“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

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It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.

She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.

I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.

I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.

And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.

Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”

To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, she started to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.

But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?

I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.

After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.

She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.

Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).

By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.” 

So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.

Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).

Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.

Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”

It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:

I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”

Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Walking alone
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”

 

And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …
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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.

Manners maketh man? Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service (films)

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I feel like I need to have my brain scrubbed with turpentine and disinfectant after the double feature we just endured: Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Were these movies bad? No, not at all. Did I enjoy myself? Yes, for great swaths of both flicks. Will I hate myself in the morning (and have some really loopy dreams)? Decidedly yes.

Both films are adapted from literary works … Albeit one is a soft-core porn trilogy written by Twlight-fanfic-aficionado E.L. James and is sold conveniently to S&M-curious grocery shoppers at Wal-Mart, Target, and Meijer. The other is a graphic graphic novel created by comic book iconoclasts Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) for whom bloody violence and gore is a balletic vehicle for cheeky satire and whose work is distributed via corner comic shops to superhero and gaming fetishists who greedily devour it from their befuddled family members’ basements. (In full disclosure, save that basement reference, I fall firmly in the latter camp and never in the former, though I do shop at Target and Meijer a lot.)

As for the film adaptation of Fifty Shades, whose chief contribution to popular culture seems to be the mainstreaming of kink (provided you happily equate it with vampirism), I found that I really enjoyed all the narrative elements that had absolutely nothing to do with the core subject matter. When otherwise charming leads Jamie Dornan (“Christian Grey”) and Dakota Johnson (“Anastasia Steele” – cripes, these names) do finally get to the “sexytime,” a term I’m borrowing out of necessity from Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, the movie grinds (no pun intended) to a halt. Johnson exhibits a delightfully natural comic timing which belies her status as Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith’s progeny, let alone as Tippi Hedren’s granddaughter, and Dornan does bemused hunky brooding better than anyone this side of the CW.

Their … ahem … courtship seems to be from a different movie entirely (thank heavens) than all the dirty business. I enjoyed their banter (underwritten though it is), and director Sam Taylor-Johnson has the good sense to cast as Christian and Anastasia’s respective mothers Marcia Gay-Harden and Jennifer Ehle (both sleekly slumming here). It crosses my mind that someone should remake the feather-light froth of Barefoot in the Park or Any Wednesday and throw Dornan and Johnson in the roles; no whips, chains, bare ass-cracks, or nipples required.

Watching Fifty Shades (and, mind you, I didn’t hate it), I kept wishing for the film to leave that stupid “red room of pain” and return to Anastasia’s shabby chic college flat (oh, how I adore the darling roommate played by Eloise Mumford) or Christian’s shimmering spaceship of an office, populated as it is by admins who wouldn’t be out of place in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video. I truly enjoyed all the silly soap opera shenanigans around the stilted sex scenes.

Remember that certain musical production number of yore, the dull kind that went on forever and had Cyd Charisse entangling Gene Kelly in a thousand-mile-long chiffon scarf (which in itself is kinda kinky)? That’s how I felt about all of Fifty Shades‘ tie me up, tie me down, Beauty-and-the-Beast boudoir moments.

It is a testament to Taylor-Johnson’s direction that she is able to pull together some semblance of romance and charm and wit from what I’ve heard are shoddily written books. And, no, I am never going to read them! Bully for her.

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Kingsman is by far the better film, chiefly because director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake – this last one starring “ultimate James Bond” Daniel Craig) wisely casts Colin Firth in the lead role, a role which cannily plays to and toys with Firth’s persona as the consummate Brit gentleman. In prologue to one of Firth’s many jaw-dropping, gymnastically-choreographed fight scenes, he intones “manners maketh man.” Firth is clearly having the time of his life playing a Savile Row “dapper dan” tailor who happens to lead a double life as a Kingsman, a super-secret agent keeping Queen and Country (and pretty much all of us on this planet) safe from bomb-dropping megalomaniacs and local bar-brawling hooligans. He is a joy to watch.

Much of Vaughn’s film is a pleasure, like Dr. Strangelove if directed by Quentin Tarantino on a bender from too many viewings of Moonraker, Octopussy, Smiley’s People, and Austin Powers. Firth (“Harry Hart/Galahad”) takes his orders from a wry Michael Caine (“Arthur”) with tech guidance from the warmly imposing Mark Strong (“Merlin”).

As Samuel L. Jackson’s “Valentine” (an intentionally corny mashup of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Blofeld, and Dr. Evil) determines that the best way to cure global warming and other ills affecting this planet is to divest Earth of its “disease” (that would be us humans), Firth and his fellow Kingsmen race against the clock to expand their ranks with new recruits to foil Valentine’s cartoonishly gruesome plan.

Taron Egerton (a British mix of James Cagney and Matt Damon) is a wonderful new cinematic presence as aspiring Kingsman “Eggsy,” and his Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins scenes with Firth sparkle. Akin to Fifty Shades, I kept wanting the mayhem to stop so we could have more sprightly character development with this dynamic duo.

However, the violence – granted one of Vaughn’s signatures (along with hyperkinetic fight scene editing) – is a bit of a boat anchor around the film’s otherwise bright-hearted and buoyant spirit. There is just so much gore – body parts flying every which way, hyperbolic gun-play, medieval skewerings – that the satire becomes lost in the junior-high-boy juvenile excess and self-indulgence. I will admit, though, that the sight of Firth massacring a whole church full of hypocritical redneck bigots (an obvious stand-in for the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church and … others) is a guilty pleasure I shall carry in my heart for all time.

(Also – spoiler alert – no animals are ever hurt, though there is a peculiar test of the Kingsmen recruits that, well, tested my patience. Kind of an Old Yeller moment that ended up being a total ruse. People hurt? Lots. Animals hurt? None.)

I’m not sure I would go so far as to recommend either film, as I worry what you, dear readers, would think of me and of my mental stability if you ventured forth to see Fifty Shades or Kingsman based on my recommendation. However, if you feel like taking in a guilty pleasure (or two) suffused with a heaping helping of puerile foolishness, these films are for you. Yet, this evening’s offerings definitively reminded me that just because something can be depicted on film doesn’t mean it should be depicted on film. Manners maketh man, indeed.

____________________________

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.

Whimsy, one-liners, breath-taking action sequences: Iron Man 3

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Summer movie season 2013 has launched with a bang (and clang) of endearingly smart-aleck-y Robert Downey, Jr. encased in his (now) trademark Iron Man armor.

Iron Man 3 is a genetically engineered hit from the Mouse House of Ideas, those wunderkinds at Marvel/Disney.

It is a smart, fun, glib theme park ride of a movie with absolutely no shame about entertaining eager-to-be-pleased moviegoers across the land/globe. And it is a worthy follow-up to last summer’s crackerjack Avengers.

After the bloated, dumb, and incomprehensible Iron Man 2 (a monumental letdown from the first film), this “threequel” is a fine, if at times derivative, return to form.

All the principals sparkle, from Downey, Jr. (of course) to Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau. The script revels in its rat-a-tat dialogue, like some postmodern hybrid of The Thin Man, The Front Page, and TV’s Big Bang Theory. Paltrow and Downey make a delightful couple, which is saying something, since otherwise I always find Paltrow as interesting as drying paint.

But what really makes this one sing is the addition of three great Brit/Aussie thespians Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, and Rebecca Hall…who show their American counterparts how it’s done. Bringing Masterpiece Theatre gravitas and Goon Show cheek to the party, these three inject the proceedings with a lovely zip. I don’t want to spoil the third act twist, but Kingsley has great fun with a role that veers wildly from spooky to silly, somehow channeling Gregory Peck, Osama Bin Laden, Russell Brand, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Yup, you read that sentence correctly.

And the ever-wonderful Pearce gives us a real actor’s take on the same megalomaniacal schtick Sam Rockwell ran into the ground in the last film, but convincingly and compellingly … and with much better hair.

Whether director/screenwriter Shane Black intended Iron Man 3 to be a bit of a polemic on the self-perpetuating circus industry that the self-proclaimed “War on Terror” has become, the film has a very interesting take on the power and money to be had by keeping all of us living in fear…of everything. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s somber, somber, somber take on a similar theme in last summer’s Dark Knight Rises, Black sneaks said message into his popcorn-chomping audience’s brains through whimsy, one-liners, and breath-taking action sequences. Well done!