“How far I’ll go.” The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Disney’s Moana

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I always cringe a bit when I hear the phrase “coming of age” applied to a cinematic or literary or televised narrative. It bespeaks an unwarranted nostalgia for an awkward, nauseating, hormonal epoch which we all share and which we all should forget. Forever. Thoroughly. 

(And people who gleefully remain stuck in their high school years, glorying in the minutiae of their pubescent lives can’t be trusted. Not one whit. They just ain’t right.)

I wonder if what really bothers me about the term is that the “coming of age” concept – let’s charitably upgrade it to the term “personal evolution,” shall we? – should not be limited to one’s teenage decade, when one generally has the perspective of a fruit-fly.  

Do any of us at any age really ever overcome the free-floating, rampant anxiety of peer pressure, isolation, and capriciousness caused by our fellow man on this Big Blue Marble? Nope.

Blessedly, two current films – one a perky animated musical fairy tale and the other … well … not – turn this tired formula on its head, giving us a pair of parables that stealthily inspire while tweaking the status quo.

The Edge of Seventeen, named after the Stevie Nicks’ ditty, which inexplicably never actually appears in the film, stars True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a breath of fresh toxin for whom all the mores and conventions of American youth, public education, and “being cool” are utterly confounding. Unlike spiritual forebears Juno or Mean Girls or Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, doesn’t hold teen life in contempt, as some abstract planet populated by satirical (though accurate) stereotypes. Rather, the film uses the petty disappointments and soul-sucking betrayals of high school days as metaphor and lens for our common, fallible humanity.

Nadine, whose beloved father has passed away, navigates (really poorly) a minefield of family and friends, including a sympathetically caustic Kyra Sedgwick as the mother hanging on by a thread, Glee‘s Blake Jenner in a sweetly understated turn as the golden boy brother whose “head is much too large” for his body, and a wry Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s bored/boring history teacher in another version of his now-trademark folksy sot-with-a-heart-mentor persona (see: Hunger Games‘ Haymitch Abernathy). Newcomer Hayden Szeto steals every scene as Nadine’s classmate and swooning suitor, his open-heart and sharp-wit sympatico with Nadine’s mind – the rare teenage cinematic male not depicted as some skeezy perv.

But the movie is Steinfeld’s. Capitalizing on the Oscar-nominated authenticity she exemplified in her film debut (True Grit) but jettisoning any Coen Bros-dictated pretense and quirk, Steinfeld gives us as pure a depiction of youth-in-revolt as any we may have seen on film (save James Dean in East of Eden – that one’s untouchable). And what makes it even better? Her performance is damn funny. Angst is awkward, and we all can relate to it, but, if you deftly mine the comic gems from emotional pratfalls, you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.

We are all just one bad day away from feeling like we are in adolescent hell all over again, and Edge of Seventeen, built so beautifully around Steinfeld’s layered, affecting portrayal of a young person continually at odds with the ever-shifting rules of a game she doesn’t much want to play, is a revelation.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney’s Moana is the sunny, show-tune-spewing, computer-generated yin to Edge of Seventeen’s yang. Based loosely on Polynesian mythology, the 56th animated offering from the Mouse House, relates the hero’s quest of a teenage girl (Moana, voiced with luminous empathy by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as she seeks the aid of a mischievous but debilitated demigod (Maui, portrayed with smarmy sparkle by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to prevent the destruction of her island home.

Moana isn’t a princess, a point made most emphatically throughout the film; she is the island chief’s daughter. Moana’s respected place as a leader in the hierarchy of rule is never in question, nor is she smitten with some princely suitor. (Of course, it’s a Disney flick so she has a couple of adorably merchandisable sidekicks – in this instance, a pig and a rooster.) The narrative tension is built on her transition to authority, on her solving the impending calamity that will destroy her people, and on her asserting her independence from the cultural norms. Bully for Disney.

I wonder if directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) had in the back of their minds that the timing of this film, coupled with the potential election of America’s first female president, would have offered an impactful statement to young audience members about celebrating the power of equality (gender, race, ethnicity) and leadership therein.  Of course, now there is some unintended irony in the timing, but the message is more essential than ever.

The songs are all written by the inescapable Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) along with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. This may be blasphemy in theatre circles, but, as talented as Miranda may be, his compositions (to my ear) suffer from a repetitiveness of style and form, bordering on monotony. Lucky for Moana, this tendency actually suits animated film (better than the stage), where familiarity speeds action and emotional connection.

That said, the music is all perfectly fine, with Moana’s anthemic “How Far I’ll Go” serving in glowing fashion as this film’s “Part of Your World” or “Belle,” sans any lingering strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” passivity or longing.

Maui’s signature ditty “You’re Welcome” is catchy but underwritten. However, as delivered by consummate showman Johnson (why hasn’t he been cast in a full-blown, live musical yet?!), the number becomes a transcendent, careening take-down of male id and superego.

The standout song for this viewer, though, is “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement as a mountainous crab (yep.), encrusted in gems and precious metals. Imagine if The Jungle Book‘s “Trust In Me” had been written and performed by David Bowie … on a deeply troubling acid trip. In fact, that entire sequence is one of the film’s trippiest (and there are a lot of surreal moments throughout), employing black light, disco ball flourishes, and a Busby Berkeley-choreographed cascade of tropical fish. Is an animator’s penchant toward psychedelia evidence of great inventive genius or of lazy time-filling? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to watch anything these days – movies, TV, cat videos on YouTube – without politicizing the moment. I think many of us, right now, share a palpable fear for the future of diversity in this nation, a nation that’s fundamental core should be tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. That said, and at the risk of overstating my case, movies like Edge of Seventeen and Moana give me hope. We can be good. We can be better than we are. We can celebrate the oddballs, the misfits, and those among us yearning to breathe free. Let’s keep that up, ok?

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moana-pigReel 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.

Not nearly enough Band-Aids and aspirin: Bad Santa 2

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s a rare and dubious accomplishment when a film is so bad it makes you want to swear off movies forever. There is Showgirls bad. There is Battlefield Earth bad. There is even English Patient bad. (Sorry, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) But there is a whole new level of bad now: Bad Santa 2 bad.

Bad Santa 2 is truly atrocious. I am as embarrassed to admit I watched it, with my parents no less, as I am embarrassed for the people involved in putting this piece of crap together. I usually try to find some redeeming value in a film or to try to find some scientific or artistic rationale for why peculiar choices were made in cinema. I have neither the ability nor the desire in this instance.

The original film was like a tobacco and rotgut flavored soufflé. It struck a tricky balance between exposing the fraudulent and demoralizing self-righteousness that commercialized Christmas in America has become with the desire to redeem and celebrate those most marginalized by our rampant and shallow pursuit of jolly holidays.

I used to love this most wonderful time of the year because it was a fair excuse to put blinders on, wallow in excess, and mainline jangly music and stop-motion mid century television specials as a wholesome narcotic to forget how screwed up everything is. The first Bad Santa, benefiting from the deftly sardonic touch of Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), blew the doors off that hollow fantasy, but rebuilt a new, more relatable holiday out of the detritus, much like the pathetic advent calendar full of Band-Aids and aspirin Billy Bob Thorton presents to his young charge in the film. In its post 9/11 moment, the first film, embracing its own cynicism in a strong-armed, warm-hearted, wide-eyed bear hug, was a tonic for the creeping cynicism that afflicted us all.

The sequel? Not so much. Director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls – dude, you are capable of so much more – what gives?) jettisons any appreciation for humanity, and gives us a sour sludge of a holiday fruitcake. Narrative beats from the first flick are robotically replicated wholesale, sans emotional context, and the whole enterprise seems to be engineered as a base, puerile, sophomoric gross out cash grab (yeah, those adjectives are pretty redundant, which shows how much I reviled this). The sequel seems reverse-engineered to make you completely loathe anything you might have ever liked in the original film.

The plot is a thin whisper, involving another heist, this time a children’s charity substituting for a shopping mall. Any characters from the first installment you loved or held in any affection – Cloris Leachman, Lauren Graham – are not only missing but vilified when mentioned in the second film.  And the two new characters introduced – the titular antihero’s mother (Kathy Bates) and a new “love” interest (Christina Hendricks) – are painted with such a reprehensibly broad brush, treated so heinously,  and framed with the ugliest of stereotypes, that they might as well be leftover political propaganda from our 2016 presidential election. To say the film is misogynist would be an understatement. To say the flick is utterly misanthropic would be right on the money.

Furthermore, it is an even rarer film that makes me dislike an actor so much that I will likely skip their future output. Congratulations, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Christina Hendricks – you have pretty much fallen into the category of that obnoxious, foul-mouthed, drunken relative everybody avoids at the holiday dinner table.  I will give you three “thespians” this one thing: your commitment to ugliness and to contempt is astounding and thorough. Congratulations.

I really hated this movie. Bah humbug.

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[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.

“Life is about putting it out there … and then swatting it away.” Sisters (2015)

Sisters_movie_poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s latest movie yukfest Sisters is more of a yuckfest. Ever since the seismic arrival of Kristin Wiig’s Bridesmaids, Hollywood has been smitten with this arguably unremarkable, though infinitely profitable, thesis: “Hey, women can be raunchy too!”

Yup, anybody can act like an 8th grader, regardless of one’s gender. The problem is that notion, in and of itself, is just not terribly interesting and, for anyone over 40 in the audience, can just seem kinda sad.

People forget that Bridesmaids and subsequent films like Anna Kendrick’s Pitch Perfect (the first one), Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, or Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck embraced debauchery with an anarchist’s glee and a feminist’s humanism. These films suggest that the great equalizer – across any number of markers: race, age, socioeconomics, faith, ethnicity, and, yes, gender – is our fundamentally base nature alongside our desire and ability to rise from the muck occasionally and do something kind or profound or, well, witty. You can poop in a sink, but you better make it matter.

Tina Fey’s Mean Girls was an early blueprint for these flicks, a sharp-edged, warm-hearted comic bottle rocket of a film in which gender meant everything and nothing, depicting the killing fields of the high school cafeteria where reductive reasoning and shallow judgment form the principle power currency. It’s a perfect film because it is a) gut-bustingly funny and b) discomfortingly trenchant.

Unfortunately, Sisters is only intermittently both, and it never fully gels. It has a lazy feel about it, as if old pals Fey and Poehler watched Risky Business and Sixteen Candles over a box of wine and thought it would be a lark to mount a Gen X mash-up tribute with middle-aged burnouts in the central roles.

As ideas go, that’s not the worst (nor freshest) high concept to come down the pike (see Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), but it sure as heck needed more work before hitting cinemas this past weekend, aspiring as Sisters did to serve as Force Awakens’ counter-programming.

Fey and Poehler play against type as the titular siblings, with Fey as a “brassy” (her words) and hard-partying beautician/single mom and Poehler as a straight-arrow and newly divorced nurse/animal rescuer. Fey exclaims at one point, “Life is all about putting it out there,” to which Poehler mutters, “And then swatting it away.”

The Poehler/Fey dynamic has always been natural and warm if dangerously “in-jokey” – and that is true here as well. They have some sparkling moments, notably as they learn that their parents (a wry and believable Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) have sold the family home and moved to a pastel-hued, swingin’ yuppie condo complex without any warning to either daughter. With the kind of cracked passive aggressive logic that only occurs in movies like this, Fey and Poehler, unbeknownst to their folks, decide to have one last raging blow-out party (with all their former high school cronies) in the old homestead two days before its sale closes.

So, of course, the house gets completely destroyed in a simplistically escalating Rube Goldberg series of party hijinks. The kind of absurd crap that. does. not. happen. in. real. life. Has anyone actually ever witnessed a washing machine fill an entire home and its surrounding yard with copious bubbles because someone poured a whole bottle of detergent in the drum? No.

A rogues’ gallery of SNL and Comedy Central alums puts in appearances, to varying degrees of success. Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch, and Chris Parnell all suffer from underwritten roles with lame jokes and even worse ad libs. Bobby Moynihan is just plum obnoxiously unfunny as a past-his-prime class clown. The character is supposed to be moronic, but in Moynihan’s hands he is teeth-gratingly so.

Maya Rudolph has a Teflon-like ability to rise above (and rescue) just about any material, and she soars as a suburban doyenne who at first glance seems to be an assured Queen Bee bully but whose inner life is more longstanding adolescent alienation than smug superiority. John Cena continues to surprise with comedic home-runs, after this summer’s Trainwreck, as a stoically cerebral drug dealer with a soft spot for Dirty Dancing. John Leguizamo shows up as a skeezy former high school boyfriend of Fey’s, and, while he is always a welcome presence, his talents seem wasted here. Mad TV‘s Ike Barinholtz gives the movie its sweetness as a bemused potential beau smitten with Poehler’s quirky, self-conscious charms.

The film stumbles toward a resolution that is as forced as it is predictable. Fey’s character has a daughter (a painfully mincing and whiny performance from Madison Davenport) who hates her mother’s arrested development and is forced to couch surf from friend’s house to friend’s house since Fey can’t manage to keep a roof over their heads. The inevitable confrontation of mother and daughter and sister and parents is utterly contrived, borrowing equal bits from an episode of Lassie, Animal House, and The Family Stone.

Ultimately, Poehler fares best in the film, bringing poignant bite and rag doll charm to her role. It’s a shame that she and Fey (with director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell) couldn’t have worked out a better movie to feature Poehler’s character, focusing less on the shock humor and the messily filmed bacchanalia and more on the tricky web of love and fear shared between siblings, sisters trapped by the hollow promises of high school juvenilia – two emotionally stunted Gen X Americans for whom those scruffy, mixed-up four years of public education are the alpha and omega of intellectual and social development.

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.