bears was our secret ingredient … I wasn’t thinking science.” Logan Lucky

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Steven Soderbergh’s directorial return Logan Lucky is no Hell or High Water (not sure much could be), but it is a capable new entry in a genre I can only think to dub “21st Century tragicomedies of the American marginalized.” Both films (and others like them – Nightcrawler comes to mind; heck, one could argue Soderbergh’s first Magic Mike too) take an almost Dickensian view of modern America, where satire and melodrama meet, showing the ramshackle desperation of the economically sidelined, and where criminal misdeeds are a logical course correction for those lost in a soulless system that prizes cash over humanity.

Channing Tatum continues to turn a blind eye himself toward commerce by taking one oddball role after another. He stars as Jimmy Logan, a divorced but devoted papa whose life began and ended on the football field, a failed quarterback who placed his faith in the white hot hyperbole of American high school only to make the sad realization in his real-world 30s that indeed his sh*t does stink after all. He’s saddled both with a knee injury that keeps him from gainful employment and with a lovably deadpan one-armed crackpot brother Clyde (Adam Driver, light years from the slithering petulance of Star Wars‘ villain Kylo Ren) who keeps him from sanity. Clyde is convinced the family is cursed (hence the ironic “lucky” in the title), and all evidence does tend to support his conclusion.

The two brothers plot an “Ocean’s 7-11” (the film’s description, not mine) take-down of the Charlotte Motor Speedway – a Rube Goldberg-esque scheme to tap into the pneumatic tubes funneling cash from one tacky elephant ear and t-shirt vendor after another underground into the NASCAR’s institution’s vault. Jimmy’s idea of researching this plan? “I looked it up on ‘the google.'” Logan sister Mellie (an impishly sullen Riley Keough, Lisa Marie Presley’s daughter finally evidencing genuine talent in that family’s DNA) is a tacky hairstylist by day, getaway driver by night, and she helps the boys stay on track in their shaggy scheme.

As the overly episodic flick unspools, the Logans’ rogues’ gallery expands to include safe-cracking and explosives expert (on-the-nose-named) Joe Bang, a wonderfully daffy Daniel Craig, happily jettisoning his sleek Bond-James-Bond glower. “When I saw Gummi Bears was our secret ingredient [for  Joe’s homemade munitions], I wasn’t thinking about science,” Jimmy observes ruefully as their plot kicks into high gear.

Joe insists on the involvement of his two lights-are-on-but-no-one-is-home brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid, son of Randy Quaid and Meg Ryan). Gleeson and Quaid do fine, broadly comic work, but their Hee-Haw-grade depictions of two educationally challenged Southerners are a bit of a disservice to the more finely calibrated lampooning from the balance of the cast.

A veritable Cannonball Run‘s worth of guest stars sashay through the film, to varying degrees of success. Dwight Yoakam, as a lazy but controlling prison warden, and Katie Holmes, as Jimmy Logan’s gum snapping ex, fare best in underwritten parts. Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier) and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) have spark in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles as a fussy NASCAR driver and a warmhearted charity clinic doc respectively. Hilary Swank is nails-on-a-chalkboard grating as a robotic FBI agent assigned to the case, and an unrecognizable Seth MacFarlane (thank goodness for him, I guess) draws the short-straw in the Dom DeLuise scenery-chewing punching bag slot.

Dropped to a lean 90 minutes, this two hour enterprise would have been a breezy hoot (and a likely blockbuster). As with most of  Soderbergh’s films, however, it rambles past a clear-cut denouement into overstaying-its-welcome territory. Swank’s entire subplot should have hit the cutting room floor and stayed there. There is something essential that films like this can (and should) say about the human condition in America, about whole swaths of people left behind as Wall Street soldiers on. Unfortunately, as good as this film is (and it is a sharp-eyed assessment of economic disparity), it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of a film that makes you laugh to keep from crying. As the last point on Jimmy Logan’s fool proof heist plan states, “Hang up and know when to walk away.”

______________________________

[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.

“Are we ever going to be better than this?” We Are Your Friends

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Someday Hollywood will figure out what to do with Zac Efron. He’s had success  – obviously (High School Musical, Neighbors) – but he always seems to be nipping at the edges of super-stardom. A baby John Travolta or Tom Cruise, trapped in amber, all smoky pout, wounded charm, and barracuda ambition, but with nowhere terribly great to channel it. Heaven help us if he discovers Scientology.

Sadly, We Are Your Friends, his latest gambit to cement leading man status has been dead-on-arrival at the box office and is now pegged as a dismal and historic failure.

And that’s a shame because the movie ain’t half bad.

It’s a bit of a paint-by-numbers affair, cribbing from so many “lost in the valley” (literal and figurative) films depicting an aspiring hustler from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good by lurking around the darker side-alleys of pop culture, nightlife, and fame – see: Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights, 8Mile, Swingers, Magic Mike, Step Up (hell, 75% of Channing Tatum‘s filmography-to-date, qualifies in fact).

In the case of We Are Your Friends, titled after the mid-aughts EDM hit by Justice vs. Simian, Efron and his collaborators, including director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph (Catfish), attempt to capitalize on the white-hot ascension of Southern California DJ-culture and said EDM (that would be “electronic dance music” to us fogies who used to call it, say, house or acid or techno or disco or … er … dance music).

With a healthy expectation for audience members to suspend our disbelief, former Disney star Efron plays a scruffy San Fernando Valley ne’er-do-well whose days (and nights) are spent in a drug-addled, thumping-bass haze as he and his pals bounce from club to couch to club again. The script is an under-baked affair, wisely relying on Efron’s charisma (which he has in spades) to fill in the (many) gaps where a bit of character-development might have saved the day.

Efron’s character Cole Carter (yeah, that name – trying a bit too hard for Cali cool guy chic, if you ask me) is an aspiring musician/producer/DJ with little direction and even fewer resources. In the kind of happenstance collision that only occurs in movies like this, Cole shares a cigarette with – and therefore befriends – world-class DJ (and jerk) James Reed (engagingly played by a glowering Wes Bentley, looking like Chris Evans’ sozzled, emaciated twin).

James gives Cole some superficial tutelage (the EDM Obi-Wan Kenobi version of “write what you know” … which is “grab some weird sounds on your iPhone that you hear around your house and put them in a song”). During a drunken night in Vegas, Cole steals James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski of Gone Girl and Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” video – oy.); James and Cole have an awkwardly staged fight in a bathroom stall; they stop speaking. Cole, consequently, loses a gig that would change his life; James and Cole make up; Cole finally takes his mentor’s advice and “hears the world”; they make up again. Cole performs said gig in front of an American Apparel warehouse (!), offering a hypnotically existential “let’s recap everything you just saw with some flashbacks, looped beats, and smoldering glances from Mr. Efron” denouement, and all is right with the world, when Cole and Sophie reunite over pie at a vegan cafe where she is now waitressing. Whew. Try that with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland!

Efron almost single-handedly keeps the proceedings from running off the rails into soap opera schmaltz. His beautiful loser gravitas gave Neighbors some much needed spice; and the same is true for We Are Your Friends. He is aided and abetted by an appealing group of misfits that trail around behind him. Shiloh Ferndandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston play Cole’s bedraggled Valley Boys, as if Entourage were filmed in a Salvation Army somewhere.

After a third-act tragedy strikes this merry band of get-rich-quick schemers, the young thespians do some of their best work in the flick. It’s not their fault that we’ve seen this coming-of-age-in-postmodern-sprawl a million times now and that it was already tired the first time Steven Soderbergh visited this dusty cinematic strip mall. I just wish these actors had a more-focused script with which to work, one that spent time developing the interpersonal dynamic beyond the dreamer/hothead/nerd/gigolo cyphers the actors are given to play.

We Are Your Friends benefits from a game cast and a director (this is Max Joseph’s feature debut) who has a reasonably solid handle on pacing and visuals. (Joseph seems to be a Fight Club/David Fincher junkie as he has a lot of clever fun – nearly careening into self-indulgence – with rotoscoped animation, title cards, and subtitles.) Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up-to-snuff, and a tighter job in editing would have likely helped as well.

At one point in the film, Cole’s buddy Squirrel (as played by Alex Shaffer) asks, “Are we ever going to be better than this?” – a query which becomes a clarion call for the misbegotten generation depicted in the film. And this same question might be asked of Efron’s sputtering movie career, full as it is of such unrealized promise. Time will tell.

____________________________

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.

A big, dumb himbo of a film: Magic Mike XXL

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Magic Mike XXL is a big, dumb himbo of a film, as unnecessary and aimless as the central road trip to  a Myrtle Beach “stripper convention” (do those even exist?!) which it depicts.

Is the movie mindlessly entertaining with occasional shaggy charms? Of course. Does it suffer from lazy-cash-grab-sequelitis? You betcha.

I recall finding the original Magic Mike a warm-hearted surprise, with a shocking amount of depth and a keen eye toward skewering a hypocritical Southland (namely Florida), all surface Americana propriety with a scabrous, sleazy undercurrent bubbling to the surface.

That film’s intrepid band of “male entertainers,” led in a breakout actor/producer role by winsome Channing Tatum, may have been beautiful externally but, to a one, also held a tangled web of insecurities, addictions, dreams deferred, and stunted emotions inside.

It was a revelatory mix of voyeurism and schadenfreude. I wrote in my original review: “Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.”

Sadly, Magic Mike XXL jettisons both its original director (Soderbergh, who now steps in as cinematographer) and any attempt at depth. As directed by Gregory Jacobs, the dark grit of, say, a Saturday Night Fever is now replaced with the DNA of National Lampoon’s Vacation‘s meandering, prurient travelogue.

That said, the film’s chief strength remains its cast. From Tatum to Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello through Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez, the boys all realize the way to their movie audience’s collective heart is not through an ab-tastic bump-and-grind but by telegraphing (what the paltry script will allow of) their respective characters’ inner-lives and bro-culture shortcomings. (Manganiello’s deftly comic routine in a convenience store with a bag of Cheetos, a bottle of water, and a surly clerk is worth the price of admission alone.)

There is also fun to be had as Jada Pinkett Smith takes over the swaggering cowboy emcee role from Matthew McConaughey. Who knew she could out cheese Mr. “All right, all right, all right” for dorky machismo? And, yes, she is doing that same posturing, tongue-clicking, finger-wagging thing she does in every movie (and episode of Gotham), but it’s a refreshing bit of zest in this slog of a film.

Elizabeth Banks pops up, channeling a variation of the fiercely intelligent, big-haired, predatory-entrepreneur-in-cupcake-clothing she does so well, and Andie MacDowell is luminous in yet another in her long line of Southern-fried doyenne kooks. The screen nearly breaks in half every time MacDowell gives one of those “cat-that-ate-the-canary” grins of hers.

A game and sparkling cast is sadly wasted here. The dance sequences are ineptly filmed (seriously, Soderbergh was the cinematographer here?!?). Narrative set pieces are interminable and dull (particularly the sequence where we first meet Pinkett Smith at her creepy bordello with its weirdo glowing couches and cave-like “Bride of Dracula” decor). The music selections are forgettable and crass. And the final conceit that each of Tatum’s cohorts will channel their true passion (painting, weddings, frozen yogurt?!?!) through their climactic routines is laughably bizarre.

Run, don’t walk, away from this one, kids. And, Hollywood, how about being brave enough to cast Tatum and Bomer (who has a glorious voice, by the way) in an honest-to-goodness musical with, you know, singing and dancing and choreography that keeps its participants all standing upright? That would be a charming escape and a much better use of the talents (and brains) of all involved. Just a thought.

____________________________

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.

Rich people problems: Endless Love (2014)

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]

I had low expectations going into the 2014 remake of Endless Love, the 1981 original of which I had never seen nor ever cared to see and which had a title song that always made my scalp itch.

(Seriously, Brooke Shields, who starred in the first film, made her career on one boringly naughty movie after another. Why is it that she now hates on young up-and-comers who have swiped and amped-up her career-making playbook in their own ironically postmodern way? I suspect I just answered my own question.)

How is this latest unnecessary remake of a 1980s film that already lives in perpetuity through the HBO/VHS generation onto the YouTube/Netflix era? Not bad, actually.

The story is Romeo and Juliet if it were written by Nicholas Sparks and directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a hot mess melodrama replete with all kinds of rich people problems – including but certainly not limited to …

  • Mysterious death of a high school football star son on-track to attend an Ivy League school and whose memory is preserved by his vintage Mercedes left rotting exquisitely in the exquisitely landscaped driveway
  • Lonely youngest daughter who tries to honor her OCD heart-surgeon daddy by following in her dead brother’s Ivy League-bound footsteps which apparently means looking and acting like Taylor Swift’s fabulous trust-fund cousin yet having no friends whatsoever
  • Prized daughter disappointing her papa by falling for the sheepish bad boy slab of beef with a heart of gold whose sheer inappropriateness is represented by his love of flannel shirts and by his decorating his bedroom walls with license plates
  • A mother whose writing career was derailed by familial tragedy (and possibly a preoccupation with decor from Pottery Barn) but who rediscovers her inner muse when this saucy lad turns her family’s WASPy world right ’round, baby, ‘right round like a record, baby
  • And, finally, a twiggy middle brother who disappoints his stern father at every turn by declaring his college major as “communications” (apparently a dirty word in this rarefied air), by listening to his dead brother’s vinyl (!) records and not putting them back in their sleeves, and likely also by constantly rocking a Bermuda shorts/blazer/sockless loafer sartorial combo.

All that aside, director Shana Feste, who approaches the material in a workmanlike After-School Special way, wisely stacks her cast with pros who treat the hyperbolic material with as much nuance and heart as they can muster. Leading the way (and arguably saving the film) is Bruce Greenwood as the aforementioned patriarch. He recycles the wounded well-heeled-dad-calcified-by-familial-tragedy routine he applied so remarkably to last fall’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing derivative in his performance here. He offers just the right gravitas and stays within a razor’s edge of Snidely Whiplash territory, giving the film just the perfect amount of tension, discomfort, and propulsion.

By his side in the acting department is the underrated Joely Richardson as his wife. She takes what could have otherwise been a thankless role as the pampered “lady who lunches” and conveys (primarily with those eyes of hers) a world of hurt, confusion, and misplaced optimism.

As the third parent of the piece, Robert Patrick is perfectly fine as the requisite single-father-of-the-boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks. Patrick has left his Terminator 2 days far behind him and has evolved into a decent character actor. And, of course, the film in its sloppy shorthand has him run a gas station/garage … which, if you’ve ever paid for a car repair, means he should be as wealthy as anybody in that d*mn town on whatever Hollywood-planet this movie takes place.

The kids around whom the narrative revolves are fine as well. Apparently, those best-suited to play American teenagers are British actors in their mid-to-late-20s, but Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike, I Am Number Four) and Gabriella Wilde (who played the Amy Irving role in last fall’s Carrie remake – virtually the same character as this… hairstyle, wardrobe, mannerisms, and all) acquit themselves quite well.

I’m not one for movies depicting young love – all those dappled-sunlit montages of two beautiful people doing beautiful people fun things like swimming in lakes, setting off fireworks, riding around in art-designed dilapidated pick-up trucks, or going to rock concerts in the rain.

However, Pettyfer particularly rises above these cliches (if not always rising above his own vanity – you can tell the dude loves the way he looks). He brings a subtle quality of menace and obsession to his role. It is nicely disarming. You aren’t quite sure if Greenwood isn’t kinda sorta right to throw one Wile E. Coyote speed-trap after another in Pettyfer’s unyielding path to wooing/stealing his daughter away.

I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I should, and this one is worth catching at the dollar theatre or on TV, if for no other reason than seeing some well-trained actors traffic in some sudsy melodrama. And, blessedly, that sappy title song is nowhere to be found. Sorry Ms. Ross and Mr. Richie, but color me relieved.

Countdown: Magic Mike

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Let the countdown begin! Just 24 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

“Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.”

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

An instantaneous, good-hearted sense of community: The Package Tour with New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees, and BoyzIIMen

[Image by author]

Time plays such strange tricks with the mind. It feels like a week ago that I was in eighth grade hearing New Kids on the Block’s signature hit “Hangin’ Tough” for the first time. Or two days ago when BoyzIIMen’s “Motownphilly” rocketed across my car radio in college. Or yesterday when 98 Degrees (and an equally neophyte Christina Aguilera) contributed those requisite, catchy, and sometimes extraneous two bonus pop songs at the end of a mid-90s Disney animated musical, in this case Mulan.

Don’t even get me started on Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson’s more entertaining-than-it-had-any-right-to-be reality hit show Newlyweds…and, alas, we all know how that one turned out. They were doomed the moment Jessica feigned confusion over what “Chicken of the Sea” actually was. In her defense, it is a very odd and rather disgusting brand name if you think about it.

So last night The Package Tour with BoyzIIMen, 98 Degrees, and New Kids on the Block (now saddled with the unfortunately cumbersome, test-marketed acronym NKOTB) at the Palace of Auburn Hills was a surreal though vibrantly fun evening of music and wistful nostalgia.

BoyzIIMen [Image by author]

Neither these 40-something-year-old “boy band”-ers (wow, what a dumb genre name) nor their audience (myself included) are getting any younger. The singers still power gamely through the hits, even if the lyrics now make them (and us) wince a bit, and they move as if their knees and joints aren’t aching like heck. I found it difficult just to stand for three hours; I can’t imagine if I had been jumping from one fog-encased, hydraulic moving platform to the next.

Evening openers BoyzIIMen were the strongest vocally, singing many of their hits a cappella without one sour note, truly amazing in an arena the size of the Palace filled to the rafters with screaming fans.

Us with 98 Degrees [Image from VIP Nation]

98 Degrees were charming as well. We had the added benefit of attending a meet and greet with the group before the show. They were gracious and authentic and kind to all. I was suitably impressed by how “un-star-like” they all were. As when I saw Shania Twain in Las Vegas a few months back, sat on the front row, and bonded with now friends Mike G. and Linda and Randy K., the close proximity to celebrities created an instantaneous, good-hearted sense of community.

Us with “Super Fan” Katy from Cadillac
[Image by author]

We befriended a 98 Degrees/NKOTB super-fan Katy from Cadillac, Michigan who showed us the meet-and-greet ropes. Why do I share this? As a testament to the band’s generosity of spirit, when Katy approached the table, Jeff Timmons, without missing a beat, shook her hand and said, “Hi Katy! Great to see you again! How is your son doing?” as if they were just catching up after running into each other in the produce aisle of their local grocery store.

And in performance, this audience connection carried over nicely. For about an hour, Timmons along with brothers Nick and Drew Lachey (a Dancing with the Stars champ) and sometime politician and Occupy Cincinnati activist Justin Jeffre (seriously, he was even arrested!) worked the crowd, winking at their latter day reality TV personae that have eclipsed their days as pop music icons.

NKOTB [Image by author]

The evening was efficiently produced with no delays between acts, so, when NKOTB took the stage promptly at 9 pm, the crowd was in a frenzy. Donnie Wahlberg seems to have taken his place as ringleader with all the dynamics we’ve seen in his acting (he’s actually better than brother Mark in my opinion) now on display in his musical efforts as well.

At times, it felt as if all the performers had watched Magic Mike a few too many times and had committed too much of Matthew McConaughey’s skeezy “hey ladies…” dialogue to memory. AND, minor quibble VIP Nation, but next time when folks sign up for the 98 Degrees “Meet and Greet” and you hand out the perfunctory gift bags, please have a few men’s t-shirts on hand. No matter how XXL the shirt, a woman’s tank top shirt is still a woman’s tank top shirt. And, no I’m not even using it when I do yard work.

As a sure sign that we were old and attending what was in essence an “oldies” concert, we left early. Not because we didn’t love the show. We did. But our feet were tired…and have you tried to get through that Palace traffic at the end of an evening?

Don’t be discouraged by the bait-and-switch marketing: Magic Mike

Description: Film poster; Source: Amazon [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: Amazon]

Like Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights before it, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike gives us a bleak portrait of how folks at a dead-end find escape (and cash) in grimy professions…accompanied by a disco soundtrack.

Channing Tatum takes the slick dance moves of his breakthrough Step Up and actually applies some real acting this time. His street smarts and desperation mix with a winning charm and wit in a great performance, equaled by that of pseudo love interest Cody Horn. She’s dynamite – one of the more believable romantic leads in film in a long time because first and foremost she is a friend.

Matthew McConaughey (spelling?) has finally found a sleazy role that fits his greasy, country-fried personality, and Matt Bomer and the other supporting players gleefully supply the more comic moments of the film. I suspect many may be disappointed by the bait-and-switch nature of the film’s marketing campaign, but I liked that fact that the film gives a pretty unflinching look at the sad, unremarkable, and heartbreaking lives of these beautiful losers.