“If you dream it, you can achieve it” – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Prom, Midnight Sky, Wonder Woman 1984 … and Cimarron?

Joe: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

From Sunset Boulevard

“If you dream it, you can achieve it.” – Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) in Wonder Woman 1984

“Nothing good is born from lies.” – Diana (Gal Gadot) in Wonder Woman 1984

Sadly, this seems to be the season of watching big ticket blockbusters crammed onto a home screen. Furthermore, this seems to be the season where all of your Facebook friends march like lemmings to tell you what you’re supposed to think of said offerings before you even have had a chance to view them for yourself. Being the good-natured contrarian that my parents raised, I find myself in direct opposition to much of the feedback I’ve observed. To me, The Prom was kind-hearted escapism-with-attitude, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a stagy self-indulgent slog, Midnight Sky was a resonant Truman Capote-meets-Ray Bradbury short (long) story, and Wonder Woman 1984 was a candy-coated (admittedly overstuffed) confection.

I loved The Prom. I, for one, like unapologetic musicals, and this Ryan Murphy production reads like Hairspray, The Greatest Showman, High School Musical, and Bye Bye Birdie had a socially progressive movie baby. Much needless ado has been made about (formerly?) beloved Carpool Karaoke maven James Corden playing a gay character, claiming his take is offensively stereotypical. Many critics’ descriptions have been as troubling as what they accuse Corden of perpetuating, if you ask me.

To me, it is one of Corden’s better and more thoughtful performances, layering broad comedy in a compelling gauze of pathos, to effectively depict a man struggling to find his path in the margins (in career, physicality, and, yes, sexuality). Corden is part of a free-wheeling quartet of Broadway narcissists (all compensating for respective ghosts of failures past) who descend on a small Indiana town to “rescue” it from its own prejudices after the local PTA shames and embarrasses a young lesbian (luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) in a way that would make even John Travolta’s character in Carrie cringe.

Meryl Streep (channeling a caustic yet charming mix of Patti LuPone and Susan Lucci), Nicole Kidman (at her most winsomely fragile), and Andrew Rannells (all bounding and puppyish joy) are Corden’s partners in well-intentioned, occasionally misplaced crime, and they have fabulous chemistry. Kerry Washington is suitably evangelically vampy as the rigid PTA president, and Keegan-Michael Key is a pleasant surprise (both as a singer and actor) as the high school’s show tune loving principal. Tracey Ullmann pops up as Corden’s regretful Midwestern ma, and their reconciliation scene is a lovely little masterclass in heightened understatement.

Oh, right, I did say the movie is kicky fun, but nothing I’ve written here much indicates why. Working from Matthew Sklar’s buoyant Broadway production, Murphy and team overdo everything in all the right ways, juxtaposing all-too-real intolerance and heartache (basically everyone in the film is guilty of uninformed prejudice of one kind or another) with the metaphysical joys of unhinged singing, dancing, glitter, and sequins. All ends (predictably) happily, almost Shakespearean (if Shakespeare listened to Ariana Grande), and I dare you not to sit through the end credits with a stupid, hopeful grin on your face.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also adapted from the stage, as legendary director George C. Wolfe brings August Wilson’s play to the screen. I suspect my disappointment is more to do with the source material than Wolfe’s sure-handed if claustrophobic direction. To be honest, I wanted more of Viola Davis’ dynamite Ma Rainey and less of … everyone else. Davis has one scene worthy of the Hollywood time capsule, eviscerating the misogynistic and racist capitalist machine that steals artists’ voices (quite literally as Rainey is committing her vocals to vinyl) and tosses people to the curb when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The film depicts one day in a Chicago recording studio as Rainey fights with, well, anyone who crosses her path in defense of her vision and to retain her integrity in a world that reduces her to a commodity. THAT is the movie I wanted to see, but Wolfe gives preferred time to Rainey’s studio musicians, a group of men whose primary purpose seems to be representing inter-generational animosity among those with a Y-chromosome. Perhaps I’ve just had my fill for one lifetime of toxic male posturing, but I grew weary of their (endless) scenes.

In total, the film feels like it never really escapes the confines of the stage, and I may be among the few viewers underwhelmed by Chadwick Boseman’s performance. His work seems hammy and like he is in search of another movie altogether. I could be wrong, but the overwhelming praise for Boseman here feels like groupthink rhapsodizing given that he is no longer with us. I’m going to hell. See you there. Boseman remains a singular talent, but I don’t think time will be kind to this particular role, Oscar-winning as it likely will be.

Wonder Woman 1984 follows the loping narrative style of all inexplicably beloved films made in, well, 1984, and thereby is a kind of referendum on the cardboard excess and shallow instant gratification of that hollow era, nostalgia for which continues to plague us in insidious ways to this very day.

I found it nicely character driven with a strong cast and with a warm and (mostly) light touch, but plagued by some script/logic problems in its final act. All in all, it met my comics-loving expectations, and I enjoyed what they were doing. Gal Gadot remains a commanding presence in a way we just don’t see in screen stars these days. She’s not an actor per se, but she is a star.

Director Patty Jenkins has great Rube Goldberg-esque fun with one improbable action sequence after another. All were clearly nods to similar films of the 80s featuring, say, Superman or Indiana Jones but enhanced through modern Fast and the Furious-style tech and suspension of disbelief. I’m not looking for pragmatism in a movie like this. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and WW84 did that for me

Jenkins makes the smart choice of casting talent who will connect the dots in a wafer-thin script. In the film, Kristen Wiig consistently makes smart acting choices as her character progresses from heartbreakingly nerdy sidekick to sullen and insolent supervillain, never losing the heartache of exclusion underneath it all. I thought she was a refreshing and inspired choice to play Barbara Minerva/Cheetah.

Dreamy/witty Chris Pine doesn’t get much dialogue/plot to work with as newly resurrected love interest Steve Trevor, but he shines nonetheless, wringing laughs from fish-out-of-water nuance without ever belaboring the joke.

Pedro Pascal balances Trumpian satire and Babbitt-esque tragedy as a gilded charlatan who believes 80s greed is the key to self-acceptance. He’s grand until the dodgy final act strands him somewhere on manic Gene Wilder-isle, and the film limps to its inevitable world-saving resolution.

I also think if people had watched WW84 on the big screen, they would have walked away with a different vibe. Some may disagree, but there’s a hidden psychological bump to paying for a ticket and investing time away from home (one WANTS the movie to be good) that is erased by the small screen – which has little to do with what is actually being viewed. IMHO.

The global warming parable Midnight Sky (directed by and starring George Clooney), however, benefits from small screen viewing. That said, the film’s outer space, nail biting, race-against-time elements have all been covered (sometimes better) in The Martian, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and George Clooney’s own Gravity. Hell, throw in Event Horizon, Sunshine, and The Black Hole for good measure.

Rather, I enjoyed the film’s quiet moments with Clooney as the sole (maybe?) survivor on an ice-covered Earth, as he fights the elements, time, and his own failing health to deter a deep-space crew from returning to their certain death on an uninhabitable planet. I didn’t give two hoots about the space mission, which included Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone, all doing their level best to make us care. However, I was transfixed by an almost unrecognizable Clooney who checked his golden boy charm at the door and exquisitely projected the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of someone nearing the literal end. So, in other words, how most of us feel in 2020.

If it were up to me, I would edit out all of the space-faring scenes and leave the film’s focus on George Clooney alone in a post-apocalyptic arctic, yielding a transcendent hour-long Twilight Zone episode.

Now, let’s see how I fare in the Twitterverse when I finally turn to watching Disney’s/Pixar’s Soul

Postscript … what follows is an email sent to my mother Susie Sexton this afternoon about 1960’s classic Cimarron. They don’t make movies like this any more, and that’s a shame.

From IMDB’s synopsis: “The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife’s anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources.”

I just finished Cimarron and liked it very very much. I do think that Edna Ferber captures perhaps somewhat formulaically but absolutely effectively, the passage and snowballing magnitude of time and life, with a lovely progressive sensibility (pun unintended).

Maria Schell is exquisite. I don’t think the film would’ve been half as good without her in it. I really like Anne Baxter too. Their one scene together is quite understated and powerful.

Glenn Ford is of course great too, but Maria Schell really got to me. She acts in a style ahead of its time. It’s a beautiful film, but at least in the first ten minutes I kept expecting them to burst into song. When it really digs into their struggle and unpredictable relationship, it’s very powerful. The supporting cast was of course great since all of those people had been in one million films already.

Thanks for recommending this! Love you!

My family loves movies. We always have. It is our cultural shorthand, and every holiday – until this one – has been spent in communion over what movies we saw, how they made us think and feel, and what these films might say about our culture and its advancement. That is in short why I write this blog. I can’t imagine watching a movie without having the opportunity to share how it speaks to my heart and mind.

Thank you for reading these thoughts of mine for nearly ten years (!), inspired as they are by a lifetime of loving movies.

“They paved paradise.” The power of documentary film in pandemic: A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur and Marvel’s 616

They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot

– “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell

“Your imperfections make you special.” – Joey, student actor in “Spotlight,” the final episode of Marvel’s 616

Today, we brought in our deck furniture (from the summer!) to store in the basement, that is after decorating our house for Christmas. We bought the set what feels like yesterday (April), and we dutifully covered it to protect it from harsh sun and booming thunderstorms, pretty much never sitting on it, once wrapped in a cumbersome, billowing shroud of waxy canvas. So we paid for outdoor couches, negotiated their delivery in pandemic, never used them, and just huffed and puffed maneuvering them through endless doors and hallways into our basement, in another attempt to protect them.

Futility and comedy, thy name is home ownership. Everyone keeps blaming 2020 for everything, as if an arbitrarily determined twelve-month signifier of time’s passage is the cause of our collective woes. Yet, what has actually been laid bare in this dumpster fire period is, in fact, that we are all ourselves to blame with our materialistic, self-absorbed mania day after day, a long-standing debt that finally came due. How much have we taken for granted and what damage have we done to planet, culture, ecology, health, and mental well-being in the process? We’ve likely only seen the tip of that iceberg. Ahoy, me maties!

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die
Driving in on this highway
All these cars and upon the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged
No time to exchange

When all the little ants are marching
Red and black antennas waving
They all do it the same
They all do it the same way

– “Ants Marching,” Dave Matthews Band

My last legit movie review was Birds of Prey. In February. Lord, I hope that’s not the last movie I ever get to see in an actual movie theatre. If I had only known, I’d have chosen … oh, who am I kidding? I still would have seen it. I miss the communal experience of movies, observing audience reaction and assessing the art as well as the commerce of cinema. Wild horses couldn’t get me to go now, if ever again, but I do miss it. Yet, between lone gunmen and rampant plague, performance venues are the new OK Corral.

Thanksgiving has always been a special movie time for my family. My parents and I, year after year, would see hundreds of films over the long holiday weekends, beguiled by Hollywood’s relentless marketing machine. We’d pronounce a film as “awful!” only to change our minds over breakfast, searching for connective tissue and insights into the human condition from such disparate selections as Life of Pi and Daddy’s Home 2. I miss that. I miss my parents.

My husband and I have had no end of entertainment – deck furniture notwithstanding. Showing my age, I do resent that finding new shows to binge is tantamount to a digital Easter egg hunt these days. Netflix? No. AmazonPrime? Maybe. Disney+? Possibly. Do we just have this on DVD somewhere?

We’ve enjoyed a lot of what we’ve seen, at times arguably more forgiving of relative quality for the escape that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Ratched, Upload, All-American, Hollywood, The Order, The Boys, Emily in Paris, Mandalorian, The Umbrella Academy provided. I’m 99% certain we would have watched very few of these (let alone looked forward to each installment like Victorians eagerly awaiting the next Dickens chapter) had the world not been ending every five days. For this time with my husband, enjoying our home, staying at home, not chasing frenetically scheduled ACTIVITIES!, I am grateful. Pandemic has been a pleasant reprieve in that regard, and I may have been permanently transformed into Boo Radley as a result. Check our trees for handmade toys left for passers-by.

My dear friend Tyler Chase is a talented documentary filmmaker, and she gave me a sneak peek at her latest A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur. To say it was the right movie to see in my present mindset would be textbook understatement. I am haunted days after by her clear-eyed, unsentimental but utterly empathic filmic observations on the clash of creativity, capitalism, obsession, free thought, and community in postmodern America.

From the film’s website: “A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur with Golden Globe Award recipient, Brian Cox as the Narrator is an intimate and journalistic documentary by filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase. The intimate and journalistic documentary … filmed over a period of seven years, A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur, brings us through the doors of the iconic Broken Angel building and into the world of its creators, the visionary, Arthur Wood and his wife, Cynthia as they cling to their life’s work, the Broken Angel building, the last symbol of the bohemian artist culture that once permeated Brooklyn, NY.

“The Woods created the 108 foot Broken Angel objet trouvé building as a sculpture and landmark for the community located in a section of Clinton Hill bordering on Bed Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The Broken Angel building is the subject of local and international news specials; photographed by many. The Woods are loved by their neighbors who see the iconic structure as a beacon of freedom and the threat of its destruction as an omen of the disappearance of a way of life and community. To many it is a symbol of freedom – to others an opportunity for profit.

“Filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase renders the Woods’ story as one both magical and heart wrenching; following them through triumphs, judicial blunders, injustice, evictions, and comedic moments all the while inspired by the indomitable spirit of visionary artist and creator of the Broken Angel, Arthur Wood.”

Director Tyler Chase filming on location at Broken Angel (above) and with narrator Brian Cox (below)

The piece, which recently received the Audience Choice Award from YoFiFest 2020 and the Grand Jury Prize from the CARE Awards International Film Festival, is lyrical and poignant and heartbreaking. Chase captures the visceral nature of what it must have been like to live in that space. And the pain of being deeply misunderstood. Grey Gardens for the 21st century.

As far as narrative techniques, Chase employs interstitial chapter headings with ironic word choices/definitions, building the momentum inexorably. Like a slow-moving car crash, it’s clear things won’t end well for Arthur, Cynthia, or their beloved home. This chapter device – dare I invoke Dickensian tragicomedy again? – accentuates the tale’s inevitability. We all know how the relentless, monochromatic push of “economic development” can destroy the delicate work of sensitive souls creating art in the margins. America, ain’t it something to see? But the viewer mustn’t look away, and Chase’s gaze assures that you won’t.

The overall construction of the film mirrors the Broken Angel itself, layering upon itself in jagged turns, a documentary collage. Exquisite. The film FEELS artisanal – no doubt because of its lengthy gestation – which brings us that much closer to understanding Arthur’s quixotic DIY style. Hello, Oscar? Don’t overlook this essential, bespoke film.

Brian Cox’ regally dulcet tones as the film’s narrator are, yes, Arthurian, yet comforting with a wry edge. The use of music – folk, classical, even what seems like Gregorian chanting – is elegiac. And the moment Chase steps in front of her camera to advocate in real-time for Arthur (at The U.N. no less!), becoming a character in the story, is breathtaking. Just when the viewer is screaming, “Why can’t someone do something for these souls?!” … she does.

(Side note: for the inevitable scripted Hollywood remake, Willem DaFoe is Arthur Wood’s doppelgänger, and he could start preparing his Academy Award acceptance speech now. And then Stephen Schwartz could musicalize it for Broadway, dusting off some of the salvageable ideas from his work on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Broken Angel! The Musical! Arthur and Cynthia could live on forever!)

Chase tells the story of Broken Angel with an artist’s appreciation and identification sans any judgment. That’s all Arthur likely ever wanted, in his expression and in his life. Is that why some of us “live out loud,” making bold choices, seemingly incongruous with the workaday world? Semiotic code for the person to be seen and accepted as they are? More devastating than the demolition of Arthur’s life’s work is society’s sniffy rejection of his unique soul made manifest in the Broken Angel.

Surprisingly, this same theme carries through another documentary – or rather documentary series – of a more corporate variety: Marvel’s 616 on Disney+. Across eight episodes, helmed by a bevy of filmmakers, the series wisely eschews a linear recounting of Marvel Comics’ storied history, instead highlighting unsung corners of fandom and creative output.

The incisive episode depicting the rise and proliferation of women comic book writers and artists is as reflective of the fraught times in which we live as it is of Marvel’s fits and starts where inclusion is concerned. The episode about toy creation and collection is as frenetic and joy-filled as you might imagine. And the feature on Marvel’s growing community of international artists is quietly introspective and appropriately moving, if not quite compensating for Marvel’s poor track record with creators of color in the past.

Episodes, respectively, on the cosplay community and school-based theatre are almost tangentially Marvel, shining a much needed light on people left behind who found kinship, purpose, and family through the characters, stories, and mythology of Marvel. I dare you not to shed a few happy tears while viewing.

Much (digital) ink has been spilled on the episode highlighting the legendary “Marvel Method,” whereby an issue is created iteratively and collaboratively between writer and artist. Affable, jocular Dan Slott, the subject of the episode, spurred great ire from fanboys over what they perceived as his seeming disrespect for his fellow creators (and, ultimately, for the end user). Slott’s procrastination is played for comic effect in the episode, and his chronic inability to meet dreaded deadlines is excused under the guise of “Marvel Method.”

The angry binge-watching horde missed the point, however. This isn’t about their inconvenience over receiving the latest issue of Iron Man 2020 a few weeks later than expected. This is about, yet again, the thorny nexus of art and commerce. For Slott, like Arthur Wood, creative expression is a kind of one-sided communion with his fellow human beings. The procrastination prolongs the fun, the invention, the collaboration. Hitting deadline means the party’s over, only to begin again on a schedule set by management, not artists.

Dan Slott

The episode ends with Slott prowling his local comic shop – no doubt in avoidance of work awaiting him at home – joyously name-dropping his favorite writers and artists, as he thumbs through their latest issues. In that moment, he is a figure both inspiringly childlike and painfully alone. If anything, I am now more appreciative of Dan Slott as a singular voice than I am annoyed by delays in his output.

I’m just a face in the crowd
Nothing to worry about
Not even trying to stand out
I’m getting smaller and smaller and smaller
And I got nothing to say
It’s all been taken away
I just behave and obey
I’m afraid that I’m starting to fade away

Hey, and for what it was worth
I really used to believe
That maybe there’s some great thing
That we could achieve
And now I can’t tell the difference
Or know what to feel
Between what I’ve been trying so hard to see
And what appears to be real

– “Getting Smaller,” Nine Inch Nails

Images of Bill Schwarz and of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton during various special moments of creativity and community

We all just want to be seen, to be understood, to matter. While writing this, my mom Susie Duncan Sexton received a glorious email from her friend and fellow Columbia City, Indiana native Bill Schwarz. My mother wrote about Bill nearly a decade ago (here), and they recently reconnected. Both are accomplished talents in their own rights (check out Bill’s singing group “New Tradition Chorus” and upcoming concert), but their appreciation for one another is inspiring. Bill just finished reading one of my mother’s books, and here is an excerpt of what he wrote to her in response:

“After reading your book (on my Nook reader) it prompted me to write my opinion… I perceived a sensitive, creative intellect that deeply cared and loved unconditionally. Your pets have that quality as does your son Roy. I sensed in your writing the wholesome expression of joy, yet I saw you tempering feelings of dismay. You said, how does the song go: ‘looking for love in the most usual places…..’”

And isn’t that all any of us desire? A voice that is heard, appreciated, reciprocated. To all of the artists in this world … thank you.

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

– “Nature Boy,” Nat “King” Cole

Want to join me in supporting a good cause? Beginning this #GivingTuesday and on through my birthday on December 28, I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps.

And on GivingTuesday Dec 1, Facebook will match $7 million in qualifying donations. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://www.facebook.com/donate/3378588845591918/?fundraiser_source=external_url

Thank you for your support.

The mission of the Ann Arbor Ronald McDonald Houses is to provide families of children experiencing a serious illness or injury requiring hospitalization or treatment on an outpatient basis, a “home away from home” that assists in alleviating the families’ emotional and financial stress.

“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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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.

 

 

“There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” Hell or High Water and Southside With You

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterDancing between the raindrops. One of the most powerful and essential things that film can do, arguably unlike any other medium, is to transform the smallest moments of daily life into something poetic, allegorical, epic, and identifiable. Film, at its best, is a concise narrative, simultaneously immediate and retrospective, exploring an embedded assumption that one exchange, one decision, one day can change a lifetime.

Two movie gems, exemplifying this remarkable storytelling attribute, are currently eking out a quiet subsistence in a far corner of your local multiplex. Stroll past the escapist CGI gargoyles, laser blasts, and gross out gags of those late summer wannabe blockbusters taking up the IMAX screens, and make your way to that tiny, itty bitty screening room. You know the one, beyond the garish birthday hall, clanging arcade, and Dippin’ Dots (“Ice Cream of the Future!”) outpost, at the far end of the hall … the one that seems like its sole existence is as a concession to the public television/NPR crowd or because an extra broom closet wasn’t needed? And catch Hell or High Water and Southside with You on the big-ish screen before they are consigned to Netflix next month.

Hell or High Water is as perfect a Valentine to people who love movies as I’ve ever seen. It wears its cinematic influences proudly and confidently, like that person in  your office who has figured out how to mix stripes, plaids, and polka dots into a breathtaking ensemble. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) mines A Touch of Evil (the tracking shot that opens Hell or High Water is a smooth, small-town honey), No Country for Old Men (dusty postmodern desperation), Giant (watch Hell or High Water‘s final front-porch confrontation and tell me I’m wrong), East of Eden (imagine Cal and Aron as kinder, gentler, floppy-haired Natural Born Killers), and Dog Day Afternoon (shaggy, sweaty bank robbers who have Robin Hood-aspirations to right the personal wrongs that corporate America has inflicted and who are destined to fail … spectacularly). Throw in one of the best depictions of Dust Bowl brotherly love/hate since Sam Shepherd’s classic play True West and pair it with the corrosive antipathy toward American Big Banking and the mortgage industry that The Big Short failed to capture compellingly, and you have a film for the ages.

Star Trek‘s Chris Pine (all dreamy, haunted dissipation) and 3:10 to Yuma‘s Ben Foster (Sean Penn 2.0 … damn, but he is SO good, and Foster even was engaged to Robin Wright Penn – twice – after she divorced Sean) play Toby and Tanner Howard, locked in a toxic cycle of arrested development, one a loyal son but failed husband and the other a loyal brother but ne’er-do-well prodigal. Toby has cared for their dying mother and stands to inherit the dilapidated family homestead (with its recently discovered oil reserves) if he can climb out from under the crushing reverse mortgage that mama foolishly, but necessarily, took out and which is now careening toward foreclosure. Tanner, whose lengthy prison record includes time for bank robbery but surprisingly not for murdering their abusive father, is the anarchic muscle, a Looney Tune with nothing to lose who helps support the otherwise straight-arrow Toby’s scheme. Their plan? Swipe just enough cash from the teller drawers of that very predatory lending bank holding the deed to the family home, pay said bank back the money, secure the land and the oil rights, and leave it all in trust to Toby’s two sons. It’s like the perfect Playhouse 90 – on steroids.

Oh, and the whole enterprise is set among the Great Recession-scorched badlands of Western Texas, where the endless dirty, rusty miles between neon-lit casinos are dotted with billboards touting “Instant, Easy Debt Relief” like Faustian blood-pacts with the financially damned. The long (and folksy) arm of the law is ably represented by True Grit’s Jeff Bridges (absolute mumble-mouthed perfection as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who views his impending retirement as more of a death sentence than an earthly reward) and Twilight‘s Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker – comically poignant gold, playing the stoic straight man, enduring a steady stream of Marcus’ jabs, zingers which shock for being as loving as they are racist).

The film is picaresque, taking place over the course of just a few days. And it is a beauty, well-acted and crafted with such thoughtful precision that it stuns in its quiet verisimilitude. It is an indictment and celebration of the day-to-day crushing dreariness of American life – divorce, mortgages, child care, jobs, ambition, law and order, vanquished dreams – depicting a society that by dint of its unintentionally intentional design oppresses the brightest of hearts, turning mere survival into insurmountable distress. And don’t get me wrong, the movie is still an entertainment of the highest order, bleak but funny and engaging as hell.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Southside with You – otherwise known as the “Obamas’ first date movie” – is a fabulous companion piece to Hell or High Water … believe it or not. Whereas Hell or High Water tweaks the template of “caper flick” into allegory for the complex economic forces that damn the American Dream while simultaneously dangling it before our collective faces, Southside with You takes the “romantic comedy” genre and infuses it with a subtle condemnation of the race/class warfare that squelches opportunity for too many Americans.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Parker Sawyers (a fellow Wabash College graduate, though our time in those hallowed halls, alas, did not overlap) and Sparkle‘s Tika Sumpter (also acting as a producer on the film) are luminous as the eventual First Couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Director Richard Tanne grounds the proceedings in a lush but gritty depiction of the scruffy joys of Chicago-life, and his two leads reward him (and the audience) beautifully. They are so good, subtly evoking mannerisms and vocal stylings, without ever resorting to caricature.

The film opens as these two prepare for the date – Michelle in denial (sort of) that it actually is a date – interacting sweetly with family members, electric in their nervous anticipation of the day before them. There is a gangly charm to these early scenes, humanizing two historical figures whose global accomplishments may have placed them in that unreachable classification: icon. It’s a smart narrative move for all involved.

As the film progresses, we learn that Barack is a summer associate at Michelle’s firm, and she has been assigned as his mentor. Set in the summer of 1989 (and, wow, does Tanne get that right from the fashion and the set direction to the cars and the music, including vintage Janet Jackson and Al B. Sure! playing on the radio), Michelle is cautious about the challenges facing her as a woman of color in a white man’s world, and she will be damned if this upstart intern is going to derail her career with his romantic overtures. He, on the other hand, is as earnest as he is charming, and it is evident that the engagement of each others’ impressive intellectual capacity – their beautiful minds – is how this romance blossomed and flourished.

Southside with You mostly sidesteps the pitfalls of movie biography (the pressing need to tell a whole lot in two short hours) by focusing on just this one day. Given that the narrative hook is a date, the characters have the latitude to ask a lot of questions as they get to know one another, and, by extension, we, as audience members, catch up on essential biographical detail and helpful context. Ninety-five percent of the time this works beautifully, aided and abetted by the naturalness of the performers, but a few moments are jarringly expository (particularly the discussion in the park about Barack’s upbringing) and make Southside with You feel like more of a stage play than a film. Nonetheless, those flaws are few and far between, and as the film moves toward the inevitability of its conclusion, we as viewers are gifted with consummate appreciation for the challenges this partnership overcame – culture, economics, race, gender – to step onto the global stage and effect needed social change.

Early in their date, Michelle and Barack debate the merits and downsides of working in a corporate law firm when there is so much need outside the business world for legal minds to provide community leadership: “There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” It is this existential riddle that drives both Hell or High Water and Southside with You, and, whether you are two down-on-your-luck siblings weighing a life of crime just to pay your mortgage, two lawmen putting in a brutal day’s work and hoping you emerge unscathed, the future First Couple of the United States mapping out a future together, or just some lowly audience member chomping popcorn in the movie theatre, that resonates.

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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.

“I can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

Rich people problems: Endless Love (2014)

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 had low expectations going into the 2014 remake of Endless Love, the 1981 original of which I had never seen nor ever cared to see and which had a title song that always made my scalp itch.

(Seriously, Brooke Shields, who starred in the first film, made her career on one boringly naughty movie after another. Why is it that she now hates on young up-and-comers who have swiped and amped-up her career-making playbook in their own ironically postmodern way? I suspect I just answered my own question.)

How is this latest unnecessary remake of a 1980s film that already lives in perpetuity through the HBO/VHS generation onto the YouTube/Netflix era? Not bad, actually.

The story is Romeo and Juliet if it were written by Nicholas Sparks and directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a hot mess melodrama replete with all kinds of rich people problems – including but certainly not limited to …

  • Mysterious death of a high school football star son on-track to attend an Ivy League school and whose memory is preserved by his vintage Mercedes left rotting exquisitely in the exquisitely landscaped driveway
  • Lonely youngest daughter who tries to honor her OCD heart-surgeon daddy by following in her dead brother’s Ivy League-bound footsteps which apparently means looking and acting like Taylor Swift’s fabulous trust-fund cousin yet having no friends whatsoever
  • Prized daughter disappointing her papa by falling for the sheepish bad boy slab of beef with a heart of gold whose sheer inappropriateness is represented by his love of flannel shirts and by his decorating his bedroom walls with license plates
  • A mother whose writing career was derailed by familial tragedy (and possibly a preoccupation with decor from Pottery Barn) but who rediscovers her inner muse when this saucy lad turns her family’s WASPy world right ’round, baby, ‘right round like a record, baby
  • And, finally, a twiggy middle brother who disappoints his stern father at every turn by declaring his college major as “communications” (apparently a dirty word in this rarefied air), by listening to his dead brother’s vinyl (!) records and not putting them back in their sleeves, and likely also by constantly rocking a Bermuda shorts/blazer/sockless loafer sartorial combo.

All that aside, director Shana Feste, who approaches the material in a workmanlike After-School Special way, wisely stacks her cast with pros who treat the hyperbolic material with as much nuance and heart as they can muster. Leading the way (and arguably saving the film) is Bruce Greenwood as the aforementioned patriarch. He recycles the wounded well-heeled-dad-calcified-by-familial-tragedy routine he applied so remarkably to last fall’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing derivative in his performance here. He offers just the right gravitas and stays within a razor’s edge of Snidely Whiplash territory, giving the film just the perfect amount of tension, discomfort, and propulsion.

By his side in the acting department is the underrated Joely Richardson as his wife. She takes what could have otherwise been a thankless role as the pampered “lady who lunches” and conveys (primarily with those eyes of hers) a world of hurt, confusion, and misplaced optimism.

As the third parent of the piece, Robert Patrick is perfectly fine as the requisite single-father-of-the-boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks. Patrick has left his Terminator 2 days far behind him and has evolved into a decent character actor. And, of course, the film in its sloppy shorthand has him run a gas station/garage … which, if you’ve ever paid for a car repair, means he should be as wealthy as anybody in that d*mn town on whatever Hollywood-planet this movie takes place.

The kids around whom the narrative revolves are fine as well. Apparently, those best-suited to play American teenagers are British actors in their mid-to-late-20s, but Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike, I Am Number Four) and Gabriella Wilde (who played the Amy Irving role in last fall’s Carrie remake – virtually the same character as this… hairstyle, wardrobe, mannerisms, and all) acquit themselves quite well.

I’m not one for movies depicting young love – all those dappled-sunlit montages of two beautiful people doing beautiful people fun things like swimming in lakes, setting off fireworks, riding around in art-designed dilapidated pick-up trucks, or going to rock concerts in the rain.

However, Pettyfer particularly rises above these cliches (if not always rising above his own vanity – you can tell the dude loves the way he looks). He brings a subtle quality of menace and obsession to his role. It is nicely disarming. You aren’t quite sure if Greenwood isn’t kinda sorta right to throw one Wile E. Coyote speed-trap after another in Pettyfer’s unyielding path to wooing/stealing his daughter away.

I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I should, and this one is worth catching at the dollar theatre or on TV, if for no other reason than seeing some well-trained actors traffic in some sudsy melodrama. And, blessedly, that sappy title song is nowhere to be found. Sorry Ms. Ross and Mr. Richie, but color me relieved.

Oh, what hath J.K. Rowling wrought? Beautiful Creatures

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, what hath Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling wrought? The thudding, relentless march of young adult fantasy novels featuring wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, orcs and angst has consumed bookshelves and movie screens for over a decade now.

And for every cinematic blockbuster adaptation – Twilight (blech) or Hunger Games (groan) – the Netflix superhighway is littered with non-starters like The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, I Am Number Fourand Percy Jackson.

Where does Beautiful Creatures, the latest attempt to create a pubescent tentpole franchise sprinkled with pixie dust and Stridex, fit in that continuum? Well, artistically, it’s a lot of fun with a full wink and a smirk at its self-important teenage-targeted forebears…which, commercially, of course, means it will be a big ol’ flop.

Director Richard LaGravenese, who showed such promise with his directorial debut Living Out Loud, does a credible job here, though his pacing is more workmanlike than inspired. Wisely, however, he has stocked his film with a host of Oscar winners/nominees, including Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons as well as talented Emmy Rossum (of Phantom of the Opera-fame) and delightful character actors Margot Martindale and Eileen Atkins.

The cast has a ball with their plummy roles as witches and warlocks debating some incomprehensible nonsense about whether or not young “caster” Lena (played with minimal pretense and maximum warmth by newcomer Alice Englert) will usher in a dark or light age. Doesn’t really matter because the cast is so engaging.

Most noteworthy is Lena’s young “mortal” boyfriend Ethan, portrayed by another newcomer Aiden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is a perfectly postmodern blend (perhaps too self-consciously at times) of Anthony Perkins and James Dean if channeled through the face and voice of Leonardo DiCaprio (with bits of Dougray Scott and James Franco thrown in for good measure). Weird, I know. But true. And he is transfixing. I suspect his career will be one to watch.

I think what I enjoyed most is the fact that the film is sending up its young adult fiction conventions and cliches all while reveling in them. LaGravenese, doing double duty as screenwriter (other credits include my personal favorites The Ref, A Little Princess, and Unstrung Heroes), weaves in smart and fun allusions (and plenty of overt references as well) to some more substantial literary contributors like Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Charles Bukowski,  William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

Set in a small South Carolina backwoods town, Beautiful Creatures uses its corn-pone, crispy-fried, Dixie-goth setting to send up “Red State” religious and intellectual ignorance and fear. Some of it is a bit too “on the nose,” even for my broad and cynical tastes, but I liked that the filmmakers were willing to bite their thumbs at the very audiences who may be flocking to see this film. My favorite line? When young Ethan relates about the local library, “This is my church, this is where my family comes to worship what’s holy: ideas.” Good for him.