“You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” 20th Century Women

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” – Dorothea (Annette Bening)

Given the historic events of this weekend, notably the (International) Women’s March, seeing the acclaimed new semi-autobiographical film by director Mike Mills (Beginners) seemed like an inspired, appropriate, and perhaps too-on-the-nose choice, so view it we did.

The film is really good – not so sure it’s great – but, with its marvelous cast, humane and conscientiously inclusive perspective, and immersive approach that impressively turns back the viewer’s clock to 1979, 20th Century Women is worth your attention.

Inspired by his gratitude for his own mother and sisters, Mills, who calls the film a “love letter to the women who raised him,” paints a fictionalized portrait of his own unconventional upbringing that is warm and nostalgic, critical and illusory.

Imagine Norman Rockwell spending his formative years in counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.

In Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (a remarkable and raw Annette Bening), abandoned by her husband, is raising son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann showing nary a sign of “child star” schmaltz) in a ramshackle Victorian with as much character and in as much disrepair as its inhabitants. Perhaps to make ends meet or, more likely, in an Auntie Mame-like gesture of keeping life as one never-ending banquet, Dorothea has rented rooms to a cast of characters, including potter and auto mechanic (?) William (Billy Crudup in all his shaggy, boho charm) and photographer and Talking Heads-aficionado Abbie (a luminous and heartbreaking Greta Gerwig). Rounding out this band of lovable misfits, Elle Fanning (Maleficent) plays Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend whose acts of teen rebellion are lifted straight from a “Me Decade” ABC Afterschool Special; yet, in Fanning’s capable hands, Julie’s defiance is hauntingly and, at times, comically authentic.

(NOTE: Crudup and Gerwig are on a roll, recently turning in nuanced performances as Theodore H. White and Nancy Tuckerman, respectively, in the exceptional Jackie.)

Films in 20th Century Women‘s milieu – the quirky, uber-liberal, “hippie Addams Family” residing in a sprawling but dilapidated  homestead, arguing unrealistically about existential philosophy, and experimenting with alternative realities – too often devolve into the kind of twee “coming-of-age” self-indulgence that makes my skin crawl. Yes, Grand Budapest Hoteldirector Wes Anderson, I’m looking at you.  Blessedly, 20th Century Women is no Royal Tennenbaums.

Mills contextualizes his film with chronology-bending narrative (the voice-overs that relate characters’ backstories and future activities are a clever and sobering touch), rich period details (including iconic photography, music, decor, and video of the era – the characters’ varied reactions to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence speech” are particularly telling), and evocative time-lapse cinematography (including an overt reference to landmark-documentary-of-the-era Koyaanisqatsi with its still-stinging indictment of the ephemeral foolishness of mankind). If you survived the 70s, this film will speak to you on many levels.

As for the film’s feminism, it is as sly an overview as I’ve ever seen on film – as elusive and confounding as the topic can be in a United States of America that glorifies our free-will and independence while simultaneously fearing our free-will and independence. Mills’ script, aided and abetted by delicate performances all around, deftly weaves in and out of the core principle that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Bening’s Dorothea (born in 1924) is regularly labeled throughout the film has having “come from the Depression,” she herself embracing that tag, obsessed with big band music and carefully tracking her stocks in the newspaper every day. Yet, she is also attracted to the infinite possibility of this messy new world before her, approaching its ugly rock-n-roll and libertine mores with alternating fascination and revulsion. The tension Dorothea suffers as a free-agent wanting to explore this evolving society versus her role as a parent fearing its potential dark repercussions is palpable. Regarding her son, Dorothea laments to Abbie at one point, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”

When Abbie introduces Dorothea’s son Jamie to the books Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan and Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian, he chooses to read a particular passage to his mother, one that highlights the marginalization and invisibility unfairly cast upon an individual due to age and gender. It is a tender moment wherein he is using another’s text to evoke understanding. Dorothea’s visceral response is even more revealing when she dismisses the gesture outright, indicating that her very personal experience on this planet cannot be reduced or codified into a few well-meaning “modern” paragraphs. Bening is understated yet devastating in this scene, a quiet storm moment exemplifying beautifully the delicate balancing act in 20th Century Women: reclaiming the voice of the individual … which is as feminist an act as one can imagine.

“She smokes Salems because they’re healthy.” – Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)

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[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.

“What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” The Nice Guys

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Nice Guys. Imagine Boogie Nights as a frothy Abbott and Costello cinematic confection with a healthy sprinkling of The Rockford Files on top. Served with a side of Starsky & Hutch … or Bugs & Daffy.

Set in a smoggy/syphilitic 1977 Los Angeles, director/screenwriter Shane Black’s comic noir caper flick revels in just how damned ugly the Me Decade was. Film has a tendency to romanticize an era or to toy cutely with a period’s quirky extremes. Black time travels without commentary. The characters in this film aren’t living in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are simply living. Or attempting to live.

Beyond the flawless set decoration and precise costume design, Black is aided and abetted by the sparks that fly when you throw the unlikeliest of co-stars together: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Glowering gravitas meets wicked whimsy.

That said, the awkwardly delicious alchemy these two titans demonstrated on the talk show circuit promoting the film isn’t as evident onscreen as one might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe ends up garnering more laughs because he is always so. darn. grounded.  He’s funny simply because he’s not trying to be. Gosling indulges cartoonish impulses a few too many times, not trusting the comedy of situational contrast to do the heavy lifting. (Gosling has yet to outgrow the “isn’t it just a riot to see a handsome adult man let loose an ear-piercing community theatre shriek when he’s scared?” tic. Be careful, Ryan, for that way rests Johnny Depp’s sputtering career.)

Regardless, Crowe and Gosling are pretty freaking adorable together, and the whole enterprise plays like a pilot episode of a vintage TV-series that never got picked up. The plot is, well, kind of a meandering mess … just like a grainy 1970s TV crime drama. I kept waiting for Jaclyn Smith or Gavin MacLeod  to show up as a “very special guest star.” (We do get a Lynda Carter shout out, though.) There are double- and triple-crosses aplenty as a porn actress (literally) crashes through a family’s living room, and her death starts a spiraling series of murders and other sordid shenanigans. Oh, and there is intrigue about the auto industry and catalytic converters and how in the world Kim Basinger’s character managed to have Botox before the procedure was ever invented.

Gosling, as private eye Holland March, and Crowe, as hired muscle Jackson Healy, initially find themselves at cross purposes (with Gosling’s pretty mug on the receiving end of Crowe’s brass knuckles). Grudgingly, the duo partner up as the violence mounts and their befuddlement grows. A big part of the movie’s charm is that Crowe and Gosling gleefully portray characters whose detective skills are as suspect as their collective intelligence, with Holland’s precocious daughter Holly March (portrayed by a captivating Angourie Rice) serving as a wise-beyond-her-years Nancy Drew to Gosling/Crowe’s dim bulb Hardy Boys.

Rice’s performance is dynamite with a sharp feminist subtext. As  the “grown up” characters find themselves derailed by patriarchy run amuck (porn, corrupt manufacturing, prostitution, the Oil Crisis … the 70s at its worst), Rice’s Holly is clear-eyed, vigilant, incisive, defying the limitations and stereotypes society seeks to impose. “Don’t say, ‘And stuff.’ Just say there are whores here,” Gosling intones at one point, attempting to correct his daughter’s grammar and missing the misogynist irony in his declaration. The look in Rice’s eye reveals that her character does not lose the irony.

Holly is always ten steps ahead of her father and, without Holly’s continual intervention, the titular Nice Guys would still be attempting to solve the film’s mystery well into the late 1980s. Or they’d be dead.

I’m hoping this feminist dynamic is intentional on Black’s part, a storyteller whose filmography (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through Iron Man 3) typically co-opts and reinvents B-movie formula, inverting its clichés as satiric critique of our baser instincts. I suspect this is by design, the film’s random (gratuitous?) naked porn stars notwithstanding.

With The Nice Guys, Black is trying to have his cake and eat it too. And he succeeds. Mostly. In a larger sense, Black is using the indulgent myopia of the 1970s as a reflection of how little we have changed as a nation. Basinger, plays a Department of Justice operative (in a bit of meta-casting, referencing her earlier – better – work in both L.A. Confidential  and 8 Mile) whose definition of “justice” is protecting the (then) fat cats in the Detroit auto industry. In the final act, she delivers the film’s punch line: “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” Even as today’s Detroit reinvents itself as a hipster paradise of urban farming, artisanal soaps, and craft cocktails, the lesson in Basinger’s remark remains prescient. An America that lives for itself and only itself will quickly find itself trapped in yesteryear’s polyester leisure suit.

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The Nice Guys PostersReel 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.

Shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety … X-Men: Days of Future Past

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]

How many Oscar winners and nominees does it take to put together a successful comic book adaptation? Apparently, a boatload.

The per capita of Academy Awards/nominations among the cast in X-Men: Days of Future Past is astounding: Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page, Michael Fassbender … not to mention talented folks like Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Evan Peters, and even director Bryan Singer who likely may find themselves on the receiving end of a nod or a statuette of their own one day.

As comic book adaptations go, this is about as good as they get, marrying a bit of the self-serious sermonizing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films with the gee whiz ironic whimsy of Jon Favreau’s and Shane Black’s respective Iron Man movies.

Having Singer return to the franchise (he rather unsuccessfully left to direct the bloated Superman Returns) is a stroke of much-needed genius. Other than last summer’s quietly effective The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, or the zippy promise of Matthew Vaughn’s retro romp X-Men: First Class (Vaughn gets a writing credit on Days of Future Past), the series had started to lose its way with over-marketed, under-delivering, freakishly-merchandised failures like X-Men: The Last Stand (yeah, I’m a Brett Ratner hater too) or clunkily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood who went from Tsotsi and Rendition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine … wtf?)

Singer, not unlike J.J. Abrams with his seamless Star Trek reboot, brings us quite literally full-circle, mining all that has come before and brilliantly weaving the series’ best and crispest elements into a crackerjack narrative. The plot is a riff on Chris Claremont’s/John Byrne’s iconic “Days of Future Past” comics storyline from the early 80s. It details Wolverine’s mind-bending time travel leap from a dark dystopian future full of death and pain and murky CGI to a swinging 1970s full of death and pain and cheesy poly blends, all to avert a handful of historical moments that spark the creation of mutant-murdering robot Sentinels whose nefarious deeds bring about that nasty future everyone wants to avoid.

Clear as mud? It doesn’t matter ’cause the ride is a helluva lot of fun. The film isn’t perfect. I found this grim future-shock framing set-up with its overbaked Holocaust allusions, its bleak visuals, and its mopey characters and their endlessly ominous pronouncements rather tedious. Halle Berry (so miscast from the very first film) as weather-manipulating Storm still seems like she’s phoning her performance in from some all-inclusive Caribbean resort where they supply her an infinite series of bad white/gray wigs. And as much as I love McKellen and his comrade-in-arms Patrick Stewart as Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier respectively, they both appear to be marking time and collecting a paycheck (albeit a pretty hefty one).

However – and this is so key – all that Charles Dickens-meets-Philip K. Dick dreariness is essential to the fun once our time traveling mutant everyman (that would be Jackman with a crackling world-weary wit as Wolverine) hits the Me Decade. Everything comes alive.

McAvoy is so good – funny and haunting – as the young Xavier who has let his life (and fabulous mansion/school) go to seed. Fassbender (young Magneto) as the chillingly beautiful Malcolm X yin to McAvoy’s Martin Luther King yang is sharp as ever. The film smartly returns to Singer’s core hook: that mutant persecution is a righteous summer-blockbuster allegory for all the -isms/-phobias that plague our society and for the tension that always has and always will exist between the philosophies of blending/integration and of fighting/individualism.

All the players in the 1970s portion of the film acquit themselves nicely, from Lawrence’s fiery person-on-a-mission Mystique to Hoult’s worried caretaker Beast to Dinklage’s well-intentioned, quite-misguided military industrialist Trask.

The film’s best moments come from Evan Peters’ much-too-brief screen-time as speedster Quicksilver. He rocks every single freaking moment he has, like nothing I’ve ever seen in one of these tentpole epics. He wrings comic gold out of one word (“whiplash”) and has an absolute Bugs Bunny-esque ball torturing a gaggle of Pentagon guards, all set to the strain’s of Jim Croce’s time-warped classic “Time in a Bottle.” Give this character/actor his own movie. Now.

The smartest move of all in this very smart film? There is no villain. There is no mustache-twirling, blow-up-the-world, video-game-destructo fool in a cape leading us to a predictably cacophonous denouement. Nope. Everyone is their own worst enemy in this movie. Just like life. Fear and hate, self-loathing and prejudice those are the villains in this film, a movie which serves as a shiny pop metaphor for how much harm we do ourselves through inaction and anxiety.

Most importantly, X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves us with hope. No situation and no person are ever beyond redemption, as Stewart tells McAvoy in one of the film’s trippiest and most heartfelt moments. Amen to that.

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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.

“Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” Muppets Most Wanted

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 suppose Jim Henson’s Muppets are dusty, musty artifacts of the hippie dippy 1970s in which I grew up. However, they are artifacts for which I have much affection… and charity.

The latest effort by Disney (the current owners of the Muppet franchise) to reboot this sentimental throwback for a modern era’s more cynical tastes is Muppets Most Wanted. Does it work as a film? Not totally. But it reinforced for me as a film-goer that my predispositions seem to color my enjoyment of whatever I view.

Whether how unfairly I may have judged American Hustle or how generously I may have assessed Monuments Men, Muppets Most Wanted demonstrated for me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I walk into a film with prejudice to like (or loathe) it will impact how I judge the work.

So, be warned, I definitely had a corny, soft spot in my Gen X heart for this one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a slight improvement over its predecessor, 2011’s The Muppets, which I found cloyingly self-reverential and too cute by half. I suppose part of the blame rests with that film’s screenwriter Jason Segel who likely had too much adoration for the source material to modernize it in any discernible way.

In contrast, Muppets Most Wanted, the second installment in the Muppets film franchise(or actually eighth if you include all the Muppets’ cinematic output from the 70s on) has a darker, more lightly satirical edge, even spoofing Ingmar Bergman at one point. It shamelessly riffs on what is arguably the best Muppet film The Great Muppet Caper, with its refreshingly acerbic vibe (but alas no Diana Rigg this time around).

In essence, this edition in the Muppet saga is a road picture wherein the Muppets tour Europe;  and, unbeknownst to the scruffy band, head frog Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious jewel thief named Constantine (whose only physical difference is a black mole on his visage). Constantine’s plot to use these hapless performers as a comic distraction for his heists is abetted by a fairly wry, though disappointingly tame Ricky Gervais.

The movie is predictably episodic, but the various European locales allow for some silly sight gags and typical Muppet hijinks across Germany, England, Spain, Ireland, and Russia. Human cast member Ty Burrell fares best as an Inspector Clouseau knock-off. Tina Fey, as a gulag matron who falsely imprisons Kermit, never quite rises above the Herculean task (for her) that a faux Russian accent requires.

What saves the film ultimately is a very catchy musical score written by Flight of the Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie (who won an Academy Award for the prior Muppet flick). I found myself grinning ear to ear whenever these dirty, scruffy puppets launched into song. In fact, I suspect the enterprise would have been markedly improved if sung throughout.

Also, as in any Muppet adventure, there is great joy for adults in the audience for the insane array of cameos – from Tom Hiddleston to Miranda Richardson, Christoph Waltz to Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci to Lady Gaga, Celine Dion to Chloe Grace Moretz.

I will always have warmth in my heart for The Muppets, a gang of felt creatures who helped teach my generation the importance of acceptance and kindness and understanding and tolerance. At one point, Fozzie and Walter exclaim of their best pal Kermit, “Only one frog who can bring justice and set things right.” For that reason alone, I hope Disney continues to crank out fair-to-middling films, spotlighting these characters who have never lost those precious Me Decade values from their over-stuffed DNA.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

 

In the nick of time: Argo

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]

When did Ben Affleck get interesting? Somewhere around his indie turn in the film Hollywoodland, about George Reeves, the ill-fated star of Golden Age TV’s Superman? Or was it when The Town demonstrated he could act and direct? Prior to that, I wasn’t sure he could do either, and colossal turkeys like Pearl Harbor or his fling with Jennifer Lopez didn’t help matters. Honestly, he always seemed like a posturing, stiff, preening phony to me.

But interesting he is now, and further evidence arrived this fall in the form of Argo, again directed by and starring Affleck.

Not sure why it took us over two months to finally see this film, but I’m glad we did…and in the perfect setting, actually. Ann Arbor’s State Theatre looks like it last saw a decorator (and possibly cleaning crew) around the era in which the film is set, so let me say, I felt totally immersed in a grungy, claustrophobic 1970s vibe.

Affleck, a fellow Gen X survivor, nails the Me Decade’s ugly, clunky, chunky style and twitchy social anxiety. I haven’t felt this nerve-wracked in a film about strangers in a strange land since Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek’s Missing over 30 years ago.

As most of you already know, the film, set during the Iran hostage crisis, tracks an ultimately successful CIA operation to smuggle out six Americans, purporting to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off.

I can vividly recall watching the release of the other 44 hostages on the TV in our upstairs bedroom when I was a kid. I can still see the grainy footage in my mind’s eye as I barely could comprehend what those people had gone through for nearly a year and a half.

Affleck must have been watching too because he expertly captures that free-floating anxiety of lives in peril, but balanced with a more postmodern understanding that Americans aren’t always the heroes in every story. A thoughtfully done prologue makes quite clear that we created much of the mess in the first place.

Affleck is great as the purposeful ringleader of the operation and is buoyed up by great character turns from Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the film’s sole comic relief, a couple of charmingly smarmy Hollywood types in on the game. Also, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, and Kyle Chandler deliver credible and at times compelling depictions of well-meaning folks caught up in the intrigue, be they CIA, Canadian diplomat, hostage, or state department.

My only quibbles are with a few of the actors portraying the six Americans in hiding – actors who just didn’t seem too darn convincing, despite their corduroy jackets, over-sized glasses, and unconditioned ’70s ‘dos. At some level, we as audience should worry about them through some self-identification, but the actors here seemed neither terribly distraught nor for that matter very likable…so I kinda forgot that I was supposed to care about them every now and again.

I will also say that I wasn’t too invested in Affleck’s conflicted-near-divorce-loving-father subplot. The kid was cute and his movie wife seemed nice, but it all just felt a bit too trite and conventional, in the midst of an otherwise propulsive and substantial film.

Regardless, the machine of the film and the story of the folks doing the rescuing carry the day. Even knowing how the story turns out, Affleck’s expert pacing makes this one a true nail-biter.  Yup, Ben, you are officially interesting…congratulations!