“Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” The LEGO Batman Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Everything is (almost) awesome” in The LEGO Batman Movie, a spinoff from the 2014 surprise critical and box office hit The LEGO Movie. While LEGO Batman never quite achieves the warmhearted, dizzyingly progressive whimsy of its predecessor, it compensates with a bonkers absurdity that wouldn’t have been misplaced in a Road Runner cartoon.

Will Arnett returns to gravelly-voice the titular anti-hero, a Trump-esque (by way of Alec Baldwin) billionaire egomaniac whose idea of a good time is fighting (alone) an endlessly looped (and loopy) war on crime where the criminals never actually get locked up and the Batman soaks up a debatably earned shower of community accolades.

Arnett is a one-note hoot, and the filmmakers (director Chris McKay working with a mixed grab-bag of screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington) wisely supplement his singular focus with a sweet-natured supply of supporting characters.

Cast MVPs include a sparklingly feminist Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon (later dubbed “Batgirl,” who quips to Arnett, “Does that make you BatBOY, then?”), a gleefully earnest and utterly over-caffeinated Michael Cera as Dick Grayson (relishing every glimmering, discofied sequin of his admittedly peculiar but comic book accurate “Robin” costume), and a dry-as-a-martini Ralph Fiennes as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s dutiful, shaken-but-not-stirred majordomo Alfred Pennyworth.

Like The LEGO Movie (and just about any children’s movie made. ever.), The LEGO Batman Movie posits a primary thesis that family is everything, even if that family is made up of a collection of well-intentioned, mentally-suspect oddballs (so it’s a fact-based film). Arnett’s Batman comically resists any and all overtures by his friends (and enemies) to connect, collaborate, and love, driven in part by a lightly-touched-upon reference to Batman’s origins losing both of his parents to a gun-toting mugger in Gotham City’s aptly named “Crime Alley.” Alfred cautions Master Bruce, “You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”

This sets up a tortured bromance between Batman and his (sometimes) chief nemesis The Joker, voiced with consummate crazed sweetness by an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. The Joker just wants Batman to acknowledge that they have a special bond, but the Dark Knight’s cuddly sociopathy prevents him from admitting that they truly need each other. “I don’t currently have a bad guy. I’m fighting a few different people. I like to fight around,” Batman dismisses a lip-quivering, weepy-eyed Joker.

The Joker then sets on a path to flip this script, bringing a spilled toybox rogues’ gallery of delightfully random villains (King Kong, Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West and her Flying Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Dr. Who‘s Daleks, Clash of the Titans‘ Medusa and Kraken, Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors, Dracula, Joe Dante’s cinematic Gremlins, and a bunch of glowing skeletons) to destroy Gotham City, reclaim Batman’s attention, and re-establish their dotingly dysfunctional affection for one another.

What made The LEGO Movie such fun was its childlike ability to (s)mash-up incongruous genres (and intellectual properties), much like little boys and girls do with their actual toy collections, wherein it might not be uncommon for Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Barbie to team up against Captain America, He-Man, and Papa Smurf. It was nice to see this bit of anarchic, cross-promotional foolishness continue from one film to another.

For middle-aged comic books buffs, there are Easter Eggs galore. We get obscure Batman villains rarely seen in print, let alone film (Calendar Man? Crazy Quilt? Zebra-Man?!). There is a SuperFriends house party, hosted by Superman (Channing Tatum’s adorably frat boy-ish take on the character continued from The LEGO Movie) at his “Fortress of (Not-So) Solitude” complete with a DJ-ing Wonder Dog, a groovy Martian “Dance”-hunter, and an “It’s a Small World”-esque conga line of Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, Samurai, and the Wonder Twins. Perhaps most impressively, The LEGO Batman Movie manages to telescope nearly 80 years of Bat-history (comics, television, film) into a handful of nifty and very funny montages, simultaneously justifying LEGO’s iconically cracked take on the character while honoring all that has come before.

Upon Robin’s first joy ride in a hot rod-drawn-on-the-back-of-a-Trapper-Keeper version of The Batmobile, Batman turns to him, with his nails-on-a-chalkboard growl, and warns, “Life doesn’t give you seat belts.” And that is likely the most important message in these LEGO movies. Life is going to hand you a lot of lemons, so use your imagination and your inherent sense of joy to keep things fulfillingly messy … and, along the way, feel free to pour lemonade over the heads of anyone who tries to make you follow their arbitrary rules. Make your own rules, and break them freely and often.

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From my personal collection. Yes, I’m nuts.

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.

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

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“What’s there tells a story, if you read between the lines.” Hidden Figures

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The human mind. Regardless the gender, race, age, creed, ethnicity of the physical form carrying that brain around, intellect can be the great unifier, driving humanity’s greatest contributions to this planet. Sadly and too often, our simplistic yet unrelenting cultural need to categorize and compartmentalize makes us lock away – belittling, ignoring, neglecting – the contents of brilliant minds in a vault of misogyny, prejudice, fear, and hate.

Hidden Figures is more than a film about how endemic institutional sexism and racism nearly derailed the American space program – a program so often held, perhaps erroneously, as the beaming example of progress and inclusion, inspiring multicultural fables from Star Trek to EPCOT Center.

Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a heartbreaking yet inspiring, trenchant yet forgiving, tear-jerking yet intellectual, timebound yet timeless allegory/cautionary tale for the mistakes we Americans are doomed to repeat when we let our baser, viler instincts cloud our appreciation for how diversity – the essential fabric of the much-vaunted U.S. of A. experience – enriches/enhances/enables our collective ability to problem-solve, defy the odds, and dream huge.

This movie got to me. Bigly.

The film’s marketing campaign – effective as it has been (giving Rogue One a run for its money at this weekend’s box office) – gives the impression of yet another in a too-long line of Lifetime-telefilm-meets-Oscar-bait-lets-wrap-American-racism-in-the-golden-hued-bubble-wrap-of-safe-historical-distance flicks. And, yes, the selfsame gorgeous cinematography, the jewel-toned zing of too-crisp-1960s fashion and decor and cars, the winking let-us-take-a-breather comic relief, the anachronistic pop music score (Pharrell Williams doing double duty as the film’s producer and composer) are all there.

Don’t be fooled. There is a stronger, more cutting message at play here than, say, in DreamWorks’ similarly positioned, cozy race fairy tale The Help. Whether Hollywood realizes it or not, too often big budget films dealing with race and gender bias unintentionally perpetuate the very bias they are attempting to decry. The persecuted class is too often “rescued” by someone (usually a pleasant, conflicted, well-heeled white person, male or female) who steps outside the cultural norms of the persecutors to pave the way for social justice. You know what? That’s an annoying trope that needs to retired. Doesn’t mean it’s untrue, but we’ve seen it. A lot. And whether we accept it or not, said trope seems engineered to let everyone off the hook, selling tickets because we all leave the theatre feeling good with our heads still buried in the sand.

Hidden Figures is slyer work, and I, for one, am grateful for that fact. You do leave the theatre “feeling good,” but for a different reason – one you may not see for days or even weeks. Crackerjack Taraji P. Henson (Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner for Empire, Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) portrays one of NASA’s resident human “computers” Katherine Johnson. She states, while faced with a particularly vexing mathematical problem, “What’s there tells a story if you read between the lines.” Amen. The protagonists of Hidden Figures – African-American women thinking and feeling in an era, not unlike the present one, where their thoughts and emotions are not only unappreciated but vigorously unwanted – do not need a rescuer or a hero. They save themselves – not to mention the space program and American pride – with their wits and their will and their very American drive to realize their own ambitions.

The film in its entirety is perfection, but Henson is the rocket fuel that keeps the enterprise propelled. She is a star, eminently watchable, with a character actor’s gift for definition, nuance, and differentiation. She inhabits and frames every scene with such spark and such drive, with such believable caution and frustration, with such compassion and inquisitiveness that you never want her to leave the screen. Henson rarely overplays any moment – there are very few over-the-top snippets where you say, “Oh, that’s the clip they will play at the Oscars.” The few outsized aspects to the performance are so righteously earned that they land like the perfect punctuational flourishes in a fine symphony. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this film nearly as much with anyone else in the role.

Nonetheless, Henson is aided and abetted by strong turns from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as data expert Dorothy Vaughan in another derivation of Spencer’s trademark world-weary “take no mess” tenacity and Grammy-nominated R&B wunderkind Janelle Monae (Moonlight) as engineering savant Mary Jackson whose peppery perspective gleefully, warily challenges the status quo at every fork in the road (“Civil rights ain’t always civil“).

Oscar-winner Kevin Costner was born to play 1960s sad-sack, pocket-protected, horn-rimmed, progressive misanthropes slogging through government jobs, searching for one bright spot in a sea of bureaucrats (see JFK and about half of his filmography). As space program director Al Harrison, Costner’s scenes with Henson crackle at the heart of the film: two human beings, neither of whom could really give two damns about race or gender, in love with the idea of solving big problems but burdened by a corporate culture (and society writ large), cutting off its collective nose to spite its collective face so threatened by authentic wit and wisdom, consumed by petty jealousy, and immobilized by resentment. Costner ruefully intones at one point, “We can’t justify a space program that doesn’t put anything into space.”

Golden Globe-winner Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) is also great as a mid-level NASA manager who inadvertently blocks progress at every turn, dutifully following a governmental system rigged against forward-thinking yet somehow intended to land a man on the moon. Dunst is so underrated; I wasn’t even sure it was her until I looked up the cast list on my phone halfway through the film (with apologies to my movie-seat neighbors). Dunst rejects the indulgence of playing juicy, stereotypical “racist villain” notes in the film, presenting instead a believably bedraggled functionary who knows her paycheck is contingent upon her being a rule-following twit.

Less successful in that regard, Jim Parsons (Emmy-winner for The Big Bang Theory) is underwhelming in his role as Henson’s rival and nemesis Paul Stafford. Without Sheldon Cooper’s OCD-nerd-centric tics, Parsons just comes off as a dull, hateful milquetoast. That may have been by design on the part of director Theodore Melfi but could have been accomplished more effectively and interestingly with a lesser-known actor.  On the other end of the spectrum, Glen Powell is a bit too twinkle-eyed in his “Prince Charming buying the world a Coke” portrayal of astronaut John Glenn. To his credit (and the film’s detriment), Powell leaps off the screen every time he appears – like Ed Norton’s prettier, caramel-dipped brother – but he is just “too-too” for me, disrupting the workaday credibility of the film’s depiction of NASA.

However, these are minor quibbles, made more obvious when the film surrounding them is so good. Film’s about the space program (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity) always use America’s race to the stars as a metaphor for human progress but frequently get side-tracked by the technical mumbo jumbo and with countless shots of retro Americans slack-jawed and gawking at the sky. Hidden Figures isn’t that movie, with the exception of a few corny shots of retro Americans slack jawed and gawking at the sky as Glenn makes his nail-biting return to earth in the film’s final moments. Hidden Figures is a movie about brilliant minds, unfairly marginalized by American superficiality, for whom mathematics is a language unto itself (the film runs rings around A Brilliant Mind in that regard). That language presents a path whereby three transcendent voices cut through the crap and the clutter of America’s sad “traditions” of sexism and racism. Hidden Figures is the movie America needs right now.

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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 never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.” Jackie (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is a real flesh-and-blood human being actually feeling in the midst of historical crisis? Forget how a history book packages the moment or how a watercolor painting inspires or what a media soundbite mythologizes or what the gossip-mongers would have us believe. What does the heart and mind actually experience when all hell is breaking loose around one, and how does that manifest in terms of integrity and leadership?

That is the central conceit of Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (later Onassis) and how she responded to and dealt with the assassination of her husband, quite literally in. her. lap.  This movie doesn’t make it easy on the viewer. Director Pablo Larrain traffics in visceral terrain, leaving your Hallmark Hall of Fame standard biopic in a dusty heap. Jackie Kennedy was an avowed Francophile, and the film itself has a gauzy French impressionist feel throughout, like a nauseating bad dream that folds in on itself, confounding the viewer with abstract symbolism and illuminating through eerie parallels. Even the musical score, which I found deeply affecting, has a jarring dissonance as beautiful as it is horrifying. In fact, the notes and chords used wouldn’t be out of place in your average slasher movie, and maybe that’s what Jackie actually is?

I am not much of a Natalie Portman fan – I still find Black Swan confounding, and her run as Padme Amidala (Star Wars prequels) grates to this day – but I thought she was a revelation here. Much has been said of Portman’s replication of Jackie’s clipped upper-crust accent and her affecting of the First Lady’s mannerisms and style, but what made me give forth the ugly cries during Jackie‘s first twenty minutes was the juxtaposition of nervous, guarded Jackie filming her famed White House special with shots of her on that fateful day in Dallas, scared for her life and her future, grieving her husband, and trying to find a pathway out. In a deeply impactful conceit, the director contrasts Portman (as Jackie) filming the White House special and its then-revolutionary notion of restoring the presidential domicile as a means of ensuring legacy and respect, with the abrupt and cruel murder of arguably one of the brightest lights in American politics at that time, a light that represented for many citizens great hopes for the future. I personally found the sequence devastating, although I did note that I seemed to be the only person in my Ann Arbor theater crying like a fool. (#Softie.)

From there, Portman as Jackie sits down with a hard-boiled reporter (a solemn, dubious, and engaging Billy Crudup who looks and acts more like Darren McGavin’s prettiest nephew every day) to recount the events of that fateful day and of her overall perspective on her brief stint as the First Lady. What the film drives home, more clearly than any other Kennedy biography I’ve yet viewed (and I’ve seen a lot), is the ephemeral and fleeting moment in time Jack and Jackie actually spent in Washington, D.C., and how fiercely Jackie protected what remained of their legacy after the assassination. When asked by Crudup if she displayed her children opportunistically during President Kennedy’s funeral procession to gain comfort and security through sympathy and adulation, she responds coolly, “I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.”

The fiction of the film may very well be in the way Larrain positions Jackie as someone relentlessly documenting past, present, and future through an authoritarian’s view of narrative. The flick’s few humorous bits spin out of this perspective, as in the moment when Jackie, chain-smoking obsessively, notes to Crudup with firm certainty, “I don’t smoke.” An exchange like this, sardonically, is a breath of fresh air in Jackie‘s otherwise oppressive presentation.

Yet, this movie has to be oppressive.

Our society has gotten so cavalier about political rivalry and of threatening violence to those with whom we may differ philosophically. Consequently, this film becomes an essential part of our ongoing societal discourse. These deep cultural fissures in present-day America fall along many of the same socioeconomic, racial, gender, generational divides that wracked 1960s America. The ills of that decade (rampant assassinations, global conflict, violent protests) eventually became a kind of distant cultural wallpaper as time inevitably marched on. “Oh, we won’t ever be like that again,” we sighed collectively. Yet, here we are, perhaps worse than we were then; what happens if we don’t stop and think how violence and divisive rhetoric shatters families, shatters hope, and shatters our nation.

Jackie gets a bit muddled in its midsection, as narrative devices start to pile up: Jackie speaking to the reporter; Jackie speaking to a priest (the redoubtable John Hurt); Jackie chastising various cabinet members (including Attorney General and brother-in-law Bobby as played by Peter Sarsgaard who does a credible job relaying the protective anxiety of the character if not exactly nailing his look or cadences);  Jackie wandering around the White House listening to Camelot in a drunken stupor, trying on dresses and gathering up framed photographs by the armful. For some, this section will seem self-indulgent. For me, it reinforced what an inescapable nightmare this time must have been. Jackie got under my skin (in a good way), and created empathy and admiration for this woman trying to reclaim whatever power was left to her as life literally fell apart for her and for the world. Yet, even I would have trimmed about 20 minutes from the picture … and cut around three or four costume changes.

A little over a decade ago, my mother and I went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and saw the exhibit of Jackie Kennedy’s life, fashion, and historical impact. Every suit she wore was like chain mail, tightly woven, crisp, tiny, Chanel. It struck both of us – even then – what kind of world she must have been guarding against, constructing such a structured, aggressively controlled, protective bubble (clothes, decor, fashion, history, routine, rigor) around herself.  I suppose now we know the answer, and, sadly, that world has changed very little, regardless of your particular political persuasion.  Jackie Kennedy had great wit and great intelligence, and Jackie, the film, does a fine job capturing the coiled ferocity of someone who could survive such tumult and emerge on the other side an icon. I found the film upsetting and inspiring – and that is about as American as anything can be

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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.

“You view the world through a keyhole.” Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You view the world through a keyhole,” intones an  eyebrow-less (and bald) Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck), as the Ancient One – yet another in her long-line of eyebrow-less fortune cookie-philosophizing androgyne Yoda-lite characters – in Marvel Studios’ latest offering Doctor Strange.

Let’s face it, her synthetic ethereality is a lock for movies like this. How she isn’t sitting beside Stan Lee (on a bus, in a plane, on a boat, in a car) for every single one of his corny, ubiquitous cameos in these Marvel flicks is beyond me.

The recipient of her philosophical guidance in the film is one Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness), every bit her interplanetary match in the wide-eyed, chiseled-cheek-boned, glacial-foreheaded race for cinematic space alien beauty. Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, an egomaniac neurosurgeon whose egomania is totally justified by his remarkable skills in the operating room. Cumberbatch’s Strange wisely takes a page or two from the Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark “charming spoiled cad” playbook, layering in a welcome dollop or two of dyspepsia, contempt, and petulance.

As in any fairy tale … er … Marvel movie, our hero has a tragic flaw: Strange is a jerk.

  • He’s punished for it:  while driving his fancy sports car like an entitled and distracted prat, Strange finds his elegant surgeon hands crunched to paste in a grinding car accident.
  • He seeks redemption: under the tutelage of Swinton’s Ancient One, he learns some gobbledygook about not letting fear hold one back, realizing that what gets one here won’t get one there, and identifying who might have moved one’s cheese … or something that sounded vaguely like the counsel of a bad business self-help book one might be forced to read in an MBA class.
  • AND, voila!, he gains magical superpowers (plus, a nifty cape that behaves a bit like the mischievous, yet helpful, mice in Cinderella).

It’s all great fun with just the right touch of solemnity – the latter, no doubt, chiefly a contribution of the one-note, award-winning Brit gravitas that Swinton and Cumberbatch bring to everything they do. Director Scott Derrickson has cast the film exceedingly well. We also have Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) as Strange’s medical peer, confidante, and, yes, sometimes girlfriend (we can’t have everything). McAdams brings spark and wit, fire and intelligence, elevating Strange’s backstory in a compelling and heartfelt way. Mads Mikkelson (who seems consigned to always have black or bloody tears emanating from his unearthly peepers – see: LeChiffre in Casino Royale) is capably understated as Strange’s villainous foil Kaecilius. Benedict Wong (The Martian) delivers wry comic timing as Strange’s tutor/librarian/sidekick Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) successfully counterbalances Wong with ambivalent notes of resentful admiration toward Strange as friend/rival Mordo, foreshadowing intriguing future conflict.

Strange is visually sumptuous, taking the MC Escher stylings of Inception or Interstellar, losing the ponderous Christopher Nolan self-righteous self-aggrandizement, and amping up the kaleidoscopic fun. Skyscraper-lined city blocks fold upon themselves like origami; mirror images bend and twist and deceive; entire galaxies devolve into motes of dust. This movie is trippy, playfully updating, for the Millennial crowd, gonzo artist Steve Ditko’s 1960s psychedelic visuals of Doctor Strange’s original four-color adventures. Like Marvel’s recent Ant-Man, Doctor Strange succeeds by embracing the free-wheeling whimsy in its source material, but grounding the proceedings (and its audience) in our common humanity and the very real consequences of our bad judgment.

I have a confession to make. For the past month or maybe longer, I have not much felt like writing. Or had much interest in seeing movies for that matter. The results of our recent election (not to my liking) have thrown me for a bit of a loop. Additionally (and from a completely selfish perspective), in the past few weeks, I’ve had some heartbreak in my theatre life, we have had some of the mind-numbing/back-breaking “Money Pit” unforeseen distractions that all of us share as middle-aged homeowners, and I find myself looking down the barrel of an impending holiday season that (any more) seems to bring more mania than holly jolly.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yet, I keep thinking about that line from Swinton’s Ancient One character. Albeit cliched, the line is spot on (as cliches often are): we do view the world through a keyhole, a self-constructed self-pitying sliver of perspective, forcing us to lose the moment and live out-of-sync with our loved ones, with our surroundings, and with ourselves. That is the magic of loud, plastic, silly, allegorical movies like this. Every fable has its very important lesson, and we should never be too old to listen.

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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.

 

“That’s a very long paragraph.” “It started four pages ago.” Genius (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Creativity is as delicate and fragile as a piece of spun glass. The very act of opening your soul and sharing your deepest expression with strangers is one of absolute bravery and complete foolhardiness. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that so astutely captures the death-defying nausea of creative expression as the movie Genius (now on DVD and streaming) does.

Taking its cue from the critically acclaimed autobiography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, the film (directed by Michael Grandage and written by John Logan) details the celebrated, though relatively unknown, editor’s relationship with nascent author Thomas Wolfe, arguably most famous for the roman a clef Look Homeward, Angel. Perkins also worked with acclaimed authors F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by a soulful Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (a cheeky Dominic West), both of whom make appearances in the film as a sort of Ghosts of Christmas Past/Present finger-wagging Greek chorus.

You see, Wolfe, as deftly portrayed by Jude Law (suffering only for being a good foot shorter than the real Wolfe) had an outsized personality, as deep-feeling, purple, and egomaniacal as his prose. Law offers us a Wolfe as lovable as he is insufferable, a bounding puppy dog infatuated with his own observations and the thousands of scribbled pages he cranks out by hand.

Perkins, depicted by Colin Firth in one of his most nuanced and affecting performances to date, is the only editor willing to take a chance on this wild- haired North Carolinian Id. Working for Scribner and Sons, Perkins’ job is to take self-indulgent clay and cajole it into popular art. Perkins’ track record was without compare, including shepherding The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, among other classic works.

Firth gives us a peek into the kind of temperament willing to work within a mental health spectrum that might drive lesser humans to drink. The quiet, eccentric joy he gleans from coaching authors to find their voices in a way that connects with readers is subtle, gracious, and moving. (I suspect Firth could make a movie about stamp-collecting that would be transporting.) At one point, one of Perkins’ daughters peering over her father’s shoulders at Wolfe’s manuscript queries, “That’s a very long paragraph.” He replies dryly, “It started four pages ago.”

Law and Firth are aided and abetted by a supporting cast that includes Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman as their respective partners in life, both of whom have creative ambitions of their own, chiefly in the theater. What the film gives us in this quartet is a foursome at varying stages of acceptance and frustration that no art exists in a vacuum and that our success in life, reaching the broadest audience possible with our ideas, requires painful compromise and the occasional deal with the devil.

I suppose I am acutely sensitive to this fact because, as I get older, I watch my theater company evolve and grow and encompass new, younger talents, and I am potentially displaced. And, professionally, as I leave one job with a beloved set of colleagues this fall for a new opportunity, I am trying to adjust my own outsized personality to a new culture, seeking acceptance for the work I’ve done before and the work I have yet to accomplish. I believe this film will speak to anyone engaged in creative endeavors or working in corporate America or both. The question is whether you see yourself more as Wolfe, an  extroverted sensualist seeking the approval of mankind for the emotions worn so proudly on one’s sleeve? Or are you a Perkins, stifling your own creative ambitions, in servitude to inspiring the best in others, putting life on hold in the off-chance magic will occur through collaboration? I’m still working on that question for myself, but I’m grateful to this film for posing it.

Are you a writer or an editor? I guess that is for each of us to decide.

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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.

 

“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.

“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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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.

“That outfit looks like Jimmy Buffett’s dust ruffle … or the wallpaper in a Long John Silver’s bathroom.” Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike-and-Dave-Need-Wedding-Dates-2016-Comedy-Movie-Inspired-by-a-true-storyI daresay we see too many Zac Efron movies in our household (evidence here and here and here). Perhaps an intervention is required. His cinematic output is not exactly transcendent, but it ain’t bad either. Efron has become the poster boy for pleasant-diversion, middlebrow-comedy, derivative filmmaking. And I suspect it’s a lucrative and easy life, with just an inordinate number of sit-ups and bench-presses required.

Efron can sing. He’s cornered a unique underdog, alpha-himbo comic niche. He’s man-pretty, in a distracted, dissipated, vacuous way. He can dance. Before the advent of sophomoric gross-out rom-coms, he would have probably been John Davidson. (If you’re under 40, Google him.)

But here we are. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. We saw it, ‘Murica, in a need to go see something stupid and funny and palate-cleansing after a busy theatre month. And it did the trick.

Throw Wedding Crashers, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Bridesmaids, Meet the Parents, and an episode of Animaniacs into a Cuisinart, and you’d get something approximating this flick. And that’s not a bad thing, because, what all of those influences have at their core (beyond the Post-Its and the poop jokes) is an inherent sweetness, an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition, and a wily distaste for both the clusterf*ck ostentation of modern weddings and the phony pretense of “growing up.”

Based on a hyperbolic “true story” as can only exist in post-millennial internet-obsessed America, Mike and Dave tells the story of the Stangle Bros, puckish siblings locked in a self-destructive cycle of privilege, self-absorption, and arrested development. You see, these boys, as played by Efron and Pitch Perfect‘s Adam DeVine are sawed-off li’l Hollister-wearing muscle jocks whose daily life is spent in package liquor sales and whose evenings are occupied trying to make family gatherings more fun through a healthy heaping of fireworks, chemical influence, and general mayhem.

We all know these guys. They view themselves as not just the “life of the party” but the party itself, not realizing they leave scorched earth, tears, and exhaustion in their wake – their pursuit of spontaneity at all costs actually driving everyone in their orbit into increasingly rigid anxiety. The film sets this up in a clever way with an opening credits montage demonstrating the Stangle Bros’ “fun” like a glammed up highlights reel from the Jackass television show, juxtaposed later in the film with a grainy, home-movie montage showing what really happened.

The boys’ beloved sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard, a comic elf with nitroglycerine in her veins … hope she gets more work!) is getting married in one of those cost-prohibitive, vulgar “destination weddings” only seen in film … or on Facebook. Given the brothers’ propensity to ruin everything, Jeanie, her fiance (Sam Richardson, a wry and reserved powder-keg), and parents (the always dependable Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) insist that Mike and Dave bring actual dates to this event, under the false assumption that having women to “monitor” their foolish impulses will make any difference at all.

Of course, this being the world in which we now live, Mike and Dave post an ad on CraigsList (nothing bad ever happens via CraigsList, eh?), and a pair of lightning rods Alice and Tatiana answer the call (chiefly because they want the free trip to Hawaii). Into the Woods‘ Anna Kendrick (as Alice) and Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza (as Tatiana) are dynamite. I don’t think I could (or should) go so far as to suggest this trifle of a movie is feminist, but the way these two rip up the screen and any shred of dignity the brothers have left is a sight to behold. Needless to say, they do not take to their roles as “baby-sitters” and proceed to demolish the nuptials in ways the boys could only dream about.

Plaza particularly is a revelation, her banjo eyes and sardonic delivery bespeaking a world of hurt that someone so young should not yet have experienced. And don’t get me wrong, there is no poignancy in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates – like zero, like no attempt even made – but Plaza (and Kendrick too) do great work beyond the thin confines of the script to represent fully developed if utterly misdirected minds onscreen, giving the film a lift and, dare I say, import that is likely 100% accidental.

Oh, and the film adds a meddlesome cousin (Terry), who seems to exist simply to provide unnecessary narrative complication, but Alice Wetterlund (who could play Kate McKinnon’s sister) tears into the role with a fire that is delightful and necessary. The raging Id to Mike and Dave’s SuperEgo. She sizes up the boys’ wedding ensembles, reducing them to ash with one of the funniest lines in the film: “That outfit looks like Jimmy Buffett’s dust ruffle … or the wallpaper in a Long John Silver’s bathroom.”

There are about three cringe-worthy scenes, the kind which always seem to be plopped into these enterprises solely to create Tweet-worthy shock value, all easily excised when aired on TBS in two years. Just muddle through those sequences, and focus on the sparkle at play between Plaza and Kendrick and the way their work enhances and critiques the more heavy-handed bro-comedy of, say, DeVine, in particular. Efron remains a cipher in his own film, and I think that’s a conscious decision on his part. He is funniest in befuddled observation, and he has a lot of that to do here.

Now, if only Hollywood had been brave enough to make Alice and Tatiana DON’T Need Wedding Dates. I’d RSVP for that.

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Mike-and-Dave-Need-Wedding-Dates-MovieReel 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.

“It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Captain Kirk, sweetie, darling: Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning a beloved television series into a motion picture event and expanding the small screen confines to cinematic vistas can yield remarkable results (The Untouchables, Addams Family Values, 21 Jump Street, Charlie’s Angels, Sex and the City) or abysmal ones (Coneheads, Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Wild Wild West, Sex and the City 2). Admittedly, it’s a tricky gambit, balancing the crushing demands of commerce and misplaced nostalgia with heightened expectations of scale and postmodern reinvention. There is bound to be disappointment.

So color me refreshed that two TV-based film reboots Star Trek Beyond and Absolutely Fabulous the Movie (viewed this weekend after finally digging out from a month or so of Xanadu preparation and performance) achieved more right than wrong on the big screen. Obviously, Trek has been at this movie blockbuster game longer than our intrepid British boozehound fashionistas Patsy Stone and Edina Monsoon, but, in both instances, the films translate all the character beats and shenanigans expected while sufficiently bringing our heroes into larger-than-boob-tube-life environs.

Star Trek Beyond continues the sleek, comic, well-acted renaissance begun by J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) with Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Beyond copious lens flares and consummate 1960s-mod-for-21st-Century-millennials art direction, Abrams’ best contribution to the franchise has been a beautifully curated cast of actors (Into the Woods‘ Chris Pine, American Horror Story‘s Zachary Quinto, Harold and Kumar‘s John Cho, Dredd‘s Karl Urban, Paul‘s Simon Pegg, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Zoe Saldana, and the late Anton Yelchin of Fright Night) who leverage the iconic DNA of those d-list actors who came before (respectively, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, DeForrest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig), adding irreverent sparkle and authentic character development to give us a Trek with appeal that extends far beyond the madding comic-con crowd.

This latest installment, ably directed by The Fast and the Furious-franchise vet Justin Lin with a seamless stylistic transition from Abrams’ offerings, is all-popcorn all the time with one dizzying set piece after another. In fact, the first act firefight between The Enterprise and the swarm-like armada of Krall is so manic the audience is likely in need of Dramamine for the rest of the picture. A strange hybrid of Darth Vader and The Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Krall is played adequately by an unrecognizable Idris Alba (Luther) … continuing the regrettable habit of the Abrams-era Trek films wasting fabulous actors – Eric Bana, Benedict Cumberbatch – as half-baked, forgettable villains.  Krall is after some cosmic doodad so he can destroy a Federation space station called Yorktown (if MC Escher had designed the Death Star in partnership with the Wizard of Oz and The United Colors of Benetton). Y’see, Krall hates the Federation for, in essence, stealing a plot point from the movie Event Horizon (kidding, sort of), and his scheme to destroy them borrows heavily from Return of the Jedi‘s Moon of Endor sequence with a sprinkling of Avatar‘s don’t trust anyone/unity vs. divisiveness narrative polemic. I admit that last bit resonated a bit more than it probably should have, given the GOP’s national mob rally … er … convention this past week.

To be honest, the plot doesn’t matter (in a good way) as the film borrows its retro structure from classic Trek episodes when the core crew gets split up planet-side and pairs off in unconventional ways to defeat the big bad wolf and demonstrate how diversity brings strength, ingenuity, and great one-liners. We get a fun new character in Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella (“Jaylah”), a resourceful ghost-faced alien/feminist warrior with an affinity for gangster rap (“classical music” to the rest of the crew, or, as she states, “I like the beat and the yelling”) who, more or less solves every crisis single-handedly. And probably deserves her own film (#ImWithAlienHer).

absolutely-fabulous-the-movie-poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of an inconsequential plot, Absolutely Fabulous the Movie is as fizzy as a freshly opened bottle of Bollinger champagne and with just as little nutritional value. Like Chris Pine’s Kirk and company, Jennifer Saunders’ Eddy and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy wink at the camera, knowing full well the audience is as interested in how they ridicule the source material as celebrate it. AbFab ran in the early-to-mid 90s on the BBC and on Comedy Central (with a few additional seasons and TV movies for good measure into the 2000s). The series relentlessly skewered celebrity-culture well before it was such. a. thing. (Thanks, TMZ and Perez Hilton and Kardashians … for nothing.) And Patsy and Edina with their chemically-altered lives and propensity for fashion-victimhood anticipated the solipsism of shallow, egomaniacal dunderheads like The Real Housewives, Sarah Palin, The Bachelor, Justin Bieber, and, um, Donald Trump. (I’d vote for Joanna Lumley any day – her Botoxed ire for any who dare ask her to smoke outside is worth the price of admission alone.)

This Abbott and Costello for the Reality TV age couldn’t have re-emerged at a better moment. Their bewilderment over and preoccupation with a world that values youth and shiny objects over pretty much anything/anyone with even the slightest shred of substance is as timely an allegory as we can get. The film relates Eddy’s desperate need to right her PR career (“I do PR, darling. Lots of PR things.”), leading her to a series of random celebrity encounters, like an R-rated Muppet Movie, with Jon Hamm, Joan Collins, Dame Edna, Graham Norton, Chris Colfer, Emma Bunton, Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, and a bunch of other celebs vaguely familiar if you’ve ever spent any time on BBC America. Eventually, her spiraling hysteria results in model Kate Moss falling off a balcony and disappearing into the Thames (don’t ask), and Eddy finds herself on the wrong-end of a media maelstrom for the catwalk siren’s possible “murder.”

There are endless opportunities for materialistic sight-gags as heinous fashion is celebrated as high art, and Lumley regularly steals the show, particularly when she dresses up as a man – a swaggering Tom Selleck with a blonde pony-tail, eviscerating insufferable machismo –  to woo a dowager empress on the French Riviera. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, anyone? All the series favorites return, including Julia Sawalha as Eddy’s long-suffering/happily martyred daughter Saffron (who has a number of surprisingly delicate character turns as she wrestles with her own aging and her complicated familial relations), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) as Eddy’s craftily inept assistant “Bubble,” Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as Eddy’s frosty rival Claudia Bing, June Whitfield as Eddy’s exasperated/instigating mother, and Mo Gaffney as Saffron/Saffy’s myopically liberal step-mother Bo.

The film, like the original series, is cluttered with indecipherable in-jokes, though the movie blessedly cuts down on TV AbFab‘s tendency toward sloppy ad libs and muttered asides that could occasionally make for a frustrating (American, that is) viewing experience. Regardless, the film succeeds beautifully on multiple levels: reinvigorating our interest in Patsy and Eddy as a sozzled Didi and Gogo for our self-obsessed internet days, eviscerating a 1%-er culture that sacrifices humanity for Chanel, and, most surprisingly, layering in a tender and poignant assessment of society’s tendency to pillory those who fall at the crossroads of age and gender (#ImWithHerAndPatsyAndEddy).

As Chris Pine’s Kirk intones at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, “It’s hard to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial.” Well, said, Kirk, sweetie, darling. Well said.

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5 Sebastian Gerstner Jenna Pittman Kristin McSweeney Logan Balcom Paige Martin as Muses and KiraReel 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.