“There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” Hell or High Water and Southside With You

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterDancing between the raindrops. One of the most powerful and essential things that film can do, arguably unlike any other medium, is to transform the smallest moments of daily life into something poetic, allegorical, epic, and identifiable. Film, at its best, is a concise narrative, simultaneously immediate and retrospective, exploring an embedded assumption that one exchange, one decision, one day can change a lifetime.

Two movie gems, exemplifying this remarkable storytelling attribute, are currently eking out a quiet subsistence in a far corner of your local multiplex. Stroll past the escapist CGI gargoyles, laser blasts, and gross out gags of those late summer wannabe blockbusters taking up the IMAX screens, and make your way to that tiny, itty bitty screening room. You know the one, beyond the garish birthday hall, clanging arcade, and Dippin’ Dots (“Ice Cream of the Future!”) outpost, at the far end of the hall … the one that seems like its sole existence is as a concession to the public television/NPR crowd or because an extra broom closet wasn’t needed? And catch Hell or High Water and Southside with You on the big-ish screen before they are consigned to Netflix next month.

Hell or High Water is as perfect a Valentine to people who love movies as I’ve ever seen. It wears its cinematic influences proudly and confidently, like that person in  your office who has figured out how to mix stripes, plaids, and polka dots into a breathtaking ensemble. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) mines A Touch of Evil (the tracking shot that opens Hell or High Water is a smooth, small-town honey), No Country for Old Men (dusty postmodern desperation), Giant (watch Hell or High Water‘s final front-porch confrontation and tell me I’m wrong), East of Eden (imagine Cal and Aron as kinder, gentler, floppy-haired Natural Born Killers), and Dog Day Afternoon (shaggy, sweaty bank robbers who have Robin Hood-aspirations to right the personal wrongs that corporate America has inflicted and who are destined to fail … spectacularly). Throw in one of the best depictions of Dust Bowl brotherly love/hate since Sam Shepherd’s classic play True West and pair it with the corrosive antipathy toward American Big Banking and the mortgage industry that The Big Short failed to capture compellingly, and you have a film for the ages.

Star Trek‘s Chris Pine (all dreamy, haunted dissipation) and 3:10 to Yuma‘s Ben Foster (Sean Penn 2.0 … damn, but he is SO good, and Foster even was engaged to Robin Wright Penn – twice – after she divorced Sean) play Toby and Tanner Howard, locked in a toxic cycle of arrested development, one a loyal son but failed husband and the other a loyal brother but ne’er-do-well prodigal. Toby has cared for their dying mother and stands to inherit the dilapidated family homestead (with its recently discovered oil reserves) if he can climb out from under the crushing reverse mortgage that mama foolishly, but necessarily, took out and which is now careening toward foreclosure. Tanner, whose lengthy prison record includes time for bank robbery but surprisingly not for murdering their abusive father, is the anarchic muscle, a Looney Tune with nothing to lose who helps support the otherwise straight-arrow Toby’s scheme. Their plan? Swipe just enough cash from the teller drawers of that very predatory lending bank holding the deed to the family home, pay said bank back the money, secure the land and the oil rights, and leave it all in trust to Toby’s two sons. It’s like the perfect Playhouse 90 – on steroids.

Oh, and the whole enterprise is set among the Great Recession-scorched badlands of Western Texas, where the endless dirty, rusty miles between neon-lit casinos are dotted with billboards touting “Instant, Easy Debt Relief” like Faustian blood-pacts with the financially damned. The long (and folksy) arm of the law is ably represented by True Grit’s Jeff Bridges (absolute mumble-mouthed perfection as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who views his impending retirement as more of a death sentence than an earthly reward) and Twilight‘s Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker – comically poignant gold, playing the stoic straight man, enduring a steady stream of Marcus’ jabs, zingers which shock for being as loving as they are racist).

The film is picaresque, taking place over the course of just a few days. And it is a beauty, well-acted and crafted with such thoughtful precision that it stuns in its quiet verisimilitude. It is an indictment and celebration of the day-to-day crushing dreariness of American life – divorce, mortgages, child care, jobs, ambition, law and order, vanquished dreams – depicting a society that by dint of its unintentionally intentional design oppresses the brightest of hearts, turning mere survival into insurmountable distress. And don’t get me wrong, the movie is still an entertainment of the highest order, bleak but funny and engaging as hell.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Southside with You – otherwise known as the “Obamas’ first date movie” – is a fabulous companion piece to Hell or High Water … believe it or not. Whereas Hell or High Water tweaks the template of “caper flick” into allegory for the complex economic forces that damn the American Dream while simultaneously dangling it before our collective faces, Southside with You takes the “romantic comedy” genre and infuses it with a subtle condemnation of the race/class warfare that squelches opportunity for too many Americans.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Parker Sawyers (a fellow Wabash College graduate, though our time in those hallowed halls, alas, did not overlap) and Sparkle‘s Tika Sumpter (also acting as a producer on the film) are luminous as the eventual First Couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Director Richard Tanne grounds the proceedings in a lush but gritty depiction of the scruffy joys of Chicago-life, and his two leads reward him (and the audience) beautifully. They are so good, subtly evoking mannerisms and vocal stylings, without ever resorting to caricature.

The film opens as these two prepare for the date – Michelle in denial (sort of) that it actually is a date – interacting sweetly with family members, electric in their nervous anticipation of the day before them. There is a gangly charm to these early scenes, humanizing two historical figures whose global accomplishments may have placed them in that unreachable classification: icon. It’s a smart narrative move for all involved.

As the film progresses, we learn that Barack is a summer associate at Michelle’s firm, and she has been assigned as his mentor. Set in the summer of 1989 (and, wow, does Tanne get that right from the fashion and the set direction to the cars and the music, including vintage Janet Jackson and Al B. Sure! playing on the radio), Michelle is cautious about the challenges facing her as a woman of color in a white man’s world, and she will be damned if this upstart intern is going to derail her career with his romantic overtures. He, on the other hand, is as earnest as he is charming, and it is evident that the engagement of each others’ impressive intellectual capacity – their beautiful minds – is how this romance blossomed and flourished.

Southside with You mostly sidesteps the pitfalls of movie biography (the pressing need to tell a whole lot in two short hours) by focusing on just this one day. Given that the narrative hook is a date, the characters have the latitude to ask a lot of questions as they get to know one another, and, by extension, we, as audience members, catch up on essential biographical detail and helpful context. Ninety-five percent of the time this works beautifully, aided and abetted by the naturalness of the performers, but a few moments are jarringly expository (particularly the discussion in the park about Barack’s upbringing) and make Southside with You feel like more of a stage play than a film. Nonetheless, those flaws are few and far between, and as the film moves toward the inevitability of its conclusion, we as viewers are gifted with consummate appreciation for the challenges this partnership overcame – culture, economics, race, gender – to step onto the global stage and effect needed social change.

Early in their date, Michelle and Barack debate the merits and downsides of working in a corporate law firm when there is so much need outside the business world for legal minds to provide community leadership: “There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” It is this existential riddle that drives both Hell or High Water and Southside with You, and, whether you are two down-on-your-luck siblings weighing a life of crime just to pay your mortgage, two lawmen putting in a brutal day’s work and hoping you emerge unscathed, the future First Couple of the United States mapping out a future together, or just some lowly audience member chomping popcorn in the movie theatre, that resonates.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

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

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.