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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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[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.

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

“Just because there’s no war, it doesn’t mean we have peace.” X-Men: Apocalypse

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the past decade and a half (plus), there have been a lot of X-Men movies – some kick-out-the-jams great (X2, Days of Future Past, The Wolvervine), some as tired as a day-old doughnut (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Last Stand), and a couple inventively transcendent (First Class, Deadpool). If nothing else, the fact that one intellectual property can sustain that many films with such varied output is testament to the allegorical appeal of a bunch of costumed oddballs whose spectacular difference makes them feared and loathed by the mediocre masses. ‘Murica.

Where does Bryan Singer’s latest X-entry Apocalypse rank? About smack dab in the middle. It’s a decent summer popcorn epic with a great cast, many of whom rise above the CGI detritus to land a moment or two of tear-jerking pathos. Per capita Oscar/Golden Globe winners/nominees, the X-movies have always far surpassed their nearest rivals. In this flick alone, you’ve got Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Rose Byrne and series newcomer Oscar Isaac. I wouldn’t be surprised to one day see Nicholas Hoult (who plays Hank McCoy) and Evan Peters (Quicksilver) similarly awarded for their (other) work. Joining them are equally strong up-and-comers Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, and Lucas Till. And Olivia Munn, who is about as vocal a proponent of animal rights (and as militant a one) as a Hollywood bombshell can be, plays bad-ass ninja mutant Psylocke like Xena Warrior Princess slaying a frat party.

The film is perilously overstuffed. (Could you tell from that cast list?) Apocalypse suffers, as so many of these enterprises do, from a dopey and predictable end-is-nigh narrative arc upon which to hang far superior character moments. Heck, truth in advertising time, “end-is-nigh” is the film’s very title.

Said title is also the name of the film’s antagonist “Apocalypse,” played by Isaac under so much make-up and costuming that he looks like a Happy Meal toy or a grape popsicle. He’s such a fun and frisky performer that mostly he rises above the cardboard operatic dialogue with which he is saddled. It doesn’t help that, well, he can’t move his neck in that get-up. Like at all. But Isaac does just fine being menacing enough that you believe the world actually might be in some trouble … and at the two-thirds mark of this overlong film, you might wish he would just hustle up and get it over with.

The rest of the cast isn’t given a lot to do, but they make the most of every moment, even if no member of the cast likely has more than two or three pages of dialogue in the entire film. Peters continues to be delightful comic relief as the resident speedster, though the sparkle of his “between the raindrops” slo-mo scene-work has lost a bit of its novelty since the last film. McAvoy is compelling as a baby Patrick Stewart, totally mastering the fine art of Stewart’s mind-reading, telepathic grimace face.

We get a fun (depending on how you view “fun”) bit with Jackman finally getting to unleash Wolverine’s full-tilt berserker rage. In fact, I was a little shocked the filmmakers were able to keep their PG-13 rating, as Jackman’s bloody pas-de-deux approached horror movie levels of carnage.

Byrne, Hoult, and Lawrence are rather neglected by Simon Kinberg’s rambling screenplay – which may have been just fine with them – but these three pros still bring welcome heart and wit to their too few impactful moments. Lawrence does get one of the film’s best lines, though: “Just because there’s no war, it doesn’t mean we have peace.” Amen, sister.

Fassbender is the film’s heart-breaker. His scenes aren’t well written – Singer and Kinberg, shame on you with this Lifetime TV melodrama – but he plays them so beautifully, so delicately, and so hauntedly you just may get teary. A bit. I did anyway, and I don’t think it’s because it is allergy season here in Michigan. Fassbender grounds the film with a kind of hyper-real pathos that also benefited his other two outings in the franchise. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise this installment could’ve been a total candy-coated disaster. (Whenever wait-staff at Red Robin are wearing your film’s logo on their shirts as a cross promotional effort, while delivering a revolting concoction called the “Red Ramen Burger,” your flick may be in trouble.)

So what if the assembled performances here are tantamount to Halloween USA costume catalog posturing? It’s all good. Everyone deserves a paycheck. During one ponderous scene between Isaac, McAvoy, and Fassbender, I zoned out and just kept thinking to myself, “Damn, that is a fabulous trio of ACTOR noses right there. Look. At. Their. Noses.”

I’m not sure where the series goes from here, and I admit a morbid curiosity to see how many more characters (for future toy sales) they can cram into … chapter nine, is it? I’m losing track. However, I hope the studio execs, plagued as they are by checkbook accounting and the collective creativity of a baked potato , take to heart the lessons that all of us mere mortals see in the success of a movie like Deadpool. Have fun, be light, tell a human story, focus, keep it small, and understand that these superhero movies are today’s fairy tales. We want a moral, we want to relate, and we need it told in less than three hours.

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Olivia Munn

Olivia Munn

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.

Jolie’s greatest betrayal came at the hands of Disney’s marketing department: Maleficent

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]

Oh, how I wanted to like Disney’s Maleficent. I really did.

I love a good postmodern take on a villain’s back-story – Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (the novel and, sort of, the musical) or John Gardner’s Grendel or even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (which gives us a topsy turvy, super-identifiable Joker in Heath Ledger’s gonzo performance). I even like Tom Stoppard’s exercise in twee Shakespearean intrigue Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

I had such high hopes for Disney’s similar take on Sleeping Beauty‘s nefarious baddie. Sleeping Beauty is one of my least favorite Disney animated classics, so I figured they could really go for broke and do something interesting. Angelina Jolie is perfect casting, and I believed the sky to be the limit. When I heard Lana Del Rey’s spooky, woozy take on the iconic “Once Upon a Dream” back in January, I thought, “Oh, yeah, they’ve nailed this.”

Alas, no.

If the film could have simply been Angelina slinking around to that hypnotic musical interpretation for two hours, I might have enjoyed myself.

Don’t get me wrong, Jolie is spot on as the titular anti-hero. (This does seem to be the summer of the anti-hero from Godzilla to Neighbors to Michael Fassbender’s dreamy Magneto.) Jolie is a delight in her otherwise disappointingly sketchy scenes, wringing an intoxicating cocktail of wit and despondency from a dearth of dialogue. Honestly, if she speaks 200 words in this film, I would be surprised.

I wish the rest of the film lived up to her wry potential. She owns the fact that she is spectacularly featured in a big summer blockbuster cartoon, but unfortunately no one else matches her (save Del Rey’s musical contribution).

Directed in ham-handed fashion by Robert Stromberg who was scenic designer on Disney’s other atrocious fairy tale reinventions Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent is clearly a Disney cash-grab forged from those films’ over-stuffed visual cast-offs. There are floating mountains and Wii-video game worthy creatures aplenty, but not much heart.

Jolie puts in a yeoman’s effort salvaging a film with no discernible script and a supporting cast that is be-wigged and be-dialected mercilessly. Seriously, Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan sounds like he took a left turn off the set of an Austin Powers flick, and the less said about the waxy-faced fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), Flittle (Leslie Manville) the better. (Ladies, I urge you … fire your agents … now.)

Jolie conveys such beautiful heartache as a true force of nature. Her Maleficent is violated over and over by a world consumed in its material goods, power plays, and social status. With simply her limpid eyes (and her fabulous cheekbones, lightly accentuated by some Gaga-esque prosthetics), she conveys a hurt that is deep and compelling as Maleficent finds her core essence destroyed by those she loves deepest.

Why the rest of the film couldn’t meet this performance is a crime I will never understand. I fear Maleficent’s greatest betrayal came at the hands of Disney’s relentless (soulless?) marketing department. Sigh.

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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.

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.

Of bombast and beefcake: 300 – Rise of an Empire

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 I first heard a sequel or prequel or alongside-quel (?) for Zack Snyder’s 300 was being planned, I admit I was left scratching my head. I realize Hollywood, like the rather dubious depiction of Persians in these films, can’t turn down the potential for gold, in this case the box office variety … but was another film really necessary?

The original film, as insanely over-the-top as it is, contains a complete cinematic thought. The scruffy Spartan uprising against Xerxes’ Barnum & Bailey-meets-Fellini army of masked freaks has a definite beginning, middle, and somber end. Furthermore, I couldn’t imagine a follow-up film without the wolfish charms of Gerard Butler, whose career skyrocketed and pretty much abruptly ended with the first film.

Well, color me wrong. Make that sepia-toned … like the now-cliched, slow-to-fast-mo cinematography in both flicks.

300: Rise of an Empire still plays astoundingly loose with world history, turning the establishment of Greek democracy into some kind of kinky gladiator orgy of violence, sandals, and pompous speechifyin’. But it’s a lot of fun too, and does supplement nicely the narrative established in the first film.

Childishly gory and with a script that sounds like it was written by 25 monkeys left alone in a room with computer keyboards and Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus, the film is nonetheless stylish and entertaining … imagine Ansel Adams photographing the International Male catalog with production design by Fritz Lang and Hot Topic.

Sullivan Stapleton, looking and acting like Michael Fassbender’s messy brother, is perfectly fine taking the reins from Butler, as an Athenian general fomenting revolution … or something. This film is a welcome change in that it finally gives the women a chance for some serious ass-kicking as well. Spartan queen Lena Headey (so good in 2012’s Dredd) and Persian naval commander Eva Green (Casino Royale) – both such interesting presences – continue their mid-career runs of b-movie foolishness … this time colliding (quite literally) in the same film. Green particularly seems to have an absolute ball being a complete fiend, ratcheting up her smoldering seethe from the box office flop Dark Shadows.

And, yes, Rodrigo Santoro returns as Persian king Xerxes – basically RuPaul’s 8-foot tall, gilded, steroidal, homicidal cousin with a vocoder voice. He is a hoot to watch – character nuance and historical accuracy be damned. Junkie XL turns in a suitably thumping, anachronistic genre mash-up score to propel the zany proceedings along.

I suspect the filmmakers intend some half-baked metaphor for American democracy’s uphill climb against the dark, anarchic forces of some ill-defined Middle Eastern enemy. The movie’s British-accented, lily-white Greek (?) armies of waxed, Soloflex men in Speedos and capes warring against swarthy, monologuing, power-hungry, fabulously-bejeweled Persians can at times be laugh-out-loud ridiculous. This not-so-subtle subtext coupled with the weird mix of homoerotic homophobia and sexist feminism makes for a stomach-churning brew. But as long as you check your brain at the door when you’re issued your IMAX 3-D wraparound BluBlocker sunglasses, you’ll have a good time.

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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.

Countdown: 12 Years a Slave

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Only 2 days remain until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s what Roy thought about 12 Years a Slave: “…a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity prop up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.”

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. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Countdown: Her

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

My childhood home

My childhood home

The countdown continues! 6 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Thanks to Kat Kelly-Heinzelman (read her blog here) for her friendship and support! She writes, “Check out my new profile picture; I think you will like it, Roy. LOL! Hope you’re having a good day … I love it [Reel Roy Reviews]. Have been reading since I got it. Good so far!”

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of HER: “Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent ‘operating system’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).”

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. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Driving our collective spirit underground: Her and 12 Years a Slave

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]

Whenever the Academy Award nominations are announced, I suddenly feel pressure … like I’m in college again and I have an imminent final exam for which I haven’t read one chapter in our assigned texts the whole semester.

Blessedly, the various movie studios’ marketing departments kick into overdrive at Oscar time, and many movies we might have missed the first time around get a second run in theatres (and not only the art houses, but in those big stadium jobs with the good/lousy Sbarro pizza).

So, my Martin Luther King Day was spent in the multiplex for one of my stranger double feature combinations: Spike Jonze’s Her and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. This duo still doesn’t to compare to my high (low?) watermark when I paired the childlike whimsy of stop-motion animation Coraline with the Nazi-in-hiding sexual perversity of The Reader … I felt like such a creeper that day.

At first blush, Her and 12 Years a Slave would seem to bear little in common, other than critical acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. However (and I don’t think this is just because I am force-fitting patterns that might not otherwise exist), both films, in very different ways and settings, address the disconnect that has long-plagued American life, in which religion or economics or technology engender empty separations and cruel abuses (physical, emotional, or plain neglectful), driving our collective spirit underground.

In the case of Her, which I found a slightly stronger film, Jonze paints a depressing near future – not quite dystopian, but burnished and bland and beautifully designed as if IKEA and Dwell Magazine bathed the world in minimalist chic – in which smart phone technology has become so integrated into our every waking moment that every human interaction is filtered and measured by a handheld device.

Looking like the nebbish-y hipster offspring of Charlie Chaplin and Kurt Vonnegut, Joaquin Phoenix is deeply affecting as a Byronesque romantic lost in a sea of bits and bytes after his author wife (Rooney Mara, continuing her sharp-edged roll) leaves him. Phoenix’s Theo just wants to feel something … anything

As you are likely aware from the ubiquitous advertising, Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent “operating system” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).

Amy Adams plays the third woman in Theo’s life, a longtime friend (and likeliest soul-mate of all), who also struggles to find meaningful interaction in a world where all the rough edges have been sanded to apathetic perfection. Adams shines in her scenes with Phoenix, and I enjoyed her performance here as Theo’s fellow lost soul so much more than I did her work in American Hustle.

The film borrows heavily from the aforementioned Vonnegut (Harrison Bergeron popped into my mind for some reason) as well as Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric) with a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac and Stanley Kubrick’s HAL for good measure. Theo spends his days composing hand-written notes for folks too busy to compose these missives themselves. (He doesn’t actually do the penmanship, but dictates into a computer that generates them.) And he spends his evenings, in an empty/disheveled apartment with fabulous views of downtown L.A., playing video games, pining for his ex, and wooing his computer.

Her is a starkly composed ode (and cautionary tale) to a society (ours) that has lost its heart, displacing flesh-and-blood dialogue with glib texts, microblog snark, and social media stalking. I don’t know that I loved it, but I sure can’t stop thinking about it.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If Her worries about where American society is headed, 12 Years a Slave shows us where we’ve been and possibly how little we’ve changed. 12 Years a Slave gives us a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity props up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.

I respect the work McQueen has done with this story, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. I will say, however, that I am not as transfixed by 12 Years a Slave as others seem to have been. Perhaps my judgment is affected by how delayed I am in getting to see this one, a film that couldn’t possibly live up to the expectation generated by months of critical praise.

Personally, I also have long-struggled with the idea of the very important historical film – be it Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan or others like them – the subject matter of which is so rightfully raw that one might feel discouraged to openly criticize the filmmakers’ artistic interpretation.

Regardless, this movie is extremely well-acted and, once it finds its narrative groove, is a powerful gut punch. I mostly had issues with the episodic and unconvincing (to me) first third of the film, from the set-up of Northup’s life as a free man in Saratoga, New York through his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and onto his purchase by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. (Yup, Cumberbatch again. I hope he earns a long vacation after the 118 films in which he appeared this year. He has been excellent in everything.)

Once Northup (portrayed with a weary incredulity by Chiwetel Ejiofor) lands with the cruel, equally defeated slave master Epps (Michael Fassbender) the movie has you on the edge of your seat. Fassbender does his best work to date, channeling the small-minded rage and belligerence of a Southerner deeply disaffected by life yet believing his faith and his race entitle him to bullying dominion over all creatures great and small. Sarah Paulson is equally crackerjack as his spiteful, heartbroken, spoiled belle of a wife.

The scenes between Ejiofor and Fassbender twist like a knife in the gullet, and viewers with modern sensibilities may reflect on how little some aspects of our country have changed since the horrific days when slavery was an American institution. Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as Ejiofor’s fellow slave – an object of Fassbender’s economic admiration, sexual depravity, and violent tyranny – who is doubly damned for her race and her gender.

In this hectic awards season, as various film producers and their respective studios engage in ever-escalating gamesmanship to score trophies for the “home team,” it is easy to lose why some films speak to our souls. I think I will be reflecting for some time on both Her and 12 Years a Slave – well after the gold statuettes are all handed out – and what these films say about our uniquely American condition: ambition, cruelty, love, segregation, prosperity, racism, sexism, ageism, apathy, and … freedom.

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.