A room of her own (#OscarsSoRight?): The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; The Darkest Hour

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I’m finally catching up with all of the Oscar-nominated films from year-end 2017. There are many culprits for this delay, chiefly among them the fact that, for some reason, many of these flicks don’t make it to the hinterlands of the Midwest until weeks after their initial release dates. My tendency toward over-commitment in daily life may also be to blame. C’est la vie. I’ve finally viewed The PostThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; and The Darkest Hour.

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I can safely say the Academy got so much so right this year. (I’m sure they were nervously awaiting my seal of approval. Not.)

Much (digital) ink has already been spilled on these movies, and I’m feeling a touch lazy so I won’t go into great detail about any of them. I will admit that personally only The Post and The Darkest Hour truly spoke to me, but I found all five to be thoughtfully composed with unique and arguably essential points-of-view and with timely themes, no doubt provoking many minds and healing many hearts in this rather contentious era.

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However, what resonated with me most about all five films was the strength and agency of their leading female characters. Rarely have we seen a class of Oscar-nominated films (I, Tonya included) where the bravery, wit, wisdom, and tenacity of women are so consistently celebrated and intelligently explored. Perhaps it’s the Trump effect, a cultural reclamation on behalf of Hillary, an anticipation of #MeToo and #TimesUp, or just a much-needed evolution (and growing up) in Hollywood. Who knows?

“Keep your finger out of my eye.” Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee to Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham in The Post

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In The Post, Meryl Streep gives one of her most nuanced portrayals in an already incredible catalogue of film work. Her Katherine Graham is faced with an unwinnable, dare I say, Sophie’s Choice: save her family’s paper The Washington Post from financial ruin through a tricky public offering or take on the President of the United States and risk imprisonment to honor the paper’s history of journalistic integrity by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Graham is “mansplained” up one side and down the other throughout the film. Streep’s portrayal is sensitive to the social and historical context that women were acculturated to lean on men and seek their counsel if and when they were “permitted” any decision-making authority at all. Ostensibly, Spielberg’s beautifully paced and utterly compelling movie is an allegory for our present times when we have a president who sees the Bill of Rights as less inalienable and more ignorable. However, I saw the film primarily as a powerful and subtle depiction of a woman (Graham) reclaiming her authority and driving our nation towards inexorable truth. It’s a performance for the ages, IMHO.

“You’re culpable because you joined the gang.” – Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes to her town minister in Three Billboards

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Speaking of performances for the ages, we then have Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand is possibly the most cathartic and relatable actor of her generation, capable of channeling the inherent tension and internal conflict of id, ego, and superego unlike any other. Mildred may be her finest acting work, alas in a film that doesn’t quite rise to her admittedly stratospheric level. Mildred’s daughter was raped and then immolated, and, in Mildred’s frustration that the local police have been incapable of solving the horrific crime, she finds the bluntest instrument at her disposal (the titular “three billboards”) to send a crystal clear message that wouldn’t be out of place on an N.W.A. record. McDormand is haunting and funny, heartbreaking and infuriating as a woman whose voice just can’t be stifled by her small-minded small-town. I think I would have enjoyed the piece better as a one-woman show as most of the supporting cast offer more superficial readings of their respective characters. Further, a mid-film narrative twist nearly co-opts the whole enterprise in favor of Woody Harrelson’s far-less-interesting Sheriff Willoughby. Sam Rockwell (Deputy Dixon) is both hammy and poignant as a foil for and target of McDormand’s rage, and, by the time the film runs its course, the idea of a Thelma and Louise-style “road picture” with the two actors isn’t without its potential charms.

“Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” – Lois Smith’s Sister Sarah Joan to Soairse Ronan’s Lady Bird in Lady Bird

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Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, is a loving and scruffy slice-of-life with luminous Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a thoughtful and maddening and deep-feeling teen whose conscious rejection of organized religion and of conventional thinking runs afoul of her own desires to be liked and accepted and to “fit in” with her Catholic school’s “popular kid” crowd. Any human who has ever wanted to be their authentic (weird) selves but ALSO get to sit at the best lunch table in school can totally relate (which means all of us). Ronan is brilliant in the role, as is Laurie Metcalf as her worried, worrying, worrisome mother Marion whose noble wishes to protect and to provide are as alienating as they are well-intentioned. The film is a delight, but gets bogged down mid-way with a conventional (if not completely appropriate) Mean Girls-esque subplot of Lady Bird rejecting her theatre nerd friends for the loose collection of pot-smoking athletes and gum-snapping rich kids who rule the school. The film is so interesting and so believable to that point that I found the predictability of that coming-of-age narrative a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, Ronan, Metcalf, and Gerwig give eloquent voices to the frustrations and fears of women navigating a rigged system where their respective needs and desires are often pitted in opposition to one another.

“Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.” – wall calendar in The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water, directed with fairy tale elan by Guillermo del Toro, is like a soft core E.T.-meets-The Red Shoe Diaries. A co-worker of mine said it was more like a naughty Edward Scissorhands. I will accept that friendly amendment to my cinematic comparison. Shape of Water had my favorite cast of any of these films. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, and Richard Jenkins are all exceptional in their own rights, let alone collected in one place, in service to a visionary fable of tolerance, compassion, and love. Yet, the film overall left me cold. Perhaps, I’m a prude, but the random bits of “sexy time” between Hawkins’ Eliza and Jones’ otherworldly “Amphibian Man” were disruptive to the gentle narrative at play. I also could have done without said Amphibian Man biting the head off one of Jenkins’ beloved cats, even if the moment is offered as an example of predatory innocence. Yuck. Regardless, Hawkins offers a brilliant and heartrending portrayal of a mute woman whose expressiveness far exceeds vocalization, and Shannon nearly steals the picture as a government official whose myopic masculinity and arrested development result in nothing but ugliness, violence, and missed opportunity.

“You are strong because you are imperfect.” – Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clementine Churchill to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour

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As for Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, yes, it is a movie which features a gobsmacking transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. And, yes, Oldman is altogether breathtaking in his depiction of Churchill’s genius eccentricity, shocking isolation, and dogged determination. However, the excellence of his work and of the film itself is greatly aided and abetted by the work of cast-mates Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-long-suffering wife Clementine and Lily James as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-wide-eyed assistant Elizabeth Layton. The three actors bring sparkling life to Theory of Everything screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s chatty script, and, while Churchill was clearly the odd-man-out where British politicos were concerned, his ultimate success could be attributed as much to the women in his life as to his own fiercely independent spirit. These are exceptional performances in a pretty good film.

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In The Post, Streep’s Graham quotes English essayist Samuel Johnson: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all.” Her point, in the context of the film, is that society has not encouraged women to speak their truths, so the act of doing so, while arguably initially inelegant, is as shocking as it is necessary. In the case of these five films, truth is delivered elegantly and compellingly, and the class of Oscar nominees this year goes a long way toward giving women, as Virginia  Woolf once implored, a “room of their own.”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

True family values: Saving Mr. Banks (PLUS – Steve Jobs, Vivien Leigh, and The Way Way Back!)

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Christmas is rough. It’s an emotionally, physically, financially exhausting gauntlet. And, please, no “reason for the season” kickback. I can’t take anymore cornpone trumped-up “War on Christmas” and “you better honor my good old fashioned values” talk when someone dares to suggest this end-of-year retail bonanza is anything but an overhyped, overbaked marketing ploy foisted on us all.

(And I might add: that internationally embarrassing and entirely unnecessary dust-up about the Southern-fried dipsticks in Duck Dynasty and their inane social views has about finished me off on any and all “values talk” at this point. Sarah Palin, you should be proud – your insidious, brain-dead buffoonery is complete. The nation has become completely addle-headed. Cue spooky lightning bolt and thunder effects.)

I love my time with my family over the holidays – the movies and card games with my parents in Indiana, the quiet moments after the holiday has passed at home in Michigan enjoying the new gifts and getting ready for shiny Baby New Year’s imminent arrival. Unfortunately, this year Typhoid Roy hit and I managed to infect everyone in my path with the ugliest cold/flu hybrid this side of a Michael Crichton novel. Consequently, our standard film marathon was trimmed to just one flick – the delightful Saving Mr. Banks – while the rest of the holiday was spent dozing with visions of NyQuil and Kleenex dancing through our heads.

Fortunately for us, Banks is a keeper. The film is an exploration of the unending challenges Walt Disney faced convincing author P.L. Travers that he and his film studio would respect the spirit of her literary creation in bringing Mary Poppins to cinematic life. The movie suffers from a rather conventional narrative structure with a few too many clunkily intrusive flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in dusty rural Australia. Overall, though, Banks is a gem.

Emma Thompson takes the fussy personage of Travers and spins comedic (and dramatic) gold from the character. Travers’ unease with the Mouse House’s carnival huckster ways leads her to throw barrier upon barrier in Disney’s unceasing path. The poignant joy of the film is the discovery as to why Travers is so resistant … and I’m not going to spoil your potential “fun” (fun being debatable, as I suspect you will shed as many tears as I did).

She is well met in Tom Hanks who succeeds marvelously in the unenviable task of taking on the iconic role of Walt Disney himself. With a twinkle in his eye, Hanks resists the urge to play too far to the cuddly “Uncle Walt” end of the spectrum, tempering his portrayal by hitting all the right notes of Disney, the canny businessman. Hanks and Thompson dance a fine tango of two strong personalities, scarred by life but undeterred in their respective visions.

The supporting cast is outstanding, including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ relentlessly cheerful driver, Jason Schwartzman as one of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Rachel Griffiths as a Travers’ family member who may (or may not) have inspired the Poppins character, Kathy Baker as Disney’s impish executive assistant, Bradley Whitford as the put-upon screenwriter, Ruth Wilson as Travers’ long-suffering mother, and most notably Colin Farrell as Travers’ beloved, fancy-free, ultimately tragic father.

Farrell is in great respect the heart and soul of the film, turning in a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a father, whose steady diet of whimsy and rye leads him to a number of questionable if well-intentioned parenting decisions.

Ultimately, the film serves as a Valentine to true family values, the ones whereby we in the present try to honor the spirit and aspirations of our forebears. Travers is depicted lovingly and honestly by Thompson as an artist who struggles to make meaning of a fractured childhood, exploring the written word to create an indelible flight of fantasy that could provide sanctuary to others like her and that would honor and redeem the father she dearly loved.

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Postscript…

Given that rampant illness kept me generally confined, there are a few home viewing options to mention. Jobs with Ashton Kutcher (!) in the title role as Apple’s storied founder is a meandering dud. Everyone in the cast seems to have done less research than reading half a Vanity Fair article on Silicon Valley’s hey day, mumbling their lines ‘neath shaggy 70s ‘dos. I was bored silly and I don’t think that was the influence of my cold medicine.

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The Way Way Back on the other hand is a witty and touching romp, detailing the travails of a poor sad-sack kid stuck at a summer beach house with his mother (the always dependable Toni Collette) and her stultifyingly arrogant, menopausal-jock-bully boyfriend (the also great Steve Carrell playing the drama for once and eerily reminding me of some relatives whom I would just as soon forget). It’s one of those “aren’t we proud to be an indie film!” movies with a lo-fi pop-punk soundtrack and plenty of glowering, but there is much sweetness afoot, particularly when the boy finds his muse in Sam Rockwell’s scruffy water park lothario.

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Finally, I read a book. Yes, a book! Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean. In both visual and written detail, the book rhapsodizes over the talent, beauty, and ambition of the once and forever Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh’s dynamism leaps off the page. The author stumbles a bit with a near canonization of Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, whom I’m not convinced was as saintly as implied. Regardless, the book is an exuberant and frothy look at a true star who blended celebrity and craft with genius-level precision and who left this world too soon, haunted by a career that lends itself too easily to wildly veering swings of colossal fame and crushing rejection.

Post…postscript…

To come full circle, happy 45th wedding anniversary today (December 28th) to my parents Susie and Don Sexton – I’m very proud of them! And, yeah, it happens to be my birthday today too. I told you the holidays are something for my family! Thanks for reading…

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!

Until you are ready to shove popcorn in your ears: Seven Psychopaths

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I should preface this review of director Martin McDonagh’s latest film Seven Psychopaths by admitting that I have never given into the cult of actor Sam Rockwell. He has bubbled under the radar in a number of indie films over the past 15 years, and many have succumbed to his smarmy, winky, “isn’t life ridiculous,” Gen X charms. Alas, I am not one of those fawning fans. (The first time I ever suffered through him was in his shuffling, toothpick-chewing, pseudo-villain role in Charlie’s Angels ten years ago, and, to my mind, he has been recycling the same schtick ever since.)

Conversely, I long ago gave into the cult of Christopher Walken, who, like Rockwell, also pretty much gives the same performance in every film. In Walken’s case, though, it is a wide-eyed, acerbic, halting, wackadoodle, “life. is. ridiculous” delivery that I find charming. Why the hypocrisy on my part? I can only ascribe it to this: Rockwell’s self-indulgence is always in service to Rockwell; Walken’s self-indulgence is in service to the script.

With that paradigm in mind, it should come as no surprise that Seven Psychopaths worked best for me in those quiet, gentle moments when Walken – playing a reformed, Quaker (!) revenge killer who now kidnaps/returns dogs for reward money – interacts with his dear, cancer-stricken wife or his criminal cohorts as mayhem otherwise ensues. And, similarly unsurprising, the film falls apart for me in the final act when it is all about Rockwell’s character staging some sort of zany cinematic gunfight standoff with Woody Harrelson, a gangland thug who just wants his Shih Tzu returned. (This is all done while Rockwell sports an ever-so-dear, bear-shaped knit hat…and THAT would be the kind of twee, self-indulgent touch I mean.)

What is the film about exactly? I’m not sure. I suspect it was meant to be some kind of postmodern meditation on a culture whose warped idea of manhood is all about guns and violence and posturing to the detriment of meaningful human interaction. There are some fine and funny moments throughout with a great supporting cast. Harrelson is a joy as he continues to ride a career resurgence as a witty character-actor, and Tom Waits is spectacular as one of the psychopaths in question, who simply pines for the return of his long, lost love while petting his white fluffy rabbit (literally). However, the script seems to have been written by committee as if every goofy Quentin Tarantino-esque cliche was tossed into a blender, and I guess I just didn’t quite understand the point.

A few final observations. First, I didn’t know how I would stand the dog kidnapping angle, but I will say the film/actors were so sweet-natured about it and Walken is so heartfelt and dear that it ended up oddly charming.  Second, I’m not sure when Colin Farrell crossed over to achieving a likable, decent acting presence, but I enjoyed him and his reactions to the film’s random acts of absurdity. He kept the shenanigans nicely grounded. Finally, my mom once said about the theme song to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, “It has such a pretty melody…but it is ruined by the need to shoehorn the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beast’ into the chorus.” The same is true of this movie – by the fifth time the word “psychopath” is invoked by one of the characters, it just sounds silly…by the twentieth, if not thirtieth, you are ready to shove popcorn in your ears.