“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.

“What’s escrow?” Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A couple of years ago, I really kinda hated the movie Neighbors with Zac Efron and Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen. I mean it got under my skin and creeped me out and gave me a stomachache because I couldn’t understand why people liked it so much. In that sense, it was probably more effective than I accepted at the time.

Yet, somehow I still found myself drawn to its sequel, the recently released Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I had a profoundly unexpected reaction to this film, a movie that I would’ve otherwise suspected to be a completely superfluous studio money grab: I adored it. It is as crude and toxic as its predecessor, yet somehow is a perfectly redemptive bookend. Neighbors 2 is a counterpoint to its predecessor’s bromantic orgy of debauchery. It is a rowdy feminist anthem for acceptance and tolerance with a firm belief that, no matter how ugly life gets, anyone and anything can be saved (not in the religious sense but in the humanistic one).

As before, Rose Byrne is the secret weapon, her flinty worry creating comic sparks in the most absurd circumstances. Rogen does fine being Rogen, but he is aided and abetted by Byrne’s ability to be grounded and believable and cartoonish all in the same instance. You believe Byrne is a caring parent, a fretful homeowner, and a person striving for relevance in a world that can’t wait to leave us all in the dust. She’s magic.

And then there is Zac Efron. Not long ago, if you’d asked me if he could mature beyond a dreamy-eyed slab of beef into a thoughtful, nuanced actor, I would have given you a definitive “no.” How wrong I was. He is so poignant in this film, with a deft, surgically precise comic touch – the rare alchemy that can only happen when a character is played at the crossroads of disaffected heartbreak and well-intentioned vacuousness.  If Montgomery Clift and Judy Holliday had had a love child, it would be Efron’s character Teddy in this movie. He beautifully captures the nauseous yearning everyone feels with the passing of the comfortable, bohemian structure of college days. Efron’s Teddy is the little boy lost fraternity brother who had put so much of his energy and time into building superficially “timeless” bonds that he now is completely bewildered by the cruel, corrosive velocity of adulthood.

Through this lens, we are introduced to a sorority that moves in next door to Rogen and Byrne, causing no end of formulaic mischief, duplicating the narrative arc of the prior film. In this go-round, though, the story is shot through with a bold sense of millennial feminism, the kind of kids who want independence and tolerance, but don’t understand how vile their ageist, tech-obsessed lifestyles can be.

Chloe Grace Moretz is the sorority ringleader, and she is the perfect foil for Efron, who initially serves as house advisor to the girls. Moretz carries the same optimistic arrogance and uncertain certainty that Efron projected in the last film, with a sense of urgency and wrongheaded-determination that propels the film as her sorority sisters proceed to torture Rogen and Byrne. You see, the young couple are selling their cute bungalow to upgrade to a cookie cutter dream home, but have no idea that, when their current home is in “escrow,” the incoming buyers have 30 days to back out of the deal (if say, a sorority moves in next door and trashes the place). The film does such a fabulous job lightly skewering the hipster “mommy and daddy” culture, one foot stuck in their own college days and the other in a highly mortgaged plastic grave.

Dave Franco appears again as Efron’s best friend and fraternity brother, and there is a gently sweet subplot of Franco’s engagement to his longtime boyfriend, with Efron seamlessly stepping into the role of best man and abandoned confidante. There is a lovely “why is this a big deal?” to their interactions that bespeaks an American evolution that should give us all hope.

The film is plenty crass, with a boatload of cringe-worthy moments, but I found it such a loving and inclusive enterprise, as if someone had taken the blueprint from Neighbors and overlaid it with a healthy dose of Bridesmaids, that I am still smiling. I suspect my opinion will run counter to that of many fans of these sorts of films because we are living in a country that continues to see women as frightening, as something “other” to be ridiculed, demeaned, and contained. This film turns that wrongheaded notion on its head, unleashing the unapologetically jubilant female id and reminding us that we are all humans, frightened of what tomorrow may bring, attempting to enjoy whatever happiness we can today. #ImWithHer

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Zac-Efron-32Reel 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.

“True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.” Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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At the mid-point of Zack Snyder’s action figure fever dream Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (holy bejeezus do I still hate that title!), Diana Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) sizes up a surly, grizzled, poster-child-of-arrested-development Bruce Wayne and posits, “True what they say of little boys … born without the inclination to share.”

That cutting insight could describe our current presidential primary carnival as much as it does the central conflict in DC Comics’ latest cinematic opus. Delivered as it is by one of the most compelling characters in the film (a sleek yet playful Gal Gadot), it becomes the closest thing Dawn of Justice has to a thesis statement.

Picking up where the financially successful but emotionally hollow Man of Steel ended, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize the rampant, inane video game violence which concluded the earlier film by doubling down (hate that expression) on that narrative misstep. Whereas Man of Steel started compellingly but quickly devolved into a scrap pile of muddy fight scenes, jarring explosions, and broken toys, Dawn of Justice attempts to rationalize such lazy film-making by leveraging it to create character motivation. In short, Superman knocked down one of Batman’s buildings, and the Dark Knight is pissed.

Yet, here’s the thing, Dawn of Justice, unlike Man of Steel, ends up being more than just the sum of its testosterone addled parts. It’s actually rather good and kind of fun, and, accidentally or on purpose, it is the ideal allegory for a year (make that an era) in which we as a nation are much too cynical to accept whatever good comes our way (or that others do on our behalf), hellbent as we are to turn every moment, every accomplishment, every person into a chance to rip at the seams of our own cultural fabric – where “culture wars” play out across keyboards and cable TV erupting in violence in shopping malls and school cafeterias.

I know I’m in the minority on this film. Yet, the way we as a nation all have fallen all over ourselves (like lemmings?) decrying Dawn of Justice since its debut – that the film is some colossal cinematic f*ck-up the likes of which we haven’t seen since Liz Taylor thought that a lot of eyeliner would make her suitably Egyptian in Cleopatra –  exemplifies how breathlessly hyperbolic we’ve all become. I hypothesize, in fact, that may be what this film is trying to say to us: that we are a nation of provincial villagers wielding pitchforks and torches, ever-ready to tear apart our would-be heroes and saviors.

Maybe that’s why no one likes this flick?

The physical showdown between Batman and Superman serves as the centerpiece of the film’s marketing, but I think that sales job does a disservice to the actual battle that grounds the film: a philosophical one. Admittedly, Snyder is not as nuanced a hand as, say, Christopher Nolan, and said philosophical debate (self-determination vs. paternalism; agnosticism vs. faith; xenophobia vs. inclusion; aggression vs. hope) gets bogged down pretty quickly in soap opera theatrics and stunning but emtpy-calorie IMAX compositions. Regardless, I applaud Snyder for trying and for giving us a film with more layers than its current audience may be willing to see.

Hey, this is saying something coming from me because, heretofore, I’ve seen Snyder as a hack, and I know I’m swimming upstream given the critical and popular vitriol Dawn of Justice has received. The film is not without its problems – it’s too long by 30 minutes, fight scenes are about as cluttered as a utility room junk drawer, the plot tries to be All the President’s Men meets The French Connection using Tinker Toys and Silly Putty, and the proceedings are just way too darn earnest and self-serious. However, for a film the conception of which is just a step or two above a Saturday morning cartoon (seriously, any movie that uses “versus” in the title has two strikes going in the door), I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was, by the thoughts the film generated, and by the performances therein.

As noted, Gadot brings a joyous fire to her regrettably limited screen-time. (If nothing else, Dawn of Justice should have us all pretty geeked for Wonder Woman next year – I predict it will be the Captain America of the DC Cinematic Universe, emotionally resonant and full of heart and wit. At least, I hope so. Warner Brothers has a rare gift for squelching a good thing.) Ben Affleck is a strong presence as well, marrying his innately louche bearing with an expressively sad anger. He is by far the most physically imposing Batman we’ve ever seen on film, at times dwarfing Henry Cavill’s Brylcreem’d Superman. Cavill always looks like he stepped from a comic book page, though it’s obvious he struggles mightily to overcome the darkness of the material to give Kal-El his requisite homespun nobility. The glimmers of kindness and of regret which Cavill ekes out are a tonic, and one can only hope the stifling gloom of Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel relents in future installments, and we get to see a more joyous (and jocular) Superman in action.

The supporting cast is a galaxy of pros from Amy Adams’ plucky if kinda dour Lois Lane to Laurence Fishburne’s blessedly lively Perry White (one zinger: “The American conscience died with Robert, Martin, and John.”) to Jeremy Irons’ perpetually (and comically) perturbed Alfred Pennyworth. Irons deserves a medal for wringing the film’s very few laugh-out-loud moments from his second banana asides with Bruce Wayne. Snyder should go back and study those scenes which deftly balance the “end-is-nigh” gravitas he so loves with a world-weary-wit that the audience desperately needs. Diane Lane does her worried best with a thankless damsel-in-distress turn as Superman’s ma Martha Kent, and Holly Hunter is constipated fun as a Washington bureaucrat who can’t decide if Superman is an angel from heaven or a devil in spandex.

Jesse Isenberg’s Lex Luthor is the controversial flash point in this production. Either you love him or you hate him. I suspected I would want to throw my popcorn every time his smug rictus graced the screen. In fact, the opposite was true. I never found him “ha-ha” funny for a moment (not sure if I was supposed to), but I thought he ably balanced layers of disconcerting smarm and sociopathic guile like a malevolent, drunken pledge-master at a fraternity rush party. His performance is polarizing, but it worked for me, in a film that seemed as much a critique of destructive male ego run amok as it was itself a filmic artifact of destructive male ego run amok.

I’m giving Snyder more credit than he likely deserves. I’ve seen little evidence in any of his other movies of any kind of sincere feminist impulse, but somehow (inadvertently?) in Dawn of Justice he has given us a superhero film that skewers the wanton recklessness of male posturing. As Diana (Gadot) somberly observes at the film’s conclusion, “Man made a world where standing together is impossible.” Now, if the filmmakers could just let Wonder Woman wear something other than a star-spangled bathing suit, we’d be getting somewhere …

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img_4560Reel 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.

“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia

Zootopia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?

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img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

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.

Baby Roy’s brushes with fame 

  
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P.S. Old Roy will be appearing in a new show, starting next week! Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris! Join us Thursday evenings, from February 11 through March 3, for the mesmerizing music, humor, and sentiment of the one and only Jacques Brel. Originally performed off-Broadway in 1968, this show has enjoyed continuing success, and was revived Off-Broadway in 2006, to considerable acclaim. We are performing it as a dinner theatre event in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s Traditional Irish Pub and Restaurant. Thus, you can purchase dinner-and-a-show tickets for just $20 each (dinner seatings begin at 6pm), or show-only tickets for $10. Curtain at 7:30pm in Conor O’Neill’s Celtic Room. Seating is limited, to get your tickets now! www.pennyseats.org

Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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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.

“Just because you see me on TV, doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.” Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It! at MotorCity Casino’s SoundBoard (Detroit)

William ShatnerLast night we saw William Shatner. Yes, THAT William Shatner. Priceline Negotiator. Denny Crane. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Captain Kirk. Cringe-worthy purveyor of spoken word psychedelia. He offered his one-man show Shatner’s World … We Just Live In It (originally presented in a limited run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre) at Motor City Casino’s SoundBoard venue.

When I went to bed last night, visions of this D-level A-lister dancing around in my head, I was ready to write a snotty piece, dismissing his overeager schtick, rampant hamminess, cloddish sexism, sweaty egomania, and twitchy insecurity.

In the cold, hard light of this January day, I think, “Who am I to make fun of 84-year-old Hollywood legend William Shatner?! Granted he’s far from my favorite starship “Captain.” Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and Chris Pine are all far ahead in that line-up.

Shatner's WorldPlus, I’ve always found Shatner a rather desperate presence, sharing the same kind of icky balsa wood machismo that plagued contemporaries like Burt Reynolds, Robert Conrad, and Lee Majors throughout the 70s and 80s. Regardless, he’s sustained an acting career across stage and screen for sixty years; he’s a best-selling author; and he’s an icon. That is something to celebrate; yet, all that “Shatnerism” gets in the way of respecting his work and always has.

I was curious to see if Shatner’s World would allay or compound that conundrum. The answer, quite honestly, is that it did both. Whereas a Star Trek alum like George Takei has revealed a comic impishness and a (more or less) refreshing layer of self-mocking irreverence in the latter years of his career, Shatner has gleefully become more bloated, arrogant, and self-mythologizing as the years have passed. He capitalized on this to greatest effect as bloviating Denny Crane in Boston Legal, but he was aided in that enterprise by co-star James Spader (who could make an avocado interesting) and to some degree by Candice Bergen (whom one could argue is kind of the female Shatner when it comes to smart aleck self-absorption). His quirky Priceline “Negotiator” persona is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Denny with a teaspoon of mannered Kirk-isms and a healthy portion of “drunk uncle at your family reunion.”

IMG_3769(My favorite Shatner moment remains The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” wherein his character is convinced that gremlins – which only he can see – are dismantling a plane in mid-flight. If there ever was a place for Shatner’s hyperventilating hyperbole and pop-eyed claustrophobia, it was the black-and-white world of Rod Serling.)

Shatner’s World – the show – is like a cocktail party guest who lingers about 45 minutes too long. The first hour is fun, frothy, and full of empty calories. Shatner, with his squatty shenanigans, fancies himself a raconteur – the dirty-joke-telling kind who went out of style when they retired Johnny Carson’s guest couch. For precisely sixty minutes, Shatner’s creative retelling of an upbringing with a loving, middle-class, Jewish family in Montreal is engaging. He uses slide projections, video clips, and an office chair in rather ingenious and theatrical ways to illustrate key moments (e.g. the office chair doubles as a motorcycle and a horse at various points in the show).

IMG_3754His sentimental, albeit self-aggrandizing, descriptions of his early days in the entertainment industry are captivating, damn funny, and, I suspect, patently false: he worked with good buddy Christopher Plummer (who knew?) at Stratford (Canada), and supposedly saved the day once as Plummer’s understudy in Henry V; he, in his estimation, single-handedly turned Broadway bomb The World of Suzie Wong into a long-running comic hit; he, according to Shatner, gave an Emmy-caliber performance in an unnamed Playhouse 90 episode until legendary co-star Lon Chaney, Jr., started rattling off stage directions as if they were dialogue; Shatner discovered the glories of leadership and horsemanship starring as Alexander the Great (!) in a film none of us had ever heard of.

Dammit. I’ve fallen into making fun of him. I said I wouldn’t. Yet, that’s part of Shatner’s studied charm. He knows you want to mock him, so he does it first, but then he twists every anecdote into a celebration of self, of the sheer force of will that has allowed him to transform marginal talent and blandly handsome features into more success and longevity than any of his detractors have or ever could achieve. It’s rather fascinating in fact – like a piece of performance art or a social experiment to which we’ve all been subjected yet remain unaware of its grand design. In this day of virulent social media and steroidal self-promotion, is Shatner any worse than the rest of us? Or was he simply our forebear? A pop culture Thomas Edison to Kim Kardashian’s Steve Jobs?

IMG_3743As Shatner’s World proceeds into its second hour, the focus grows more diffuse and the self-celebration harder to take. He glosses over his Star Trek years, oddly enough, dedicating as much (if not more) time to his dubious career as a recording artist. This turns out to be a canny decision, though, as it allows Shatner to end the show (and reconnect with his flagging audience) with a “song” titled “Real,” co-written with country star Brad Paisley. It’s a pretty tune (spoken word overlay notwithstanding) and offers Shatner a chance to encapsulate his raison d’etre as vainglorious underdog, aptly noting: “Just because you see me on TV doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than you.”

It is this struggle with external perception and internal reality that brings much-needed (and sometimes head-scratching) pathos to the evening. He owns the fact that he can be a lousy husband and a half-assed father, sharing anecdotes that are equal parts aspiration and humiliation – a little Father Knows Best, a little Honeymooners, and a little War of the Roses. He acknowledges that he isn’t always beloved by his co-stars, with a riotous bit where he allows Takei to call Shatner a sh*t while simultaneously suggesting Takei might not be all the sweetness and light he wants us to believe. Brilliant. He isn’t afraid to show us his infamous struggles with money either, the kind of struggles that led him back to Star Trek (films) in the 70s (when sci fi nostalgia wasn’t the sure thing it is today), to an endless stream of comic book convention appearances, and to doing casino gigs like the very one witnessed at SoundBoard last night.

IMG_3761Finally, the aspect of Shatner’s life that surprised and troubled me most was (is) Shatner’s adoration of animals. Complete shock to me. Images of Shatner with his beloved dogs, horses, and other creatures fill his slide show and his repartee, and the joy in his eyes is palpable. He speaks meaningfully about the special language and kinship one can only feel with and for animals and how they can tell us all we need to know if we’d only listen. Yet, he then talks about how he “studs” his prize pets (equine and canine) to this day, going into great detail about all the awards he’s received and money he has made from the practice. He also relays a lengthy anecdote about the “horse of a lifetime” – his spirit animal, if you will – whose existence he ruined by breeding, the creature consigned to unending days of isolation and misery as a result. Shatner seems to indicate deep regret, and he expresses hope that the horse, in his final moments, forgave Shatner; but he follows this heartbreaking moment by regaling us with tales of the horse’s award-winning progeny.

Is Shatner looking for redemption or rationalization? This horse tale is arguably the most unintentionally revealing moment in the evening. A sensitive and empathic soul may lurk beneath all that Shatner bravado, but he is so preoccupied by a maddeningly retro belief in what he thinks we expect of masculinity that he can’t quite let that soul breathe and evolve and teach. He wants to embrace his mistakes, but he is too afraid that those mistakes, if authentically understood, will make him less compelling. It’s a shame. Those mistakes make him more compelling. Maybe when he’s 94 years old, we’ll get that show. He’ll still be going strong, kept aloft by a self-sustaining gale of monomania.

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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.

“Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A bleaker afternoon at the movies I don’t think I’ve ever spent. Get this for a double feature: The Hateful Eight AND The Revenant. Back-to-back. Six hours straight. Gruesome violence, rampant misogyny, flippant sociopathy, and snow … lots and lots of snow.

Fun.

I’m not averse to revenge fantasy as a narrative arc. We all get to channel the murky, marginalized, pre-pubescent rage of our middle school years watching some big-screen hooligan seeking sweet justice. Yet, how many movies like this do we really need?

(Having just completed a brief, shining stint on jury duty this morning, I’m even more averse to cinematic celebrations of vigilantism at the present.)

The Hateful Eight is quintessential Quentin Tarantino – which means it is as artistic and provocative as it is juvenile and misanthropic. Tarantino, in his novelistic and verbose style, turns cowboy romanticism on its head, telling the sordid tale of eight (seems more like nine or ten, but whatever) fugitives (literal and/or emotional) who converge on a general store (the comically named “Minnie’s Haberdashery”) amidst a teeth-rattling blizzard. The MacGuffin animating the plot is actually a person not a thing – though the way murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the MacGuffin in question) is disturbingly manhandled through the film makes that distinction debatable. Domergue is a bloody Raggedy Ann doll, banjo-eyed and tragicomic, two-parts Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and one-part Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie.” She’s one of the best things in a film that otherwise can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a testosterone fever dream or an epic indictment of male ego. Leigh’s droll turn coupled with Ennio Morricone’s throbbingly beautiful horror show score save the film for me.

The rest of the cast includes Samuel L. Jackson becoming even more of a Cheshire Cat-caricature of himself as a Civil War veteran and bounty hunter who magically always seems to be 17 steps ahead of any other character; Kurt Russell as an Old West Remington Painting Cossack who speaks with John Wayne’s wiggly weird voice; Tim Roth in the Christoph Waltz role as an oily, glib, bespoke-dressed hangman; Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen basically playing Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen in Reconstruction Era clothing; Demian Bechir giving us yet another in a shamefully long line of stereotypically duplicitous Latinos; and Walton Goggins as a gummy, big-toothed take on the sweaty, nervous, hair-trigger, hammy loon that always pops up in a movie like this. Oh, Channing Tatum, burying any sparkle he has under a mound of Dippity Do, slides in at the three-quarters mark in one of those chronological misdirects that Tarantino employs … to the point of cliché. How many hateful people is that now? 62?

Did I hate The Hateful Eight? No. Yet, I’m struggling to discern why mid-career Tarantino flicks like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds – equally violent and similarly reckless in their disregard for our common humanity as Hateful Eight is – resonate with me so much more profoundly. Recent efforts like Eight and Django Unchained leave me a bit cold (and a lot worried). Some of it could be my age, and some of it could be that the real world is ever more perilously resembling the fictitious community of Red Apple cigarette smoking fiends that Tarantino gleefully depicts.

However, I also hypothesize that Bill and Basterds both reveal an empathy for the underdog and have a kind of constrained feminism/humanism at their core. Django and Eight – as beautifully as they are filmed (Eight especially with its sumptuous Panavision vistas and claustrophobic production design) – have a caustic ugliness in their DNA that belies the apparent intent behind Tarantino’s cartoonishly extreme brutality. He always seems to be suggesting to certain members of his audience, “Oh, you like guns? Oh, you hate [insert race/gender/faith/ethnicity here]? Oh, you like throwing around sexual grotesqueries for comic effect to create discomfort? … Well, here’s what that really looks like. Still interested in carrying that behavior into daily life?” Yet, with The Hateful Eight, I am not sure where pornography ends and social critique begins.

That said, The Hateful Eight entertained me. I could not take my eyes away for a second … which is saying something, especially in its grinding last 45 minutes. The Revenant, on the other hand, is a high-minded bore that had me checking my watch every twenty minutes. (In its defense, I did see it after spending three hours in Tarantino-ville.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a retro trip into frontier vengeance with a heaping helping of postmodern enlightenment. Whereas Eight wears its aspirational abhorrence on its bloody sleeve, The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Alejandro Inarritu and starring Leonard DiCaprio as fur-trapper Hugh Glass, plays its politics a little closer to the buckskin vest. As viewers, we enter the film, keenly aware of DiCaprio’s ecological advocacy, so it is unsurprising that the film takes a hardline on “you mess with the planet … the planet messes back.”

Yet, unlike Tarantino’s drama, there are no obvious black hats. One can even argue that Tom Hardy’s antagonist John Fitzgerald – who (spoiler alert) actually buries DiCaprio’s character alive shortly before slaughtering DiCaprio’s son – is no more evil than any other European-American in the film, motivated as they all are by the seemingly limitless money they hope to reap at the expense of the land and its inhabitants. These fools simply do not know any better, so why is it such a leap of logic that Hardy’s character goes from killing animals and Native Americans at a whim to extending those same courtesies to his fellow fur-traders? And that may in fact be the film’s thesis … or I may be projecting, as the film is so frustratingly artistic (read: obtuse) that I wasn’t always sure what I was even watching. Ah, an Ansel Adams winter sky here. A glistening tree branch there. A floating shaman. A pyramid of bleached skulls. WTF?

For those of you out there who loved this film – be you survivalist or nature-lover – please don’t hate me for rooting for the bear, but I found myself slapping my knee in delight as Leo was tossed around like a chew toy by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Of course (another spoiler alert, essential for my animal-loving buddies out there) the CGI bear is killed, which squelched my buzz for the rest of the picture.

It is this mauling and Leo’s subsequent “Hey, I ain’t dead yet!” burial that sets up the vision quest/hero’s journey as DiCaprio crawls through the muck, grunting out all manner of guttural protestations, to stake his revenge on the man who done him wrong (Hardy). If chapped lips, broken appendages, greasy hair, and frost-bitten noses are your thing, then this is the film for you. I found it an interminable slog, with a concept that might have made a fabulous short-film but felt woefully padded at nearly two hours and forty minutes.

Early in The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character observes, “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.” Both film’s wrestle with this idea to varying degrees of success, ultimately losing the delicacy of this concept in self-indulgent largesse. The problem with Eight is that there may have been too much hot-blooded passion in Tarantino’s execution, drowning his critique of our white-washed conception of the Old West in a tsunami of Karo Syrup. And The Revenant remains too icily remote, enamored of its own gunmetal haze at the expense of visceral investment.

Somebody wake me when Oscar season is over.

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img_3692-1Reel 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.

“Adversaries in commerce” – Joy and The Big Short

"Joyfilmposter" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joyfilmposter.jpg#/media/File:Joyfilmposter.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Adversaries in commerce” is a phrase as recurrent in David O. Russell’s latest opus Joy as the falling snow from the film’s advertising materials (posters, trailers, promotional clips – see, left, over there?). The film, which offers an allegorically fictionalized take on the biography of “Miracle Mop” inventor and QVC/Home Shopping Network luminary Joy Mangano, wears a comfortable Dickensian/It’s a Wonderful Life vibe, subtly marrying the holiday-centric themes of merchandise-obsessed America, familial love as rampant dysfunction, and the ebb and flow of seasonally-induced introspection.

Joy details the trials and tribulations of its titular hero, a person with an agile and inventive mind, finding herself stymied by a motley assemblage of “adversaries” (and allies) in “commerce,” many of whom arrive in the guise of earnest or envious (or both) family members. Joy sees commercial opportunities in the mundane – a reflective, choke-free flea-collar here, a hands-free mop there – but the patriarchal world she inhabits marginalizes her gifts while simultaneously pirating her ingenuity. Tale as old as time …

Jennifer Lawrence, joining Russell for their third collaboration after her Oscar win in his Silver Linings Playbook and her nomination for his American Hustle, is utterly transfixing in her most believable turn to date. The film’s and Lawrence’s chief gift is how normal all the abnormal seems; Lawrence (and, by extension, the audience) lives Joy’s life, finding laughter and poignancy and tears where all of us find those things:  family gatherings, business meetings, arguments with spouses, reading a story to our children, trying to convince a stranger to take a chance on an idea.

Some may (and will) argue with me, but this is the most feminist set of cinematic ideas to come down the pike in a while. Yes, Joy is inventing a mop, a symbol to some of domestic oppression, but, in the act of transforming its utility, she reclaims this symbol as her own. Her journey to get her thoughtfully designed functionality in the hands of other like-minded consumers becomes a hero’s quest, tilting at male-dominated windmills of finance, retail, media, manufacturing, and legal contracts. It’s not a showy role. Her turns in Silver Linings or American Hustle gave her many more cracked P.O.V. tics with which to play, but, in this film, Lawrence is all the better for Joy’s absence of quirk.

The surety with which Joy moves through life can seem nebulous at times. We are introduced to her as a little girl who empirically states that “I don’t need a prince.” That is the constant in her life, but she isn’t a volatile trail blazer either. She is a Valedictorian with a caretaker’s spirit, leveraging the strength (and madness) of the family and friends and opposition around her, quietly and calmly observing the world as it is and periodically dashing forth to change how it could be. It’s a masterful, nuanced performance.

Lawrence is aided and abetted by what is quickly becoming Russell’s version of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players, a stellar repertory supporting cast that includes Russell vets Robert DeNiro as Joy’s time-warped fiend of a father, Bradley Cooper as a slick television producer with a heart of gold, and Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s meddlesome sibling rival, alongside newcomers Virginia Madsen as Joy’s sparkling kook of a soap opera obsessed mom, Diane Ladd as Joy’s fairy godmother/grandmother, Isabella Rossellini as DeNiro’s moneyed girlfriend and Joy’s snake-skinned benefactor, Dascha Polanco as Joy’s steadfast pal and confidante, and Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s charming ex-husband and trusted consigliere. Susan Lucci and Donna Mills even pop up in a couple of brilliantly gaga cameos.

My husband John says that his test of a good film is if it “takes him somewhere” and makes him feel as if he is there in that place and time, living the moments with the characters onscreen. I mentioned this to my parents as we were leaving the theatre, and we all agreed that, by that criteria, this is a perfect film.

"The Big Short teaser poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Big_Short_teaser_poster.jpg#/media/File:The_Big_Short_teaser_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Alas, we were less enamored of Joy‘s Christmas 2015 box office “adversary in commerce” The Big Short, equally an ensemble piece packed with star power but falling far short (pun intended) of Joy‘s exquisite music box pathos. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) from the book by Michael Lewis, fancies itself a bold hybrid of Ocean’s Eleven‘s ring-a-ding boy band swagger and Michael Moore’s progressively incendiary documentarian instincts.

Unfortunately, it’s neither. Jennifer Lawrence has more swagger in one confrontation with some misogynistic QVC middle managers, than Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, or John Magaro manage collectively against monolithic Wall Street through the entirety of The Big Short. (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong as Carell’s bullpen of hedge-fund managing second bananas do have some firecracker moments, but they are few and far between.) Melissa Leo puts in a sharp appearance as a ratings agency employee who happily, if improbably, exposes the game afoot when even the guardians at the gate will play for pay.

The film attempts to explicate for us common folk the ins and outs of the housing market collapse in 2008. McKay has been on record as saying this is the most important story of our time and that his film will make crystal clear the who, what, how, and why so that any audience member will understand what transpired. Wrong.

McKay, alongside co-screenwriter Charles Randolph, has given us Wolf of Wall Street-lite, with a mess of characters messily drawn, offering the sketchiest of backgrounds. Hey, Christian Bale’s former MD Michael Burry is a financial savant. Know why? ‘Cause he wears no shoes and plays the air drums while listening to death metal in his rent-by-the-hour office. Oh, Steve Carell’s Mark Baum lost a brother to suicide so he’s all angst-ridden now, wanting to topple the very financial system that still provides his daily income … so he’s noble, but broken. Get it? Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert gave up this seedy Wall Street live for the noble world of organic gardening – see, he’s going to make something … from the earth. And on and on.

Each character shows up like they are going to enter the road race from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World without any of the wit, the charm, or, heaven help us, the plot.

McKay does little to ground us in why we should care about any of this, other then some clunky asides that are meant to be Funny or Die! camp, randomly inserting celebrities like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath (fire your agent, Robbie!), Anthony Bourdain making fish chowder, or Selena Gomez at a roulette wheel. In that, “aren’t we in-crowd cute?” way, these Fantasy Island castaways turn to the camera, ostensibly simplify some complex economic concept (which ends up more confusing than ever), wink, and then turn back to whatever insipid task before them. It just doesn’t work. And it’s annoying. McKay seems to want it both ways: take this topic very seriously, but don’t mind while we make fun of said topic like sophomoric smart asses.

There was an interesting film here. This isn’t it. I’m not sure McKay’s politics got in the way of making a focused, coherent film, as I’m not sure after watching The Big Short what those politics might even be. Only Ryan Gosling and, to a lesser degree, Christian Bale escape unscathed.

Gosling and Bale seem like they are in another movie entirely (probably once they realized the script was an incoherent mess, they started dog paddling for any port in the storm). Gosling sparkles as the film’s narrator, embracing his fourth-wall-breaking conceit with wry, near-Shakespearean aplomb. He’s a hoot to watch. Bale is less delightful but an oddly thundering presence, a man-child thumbing his nose at a financial system (and likely a film) that ultimately doesn’t appreciate (nor deserve) his superhuman talents.

Like Joy, there was something to be said in The Big Short about a society that worships the almighty dollar above integrity, kindness, and humanity. Where Joy weaves an inspiring yet delicate fable of victory over a cruel and unkind system, The Big Short becomes mired in its own smug condescension, victim to the very machine it aims to skewer.

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Enjoy these cards (handmade by my dad Don Sexton) and these photos of us enjoying the whimsical presents given by my mom Susie Sexton. We had such a wonderful holiday weekend – I hope you did too!

1075482_1101630499869874_3458523668734951867_o 10347247_1101631396536451_578452272789064074_n 10460737_1101631099869814_5795612932819823792_n 10603827_1101631383203119_8882361360287717151_o 10636580_1101630736536517_1679035790844459402_o 10644666_1101630606536530_3271507750315325249_o 12401895_1101631633203094_4161663296750666007_o Roy Card 1 Roy Card 2

 

 

 

 

Card by Don Sexton

Card by Don Sexton

 

 

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.

Roy Card 5