“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

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Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

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Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

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Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

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Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

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His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

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I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

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Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

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We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

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It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

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It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.

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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.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

A room of her own (#OscarsSoRight?): The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; The Darkest Hour

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I’m finally catching up with all of the Oscar-nominated films from year-end 2017. There are many culprits for this delay, chiefly among them the fact that, for some reason, many of these flicks don’t make it to the hinterlands of the Midwest until weeks after their initial release dates. My tendency toward over-commitment in daily life may also be to blame. C’est la vie. I’ve finally viewed The PostThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; and The Darkest Hour.

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I can safely say the Academy got so much so right this year. (I’m sure they were nervously awaiting my seal of approval. Not.)

Much (digital) ink has already been spilled on these movies, and I’m feeling a touch lazy so I won’t go into great detail about any of them. I will admit that personally only The Post and The Darkest Hour truly spoke to me, but I found all five to be thoughtfully composed with unique and arguably essential points-of-view and with timely themes, no doubt provoking many minds and healing many hearts in this rather contentious era.

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However, what resonated with me most about all five films was the strength and agency of their leading female characters. Rarely have we seen a class of Oscar-nominated films (I, Tonya included) where the bravery, wit, wisdom, and tenacity of women are so consistently celebrated and intelligently explored. Perhaps it’s the Trump effect, a cultural reclamation on behalf of Hillary, an anticipation of #MeToo and #TimesUp, or just a much-needed evolution (and growing up) in Hollywood. Who knows?

“Keep your finger out of my eye.” Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee to Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham in The Post

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In The Post, Meryl Streep gives one of her most nuanced portrayals in an already incredible catalogue of film work. Her Katherine Graham is faced with an unwinnable, dare I say, Sophie’s Choice: save her family’s paper The Washington Post from financial ruin through a tricky public offering or take on the President of the United States and risk imprisonment to honor the paper’s history of journalistic integrity by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Graham is “mansplained” up one side and down the other throughout the film. Streep’s portrayal is sensitive to the social and historical context that women were acculturated to lean on men and seek their counsel if and when they were “permitted” any decision-making authority at all. Ostensibly, Spielberg’s beautifully paced and utterly compelling movie is an allegory for our present times when we have a president who sees the Bill of Rights as less inalienable and more ignorable. However, I saw the film primarily as a powerful and subtle depiction of a woman (Graham) reclaiming her authority and driving our nation towards inexorable truth. It’s a performance for the ages, IMHO.

“You’re culpable because you joined the gang.” – Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes to her town minister in Three Billboards

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Speaking of performances for the ages, we then have Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand is possibly the most cathartic and relatable actor of her generation, capable of channeling the inherent tension and internal conflict of id, ego, and superego unlike any other. Mildred may be her finest acting work, alas in a film that doesn’t quite rise to her admittedly stratospheric level. Mildred’s daughter was raped and then immolated, and, in Mildred’s frustration that the local police have been incapable of solving the horrific crime, she finds the bluntest instrument at her disposal (the titular “three billboards”) to send a crystal clear message that wouldn’t be out of place on an N.W.A. record. McDormand is haunting and funny, heartbreaking and infuriating as a woman whose voice just can’t be stifled by her small-minded small-town. I think I would have enjoyed the piece better as a one-woman show as most of the supporting cast offer more superficial readings of their respective characters. Further, a mid-film narrative twist nearly co-opts the whole enterprise in favor of Woody Harrelson’s far-less-interesting Sheriff Willoughby. Sam Rockwell (Deputy Dixon) is both hammy and poignant as a foil for and target of McDormand’s rage, and, by the time the film runs its course, the idea of a Thelma and Louise-style “road picture” with the two actors isn’t without its potential charms.

“Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” – Lois Smith’s Sister Sarah Joan to Soairse Ronan’s Lady Bird in Lady Bird

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Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, is a loving and scruffy slice-of-life with luminous Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a thoughtful and maddening and deep-feeling teen whose conscious rejection of organized religion and of conventional thinking runs afoul of her own desires to be liked and accepted and to “fit in” with her Catholic school’s “popular kid” crowd. Any human who has ever wanted to be their authentic (weird) selves but ALSO get to sit at the best lunch table in school can totally relate (which means all of us). Ronan is brilliant in the role, as is Laurie Metcalf as her worried, worrying, worrisome mother Marion whose noble wishes to protect and to provide are as alienating as they are well-intentioned. The film is a delight, but gets bogged down mid-way with a conventional (if not completely appropriate) Mean Girls-esque subplot of Lady Bird rejecting her theatre nerd friends for the loose collection of pot-smoking athletes and gum-snapping rich kids who rule the school. The film is so interesting and so believable to that point that I found the predictability of that coming-of-age narrative a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, Ronan, Metcalf, and Gerwig give eloquent voices to the frustrations and fears of women navigating a rigged system where their respective needs and desires are often pitted in opposition to one another.

“Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.” – wall calendar in The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water, directed with fairy tale elan by Guillermo del Toro, is like a soft core E.T.-meets-The Red Shoe Diaries. A co-worker of mine said it was more like a naughty Edward Scissorhands. I will accept that friendly amendment to my cinematic comparison. Shape of Water had my favorite cast of any of these films. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, and Richard Jenkins are all exceptional in their own rights, let alone collected in one place, in service to a visionary fable of tolerance, compassion, and love. Yet, the film overall left me cold. Perhaps, I’m a prude, but the random bits of “sexy time” between Hawkins’ Eliza and Jones’ otherworldly “Amphibian Man” were disruptive to the gentle narrative at play. I also could have done without said Amphibian Man biting the head off one of Jenkins’ beloved cats, even if the moment is offered as an example of predatory innocence. Yuck. Regardless, Hawkins offers a brilliant and heartrending portrayal of a mute woman whose expressiveness far exceeds vocalization, and Shannon nearly steals the picture as a government official whose myopic masculinity and arrested development result in nothing but ugliness, violence, and missed opportunity.

“You are strong because you are imperfect.” – Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clementine Churchill to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour

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As for Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, yes, it is a movie which features a gobsmacking transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. And, yes, Oldman is altogether breathtaking in his depiction of Churchill’s genius eccentricity, shocking isolation, and dogged determination. However, the excellence of his work and of the film itself is greatly aided and abetted by the work of cast-mates Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-long-suffering wife Clementine and Lily James as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-wide-eyed assistant Elizabeth Layton. The three actors bring sparkling life to Theory of Everything screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s chatty script, and, while Churchill was clearly the odd-man-out where British politicos were concerned, his ultimate success could be attributed as much to the women in his life as to his own fiercely independent spirit. These are exceptional performances in a pretty good film.

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In The Post, Streep’s Graham quotes English essayist Samuel Johnson: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all.” Her point, in the context of the film, is that society has not encouraged women to speak their truths, so the act of doing so, while arguably initially inelegant, is as shocking as it is necessary. In the case of these five films, truth is delivered elegantly and compellingly, and the class of Oscar nominees this year goes a long way toward giving women, as Virginia  Woolf once implored, a “room of their own.”

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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.

In Whitley County covers BroadwayWorld recognition – PLUS, video of numbers from “Life is a Cabaret” #cabaret4relay

Thank you, Bridgett Hernandez and In Whitley County, for this lovely coverage of my recent BroadwayWorld Detroit / BroadwayWorld / Cennarium Award for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Mystery of Edwin Drood. And for the connections you make between play and work and how important it is to have both.

Plus, enjoy these videos of numbers from the final dress rehearsal of “Life is a Cabaret” – click to view. Thanks, Lia, for capturing! You can also view as a continuous playlist here – more videos will be added as available.

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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.