The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.
Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.
As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.
Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.
Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his books, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats theatre company.
We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.
My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and…
Nina Kaur (thanks to fellow Farmington PlayerAmy Lauter for connecting us!) asked me to contribute a guest blog entry to her fun and interesting blog Thirty Something Years in Ninaland. Here’s what she wrote about me – “Every Monday I will have a guest blogger. Today I am featuring a wonderful Movie Reviewer named Roy Sexton. He is witty, charming and great critic! Enjoy reading about his journey!” Wow! Thanks, Nina! Click here for the original post on her blog.
By yours truly …
Movies have always been an important part of my life.
I like to read books (more accurately comic books these days, as I seem to now have the attention span of a tsetse fly), and I adore music. Television is fine, and I’ve spent many hours traipsing the boards of theatres across the Midwest. But movies transport me.
I love the fact that a film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story – beginning, middle, and end – introducing you to new friends and enemies and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion.
Your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.
I stop reading email, answering calls, or monitoring social media…and just blessedly check out…for a bit.
My parents cultivated appreciation for the arts by filling our home with movies and music and books and love. I’ve groused in the past about wanting, as a child, to play with my Star Wars action figures in the solitude of my toy-lined room and being forced instead to sit in our den with my parents and watch some creaky B&W classic movie on Fort Wayne’s Channel 55. And I am so grateful now for that.
My appreciation for classic cinema resulted from these years basking in the glow of our old RCA color TV. And when we could finally afford a VCR and could now watch any movie of our choosing, I was already hooked on the story-telling of vintage movies with their requisite arch wit, dramatic stakes, whimsical joys, and belief that anything was possible.
However, not everything was high art in our house. The advent of HBO in the early 80s and its repetitive showings of whatever junk Hollywood had most recently cranked out shaped my tastes for better or worse as well. I’m a sucker for the movie train wreck – the more star-studded, over-budget, under-written, and garish the better. Some of my most beloved films are among the most notoriously awful of all time: Xanadu, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Wiz, Popeye, Flash Gordon. The Black Hole, Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Return to Oz, Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, The Neverending Story, and so on.
If it was a flop and it was shown ad nauseum one mid-afternoon following another on HBO in the 1980s, then I fell in love with it. Like self-imposed water torture on my nascent aesthetic.
As time went by and I stomped through my high school and college know-it-all years (some might argue I’m still stuck in them), I learned from both my parents and some wonderful teachers the tools of critique and criticism. What is the intent of the piece? What is the context for its creation? How effective is its structure, composition, impact? Where did it go awry or where did it cross over into something classic?
It’s all highly subjective and a bit arrogant, I suppose, but I can’t help it. I’m entertained by the act of analysis.
In more recent years, Facebook gave me an outlet to connect with my inner-Ebert. I started posting status statements summarizing in glib, condensed fashion my take on whatever flick we had just enjoyed … or endured. My kind-hearted and patient partner John has suffered through a lot of movies over the years, many he enjoyed … and even more he did not.
At wonderful Jim and Lyn’s beautiful wedding
We still bicker about his departure from Moulin Rouge after twenty minutes with nary an explanation. I found him after the movie in the lobby reading a newspaper – I don’t know what is more telling: that he was too kind to want to ruin the movie for me by alerting me how much he hated it, or the fact that I stayed to the end without checking on his safety and security!
My friends and colleagues enjoyed these little “squibs” I posted on social media. I suppose I was aspiring to capture the grace and insight of Leonard Maltin’s “micro reviews” that I consumed voraciously as a child every January when we bought his latest edition. (The paper on those early volumes was always of some strange newspaper-esque stock prone to smudging and was pulpily aromatic. I will never forget that musty, fabulous smell.)
John always asks plaintively, “Didn’t they know this movie was bad when they were making it?!”
Perhaps I keep trying to solve that riddle, with the false confidence that my $10 movie ticket entitles me to a shot at armchair quarterbacking. Perhaps the failed actor in me is still trying to reclaim some artistic glory. Or perhaps I’m just a wise-ass with too many opinions and without the good sense to keep them respectfully to myself.
My pals told me, “Set up a blog. Capture these Facebook reviews for future reference. They’re great; they’re fun! Blah blah blah.” I have to admit that eventually my ego got the better of me, and, one late night, I explored the wonders that WordPress holds (albeit not that many) and set up ReelRoyReviews as a diary of sorts, detailing my adventures in the cinema.
Here’s the funny thing. Nobody read them. Nobody. At least for quite a while.
Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom was an avid reader and supporter and was always the first to offer an encouraging comment: “My son writes the best reviews and everyone should love them.” So there!
But you know what? Something interesting happened along the way. I stopped caring and just started writing for myself. And I started having fun. And people started reading.
Life is way too short (and exasperating) to get too intense about entertainment, so I try to take a light and conversational approach with my reviews. And I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster.
Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.
Please check out my latest reviews here … Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, The Fault in our Stars, and Tammy and more …
What has happened to me? Have I been taken to the dark side by young adult fiction? Or are the cinematic charms of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort simply to blame? (Wow, those are some monikers – what is with every millennial having a kooky name? God love yuppie parents and their precious aspirations.)
First, I lavished praise on Divergent (see here) starring Woodley and featuring Elgort (as her brother). Now, I find myself equally enthused about The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s worldwide bestseller about young cancer patients finding love for the first time. This go-round, Woodley and Elgort aren’t siblings, but rather are the oncologically-challenged paramours in question. (That took a bit of getting used to after Divergent‘s familial dynamic. Just sayin’…)
Nothing about this movie, in the abstract, is something I should have liked. I don’t like sappy love stories (e.g. Nicholas Sparks!). I don’t like cancer dramas where illness becomes metaphor for tragic courage (e.g. Love Story!). I don’t like teen angst played out by beautiful people who’ve never had a zit in their lives and live in “middle class” homes that look like spreads in Better Homes & Gardens (e.g. pretty much any show that doesn’t feature superheroes or monsters on The CW and ABC Family … and even a few that do!).
However, I found The Fault in Our Stars quite remarkable. The film is too long by a good 20 minutes, and it has its fair share of After School Special stomach-turning goop. Yet, it also has a poignant spikiness and warm-hearted cynicism that I found refreshing.
Woodley is lovely as “Hazel,” the film’s narrator and protagonist – a young woman who has spent much of her young life in hospitals, who lugs around an oxygen tank, and who obsesses about “the only honest book about death” she’s ever read – An Imperial Affliction. She is sick of being sick, but she’s also up-to-here with well-meaning folks who push her to join prayer circles and support groups. (I don’t know if it’s happenstance or by design that the film is set in Indianapolis, but Hazel’s eyeball-rolling, scorched-earth reaction to a class held in a Hoosier church basement by a twee born-again sitting atop a latch-hook-rug depicting the “heart of Jesus” had me at “hello.”)
Woodley and Elgort (“Gus”) meet cute in the church parking lot, when he, also a cancer sufferer, offers her a cigarette. See, he carries a pack around at all times, never lighting them, both for shock value and because, after losing one leg to cancer, he likes to “keep death between his teeth,” one unlit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips.
Never ooky, always honest, continually charming, Elgort and Woodley are a luminous screen couple. Yes, the specter of cancer is always near, but the film deftly skewers Camille-esque cliche by depicting the realities of the illness and the pharmacological insanity of modern healthcare without devolving (much) into maudlin soap opera.
People who know they are dying can be really sh*tty with the healthy and unhealthy folks around them, but they also can tap into an exuberance for living life that the rest of us can’t hope to touch. The movie captures both with subtlety and nuance, with much credit going to its talented young co-stars.
Laura Dern is her affecting, capable self as Hazel’s pragmatically optimistic mother, and Willem Dafoe is a quiet hoot as Hazel’s literary hero, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who, let’s just say, doesn’t feel one iota of condescending compassion for “Make-a-Wish” kids.
At one point, Dafoe hisses, “I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed,” seemingly putting Hazel in her place for once and for all. What he fails to realize is that Hazel, full of a self-awareness few ever achieve, wants neither his pity nor his kinship. She simply wants truth and respect. That‘s a fine summer movie message in my book.
You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.
Roy and Susie with poster
I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.
Benanti with my dad
Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.
But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather than keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.
I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.
Almond with me and my mom
With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.
The Big Room
Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”
Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?
Susie and Roy Capone
Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.
What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.
Benanti and me
This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.
Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.
(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)
I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!