“We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are MORE than?” Split, Sing, and Lion (yeah, you read that correctly)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Why are we here? What makes life worth living? Where is our place in this (increasingly strange) world?

Maybe I’m just going through some kind of existential mid-life crisis. (Hey, who’d like to produce this 44-year-old singing all of his favorite ill-suited pop songs – Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Madonna, Bjork – as an expression of manopausal self in a cabaret extravaganza? It will be your best theatre going experience of the past 14.75 years. I guarantee!) Regardless, the three films viewed this weekend – seemingly drawn from a grab bag of fourth quarter 2016 offerings – all explore beautifully the very reason we dwell on this loony planet.

Split is a return to form for Hitchcock/Spielberg aspirant M. Night Shyamalan, chiefly because he was wise enough to cast it with a crackerjack James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) and Betty Buckley (Carrie, Tender Mercies). (At one point while viewing, I wished Shyamalan had had the moxie to have staged this as a two-hander play with these two lightning bolts. Equus would have seemed like Oklahoma! by comparison.)

The film is a mash-up – a little bit of Silence of the Lambs, a touch of Primal Fear, a skosh of Dressed to Kill, a dab of Prisoners, a spritz of, well, any and all of Shyamalan’s other films (save The Last Airbender – the less said about that one, the better). We have a central figure “Kevin Wendell Crumb,” portrayed brilliantly by McAvoy (with just a hint of Baby Jane camp), suffering from dissociative identity disorder, as 23 different personalities (some nice, some really naughty) play ping-pong with Kevin’s daily routine. Buckley, as Dr. Karen Fletcher, is his cautious, morbidly transfixed therapist, whose ethereally calm demeanor and career aspirations keep her engaged with Kevin’s Sybil-esque shenanigans.

The plot details Kevin’s devolution into something called “The Beast” (think Silence of the Lambs‘ “Buffalo Bill” with, yes, super powers) as he kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in one of those byzantine, blue-lit subterranean lairs that only seem to exist in really creepy movies. Dr. Fletcher starts to catch wise as various (kinder) personalities in Kevin’s psyche begin sending her panicked emails in the middle of the night. I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns, but the Hitchcockian “fun” derives from Buckley’s Fletcher calmly, relentlessly querying McAvoy’s Kevin about his nightly doings. Much like Hitchock’s late-career Psycho, Shyamalan’s Split is a directorial resurgence that simultaneously exploits the audience’s most prurient interests while giving us a Playhouse 90-style character study. McAvoy is a creepy hoot, and Buckley does yeoman’s work as a wary proxy for the audience’s revulsion/fascination. (My favorite quote from the film? When Buckley’s Fletcher describes the restaurant Hooters: “It’s like if Henry VIII ran a fast food franchise.”)

At one point, Buckley’s Fletcher asks plaintively, “”We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they are more than?” The film’s central thesis is a half-realized query about whether or not mental illness is a kind of super power. It’s an intriguing idea not fully baked in the film, but Buckley’s delivery of that line, coupled with McAvoy’s scenery-chewing performance, gives me hope for the inevitable sequel.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

And then I saw Sing, an animated film about koalas and elephants and pigs and porcupines and mice trying (literally) to find their voices in a world that had passed them by. Do I know how to plan a weekend at the movies?

Guess what? Sing is brilliant and surprisingly moving. If you are not crying at the film’s conclusion wherein every misfit animal featured heretofore takes the stage and seizes the spotlight with deep-feeling abandon, well, then I feel sorry for you,  you cold, emotionless curmudgeon!

The plot of Sing is a nifty corollary to Zootopia, which depicted a similar land where all creatures great and small coexist (mostly) in harmony, struggling (like us all) to make a decent living, pay the bills, and have a bit of joy. “Buster Moon,” a disarmingly charmingly skeezy koala (voiced by Matthew McConaughey finding the perfect role for his disarmingly charmingly skeezy career) is trying to revive his failing theatre by hosting a music competition. His best buddy (a trust-fund lamb voiced by an ever-dopey John C. Reilly) asks, “Singing competition? Who wants to see another one of those?” Well, this one? You will want to see.

Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Taron Egerton (Kingsman … SUCH a voice – like a choir-boy Robbie Williams), Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), Tori Kelly vocalize for the menagerie (pig, porcupine, ape, mouse, elephant – respectively) that joins Buster on his preposterous adventure. I found myself a bucket of salty tears when Kelly’s shy elephant Mimi belts Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” at the film’s jubilant finale. Maybe it’s because I know what it feels like to be a misfit singer who has been excluded from others’ “reindeer games,” but I found Sing to be a riotous, thoroughly enjoyable celebration of letting all of us find and exercise our unique voices in this increasingly stifling world. I can’t wait for this inevitable sequel either.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, Lion. Oh, Lion I wish I knew how to quit you. This film knocked me to the floor – either because of its excellence or because my low blood sugar from sitting in a darkened theatre for hours on end finished me off. Lion – the feature directorial debut by Garth Davis – relays the true story of Saroo Brierley (portrayed with zero guile as a child by Sunny Pawar and with heartbreaking ambivalence as an adult by Dev Patel) as he finds himself lost from his family in India and, ultimately, adopted by a well-meaning Australian couple (a haunting Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Reminiscent of the the Jack Lemmon/Sissy Spacek classic Missing, Lion captures the devastating claustrophobia of a family separated by geography, time, bureaucracy. The toddler Saroo’s inability to communicate (he speaks Hindi and nearly no one else around him does) nor to identify his home (he accidentally ends up on a decommissioned train that takes him from a small town, the name of which he mispronounces, to the overpopulated metropolis of Calcutta) is the stuff of nightmares. The film plays fast and loose with narrative chronology, as the adult Saroo tries to unravel the mystery of his life before being adopted. Everyone is excellent, with Kidman giving her most subtle, nuanced performance in ages – one scene in particular where she palpably renders the tension of the adoptive parent to balance truth versus security as her child tries to make sense of his upbringing. Lion is a remarkable film, as full of hope as it is heartbreak.

I cried a lot this weekend at the movie theatre. Singing elephants, multiple personality protagonists, and displaced Indian orphans: all transfixing metaphorical representatives of our own existential pain over belonging, finding ourselves, and seeking a path forward. Well done, Hollywood. Well done.

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Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

Betty Buckley and Roy Sexton

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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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.

“How many lives is one man-cub worth?” Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46830494

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted by Hollywood a lot. In the next two years alone, we have two live action adaptations on the way, including Disney’s just-released remake of its own 1960s animated offering. There were versions made in the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, on television, live-action, animated, on and on. Even characters like Tarzan (and those countless adaptations and homages and rip-offs – hello, “George of the Jungle”) likely owe a debt to Kipling’s seminal work about a “man-cub” named Mowgli who is raised by wolves and finds himself at the crossroads of an animal culture war over who the true “king of the jungle” should be.

Like Kipling’s Just So Stories (which I actually prefer), the original format of The Jungle Book (and its sequel) is a series of allegorical tales, recounting Mowgli’s adventures, with anthropomorphic animals serving as avatars for the highs and lows of human culture (e.g. greed, pride, sloth, bravery, compassion, etc.). It is unsurprising, then, that the Mouse House, with its long history of invoking the innocence of our animal friends to teach kid life lessons (see: Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) would return to Kipling’s rich well time and again. (And the merchandising possibilities ain’t half bad either.)

I have to admit that I’m one of few people on the planet who just isn’t that terribly gaga over the Disney animated classic. The Sherman Brothers’ score isn’t as iconic as you might think – really, can you remember more than 2.5 songs from it? “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and … maybe “Trust In Me” (the latter standing out mostly because of Sterling Holloway’s trademark lateral lisp sibilant “ess” sounds). The animation is that regrettably flat Hanna-Barbera-esque style into which Disney fell from the late 60s to the early 80s. And the whole enterprise just seems clunkily episodic and ends on a weirdly dour and kinda creepy note about Mowgli’s burgeoning sexuality. Ewww.

That said, I’m happy to note that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man), while treating the source material and the beloved animated film with reverence, deftly course-corrects for a modern audience. The look of this remake is beyond lush. Building upon the remarkable CGI animal work of The Life of Pi, Favreau’s team gives us a fully realized jungle, teeming with gorgeously rendered, remarkably expressive creatures. He pulls shy of the kind of pandering “kid humor” we typically see in children’s films these days, though I got weary of hearing the word “cool” bandied about, as it was more jarring than inclusive. (Sorry, I can be a snob about stuff like that.)

I’ve been hot and cold over the wave of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings to date (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella), but this one gets it right. To this point, there has been a strange reticence to fully embrace the classic musical numbers associated with these films’ animated inspirations. Favreau cleverly sidesteps that issue, incorporating the aforementioned three numbers (the ones we actually remember) as spoken/sung interludes that flow naturally from the character set-ups and ditching the remaining numbers that would just be goofy and forced. As Baloo is about to launch into signature ditty “Bare Necessities,” he takes a meta-swipe at Mowgli’s assertion that a pledge chanted by the wolves earlier in the film was music: “That’s not a song. That’s propaganda.”

(The three songs – “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Trust In Me” – also make repeat appearances during one of the most intricate and beautiful end-credits sequences I can recall in ages. You must stick around for them – highly entertaining and a lovely recap celebration of the film you’ve just viewed. Good for Favreau – that is a lost art in Hollywood these days.)

The voice casting is spot on with Bill Murray (a lower-key “Baloo” than Phil Silvers’), Ben Kingsley (his “Bagheera”sounding more Daniel-Craig-tough-guy than a typical Kingsley performance), Idris Elba (a hauntingly ominous “Shere Khan”), Lupita Nyong’o (deeply affecting as Mowgli’s wolf mother “Raksha”), Scarlett Johansson (an ethereal “Kaa”), Giancarlo Esposito (a militant “Akela”) and Christopher Walken (being full-creepy-a**-Walken as “King Louie”). Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, mostly avoiding the adorable ragamuffin traps of the role but totally missing any of the feral survivalism that could have made for a truly transformative experience. Favreau does such a fabulous job immersing his audience in a layered world where wild kingdom danger lurks around every corner that Sethi’s day-at-the-mall pluck just didn’t quite complete the cinematic thought.

Favreau uses The Jungle Book‘s allegorical roots as a means of combating bullying in all its modern day forms. We live in a world where wannabe statesmen wag fingers, brutishly bloviate, and compare hand sizes; where school children bring semi-automatic rifles into the cafeteria and politicians fall all over themselves defending that “right” (such a funny choice of word); where gender, age, race, sexuality, class, species become an open invitation for hate and derision and alienation, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis). Favreau’s film is much less overtly political than those words might suggest, but just as Kipling used his stories to teach children lessons of kindness and acceptance, bravery and tolerance, Favreau (like Disney’s recent hit Zootopia) is challenging the kids (and parents)  in his audience to question their preconceptions and break apart the artificial boundaries separating us.

To that end, Favreau jettisons the original ending of Disney’s animated version (no doe-eyed potential paramour carrying a bucket of water this time), offering instead a tableau of an animal kingdom united against their oppressor(s). Early in the film, Akela asks, “How many lives is one man-cub worth?” How many indeed.

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LMA 16 3Reel 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.

“How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t evolve?” Avengers: Age of Ultron

"Avengers Age of Ultron" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg#/media/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Avengers: Age of Ultron is all you might hope it should be. And that’s part of its problem.

I feel in writing this review that I may as well be discussing a plate of really fabulous spaghetti: so much tasty sameness, so many empty carbs, no discernible beginning/middle/end, satisfying a craving that I didn’t know I had, leaving me a bit bloated … and yet I will happily eat it again after my sense-memory has recovered.

Joss Whedon, beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer architect and director of the first Avengers, returns to helm this sequel. This will be blasphemy to some of my geek brethren, but Whedon is no auteur. (I hold out hope that Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors The Russo Brothers will be the ones who finally deliver The Godfather of superhero genre flicks. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was close but a bit too pompously high-falutin’ for my tastes.) Whedon carries an episodic TV sensibility to his film projects. And that’s ok, but, once you’re aware that he seems to work in 28-minute long “beats,” you start to feel the clock ticking.

And, wowzers, does the clock tick with Ultron. With trailers (and the need to get there so early that you aren’t sitting on the front row gazing up Chris Hemsworth’s flaring Asgardian nostrils), your rear is in a theatre seat nearly three hours. The film is straining at the seams with just so much Marvel muchness that you wonder if a cleaner, clearer narrative had been focus-grouped into this orgiastic merchandising hydra by the good folks at Disney.

Regardless, the film offers much to delight both comic book loons like myself and the average Marvel moviegoer who doesn’t know Ant-Man from an ant, man. (Sorry.)

Whedon wisely knows that the audience for these cinematic beasts adores brightly-lit four-color action peppered with jazzy comic asides and a healthy dose of soap-opera-lite character beats. He also (with the help of super-producer Kevin Feige, who really should be in the movie marketing hall-of-fame at this point) realizes that the perfect ensemble, gifted with acting chops that exceed the material but with a keen sense of wit and gratitude to enjoy the ride anyway, turns a workmanlike summer blockbuster transcendent.

Mark Ruffalo continues to steal the show as beautiful loser Bruce Banner (Hulk), with just the right hint of Bill Bixby’s gloom married to his own shaggy twinkle. Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) gives as good as she gets in her cat-and-mouse flirtation with Ruffalo, and, while I’m sure most of the audience was squirming/snoozing as they awaited the next CGI-encrusted battle sequence, I really enjoyed those quieter moments.

Similarly, Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), who came off as a glowering dullard in previous installments, really gets a chance to exercise his comedic action chops and soulful humanity. I won’t spoil the cinematically invented back-story they layer on Hawkeye, but this fanboy for one was a fan of the fairly significant change the filmmakers made from long-standing comic canon. Hawkeye suddenly becomes the heart and soul of a franchise that hitherto kept him far on the periphery.

The rest of the cast is solid and fun as expected. Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Hemsworth (Thor), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man) are frothy delights, offering as much banter this time as they do alpha-male action. Downey is blessedly restrained, offering a hint of unintentionally gleeful malice – an ominous note of what may yet come to the franchise. He is counter-balanced nicely by Evans who telegraphs the audience’s own mounting anxiety over a planet that is quickly becoming overstuffed with people/creatures/beings with too many abilities/too few ethics.

Newcomers include twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who weirdly enough played spouses in last year’s Godzilla reboot) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). They are all fine in rather under-written, slightly confusing roles. While it’s fun to see these Marvel legends in the flesh, they really weren’t necessary and detracted from the other characters we’ve come to know and love. This is the danger with all of these comic book movies – how do you keep the nerds (myself included) happy and sell lots of toys without devolving into carnival kitsch? The film skates a fine line and nearly goes over the edge.

Finally, though, this Marvel entry gets its villain so very right (not unlike the oily charisma of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki). Ultron, as voiced by slippery eel James Spader (I’m starting to wonder if Marvel films are where all smart aleck ex-Brat Packers go to die?), is frightening, ominous, charming, and essential. He intones early in the film, “How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t eeeeevooooolve.” (Darn right, brother – I need that needle-pointed on a pillow, stat).

Of course, robotic overlord that he is, Ultron – created by Stark himself as a means of creating “lasting peace” – asserts that the only logical way to create lasting peace is to render all of humanity extinct. Now there is an allegory for our fractious times. I won’t spoil the adventure on how he gets there (I’m not even totally sure I followed all the muddled machinations myself), but I got quite a perverse kick from Spader’s Ultron and his well-intentioned sociopathy.

(I should have never admitted that last bit, I suppose? Maybe Marvel will need someone to play the villain in their next summer opus? Sign me up!)

Go to Avengers: Age of Ultron for the Marvel-fied comfort food … but stay for the dark bon-bon (Spader) at the film’s anarchic core.

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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.

“Are humans more concerned with having than being?” Lucy (2014)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We finally got around to seeing Lucy, the Luc Besson-directed thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. (We do have a dog named Lucy, so I’m not sure why we didn’t get to it sooner? Hmmm…)

WTF, ‘Murica?

I don’t know if I’m horrified or delighted (or both) at the financial success enjoyed domestically this summer by this loopy, French existentialist, nonsensical genre mash-up of the much superior Bradley Cooper-starrer Limitless, John Travolta’s Phenomenon, the little-seen (and also superior) Chris Evans-flick Push, and Besson’s own La Femme Nikita (unnecessarily remade as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda) and The Fifth Element (with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich).

Don’t get me wrong – I was totally entertained during Lucy‘s blessedly expeditious 90-minute running time, but, every fifteen minutes or so, the script seems to jettison its own internal narrative logic (let alone anything remotely connected to real-world physics, biology, information technology, or screenwriting 101) as it careens toward a denouement that makes the final moments of, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Terrence Malick’s, well, anything look like the gritty, grounded urban dramas of Sidney Lumet.

The set-up (bear with me) is that Lucy (Johansson) is a college student (I think?) in Taipei (I think?) who has a one-week (?) stand with Richard, a skeezy beau wearing a cheap straw cowboy hat and awful, rose-colored (really.) wrap-around Bono-style sunglasses. They have an interminably cutesy exchange outside a fancy hotel as Richard tries to convince Lucy to deliver to a guest one of those stainless steel briefcases that only seem to exist in Hollywood movies (or holding poker chips at the last-minute holiday gift display at JCPenney).

Richard (Dick, get it?) ends up handcuffing Lucy to said suitcase (ah, bondage – is this a movie about female empowerment?), and shoves her into the hotel lobby, at which time an army of black-suited, indeterminately Asian mobsters swarm about her, put her through h*ll, shove some space-rock crack-esque drugs in her tummy, pop her on a plane, and leave her in a third-world dungeon somewhere. After she is brutalized by her captors, the bag of purple diamelles or whatever burst in her stomach, giving her the ability to increasingly access the remotest reaches of her brain.

See, we mere mortals access only 10% – which is why we make stupid decisions like watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians or wearing PajamaJeans or eating Funyuns – but Lucy gets all kinds of nifty skills, like telepathy and computer programming and rocking stylish mini-dresses, when her cerebral cortex goes into overdrive.

Besson helps us neanderthals in the audience follow along by periodically flashing black and white percentages on the screen – 10%, 20%, 30%, 99% – not to mention random images of cheetahs chasing gazelles and Quest for Fire-extras discovering, er, fire. Deep, man.

Spoiler alert! As Lucy gets more and more authority over the idiots populating this Big Blue Marble, she starts to quite literally evaporate because her cells are multiplying at such a rapid rate her body can’t hold her consciousness (I think?). The film then becomes a race against time as a) Lucy heads to Europe to track down the remaining shipments of the glowy purple narcotics; b) hooks up with a hunky hawk-nosed French cop; c) runs away from and, inexplicably, does not use her super-brain to blow up the horde of angry Asian mobsters; d) has a sit-down with sage old wry Morgan Freeman doing that sage old wry Morgan Freeman thing as an academic who has been conveniently narrating the film up to this point to explain this whole “we only use 10% of our brains” nonsense; and, e) after surreally meeting our collective ancestor “original” cave-monkey-person Lucy, figures out how to ensure her own immortality by taking the form of a star-festooned … thumb drive.

(One could argue that the way the film ends actually tees up Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her. Heck, Lucy’s last message to humanity appears as a text on a cell phone. Just think about that! Minds blown. 🙂 )

All that said, I rather enjoyed myself at this idiotic movie.

Why? Besson is an incredibly stylish filmmaker – alongside Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, The Insider) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator), he is arguably one of the most. The visuals in Lucy POP!, with brilliant use of grime and fluorescent light, color contrast and international locales, jazzed with trippy intercuts and hyperkinetic pacing.

The wisest choices of all, though, were made in casting Johansson and Freeman who wink at the junk material without ever condescending to it. Freeman especially seems to be having a good time with what could have been a thankless role, both befuddled and surprised that his life’s theoretical work has apparently come to blazing life in the form of Lucy.

Johansson didn’t used to be my cup of tea. Not sure why. However, I’ve grown to appreciate her – both as a performer and a human – more and more, and, in Lucy, I loved every note of the fear, anger, inquisitiveness, exasperation, and (finally) magnanimous indifference she wrings from the paper-thin script.

Like any popcorn film that tries too hard to say something so philosophical, Lucy ends up not saying much at all. There is a zippy line early in the film that holds such promise but is never revisited: “Are humans more concerned with having than being?” I’m not sure that intriguing question is ever actually answered. In the end, Lucy only works as a movie if you don’t think about it too much…which is pretty ironic for a film that ostensibly is about using every last bit of our brains.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. 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 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.

“The world as it is … not how we’d like it to be.” Captain America: The Winter Soldier

As all the Marvel movies go, my hands-down favorites feature Captain America. So I approached Captain America: The Winter Soldier with some trepidation that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. How wrong I was.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The first Captain America film did a lovely job borrowing nostalgic pixie dust from films like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, and director Joe Johnston grounded those proceedings in postmodern yet earnestly American messages of anti-bullying and of championing the underdog. The follow-up, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, takes that Americana quilt-work and ups the ante, delving deep into the dark heart of post-millennial U.S. society.

In the years since September 11th, we have seen fear and anxiety chip away at the most American of values: tolerance and courage, freedom of thought and sincere kindness. The film attacks that dilemma square on, albeit with Marvel Studios’ now-trademark escapism, wit, and whiz bang effects.

I dare not spoil any of the twists and turns, and, while some have compared this sequel to 70s government conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, it is more of a pulpy roller coaster ride than a tightly coiled potboiler. Regardless, it is smart and well done and expertly paced.

Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and, unlike his flippant work as another superhero Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four series, he exudes a soulful sadness as a man quite literally out of his own time and depth. His heartache over an America that has strayed so far afield from his World War II-era “Greatest Generation” perspective is palpable.

The plot details the explosive corruption that runs through all levels of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization – that CIA/Interpol-hybrid that has been a unifying element in all Marvel’s cinematic output. This sequel draws cleverly on thematic elements established in the first Captain America entry, specifically the Nazi villains’ monstrous notion that ethnic, spiritual, intellectual cleansing will bring about order in a chaotic world. Winter Soldier neatly turns that concept on its head, alluding to how some Americans today seem to share that same nefarious concept: that the only way to avoid anarchy, violence, and societal decay is to quite literally eliminate all those people who threaten “order” in their questioning of the powers-that-be.

Robert Redford is a fascinating and welcome addition to the Marvel Universe, playing Alexander Pierce, a Washington bureaucrat whose Machiavellian intentions are simultaneously noble and suspect. Bringing a nuance we don’t always get to see in these movies (with nary a glib moment), Redford telegraphs sincere, profound, and arguably misdirected concern for a world that he feels has gone totally off the rails. He is the kind of comic book heavy that only a steady diet of FoxNews and MSNBC could inspire.

The other supporting players, including Scarlett Johansson, Emily Van Camp, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Frank Grillo, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Jenny Agutter, and Anthony Mackie, rise to the material, providing gravitas and the occasional (much-needed) lighter moment (or two). Sebastian Stan as the titular Winter Soldier is a heaping helping of imposing glower, and he makes the most of a rather underwritten role (not unlike Tom Hardy’s Bane in Dark Knight Rises).

Unfortunately (and this is the only minor quibble I had with the film), the movie does little with the Winter Soldier’s fascinating, Terminator-meets-Manchurian Candidate back story. Hopefully, the inevitable third film will fill in those gaps.

Superhero flicks have, in aggregate, become an ever-expanding cinematic metaphor for the angst that blankets our planet – movies of note include Bryan Singer’s X-Men films (e.g. civil rights/tolerance), Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (e.g. class warfare, Orwellian nanny states), and now both Captain America entries. These films employ a kind of four-color funnies code with larger-than-life heroes and villains standing in for the mundane, insidious cruelties we enact daily.

Samuel L. Jackson notes at one point early in the film, “This is the world as it is … not how we’d like it to be” – nailing a haunting fear and sadness most of us over 40 grapple with daily. Not sure where the movie Marvel Universe goes from here as the studio’s architects are clearly picking poignancy and punch over popcorn and pizzazz. But I for one can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Bonus! ( … apropos of nothing … )

This Thursday, April 10 at 7 pm, Common Language in Ann Arbor (317 Braun Ct.) will host a mixer. I will be signing books, and theatre colleagues from The Penny Seats (including Rachel Murphy, Lyn Weber, Rebecca Biber, Nick Oliverio, Barbara Bruno, and now John Mola) will offer interpretive readings of some of my wilder essays. Light refreshments will be provided. See you there! Nice coverage from Sarah Rigg and MLive here.

Thanks to Ryan Roe and the Tough Pigs: Muppets Fans Who Grew Up website for this shout-out to Reel Roy Reviews and my review of Muppets Most Wanted. Be sure to check out the site – it’s a lot of fun!

Finally, enjoy this video interview of yours truly from last week’s Legal Marketing Association conference. Thanks to Lexblog and the Lexblog Network and Kevin McKeown for this opportunity!

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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: 12 Years a Slave

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Only 2 days remain until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s what Roy thought about 12 Years a Slave: “…a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity prop up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.”

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.

Countdown: Her

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

My childhood home

My childhood home

The countdown continues! 6 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Thanks to Kat Kelly-Heinzelman (read her blog here) for her friendship and support! She writes, “Check out my new profile picture; I think you will like it, Roy. LOL! Hope you’re having a good day … I love it [Reel Roy Reviews]. Have been reading since I got it. Good so far!”

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Kat Kelly-Heinzelman

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of HER: “Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent ‘operating system’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).”

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.

Driving our collective spirit underground: Her and 12 Years a Slave

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Whenever the Academy Award nominations are announced, I suddenly feel pressure … like I’m in college again and I have an imminent final exam for which I haven’t read one chapter in our assigned texts the whole semester.

Blessedly, the various movie studios’ marketing departments kick into overdrive at Oscar time, and many movies we might have missed the first time around get a second run in theatres (and not only the art houses, but in those big stadium jobs with the good/lousy Sbarro pizza).

So, my Martin Luther King Day was spent in the multiplex for one of my stranger double feature combinations: Spike Jonze’s Her and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. This duo still doesn’t to compare to my high (low?) watermark when I paired the childlike whimsy of stop-motion animation Coraline with the Nazi-in-hiding sexual perversity of The Reader … I felt like such a creeper that day.

At first blush, Her and 12 Years a Slave would seem to bear little in common, other than critical acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. However (and I don’t think this is just because I am force-fitting patterns that might not otherwise exist), both films, in very different ways and settings, address the disconnect that has long-plagued American life, in which religion or economics or technology engender empty separations and cruel abuses (physical, emotional, or plain neglectful), driving our collective spirit underground.

In the case of Her, which I found a slightly stronger film, Jonze paints a depressing near future – not quite dystopian, but burnished and bland and beautifully designed as if IKEA and Dwell Magazine bathed the world in minimalist chic – in which smart phone technology has become so integrated into our every waking moment that every human interaction is filtered and measured by a handheld device.

Looking like the nebbish-y hipster offspring of Charlie Chaplin and Kurt Vonnegut, Joaquin Phoenix is deeply affecting as a Byronesque romantic lost in a sea of bits and bytes after his author wife (Rooney Mara, continuing her sharp-edged roll) leaves him. Phoenix’s Theo just wants to feel something … anything

As you are likely aware from the ubiquitous advertising, Phoenix works those limpid blue eyes of his, falling head over heels for a sweet-and-saucy, ever-evolving artificially intelligent “operating system” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, turning in some of the better work of her career).

Amy Adams plays the third woman in Theo’s life, a longtime friend (and likeliest soul-mate of all), who also struggles to find meaningful interaction in a world where all the rough edges have been sanded to apathetic perfection. Adams shines in her scenes with Phoenix, and I enjoyed her performance here as Theo’s fellow lost soul so much more than I did her work in American Hustle.

The film borrows heavily from the aforementioned Vonnegut (Harrison Bergeron popped into my mind for some reason) as well as Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric) with a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac and Stanley Kubrick’s HAL for good measure. Theo spends his days composing hand-written notes for folks too busy to compose these missives themselves. (He doesn’t actually do the penmanship, but dictates into a computer that generates them.) And he spends his evenings, in an empty/disheveled apartment with fabulous views of downtown L.A., playing video games, pining for his ex, and wooing his computer.

Her is a starkly composed ode (and cautionary tale) to a society (ours) that has lost its heart, displacing flesh-and-blood dialogue with glib texts, microblog snark, and social media stalking. I don’t know that I loved it, but I sure can’t stop thinking about it.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If Her worries about where American society is headed, 12 Years a Slave shows us where we’ve been and possibly how little we’ve changed. 12 Years a Slave gives us a haunting portrait of an America in which religious fervor (and hypocrisy) corrosively coupled with economic disparity props up a cruel caste system whereby our humanity is a commodity traded too easily for blood and cash.

I respect the work McQueen has done with this story, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. I will say, however, that I am not as transfixed by 12 Years a Slave as others seem to have been. Perhaps my judgment is affected by how delayed I am in getting to see this one, a film that couldn’t possibly live up to the expectation generated by months of critical praise.

Personally, I also have long-struggled with the idea of the very important historical film – be it Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan or others like them – the subject matter of which is so rightfully raw that one might feel discouraged to openly criticize the filmmakers’ artistic interpretation.

Regardless, this movie is extremely well-acted and, once it finds its narrative groove, is a powerful gut punch. I mostly had issues with the episodic and unconvincing (to me) first third of the film, from the set-up of Northup’s life as a free man in Saratoga, New York through his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and onto his purchase by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. (Yup, Cumberbatch again. I hope he earns a long vacation after the 118 films in which he appeared this year. He has been excellent in everything.)

Once Northup (portrayed with a weary incredulity by Chiwetel Ejiofor) lands with the cruel, equally defeated slave master Epps (Michael Fassbender) the movie has you on the edge of your seat. Fassbender does his best work to date, channeling the small-minded rage and belligerence of a Southerner deeply disaffected by life yet believing his faith and his race entitle him to bullying dominion over all creatures great and small. Sarah Paulson is equally crackerjack as his spiteful, heartbroken, spoiled belle of a wife.

The scenes between Ejiofor and Fassbender twist like a knife in the gullet, and viewers with modern sensibilities may reflect on how little some aspects of our country have changed since the horrific days when slavery was an American institution. Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as Ejiofor’s fellow slave – an object of Fassbender’s economic admiration, sexual depravity, and violent tyranny – who is doubly damned for her race and her gender.

In this hectic awards season, as various film producers and their respective studios engage in ever-escalating gamesmanship to score trophies for the “home team,” it is easy to lose why some films speak to our souls. I think I will be reflecting for some time on both Her and 12 Years a Slave – well after the gold statuettes are all handed out – and what these films say about our uniquely American condition: ambition, cruelty, love, segregation, prosperity, racism, sexism, ageism, apathy, and … freedom.

Easter weekend of lost souls: Hitchcock, Phil Spector, and The Girl

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[Image Source: blog.zap2it.com]

As I have noted previously, holidays with my parents tend to be spent in a darkened movie theatre between marathon rounds of canasta, computer maintenance, and the finest dining small-town Indiana can muster.

This weekend was no exception…well, sort of an exception. The movies were present, but in a darkened living room, after an emergency late night trip to the local Wal-Mart to replace a malfunctioning VCR/DVD combo player. (And a futile argument with the salesman as to whether or not I needed something called an RF tuner. He said no. I said yes. Two subsequent trips later, I was right.)

So how did we spend this unusual holiday when Easter/Passover/April Fool’s converged (not to mention my dad’s birthday)? How else but with three films about two haunted auteurs and the women who loved/loathed/enabled them.

The usually redoubtable HBO Films stumbles a bit with their take on Phil Spector and his infamous murder trial. That is not to say that stars Al Pacino in the title role and Helen Mirren as his legal counsel  are bad. In fact, both, saddled as they are in the movie with a rather unfortunate series of wigs, are excellent.

The TV biopic is at its strongest, in fact, when just the two leads are onscreen with the looney tunes Spector/Pacino winning over Mirren’s character with his charming misunderstood/misanthropic pop artist routines. Both actors exude warmth, with Mirren offering a flinty empathy illuminating nicely the genius of the David Mamet-penned monologues Pacino brilliantly delivers.

What’s wrong with the movie? A script that stretches about 35 minutes of sparkling dialogue/interplay between the two stars into about 90 minutes of procedural dullness. However, Mirren and Pacino both make this one worth watching, shining sympathetic light into the dark mind of a man whose musical genius emanated from the very outsider-stance that finished him off.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of intellectual misfits, our Friday-night double feature concluded with one of two 2012 cinematic takes on the life of Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren (again) as his wife Alma Reville. Again, this is not a great film but does benefit from a couple of remarkable performances by two accomplished thespians.

Hopkins should have abandoned the poor make-up job that makes him look more like Danny DeVito’s “Penguin” from Batman Returns than the Master of Suspense as, otherwise, his performance is exceptional with voice, walk, and spirit all spot-on.

But this is Mirren’s show as the long-suffering but equally talented wife, without whom Hitchcock’s many masterpieces might have been half-baked pot boilers and cheap thrillers. Alma endures countless indignities as Hitch obsesses over his famed adaptation of Psycho and fawns over and/or tortures his young starlets. The starlets in question are thinly-written takes on Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, performed adequately by Scarlett Johansson and Jessical Biel, respectively … who don’t look a darn thing like Leigh or Miles, respectfully.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday night, we completed our run through the lives of tortured artists with another HBO film The Girl, also about Hitchcock and his creepy preoccupation with icy blonde actresses. This movie was the best of the lot.

Toby Jones, who also found himself a few years back at the short end (no pun intended) of two competing biopics (Truman Capote), is incredible as Hitchcock. His Hitch is deeply haunted by a point of view and a physical appearance that puts him at odds perpetually with Hollywood glamor. And Sienna Miller achieves the impossible by making actress Tippi Hedren … well … interesting.

The Girl paints a compelling portrait of a man – Hitchcock – who attempts to make sense of his aversion to humanity and his self-loathing by playing puppet master over the beautiful people surrounding him. Also, this one does the best job of depicting the technical and artistic challenges of the creative process, offering great behind-the-scenes info on the making of both The Birds and Marnie.

All three films – Phil Spector, Hitchcock, and The Girl taken collectively – leave the viewer with revulsion for yet admiration of the creative genius. These men are “outsiders-forever-looking-in” whose contempt for humanity’s follies and foibles provide them immense gifts to enrich the lives and culture of that self-same humanity, yet leaving the artists themselves forever unfulfilled and broken.