“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.

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.

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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.

The Movies We Loved in 2014 — By Friends of the Blog

Proud to be in such esteemed company! Thanks, Gabriel, for including me! Here’s my contribution – be sure to read the complete blog post at Gabriel’s site …

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Nightcrawler
by Roy Sexton

The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.

Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.

As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.

Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.

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Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his books, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats theatre company.

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Read the original post …

Gabriel Diego Valdez

We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.

My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and…

View original post 4,860 more words

More Dickens than Kubrick: Interstellar

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 went into Interstellar with a bad attitude. I wanted to hate this movie. It’s three hours long. It stars swaggering/ posturing Matthew McConaughey, an actor I find as irritating as sand in my shoe. It has Anne Hathaway who is not that far behind McConaughey in the line of annoyingly self-satisfied celebs. It is directed by Christopher Nolan, who seems to have gotten more ponderous and more pretentious with every successive flick. Hell, it has a score by Hans Zimmer, who has gotten so lazy that most of his latter-day scores seem like they were composed on auto-pilot by a drum machine.

I’m an ass. And I was wrong.

I loved this movie.

It is, in fact, too long by half and, yes, is a bit ponderous and pretentious. All of the aforementioned annoying attributes of cast and crew are apparent. And the score does sound like a drum machine having a nervous breakdown … a really LOUD! nervous breakdown. Yet, it all works so beautifully.

The film has been billed as Nolan’s version of 2001, but I found the movie more Charles Dickens than Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative involves slow-moving, quietly-haunting, ethereally-staged space travel with the future of all mankind at stake, but at its heart, this is a film about the devastating impact of time’s passage and of well-intentioned decisions that unfortunately drive wedges between family/friends. There are moments, especially toward the film’s gonzo, fever-dream denouement that I thought I was watching A Christmas Carol … if staged by Twyla Tharp. That’s a compliment, by the way.

The older I get, the more I realize what an underrated gem Dickens’ holiday novella is. “Underrated” may seem like a strange word choice for something so widely known, but A Christmas Carol is often viewed as a lesser literary work or as a holiday novelty or as both. What Dickens captures so elegantly/efficiently, though, is that, with each year, we add layers and layers of memories – good and bad – and all the regrets and heartaches that accompany … like an ever-expanding box of ornaments gathering dust in the attic.

This is the psychological murk in which Interstellar traffics. Space exploration is but a metaphor for our unyielding pursuit of some brief, crystalline moments of unadulterated joy amidst all the sadness life brings.

The film is set in a disturbingly near-time future, a Ray Bradbury-esque Earth, where all of our selfish consumption has reduced our planet to a cruel, barren dustbowl in which the only remaining growable crop is corn. The world no longer needs engineers or scientists or professors – rather just people willing to grow corn with the aid of mindless robotic farm implements.

America appears to have been reduced to one continuous farm town (blink and you’ll miss the New York Yankees, now quite literally a farm team, playing ball in a sad little cornfield), and, periodically, the citizens have to set fire to the latest round of blight-infested crops. The only upshot I could see is that these circumstances finally force everyone to go vegetarian/vegan. 🙂

Nolan’s great gift is how he uses fantasy as metaphor for present-day turmoil. (See Dark Knight Rises for his take on the 1% ruling class). Interstellar is no exception. His muted gray yet epically widescreen cinematography creates some of the most indelible images in recent memory of our ongoing environmental crisis.

In the midst of this ecological upheaval, and in one of the film’s seemingly more nonsensical moments, McConaughey’s “Cooper” and his beloved daughter “Murphy” stumble across a hidden cadre of space scientists who decide that Cooper (yes, he just happens to be a former astronaut himself!) is our only hope to pilot the last remaining rocket ship off the planet, in order to find a new (less angrily dusty) world for us to inhabit.

If this movie weren’t so purposeful, so moving, and so well-acted, I would have lost it right there and been forcibly carried out of the theatre, racked by a convulsive giggle fit.

McConaughey and Hathaway are surrounded by top-shelf talent like Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine, all exhibiting gravitas and heartache in poignantly compelling spades. There’s a surprise cameo that I won’t spoil, but said unnamed actor (whom I typically find a bit boring) does a marvelous job in a pivotal role as an appropriately dubious explorer.

Heck, we even get some subtly funny voice work from delightful Bill Irwin as robot companion TARS, a sleek automaton who bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant, walking/talking deck of cards. Humor? In a Nolan film? Crazy talk! That alone should tell you this is a (sort of) different direction for him. Sort of.

There is a lot of gobbledy-gook pseudo-science talk: singularity! relativity! event horizon! There are a lot of epically dreamy long-shots of planets and cosmic gases and spinning spacecraft. There are a lot of lines that are trying so hard for deep poetic thought that they sounds stilted and just darn goofy. And, yes, there is a lot of furrowed-brow, sweaty-faced ACTING!

Eventually, though, our intrepid spacefaring crew do end up on other worlds, most of which are as deadly as the one they left behind. I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises (or the movie’s more head-scratchingly kooky moments), but, in essence, humanity prevails … quite literally. The film, in total, is an argument for our innate goodness, even when we aren’t sure of it ourselves. Whether today or tomorrow, we will help each other and we will care.

This is a more hopeful message then we typically see in a Christopher Nolan production, and the optimism suits him.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Debauchery ‘R’ Us: The Wolf of Wall Street

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]

Early in the bacchanalia that is Martin Scorsese’s latest The Wolf of Wall Street, titular “wolf” Jordan Belfort – portrayed with a Jack Nicholson-esque level of pop-eyed cuckoo by exceptional Leonardo DiCaprio – describes his unique work philosophy thusly: “Give ’em to me young, hungry, and stupid.”

And that about sums up the movie.

There’s been a lot of haughty debate-team hyperbole about how the film is a morality tale for our ages or how it is a disgustingly self-indulgent, overly long mess.

Yup. It’s both.

But the pundits are missing a crucial point. This film is neither celebration nor indictment of the participants in a mid-90s scheme to debunk both rich and poor via the proliferation of something called “penny stocks.” Rather, the film is a sly comic valentine to society’s scruffy, scrappy sweathogs who subsist on the scraps handed down by a byzantine capitalist superstructure … and who one day figure out how to out-crook the crooks running the show.

I enjoyed myself greatly, but I found myself looking at my watch … a lot. It wasn’t that the movie is boring. Not. At. All. But it’s just so much of the same, and the narrative heft doesn’t really necessitate a three hour running time. (For a similar and more expeditiously told version of a comparable tale, check out Kevin Spacey’s criminally underrated Casino Jack about skeezy scammer Jack Abramoff.)

The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the true-life memoir of Belfort, is a hoot, but it’s a hard-to-recommend one. Given the prodigious nudity, drug-use, profanity, and all-out reprehensible behavior on display, I feel quite saucy exclaiming with arms outstretched, “Go see this slice of AMERICANA!” But you kinda should.

We know this crap goes on every day of every month of every year, yet we barely connect with the implications of such sordid behavior other than a few minutes reading about such an incident in a Yahoo! headline or catching a glimpse of Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow expressing their liberal ironic disgust.

Scorsese is a manic delight as a director, and I always enjoy his overstuffed, hyperkinetic fantasias. From Mean Streets to Goodfellas to Gangs of New York to The Departed, he humanizes the gum on our collective societal shoes – those people who live in the economic undercurrent, the feisty few who flip a middle finger to ethics and morals and all things holy in their primal urge to survive … and thrive.

DiCaprio is spectacular in the title role – completely reprehensible and absolutely lovable all at once. Scorsese surrounds his muse with a marvelous supporting cast: a wonderful Jonah Hill whose epic overbite and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses do nine-tenths of his acting work as DiCaprio’s partner in materialism/drug use/bamboozling; a perfectly subdued but completely compelling Rob Reiner as DiCaprio’s complicit/fretting papa; Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin as a charmingly oily Swiss banker; and exasperated, clever, relentless everyman Kyle Chandler as the g-man who finally brings Belfort to earth again.

Surprisingly, my favorite of this sparkling cast was Matthew McConaughey (really, I just don’t like the dude). He positively runs off with the film in a totally hysterical scene early on where he describes the Faustian bargain the young DiCaprio is about to strike, entering the raucous world of stock brokering on Wall Street. McConaughey sets the loopy tone that the following three hours will follow with a gonzo Bobby McFerrin-style vocal exercise shared over a two-martini lunch with his young charge. Mad Men meets Daffy Duck. I have no other way to describe this. It has to be seen.

This is a naughty movie for those naughty enough to wink at a naughty world that is pathetically preoccupied with cash and sex and stuff. So, go be naughty.

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

“Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips

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]

This is the real “American hustle.”

Two movies I saw today depict – in soul-searching, soul-scarring detail – how hard we all have to strive each and every day just to survive … each and every day.

At surface, you couldn’t find two men more different than Dallas Buyers Club‘s Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) or Captain Phillips‘ Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).

Woodroof is a Texan man-whore homophobe, lazing through his day-job as an electrician, looking for any quick gambling buck he can find and seeking solace in the short-term highs of grungy drug use and even grungier sex. Phillips on the other hand is a solid New England family man with  bedrock work ethic, patriarchal worry for his family’s long-term happiness, and a noble wariness toward his high-stakes job as a freighter ship captain in troubled waters.

However, both men are united – across decades and locations – through a shared quick-wittedness, scruffy bravery, and nerve-wracking battle with pirates … in Phillips’ case, quite literal pirates from Somalia and, in Woodroof’s case, big pharma and the FDA and the medical community writ large.

During the quietly effective opening scenes of Captain Phillips, establishing Phillips’ workaday love of his family, he tells his wife (the always excellent Catherine Keener) of his anxiety over what kind of future their children will have: “Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” And this could be a theme for both films.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof’s alpha male world of swagger is turned upside down when he receives an HIV+ diagnosis. This is the kind of man who think rodeos are a hoot, women are party favors, and Rock Hudson is a “big fairy.” (Remember, this is the go-go Reaganomic 80s.)

However, in the land of “movie logic,” this huckster cowboy is also a resourceful and opportunistic researcher (who knew McConaughey could make library microfiche use look so compelling?) with a burgeoning heart of gold and a begrudging respect for his gay fellow man, spurred by all the money to be made trafficking unapproved drugs across the Mexican border.

Jennifer Garner, doing that edgy earnestness that all actors of her generation gleaned from the “Julia Roberts School of Acting,” is okay as one of Woodroof’s doctors, though neither Garner nor her underwritten role ever really go anywhere.

McConaughey is quite capable in a tricky part (yet one might argue that his extreme weight loss for the film does all the work), but the movie doesn’t really start clicking until the arrival of Jared Leto’s “Rayon.” Leto does a yeoman’s job keeping his portrayal from sliding off the rails into cliche – the mutable, transgender pixie who keeps everyone safe and grounded with her Southern charm and earth mother care-taking.

Leto is a person first, whip-smart and sad but never maudlin and not once the demeaned comic relief. The dynamic between McConaughey and Leto is fun to watch and (spoiler alert!) only gets mawkish around Leto’s inevitable Camille-like death. This is not Leto’s fault – bad writing, clunky direction by Jean-Marc Vallee, and TV-movie sloppy editing mar the film’s denouement.

At one level, Dallas Buyers Club – like precursors Philadelphia or Longtime Companion – is the prototypical “HIV film,” leveraging the disease as a metaphor for the intolerance of a society that ostracizes the sick, the broken, and the unique. However, on another (and arguably fresher) level, the film is an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry’s tendency to pursue big money for treating symptoms over curing disease and of the doctors and government agencies that knowingly or unknowingly are complicit in throwing the infirm under the crushing wheels of “medical progress.”

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]

Captain Phillips, the much stronger film, depicts a world popping at the seams from the economic pressures placed on us all. Smartly, director Paul Greengrass, of United 93 and Matt Damon’s Bourne movies, opens the film with parallel sequences: Hanks’ Phillips gets “ready for work” as he heads to the airport with his wife and then meets with his crew to review their trip, and these scenes are juxtaposed alongside those of the Somali pirates preparing for their day of pillaging, debating among themselves their best course of action.

Greengrass seems to suggest – with lack of editorializing – a “job is a job” and circumstances have dictated very different lives for these souls. The tension comes from the audience’s knowledge that these different economic forces are bound to collide shortly.

The film moves efficiently toward the central conflict of “haves and have-nots” as the Somalis board Phillips’ ship in short order, and an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse ensues as Phillips does his darndest to stay in control, protect his crew, and contain the situation. The pirates, led by the justifiably praised Barkhad Abdi and the underrated Faysal Ahmed, are a frantic force, smashing and grabbing in a world that they perceive with vicious longing as rich with entitlement.

At one point, Abdi reflects on all he will be able to do when he is one day “in America.” The moment is simultaneously poignant and frightening in his perception of the joys of materialism and the horror he believes he has to inflict to achieve it.

Greengrass is the consummate director (where is his Oscar, dammit?) who makes MOVIES! in the truest sense of cinematic story-telling, and Captain Phillips is his best work to date (which is pretty remarkable, given how good his films always are). His latest effort does not bore for a second, ratcheting the stakes with a relentless clockwork solemnity.

The tension is real and it is shared – between captain, crew, antagonists, would-be rescuers, and audience – not because of some lethargic “based on real events” filmmaking, but through the old school charms of well-developed characters,  crackerjack pace, precise edits, compelling score, intelligent script, and exceptional acting.

This is the strongest performance of Hanks’ storied career (which is somewhat bittersweet as he isn’t nominated this year for an Oscar, though McConaughey is and will likely win). If you aren’t yelping in fear and heartbreak and hope in his climactic moments, then you must have been watching a different movie than I. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you,” he exclaims to the heavens and one presumes to his family … and we as audience members, separated by the fourth wall of film, must say the same to Phillips in return. His emotional release when the ordeal finally ends is as cathartic as anything I’ve seen in years.

Captain Phillips is a film for the ages; Dallas Buyers Club is a film for the moment. Both are worthwhile, but, combined, they unforgettably depict the harrowing lengths to which any of us will go to survive.

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

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[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.