“I retain the right to be moved by those little things that nobody notices.” Cats (the movie!), Bombshell, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Little Women (2019), The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Where’d You Go Bernadette?

We were the ONLY people in the theatre. And this was Cats’ second day showing at Columbia City’s Bones Theatre

“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).

“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”

The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.

Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.

As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.

“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women

Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshell depicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.

The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast

Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.

I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.

We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue One and arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.

“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women

Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.

The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.

Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …

Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.

The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.

Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.

“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell

Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.

Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.

The Man Who Invented Christmas uses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.

His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.

There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.

Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.

As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.

“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him

 

2019 Holiday Collage

 

“Dog Almighty.” A Thanksgiving analysis of the films Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is no question that this world feels more than a bit broken these days. Over this Thanksgiving holiday, we took in three films that all deal with our shared past, present, future imperfect in poignant, heartrending, riotous, and allegorical ways: Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs. In essence, all three deal with the fact that our world is governed by people who don’t always have our best interests at heart … nor, in fact, have any interests but their own in mind.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley‘s best-selling memoir, is a gut punch with a surprisingly light touch – as much about family, faith, being true to one’s own self, and integrity as it is about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. Directed with a balanced and nuanced approach by Joel Edgerton (who also plays the head conversion “therapist” with a refreshing lack of Snidely Whiplash-ism), the film withholds judgment on well-meaning parents whose hearts are in the right place even if their actions couldn’t be more out-of-touch. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are absolute magic as an Arkansas couple whose capital-C Christianity defines every square inch of their lives. He is a pastor AND runs a Ford dealership where the salespeople begin each day with a group prayer. Ah, the American Southland. Am I being judgy? Ah well.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lucas Hedges ably portrays their prototypical all-American golden boy Jared – a basketball-playing, cheerleader-dating, Mustang-driving alpha-male-in-training. Except, he isn’t. He’s a sensitive and dutiful son following the recipe-for-life set before him by his noble if misguided parents, still striving to define himself in a world far too ready to box him in with hetero-normative conventions. The irony is that Jared is the purest soul, lost amidst elders who purport purity yet are more obsessed with human sexuality than the supposed “deviants” they seek to condemn. The textbook definition of “thou dost protest too much.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The chief strength of the film is how believably this trio of acting pros – Kidman, Crowe, and Hedges – weaves together a family dynamic that is sad and warm and funny and never melodramatic. This is an essential film and must be viewed by everyone, particularly those arrogant and hypocritical enough to weigh in on social issues that they lack the empathy to fully comprehend.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is it about Australians – like Crowe and Kidman – that they are capable of translating the American experience to film better than most Americans? And here we have fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman offering a pensive, detailed, reserved, dynamite turn as 1988 presidential hopeful Gary Hart in director Jason Reitman’s stellar flick The Front Runner. Jackman is aided and abetted by the always magnificent Vera Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering but never victimized wife. Jackman and Farmiga are a formidable acting combination, and I would love to see them do something again soon.

Jackman has always been a twinkling presence (a true blue Greatest Showman) – sometimes even a glowering, steroidal, twinkling presence  (Wolverine … and Jean Valjean) – but I had my doubts that he had the chops to be unapproachable and unlikable yet still admirable in a ripped-from-the-headlines character role like this. I was wrong. (I do think his hair and makeup people should be fired, though, for the weird dusty mop they plopped on his noggin in the film.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reitman has surrounded his leads with a fantastic supporting cast – including exceptional JK Simmons and Alfred Molina as two sides of the same benevolent puppet-master coin, the first as Hart’s campaign manager and the latter as The Washington Post’s editor. Furthermore, Reitman uses the controversy surrounding Hart’s infidelity which derails his campaign as a sharp-eyed allegory on today’s contentious and never-ending donnybrook between politicians and news media.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is a public figure’s personal life fair game for the media? Is a private transgression a worthy public measure of integrity? Do people care, or do they only care when it benefits their party of affiliation? And what of the ongoing invisibility and disposability of women in said process, be they spouse or mistress or aide or voter?

The film raises all of these questions in the context of what once seemed a charmingly bygone era, yet offers us, today, no easy answers. Significantly, Reitman turns the mirror on ourselves, challenging the viewer to assess his or her own culpability in perpetuating this madness, and that is a marvelous hat trick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

But would you believe me when I said that the best and most pointed analysis of our current milieu comes from what is ostensibly a children’s animated film about dogs banished to a garbage heap island by a Japanese magistrate who prefers cats over canines? I predict masters theses will be written about Isle of Dogs at liberal arts colleges and universities all over the land 20 years from now.

I’m not crazy about director Wes Anderson. Twee sarcasm is not usually something that screams “great night at the movies” to me. His Isle of Dogs (now on home video), blessedly, is anything but.

Imagine Richard Adams’ novel Plague Dogs or George Orwell‘s Animal Farm adapted to film by Quentin Tarantino, using Manga-stylized puppets and stop-motion animation. Isle of Dogs is sweet-natured yet caustic, escapist yet blisteringly critical, whimsical yet horrifying. If there is a movie that pushes and explores and avails itself of every inch and vista what the artsy fartsies call “cinema,” this is it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The script is layered and thoughtful and addresses everything from animal rights to totalitarianism to the twin toxicities of apathy and wishful thinking. The film’s core message, beyond that we should be kind to animals and to each other and that tolerance and inclusion heal? It’s this: if you want this damn world to change, get in there and change it. Anderson seems to be directly addressing any children watching his film that if you see oppression or evil, take it upon yourselves to stop it. Adults are too fat and lazy to care. The young human protagonists in this film are heroic in a way that goes beyond the fantasy role-playing of, say, Dorothy Gale or Katniss Everdeen, presenting young audience members with salient and actionable examples to follow.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, and the voice cast is to die for, including Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, and, yes, Yoko Ono. The titular dogs are, yes, adorable but with agency and surety and never one moment of infantilism.

Hot damn!

Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and appreciation. It’s also a time to think about what’s next and where you want to go. This seemingly serendipitous combination of films does indeed add up to a pretty important road map. One worth following. For that, I am thankful.

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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.

“Thank God you’re pretty.” Baywatch (2017 film)

The first third of the film adaptation of TV’s Baywatch seems designed chiefly to show off how impressive Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s calves are. Admittedly, they do look like two bowling balls suspended in mid-air between his ankles and his knees. THIS remarkable feat of anatomy, however, does not a great movie make.

Directed by Seth Gordon (um … Identity Thief), the film aspires to the same pop culture meta lunacy of 21 Jump Street, Charlie’s Angels, or The Brady Bunch Movie. Unfortunately, the proceedings are saddled with a pedestrian script that is more paint-by-numbers Beverly Hills Cop III than off-the-charts self-referential foolishness. And that’s a shame, as Gordon has assembled a cast that could sell hyperbole to President Trump.

Johnson and Zac Efron are an ADORABLE comedic couple, and they deserve MUCH better material (see: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys). Their repartee (not to mention gleaming teeth and pneumatic abs) powers through the pedestrian material (drug cartel, half-baked political shenanigans, police corruption) to keep the audience entertained well beyond all reason. These two (playing overly ambitious California lifeguards who think their jobs involve after hours police work – cute idea) deserved such a better script, for their personal training regimen alone, not to mention the wit and wisdom both bring to just about any project.

The supporting cast is a hoot too: Priyanka Chopra, preening and prancing as the underdeveloped “big bad;” Kelly Rohrbach more self-aware than required as the Pamela Anderson-comic relief; Alexandra Daddario (whose eyes could pierce concrete blocks) as Efron’s infinitely wiser love interest; Ilfenesh Hadera as The Rock’s endlessly patient lieutenant; and Jon Bass as the exuberant schlub who has somehow been asked to join their hard-bodied lifeguarding team.

Damn, but I wish they had all had a thoughtfully designed script. Hell, any script. I was entertained for 90 minutes, but I’ve completely forgotten already what plot if any existed. I remember Zac Efron’s highlighted hair and his Malibu Ken physique. I will never forget Dwayne Johnson’s megawatt smile shining beneath the tumultuous waves as he rescued one woebegone Cali beach swimmer after another. But the plot? That has already escaped my brain, even as I type.

Will you have a good time watching this cinematic Baywatch? Of course, you will. It’s the same mindless idiocy of the 1990s syndicated TV hit (David Hasselhoff even puts in yet ANOTHER unnecessary summer ’17 film appearance) with a heaping, helping of post-millennial wink-and-nod camp. I just wish the filmmakers had taken … oh, I don’t know … ten extra minutes? … to devise plot and dialogue that gave Johnson and Efron something to do with all the charisma (and biceps) that they have in spades. Would anybody like to stage Sam Shepard’s True West with two charmingly steroidal hunks? If so, I think I have your duo.

As one cast member (I can’t recall who now for the life of me) notes to Efron’s dim bulb former-Olympian character (a la Ryan Lochte), “Thank God you’re pretty.” Indeed.

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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.

“What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” The Nice Guys

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Nice Guys. Imagine Boogie Nights as a frothy Abbott and Costello cinematic confection with a healthy sprinkling of The Rockford Files on top. Served with a side of Starsky & Hutch … or Bugs & Daffy.

Set in a smoggy/syphilitic 1977 Los Angeles, director/screenwriter Shane Black’s comic noir caper flick revels in just how damned ugly the Me Decade was. Film has a tendency to romanticize an era or to toy cutely with a period’s quirky extremes. Black time travels without commentary. The characters in this film aren’t living in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are simply living. Or attempting to live.

Beyond the flawless set decoration and precise costume design, Black is aided and abetted by the sparks that fly when you throw the unlikeliest of co-stars together: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Glowering gravitas meets wicked whimsy.

That said, the awkwardly delicious alchemy these two titans demonstrated on the talk show circuit promoting the film isn’t as evident onscreen as one might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe ends up garnering more laughs because he is always so. darn. grounded.  He’s funny simply because he’s not trying to be. Gosling indulges cartoonish impulses a few too many times, not trusting the comedy of situational contrast to do the heavy lifting. (Gosling has yet to outgrow the “isn’t it just a riot to see a handsome adult man let loose an ear-piercing community theatre shriek when he’s scared?” tic. Be careful, Ryan, for that way rests Johnny Depp’s sputtering career.)

Regardless, Crowe and Gosling are pretty freaking adorable together, and the whole enterprise plays like a pilot episode of a vintage TV-series that never got picked up. The plot is, well, kind of a meandering mess … just like a grainy 1970s TV crime drama. I kept waiting for Jaclyn Smith or Gavin MacLeod  to show up as a “very special guest star.” (We do get a Lynda Carter shout out, though.) There are double- and triple-crosses aplenty as a porn actress (literally) crashes through a family’s living room, and her death starts a spiraling series of murders and other sordid shenanigans. Oh, and there is intrigue about the auto industry and catalytic converters and how in the world Kim Basinger’s character managed to have Botox before the procedure was ever invented.

Gosling, as private eye Holland March, and Crowe, as hired muscle Jackson Healy, initially find themselves at cross purposes (with Gosling’s pretty mug on the receiving end of Crowe’s brass knuckles). Grudgingly, the duo partner up as the violence mounts and their befuddlement grows. A big part of the movie’s charm is that Crowe and Gosling gleefully portray characters whose detective skills are as suspect as their collective intelligence, with Holland’s precocious daughter Holly March (portrayed by a captivating Angourie Rice) serving as a wise-beyond-her-years Nancy Drew to Gosling/Crowe’s dim bulb Hardy Boys.

Rice’s performance is dynamite with a sharp feminist subtext. As  the “grown up” characters find themselves derailed by patriarchy run amuck (porn, corrupt manufacturing, prostitution, the Oil Crisis … the 70s at its worst), Rice’s Holly is clear-eyed, vigilant, incisive, defying the limitations and stereotypes society seeks to impose. “Don’t say, ‘And stuff.’ Just say there are whores here,” Gosling intones at one point, attempting to correct his daughter’s grammar and missing the misogynist irony in his declaration. The look in Rice’s eye reveals that her character does not lose the irony.

Holly is always ten steps ahead of her father and, without Holly’s continual intervention, the titular Nice Guys would still be attempting to solve the film’s mystery well into the late 1980s. Or they’d be dead.

I’m hoping this feminist dynamic is intentional on Black’s part, a storyteller whose filmography (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through Iron Man 3) typically co-opts and reinvents B-movie formula, inverting its clichés as satiric critique of our baser instincts. I suspect this is by design, the film’s random (gratuitous?) naked porn stars notwithstanding.

With The Nice Guys, Black is trying to have his cake and eat it too. And he succeeds. Mostly. In a larger sense, Black is using the indulgent myopia of the 1970s as a reflection of how little we have changed as a nation. Basinger, plays a Department of Justice operative (in a bit of meta-casting, referencing her earlier – better – work in both L.A. Confidential  and 8 Mile) whose definition of “justice” is protecting the (then) fat cats in the Detroit auto industry. In the final act, she delivers the film’s punch line: “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” Even as today’s Detroit reinvents itself as a hipster paradise of urban farming, artisanal soaps, and craft cocktails, the lesson in Basinger’s remark remains prescient. An America that lives for itself and only itself will quickly find itself trapped in yesteryear’s polyester leisure suit.

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The Nice Guys PostersReel 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.

Talk of the Town features Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Thanks to Jennifer Romano and Talk of the Town! Read here. Quote from yours truly: “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

BONUS: Enjoy this fabulous new blog entry from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton – provocative and fun! Read “Got (almond) milk? Books, movies, politics, culture, and AGRIganda” by clicking here.

Excerpt: “Regarding BUT HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK jazz, my mother ALWAYS asked that question. Guess what? She very seldom had actually read the books herself; I preferred to write my book reports based on the more enjoyable movie versions!”

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.

Point/counterpoint – Ann Arbor’s Rebecca Biber offers guest critique of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber – Photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

So, I did not like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I mean I didn’t like it a lot. However, never let it be said that we here at Reel Roy Reviews aren’t equal opportunity reviewers.

My dear friend, the talented pianist, musical director, and instructor Rebecca Biber shared the following (beautifully composed) counterpoint today on Facebook, and I asked if I could pay it forward here. She graciously obliged. Her take actually makes me want to revisit this film … almost. 🙂

Bookbound April 26 Event

Bookbound April 26 Event

And, if you’d like a chance to meet the supremely talented Ms. Biber in person, Megan and Peter Blackshear of Bookbound, in Ann Arbor (1729 Plymouth Road), have generously agreed to host a Reel Roy Reviews book-signing/Q&A on Saturday, April 26 at 3 pm.

Rebecca will accompany me as I sing a few of my favorite movie themes and show tunes. She actually selected the numbers from our nearly decade-long musical partnership, so, if you like ditties from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you are in luck!

(And be sure to check out this thoughtful response by my gifted mom – author Susie Duncan Sexton – to my review of Disneynature’s Bears.)

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Here’s Rebecca’s delightful take on The Grand Budapest Hotel – enjoy!

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

In a made-up land resembling Germany or Austria (with Alps) on the eve of WWII, a charming, perfect hotelier played by Ralph Fiennes struggles to maintain his composure, help his friends, and avoid bad guys. His tale is narrated by his protege, Zero the Lobby Boy, now grown up into F. Murray Abraham. But this is merely the nugget at the heart of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Abraham is speaking with a writer played by Jude Law, whom we have earlier seen in his aged incarnation, telling the viewer that if you are a writer, there is no need to make up stories: they will come to you. Earlier than that, we have seen a young woman placing a tribute of hotel keys at the base of a statue honoring her favorite writer, and holding a book that contains, we think, the story Jude Law has retold from F. Murray.


This movie is a typical Wes Anderson confection in some ways, with fanciful lettering, folk-tale inspired landscapes, and gorgeous color schemes throughout, not to mention the usual rapid-fire dialogue and the panoply of famous faces. While it can be entertaining to play Name That Actor, it is distracting as well – just as we are settling into the story for its own sake, what’s-his-name pops up and we’re back at the level of being mere viewers. Characters are pretty much as they first appear, with clear goodies and baddies. Edward Norton gets to play a Nazi (again, previously having played the neo-version in American History X) and Adrien Brody gets to…weirdly…also play a Nazi. Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable, Bob Balaban pops up like a fairy tale imp, and Harvey Keitel has jailhouse tattoos resembling middle school doodles. Young actress Saoirse Ronan is perfect as the young Zero’s girlfriend and pastry chef. But the standout, and one to watch, is Tony Revolori, who plays the Lobby Boy not merely as a supporting character with some great lines (which he does have) but as a complicated, unexpectedly fearless and wise young man. He has an unblinking gaze straight at the camera that compels both laughter and serious attention.


Unlike Moonrise Kingdom, which had all of the Wes Anderson cute and very little of the sad, Budapest has some moments of real darkness. And they always come unexpectedly. This movie is probably not safe for devoted animal lovers or the very squeamish. There are several bloody fights and, for those with Holocaust survivors in the family, the train scenes were a bit too close to real history despite Anderson’s attempts to fictionalize the material.
With all that goes on in the film, I haven’t even mentioned the stolen art, murder mystery and contested will (with legal executor played by an uncomfortable looking Jeff Goldblum). There is much to enjoy, and I came away glad I had watched this quirky adventure/love story with true friendship at its core. It is a visual feast with some nice musical touches (nothing overblown) and, if the story doesn’t make perfect sense outside of its own world, well, it does such an excellent job of conjuring that world that I was delighted to spend a couple of hours among its inhabitants.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Guitar heroes and heartaches: Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark

Howie Day

Howie Day

I’m not much for folk music (see my review of Inside Llewyn Davis) or, for that matter, guitar-driven singer/songwriters. So, when our friend Bonnie offered an extra ticket to see Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I had vague memories of Day as an early aughts pop/rock folkie with the following attributes: an inescapable (and kinda bland) radio hit “Collide,” a reputation as having been Britney Spears’ rehab rebound boy toy, some TMZ-style controversies that involved berating flight attendants and throwing cell phones, and a Russell Crowe-esque fiery temper (that last point being the most intriguing to me).

It’s a shame that this is his legacy to ignorant lay-people like yours truly, because he is phenomenal.

The joy of seeing a musician live when you know pretty much none of their songs is that every tune is a new discovery. (My apologies to those Howie Day fans looking for a set-list or some other detail from tonight’s show. I have no idea what the songs were titled.)

Bonnie and Roy

Bonnie and Roy

Day was such a compelling presence, with just his honey-husky voice, his Liev Schreiber-ish look, a guitar and a microphone, and (his secret weapon) some astonishing gizmo that let him record, dub, layer, and re-layer his own voice and instrumentation in real time. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I’m sure someone out there knows the name for this, but he had a device on the floor that he would tap with his foot and record a snippet of guitar or voice or some other noise that would then loop and repeat and become the accompaniment for any given song. This technique – which was part dusty troubadour, part Ibiza-bound DJ – was transfixing and transporting.

This beat-infused folktronica (lord, I always hated that term, yet here I am using it) offered a surreal soundscape for the heartache dripping from every lyric. While Day gave sparkling between-song  patter (he kept returning to the notion that he really should have seen the film Noah today if he was going to perform at a venue called “The Ark”), every song he played related the tale of someone abandoned by love, by friends, by life. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe the musical stories he wove.

Shane Piasecki

Shane Piasecki

Opening act Shane Piasecki was a sunny counterpoint to Day’s melodic solemnity. Piasecki – resembling some mashed up hybrid of Ed Norton, Bob Dylan, and James Franco – captivated the audience with his shaggy dog charm, playing guitar and harmonica and vocalizing, with studied casual aplomb. His numbers all had a loping frat boy charm but with a musical sophistication that belied his youthful demeanor. He had the audience in the palm of his hand … and that was prior to him telling us he had to rush back to his mischievous dog at the hotel where he’s staying before the establishment lost every last pillow to the canine’s canines.

If these two wandering minstrels find their way to your town (or somewhere nearby), do not hesitate to check them out. You won’t be disappointed. I, for one, bought all of Piasecki’s musical output (four CDs – $35 in total) at the merchandise table, and Day’s are now added to my Amazon cart for ordering posthaste!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Two by two … what did I just do to myself? Noah AND The Grand Budapest Hotel

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I think I may have just given myself a year’s worth of nightmares as a result of this double feature I just endured: Darren Aronofksy’s Noah and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

(Seriously, for once in the short history of this wee ol’ blog I toyed with the idea of just going to bed right now as opposed to trying to digest what I just saw … yet, here I type …)

I actually enjoyed (sort of … I think) Noah, which basically turns the outline of the Old Testament tale of a prophet who builds a big boat to save his quirky family and a sampling of every animal on the planet into a Lord of the Rings super-size fantasy epic.

God love Russell Crowe (literally) who is the only reason to see Noah. He gives this epic gravitas and heft, and, coupled with Aronofsky’s sly allusions to ecology, animal rights, and humanitarianism, he reminded me that the Bible is an allegory, not to be taken in slavish literalism, but as poetic metaphor for how we need to treat our planet and each other with respect and kindness. Just sayin’.

There is a shipload (literally) of unconvincing CGI effects, some painful emoting from Harry Potter‘s Hermione (Emma Watson), some bad eyebrow furrowing from Crowe’s perpetual “movie wife” Jennifer Connelly, and a number of multi-limbed rock creatures doubling as fallen angels (but looking more like cast-offs from the last Transformers flick).

What does work are Aronofsky’s explorations of man’s chronic insensitivity to the environment and all its denizens, Aronofsky’s metaphorical musings on humanity’s arrogance to believe “God” has somehow given us “dominion” over all living creatures, and Crowe’s heartfelt perplexity over a world (and a deity) that seems rife with cruel hypocrisy.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

On the other hand, Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel just gave me a colossal headache. Between the Sunday funnies-style cinematography and the twee, “aren’t-we-precious” Keystone Cops antics, I quickly reached an apex of just not giving a fig as to what was  transpiring onscreen. The slight narrative relates that a concierge (Ralph Fiennes, surprisingly funny) has inherited a highly appraised painting from one of the hotel’s guests (and a former concubine of Fiennes).

Said painting becomes a source of various hijinks as assorted characters (including a so-so Adrien Brody and a slightly better Ed Norton) try to reclaim the work of art in question.

Perhaps I was just worn down by all the sturm und drang of Noah, but I felt like jumping out of my skin while sitting through The Grand Budapest Hotel. Every aspect was so tortured, darling, overdone, cute that I could barely stand another scene. I felt positively itchy watching it.

I may add to this blog entry in the light of day tomorrow, but right now I’m just tired. Good night, all. (It’s rather sad that I could find more to say about Muppets Most Wanted than a Biblical epic and a highly anticipated art film.)

Coda … there’s got to be a morning after ….

So, this is what I was struggling to say last night, and just now it hit me like a bolt of lightning (not the supernatural but the human kind).

I have long struggled with both Anderson and Aronofsky as filmmakers, though I was never quite sure why. I loathed Black Swan, found The Fountain interminable, and thought The Royal Tenenbaums was the fever dream of my cloying “magnet” middle school classmates.

Both directors are blessed with distinctive voices; however, they are so wrapped up in the style of their films (cinematography, costumes, music, arch acting/writing) that we as audience members struggle to invest in the people, whether in the characters or in the filmmakers themselves. Further, both directors seem to be challenging their viewers to try to enjoy what they’re watching; it’s like Anderson and Aronofsky are standing on the cinematic playground screaming “Neener neener neener! I dare you to like this … or to even suss out what the heck is going on!”

That art of alienation is all well and good, but, when it is wrapped in what appear to be big-budgeted attempts at popular entertainment, it comes across sophomoric and kinda mean.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

 

Countdown: The Guilt Trip

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 17 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s what Roy thought about The Guilt Trip: “The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spider web of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Boys of Summer: Man of Steel

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

All I can say is thank heavens for Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. (Not a sentence I thought I would ever type.)

These two veterans give Man of Steel, the latest big screen Superman treatment, much-needed heart, warmth, and vitality.

Now, that’s not to say Man of Steel is bad. Quite the opposite in fact. The film is stocked with a phenomenal cast of Oscar-nominated/winning actors: the aforementioned duo playing Ma and Pa Kent as well as Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Michael Shannon as General Zod, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. All of them bring an almost BBC-level Shakespearean gravitas to the four-color (albeit grittily muted) proceedings.

Furthermore, relative newcomer Henry Cavill is a perfect Superman, particularly for a postmodern era. He exudes the noble sadness of a person caught between two worlds, a haunted soul hoping that both worlds (in this case, Krypton and Earth) find a means to rise above their darker natures. He makes the most of too few moments of wit, most in exchange with a crackerjack Adams, and he powers through some painfully-obvious shots of otherworldly beefcakery. Alas, at times, it seemed as if director Zack Snyder was more inspired by the latest Abercrombie & Fitch catalog than the DC Comics source material. (From 300 to Watchmen to Man of Steel, Freud would have a field day with Snyder’s hyper-stylized oeuvre.)

My biggest issue with the film would be its chronic video-game aesthetic that starts to grind the viewer into paste as pop-eyed, scowling, yet compelling Shannon’s Zod fights … and fights … and fights … and fights with Cavill’s Superman, pretty much turning Metropolis into a smoking crater. The sheer improbability of all the destruction waged hurts the otherwise credible dynamic established by this great cast.

But back to Lane and Costner. With very little screen time, they made a believer out of this viewer … that the all-American values these adoptive parents impart in their son aren’t some goody goody impulse. Rather, these values are a tool the couple use to keep their child safe, helping him blend into a small-town/small-minded world that would otherwise loathe him for his exceptional talents. A fresh and interesting lens through which to view an oft-told American myth.

If last summer’s Dark Knight Rises, which was directed by Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan, was a parable of 99 per centers run amuck, then this follow-up plays on today’s crazed paranoia – among neo-cons and bleeding hearts alike – of an imminent fascist state controlling all thought, action, and deed. Crowe’s Jor-El rockets his baby boy to Earth to show his Kryptonian people a different way, a life of free-will, hope, and joy. Problem with that is that we Americans can be a cowardly and fearful lot … so thank goodness little Kal-El (soon to be Clark Kent) stumbles upon a prototypical humanist couple in a Kansas cornfield.

And you know the moment that brought me to tears? (SPOILER ALERT!) When the filmmakers have Pa Kent meet his maker going back and rescuing the family pooch from a CGI-swirly tornado barreling down a stretch of Kansas interstate. Yes, the dog survives, and Costner gets his glow-y Field of Dreams moment right before getting swallowed by the twister. He looks knowingly at his space alien boy as if to say, “Be humble, do the right thing, and always help all creatures great and small.” And inadvertently, it was also a moment of a former blockbuster boy of summer (Costner) passing the torch onto a new one (Cavill).