“Do you still need the cape?” Spider-Man: Far From Home

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a worthy follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming. The first act is cutesy, cloying, and underwritten, but the sparkling, believable kids in the cast (who actually seem like, you know, KIDS) keep things zipping along.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Zendaya as his friend/crush/equal MJ are lighter than air, and Jake Gyllenhaal is great, popeyed, hunky fun as too-good-to-be-true Mysterio. Once the narrative takes a crafty u-turn at the midway mark, the film becomes a frisky, unpredictable, cinematic tilt-a-whirl.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film follows directly onto the events of Avengers: Endgame (making it really hard to review without spoiling anything of the previous film still in theatres). Let’s just say, Peter is haunted by a great loss, tries futilely to fill his former mentor’s very large (iron) boots (and groovalicious aviator shades), and somehow still ends up saving the day, amidst a heaping helping of adorkable teen angst. Holland is arguably the most darling Spider-Man to ever grace the screen, and Zendaya more than holds her own. (Between these films and The Greatest Showman, I can’t wait to see where her career ends up. The sky’s the limit.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The movie does explain how the kids in Peter’s high school were impacted when five whole years were lost (not to mention half of all life on the planet Earth) after that purple, hulking malevolence named Thanos jazz-snapped his Infinity Gauntlet’d fingers. Blessedly, the sturm und drang of the previous Avengers films is shed for sitcom-lite cheekiness about the absurdity of it all in Far From Home.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Just as the entire enterprise seems in peril of spinning off into a Saved By the Bell-esque goof as Peter and his buddies enjoy a pratfall-filled European senior trip, in saunters Gyllenhaal as the prototypical alpha hero, a gleaming surface that belies the cracked-pot interior of a toxic male raging against an invisible machine. Gyllenhaal is pretty underrated across the board, and it is due to performances like this: he makes it look easy to play a Ken doll gone very astray. It isn’t.

In some respects, Far From Home is both a by-the-numbers, assembly line Marvel blockbuster and a sly send-up of all the very movies that preceded it. Issues of identity and fame and pride and the very illusory nature of heroism in this modern Trumpian age of hyperbolic pettiness are rife throughout the film, including the two end credits scenes, both of which (for once) are actually worth sticking around to see.

One of Mysterio’s associates, his browbeaten dresser, harangues him repeatedly,”Do you still need the cape?” to which he responds every time with an exasperated “Yesssss!” The Incredibles, another Disney-corporate product, was the first to opine in a postmodern way about the idiocy of capes and the inherent strangulation danger of flying around with a piece of billowing cloth around one’s neck. The Incredibles‘ Edith Head-inspired superhero fashion designer Edna Mode declared, “NO. MORE. CAPES!” Yet, as Marvel Studios’ copious cinematic output over the past decade has proved as salve and welcome distraction during our stormy IRL times, sadly, yes, we all do still need the cape(s).

______________________

[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.

“Some kids play rougher than others.” Toy Story 4

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Some kids play rougher than others,” intones a battle-worn Bo Peep (Annie Potts) to Woody (Tom Hanks), explaining that not every toy has a safe, beloved spot in a child’s play room.

I know someone is going to give me crap for this, but Toy Story 4 is the franchise installment Trump’s America deserves: darker, looser, even more pointedly existential than ever. The series has always had a sadistic tendency to torture audiences with one scene after another of cute, lovable toys in peril (darting through traffic, avoiding incineration, evading plaything-mutilating bullies, escaping the clutches of nerdy collectors), but Toy Story 4, while offering plenty of hair-raising slapstick sequences, has the temerity to ask the most haunting question of all: why are any of us alive?

The tool (no pun intended) whereby our plucky Pixar filmmakers hang the tale is a garbage pail-bound spork whom the film’s young human Bonnie (introduced at the heartwrenching end of Toy Story 3 inheriting Buzz and Woody and the gang from Andy) fishes from the trash to create, with the aid of putty, pipe-cleaners, and craft-store googly eyes, a Kindergarten companion dubbed “Forky.” As voiced with a Dostoyevsky-esque quaver by Tony Hale, Forky is torn between a destiny of disposability and the fact that this little girl has brought him to life as an adored plaything through childlike whimsy and a touch of Dr. Frankenstein hubris.

This is just weird (and welcomed) territory for the series.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the midst of Forky’s arrival, it becomes apparent to Woody that his days as a top draw in the play room have come to an end and that his primary mission at this point is to save Bonnie’s heart by keeping Forky from Forky’s more self-destructive impulses. Forky frequently yells “trash” with the longing of a drug addict, hurling himself headlong into any garbage heap he can find. It’s funny. And it’s not.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Along the way, Bonnie’s family rents an RV for a rustic road trip, and Woody and Forky find themselves lost (repeatedly), eventually landing in an antique shop, haunted by a 50s-era “talking baby doll” named Gabby Gabby (a delightfully chilling Christina Hendricks) whose voice box has long ago gone kaput. Her dream, like that of all the characters we’ve met over these four films and multiple spin-off shorts, is to simply have one child to truly love her. She may be the villain of Toy Story 4 but is utterly relatable and darn impossible to loathe.

To the rescue rides Bo Peep and her army of misfit lost toys. Long ago, Bo Peep (voiced brilliantly by Annie Potts, on quite the career renaissance between this and her genius turn as Young Sheldon‘s free-spirited granny) had been given away from the home Woody and Buzz originally inhabited. Sadly, they had all lost track of one another. Bo Peep, in counterpoint to Gabby Gabby, however, finds an owner-less life quite liberating, manning an “underground railroad” of sorts for all of the world’s lost toys, including a charming turn by Keanu Reeves’ as a failed Canadian Evel Knieval knock-off Duke Kaboom.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Toy Story 4 is an odd film and, as a result, may, with time, become my favorite in the series. Yes, there is warmth and nostalgia and a handful of feel-good tears, as expected, but there is also a pronounced, ominous quality, reflective of the free-floating anxiety I think most of us in the world feel these days. When the present is bleak and the future is smoggy, don’t we all just want someone to love us, write their first name on the bottom of our shoe, and believe the sun rises and sets upon us? We sure do. And Toy Story 4 posits that sometimes even that isn’t enough.

________________

[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 gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” Rocketman

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s like Elton John said to Bohemian Rhapsody, “Hey, hold my (now non-alcoholic) beer. Let me show you how a biopic of a 1970s/1980s, transcendent, groundbreaking, gay (but sorta conflicted and closeted-ish) rock god should be done.”

Rocketman is transporting, joyous, heartbreaking, bonkers, and damn brilliant.

And if you love Elton John’s music but occasionally have found Elton John himself a smidge unpleasant (as I have), Taron Egerton’s bravura reinvention/translation of Elton John’s essence in the title role will give you reason to love the man again. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that captures the sense memory of Elton at the peak of his powers while providing a very empathetic yet theatrical glimpse into the insecurity and heartbreak that fueled his greatest work.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As directed by Dexter Fletcher (ironically, the helmer who came to the rescue of Bohemian Rhapsody when the embattled Bryan Singer walked off the set … too little, too late alas), Rocketman is simultaneously escapist and sobering, a beautifully constructed real-life fairy tale warning us of the false promise of celebrity excess and the corrosive power of self-denial. Oh, and it’s a full-blown g-damned musical with zero f*cks given – no apology, no shame – as a movie about Elton John’s life, depicted in broad operatic strokes, should be.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The best songs from the storied output of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin (here delicately underplayed by a loving and sensitive Jamie Bell) basically form the blueprint for a Broadway musical anyway. Consequently, re-purposing ubiquitous story-songs like “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” “Saturday Night’s Alright,” “Your Song,” or “Benny and the Jets” outside a concert context as integrated narrative commentary becomes a rather effortless exercise. That said, Lee Hall’s script is a thoughtful biographical kaleidoscope, loose on facts and timeline, but laser-focused on allegory and atmosphere, incorporating Elton John’s greatest hits as if they were always meant to populate and propel the arc of the singer-songwriter’s life.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Of course, the costumes are divine and period-specific. I haven’t seen this many marabou feathers, platform heels, and sequins since the heyday of The Match Game. Yet, the film never devolves into camp. This isn’t a movie marginalizing nor ridiculing the extremes of Elton John’s life. This is a film expertly designed to handhold all of its viewers toward greater empathy.

When Elton fearfully confesses his sexual identity to his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, perfectly fine, but apparently now typecast as cruel, self-absorbed hard-asses until the end of time), she responds, “I know. I’ve always known.” Yet, unlike films with lesser sensitivity toward this particular subject matter, the line is not delivered as a salve to Elton’s broken heart. Rather, it is the ultimate slight, as if she’s saying, “You’ve always been broken.” People may think they mean well with such a statement. Let me tell you, it’s not helpful.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Admittedly, the filmmakers lay on a bit thick how toxic Elton John’s parents might have been. In addition to Howard’s blowsy dragon matriarch, Elton has a frosty, jazz-loving father (Steven Mackintosh) who abandons the family after Elton discovers his mother canoodling with a neighbor man in a sedan parked street-side. Gemma Jones does balance things out a bit as Elton’s sympathetic grandmother, but, at times, the family dynamic in Rocketman seems like cutting room footage from the Harry Potter films of that dreadful, sweaty, sour tribe who foster young Mr. Potter.

Similarly, Richard Madden as Elton’s manager/lover John Reid devolves quickly into Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling territory in the film’s second act. Thank goodness, Madden has such buoyant gravitas, keeping his portrayal watchable, even as the cliches mount up.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Fortunately, Egerton (Kingsman, Sing) is a savvy enough actor to avoid portraying Elton as a shame-free martyr, embracing the character’s petulant, rage-filled, myopic dark side … and somehow emerging ever more likable in the process. Oh, and he does all of his own singing here, acquitting himself quite nicely with the challenging material

The film is framed by Elton John’s rehab stint in the late 80s/early 90s, and Egerton does a masterful job avoiding the maudlin pitfalls such a set-up could present. Early in the film, a Motown singer for whom Elton is playing keyboards cautions him, “You gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” I suspect all of us struggle with this existential conundrum in the tricky tension between our personal and professional lives, but none so dramatically nor devastatingly as Elton John. Rocketman walks the tightrope beautifully between reality and parable, leveraging the pinball wizardry of Elton John’s life as a cautionary tale for us all.

_________________________

[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.

Rock-n-roll all nite … and PART of every day. KISS’ “End of the Road” tour at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena

When you have a dear friend who is absolutely gaga for a musical group, you go to a concert with him. Part of the joy is watching him share something that means so much. Now, I admit I am not your typical KISS concert-goer. Furthermore, I should note that as a child wandering through record stores with my audiophile parents I found myself rather terrified of those four nerdy New York City boys with a fetish for Kabuki make up and superhero tropes. I am pretty certain I can blame their album covers for my lifelong fear of clowns.

Yet, here I was at Detroit‘s spectacular, state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena, singing along at the top of my lungs beside my friend Blaine to such ubiquitous pop rock hits as “Beth,” “Rock-n-Roll All Nite (Party Every Day)” – not “part OF every day” as I used to believe – “Detroit Rock City,” “Heaven’s On Fire,” and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” In fact, that last number – so swanky, so disco, a little bit Blondie, a whole lot Donna Summer – was the highlight of the set for me. However, I detected from all of the seated KISS fans that this particular ditty was not exactly one of their top tier requests. Paul Stanley had to exclaim, “This is one of our biggest international hits!” Emphasis on international.

What I never realized about a KISS show is how sweet-natured the whole enterprise is. All I ever knew were images of Gene Simmons’ reptilian tongue and bat wings and platform boots. But the crowd was about as gracious and polite as could be, many of them dressed up in makeshift versions of their favorite band members’ costumes. It was like hair metal comic-con.

I also never realized, or perhaps this is a late in life development, that front man Paul Stanley is some strange cross between Bette Davis, Bugs Bunny, and Dr. Frank-n-Furter. And Gene Simmons is his Joan Crawford/Elmer Fudd/Id. They are both oddly hypnotic … and utterly adorable. I guess it makes a kind of sense as Gene is pals with Cher and Liza Minnelli, even managing Liza’s career toward an epically camp collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys in the late 80s. Don’t drop bombs, indeed.

 

And just when you think the entire show is veering off into some unhinged Transylvanian borscht-belt-vaudeville-on-crack self-indulgence, these boys bring an awe-inspiring martial musicality. Drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer are insanely talented musicians – Buddy Rich and Jimi Hendrix in grease paint. To be honest, I was floored … and Blaine was validated.

It’s clear that it troubles the band that what they have gained in worldwide success has never been offset with total credibility or artistic respect. They even mentioned their appreciation for Detroit fans who have stood by them through thick and thin, even as it took them multiple attempts to make it into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. Jealousy is jealousy, and it hurts no matter your level of notoriety or achievement.

I haven’t even touched on the spectacle of it all. The staging was electric, with no end of pyrotechnics, floating platforms, fog machines, video displays, and gauche Vegas glitz. KISS leaves it all on the field. After 45 years of complete commitment to their adoring audience, the impending retirement implied by this self-proclaimed “Final Tour Ever” seems well-deserved.

Well, Blaine, you’ve got a new recruit for the #KissArmy. Incredible show! Photos here … assorted video clips follow.

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.

Queen Latifah and the Toledo Symphony at the Toledo Art Museum Peristyle

To quote Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.” That declaration very well could have been the concert title for Queen Latifah’s exceptional, fiery, funny, warm performance tonight with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the charming, witty, vibrant Michelle Merrill. The show was held in the Toledo Museum of Art’s stunning and slightly surreal “peristyle,” a Greek Revival colosseum that puts Vegas and EPCOT to shame.

Merrill opened the evening with exquisite, albeit Latifah-less, symphonic sets from Chicago, Porgy & Bess, and Hairspray as well as selections from Duke Ellington and Leroy Anderson. The brilliant acoustics highlighted the fine detail from the orchestra, and Merrill’s ebullient, joyous conducting was a fizzy delight to observe.

Note: during the show’s second half, when Latifah’s house band (remarkable talents in their own right) joined the orchestra, the acoustics got unfortunately muddy, likely a result of limited rehearsal time and unnecessary amplification. It didn’t hurt the show or its marvelous energy, but it made sitting on the first few rows feel like aural bombardment at times.

As for Latifah, the quintessential multi-hyphenate (actor, musician, raconteur, humanitarian), this Oscar Nominee (Chicago) exceeded the hype, offering a sunny, sharp, inclusive, pitch-perfect delivery and onstage persona. A voice and a personality that lifts the rafters, she glided effortlessly from standards to jazz to blues to Broadway to hip-hop.

Highlights included a disco swirl around Bill Withers’ poignant “Same Love That Made Me Laugh”; a delicate crystalline take on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man”; a surging and transformational spin on The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”; a heartbreakingly anthemic “I Know Where I’ve Been” (which Latifah had immortalized in late producer and friend Craig Zadan’s film of Hairspray); a timely #MeToo revisit to her early feminist hip-hop anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.”; and a pulsing encore of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” marrying the best of actor and vocalist, as Latifah wrung every bit of pathos from the song’s haunting subtext of abandonment and regret.

It was a dynamite evening, simultaneously intimate and epic. Whether Latifah was goofing on the indigestion her hot dog dinner was causing or riffing with her band on a decade-old rap jam from Soulja Boy, she would always snap back to center: an icon of grace and dignity, compassion and independence who champions the marginalized and demands a better day for all. Ladies first, indeed. (Oh, and she grabbed my hand as she left the stage! Swoon!)

P.S. I’m guessing the symphony crowd hasn’t heard lyrics like these in that space before. Time for change, I reckon …

“You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya.
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya.
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more.
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for.
And nothing good gonna come to ya til you do right by me.
Brother you wait and see (Who you calling a bitch?).

U.N.I.T.Y., U.N.I.T.Y. that’s a unity (You gotta let him know.)”

 

 

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’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Aquaman

For the past few years now, Disney and Lucasfilm have had a lock on the holiday blockbuster season with a little, revived franchise named Star Wars. Alas, the wheels fell of that wagon when the underrated, under-performing origin story Solo debuted in theatres this May with a thud, and there was no end-of-year galactic adventure to follow.

Into this December’s “let’s thumb our noses at Oscar bait” box office breach rushed Warner Brothers’/DC’s Aquaman, Paramount’s Transformers prequel Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. By some strange twist of fate, the fish king roundly beat the giant robot and the buttoned-up British nanny in ticket sales in their collective first weekend of release.

I am certain that all of these popcorn epics will clean up, though, in the gray and dreary vacation days following Christmas, as they each bring a great deal of heart, just enough ingenuity, and a comforting if lightly derivative familiarity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Still. Today or never. That’s my motto.” – Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is, yes, practically perfect. Predictable and formulaic? Mayhaps. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh and cry, occasionally scratch your head … at times all three simultaneously. You’ll love it nonetheless … in great part due to Emily Blunt’s bonkers, measured, heartfelt commitment to the title role.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Not dissimilar to Disney’s decades-later reboot Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns feels like a subtle remix on the original film’s greatest hits.

The screenplay by David Magee dutifully follows the same story beats as Julie Andrews’ flick – for example:

  • a crabby dad (little Michael Banks, portrayed poignantly by Ben Whishaw, all grown-up and repeating the sins of his father, but in a mopey/angsty widower way);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • a politically woke sister (Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, the sunniest class warrior you’ll ever see, taking the place of Glynis Johns’ suffragette Mrs. Banks);
  • some lost soul children who need to rediscover the joys of imagination;
  • a no-good banker (Colin Firth, all sleazy charm as nothing says holiday kids movie like the threat of foreclosure!);

    [Image Source: Wikipedia]

  • a winking-wise lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep (Lin-Manuel Miranda being slightly less insufferable and overeager than usual … and, yes, he raps, sort of … once);
  • and a finale that swaps out balloons for kites, and throws in Angela Lansbury for good measure … in case you’d forgotten about Mary Poppins‘ knock-off Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The score by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is perfectly fine, but follows a similar path as the script, presenting new numbers that evoke the overly familiar tunes of yore and serving similar narrative purposes. “Spoonful of Sugar” becomes “Can You Imagine That?” to get the ornery kids to embrace bathtime. “A Cover is Not the Book” (the best number in the new film) is an animated fantasia a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an ode to the unappreciated lamplighters (who even do some BMX- style bicycle tricks?!?), not unlike “Step in Time.” And so on.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rob Marshall’s direction (Into the WoodsNineChicago) is effective, if workmanlike, evoking the past film through iconography, color palette, choreography, and overall composition. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t wow as much as it sedates the viewer, and the film never quite escapes the physical confines of the sound-stages upon which it was obviously filmed.

In the end, though, this is Blunt’s show, and she is an absolute pip. I could watch her read the phone book as Mary Poppins, with a knowing glance here, an arched eyebrow there, and a master plan to make all of us decent again. And that is why we all need a movie (and a damn nanny) like Mary Poppins Returns.

“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” – Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) in Bumblebee

If you’d told me the tone-deaf, garish, migraine-inducing, jingoistic Transformers film franchise would eventually yield one of the sweetest, warmest, funniest, family-friendliest “girl-and-her-[robot]-dog” coming-of-age yarns since, say, the Paddington movies, I’d have sold you my vintage Hasbro figures for $1. But here we are. Bumblebee, the sixth (!) installment in this series, jettisons director Michael Bay (praise be!), adds nuanced and charming leading lady Hailee Steinfeld, and delivers a lovely cinematic homage to simpler sci-fi allegories of the Spielbergian 80s.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Travis Knight, Oscar-nominated director of Kubo and the Two Strings, picks up the reins from Bay, working from an almost pastoral (!) script by Christina Hodson that wisely puts human/robot emotion and familial interaction before special effects and mind-numbing battle sequences (although there are still about two or three too many of those).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Borrowing liberally from producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. (and at this point, that’s just fine), the plot relates Autobot warrior Bumblebee’s arrival on earth, circa 1987. Within moments, the big, yellow, bug-eyed ‘bot finds himself used and abused by the American military (sparkling John Cena, wryly channeling every “shoot first, ask later” cinematic armed forces cliche). Bumblebee is eventually, inadvertently rescued from a junkyard by a plucky, sweet teenage girl Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) looking to rediscover the love of her deceased father at the bottom of a bin of used auto parts. Unsung Pamela Adlon is harried brilliance as Charlie’s befuddled and exasperated mother Sally.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Steinfeld is still coasting a bit on her stellar Edge of Seventeen performance as a misunderstood adolescent with a dazzling heart of gold buried under a sullen, surly, glowering pout. I guess this is her niche, for now, and it works to great effect in Bumblebee as well.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Two broken souls – in this case pubescent and robotic – heal one another by giving voice to the underdog and by waving a Breakfast Club fist in the face of institutional repression. I dug it. And the exquisitely curated soundtrack of late FM 80s hits adds an unexpected and refreshing layer of musical-comedy-esque commentary to a movie about giant robots taking over our planet.

“I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.” Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in Aquaman

I enjoyed Aquaman a lot, but could have used about 30 minutes less of blurry aquatic battles and about ten minutes more of authentic wit. Nonetheless, this is a visually stunning film that never takes itself too seriously and with the wisdom to assemble a world-class cast. Throw The Once and Future King, Black Panther, Tron, Flash Gordon, Jewel of the Nile, Krull, Thor, Big Trouble in Little China, Hamlet, and Lord of the Rings into a Mad Libs blender and you yield this wonderfully loony pic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Momoa is nothing but utterly charming in interviews. A great actor? Meh. But a star? Absolutely. That said, he looks great, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of his best lines likely landed on the cutting room floor to make way for more CGI soldiers riding giant seahorses. That’s a shame. The best parts of this film are the human parts. Nicole Kidman deserves a medal for making the Splash-meets-Terminator opening sequence of her Atlantean queen meeting cute with a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), playing house, and popping out a half-breed sea-prince baby not only palatable, but poignant and downright thrilling.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Taken at a superficial level, the plot is almost identical to Black Panther‘s. Two beefy men square off to rule a hidden, technologically advanced kingdom with the “bad guy” claiming his rule will right the wrongs of the outside world (in Black Panther, it was racial divide, and, in Aquaman it is pollution and global warming). Black Panther has more nuance in its conflict and thereby the stakes are higher.

Aquaman telegraphs its punches, so it is quite obvious from the minute Aquaman’s/Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (a dolphin-sleek Patrick Wilson) enters the screen that he is basically a nogoodnik, regardless his sweet speeches about keeping the seven seas free of man-made detritus. He’d like to buy the world a Coke, as long as you keep the plastic six-rings, than you very much. But, with Aquaman, the fun is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. And Wilson is terrific, by the way.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious) takes his sweet time getting us to Arthur’s inevitable victory over and acceptance by both land and sea. The visuals are sumptuous, even if the running time is gluttonous. There are moments of true wonder – any time Momoa communes with the creatures of the deep, for instance – and, on the balance, the film is a joy for those who have hoped DC could really start having fun with their characters.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The pitch perfect Wonder Woman seems less like an anomaly now and more like the beginning of a new, humane, inclusive direction for DC’s movies. I’ll consider my 2.5 hours watching Aquaman an investment in that future.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, in 2018, we traded one time-worn, bloated Star Wars entry for three heartfelt, loving, and, at times, inspiring homages to other past fantasy hits. I think that’s a decent, if safely unimaginative, return.

_____________________

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.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Beautiful Boy (film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Felix Van Groeningen’s film adaptation of David Sheff’s memoir Beautiful Boy is, alas, one of those movies that doesn’t do anything terribly well. Neither poignant and tear-jerking nor haunting and horrifying, neither evocative and transporting nor gritty and (forgive me) sobering, Beautiful Boy attempts to be a harrowing account of a father (Steve Carrell, all professorially hirsute and mincingly whiny) watching his beloved first born (Timothee Chalamet, all Gen X shaggy and sullenly whiny) circle the drain of crystal meth addiction.

I wanted to care. I wanted to be invested. I hear that the book is quite compelling. Perhaps I should have spent my time reading it instead.

This is the kind of film that makes me understand why the Fox & Friends tin-foil-hat brigade hates us liberals. The family in the film is all northern California boho charm, too cool to parent exactly right, having only momentary flirtations with actual discipline. Why read your kid the riot act when you can smoke a doobie all-hipster style with him at his high school graduation? This is the kind of film where stepmom is a groovy painter (Maura Tierney, all furrowed brow pout and earnestly whiny); dad’s manopausal new toe-headed toddlers never get haircuts and have cutesy names like Jasper and Daisy; the family pads around super-casz in their sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright-esque redwood-and-glass ranch; and they tool around town in a vintage Volvo station wagon (“boxy but good!”) with two bounding retriever mutts in tow. Lord, these people annoyed me. “Hey, we’re having a crisis that would cripple any normal family … so let’s all go surfing.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film only manages to grind to some kind of life in its final 20 minutes as Carrell’s David Sheff finally writes off a son who is beyond redemption and Chalamet’s “beautiful boy” Nic Sheff truly hits rock bottom as a result. This is where the film’s bloodless dispassion does pay off. We, as an audience, have grown as numb and as immune as David to Nic’s manipulations, so when we see Nic at his most disgustingly debased, we realize that Nic’s only way out is to come face-to-face alone with his demons (and they are legion). End scene.

I’m not sure what this genre of film should be called: “Pretty hippies with moolah have troubles too?” I blame Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach and Lisa Cholodenko and their self-indulgent directorial ilk. I attended a “magnet school” growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the campus was rife with kids from clans like that in this film; I’m guessing these directors are likely my age and came from similar upbringings as those classmates of mine. I’m probably just a cranky old fart at this point, but if I was even drinking too much Coca Cola as a teen, you’re damn well certain my parents wouldn’t just look casually over their shoulders as I passed through the front door to God-knows-where and say, “Have a good time!” I’m being judgmental, but then why else do we watch movies like this, if it isn’t to walk away empathizing “glad that’s not my life”?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I should probably say more about about the movie. It’s a bore. A crashing bore. I wasn’t sure if the film wanted to be a navel-gazing After School Special cautionary tale on the dangers of drugs or was simply in love with its own masturbatory misanthropy. It’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

If I want to watch a film that crawls under my skin and nails the familial destabilization substance abuse can cause, give me Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Days of Wine and Roses (at least that one has a lush theme song), The Lost WeekendLess Than ZeroTrainspotting, The Fighter or, hell, 28 Days.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Indeed.

________________

[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.

“It’s America: They’re Puritans in public, perverts in private.” Bohemian Rhapsody (film)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I wanted to love Bohemian Rhapsody. I really did.

One of the first 45s (remember those?) which I bought with my own money was Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” and I wore out many a needle on my little Raggedy Andy record player listening to their day-glo Flash Gordon soundtrack on endless repeat.

That said, is there a rock group of the past 40 years that is more rife with the potential for gonzo, heartbreaking baroque cinematic poignancy than Queen?! Lead singer Freddie Mercury’s out-sized public persona and haunted inner turmoil are ready-made for the kind of swirling epic that is both audience catnip and Oscar bait this time of year.

Alas, embattled director Bryan Singer is no Milos Forman, Stanley Kubrick, or, heck, Baz Luhrmann, and, in his hands, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes a serviceably entertaining yet never transcendent paint-by-numbers affair. A well-intentioned, well-acted Wikipedia entry.

Much has been written about Rami Malek’s transformation into Freddy Mercury. I’m not sure he quite lives up to the hype. When bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor (a sparkling Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy) steal scenes from Mercury, you may have a problem. (IRL, May and Taylor are producers on the film. Go figure.) Malek does compel as a little-boy-lost caught between cultures in love with his voice but at odds with his sexuality and his ethnicity. Yet, he never inspires in the way the real Mercury could with the mere flick of an eyebrow. Malek’s limpid banjo eyes and cumbersome prosthetic teeth are more static Al Hirschfeld caricature than true character development.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film is at its playful best when detailing the creation of Queen’s biggest stadium thumpers like “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” and the titular mock-opera tune. The ensemble is clearly having a ball playing dress-up and re-enacting Queen’s free-wheeling creative process. There is a fun cameo by Mike Myers as a small-minded producer baffled by the neo-classical camp charms of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (A sly wink at Myers’ Wayne’s World movie which introduced a new generation to the number, rocketing it up the pop charts once again.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film is less successful when it addresses Mercury’s challenged and challenging personal life. The film wants to paint this singular misfit as an everyman, a libidinous Warholian svengali for the Jock Rock crowd. It just doesn’t quite work, alas. At one point, the band opines, “It’s America: They’re Puritans in public, perverts in private.” One wonders if that notion didn’t hang up the filmmakers as well.

There is a gut punch of a movie in Mercury’s life, a celebratory cautionary tale about creative spark, sexual impulse, and uninhibited expression. Unfortunately, Bohemian Rhapsody ain’t it. A cheap, slight K-Tel hits collection when a messy, overlong box set was required.

Oh, and, Sacha Baron Cohen, I’d still like to see your version of this story.

____________

[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.

“We don’t grow children like that here.” The Ringwald’s production of The Laramie Project – plus, quick notes on Crazy Rich Asians, Blaine Fowler’s America, and yours truly being interviewed on Freeman Means Business

Laramie Project review originally published by Encore Michigan here.

[Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook page]

The Ringwald Theatre’s 2018-19 season opener The Laramie Project is not a production that needs to be reviewed. It is a production that needs to be viewed. It is a production that essentially illustrates (beyond question) that the most impactful theatre requires very little: words, voice, people, movement. Storytelling in its truest form. As an audience member, I haven’t cried like I did opening night of Laramie Project in years (if ever).

 

At the end of act one, I was a puddle, with two acts to go, and, by the time the performance wrapped, I was red-eyed, gutted, mad-as-hell, and cautiously hopeful. It’s that good. I suppose some projection was involved on my part. I was roughly Matthew Shepard’s age when he was savagely brutalized and murdered. I grew up and attended college in Indiana, which, as Mike Pence’s political ascent will attest, is a state not unlike Wyoming – more Handmaid’s Tale than Moulin Rouge.

That notwithstanding, The Ringwald’s production of Laramie Project is a slow-burn powerhouse.

The play written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project assembles first-person narratives from hundreds of interviews with Laramie townspeople, University of Wyoming faculty members, friends of Matthew’s, and the Tectonic Theater’s actors themselves. The narrative roughly follows this arc: defining Shepard’s humanity and upbringing, detailing the incidents of that tragic evening, and assessing its aftermath, all in the words of narrators both reliable and not. It is up to the audience to sort the wheat from the chaff and to make sense of a society where such irrational cruelty can occur. The approach is as journalistic as it is theatrical, and the topic is (sadly) as timely today as it was when the piece was written in 2000.

Director Brandy Joe Plambeck has assembled an empathetic, deep-feeling, yet commanding cast to perform dozens of roles: Joe Bailey, Greg Eldridge, Kelly Komlen, Sydney Lepora, Joel Mitchell, Taylor Morrow, Gretchen Schock, and Mike Suchyta. Rarely does this stellar group miss a beat, and Plambeck wisely eschews distractingly overt theatricality for a stripped down readers’ theatre approach. The emphasis is quite literally on the words on the page, and, as the details mount, both performers and audience are swept into a hurricane of emotion, of indignation, and of heartbreak.

As for those tears of mine? Well, Lepora and Bailey are the chief culprits, tasked to deliver some of the more devastating speeches and historical detail. They resist the temptation to indulge their characters’ raw emotions in a broad, selfish, “actorly” way. Rather, they quite realistically and subtly show their characters desperately trying (and failing) to stifle and contain their confusion, their anguish, their rage. And that damming of emotion, only to see the floodgates fail, is what cuts an audience to the quick.

Suchyta is quite effective as a series of “Wyoming” alpha men, from a star theatre student to a local bar owner to Shepard’s tormentors Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Mitchell is a sparkplug, breathing bold strokes life into the play’s few comic moments as a surprisingly insightful cab driver, and Morrow does a fine job balancing characters both reprehensible (local “mean girls” who basically imply Shepard deserved his fate) and painfully noble (one of the very few out-and-proud lesbian faculty members at the University of Wyoming).

That said, I hate to single out any performances, because this is an ensemble show in the truest sense of the word, and everyone is excellent. Plambeck paces the show in a measured but never ponderous way. The costuming is minimal, stage directions and character names are read by Plambeck, and scene changes/location names are projected on the back wall of the space. This approach results in a production that places the emphasis squarely where it belongs – on the voices of the people who experienced this tragedy and on a nation that both evolved and devolved as a result. Don’t miss this production.

______________________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’m so Chinese I’m an economics professor with lactose intolerance.” – Crazy Rich Asians

 

The other week we saw the film Crazy Rich Asians. Somehow life got in the way of me writing anything at length about the film, which is a shame because it is quite exceptional. Let me say this: while it was marketed as a wall-to-wall laugh riot a la Bridesmaids, it shares more with that film’s DNA than just riotous shenanigans.

Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians has its fair share of zaniness, chiefly supplied by sparkling comedienne Awkwafina, but like Bridesmaids, that tomfoolery belies a gentler, sweeter, yet exceptionally subversive core. It’s been 20-some years since Hollywood produced a film starring an all-Asian cast (the far inferior Joy Luck Club), and the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians will hopefully inspire a bit of sea change where Asian representation in Tinseltown is concerned. Money matters (sadly).

Crazy Rich Asians is part fair tale fantasy, part light comedy, part soap opera, all heart. Luminous Constance Wu arrives a fully formed movie star as Rachel Wu, a whip-smart economics professor in New York whose life is turned upside down when she learns her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (a dashing Henry Golding) is in actuality Singapore real estate royalty. As Rachel runs the gauntlet of Henry’s wackadoo family members – including a sympathetically subtle turn by Michelle Yeoh as Henry’s fearful and controlling mother Eleanor – Wu reveals varied layers of heartache and resilience. It’s a thoughtful performance, understated and thereby likely to be unfairly overlooked come awards season, but nonetheless an exceptional depiction of female frustration and agency in this maddening modern era.

Catch this film while still in theaters or on home video shortly.

______________________________

[Yes, a window into my musical taste.]

Blaine Fowler’s AmericaMy friend Blaine Fowler is a brilliant, witty, and delightful radio DJ here in metro Detroit on WDVD 96.3 FM. His morning show is a top-rated listen in this market. He and his wife Colleen are also among the kindest people you’ll have the chance to meet with two lovely and successful children. But one of his greatest loves is music. I wrote a bit about his last iTunes album 49783 here.

 

His latest release America was just posted on iTunes and Amazon for download.The whole album is divine. More cohesive sonically and rawer lyrically than the prior one, with an almost “song cycle” effect and an evocative moodiness. I liked it very much. Highlights include “Love Is” (a trippy throwback to Prince at his Minneapolis peak), “Reach,” “Oval Beach,” and “Best Friend.” This is an impressive evolution, which is saying something as I very much enjoyed Blaine’s previous effort. Keep it up. And keep experimenting. My two cents.

______________________________

Freeman Means Business

This week, my friend and fellow legal marketer Susan Freeman interviewed me for her podcast. She writes, “Check out the latest great conversation about the life of a legal marketer from our ‘Peer Pod’ podcast featuring Roy Sexton, a real dynamo — and a reel dynamo too!” Click here or here.

“Be patient. Listen to those with experience in areas that are new or foreign to you. Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self. People WILL respond.” Thank you, Susan!

______________________________

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.

“It’s called karma … and it’s pronounced ‘ha!'” Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is it fashionable to hate Mamma Mia!, the international ABBA-stage musical sensation that was parlayed into the biggest box office film-musical of all time ten (!) years ago, starring Meryl Streep? Seems that way. Maybe it’s misogyny or sour grapes or a general critical agnosticism toward anything big, silly, and fun. Maybe people don’t want to admit how much they love infectious Swedish pop songs with nonsensical titles and lyrical metaphors that appear to have been crafted by a roomful of monkeys with typewriters.

Whatever. I liked it. Mostly.

Well, let me equivocate. I appreciated the gaga joy that the original film’s cast seemed to be having – a group of award-winning pros (Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard) who didn’t give a flying fig that they were working from a junk script with a cringe-worthy concept (who’s your daddy?). These talented souls could read an appliance repair manual aloud and make it seem zippy. So what happens when you offer them some catchy-as-eff songs and throw them on a plastic back-lot set designed by Olive Garden with a sound-stage-blue sky that makes your heart ache? Cinematic genius.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Franchise newcomer (is this a franchise yet?) Ol Parker takes over direction from Phyllida Lloyd on the nobody-asked-for-it sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. He does some spectacular reverse engineering to give us an actual film that is just as loopy as before but, you know, gives us characters and motivation and something resembling a plot (sort of).

Since this second entry is basically a greatest hits of a greatest hits package, some songs from the prior film get repeated; some B-side deep cuts you never knew existed (nor wanted to) are employed; and, as a score, all of the numbers are more seamlessly integrated into the story line … which is basically TWO storylines.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

First, Sophie (a luminous Seyfried) is (spoiler alert!) mourning the passing of her mother Donna (Streep, who adds to her odd gallery of beyond-the-grave “angel” characters here), and re-opens the picturesque Greek hotel as a tribute.

Second, in parallel, we learn through flashbacks how young Donna found her island retreat, slept with three different dudes in rapid succession (Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan – all Abercrombie & Fitch adorable and completely disposably interchangeable), and subsequently declared, “To hell with all of ya!”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A crackerjack Lily James (Cinderella, Baby Driver) portrays young Donna. She effortlessly channels and brilliantly reinvents the madcap essence of Streep … despite the fact that the two don’t look one whit alike. Lily is brilliant in the role – unapologetic and fiery. By far, the smartest thing the filmmakers did was casting her. She makes the film. Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies are a hoot as her pals (the younger versions of Baranski and Walters, respectively), and the trio present a compelling and believable dynamic as pals making their way in a world and era (1979) where their free-spirited agency ain’t exactly celebrated. (The more things change…)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the present day, we also see the addition of a criminally underutilized Andy Garcia as the hotel’s concierge/handyman ridiculously named, yes, Fernando. He seems to exist primarily as a narrative device for Cher who literally helicopters in for the last twenty minutes of the movie, phoning in an absolutely brilliant approximation of Cher at her Cher-iest, to croon one of ABBA’s most beloved tunes.

For some illogical reason, Cher, who is only three years older than Streep, plays Streep’s mother. She is about as believable (pun intended) playing Streep’s mother as I would be. Hell, I’d be more believable. “Do you belieeeeeve, in life after love … love … love?” But who cares? In the Teflon-coated Mamma Mia universe, all things exist in servitude to hedonistic joy. And you don’t get more hedonistic nor more joyous than Cher singing “Fernando,” as exquisitely escapist as a big movie moment can be. I adored the sequence and hated myself for doing so the next day.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Check your brain at the door, drink in the images and sounds, and enjoy the best party of the summer with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Yes, I laughed, I sang, I danced, I cried, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Much.

Postcript …

There were four lines in the film that I jotted down as potential review titles. They are indicative of why this film is such simplistic, absurdist genius in our meme-happy culture. I chose one – spoken by Julie Walters (I think) – which seemed to perfectly reflect the position this sequel takes in relation to its most vocal critics: “It’s called karma, and it’s spelled ‘ha’!” For the curious? The other three options were as follows: “Be still my beating vagina.” “It’s not easy being a mother. If it was, fathers would do it.” AND “I judge a person’s heart by the way they treat animals.” Go see the film, have a ball, and tell me if I chose my title … poorly.

__________________________________

[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.